Part of the excitement of planning a European holiday is mapping out all of the different cities you want to visit. Whether your trip will take you from London to Paris or from Amsterdam to Berlin (or, if you’re like me, from Sarande, Albania to Jurmala, Latvia…), a significant part of your trip planning and budgeting will be figuring out how to get from place to place. Europe transportation options are seemingly endless, and options like budget airlines or ridesharing apps can seem very foreign to visitors from other parts of the world.
Personally, I spent two years living in Italy and have since returned to Europe six (or seven?) more times. I consider myself something of a Europe transportation expert, as my trips have often covered long distances and relied on multiple modes of transportation. I’ve found that there are advantages and disadvantages to each form of transportation, so it’s best to research and plan your inter-city transportation before you leave home.
Below, I’ll talk about my own experiences with different methods of transportation in Europe, and the type of transportation in Europe that I would recommend for different types of travelers and different types of trips.
Traveling Around Europe by Airplane
As you may know, Europe is full of budget airlines that compete with the major national carriers to move more passengers for less money than ever before. Air travel offers the advantage of speed, especially for long-haul flights across several countries that take only an hour or two by plane, but that could take an entire day by train or bus. Your frequent-flier program may have a partnership with a European airline that allows you to collect loyalty points too, though this is more likely to be a major national carrier than a budget airline.
The downside of European air travel is that the costs can add up quickly. Even when you purchase a cheap ticket, there are often added fees for checking luggage, printing boarding passes, checking in online, reserving seats and even having a snack on board. Budget airlines often operate out of secondary airports that are farther from the city center, adding to your ground transportation costs.
I learned this lesson the hard way on my first solo trip to Europe. I needed to fly from Barcelona to Turin for work, so I booked with a budget airline. In the end, the baggage fees were so high that it would have been cheaper to fly from Barcelona to Turin with half of my stuff, fly back to Barcelona to get the other half and then fly to Turin again! Oh, and did I mention that my flight actually got cancelled, and the budget airline abandoned me in Bergamo at 1:00 am without providing onward transportation to Turin?
(Did I mention that I love both Barcelona and Turin? I’ve visited both cities several times and would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite between the two. Read my city guides here: Barcelona and Turin.)
As an experienced traveler, I would never make a similar mistake again. But as a novice traveler, I didn’t realize exactly how heavy my bags were, or what my rights were when a flight was redirected to an alternate airport. If you’re planning to travel by plane in Europe, make sure to familiarize yourself with your airline’s policies and your legal rights under the EU 261 passenger rights law.
Traveling Around Europe by Train
There is a certain romanticism to traveling by train across Europe. Train travel is usually the most comfortable way to move between cities; you can stand up and walk around, and watching the world go by out the window can keep you entertained for hours. There are (usually) well-equipped, clean toilets on board, and you can often purchase food during the journey.
Considering the most epic European train journey of all? Read my post about the Trans-Siberian Railway!
Most European train stations are located in city centers and have excellent public transportation connections to the main hotels and tourist attractions. However, punctuality varies from country to country: German trains run with predictable efficiency and Eastern European trains operate with a more laissez-faire commitment to posted arrival and departure times. Also, train travel is sometimes affected by striking employees and inclement weather (like the floods that left me stranded in Berlin when I should have been on an overnight sleeper train to Baden-Baden).
To get the best price on European rail travel, book your tickets well in advance directly through each country’s national rail service. When choosing your ticket type, keep in mind that the difference in quality between first- and second-class carriages are minimal, although first class is often much less busy and much more quiet. Personally, I have never used a European rail pass and I’m not convinced that a rail pass would be ideal for my personal travel style. Similarly, I’ve never used a third-party rail booking site as I’ve always been able to navigate the national rail provider’s website.
(Image via Virgin Trains)
Traveling Around Europe by Bus
Bus travel is becoming more popular with travelers looking for a combination of low prices and reliable service. Much like trains, booking your bus trip in advance can help you score a deal (prices can be up to 50 percent cheaper if you book several weeks before you travel).
Many bus companies offer a basic class of service, which is simply a comfortable seat on the bus, as well as a more executive class which could include a wider leather seat, blanket and pillow, meal service and seatback entertainment. Increasingly, buses are also offering free wireless internet for passengers. Third-party ticket sellers will often overstate the services available on the bus (don’t take their word that there will be a toilet!), so check the bus line’s website for up-to-date information. If your bus doesn’t have a toilet, however, you can expect it to stop every two to four hours at a rest station with clean toilet and food for purchase. Bus station locations vary depending on the bus line and the city, so make sure you understand where to catch the bus and where you’ll be dropped off.
Personally, I’ve had great bus travel experiences in Europe. In the Baltics, I booked Lux Express buses whenever possible because they were clean, comfortable and well-equipped with services like WiFi and complimentary snacks. In Eastern Europe (including Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia) buses and minibuses depart much more frequently than trains. And even in Spain, the overnight bus I took between Madrid and Barcelona cost half as much as the train, and was just as fast.
Traveling Around Europe by Rental Car
For travelers who want to go off the beaten path, renting a car in Europe gives you complete freedom to travel wherever you want, whenever you want … well, almost. One of the biggest complaints from people who rent cars in Europe is that several months after they return home, they receive a bill in the mail from their rental car agency stating they owe hundreds of euros in traffic fines.
European cities with historic or overcrowded city centers often introduce limited traffic zones that are monitored by camera and signed only in the local language (or with a symbol). If you’re confident in your ability to avoid accidentally entering one of these areas, and if you know how to operate a manual transmission, then renting a car could be ideal. You’ll be able to travel from door to door without needing to lug your suitcases down crowded streets, and you’ll have the freedom to stop any time you see something interesting out the window. For two people, a car rental often costs about the same as second-class train travel and occasional taxis, while a group of four or more people can expect significant savings when they travel by car.
I haven’t actually rented a car in Europe. I don’t know how to drive a car with manual transmission, and it’s often more difficult (and more expensive) to find a European car rental with automatic transmission. However, I have friends who rent cars in Europe every summer and they have a blast driving from city to city, stopping in small towns, parks and rest stops along the way.
Traveling Europe by Ridesharing
Many locals who are driving between cities will post their planned itineraries on European ridesharing sites and invite other passengers to share their vehicles. This is often the cheapest way to travel around Europe, and if you’re lucky, you may become fast friends with the driver and the other passengers. You can negotiate the conditions and price of the ride directly with the driver; he or she might ask to meet you at a major transportation hub and drop you off at their own destination, or they might be happy to provide you with door-to-door service at both ends of the journey. The most famous website for this type of ridesharing is BlaBlaCar.
Ridesharing has some obvious disadvantages, though, as you have to trust that your driver will have a clean, operational vehicle and that they will drive safely. You also have to check in advance to see how much space is available for luggage. When ridesharing goes well, it can truly change the lives of the passengers and the driver. If it goes poorly, you’ll have a funny story to tell your friends when you get home. I have used ridesharing for short trips (for example, to the little village of Sapanta and its Merry Cemetery in Romania) but haven’t tried it for long distances.
There are also “ridesharing” apps that function more like taxi services within many cities. You’re probably already familiar with Uber and Lyft (though I’ve only used the former). Download these apps onto your phone and link up your credit card before your trip, and then you can use your phone’s WiFi or cellular data to hail an affordable taxi from door to door. If you’re traveling in Eastern Europe, Yandex.Taxi is an equivalent app with a larger market share (and amazingly cheap rates!) throughout the former USSR. These apps don’t usually have inter-city service, however.
If this is your first trip around Europe, considering trying a few different modes of transportation to find the one that you enjoy the most. After all, getting there really can be half the fun!
Have you ever had a surprising experience when traveling between cities or countries in Europe? Share your travel tale in the comments!