Planes, Trains & Automobiles

In our first four months in Europe, we’ve visited four countries and stayed in twelve different towns or cities. The next two months will see us staying in another four locations in two countries. As part of the planning process, we have to decide how we are going to move between these locations. Do we choose planes, trains or automobiles? So far, we’ve used all three, but each of them have their strengths and weaknesses.

Planes

Air travel tends to offer the fastest means of getting from one place to another. At least, the actual flight time is the shortest. However, once we factor in the requirement to check-in about two hours prior to departure, along with the delay encountered waiting for luggage at the destination, the actual travel time increases. Add to that the potential for flight delays and missed connections and what looked like a short journey can end up taking much longer.

We encountered that when we flew from Porto to Toulouse. Our short flight from Porto to Lisbon was delayed which meant that we missed our connecting flight from Lisbon to Toulouse. We had a lengthy delay in Lisbon waiting for the next flight. By the time that we reached Toulouse, we could have driven the distance in the same time.

The aspect of air-travel that we least like involves luggage. When traveling for extended periods, it can be a challenge to keep our checked luggage within the airline weight limits. We have placed some excess luggage in storage in Porto and we each travel with one checked bag and one carry-on, but we’ve even had airlines weigh the carry-on luggage and instruct us to check them because they are overweight. It can be a real nuisance, so we try to avoid air-travel wherever possible.

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Arriving in Portugal with excess baggage

But it is a case of weighing up the pros and cons. As the screenshot below shows, a flight from Barcelona to Lisbon costs as little as €40 and takes two hours. By comparison, a direct bus costs more at €72 and takes 18.5 hours. If they were the only options, we’d put up with the nuisance of air travel to avoid an 18 hour bus ride. However, despite not showing up on the Go Euro search (below), there is a train option that involves a 2 hour ride between Barcelona and Madrid, followed by an overnight sleeper train from Madrid to Lisbon

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When I need to research or book air travel, my usual resource is Travelocity. The website does a good job of presenting airline and flight options. Booking is easy and I’ve found that their after-sales support is excellent.

 

Trains

Trains have become one of our favourite options for travel within Europe. They are comfortable, we can get up and move around at will and we can use our electronic devices throughout the journey. There is no advance check-in required – just be on the platform two minutes before the scheduled departure. When we reach our destination, we take our luggage off the train and wheel it straight out of the station. And there is no weight restriction for luggage. Trains certainly offer more convenience and less hassle than trains. But they are not perfect.

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On the TGV train from Toulouse to Paris

Our least favourite part of train travel is boarding with luggage. Luggage storage areas are quite small, so it can sometimes be a struggle to get the luggage stowed away. But, once it is stowed, we can sit back and enjoy the journey.

Trains seem to be fairly efficient and are generally on time. But they are not immune to cancellations or delays. We discovered this first-hand when travelling between Berlin and Lyon. The journey required us to change trains in Frankfurt but, when we arrived in Frankfurt, our connecting train was not listed on the departures screen. We discovered that there had been an accident on the track that caused our train to be re-routed past Frankfurt. So, we were left without a connecting train. The rail company offered us an alternate route but that would have entailed changing trains several times and also changing stations in Paris. It was an unrealistic option. The simplest option would have been to overnight in Frankfurt and get the connecting train to Lyon the following day. However, we were on our way to a house-sit and didn’t have a day to spare. To stay on schedule, we had to rent a car from Frankfurt at considerable expense.

We will be using trains again in the coming weeks, but we will endeavour to reduce the need for changing trains on the same day. For example, if we decide to travel by train from Barcelona to Lisbon, we will do the Barcelona-Madrid leg on one day and spend a couple of nights in Madrid before taking the Madrid-Lisbon leg.

I’ve found an excellent train information website that is very useful when I am researching train options. The Seat 61 website is a great resource for finding out what trains run between various cities. Once I know what trains and route I want to book, I use either GoEuro or Trainline to make the reservations.

 

Automobiles

Rental cars are probably the most convenient option. They are ready when you are – so there are no scheduled departure times to meet. We can set off when it best suits us. They also provide a true door-to-door experience. We can load our luggage into the car at one location and unload it at our next destination. No worries about luggage size or weight (provided we can fit everything inside the car). However, for our group of three adults with three large suitcases and three ‘carry-on bags’, we need a decent sized station wagon or a minivan. And that means that the car rental option is not going to be cheap.

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An Opel Zafira could fit three suitcases in the rear. The carry-on bags go on one of the rear seats

And that brings us to the big downside of rental cars – their price. We rented an Opel Zafira for about three weeks, immediately followed by a Seat Leon station wagon for one month. Fortunately for our budget, the cost of the rental cars was offset by the fact that we were house-sitting during much of these periods, so we didn’t have to pay rent. And we only rented cars in the first place because the house-sits were in rural France and a car was a necessity.

We have loved the convenience of having the rental cars, but we can’t justify the cost on an ongoing basis. The Seat Leon will be returned to the rental company soon, after which we’ll be back to using trains to get to destinations, and public transportation within the cities that we visit.

When researching or booking rental cars, I use the rentalcars.com website. I’ve used the site for years and find that they are able to give me competitive rates by comparing quotes from various rental companies.

 

Buses

Buses provide another transportation option but, so far, we have avoided them. Whilst modern buses have onboard toilets and ample luggage storage, they tend to take a long time to reach their destination. Friends have recommended bus-travel but it hasn’t appealed to us.

 

For the next two months, it looks like the train will be our primary means of getting around Europe.

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