In Part 3 of How To Plan Your Europe/Round-The-World Trip On A Budget Guide: The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Getting Around Europe we’ll examine the various transportation options available on the continent for the budget conscious traveller.
Do check out my previous two posts in the series in case you just joined us:
- How To Plan Your Europe/Round-The-World Trip On A Budget Guide – Part 1: The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Flying
- How To Plan Your Europe/Round-The-World Trip On A Budget Guide – Part 2: The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Accommodation
You can get across the European continent on virtually any type of transportation. There’s planes, cars, trains, buses and even ships. With such an array of options available, which one should you choose?
We won’t be covering all bases in this post. Instead, we’ll focus on the most efficient value for money options on the market.
Here’s the lowdown on how to travel across the European continent both cheaply and efficiently:
We’ll begin with one of the most widely used transportation modes on the European continent – Trains. Locals use it on a daily basis to get around and businesses depend on them for logistical needs.
As a result of its popularity, there’s a whole variety of trains going to numerous destinations 24/7. It’s indeed possible to travel across the entire European continent by rail. Many people have done it!
There’s been lot of talk about slow travel recently. A common precautionary warning to newbie travellers is to take things down a notch and avoid “burning out”. Train travel enables you to do exactly that.
Takeaway some food, grab a bottle of wine and you’re good to go. Sip wine, delve into a good book and munch on crackers with cheese while enjoying the dramatic scenery through the window at a leisurely pace. The high life at low prices. Cheap thrills…
Majority of European trains feature modern and comfortable carriages. Reclining leather seats, charging points, clean lavatories, restaurant cars and even Wi-Fi are some of the things you can expect onboard.
Type of Trains
As mentioned earlier trains in Europe run 24/7 so there are both day and night trains. Here are the different classes available in general:
- Day – Generally segregated into 1st & 2nd class carriages with a few “in between classes”. 1st class travel usually comes with premier seats and a hot/cold meal included in the price.
- Night – Also referred to as sleeper trains or train hotels. Generally segregated into private berth, 4/6 berth couchettes (couchbeds) and seats.
In addition to the different classes, trains also vary in terms of speed and route. Newer trains travel faster, stopping only at major cities. Older trains on the other hand travel at a slower pace, stopping frequently at small towns. Time is indeed money when it comes to train travel – You pay more for the speed and convenience that newer trains offer.
Planning your Rail Journey
For the full European train timetable as well as route options head over to Seat61. Mark, the creator of Seat 61 has travelled on practically every train across the globe. Everything I know about trains is thanks to his website!
Want to save money and time?
Save money on accommodation and travel on Night Trains! The cheapest option is often equal or marginally more than the cost of a night’s stay at a hostel. You get a basic mattress to rest your head.
If you really want the cheapest option, opt for a seat. From personal experience, I would advise you against it unless you’re fine with a tightly knotted body and multiple aches the morning after. Night trains usually arrive at destinations in the morning.
You save precious time travelling through the night and get more time to explore the city. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me!
Point-to-Point Tickets vs Rail Passes
A perennial dilemma for every first-time traveller to Europe – Should I purchase a Eurail Pass or just point-to-point tickets? Well, I myself was faced with this dilemma when I was planning my trip.
I’m certain you’ve probably heard/read/seen/met people who’ve backpacked across Europe on just a Eurail pass and naturally one would assume that it’s the way to go. After doing some research online, here’s what i found:
Point-to-Point Tickets are ALWAYS CHEAPER!*
The above claim might not hold true across all situations. Ultimately, it’s down to your travel plans. However for most of us, it does indeed hold true.
If your travel plans are fixed and you have a planned itinerary which involves mostly travelling in a single direction (by this I mean you won’t be doubling back to countries that often) that you intend to follow religiously; and are able to book tickets at least a month in advance then point-to-point tickets is the way to go!
Not convinced? Here’s a few nitty-gritty details they don’t openly advertise about Eurail passes:
- Rail passes often involve additional booking fees/top-ups on almost all trains.
You may end up paying fees ranging from 5 EUR to an astronomical 100 EUR or more!
- Most trains especially those on cross-border journeys require reservations at an added cost.
You’ll have to fork out a reservation fee from 5 EUR upwards. Some national rail websites allow you to reserve online otherwise you’ll have to make the trip to the station itself!
- Each train is allocated a limited number of seats for reservations
These seats are booked up pretty fast and early. You’ll have to make your reservations early and even if you do there’s no guarantee that you’ll have a seat on your preferred train!
- Eurail passes are subject to various limitations and restrictions
These restrictions and limitations may differ across the various national rail operators. I won’t go into the details but the time factor on which the validity of the pass is based on is already one such example.
Having said all of the above, rail passes might be suited for you in the following situations:
- You’re a wandering soul and your travel plans are so flexible to the point that it’s almost non-existent
If the above holds true for you then the Eurail pass might be suited for you. Paying the additional booking/reservation/top-up fees might still add up to be cheaper than buying a point-to-point ticket on short notice. Especially if it’s a peak travel period!
- You intend to travel extensively within a country/neighbouring countries
A different kind of pass is available for the above mentioned itinerary – National Rail Passes. These passes are issued by national rail operators and typically covers all transportation modes within the country. Getting this pass is practical if the country you intend to travel to has relatively high point-to-point prices for example Switzerland.
How to book?
There’s no centralized booking system for European train tickets. You’ll have to book individual segments from the various National Rail websites. Don’t worry, almost all the National Rail websites have an English language option!
If you prefer to get them altogether or purchase a rail pass, you’ll have to go through a rail agency such as Rail Europe and pay a higher price ($5 SGD onwards per ticket and other associated fees +++).
Personally, I wouldn’t use an agency. Most European train tickets have now gone paperless with a print-your-own ticket option. Almost everything can be done online so you don’t have to worry about shipping times and costs! If a physical ticket is required you can collect it any local train station when you arrive.
Booking directly through the national rail websites allows you full access to the entire train schedule at the best prices available. You’ll also get to enjoy the regular promotions on offer which agencies tend to not display. Save money, save time, save the earth and book directly!
Here’s a somewhat comprehensive list of National Rail Websites and the countries they serve:
Within the U.K
If you prefer to receive your tickets before departure, book through Trainline. They are integrated into the National Rail booking system and charge a very fair booking+delivery fee. Allow at least 2 weeks for delivery.
Within France & bordering countries
Ouigo (Budget Rail)
Within Spain & bordering countries
Within Italy & bordering countries
Within Germany & bordering countries
Within Switzerland & bordering countries
Within Czech Republic & bordering countries
Within Austria & bordering countries
Within Sweden & bordering countries
Within Denmark & bordering countries
Within Norway & bordering countries
There are numerous bus operators across Europe for you to choose from. Fares differ between operators but unlike train/air tickets, they’re not really subjected to fluctuations in prices based on when you book. Most buses depart and arrive at city centers similar to trains albeit a longer travelling time. You’ll also be subjected to the inconveniences which are associated with road travel: Breakdowns, traffic jams etc.
All bus fleets are modern and well-equipped with lavatories as well as Wi-Fi.
Travel on buses and save money!
Personally I’d avoid bus travel but there are certain instances where it can save you money:
- Short Overnight Journeys
Trains typically take 2 to 4 hours on short journeys thus eliminating the possibility of a night train.Take the overnight bus instead at similar or even cheaper prices! Buses might do the same journey at 6 to 8 hours – Perfect for a good night’s sleep. For example, a Eurostar London-Paris train journey would take slightly more than 2 hours whereas a Megabus bus journey would take 8 hours.
- Last minute plans
As mentioned earlier, train ticket prices on the day of travel itself are astronomical. If you miss your scheduled train or there are changes in your travel itinerary and are unable to get a refund , opt for a bus ticket. Bus ticket prices are not subject to much fluctuation and will be definitely cheaper than buying another train ticket!
How to book?
Bus tickets too can be booked online. You simply print the e-ticket and show up at the bus station on the day of travel! Here are a few of the major bus operators:
They offer a bus pass similar to the Eurail pass as well as point-to-point tickets. One of the most extensive bus networks in Europe with offices in almost every city they serve.
Run by SNCF, the French National Rail Operator. They serve France and her neighbouring countries.
Serves Germany and her neighbouring countries. Extremely cheap promotional fares if booked in advance!
Probably the cheapest fares on the market starting from just 1 GBP*! Extensive network with multiple departure timings.
*Advance booking during promotional periods*
Check out my previous post: The Budget Traveller’s Guide To Flying to find out how to save money on flights. With the recent growth in budget aviation, flying across Europe has never been cheaper! Here are some tips on top of my earlier guide to help you in flying across Europe:
- Be prepared to spend the night in/outside basic airports
Most budget airlines operate out of small airports usually located outside the main city. You’ll have to spend a fair amount of time travelling to the airport. Cheap flights also usually entail odd/inconvenient arrival/departure timings. Think wee-hours of the morning and twilight hours. Check operating hours of airports as some of them are not open 24/7.
- Try to choose major airports whenever possible
Budget arms of major national carriers such as AirFrance tend to operate out of major airports. This translates to better amenities as well as connectivity. Check-in procedures are likely to be more organised as well.
- Carry-on Luggage
European budget airlines are extremely strict with carry-on luggage dimensions. Be sure to check respective airline’s criteria for “carry-on luggage” before flying as they might differ. If your luggage fails to meet their requirements, you’ll end up forking out a hefty fee (often higher than price of your ticket) to put it in the hold or the worst-case scenario – having to leave your luggage behind.
- Print-your-own boarding pass & Visa Check
Most European budget airlines require you to print your own boarding pass. You’re only able to do this a few days to a week before departure. Printing it at the airport often costs more than the air ticket itself!
Non-Eu Citizens take note! There’s also a mandatory visa-check for some airlines particularly Ryanair. It’ll be a treasure hunt to locate the counter but failure to get the visa stamp would prevent you from boarding the flight!
Expect crammed seats, paid advertisements, unsolicited marketing, delays etc. You’re flying on a budget airline after all! Read horror stories of Europe’s most famous/notorious budget airline: Ryanair for a better idea. There’s even a Hate Page dedicated to them! Fly at your own risk…
If you’re feeling adventurous, take a road trip across Europe! I haven’t personally done it but it’s definitely on my wishlist (once I get my licence). There are numerous car rental agencies for you to choose from. It’s indeed possible to pick up a car in Paris and drop it off in Rome.
Each company differs and there are LOTS of terms & conditions so be sure to read carefully! Here’s a few tips from people I know who’ve done it:
- Get an International Driver Licence (In case of checks)
- Get a GPS beforehand as car rental companies rent them out on a daily rate which amounts to quite an exorbitant bill!
- Buy car insurance. Assume Murphy’s law. Repairs in Europe ain’t exactly cheap!
How to book?
Use an aggregator site like Kayak to compare prices. I’d strongly advise booking directly from the car rental company though. Skip the middleman. It’ll be alot easier when something goes wrong.
Here are some sites to get you started:
If driving isn’t your cup of tea, let others do it for you! With the imminent threat of climate change, Carpooling has really taken off in recent years. So much so that people have made it into a business model.
For a hitchhiking experience minus the frills, uncertainty and time wasted waiting by the side of the road use BlaBlaCar. The company is based in the U.K but is rapidly expanding throughout Europe.
BlaBlaCar works like this – People who are driving from Point A to Point B offers up empty seats in their vehicle to anyone travelling to Point B or along the way at a fixed price.
Each driver has their own personal preferences : No Music/No Pets/No Smoking etc which you’ll have to adhere to if you choose to ride with them.
The review system acts as a checker so that bad drivers will be weeded out and also to help interested customers make an informed decision on who they ride with.
The focus so far has been centered on cross border travel but here’s some pointers on local transport. You’ll be travelling mostly on this anyway!
Most cities have transport cards catered to tourists. These cards usually provide tourists access to most or certain segments of the transport system for a given period of time. They typically tend to cover both rail and bus services. If you intend to travel extensively within a city, grab one of these passes and you’ll save a ton of cash.
Here’s a few passes for you to check out:
*If the Paris Visite is not for you, purchase your tickets in a carnet (bunch) of 10 to enjoy cost-savings. Metro trains in particular charge a standard fare irregardless of distance.*
Besides transport passes, numerous European cities also offer an all-in-one tourist pass which covers museums, attractions as well as transport. Some of them are worth the money while others are simply overpriced. More on these passes in a later post!
Another tip is to download an app or a picture of the transport network map on your phone to make commuting all the more easier.
Most major European cities have an English option on their ticketing machines so purchasing tickets shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. If you’re still confused feel free to head to the ticket counter to purchase them directly. Beware of scam artists attempting to sell you tickets at marked-up prices!
So we’ve covered almost all transportation modes except sea travel. I excluded it because generally Ships/Ferries are costly, too long and more importantly way above the average budget traveller’s budget.
I hope this guide serves you well in planning your trip. Hopefully it makes it easier to get around Europe.
As always, I appreciate feedback so if you have any tips, suggestions or corrections please let me know through the various channels listed on my About Page 🙂
Featured Image taken from http://ryanmeade.com/wordpress/archives/category/political/climate-change/
” Bernina Express ” taken from http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-sg/panorama-bernina-express.html
” German ICE Train Interior ” taken from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1321787/German-rail-giant-Deutsche-Bahn-sends-200mph-ICE3-train-London.html
” Restaurant Car ” taken from http://www.theguardian.com/travel/blog/2009/oct/21/train-travel-myth-reality
” Thello Couchette ” taken from Wikipedia.com
” Seat 61 ” taken from Seat61.com
” Night Train ” taken from http://artchivebycarteblanche.com/?p=871
” Rail Europe ” taken from http://www.russia-ukraine-travel.com/trains-in-russia.html
” Virgin Train ” taken from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/transport/10106105/National-Rail-on-track-for-lateness-fines.html
” TGV Train ” taken from http://www.ices.fr/PA_ICUSTA.php?a=ICUSTA_Transportation.htm
” Ouigo Train ” taken from http://www.railwaygazette.com/news/passenger/single-view/view/sncf-unveils-ouigo-low-cost-tgv-service.html
” Renfe Train ” taken from http://beamingjade.blogspot.sg/2010/12/railroads-of-spain.html
” Trenitalia Train ” taken from http://traintraveling.com/europe/passenger-rail/southern-europe.html
” DeutscheBahn Train ” taken from http://www.vnews.com/lifetimes/11079154-95/bahn-voyage-riding-the-rails-in-germany
” Rhaetian Railway ” taken from http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20140612-the-swiss-train-tourists-dont-take
” Czech Rail ” taken from http://www.railwaygazette.com/news/policy/single-view/view/next-step-in-czech-reform-programme.html
” Semmering Railway ” taken from http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/worlds-most-scenic-train-rides
” SJ Rail ” taken from http://www.4rail.net/reference_sweden_malmbanan_main.php
” DSB Rail ” taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tim,_Denmark,_Train_Station_8597.JPG
” Flam Railway ” taken from http://www.tnp.no/norway/travel/3998-six-best-railway-routes-in-norway
Euroline Pictures taken from Eurolines.com
” iDBUS ” taken from http://www.girltweetsworld.com/idbus-the-easy-way-to-europe/
” Interior ” taken from http://www.travelvivi.com/preparing-for-a-long-distance-bus-trip/
Megabus Pictures taken from WikiCommons
” Europe by Plane ” taken from http://touristmeetstraveler.com/2014/discount-travel-tips-booking-budget-flights-around-europe/
” Ryanair Interior ” taken from http://www.jaunted.com/travel-photos/full/28/Flying+on+Ryanair+
” European Roadtrip ” taken from http://travelwithkidsguide.com/road-trip-ideas-in-europe/
” BlaBlaCar ” taken from BlaBlaCar.com
” Parisian Metro ” taken from Wikipedia
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