Getting Around: Traveling Europe by Air, Rail & Auto
For many readers it's the season for trip planning. A time to determine where to go in Europe, where to stay, and how to get from place to place. This month we discuss ground transportation options.
Unless they plan to hole up in an airport hotel for the duration of their visit, all travelers to Europe must deal with the problem of moving themselves and their belongings from place to place. Getting around in Europe can be a little complicated. The prospective traveler is faced with an array of transport options: train, automobile, bus, riverboat, motorhome, bicycle, motorcycle, horse-drawn carriage, and their own two feet. There are sellers of tours involving all these modes of transportation.
But for most of us, it comes down to car and/or rail. Since both modes of travel have unique advantages, we won't attempt to tout one over the other. Generally speaking, however, the automobile is least expensive, much more flexible and can access places rail cannot. The train is romantic, more fun and less stressful. Though it usually isn't cost-effective, a combination of rail for long trips, and auto rental for exploring the countryside, combines the best of both worlds.
Lets start with...
With the exception of our eastern seaboard, train travel in the U.S. is a novelty; a bit of charm and mystique from a bygone era, but not a truly viable method of transportation.
Europe's rail system, on the other hand, is the real thing; the way millions get from A to B and back every day of their lives. (Consider this; Switzerland, a country about the size of the state of Maine, has 1800 railway stations.) But for many Americans, rail travel in Europe is more than just a mode of travel. The European rail experience is an attraction in itself. State-of-the-art equipment, speed, style, romance, and a unique way of showing us the countryside in relaxed comfort, combine to make train travel an important reason for visiting Europe.
Rail Pass or Point-to-Point Tickets?
Once you choose rail over auto rental your next decision is whether to purchase a rail pass or simply buy tickets. Though point-to-point tickets are sold in the U.S., we recommend waiting until you get to Europe where they often are cheaper. Another way to save is go second class and avoid the faster trains. For example, the normal first class fare from Frankfurt to Munich is 115.2 EUR ($101). However, if you're willing to ride second class - perfectly comfortable and the views are just as good - aboard a regional train that takes about 40 minutes longer to get there, the price is 58 EUR ($50).
But even at these lower prices, if you plan two or more long train trips, rail passes are almost always the better way to go.
First-Class or Second-Class?
Generally speaking, first-class train travel in Europe is quieter, roomier and about 40% to 50% more expensive than second-class. Seats are wider and there are usually fewer of them per car/compartment in first class, and more space for luggage. On a few premier trains, a meal will be included in the price of a first-class ticket.
The difference between the two classes on some trains is not great. The air-conditioned second class cars on Germany's fast ICE (Inter City Express) trains, for example, are sleek and comfortable, much more so than the average Amtrak car.
To make this call requires some research. If you're sticking to one country then the rail pass for that country is the obvious choice. But if you'd like to venture into one or more neighboring countries your choices are a little less obvious. Let's say you and a companion are planning to stay mostly in Germany, but want to go to Bern, Switzerland, for a weekend. Do you buy the German Twin Pass and a Swiss Transfer Ticket (good for one roundtrip between any border town or airport and any single destination in Switzerland) or the Twin Pass and just a roundtrip ticket from the Swiss border to Bern? Or, what about the three country Eurail Selectpass?
The first option, a first-class, four-day Twin Pass for two is $390 and a pair of first-class Swiss Transfer Tickets is $236. Your total outlay is $626. But let's say you enter Switzerland from Basel, purchase a roundtrip ticket - $63 per person - from there to Bern and forget the Swiss Transfer Ticket. With this option you spend $516 for two.
We think the best choice in this instance, however, is the Eurail Selectpass. For $588 you get unlimited first class travel for five days in three adjoining countries. That's an extra day of travel vs. the four-day Twin Pass, plus you can swing through Austria or France whichever you choose as your pass's third country on your way to Bern.
But the least expensive way of all is to buy a second class Twin Pass for $135 per person and a separate second-class Basel-Bern ticket for 63 Sfr. or about $38 each. Your two-person total this way is $346.
Rail Planning Resources
Obviously, the kicker in this planning process is determining the cost of point-to-point tickets. Not so easy. The websites listed on this page will provide most fares within the countries they represent, but to find a price from a city in one country to a city in another, is more difficult. For small cities, almost impossible.
Rail Europe is also a source for determining fares between cities. Dial 800-438-7245 to access their 24-hour automated travel information service. By following the recorded directions, you can obtain rail fares between most key cities. Or, at Rail Europe's web site, you can click on "Fares and Schedules" to access a simple search procedure that provides fares and schedules for several hundred European cities. The German and Swiss rail websites' databases are much more comprehensive but provide fare information only if the cities are within their countries.
Key Rail Web Sites
Austrian Rail: (In German only): oebb.at/en/
Deutsche Bahn: bahn.com/i/view/index.shtml
While it is advisable - usually necessary - to purchase rail passes prior to leaving the U.S., reservations for seats on specific trains can often wait until you get to Europe. Travel guru Rick Steves claims in all his many European travels to have never made a reservation prior to leaving the U.S., a strategy we support. A standard reservation made from the U.S. is $11 per train. If it takes two trains to get where you're going, and you want a reserved seat on both, you'll pay $22. In Europe it's much cheaper. In Switzerland, for instance, the reservation fee is 5 Sfr. ($3). But for most trains, reservations are not needed. We have never seen a full Swiss train and, except for special trains like the Glacier Express, reservations for Swiss trains are not accepted by Rail Europe.
Still, if you're planning a long-distance train trip within a day or so of arrival in Europe, you'll want a reservation.
Sometimes reservations are required; such as for couchettes or sleepers, on all night trains, Swiss scenic trains, certain InterCity and EuroCity trains, and on all of what Rail Europe calls Premier trains.
Bookings for some trains can be made up to a few hours before departure, others require at least 24 hours in advance. Reservations can generally be made as early as 60 days before travel, (120 days for Eurostar; 90 days for Thalys).
If you must make a train reservation from the U.S., book it through the agent that sold you your rail passes if possible. Steves' company, for example, sells thousands of rail passes but does not make seat reservations.
Coach cars have a center aisle and seats on either side. In first-class, seats are wider and there are usually two on one side of the aisle, and a single seat on the other side. In second-class, there are usually two seats on both sides.
Compartment cars are separated into enclosed cabins, which open to a corridor along one side of the car. There are six seats in first-class compartments and eight in second-class compartments.
Night trains are romantic and the extra cost for the best private accommodations is about what you would pay for a first-class big city hotel room.
• Sleepers: Offer berths, a private washstand, fresh linens and towels. First-class sleepers accommodate one or two people. Second-class compartments are for two to four people.
• Couchettes: Open bunks in a compartment, each with a pillow and blanket. Usually located in second-class, they accommodate up to six people and there is no gender separation. Plan to sleep in your daytime clothes. Washrooms are provided at the end of each car.
• City Nightline: These fast, smooth trains connect a number of major cities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. All private sleeping compartments are nonsmoking and fitted with fresh linen and comforters. The deluxe accommodations include two beds, wardrobe, chair and table, and private toilet with shower.
Some of the city pairs served by City Nightline trains include: Vienna-Frankfurt, Zürich-Hamburg, Berlin-Zürich, Zürich-Dresden. Your railpass gets you aboard the train but you pay extra for sleeping accommodations. A reclining seat is $17, couchettes are $25-$32, economy sleepers range from $42 to $101 per person, and deluxe sleepers with private toilet and shower are $162 single and $224 double.
Dining En Route
Food and drink are available on almost every train. Dining cars can be found on most long-distance trains, but only at "normal" meal times. Sandwiches, drinks and snacks can usually be purchased in a "bar car," and almost always from food carts that pass through the cars. In first class on many premier trains meals are served at passengers' seats.
Cheap Rail Travel in Germany
Though the German Rail passes are usually the most cost-effective way for the American visitor to see the country by train, they don't work for everyone. Some may wish to buy point-to-point tickets as they go. One advantage is that rail tickets purchased in Europe are refundable, changeable and often less expensive. Tickets bought in the U.S. carry restrictions. Here are a few discount tips for Germany.
• BahnCard: Those who plan to stay in Germany for several months may want to purchase a BahnCard, sold at German rail stations. For 140 EUR ($122) you'll get a 50% discount on 2nd class travel for a year. The first class BahnCard is 280 EUR ($244). These prices are discounted for spouses, students, young people, and older travelers.
• Schönes-Wochenende Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket): For a mere 21 EUR ($18) total, this ultra-budget option allows unlimited second-class travel on local trains for up to five persons traveling together on Saturday or Sunday.
• Guten-Abend Ticket (Good Evening Ticket): Costs 30 EUR ($26) 36 EUR ($31) if travel will include ICE trains and is valid 7pm to 3am on all trains except hotel trains, most overnight trains, motorail trains and special trains. On Saturday, travel must begin at 2pm or later. For travel Friday through Sunday a supplement of 8.10 EUR ($7) applies.
• Sparpreis (Saver Ticket) and Supersparpreis (ICE Super Saver Ticket): Offer savings on long-distance roundtrip first or second class trips. Sparpreis allows travel any day but must include a Friday night stay or one of the travel days must be a Saturday or Sunday.
Supersparpreis is good for travel on any day except Friday and Sunday. The trip must include a Friday night stay or the travel day must be a Saturday. The price, including ICE travel, is 228 EUR ($198) first class. Each accompanying adult pays 114 EUR ($99). Without ICE travel, the prices are 191 EUR ($166) and 96 EUR ($84). Second class travel is approximately one third less.
The more restrictive Super Saver Tickets with ICE are 191 EUR ($166) first class and 96 EUR ($84) for accompanying adults. Without ICE, the first class prices are 149 EUR ($130) and 75 EUR ($65). Again, second class Super Savers are about 33% less expensive.
Remember that everything you bring to Europe, everything you acquire while in Europe, you'll carry on and off every train. The combination of a long walk and a short time between trains in a large station like Munich will cause you to reevaluate your packing priorities and vow next time to travel with wheeled luggage.
Some travelers also consider the busy train routes that connect major European cities to be very much on the beaten track. As a rail rider you'll find that many of your travel companions are fellow Americans. In fairness, however, we must report that in numerous long train trips over the past several winters Berlin-Frankfurt, Zürich-Munich, Zürich-Prague, Prague-Frankfurt, Vienna-Munich, and others we often have had a six-seat compartment all to ourselves. It's a great way to go.
For the traveler who wants to explore the countryside, a rental car offers several distinct advantages. To start with, it is usually - but not always - less expensive than train travel, especially for two or more persons who start their trip in Germany or Belgium. With its sky-high rental car prices, Italy is probably cheaper by rail. But the major advantage of automobile travel is its absolute flexibility of schedule and destination. By a huge margin, there are more miles of highway than railroad track in Europe and your car departs when you decide it's time to travel. And the convenience of having your car's trunk to easily stow gear you might not be using for a few days, as well as purchases made during the trip, is another car rental perk.
And, finally, car touring does have its moments. Driving in the mountains, stopping whenever and wherever to take in a view or snap a photo, or rolling easily through undulating meadows and dark forests on quiet, traffic-free back roads, can be memorable travel experiences.
Where to Rent
Though rental car rates in Germany have risen rather dramatically in the past couple of years, Gemütlichkeit subscribers will probably still find that country the best place to rent. With the special rates Auto Europe offers our readers (tel. 800-521-6722 for cars in Germany and all other countries), the cost there is slightly less than in Belgium, which in general offers Europe's lowest rental car rates. The most expensive country by a mile is Italy. Switzerland is significantly higher than Germany and Austria is somewhat more expensive.
What to Rent
Be aware that car rental companies almost never guarantee a specific make and/or model. The words "or similar" are always used in the rental confirmation and the renter is promised only a category. Here are some of the principal car categories with brief info on each. Weekly prices given are for Germany and include unlimited mileage, value added tax and third-party liability insurance, but not airport fees, road fees or optional insurance:
• Subcompact: Typical cars: Opel Corsa, VW Polo, Fiat Punto. Fine for two persons who don't mind chugging along the Autobahn's right lane. Limited trunk space. Cost: about $151.
• Compact: Typical cars: Opel Astra, VW Golf, Ford Escort, Fiat Brava. Comfortable at 80 to 90 mph. Better trunk space figure one big suitcase, two small ones and maybe a garment bag and/or a soft duffel or two. Both two-door and four-door models, occasionally with a sunroof. Fine for three adults who go easy on the luggage. Cost: about $168.
• Midsize: Typical cars: Opel Vectra, Ford Mondeo, Audi A4, VW Passat. Our recommended category for four people. Good trunk size, especially the Vectra. Though a few come equipped from the factory with something more powerful than the basic 1.6 liter, four-cylinder engine, you can be almost certain your rental car won't have it. Cost: about $191.
• Fullsize: Typical cars: Opel Omega, Renault Safrane. A bit more passenger room and sometimes more luggage space than a midsize. Most companies put the BMW 318i and the Mercedes C180 in this category, but in terms of luggage and legroom they are midsize cars. Cost: about $255 - $278.
• Wagon: Comes in three sizes: compact (Astra), midsize (Vectra, VW Passat) and fullsize (Volvo 850, Omega). You pay more for a wagon than for the comparable sedan. Holds more luggage but it is often exposed. For four people we like the midsize sedan better than the compact wagon; more passenger comfort and almost as much luggage room. In a pinch, the midsize and fullsize wagons can carry five people but someone has to ride in the rear center seat.
No European sedans or wagons we know of have a front bench seat, so carrying six passengers is not an option in these vehicles. Costs: range from about $191 to $539.
• Van: Most in Europe are seven or nine-passenger with three rows of seating, similar to the U.S. The nine passenger assumes three persons per seat three in front, three in the center seat and three in back. Seven-passenger vans have front buckets, a shorter center bench seat and a rear bench. Minivans are great for four or five people, but beyond that luggage space is a problem. Beware of relying on a credit card for CDW and theft insurance when renting a nine-passenger van. Most credit card companies claim these vehicles are on a truck chassis and thus exclude them from their insurance coverage.
Groups of six to eight people will save money and have more luggage room by renting two midsize sedans. Van cost: about $580.
• Luxury Cars: Power and engineering make them somewhat safer than the run-of-the-mill Opels and Fords, but you'll pay a price. Rates start at about $383 per week for a Mercedes 200 series or BMW 500 series. Prices go to about $661 for a Mercedes E230 and over $928 for Mercedes S320.
• Airport Fees: One might say European rental car companies are nickel and dime-ing us to death, except that in many instances the extra charges add up to hundreds of dollars. Most countries now charge 11% to 15% of the total rental to pickup at an airport or rail station. Four years ago it cost 10 DM ($5) to pick up a car at an airport or rail station in Germany. This year that charge is 15% of the total rental cost. At some point the inconvenience of hauling yourself and your luggage to a downtown location becomes preferable to the cost of getting the car immediately on arrival at the airport. That point is different for every person, but consider a two-week rental of a midsize car in Germany: it's $165 per week plus 16% value added tax for a total of $383. Your cost to get the car at the airport is $57.
• Road Fees: Most countries, including Germany, have such fees and charge about $1 per day.
• Drop Charges: Usually there is no drop fee when the car is picked up in one town and dropped in another, provided both cities are in the same country. International drop charges, getting a car in one country and dropping it in another, start at about $100 and go up from there. Sometimes way up.
• Additional Driver: Varies widely. Be sure to check at booking if you plan to have more than one driver. In Germany, Europcar assesses a flat $20 per rental. Avis charges $95. Others charge by the day, usually about $5.
Equipment & Amenities
Virtually every European rental car is equipped with a radio and cassette tape player. Bigger, more expensive cars may come with CD changer and/or telephone. Most are now air-conditioned. Sunroofs can be found in all categories but requesting one at the time of booking is usually a waste of time. Ask when you pick up the car.
You'll pay substantially more for a car with automatic transmission.
Children must be strapped into a child's seat (even up to 12 years of age in some cases). Take your own or rent them from the rental company for about $35/rental.
By law, car rental companies in Europe must provide third-party liability insurance, which is included in the basic rental charge. The renter, however, is responsible for the car itself. Rental companies sell CDW (collision damage waiver) and theft insurance for from about $8 to $30 per day (plus tax, of course) with deductibles that range from about $250-$500. However, some credit cards offer this coverage free if you use the card to pay for the car. Find out from your credit card issuer whether your account carries such coverage and, if so, what the rules are for making a claim.
If you elect to rely on your card, be sure the term of your rental is not longer than the coverage provided by your credit card. For example, most MasterCard gold and platinum cards cover rentals only up to 15 days. If your auto rental contract is 16 days or longer you have no collision or theft coverage. Visa gold and platinum, American Express (except most corporate cards), and Diners Club cover rentals up to 30 days.
Another option for CDW insurance is the Travel Guard Company's Protect/Assist travel insurance. In addition to medical and trip cancellation it includes $25,000 CDW coverage.
Not a problem anymore with most car rental companies, though rates may be higher. Not all car categories are allowed to go east.
Be sure to state your intention to visit eastern countries at the time of booking. Those who even try to take a non-authorized car into an eastern country are breaking the law. Special documentation is required from the car rental company.