by Bob Bestor
Which is the better way to travel in Europe, by train or by car? Perhaps because of our affiliated car rental business, we got some impassioned letters of protest when, back in the late '80s and early '90s, we came down on the side of car travel. Though I could hardly claim objectivity, my stance was in part a reaction to the conventional media wisdom—spearheaded in large measure by Rick Steves (Rail Europe's number one seller of rail passes)—that, like the sun rises in the east, rail is the best and cheapest way to see Europe. "Best" is subjective, but cheapest is not, and most of my efforts were directed toward showing that in many instances traveling by car was less expensive than going by train.
I was surprised at the strong reaction from rail travel devotees. My conflict of interest was (and is) a valid point, though I have long recognized the rail-car choice frequently has nothing to do with money but comes down to personal preference. One man, as I recall, said he would rather undergo a root canal than drive in a large European city. That's a fair point and tells me this is an issue that will never be resolved; for some travelers, rail is better, for others it's car.
For several reasons, my personal views on this issue have altered somewhat over the past dozen years.
· For openers, I've ridden a lot of trains during that period. With age, I find I approach the prospect of a hard day's drive from, say, Hamburg to Frankfurt, with little enthusiasm. Soon after it went into service in 1991, I began to rely more and more on Germany's great ICE service for longer trips, and a Hamburg-Frankfurt run became a pleasure, not a chore. Then about 15 years ago I started to realize that, for travel in Switzerland, I could do without a car entirely and instead rely on the magnificent Swiss Transport System, anchored, of course, by its 1800-station rail network.
· The relationship between the cost of rail passes and rental cars changed—dramatically. In 1998, a five-day, second class German Twin Pass cost $282 for two persons and the base price for a rental car in the compact category (4 doors, air) for one week in Germany was $106, including value added tax. Today, that same five-day German rail pass for two persons costs $395, a 40-percent increase. The price for the compact car, however, is now $233, more than double. In addition, gas in Germany in 1998 was about $3.50 per gallon. Today it's around $5.65 (but less than $5 for diesel).
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· In the last few years, Rail Europe has introduced a wide variety of rail passes that cater to the traveler who is no longer interested in the Copenhagen-Paris-Munich-Vienna-Rome-in-14-days style of travel, and wants to explore a much smaller geographic area. Now available are many two, three, four and five-country passes that offer a flexibility and cost-effectiveness that didn't exist just a few years ago. Example: in 1998 the traveler who wanted to see just Germany and Austria by rail had to either purchase the 17-country Eurail pass or buy a Germany pass and an Austria pass. Now, in 2006, a new Germany-Austria pass is available.
From a cost standpoint, the rail-rental car choice is a closer call than ever. There are few absolutes and personal preference plays a much greater role. A dozen years ago, the choice for two people traveling entirely in Germany was a no-brainer: a compact car for two weeks cost $212 plus $100 for fuel, total $312. The second-class Germany Twin pass was $282 but provided only four days travel during the two-weeks, whereas the car was at the renter's beck and call 24/7 for 14 days. Today, however, that same car and fuel are about $700 ($475 for the car, $225 for the fuel) vs. a four-day, second-class rail cost of $390. But four days won't be enough travel days in a two-week period, so a more realistic number might be eight days for $574. The picture gets murky for those who want to travel first-class, as the eight-day Twin pass is $778.
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For those who plan to visit three countries, the equation is different and, assuming it's picked up in Germany, the rental car option looks much more favorable. With added fuel to cover more ground, the car is now about $800 for two weeks. But the three-country Eurail Select Saver pass for two persons is $740 for only five days of train rides, $820 for six days, and $974 for 10 days. If four persons are traveling together, the rental is the clear choice- at least from the standpoint of cost. (Not taken into account in the foregoing are parking fees for car travel or taxis and other public transport for rail travel.)
Your own car-rail choice should be made only after careful consideration of all the factors: countries to be visited, where the rental car will be picked up and dropped off, size of the traveling party, type of car needed, number of travel days required, first or second-class rail, and, of course, personal preference. For those who can afford it, a combination of rail and car often works best; rail for the long trips and a car (or cars) for exploring the countryside.
So where do I stand now on the rail-car controversy? Well, you can be assured the next time I climb aboard a flight to Europe I'll be carrying a car rental voucher and a rail pass. Actually, I've become a great fan of rail travel. I'm one of those people who thinks about going to Switzerland just to ride the trains. One of my fantasies would duplicate that system here in Oregon. I dream of boarding a train in Ashland and arriving two hours later in Portland, 275 miles away. Unfortunately, not in my lifetime.
I'm not ready, though, to turn my back on the automobile. Last summer, after three days of hauling luggage, computers, phones, cameras, and chargers, on and off jam-packed second-class-only, un-airconditioned regional trains in the north of Germany, our air-conditioned VW Golf picked up in Lübeck felt awfully good. We slid some familiar CDs into sound system, cranked up the air, and eased our way south over quiet back roads, stopping along the way at country hotels. The mainstream media seems to the think the romance of European travel is the exclusive province of trains. Not always. - RHB
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