Whether by car, train, flight, or bus, there’s always a ton of options for how to get around in Europe! Here’s what you need to know about each.
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A quick note about coronavirus and my travel content: in these crazy times, I know much of the world isn’t traveling right now. But my hope is that you keep dreaming and planning for travel, and when the time comes, you go! In that spirit, I’ll continue sharing travel tips for when it’s safe for global travel.
It seems like every Hollywood movie set in Europe involves has that montage where people zip around the continent using four forms of travel. While it’s certainly not a realistic view, it’s not that far off in the sense of options! There are a dizzying amount of options when it comes to how to get around in Europe, so I’ve broken down the major options with their pros and cons!
Taking the Train
Full disclosure: I think traveling by train is my preferred option 80% of the time. Trains are my go-to, especially within Italy. They’re simple, there’s no security, they’re pretty fast, and they’re easy to book. They’re also better for the environment, and the prices are MUCH more predictable. Plus, no baggage restrictions: if you can carry it yourself on and off the plane, no one cares too much.
Pro tip: if you’re traveling within Italy, use TrenItalia app/website. It’s simple, it can translate to English, and they’re often 40-50% cheaper if you book them 10 days or more in advance.
Regardless of where you travel, note that you always have to buy a ticket, even if you don’t reserve a seat. I’ve had my ticket checked on at least 90% of the trains I’ve ridden, so it’s not worth the risk.
I’ve never done the type of trip where you see a different city or country every 36 hours, but there are several options available for train passes that facilitate it. Eurorail passes are a big thing, especially if you’re under 26 and trying to see as much of Europe as you can squeeze into one trip.
If you’re unsure about what your train options might be, read up using The Man in Seat 61. He’s excellent, especially for helping figure out how to buy/reserve tickets that cross international borders (a surprisingly confusing process sometimes). I also use the Trainline app to search for options in the same way I use Kayak or Skyscanner for flights.
This is likely the most traditional option for Americans, especially if you’re planning to fly into one country and fly out of another. Its biggest advantage is obvious: a big time-saver to hit spread out cities. If you only have a four-day trip, you don’t want to spend 8 hours each way driving.
My magic number for flying is 6 hours. If driving or taking the train will take 6 hours or more, it’s probably worth looking into flights. Keep in mind, this means door to door for me, not just the flight time. Make sure to account for getting to the airport, parking/returning a rental car, security, etc when calculating how much time a flight will save you. For example, Venice to Naples takes about 6 hours on a train, but a plane is only about 90 minutes. Even with the travel to the airport and security, a plane is faster.
Another aspect of flights is if you go traditional or budget. I often use budget airlines for cheap flights European destinations, but go in with eyes wide open. You’ll have to pay extra to bring almost any bag or for tricky things like not printing your own ticket in advance. That being said, a direct flight to a European capital for less than $50 each way? Yes, please!
When we lived in the States, we did the vast majority of our travel by car. What we lost in time, we made up for flexibility. In Europe, that’s sort of true. It’s still often the fastest way to get to destinations that are sort of nearby – we can drive from our place near Venice to Zagreb, Croatia in less than 4 hours, passing several cool Slovenian destinations along the way!
Cars are the sweet spot if you want meader and see the countryside, maybe stop in that cute little town for lunch or to see local artisans. The upsides are that you don’t have to worry about delays because you control what time you pull out of the parking lot. You can get to cooler places, like magical castles in the Loire Valley, simply and without worrying about missing the last train or how you’ll get from the train station to the actual chateau.
One downside to driving in Europe is that it’s more expensive than you may expect. Nearly all highways are toll roads, and parking can get expensive (not to mention hard to find space) quickly. It also doesn’t prevent travel troubles by any means. Cars are a tough choice for major metropolitan areas and some older areas with roads meant for donkey carts instead of cars, so keep your destination in mind.
I have a post dedicated entirely to driving in Europe that will help if you rent a car!
Taking the Bus
Sometimes there are better bus routes than train routes, so I always keep them in the back of my head. For example, it was both faster and cheaper for us to go from our home to Salzburg, Austria via Flixbus.
We took a short train to Udine (less than an hour), then simply crossed the street for the bus station. The process to get on was super simple, especially because I’d paid the extra 1.50€ to reserve two seats together – worth it, in my opinion. It took 4 hours to get to Salzburg, where we got off, with only one stop in between. Very self-explanatory.
Unsurprisingly, the bus was less comfortable than the trains usually are. You both feel the bumpiness more and have less leg/seat room. The seats were close enough together that I was glad to be sitting next to my husband and not a stranger because we regularly jostled each other at the shoulder.
That being said, it was very cheap and the most efficient way to travel. So I’d say while it’s not my first choice, it’s pretty dang easy and an excellent way to go for backpacker prices.
These feel like they merit a different category than simple train travel. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about overnight trains. I’ve ridden overnight trains on three continents, the most recent being an overnight from Prague to Venice on the Austrian Nightjet.
In theory, they’re awesome. They save you a hotel night, saving you both money and time. They can also mean bad quality of sleep and/or weird roommates if you’re traveling cheaply.
My biggest piece of advice: read reviews. Decide if it’s worth springing for a private room (it usually is). If you can’t, try to figure out beforehand if you’d rather have a top or bottom bunk. I thought the bottom would be better – more convenient and we had access to outlets for charging. But I hadn’t thought about the amount of light that comes in through the edges of the curtains every time you pass through a train station and casts directly onto your face.
Overall, I probably would’ve preferred to cut that short 12 hours and skip the rough night of travel in exchange for a good night in my own bed. But I suspect I’d have felt differently if I’d sprung for the private room!
There isn’t a one size fits all solution for travel in Europe. But rather than being trapped with only one option, you can usually find multiple modes of travel available to suit your time, budget and style! I hope this helps you figure out how to get around in Europe for your next trip!