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Alternative Transportation: European Car Trains

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A car train at Verona station
A car train at Verona station. Photo © hidden europe.

There are some occasions on trips through Europe when you just know that a car is essential, but with European fuel prices through the roof, and automobile rental companies sometimes levying draconian one-way drop charges (especially for international journeys), many folks are naturally wary about opting for a vehicle. European car trains can, however, play a key role in your itinerary.

Europe’s car train network

Car trains don’t usually feature in the regular train schedules, and are often not so easy to find out about. Europe’s largest operator is DB Autozug, a division of Deutsche Bahn, which this year celebrates 80 years of operations. Apart from a network of routes within Germany, DB Autozug operates services from seven bases in Germany to ten destinations in France, Austria and Italy.

Other car train operators to bear in mind are:

  • ÖBB (Austrian Railways): Six routes within Austria plus international services to Germany and Italy
  • Trenitalia: Six routes within Italy
  • SNCF Auto-Train: Some two dozen routes within France including some very useful cross-country links, such as from France’s Atlantic coast to the Riviera or Brittany to Alsace
  • Optima Tours run the Optima Express which makes a big leap across the Balkans from Austria to Turkey.

In addition, there are useful domestic services in Croatia and Finland, plus of course a large number of short-hop car trains that transport vehicles and their passengers through Alpine tunnels, under the English Channel or to offshore islands linked by rail causeways to the mainland (as in the case of the German holiday island of Sylt).

Car train fares

Car train services can be pricey, but at the top end they offer a very high level of comfort with overnight journeys in modern sleeping cars, along with a good on-board restaurant where you can enjoy dinner before retiring for the night. It is possible to board a train in northern Germany mid-afternoon and wake up next morning on the shores of the Mediterranean, having traveled a thousand miles but without having spent a cent on fuel.

Some operators offer discount options for travelers prepared to book very early or last minute. Early bookers with ÖBB, for example, can pick up a one way ticket for car and driver from Vienna to Hamburg from just €133, a journey which by road would take about 11 hours and cost (depending on vehicle size) upwards of €80 in fuel.

National and international services: DB Autozug

DB Autozug has a great one-way special for inner-German route, offering fares of €99, which covers car transport and couchette accommodation for the driver. For international journeys, there is a €149 fare (similarly for vehicle plus driver with couchette).

Regular fares for international journeys for those not wanting to book well in advance start at €179 for car with driver or €319 including car transport plus couchettes for up to five passengers. Not cheap, we know, but really an amazing way to start or end a European car tour. And, once your car rental company has told you that their one-way drop charge from Germany to the Med is over €400, the idea of using a car train to return to your point of origin begins to look like a decidedly attractive proposition.

Car train services are also a credible option for British travelers looking for southern sunshine who want to avoid the long grind south on continental motorways.  The DB Autozug terminal at Düsseldorf is less than a three-hour drive from Channel ports.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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35 thoughts on “Alternative Transportation: European Car Trains”

  1. Melanie (above)

    The car train services within France are run by SNCF. During the summer months, the Narbonne to Paris service is daily except Sundays. It is an overnight service – for the car, that is, but you can yourself use a day train of course. You are free to choose whatever train suits, and you then pick up the car in Paris next day. If you do want to go overnight yourself, there is (at least most nights in the summer), a useful direct overnight train from Narbonne just after 10 pm, getting into Paris about 7.30 next morning. And of course plenty of direct daytime TGVs, which speed from Narbonne to Paris in just 4hrs 30mins.

    The car train services costs from €119 one way. Find out more at autotrain.voyages-sncf.com.
    Hope that helps.

    Nicky and Susanne
    editors / hidden europe magazine
    http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk

    Reply
  2. Hi, just wondering if anyone knows if there are still trains which carry cars from Narbonne, France to Paris, France. If there are how do I book it? I’ve been serching for ages and all the companies keep referring me to other companies saying they cant book it & my trip is now only 2 months away! HELP!!!

    Reply
  3. .
    Hi Zuzana (above)
    Your best bet is to take the car-train from Vienna to Feldkirch, which is in the Vorarlberg region – and just an easy 90 minutes drive from Zurich. This car train service runs twice daily from Wien Westbahnhof, usually at 07.48 and 22.52.
    Hope this helps.
    Susanne and Nicky
    editors
    hidden europe magazine
    http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk

    Reply

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