In recent years low-cost carriers have revolutionised European transport. Most budget airlines have a similar pricing system – namely that ticket prices rise with the number of seats sold on each flight, so book as early as possible to get a decent fare.
Some low-cost carriers – Ryanair being the prime example – have made a habit of flying to smaller, less convenient airports on the outskirts of their destination city, or even to the airports of nearby cities, so check the exact location of the departure and arrival airports before you book. Many flights also leave at the crack of dawn or arrive inconveniently late at night.
Departure and other taxes (including booking fees, checked-baggage fees and other surcharges) soon add up and are included in the final price by the end of the online booking process – usually a lot more than you were hoping to pay – but with careful choosing and advance booking you can get excellent deals.
In the face of competition from low-cost airlines, many national carriers have decided to drop their prices and/or offer special deals. Some, such as British Airways, have even adopted the low-cost model of online booking, where the customer can opt to buy just a one-way flight, or can piece together their own return journey from two one-way legs.
For a comprehensive overview of which low-cost carriers fly to or from which European cities, check out the excellent www.flycheapo.com.
Various travel agencies and airlines offer air passes including the three main airline alliances: Oneworld (www.oneworld.com), Star Alliance (www.staralliance.com), and SkyTeam (www.skyteam.com). Check with your travel agent for current promotions.
Much of Europe is ideally suited to cycling. Popular cycling areas include the whole of the Netherlands, the Belgian Ardennes, the west of Ireland, the upper reaches of the Danube in southern Germany and anywhere in northern Switzerland, Denmark or the south of France. Exploring the small villages of Turkey and Eastern Europe also provides up-close access to remote areas.
A primary consideration on a cycling trip is to travel light, but you should take a few tools and spare parts, including a puncture-repair kit and an extra inner tube. Panniers are essential to balance your possessions on either side of the bike frame. Wearing a helmet is not compulsory in most countries, but is certainly sensible.
Seasoned cyclists can average 80km a day, but it depends on what you’re carrying and your level of fitness.
Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC; www.ctc.org.uk) The national cycling association of the UK runs organised trips to Continental Europe.
European Cyclists’ Federation (www.ecf.com) Has details of ‘EuroVelo’, the European cycle network of 12 pan-European cycle routes, plus tips for other tours.
SwitzerlandMobility (www.veloland.ch/en/cycling-in-switzerland.html) Details of Swiss national routes and more.
Rental & Purchase
It is easy to hire bikes throughout most of Europe. Many Western European train stations have bike-rental counters. It is sometimes possible to return the bike at a different outlet so you don’t have to retrace your route. Hostels are another good place to find cheap bike hire.
There are plenty of places to buy bikes in Europe, but you’ll need a specialist bicycle shop for a bike capable of withstanding a European trip. Cycling is very popular in the Netherlands and Germany, and those countries are good places to pick up a well-equipped touring bicycle.
European prices are quite high (certainly higher than in North America), however non-European residents should be able to claim back value-added tax (VAT) on the purchase.
A growing number of European cities have bike-sharing schemes where you can casually borrow a bike from a docking station for short hops around the city for a small cost. Most schemes have daily rates, although you usually need a credit card as deposit. Large bike-sharing schemes include Paris' Vélib (Europe's biggest), London's Santander Cycles and Barcelona's Bicing.
Transporting a Bicycle
For major cycling trips, it’s best to have a bike you’re familiar with, so consider bringing your own rather than buying on arrival. If coming from outside Europe, ask about the airline’s policy on transporting bikes before buying your ticket.
From the UK to the Continent, Eurostar (the train service through the Channel Tunnel) charges £30 to send a semidismantled bike as registered luggage with you. Book ahead. You can also transport your bicycle with you on Eurotunnel through the Channel Tunnel for around £20. With a bit of tinkering and dismantling (eg removing wheels), you might be able to get your bike into a bag or sack and take it on a train as hand luggage.
Alternatively, the European Bike Express (www.bike-express.co.uk) is a UK-based coach service where cyclists can travel with their bicycles to various drop-off and pick-up points in France and northern Spain.
Once on the Continent, local and regional trains usually allow bikes to be transported as luggage, subject to space and a small supplementary fee (€5 to €15). Off-peak hours are best. Some cyclists have reported that Italian and French train attendants have refused bikes on slow trains, so be prepared for regulations to be interpreted differently in different countries.
Fast trains and international trains can rarely accommodate bikes; they might need to be sent as registered luggage and may end up on a different train from the one you take. This is often the case in France and Spain.
Several different ferry companies compete on the main ferry routes, resulting in a comprehensive but complicated service. The same ferry company can have a host of different prices for the same route, depending on the time of day or year, validity of the ticket and length of your vehicle. Vehicle tickets usually include the driver and often up to five passengers free of charge.
It’s worth booking ahead where possible as there may be special reductions on off-peak crossings and advance-purchase tickets. On English Channel routes, apart from one-day or short-term excursion returns, there is little price advantage in buying a return ticket versus two singles.
Rail-pass holders are entitled to discounts or free travel on some lines. Food on ferries is often expensive (and lousy), so it is worth bringing your own. Also be aware that if you take your vehicle on board, you are usually denied access to it during the voyage.
Lake and river ferry services operate in many countries, Austria and Switzerland being just two. Some of these are very scenic.
Often cheaper than trains, sometimes substantially so, long-distance buses also tend to be slower and less comfortable. However in Portugal, Greece and Turkey, buses are often a better option than trains.
Europe’s biggest organisation of international buses operates under the name Eurolines (www.eurolines.com), comprised of various national companies. A Eurolines Pass (www.eurolines.com/en/eurolines-pass) is offered for extensive travel, allowing passengers to visit a choice of 53 cities across Europe over 15 or 30 days. In the high season (mid-June to mid-September) the pass costs €315/405 for those aged under 26, or €375/490 for those 26 and over. It’s cheaper in other periods.
Busabout (www.busabout.com) offers a 'hop-on, hop-off' service around Europe, stopping at major cities. Buses are often oversubscribed, so book each sector to avoid being stranded. It departs every two days from May to the end of October.
Domestic buses provide a viable alternative to trains in most countries. Again, they are usually slightly cheaper and somewhat slower. Buses are generally best for short hops, such as getting around cities and reaching remote villages, and they are often the only option in mountainous regions.
Reservations are rarely necessary. On many city buses you usually buy your ticket in advance from a kiosk or machine and validate it on entering the bus.
Car & Motorcycle
Travelling with your own vehicle gives flexibility and is the best way to reach remote places. However, the independence does sometimes isolate you from local life. Also, cars can be a target for theft and are often impractical in city centres, where traffic jams, parking problems and getting thoroughly lost can make it well worth ditching your vehicle and using public transport. Various car-carrying trains can help you avoid long, tiring drives.
One popular way to tour Europe is for a group of three or four people to band together and buy or rent a campervan. London is the usual embarkation point. Look at the ads in London’s free magazine TNT (www.tntmagazine.com) if you wish to form or join a group. TNT is also a good source for purchasing a van, as is Loot (www.loot.com).
Some secondhand dealers offer a ‘buy-back’ scheme for when you return from the Continent, but check the small print before signing anything and remember that if an offer is too good to be true, it probably is. Buying and reselling privately should be more advantageous if you have time. In the UK, DUInsure (www.duinsure.com) offers a campervan policy.
- Fuel prices can vary enormously (though fuel is always more expensive than in North America or Australia).
- Unleaded petrol only is available throughout Europe. Diesel is usually cheaper, though the difference is marginal in Britain, Ireland and Switzerland.
- Ireland’s Automobile Association maintains a webpage of European fuel prices at www.theaa.ie/aa/motoring-advice/petrol-prices.aspx.
Leasing a vehicle involves fewer hassles than purchasing and can work out much cheaper than hiring for longer than 17 days. This program is limited to certain types of new cars, including Renault and Peugeot, but you save money because leasing is exempt from VAT and inclusive insurance plans are cheaper than daily insurance rates.
To lease a vehicle your permanent address must be outside the EU. In the USA, contact Renault Eurodrive (www.renault-eurodrive.com) for more information.
Europe is made for motorcycle touring, with quality winding roads, stunning scenery and an active motorcycling scene. Just make sure your wet-weather motorcycling gear is up to scratch.
- Rider and passenger crash helmets are compulsory everywhere in Europe.
- Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain require that motorcyclists use headlights during the day; in other countries it is recommended.
- On ferries, motorcyclists rarely have to book ahead as they can generally be squeezed on board.
- Take note of the local custom about parking motorcycles on pavements (sidewalks). Though this is illegal in some countries, the police often turn a blind eye provided the vehicle doesn’t obstruct pedestrians.
- Third-party motor insurance is compulsory. Most UK policies automatically provide this for EU countries. Get your insurer to issue a Green Card (which may cost extra), an internationally recognised proof of insurance, and check that it lists every country you intend to visit. You’ll need this in the event of an accident outside the country where the vehicle is insured.
- Ask your insurer for a European Accident Statement form, which can simplify things if worst comes to worst. Never sign statements that you can’t read or understand – insist on a translation and sign that only if it’s acceptable.
- For non-EU countries, check the requirements with your insurer. Travellers from the UK can obtain additional advice and information from the Association of British Insurers (www.abi.org.uk).
- Take out a European motoring assistance policy. Non-Europeans might find it cheaper to arrange international coverage with their national motoring organisation before leaving home. Ask your motoring organisation for details about the free services offered by affiliated organisations around Europe.
- Residents of the UK should contact the RAC (www.rac.co.uk) or the AA (www.theaa.co.uk) for more information. Residents of the US, contact AAA (www.aaa.com).
Buying a car and then selling it at the end of your European travels may work out to be a better deal than renting one, although this isn't guaranteed and you'll need to do your sums carefully.
The purchase of vehicles in some European countries is illegal for non-nationals or non-EU residents. Britain is probably the best place to buy as secondhand prices are good there. Bear in mind that British cars have steering wheels on the right-hand side. If you wish to have left-hand drive and can afford to buy a new car, prices are generally reasonable in Greece, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Paperwork can be tricky wherever you buy, and many countries have compulsory roadworthiness checks on older vehicles.
- Renting a car is ideal for people who will need cars for 16 days or less. Anything longer, it’s better to lease.
- Big international rental firms will give you reliable service and good vehicles. National or local firms can often undercut the big companies by up to 40%.
- Usually you will have the option of returning the car to a different outlet at the end of the rental period, but there's normally a charge for this and it can be very steep if it's a long way from your point of origin.
- Book early for the lowest rates and make sure you compare rates in different cities. Taxes range from 15% to 20% and surcharges apply if rented from an airport.
- If you rent a car in the EU you might not be able to take it outside the EU, and if you rent the car outside the EU, you will only be able to drive within the EU for eight days. Ask at the rental agencies for other such regulations.
- Make sure you understand what is included in the price (unlimited or paid kilometres, tax, injury insurance, collision damage waiver etc) and what your liabilities are. We recommend taking the collision damage waiver, though you can probably skip the injury insurance if you and your passengers have decent travel insurance.
- The minimum rental age is usually 21 years and sometimes 25. You’ll need a credit card and to have held your licence for at least a year.
- Motorcycle and moped rental is common in some countries, such as Italy, Spain, Greece and southern France.
Road Conditions & Road Rules
- Conditions and types of roads vary across Europe. The fastest routes are generally four- or six-lane highways known locally as motorways, autoroutes, autostrade, autobahnen etc. These tend to skirt cities and plough through the countryside in straight lines, often avoiding the most scenic bits.
- Some highways incur tolls, which are often quite hefty (especially in Italy, France and Spain), but there will always be an alternative route. Motorways and other primary routes are generally in good condition.
- Road surfaces on minor routes are unreliable in some countries (eg Greece, Albania, Romania, Ireland, Russia and Ukraine), although normally they will be more than adequate.
- Except in Britain and Ireland, you should drive on the right. Vehicles brought to the Continent from any of these locales should have their headlights adjusted to avoid blinding oncoming traffic (a simple solution on older headlight lenses is to cover up a triangular section of the lens with tape). Priority is often given to traffic approaching from the right in countries that drive on the right-hand side.
- Speed limits vary from country to country. You may be surprised at the apparent disregard for traffic regulations in some places (particularly in Italy and Greece), but as a visitor it is always best to be cautious. Many driving infringements are subject to an on-the-spot fine. Always ask for a receipt.
- European drink-driving laws are particularly strict. The blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limit when driving is usually between 0.05% and 0.08%, but in certain areas (such as Gibraltar, Bulgaria and Belarus) it can be zero.
- Always carry proof of ownership of your vehicle (Vehicle Registration Document for British-registered cars). An EU driving licence is acceptable for those driving through Europe. If you have any other type of licence, you should obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) from your motoring organisation. Check what type of licence is required in your destination prior to departure.
- Every vehicle that travels across an international border should display a sticker indicating its country of registration. A warning triangle, to be used in the event of breakdown, is compulsory almost everywhere.
- Some recommended accessories include a first-aid kit (compulsory in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece), a spare bulb kit (compulsory in Spain), a reflective jacket for every person in the car (compulsory in France, Italy and Spain) and a fire extinguisher (compulsory in Greece and Turkey).
Hitching is never entirely safe and we don't recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. It will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they plan to go.
- A man and woman travelling together is probably the best combination. A woman hitching on her own is taking a larger than normal risk.
- Don’t try to hitch from city centres; take public transport to the suburban exit routes.
- Hitching is usually illegal on highways – stand on the slip roads or approach drivers at petrol stations and truck stops.
- Look presentable and cheerful, and make a cardboard sign indicating your intended destination in the local language.
- Never hitch where drivers can’t stop in good time or without causing an obstruction.
- It is often possible to arrange a lift in advance: scan student noticeboards in colleges or check out services such as www.carpooling.co.uk or www.drive2day.de.
Hitching for Cash
In parts of Eastern Europe including Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, traditional hitchhiking is rarely practised. Instead, anyone with a car can be a taxi and it’s quite usual to see locals stick their hands out (palm down) on the street, looking to hitch a lift. The difference with hitching here, however, is that you pay for the privilege. You will need to speak the local language (or at least know the numbers) to discuss your destination and negotiate a price.
European towns and cities have excellent local-transport systems, often encompassing trams as well as buses and metro/subway/underground-rail networks.
Most travellers will find areas of interest in European cities can be easily traversed by foot or bicycle. In Greece and Italy, travellers sometimes rent mopeds and motorcycles for scooting around a city or island.
Taxis in Europe are metered and rates are usually high. There might also be supplements for things such as luggage, time of day, location of pick-up and extra passengers.
Good bus, rail and underground-railway networks often render taxis unnecessary, but if you need one in a hurry, they can be found idling near train stations or outside big hotels. Lower fares make taxis more viable in some countries such as Spain, Greece, Portugal and Turkey.
Comfortable, frequent and reliable, trains are the way to get around Europe.
- Many state railways have interactive websites publishing their timetables and fares, including www.bahn.de (Germany) and www.sbb.ch (Switzerland), which both have pages in English. Eurail (www.eurail.com) links to 28 European train companies.
- The very comprehensive, Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) is a gem, while the US-based Budget Europe Travel Service (www.budgeteuropetravel.com) can also help with tips.
- European trains sometimes split en route to service two destinations, so even if you’re on the right train, make sure you’re also in the correct carriage.
- A train journey to almost every station in Europe can be booked via Voyages-sncf.com (http://uk.voyages-sncf.com/en), which also sells InterRail and other passes.
Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) links London’s St Pancras International station, via the Channel Tunnel, with Paris’ Gare du Nord (2¼ hours, up to 25 a day) and Brussels’ international terminal (one hour 50 minutes, up to 12 a day). Some trains also stop at Lille and Calais in France. There are also several trains a week from London to Disneyland Paris; London to Marseilles via Lyon and Avignon; and London to the French ski resorts (the latter only runs December to April).
From December 2017, Eurostar trains will also link Amsterdam Centraal Station with London St Pancras.
The train stations at St Pancras International, Paris and Brussels are much more central than the cities’ airports. So, overall, the journey takes as little time as the equivalent flight, with less hassle.
Eurostar in London also sells tickets onward to some Continental destinations. Holders of Eurail and InterRail passes are offered discounts on some Eurostar services; check when booking.
Within Europe, express trains are identified by the symbols ‘EC’ (EuroCity) or ‘IC’ (InterCity). The French TGV, Spanish AVE and German ICE trains are even faster, reaching up to 300km/h. Supplementary fares can apply on fast trains (which you often have to pay when travelling on a rail pass), and it is a good idea (sometimes obligatory) to reserve seats at peak times and on certain lines. The same applies for branded express trains, such as the Thalys (between Paris and Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam and Cologne), and the Freccia trains in Italy.
If you don’t have a seat reservation, you can still obtain a seat that doesn’t have a reservation ticket attached to it. Check which destination a seat is reserved for – you might be able to sit in it until the person boards the train.
International Rail Passes
If you’re covering lots of ground, you should get a rail pass. But do some price comparisons of point-to-point ticket charges and rail passes beforehand to make absolutely sure you’ll break even. Also shop around for rail-pass prices as they do vary between outlets. When weighing up options, look into cheap deals that include advance-purchase reductions, one-off promotions or special circular-route tickets, particularly over the internet.
Normal point-to-point tickets are valid for two months, and you can make as many stops as you like en route; make your intentions known when purchasing and inform train conductors how far you’re going before they punch your ticket.
Supplementary charges (eg for some express and overnight trains) and seat reservation fees (mandatory on some trains, a good idea on others) are not covered by rail passes. Always ask. Note that European rail passes also give reductions on Eurostar, the Channel Tunnel and on certain ferries.
Pass-holders must always carry their passport with them for identification purposes. The railways’ policy is that passes cannot be replaced or refunded if lost or stolen.
Eurail (www.eurail.com) passes can be bought only by residents of non-European countries and should be purchased before arriving in Europe.
The most comprehensive of the various Eurail passes is the ‘Global Pass’ covering 28 countries. While the pass is valid on some private train lines in the region, if you plan to travel extensively in Switzerland, be warned that the many private rail networks and cable cars, especially in the Jungfrau region around Interlaken, don’t give Eurail discounts. A Swiss Pass or Half-Fare Card might be an alternative or necessary addition.
The pass is valid for a set number of consecutive days or a set number of days within a period of time. Those under 26 years of age can buy a Eurail Youth pass, which only covers travel in 2nd-class compartments. Those aged 26 and over must buy the full-fare Eurail pass, which entitles you to travel 1st class.
Alternatively, there is the Select pass, which allows you to nominate two, three or four bordering countries in which you wish to travel, and then buy a pass allowing five, six, eight or 10 travel days in a two-month period. The five- and six-day passes offer an attractive price break, but for more expensive options, the continuous pass becomes better value.
There are also Eurail National Passes for just one country.
Two to five people travelling together can get a Saver version of all Eurail passes for a 15% discount.
InterRail (www.interrail.eu) offers passes to European residents for unlimited rail travel through 30 European and North African countries (excluding the pass-holder’s country of residence). To qualify as a resident, you must have lived in a European country for six months.
While an InterRail pass will get you further than a Eurail pass along the private rail networks of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region (near Interlaken), its benefits are limited. A Swiss Pass or Half-Fare Card might be a necessary addition if you plan to travel extensively in that region.
For a small fee, European residents can buy a Railplus Card, entitling the holder to a 25% discount on many (but not all) international train journeys. It is available from counters in main train stations.
National Rail Passes
National rail operators might also offer their own passes, or at least a discount card, offering substantial reductions on tickets purchased (eg the Bahn Card in Germany or the Half-Fare Card in Switzerland).
Look at individual train-operator sites via http://uk.voyages-sncf.com/en to check. Such discount cards are usually only worth it if you’re staying in the country a while and doing a lot of travelling.
There are usually two types of sleeping accommodation: dozing off upright in your seat or stretching out in a sleeper. Again, reservations are advisable, as sleeping options are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Couchette bunks are comfortable enough, if lacking in privacy. There are four per compartment in 1st class, six in 2nd class.
Sleepers are the most comfortable option, offering beds for one or two passengers in 1st class, or two or three passengers in 2nd class. Charges vary depending upon the journey, but they are significantly more costly than couchettes.
In the former Soviet Union, the most common options are either 2nd-class kupeyny compartments – which have four bunks – or the cheaper platskartny, which are open-plan compartments with reserved bunks. This 3rd-class equivalent is not great for those who value privacy.
Other options include the very basic bench seats in obshchiy (zahalney in Ukrainian) class and 1st-class, two-person sleeping carriages (myagki in Russian). In Ukrainian, this last option is known as spalney, but is usually abbreviated to CB in Cyrillic (pronounced es-ve). First class is not available on every Russian or Ukrainian train.
Sensible security measures include always keeping your bags in sight (especially at stations), chaining them to the luggage rack, locking compartment doors overnight and sleeping in compartments with other people. However, horror stories are very rare.