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Guide to Cheap Transportation in Europe

Your Travel Options on the Continent are Many and Convenient

Cheap travel in Europe on comfortable bullet trains.
Travel in Europe on very comfortable bullet trains.

Getting to Europe or getting around Europe would seem relatively simple regarding budget transportation options, but there are many subtle nuances. Often, seemingly little decisions such as choosing a date, an hour, one city versus another, one season versus another, and the type of transportation you desire can change your European travel budget by hundreds of dollars or much more, depending on whether you are traveling alone or with a partner or family.

Your European travel needs generally have no perfect, uniform answers unless you take a package tour without the flexibility many desire. For one vacation, a series of cheap flights in Europe could be the most time-efficient and even cheapest mode, given the low cost of air travel within Europe. A rail pass could sometimes be the cheapest travel mode for shorter distances. In another scenario, a long-term car lease buyback could save hundreds or thousands of euros. Beyond that, there are also comfort and convenience considerations. Avoiding a train station for a large family lugging lots of baby gear could be worth the extra money.

Sometimes, you also need to examine the savings versus sacrifice closely. A budget transportation option that would save money could cost you in the long run. For example, a slower method of getting around Europe that forces you to get lodging for more days isn't worth the 20 euros you saved.

Here is a rundown of transportation options and getting around Europe on a budget.

Getting to Europe on a Budget

One of the many very affordable Icelandair planes that fly to and from Europe.
If you are okay with a stopover, Icelandair offers very cheap flights to Europe.

You could save hundreds of dollars by focusing your attention even on this simple aspect of your vacation. You might not need to make significant adjustments or compromise comfort or convenience.

Consider when you will go. Spring and summer can be the most expensive time to fly to Europe, but you can still visit in winter on a budget. Look at fall, a splendid time to visit, or even early spring when it is still considered the shoulder season. Your timing can also alter considerably depending on the day of the week you fly, the time of day you fly, whether your trip includes a Saturday night stay, and how early you buy your tickets.

Cheap Air Travel Within Europe

One more affordable RYANAIR plane takes off in Europe.
Budget airline RYANAIR flies all over Europe.

Where you fly is another major factor affecting your budget. If you plan to meander around the map, you can check European hub cities like Frankfurt, Paris, London, Milan, and Rome for better flight prices than smaller cities like Nice or Lisbon.

You can always use another transportation method to get to that destination city, and you will have added another major city to your itinerary. You must examine this option closely to determine if you are spending more to get from a cheaper airport to your destination than you would save getting the cheaper flights and, if so, if it is worth it anyway.

We all have our favorite online booking sites, but Skyscanner and CheapOair are good websites that emphasize European airlines. You can often find your flights directly using the many cheap airlines based in countries within Europe and get a better deal.

An excellent meta-search engine — a search tool that scans across search tools and even some individual companies offering deals — is also an app that finds cheap flights, trains, buses, and even carpool options throughout Europe and is called Omio.

As noted previously, when discussing flying to Europe, experimenting online with the days you plan to travel can significantly impact cost.

Cheap Train Travel

Take a very fast train in France with the TGV.
Take the fast and comfortable TGV train in France.

The train is one of the most popular and enjoyable budget transportation options in Europe. People often assume the best deal is a rail pass (only available to non-European visitors). However, whether that is true can vary wildly depending on the travelers, the destinations, and the situation. A great way to determine the best option is to price your itinerary with a pass and point-to-point tickets on your destination country's official rail website or dealers like Eurail.

Generally, if you will be visiting large cities great distances apart, a rail pass could save dramatically over the price of individual point-to-point tickets. However, if you visit one city with just a couple of day trips nearby, you will spend more on a rail pass than local or regional point-to-point tickets. The number of days you will travel and how far also comes into account. One long trip and several short ones could also mean a rail pass is too expensive.

It would help if you also kept in mind that ticket prices and rail passes do not include the cost of reservations, sleeper car spots, or anything extra beyond permission to get onto the train. If you're getting one, which rail pass you choose is also something you should research extensively first since minor changes can make a big difference to your wallet.

Car Travel

Car rentals in Europe are not always cheap, but offer the flexibility to explore off-the-beaten-path.
Taking a car to the countryside is a great way to explore places off the beaten path — especially for families who are not bikers or bring possessions for long trips.

Car rentals can be notoriously expensive in Europe, especially if you need to learn to drive a shift, though automatics are often now available. Regardless, they offer a hard-to-ignore convenience by offering travelers far more independence. You can go where you want and get away from the hordes of tourists when you so desire. It's beneficial for travelers with a lot of gear that can be difficult and unpleasant to lug into stations and airports while traveling around Europe.

One nice compromise is getting a rail pass/car rental combo. That provides the best of both worlds, and you can use the car rental vouchers for days you want to wander the countryside and explore.

You should consider a lease buyback program if you will visit for at least 21 days. You get a brand new car and comprehensive insurance throughout Europe, and the daily rate is lower than that of traditional car rental. You can find programs through an AutoEurope / Peugeot joint venture.

Other Cheap Transportation Options in Europe

Flights, rail, and car transportation are certainly the most commonly used methods of getting around Europe by visitors, but there are also some great budget alternatives, such as buses. Be sure you consider:

  • Bus transportation networks are much more extensive in Europe than in the U.S., and they reach more rural destinations than you might expect. Buses are often very comfortable and modern for longer trips. Short-term trips within a country are the cheapest mode of transportation, short of other options such as biking, carpooling, or the now less-favored hitchhiking option.

  • Ferries are a lovely way to travel around Europe's many bodies of water and can be a cheaper (if not speedier) mode of transportation.

  • Barge rentals and small cruises provide the unique aspect of travel by water and a combined price tag for both transportation and accommodations.
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