Alternative Transportation: European Car Trains

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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Cheapo Comments

32 Responses to “Alternative Transportation: European Car Trains”
  • lyla says:

    We just took the car train from Vienna to Florence. It was a fantastic and low stress way to go. It was great to be able to pack everything in our own car and wake up fresh and ready to begin our vacation. We were 2 adults a baby and a toddler and had a 4 bed couchette. A few notes… on this train there was no dining car so bring your own food and drinks, but they did deliver a roll and coffee for breakfast. One other thing to consider is that on the way home the train did not leave til 9pm, so it was a long day of waiting around at the end of a trip when we were antsy to get home. Next time I think we do the car train there and drive home.

  • Thanks, Lyla. Really nice of you to report back like that. Yes, you are right that the car train services between Italy and Austria (and vice versa) have no dining car. They are a bit of an exception in that respect. Another we know of is the Vienna-Hamburg car-train which also has no dining car. But, if we recall correctly, the attendants in the sleeping cars and couchette carriages do sell coffee, tea, cold drinks and sandwiches. But that’s not the same as a decent dining car. And internal routes within Germany often have no catering in the evening, mainly we guess because of their late departure times (and us folk in Germany like to go to bed early). But those inner-German services do include breakfast in the fare.

  • Chris says:

    Quite a useful tip. Odd that they do not show the times for auto-trains in the regular schedules. Anyway, I looked at the German auto-trains and just got a cheap fare for car and family of four from Carinthia to Germany for €276. Yep, quite a lot of money but we’d have spent €130 on gas, and the same again on an overnight hotel. Nice article. Keep ‘em coming Eurocheapo. Especially transportation features because this sort of stuff does does not get a mention in regular guidebooks and travel sites.
    Chris Hughes

  • Viliam says:

    Thank you for sharing this info. There is also an overnight car train operated by Slovak railways that one can take from Prague (Czech Republic) to Poprad (High Taras region in Slovakia) and/or vice versa. I have taken this numerous times as it is a good value and comfortable way to avoid tiring parts of slow roads between these two destinations. There is one dedicated sleeping train car for vehicle transporting passengers that boards (together with vehicles that are loaded to the connetcted “car-go” train car.) outside of main train station.

    http://www.slovakrail.sk/sk/autovlak-poprad-tatry—praha

  • gytte taylor says:

    Please I nead to send my car from Copenhagen Denmark to Bremerhafen Germany. is that possible

  • Afraid the only way to do this, Gytte (above), is by driving the car yourself. It is very easy drive. Just a shade over 300 miles. Set off early one morning, drop the car off in Bremerhaven, hop on a train and you could be back in Copenhagen the same evening.

  • stardust melody says:

    I need to get a car from Bremen to Vienna is there a service that will put it on the train for you?

  • … For Stardust Melody (above)
    There’s not a service that will put your car on the train for you. You’ll need to do that yourself. Being based as you are in Bremen, your best option would be the nightly train from Hamburg (leaving about 8 pm) to Vienna. This train transports cars, with the car freight charge being 104 euros. The fare for yourself depends very much how long in advance you book. It can be as little as 29 euros if you book well in advance. But could be 150 euros of more if you book just prior to travel. The train is run by Austrian Railways.

  • frank says:

    How about Paris and Rome ???

  • Frank (above)
    Paris has direct car-train services to 12 destinations in France.
    Rome has direct car-train services to 6 destinations in Italy (plus a regular direct service to Vienna).
    We hope this answers your query.
    Nicky & Susanne
    editors
    hidden europe magazine

  • Daniel says:

    Hi, we need to move a car with broken engine from Geneva to Vienna, would it be possible on train?

  • .
    Sadly, you are out of luck Daniel. There is no direct car train on the Geneva to Vienna route. Worth just noting, perhaps, that car-train operators are very reluctant to handle cars that cannot be driven. The issue is that the loading ramp is quite steep and cars cannot therefore be towed onto the train. There are one or two exceptions but the standard practice is that cars must have a working engine to allow them to be driven on board.

  • Daniel says:

    That is what I actually expected, but wanted to be sure :) Thanks for the reply anyway!

  • Natasa Loncarevic says:

    Hi!
    I have several questions, if you can help me because i couldn’t find the answers on line.
    Because route Villach Croatia – Hamburg is good for me, but this is autotrain, is it possible to book a ticket without car:)thanx

  • .
    Natasha (above)
    We are a bit confused by your query. Villach is not in Croatia, but in Austria. As to the Villach to Hamburg car train, it runs weekly and it is very slow (about 19 hours from check-in at 15.40 until you disembark in Hamburg mid-morning the following day. It does NOT take passengers without cars.

    But there are alternatives. The daily Vienna to Hamburg overnight car train (so daily rather than merely weekly) does take passengers without car, and has good connections in Vienna from Villach.

    And every day there is also a direct daytime train to Hamburg from Villach (operated by Austrian Railways). This train, called the Vindabona, runs via Vienna and Prague. This daily direct train is not the fastest, and there are slightly faster daytime connections to Hamburg from Villach if you are prepared to change once along the way, usually at Augsburg or Munich. Using these latter routes, the travel time comes down to about 11 hours. One way fares, booked when tickets first go on sale (that’s three months in advance) are €39 second class and €59 first class.

  • Tanya says:

    Is there direct train from Austria to Turkey?what is the costs if we are 2 people and a car? Many thanks :)

  • .
    Tanya (above)
    Yes, a car train presently runs twice weekly from Villach (Austria) to Edirne (Turkey). From a six week period in late June and throughout July there is a third weekly departure. In autumn, service frequency reduces to just one train per week.

    This service is safe, reliable and comfortable. Fares start at €115 per person one-way if booked well in advance. Booking now for travel in the next few weeks, and you’d be looking at the full fare which is €819 for two people in a private two berth compartment and a car (up to 150cm in height). You can trim €288 off that price by opting to share a larger six bed compartment with other travellers. There is an on-board restaurant car.

    This wonderfully useful car train is run by Optima Tours GmbH.
    Hope this helps.
    Nicky and Susanne

    • D.beck says:

      hi,

      do you know if this service “Austria to Turkey” still running, i mean in jan? if yes, can you please tell me name of the website where i can book a ticket?

      many thanks

      regards
      D.beck

  • Zoe says:

    Does any one knows if there is a car train from France to Belgrade? Best alternative advice is also appreciated ,

  • Dejan says:

    Hi everybody…I want to load a car (van) in Graz ,Villach or Klagenfurt and go to Zurich or somewhere near Swiss border..Is there any links from these cities?
    Thank you….Dejan

  • .
    For Dejan (above)

    Easy! Yes, there an ÖBB car-train from Villach to Feldkirch, which is in western Austria, just 9km from the Swiss border. Sounds ideal for your purposes. It saves the long drive through the Tirol.

    Hope this helps.
    Nicky and Susanne

  • Florida says:

    Hi all,

    Im just wondering what are the auto train options for a trip from Calais( France ) to Bari (Italy).
    Do you always get a cabin to sleep in these type of trains? I understand that Calais auto-train connections were all cancelled but would it be possible to drive to Paris and then by auto-train from Paris to Bari? If you know what are the prices roughly? Planning to travel in March this year.
    Thanks a lot

  • .
    There is no direct car train from Paris to Bari. As you mention Calais, I presume you are coming by ferry from England. If that is indeed the case, your best bet would be to take the ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend (thrice daily with TransEuropa Ferries) then drive to Düsseldorf, whence there are car trains to northern Italy. I note you plan to travel in March, and they are not so frequent at that time of year – just twice weekly. Just google “DB Autozug” to get to the booking site with schedules and fares.

  • Zdenda says:

    Hi all. I need to get by cartrain from vienna to italy..(Genova) is there some solution…? if there is no car train to genova, In which stations in Italy train stops…Thank You. Please do you know some websites where i can find when the trains goes, and where I find prices?

  • Anna says:

    Hi all. I need to get from Vienna to Monaco by cartrain. Thanks in advance .
    A.

  • Chris and Neen says:

    Can anyone tell me what the Optima Tours train from Edirne to Villach is like. Can you get sleeper compartments? What is the restaurant car like.
    Any information much appreciated.

  • Tom says:

    I am driving one way shortly from Ireland to Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria. In order to shorten the amount of time driving what trains are available. I can travel by ferry either from UK or from Ireland to Cherbourg.

    I have been looking at the train to Turkey but then I have a long journey back to northern Bulgaria. I presume that this train does not do a drop off anyplace along the journey through Bulgaria.

  • Joe says:

    Hello,

    My girlfriend and I will be traveling from the US to Frankfurt Germany in July to visit my son and his wife. While we are there, my girlfriend and I plan to rent a car from Frankfurt to drive down to St Moritz, Switzerland to ride the Glacier Express to Zermatt, Switzerland. From Zermatt, we are planning to continue on down to Geneva and then Italy and return to the Franfurt, Germany area via Austria with a rental car.

    My original plan…Rent a car from Franfurt and drop off at St Moritz. Pickup a new rental car from Zermatt and continue on our vacation. After looking at the one-way drop off rates and seeing it will cost me more to have a rental car for 3 days one-way from Frankfurt to St Moritz than it would cost for a rental car for 16 days from Frankfurt and returned to Frankfurt, I’m trying to see if there is a better way (cheaper) to do our trip. Not interested in traveling our entire trip via train.

    My question…Are there any automobile transport services from St Moritz to Zermatt that would allow me to have the rental car transported to meet us at the other end of the Glacier Express train ride in Zermatt so we can continue on our vacation with the same rental car without having to pay the outrageous one-way rental prices? Or without having to ride the 7+ hour train ride back to St Moritz to retreive the car and continue on down to Geneva? If there are no auto transport services available, is there a bus that runs from Zermatt to St Moritz that doesn’t take all day to get there? Are there any websites to check on pricing?

    Thank you in advance.

  • Sunbul Othman says:

    Hello,

    We are planning to Drive from England to France via furry then from there we would like to get to Hamburg.

    It is a long drive. So are any car trains from France, Belgium or Holland to Hamburg?

    Do car trains accommodate Estate car with bike trailer? family of 5.

    Can you suggest the website that I need to book the ticket please?

    Thanks for your assistance.

  • Captain Jens says:

    Why get the ferry from England to France when you want to go to Hamburg? Why not get the DFDS ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark. It travels overnight and arrives in Esbjerg about midday. It is then an easy three hour drive to Hamburg. Other routes you might consider are P&O from Hull to Rotterdam / Europort and DFDS from Newcastle to Amsterdam / Ijmuiden. Rotterdam and Europort are both rather further from Hamburg than Esbjerg – but still a whole lot closer than French ports.

    All of these ferry routes mentioned here will take your car with bike trailer – no probs. If you take Harwich-Esbjerg and can afford to upgrade to their Commodore Deluxe cabins, you’ll in for a real treat. For a family of five it’s worth booking two cabins.

  • Zuzana says:

    Hi,

    I need to get from Vienna to Geneva or Zurich (or somewhere else in Switzerland) by cartrain. Is there any links from Vienna to some Switzerland city?
    Thanks a lot.

  • .
    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

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