Should you fly or take the train around Europe? It depends…

Berlin's Hauptbahnhof
Arriving in Berlin's new and very central Hauptbahnhof. Photo: Tom Meyers

A few months ago I had to make a key decision while planning a trip from Paris to Berlin. Plane or train?

I could take a €50 budget flight on easyJet and be there in about two hours. Or I could take the TGV to Germany, and then board an ICE train to Berlin (with a one-hour break in Frankfurt for lunch). The trip would take about ten hours and cost about €120. Which way should I go?

Many budget travelers wouldn’t think twice, of course. The flight was faster and cheaper, right?

I chose the train. First of all, I prefer the experience. I like boarding in the center of Paris, hopping on board with only minutes to spare, and rolling off toward my destination. I like moving down the aisles, grabbing a bite or coffee in the snack car, and watching the world zip by.

Aboard an Ave train from Cordoba to Grenada.

But, romantic details aside, I priced it out and the plane and train journeys weren’t that far apart. But wait, I hear you say, wasn’t that flight ticket only €50? Yes, but when I calculated the “real costs” of the flight, the ticket had become €89.

Now that the difference between the train and plane was only about €30, I could focus on my own travel preferences. I wanted to see the French and German countryside. I wanted to have time to read and daydream. I wanted to disembark in Frankfurt and have lunch. I considered the train a highlight of my trip—and didn’t look forward to the prospect of adding extra airports to my vacation.

Choosing between trains and flights

Of course, everyone’s trip is different. My decision was based on my own travel preferences, and I also happened to find a deal on the train tickets. Ticket prices for both rail and flights fluctuate quite a bit, and they both offer great deals, especially on advance bookings.

Which mode of transportation makes the most sense for your trip? It gets down to time, price and preference. Here are a few things to keep in mind when making the decision:

1. Is your trip really open to both planes and trains?

First, and most obviously: Are you really open to either mode of transportation?

If you need to get between two distant cities and you’re pressed for time, flying probably makes the most sense. (Thanks for reading!) Check out our guide to Europe’s budget airlines and book well in advance. If, however, you need to get between two distant cities and you’re not pressed for time, either method could work for you.

If you’re traveling between two cities that aren’t a great distance apart (for example, Madrid and Barcelona), either mode could work. However, you should still ask yourself the following questions:

Frankfurt central station

2. What’s the real travel time of the trip?

How long will it really take you to fly or ride between the cities?

When calculating the time spent flying, add up the time to get to the airport, time for check-in and security, flight time, time for bag retrieval and customs (if applicable), and time to get into your arrival city.

The flight from Paris to Berlin might only last two hours, but you’ll need to be at the airport an hour early, and it will take about an hour to get to and from both airports. Thus, the flight’s total travel time will be about five hours, minimum. Flight delays can easily make this much longer.

Calculating time for a train trip is a bit easier: How long does it take to get to the station and how far in advance would you like to arrive? Do you need to be extra early to pick up tickets, or do you already have them? In most cases, the train stations will be located in the center of both departure and arrival cities.

My train trip, including an hour for lunch in Frankfurt, was ten hours. I arrived at the Gare de l’Est 30 minutes before departure, and it took me about 30 minutes to get to the station. A friend picked me up at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. Total travel time: about 11 hours.

Ryanair ticket London Madrid

3. What’s the real cost of the flight?

Europe’s budget airlines are notorious for tacking on extra charges to compensate for their bargain-bin rates.

The €50 Paris-Berlin ticket I found on easyJet was just the base charge. However, a bag costs €14 to check in online (which is cheaper than checking the bag at the airport!), and the airline charges a fee to pay by credit card (a whopping €16 in the Paris – Berlin example). Add the Orlybus (bus to Orly: €6.90) and the Airport Express bus from Schonefeld to Berlin (€2.10). And voila! That ticket had become €89.

Let’s take another example: A Ryanair flight between London to Madrid on January 17, 2012.

(Read a full list of Ryanair’s extra charges.)

Even after adding in the extra charges, however, these flights are still cheap: $89 for Paris to Berlin, and  $83 for London to Madrid.

4. What’s the best deal you can find on the train trip?

Finding the best deal on the train trip can be tricky.

If you’re American, you can always consider one of the Eurail passes geared toward American travelers. These sometimes offer savings, although this is usually only the case for travelers who are spending lots of time traveling by train (for example, cramming in as many rail journeys as possible to make the pass “worth it”).

We also know travelers who purchase rail passes because they offer some peace of mind—their tickets are taken care of (although, in truth, passes still require seat reservations on high-speed trains).

We recommend searching directly on the official Web sites for the rail companies, most of which allow advance booking. These include:

A few notes:

Check multiple countries: For international trips, check on sites for both departure and arrival countries for availability or to try to find a deal. For example, for a trip from Paris to Madrid, check ticket prices on both the SNCF (French) site and the Renfe (Spanish) site. The ticket prices may not be the same.

International trip note: Be aware that some railway Web sites don’t offer booking for international trips. For a Paris – Prague trip, for example, you can buy tickets from the SNCF, while the Czech Railways site doesn’t offer online booking for international trips.

Break it up: For international trips, also try breaking up the journey to find a deal. For example, for my Paris to Berlin trip, I found a €49 ticket from SNCF from Paris to Frankfurt, and a €71 ticket from Frankfurt to Berlin on the ICE. Added together, these tickets were less expensive than the direct Paris – Berlin tickets I found on the SNCF or Bahn Web sites.

Book in French: On the SNCF site, stick to French if you can. (Read our tutorial on how to book SNCF tickets in French.) If you switch to English, you’ll be redirected to RailEurope, which is a ticket agency geared to foreign visitors. RailEurope is a helpful site and sells the same train tickets as the SNCF, but they don’t always have the same sale rates.

Book in advance: As Hidden Europe previously explained in their post, you can normally book up to three months in advance for most high-speed trains in Europe. Searching in advance for high-speed rail will increase your chances of finding a sale fare. Ticket prices for slower regional trains do not normally fluctuate.

Make up your own mind

Once you know how long each method will take and how much they’ll really cost, make an informed decision.

In my case, I had to choose between a 5-hour flight experience that I wasn’t looking forward to, and a 11-hour train trip that excited me. The flight was €30 cheaper. I chose the train. Many others would choose the flight. That’s the beauty of travel—you can choose your own adventure.

Your advice?

What else do you consider when deciding between flying and taking a train? Do you have any advice to share with other budget travelers? Tell us in our comments section.

About the author

Tom Meyers
About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]
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Cheapo Comments

23 Responses to “Should you fly or take the train around Europe? It depends…”
  • Curt says:

    I’m with you on this one, Tom. I’d rather spend hours in a train station than five minutes in a major airport. And taking a train from Paris Gare de l’Est to Berlin Hauptbahnhof is like departing from the 19th century and arriving in the 21st.

  • Robert says:

    http://www.thetrainline.com is a good site for discounted train tickets in the UK.

  • NYgal12 says:

    I have mixed feelings depending on how quickly I need or want to get somewhere. But if I have the leisure, I would totally opt for train travel over flying. It’s the novelty and riding past all the scenery really is its own sightseeing experience. But if it’s a holiday and I just want to get there already, I might pay a bit extra to fly – especially if travel time to and from the airport accounted for – I’m still making it there quicker. Train travel is certainly less stressful though, and there aren’t those annoying airport patdowns to deal with! Don’t forget about all the time it takes to get through security these days.

  • Super post, Tom. Point well made. It is worth bearing in mind that a train ticket booked when bookings first open (typically three months prior to travel) will almost always undercut a plane ticket purchased at the same time. You paid €120 for your Paris-Frankfurt-Berlin rail trip, but the same journey – booked now, for example, for travel in mid-March – could cost as little as €39 one way.

    Even when the cheapest lead-in fares are sold out on the fastest premium train services, you can often still secure great deals on slightly slower services, often even just a week or two prior to travel.

    For us, a real plus with rail travel is that most tickets allow stopovers at no extra cost. We have made three journeys from London to Berlin (or vice versa) over the last month, each time taking the opportunity to spend a night somewhere along the way (once in Strasbourg, another time in Brussels and last week in Bonn).

    Nicky and Susanne
    editors of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers (from Thomas Cook Publishing)
    and editors of hidden europe magazine

  • I really like the trains and seeing the country side. It is a nice way of changing from one country to another. Flying has become so much more tedious. Trains have a way of letting you relax and enjoy the passage of time.

  • Jeanie Miller says:

    Hi Tom,
    Enjoyed reading your post and the thoughtful responses. My favorite words in your post were, “Choose your own adventure. ” (like those fun books of your childhood!). Anyway, I agree that trains are the fun, rewarding way to travel in Europe; and we try to utilize the train systems as much as possible when we are in Europe.

  • Carmine I says:

    My wife and I travel to Italy every year but we always travel with two large suitcases.
    Can we use train travel with this sort of luggage?
    Thanks for ur insight
    Love ur letters and information

  • Jon R says:

    Unless it’s a really long distance or too complicated a routing, this American chooses rail for European travel whenever he can. It’s a combination of how relaxing rail travel is and the fine scenery vs. the hurry-up-and-wait one finds in air travel, not to speak of the cramped seating found in the air (I’m tall at 180 cm).

    The most recent exception was flying from Istanbul to Paris in May 2011. The ancient infrastructure of southeastern European railways makes for a slow and grossly inefficient trip by rail. However, with our advance booking and paying a small premium, Air Pegasus allowed us to chose more comfortable seats for that long trip.

  • swarupa says:

    Insightful article but i wonder if trains are practical for an Indian tourist tra travelling all over Europe. How should I plan if i want to tour Paris, Venice, Rome and Switzerland?

  • kelda rinkleib says:

    After a grueling flight into Frankfurt, a woman ahead of me in line to catch a croatian airline had had a hip replacement. So we all had to wait while they took her into a Dr’s office for examination. This was only the beginning. Turned out the Russian president was in the airport, so all others like me were routed to walk with luggage down 3 flights of stairs, out into the rain, and quite a hike to another connection. Russian presidents don’t take trains apparently.

  • .
    Russian leaders on trains….

    Did Lenin not famously take the train from Switzerland via Berlin to Petrograd?
    And in summer 1945, Stalin kept Truman and Churchill waiting in Potsdam for a couple of days (at the start of the Potsdam Peace Conference) because the Russian leader preferred to take the train rather than fly. Truman memorably used the free time to do a bit of sightseeing in Berlin.

  • freda says:

    @ person planning Paris-Venice-Rome-Switzerland, try and rig your plans so that you can take the train for long overnight runs- book a sleeper. Saves you funds for lodging and you arrive rested at your destination. I did this going from Vienna to Venice a few years ago. Booked a bed in a shared compartment, no problems with others in the compartment. Look at site http://www.seat61.com/

  • Kiki says:

    Fully agree with everything you wrote. I too – if I can permit myself the extra time – prefer taking the train, and I never arrive stressed-out at the city of arrival.

    I LOVE travelling by train for umpteen reasons, not lastly the possibility of sightseeing, reading, sitting in the bar wagon and talk to strangers over a drink, going to the loo when I need and not when and if it’s convenient for my seat-neighbour….

    I also can take my suitcase with me without fearing to be marched off for a forgotten nail clipper or – heaven forbid – a container holding more than 40ml of anything for my precious beauty! And I can take my food with me if I don’t feel like eating a train-meal; I can share my wine with another person on the same train. I met one of the nicest people ever on a TGV from Paris to Zurich. We had both a reservation for the same seat and got talking over this… Until the ‘conducteur/controlleur’ remarked that the man’s reservation was for the very same train a month later….. But over all this we kept in touch and are only waiting to be on the same train once more. You never have this kind of experience on a flight.

    Sadly, my flights amount to a much higher number as very often there is a discrepancy far too important on either time or/+ money matters.

  • ecs says:

    just a comment for people booking travel between France and Germany- I highly recommend comparing the fares offered on both the French and German sites. I recently booked a ticket from Paris to Nürnberg and after going through the French site and finding none of the ticket pickup options suited me, I went to the German site since I know they allow printing your own ticket (and my foreign cc works there).

    Much to my surprise, the ticket for the exact same trip was 40 euros cheaper, and for a minimal price difference I could even book a first class ticket. I expected some price differences but that much of a gap was a big surprise to me.

    Another reason I love the train travel is I almost always end up talking to such interesting people on the longer train rides. If I’m with a companion, the rhythm of the journey makes us both philosophical, and if I’m alone there’s usually some friendly seatmate in my car or in the cafe car. It’s definitely my preferred way to get around in Europe!

  • Jan Grant says:

    We are trying to book a train from Paris to Barcelona. Supposedly you have to change trains in Barcelona. Most sites will not let you buy a ticket for the second train. Do you have to buy a ticket onsite? Thanks.

  • Matthew Reames says:

    This is a great article. I really like how it takes into account the real costs of travel, both financial costs as well as time costs. In talking with people, they often seem to omit the hidden time costs of air travel: travel to the airport, arriving two hours early, waiting for luggage, travel from the airport to the city. Though each of those will vary from city to city, a two-hour flight never takes just two hours.

  • Jon R says:

    Jan, here it is March, and I just saw your post. There’s a nightly sleeper from Paris-Austerlitz to Barcelona-Franca, no change in trains. There are also a couple of high speed day trains from Paris-Lyon that, for now, do require a change in trains at Figueres, north of Barcelona, arriving at Barcelona-Sants. And my guess is that these are across-the-platform transfers, so pretty easy. (Spain is building a high speed line between Figueres and Barcelona, so in a year or two this transfer will be eliminated.)

    The French Railways website offers through tickets for both the day and the night trains, whereas the Spanish Railways website seems to offer online purchase only for the night train. Neither website is particularly easy to use, especially in English. However, they do offer bargain fares with substantial advance purchase. A good guide to using those websites can be found at Seat61: http://www.seat61.com/Spain.htm

    Hope this helps!

  • Carol says:

    I need to know about the luggage allowance on the train from Barcelona to Madrid. Both of us will have one 26 inch bag and one carry-on. Is there a limit to luggage?

  • Tom Miller says:

    I would rather choose a train especially if I am not pressed with time. The experience of having to sit and watch beautiful scenes from the outside while enjoying a cup of coffee or tea adds up to my overall travel than having to sit for several hours on plane doing practically nothing. It is far more worth it despite the longer journey and the added cost.

  • swarupa says:

    Thanks for your suggestions everybody. Am planning atrip next summer and shall try to use the train for travelling within Europe. I like to feel the ethos of the country….the people…..so ambling along in a train would suit me….Incidentally i wonder if there any luggage restrictions…Any suggestions?

    • Kiki says:

      @swarupa:
      I travel a lot by train, presently mostly by TGV between France/Switzerland/Germany and there is NO restriction at all – but an address tag on each piece of luggage. It is however quite often an achievement to be able to place your baggage as there is not a lot of storage space and the overall racks are simply minuscule and suitcases hardly ever fit… so be prudent with what you take with you. Happy travelling! Travelling by train is SO rewarding!

      • swarupa says:

        @kiki : thanks. Shall be travelling for at least a month so possibly shall have to factor in laundry costs… I want to ‘experience’ Europe and here i am thinking about luggage! Anyway, from what you say, I shall opt for trains. More rewarding!

  • .
    There are generally no restrictions on how much luggage you may take on a train in Europe. It is limited merely by how much you can reasonably carry.

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