Overland Travel in Europe
Many Great Cheap and Flexible Options
| Viewing Tuscan vineyards and olive groves while drively slowly through the magical landscapes is one of the most relaxing forms of travel. Photo © Transitions Abroad.
On a continent dotted with picturesque medieval and renaissance towns amid spectacular landscapes, why would anyone choose to fly unless they are in a hurry? (Well, yes, cheap airfare in Europe is now common, but that is another discussion.) No matter the direction you cross Europe, watching the world go by from your window seat in a train, bus, or car is very often a visual experience that no traveler should miss. Here we will offer up information about traveling on the ground in Europe based upon experience growing up in Europe, then returning as much as possible to visit family while exploring new destinations.
Traveling by Train
Traveling by train is the most comfortable and pleasant way to explore Europe. People of all ages and economic backgrounds travel by train, and it can be fun sharing a conversation, meal, or drink with other passengers during the ride, watching the scenery pass by on the many smooth, modern, and often high-speed trains. In addition, trains usually take you straight to a city center, which is where most travelers prefer to stay. When planning your train itinerary, keep in mind that many international airlines fly to several destinations in Europe and may have sharing agreements with European airlines, allowing you to arrive in one country and fly out from another without additional cost. This can eliminate a train ride back to your arrival city, and you will be able to plan a one-way train itinerary, saving you both time and money.
Unfortunately, individual train tickets are quite expensive, especially in Western Europe. Before buying a ticket or rail pass, you should carefully consider your options. It is best to plan out your itinerary and then figure out how many days of rail travel you need to get to your destinations.
There are many different rail pass packages available for Europe, and you should research your options before purchasing your ticket. You can get a Eurail pass for all 27 participating countries, a rail pass for just one country, or a multi-country rail pass, allowing you to travel in several different countries at an affordable price. You can also choose how many days you want to travel by train, and if the travel days are consecutive or flexible. If you are under the age of 26, you can get a discounted Eurail Youth Pass, and you can also buy regular train tickets at a discount.
To save money you might also want to consider the option of taking a night train, especially for long-distance travel. You won’t be able to enjoy the scenery, but you save the cost of accommodation. The supplement for a sleeper car, where you share a compartment of bunk beds with other travelers, generally costs much less than a hotel room, and by traveling at night you also gain an extra travel day to explore your destination.
There are a variety of different trains that travel the same routes. Some of them are local or regional trains, stopping at every town and taking much longer. Others are InterCity trains (connecting larger cities) and EuroCity trains (connecting destinations in different countries), which have fewer stops and travel at higher speeds, but you usually have to pay a supplement. Taking the next departing train will therefore not always get you to your destination first. Check the arrival time to find out how long the train will take and compare it to other scheduled trains.
Many countries in Western Europe now have some high-speed railway connection, and the network continues to grow, with plans to link locations in different countries by high-speed rail. Most high-speed trains require a seat reservation, but on regular InterCity or EuroCity trains you can still travel without a reservation and select a seat as you please. You have the advantage of being able to choose and change seats as you see fit, but if the train is overcrowded, you may have to stand or sit in the corridor. A seat reservation, available for a few extra dollars, is usually a good idea on busy routes and during the summer, when trains are always crowded.
If the train originates in the city of your departure, it is a good idea to arrive early to select a comfortable seat and place your luggage in the luggage rack. Latecomers often find the best seats taken and the racks full. If you have a seat reservation you can find the location of your car by looking at the "train composition" chart usually posted at every platform, which shows the location and number of the cars.
For resources see our section on Train Travel.
Most long-distance travelers take the train or fly, but there are a number of bus companies connecting European cities by bus. Bus travel is not nearly as comfortable as traveling by train, in my view, but it is cheaper. Several bus companies cater to young travelers by offering "hop-on-hop-off" tickets, allowing travelers to stop over on their route in as many places as they please. There are also a number of Eastern European bus companies connecting major cities to destinations in Central or Western Europe at a much lower cost than taking a train.
As many regional narrow-gage railroads have been closed down all across Europe for economic reasons, bus travel is often the only way to get to small towns and remote destinations. Expect local buses to be crowded, especially in less wealthy rural areas across Europe, where some residents cannot afford a car. These buses stop wherever a passenger wants to get on or off, and travel can be fairly slow. At the same time it is entertaining to travel with the local rural population, discretely watch their interactions, engage in friendly conversation, and learn as much about their way of life as they wish to reveal.
Some European countries offer combined rail/bus tickets for vacation destinations that are a significant savings over separate train and bus fares. It is always worth asking for special offers and savings before buying a bus or train ticket. Local tourist information centers can provide information about other combined transportation options that may include train, bus, cable cars, boat or ferry trips, and even ski lifts.
For resources see our section on Bus Travel.
Renting a car in Europe gives you great flexibility, but considering the rental and fuel cost, it is only practical if you travel with at least one other person. The good news is that there are a lot of small fuel-efficient vehicles available for rent, some of which are diesel-powered, which is in Europe is cheaper than gasoline. To rent a car you need a credit card, your driver’s license (sometimes an international drivers license, which is a good idea, so the police can read in their own language), and drivers usually need to be at least 21 years old. Rental rates are mostly charged by the day, and weekly or weekend specials are not common. One-way rentals are fairly easy to set up, allowing you to plan your itinerary as you wish. If you travel during the summer you are better off making a reservation for a rental car ahead of time, but at any other time of the year you can usually walk into a rental car agency and reserve a vehicle for the next day.
To save on rental fees, you might consider renting a car only for actual travel days and getting around on foot and public transportation while you visit cities. Driving in a European city you don’t know is difficult and nerve wrecking, and you will enjoy your stay more without a car. Parking is impossible to find, and urban driving habits in Europe are not for the faint of heart. In addition, roads are often narrow and winding, and they are rarely laid out in a rectangular grid or named in numerical order, which makes navigation more difficult. To get around in and out of any city in Europe you need a good map. Relying on signs may sound like a good idea, but whenever I drive in a European city without a map I waste a lot of time going in circles and getting lost. Get a good map and let your travel companion(s) do the navigating while you drive. Study the city and highway map before you take off. Get your bearings ahead of time. Try not to make split-second decisions as you drive at 60 mph in dense urban traffic. Allow for extra time, in case you get lost or take a wrong turn on a foggy night, which happens to the best of drivers. GPS devices are also available, and in a new country these can prove to be a useful form of technology.
For resources see our section on Car Leases and Rentals.
| You need not be wealthy to drive through spectacular coastal towns such as Portofino. Photo © Transitions Abroad.
Car Ride Shares
Since gasoline is very expensive all across Europe, sharing rides is a practical way to lower travel costs for drivers. There are several organizations in Europe that refer ride shares. Some of them are exclusively web-based, while others have local offices that you can contact to find a ride. Of course you’ll never know who you’ll be riding with, but since both the driver and the passenger(s) are registered with the referral organization, there is a certain accountability to the service. Many referral organizations offer travel insurance for the ride for a small fee. You can also find rides advertised at youth hostel bulletin boards or the student union of the local university. Many university students travel home for the summer or semester break and offer shared rides to cut their travel costs. Sharing a ride is much cheaper than taking the train or bus, and can be a fun and spontaneous way to meet new people.
Motoeuropa provides car rentals and ride share forums, as well as useful information and tips for drivers in Europe.
Hitchhiking is no longer as common in Europe as it was a few decades ago, but there are still a number of young travelers who hitchhike across Europe to save money. Keep in mind that freeways are off-limits to pedestrians and that the police will stop and/or fine you if you hitchhike alongside a freeway. The key to successfully getting to your destination is a good highway map that shows rest areas as well as all exits and entrances. Many times I have found myself at a remote freeway entrance with no traffic, and the best strategy is to get off at a freeway rest area or gas station instead. Holding up a sign with your destination written on it can help you get a ride, but it is better to ask drivers at rest areas and gas stations, if they are willing to give you a ride. Sometimes it is better to get off at a tollbooth than wait at a remote entrance, but since this is illegal, the trick is to get a ride before the police find you. No matter where you hitchhike in Europe, you have to be prepared for long waits. Bring food, water, sunscreen, and yes, a sleeping bag.
While hitchhiking long distances can be tedious and tiring, I have found hitchhiking on short routes to be fairly easy and quite enjoyable. To get to an out-of-the-way destination on a day trip, hitchhiking can be faster and more efficient than taking a bus, and friendly locals have often invited me to a meal or an unexpected tour of their region. Such an experience is even more rewarding, as always, if you speak the local language.
With so many options to travel across Europe overland, it is really an embarrassment of riches you won't want to miss at any age.
For online extensive resources about Overland Travel options in Europe, please visit our Best Travel Websites for Cheap Transportation Abroad section.