Discount airlines are revolutionising the way people cover long distances within Europe. However, trains can sometimes work out to be quicker, taking you directly between city centres rather than farther-flung airports, and are better for the environment.
Dozens of tiny airports across Europe now have airline services. For instance, a trip to Italy doesn't mean choosing between Milan and Rome, but rather scores of airports up and down the 'boot'.
It's possible to put together a practical itinerary that might bounce from London to the south of Spain to Italy to Amsterdam in a two-week period, all at an affordable price and avoiding endless train rides.
Although many people first think of budget airlines when they consider a cheap ticket in Western Europe, you should compare all carriers, including established ones like British Airways and Lufthansa, which serve major airports close to main destinations. Deals crop up frequently.
Various websites compare fares across a range of airlines within Europe, including the following:
Scores of smaller low-cost airlines serve Western Europe along with major budget airlines including the following:
Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com) Hubs in Germany; service across Europe.
easyJet (www.easyjet.com) Flies to major airports across Europe.
Eurowings (www.eurowings.com) Hubs in Germany; service across Europe.
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) Flies to scores of destinations across Europe, but confirm your destination airport is not a deserted airfield out in the sticks.
Vueling (www.vueling.com) Serves a broad swath of Europe from its Spanish hubs.
With cheap fares come many caveats.
- Some of the bare-bones airlines are just that – expect nonreclining seats and nonexistent legroom.
- Baggage allowances are often minimal and extra baggage charges can be costly.
- At some small airports, customer service may be nonexistent.
- Convenience can be deceptive. If you really want to go to Carcassonne in the south of France, then getting a bargain-priced ticket from London will be a dream come true. But if you want to go to Frankfurt in Germany and buy a ticket to 'Frankfurt-Hahn', you will find yourself at a tiny airport 120km west of Frankfurt and almost two hours away by bus.
- Beware of discount airline websites showing nonstop flights that are actually connections.
A tour of Western Europe by bike may seem daunting but it can be a fantastic way to travel.
Cycling UK (www.cyclinguk.org) Offers members an information service on all matters associated with cycling, including cycling conditions, detailed routes, itineraries and maps.
Bike Tours (www.biketours.com) Has details of self-guided tours.
Wearing a helmet is not always compulsory but is advised. A seasoned cyclist can average about 80km a day, but this depends on the terrain and how much you are carrying.
The key to a successful cycling trip is to travel light. What you carry should be determined by your destination and the type of trip you're taking. Even for the most basic trip, it's worth carrying the tools necessary for repairing a puncture. Bicycle shops are found everywhere, but you still might want to pack the following if you don't want to rely on others:
- Allen keys
- Spare brake and gear cables
- Spare spokes
- Strong adhesive tape
It's easy to hire bicycles in Western Europe and you can often negotiate good deals. Rental periods vary. Local tourist offices, hostels and hotels will have information on rental outlets. Occasionally you can drop off the bicycle at a different location so you don't have to double back on your route.
Urban bike-share schemes, where you check out a bike from one stand and return it to another after brief use, have taken off in cities and towns across Western Europe.
For major cycling tours it's best to have a bike you're familiar with, so consider bringing your own rather than buying one on arrival. If you can't be bothered with the hassle of transporting it, there are plenty of places to buy bikes in Western Europe (shops sell them new and secondhand).
Transporting a Bicycle
Check with the airline for details of taking your bicycle with you on the plane before you buy your ticket as each one has a different policy.
Within Western Europe, bikes can often be taken on to a train with you (usually outside peak hours), subject to a small supplementary fee.
The main areas of ferry service for Western Europe travellers are between Ireland and the UK; Ireland and France; the UK and the Continent (especially France, but also Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain); and Italy and Greece.
Multiple ferry companies compete on the main ferry routes, and the resulting service is comprehensive but complicated.
- A ferry company can have a host of different prices for the same route, depending on the time of day or year, the validity of the ticket or the length of your vehicle.
- It's worth planning (and booking) ahead where possible as there may be special reductions on off-peak crossings and advance-purchase tickets.
- Most ferry companies adjust prices according to the level of demand (so-called 'fluid' or 'dynamic' pricing), so it may pay to offer alternative travel dates.
- Vehicle tickets generally include the driver and a full complement of passengers.
- You're usually denied access to your vehicle during the voyage.
- Rail-pass holders are entitled to discounts or free travel on some lines.
- Compare fares and routes using Ferrysavers (www.ferrysavers.com).
Buses are invariably cheaper but slower and much less comfortable than trains, and not as quick (or sometimes as cheap) as airlines. There are many services, however, and it's possible to travel extensive distances for less than €100.
Eurolines (www.eurolines.com) A consortium of bus companies operates under the name Eurolines. Its various affiliates offer many national and regional bus passes.
FlixBus (www.flixbus.com) New, rapidly expanding international bus company linking 900 destinations in 20 countries. On-board facilities include free wi-fi and plentiful power sockets.
A popular way to tour Europe is to buy or rent a campervan.
Campervans usually feature a fixed high-top or elevating roof and two to five bunk beds. Apart from the essential gas cooker, professional conversions may include a sink, a fridge and built-in cupboards. Prices and facilities vary considerably and it's certainly worth getting advice from a mechanic to see if you are being offered a fair price. Getting a mechanical check (costing from £40) is also a good idea.
London is the usual embarkation point. Good British websites to check for campervan purchases and rentals include the following.
- Auto Trader (www.autotrader.co.uk)
- Loot (http://loot.com)
- Worldwide Motorhome Hire (www.worldwide-motorhome-hire.com)
Car & Motorcycle
Travelling with your own vehicle allows increased flexibility and the option to get off the beaten track. Unfortunately, cars can be problematic in city centres when you have to negotiate one-way streets or find somewhere to park amid a confusing concrete jungle and a welter of expensive parking options.
Remember to never leave valuables in the vehicle.
In the event of a breakdown, you can contact the local automobile association for emergency assistance if it has an agreement with the auto club in your home country (and if you're a member!). These associations can provide a variety of roadside services such as petrol refills, flat-tyre repair and towing, plus predeparture information such as maps and itineraries and even an accommodation reservation service. Check with the main automobile association in your home country for coverage options.
Proof of ownership of a private vehicle should always be carried (a Vehicle Registration Document for British-registered cars). An EU driving licence is acceptable for driving throughout Europe.
Many non-European driving licences are valid in Europe.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) is technically required in addition to a current driving licence for foreign drivers in some Western European countries (in practice, it's rare you'll be asked for it). Your national auto club can advise if you'll need one for the itinerary you plan to take and can sell you this multilingual document.
Fuel prices can vary enormously from country to country (though it's always more expensive than in North America or Australia) and may bear little relation to the general cost of living. For fuel prices across the EU, visit AA Ireland (www.theaa.ie/aa/motoring-advice/petrol-prices.aspx).
Unleaded petrol and diesel are available across Western Europe. To reduce pollution, cities including Paris and London are planning to ban diesel vehicles from 2020.
Renting a vehicle is straightforward.
- All major international rental companies operate in Western Europe and will give you reliable service and a good standard of vehicle.
- Usually you will have the option of returning the car to a different outlet at the end of the rental period.
- Rates vary widely, but expect to pay between €25 and €70 per day, not including insurance. Prebook for the lowest rates – if you walk into an office and ask for a car on the spot, you will pay much more.
- For really good deals, prepay for your rental. Fly/drive combinations and other programs are worth looking into.
- It's imperative to understand exactly what is included in your rental agreement (collision waiver, unlimited mileage etc). Make sure you are covered with an adequate insurance policy.
- Check whether mileage is unlimited or whether you'll be charged for additional kilometres beyond a particular threshold – extra mileage can quickly add up.
- Less than 4% of European cars have automatic transmissions. If you don't want to drive a manual (stick-shift), you'll need to book much further ahead, and expect to pay more than double for the car.
- The minimum age to rent a vehicle is usually 21 or even 23, and you'll need a credit card.
- If you get a ticket from one of Europe's thousands of hidden speeding cameras, they will track you down through your rental company.
Rental brokers (clearing houses) can be a lot cheaper than the major car-rental firms. Good companies to try include the following.
- Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com)
- AutosAbroad (www.autosabroad.com)
- Car Rentals.co.uk (www.carrentals.co.uk)
- Holiday Autos Car Hire (www.holidayautos.com)
- Kemwel (www.kemwel.com)
Third-party motor insurance is compulsory in Europe if you are driving your own car (rental cars usually come with insurance). Most UK motor-insurance policies automatically provide this for EU countries. Get your insurer to issue a Green Card (which may cost extra), which is an internationally recognised proof of insurance, and check that it lists all the countries you intend to visit.
It's a good investment to take out a European motoring-assistance policy, such as the AA (www.theaa.com) Five Star Service or the RAC (www.rac.co.uk) European Motoring Assistance. Expect to pay about £85 for 14 days' cover, with a 10% discount for association members.
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 free services offered by affiliated organisations around Western Europe.
Every vehicle travelling across an international border should display a sticker (or number/licence plate) showing its country of registration. Car-rental/hire agencies usually ensure cars are properly equipped; if in doubt, ask.
Britain is probably the best place to buy a vehicle as secondhand prices are good and, whether buying privately or from a dealer, if you're an English speaker the absence of language difficulties will help you establish what you are getting and what guarantees you can expect in the event of a breakdown.
Bear in mind that you will be getting a car with the steering wheel on the right-hand side in Britain, whereas in Continental Europe the steering wheel is on the left.
If you're driving a right-hand-drive car, by law you'll need adjust your headlamps to avoid blinding oncoming traffic.
Leasing a vehicle involves fewer hassles and can work out much cheaper than hiring for longer than 17 days. This program is limited to certain new cars, including Renault (www.renault-eurodrive.com) and Peugeot (www.peugeot-openeurope.com), but you save money because short-term leasing is exempt from VAT and inclusive insurance plans are cheaper than daily insurance rates.
Leasing is also open to people as young as 18 years old. To lease a vehicle your permanent address must be outside the EU. The maximum lease is five-and-a-half months; it's possible to pick up the vehicle in one country and return it in another. Leases include all on-road taxes as well as theft and collision insurance.
Conditions and types of roads vary across Western Europe, but it is possible to make some generalisations.
- The fastest routes are four- or six-lane dual carriageways/highways, ie two or three lanes either side (motorway, autobahn, autoroute, autostrada etc).
- Motorways and other primary routes are great for speed and comfort but driving can be dull, with little or no interesting scenery.
- Some fast routes incur expensive tolls (eg in Italy, France and Spain) or have a general tax for usage (Switzerland and Austria), but there will usually be an alternative route you can take.
- Motorways and other primary routes are almost always in good condition.
- Road surfaces on minor routes are not perfect in some countries (eg Greece), although normally they will be more than adequate.
- Minor roads are narrower and progress is generally much slower. To compensate, you can expect much better scenery and plenty of interesting villages along the way.
- Automobile associations can supply members with country-by-country information about motoring regulations.
- With the exception of Britain and Ireland, driving is on the right-hand side of the road.
- Take care with speed limits, as they vary from country to country.
- You may be surprised at the apparent disregard of traffic regulations in some places (particularly in Italy and Greece), but as a visitor it is always best to be cautious.
- In many countries, 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 generally 0.05% but in certain cases it can be as low as 0%. The European Transport Safety Council (http://etsc.eu) lists the limits for each country.
- Some countries require compulsory in-car equipment, such as a portable breathalyser, warning triangle and fluorescent vest. These are supplied by rental companies, but you'll need to have them if you're driving your own vehicle.
- In Austria and Switzerland, motorists must buy a motorway tax sticker (vignette in German and French; contrassegno in Italian) to display on the windscreen. Buy vignettes in advance from motoring organisations or (in cash) at petrol stations, Austrian post offices and tobacconists at borders before crossing into the country.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don't recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Key points to remember:
- Hitch in pairs; it will be safer.
- Solo women should never hitch.
- Don't hitch from city centres; take public transport to suburban exit routes.
- Hitching is usually illegal on motorways – 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.
- At dusk, give up and think about finding somewhere to stay.
- It is sometimes possible to arrange a lift in advance: scan student noticeboards in colleges or contact car-sharing agencies. Such agencies are particularly popular in Germany – visit www.blablacar.de.
Most Western European cities have excellent public-transport systems, which comprise some combination of metros (subways), trains, trams and buses. Service is usually comprehensive. Major airports generally have fast-train or metro links to the city centre.
With its good-quality winding roads, stunning scenery and an active motorcycling scene, Western Europe is made for motorcycle touring.
- The weather is not always reliable, so make sure your wet-weather gear is up to scratch.
- Helmets are compulsory for riders and passengers everywhere in Western Europe.
- On ferries, motorcyclists can sometimes be squeezed on board without a reservation, although booking ahead is advisable during peak travelling periods.
- Take note of local customs about parking motorcycles on footpaths. Although this is illegal in some countries, the police often turn a blind eye as long as the vehicle doesn't obstruct pedestrians. Don't try this in Britain – excuses to traffic wardens will fall on deaf ears.
- If you're thinking of touring Europe on a motorcycle, contact the British Motorcyclists Federation (www.bmf.co.uk) for help and advice.
- Motorcycle and moped rental is easy in countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece and in the south of France. In tourist areas just ask around for nearby rental agencies.
Taxis in Western Europe are metered and rates are generally high. There might also be supplements (depending on the country) for things such as luggage, the time of day, the location at which you boarded and for extra passengers.
Good public transport networks make the use of taxis almost unnecessary, but if you need one in a hurry they can usually be found idling near train stations or outside big hotels. Spain, Greece and Portugal have lower fares, which makes taking a taxi more viable.
Don't underestimate the local knowledge that can be gleaned from taxi drivers. They can often tell you about the liveliest places in town and know all about events happening during your stay.
Trains are an ideal way of getting around: they are comfortable, frequent and generally on time. The Channel Tunnel makes it possible to get from Britain to continental Europe using Eurostar (www.eurostar.com).
These days, Western Europe's fast, modern trains are like much-more-comfortable versions of planes. Dining cars have mostly been replaced by snack bars or trolleys, although most people buy food before boarding.
Every national railway has a website with a vast amount of schedule and fare information.
- Major national railway companies' smartphone apps are excellent for checking schedules. Many can be used to store tickets bought online. Instead of having to print electronic tickets, the conductor can scan your phone's screen.
- DB Bahn (www.bahn.de) provides excellent schedule and fare information in English for trains across Europe.
- Man In Seat Sixty-One (www.seat61.com) has invaluable train descriptions and comprehensive practical details of journeys to the far reaches of the continent.
- If you plan to travel extensively by train, the European Rail Timetable (www.europeantimetable.eu), issued by Thomas Cook for 140 years and now produced independently, gives a condensed listing of train schedules that indicate where extra fees apply or where reservations are necessary. The timetable is updated monthly and is available online and at selected European bookshops.
Normal international tickets are valid for two months and you can make as many stops as you like en route. Used this way, a ticket from Paris to Vienna, for example, can serve as a mini–rail pass, as long as you stay on the route shown on the ticket.
High-speed networks (300km/h or more) continue to expand and have given the airlines major competition on many routes.
Sample travel times:
Major high-speed trains that cross borders include the following:
Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) Links beautiful St Pancras station in London to Brussels and Paris in about two hours; direct services also include London to Marseille via Lyon and Avignon. From late 2017, direct Eurostar services will link London with Amsterdam via Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport.
ICE (www.bahn.de) The fast trains of the German railways span the country and extend to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna and Switzerland.
TGV (www.sncf.com) The legendary fast trains of France reach Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
Thalys (www.thalys.com) Links Paris with Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.
You'll have a splendid holiday in Western Europe if you rely entirely on the convenient, comfortable trains.
The romantic image of the European night train is disappearing with the popularity of budget airlines and budget constraints.
Night trains still in service include the following:
Caledonian Sleeper (www.scotrail.co.uk) Links London overnight with Scotland (as far north as Inverness and Aberdeen).
Thello (www.thello.com) Runs services between France and Italy.
Trenhotel (www.renfe.com) Services include Madrid–Lisbon.
ÖBB Nightjet (www.oebb.at) Routes include Vienna–Rome, Hamburg–Zürich and Munich–Milan.
Slower but still reasonably fast trains that cross borders are often called EuroCity (EC) or InterCity (IC). Reaching speeds of up to 200km/h or more, they are comfortable and frequent. A good example is Austria's RailJet service, which reaches Munich and Zurich.
At weekends and during holidays and summer, it's a good idea to reserve seats on trains (which costs about €3 to €5). Standing at the end of the car for five hours is not what holiday dreams are made of, especially if you're travelling with kids or have reduced mobility. Some discounted tickets bought online may include an assigned seat on a train, but most regular tickets are good for any train on the route.
You can usually reserve ahead of time using a ticket machine at stations or at a ticket window. On many high-speed trains – such as France's TGVs – reservations are mandatory.
Pass-holders should note that reservations are a good idea for the same reasons. Just because your pricey pass lets you hop-on/hop-off at will, there's no guarantee that you'll have a seat.
Think carefully about purchasing a rail pass. Check the national railways' websites and determine what it would cost to do your trip by buying the tickets separately. More often than not, you'll find that you'll spend less than if you buy a Eurail pass.
Shop around as pass prices can vary between different outlets. Once purchased, take care of your pass as it cannot be replaced or refunded if lost or stolen. Passes get reductions on the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel and on certain ferry routes (eg between France and Ireland). In the USA, Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) sells a variety of rail passes, as does its UK equivalent Voyages-sncf.com (http://uk.voyages-sncf.com); note that individual train tickets tend to be more expensive than what you'll pay buying from railways online or in stations.
There are so many different Eurail (www.eurail.com) passes to choose from and such a wide variety of areas and time periods covered that you need to have a good idea of your itinerary before purchasing one. These passes can only be bought by residents of non-European countries and are supposed to be purchased before arriving in Europe but they can be delivered to a European address. There are two options: one for adults, one for people aged under 26. The Adult Pass is valid in both 1st- and 2nd-class coaches; a 1st-class Youth Pass is valid in both 1st- and 2nd-class coaches but the 2nd-class Youth Pass is only for 2nd-class coaches.
Eurail passes are valid for unlimited travel on national railways and some private lines in the Western European countries of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland (including Liechtenstein), plus several more neighbouring ones. They are also valid on some ferries between Italy and Greece. Reductions are given on some other ferry routes and on river/lake steamer services in various countries and on the Eurostar to/from the UK.
The UK is not covered by Eurail – it has its own Britrail pass.
Pass types include the following:
Eurail Global All the European countries (despite the much grander-sounding name) for a set number of consecutive days.
Eurail Saver Two to five people travelling together as a group for the entire trip can save about 15% on various pass types.
Eurail Selectpass Buyers choose which neighbouring countries it covers and for how long. Options are myriad and can offer significant savings over the other passes if, for example, you are only going to three or four countries. Use the Eurail website to calculate these.
Eurail & High-Speed Trains
Eurail likes to promote the 'hop-on/hop-off any train' aspect of their passes. But when it comes to the most desirable high-speed trains this is not always the case. Many require a seat reservation and the catch is that these are not always available to pass holders on all trains.
In addition, some of the high-speed services require a fairly hefty surcharge from pass users. For example, Thalys trains from Brussels to Amsterdam incur a 1st-/2nd-class surcharge of €25/15; German ICE trains from Paris to Munich incur a surcharge of €30/13; Spanish AVE trains from Barcelona to Lyon have a surcharge of €20/18.
On some high-speed routes it may work out cheaper to buy a separate ticket rather than use your pass, especially if you can find a discount fare.
The InterRail (www.interrail.eu) pass is available to European residents of more than six months' standing (passport identification is required), as well as citizens of Russia and Turkey. Terms and conditions vary slightly from country to country, but in the country of origin there is a discount of around 30% to 50% on the normal fares. The pass covers 30 countries.
InterRail passes are generally cheaper than Eurail, but most high-speed trains require that you also buy a seat reservation and pay a supplement of €3 to €40 depending on the route.
InterRail passes are also available for individual countries. Compare these to passes offered by the national railways.
National Rail Passes
If you're intending to travel extensively within one country, check what national rail passes are available as these can sometimes save you a lot of money. In a large country such as Germany where you might be covering long distances, a pass can make sense, whereas in a small country such as the Netherlands it won't.
Rail Pass Rates
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Discount Train Tickets Online
Many railways offer cheap ticket deals through their websites. It's always worth checking online for sales including advance-purchase reductions, one-off promotions and special circular-route tickets.
How you actually receive the discount train tickets you've purchased online varies. Common methods include the following:
- The ticket is sent to the passenger either as an email or as a stored graphic on an app from the train company (increasingly widespread).
- A reservation number is issued with the reservation which you use at a station ticket-vending machine (some UK lines).
- The credit card you used to purchase the tickets can be used to retrieve them at a station ticket-vending machine (in some cases, nonlocal credit-card holders must retrieve their tickets at a ticket window).
- If nonlocal credit cards aren't accepted online and you can't buy the discounted fares at the station (the Netherlands), purchase them online from SNCB Europe (www.b-europe.com) instead.