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

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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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