Alternative Transportation: European Car Trains
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.