Are you Europe bound this summer? Here are some tips for getting around.
If you are not on a package holiday, but want to visit different parts of Europe, transportation issues can seem daunting. Considering all the different options, it is indeed a little confusing. In this article I shall try to shed some light on the issue.
Europe by Car
For the most part, Europe has a pretty good motorway network and for those who are used to travelling everywhere by car, the easiest option of course may be to rent a car. However - bear in mind that the motorways are often very crowded and congested, especially at peak holiday times (schools are not all out at the same time - each region has their own vacation calendar). You also need a pretty decent map, since the network is sometimes so dense that without a map you might soon be completely lost, especially in the more densely populated areas, in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France and the UK. Also, fuel is very expensive at more than one Euro per liter. If, on top of it you are crossing borders and are not returning the car to the original pick up place - you will face heavy drop-off surcharges. It may be better to take one of the public transport options to get you some place and then rent a car for the duration that you will spend in that area. There are often special weekend or weekly rental rates available. Still - it may be worthwhile to arrange those rentals through a discount agent in the US instead of a local office, since due to their high volume of business they can offer better rates than what is available locally.
Europe by Rail
The second option is the railway. In general, Europe has a very good and extensive rail network, which even covers small towns and villages. For the most part it is a good way to travel and allows you to gain insights into the local cultures while watching the countryside roll by. Puzzling your way through the timetable and connections can be a little tricky though - of course you can let the sales clerk do it for you, if they understand your language. Be aware that services can vary widely and some countries are notorious for delays or strikes, which can get you stranded. Always allow plenty of time for making your connections. Sales clerks sometimes configure really tight schedules with only a few minutes from one train to the next, which is fine if you know where you are going, but can be a recipe for disaster if you don't. Also, charges can be highly confusing with a myriad of pricing schemes and discounts designed to confuse the traveler.
There are rail-cards that are only available to non-residents and must be bought outside the EU, and there are rail passes which are available within the EU to foreigners and EU citizens alike. They are available in both first and second class and are either valid for a specific number of travel days within a month or for the whole month. Which option is the best for you really depends on how much time you will spend traveling and how many countries you are likely to cross. If you are staying within one country you can also get a travel pass that covers trains (sometimes ferries as well) just for that country (Domino tickets). Also, it is worth keeping in mind that railways are still quite a popular mode of transport in Europe and therefore much in demand during peak holiday times. If you have to travel on such dates make your seat reservations early. (On most trains it is not mandatory to reserve a seat and you will have to pay a few bucks extra, but during holiday times it is well worth it.) If you don't mind traveling at night, there are sometimes great discount fares available for night trains. Charges depend on what kind of accommodation class you require - simple sleeper chairs are cheapest, but exceedingly uncomfortable. Compartments with bunkbeds can be shared or private and rates depend on how many bunks there are in the compartment.
Europe by Air
If you want to cover longer distances and don't have all that much time, flying is still the best way to get from A to B. I would not recommend it for the short hops, but if you want to see, say both Germany and Portugal on the same trip, its worth looking into flight options. In recent years Europe has experienced a flight revolution as an ever growing number of 'no-frills' airlines are popping up covering destination in both Eastern and Western Europe. Fares are generally cheap if you book early, but also quite restrictive, e.g. in luggage allowance and flexibility. Service is 'coach class', but they get you there - or rather, they get you somewhere. Be aware that often these airlines use inexpensive small regional airports that are situated in the sticks, but will nevertheless be advertised as the next nearest well-known town. So, instead of going to Frankfurt, you might find yourself in a 3 soul village called Hahn, located about 100km outside of Frankfurt, or you may have booked a flight to Barcelona, only to find yourself in the most popular beach tourist region of northern Spain, the Costa Brava which is served by Girona airport, about 100km north of Barcelona. Usually there are local services that will get you to your final destination, but still, if you are not prepared and did not pay close attention while booking, it might come as a shock.
There are now dozens of 'no frill' airlines. The ones with the biggest networks are Ryanair and Easyjet. These are big enough to have hubs not only in their home countries, but also in some of the countries they serve. Other airlines may also have an extensive network but only have a hub or two in their home countries - so if it is a country you want to visit, you may be in luck. The main rule to remember with these airlines is to make your reservations early - ticket prices go up as demand increases, and get to the check in/ gate early - they don't wait and if you miss your flight, tough luck, you'll have to buy a new ticket - which of course at short notice is vastly more expensive than the one you booked months ahead. During peak holiday times many of these flights are pretty busy, and if you did not book early enough, they may actually be more expensive than regular scheduled flights, so it may still be worth shopping around. The regular airlines are acutely aware of the competition they face from these cheap airlines and have themselves started to become more competitive, and are now offering their own 'no frills' services at very reasonable rates.
Europe by Coach
If you are traveling around just one country, it may at times also be worthwhile considering the coach service. I would not recommend it for long distances, but for the shorter hops within one country, they offer very good value for the money. In the UK they are generally preferable to train services, as trains are frequently delayed and overpriced, while the coach network is pretty efficient and covers even the more out of the way places.
© Kat Morgenstern, 2007, all rights reserved.
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