THE IN'S AND OUT'S OF EUROPEAN TRANSPORTATION
When traveling in Europe, there are many different modes of transportation. To a first-time visitor to the EU, it can be confusing and overwhelming to tackle the the mountainous decision of what to use and how to acquire tickets. Unlike other countries where there is clearly a best choice of how to travel, most EU countries have multiple options, each with pros and cons. There are several factors to consider when choosing a route using European transportation:
-How far are you going?
-How long do you want your trip to take?
-What do you want to see along the way?
-What is your budget?
-How much of a priority is comfortability for you?
I am not going to talk much about renting a car and driving in Europe; this way of getting around is pretty self explanatory and something Jonathan and I did not do while we were abroad in Europe. It is the most expensive mode of transportation in Europe and also requires an international driver’s license.
While there are many similarities in Western and Eastern Europe when it comes to catching a train, bus, taxi, or ferry most of my tips are going to pull from my experiences in Eastern Europe where I have mostly traveled.
Travel by Train
This was my favorite way to get around in Europe. It was wonderful for hoping on for an hour ride down to the coast of Italy or traveling for 6 days straight on night trains going from Rome to Istanbul.
One of the biggest question for Americans is, “do I purchase a Eurail Pass?” A Eurail Pass is a one-time ticket that travelers who are outside of the EU can purchase to use on trains instead of having to buy a ticket each time they board. These tickets can be cost effective if you are planning to do a lot of traveling for a few days out of your stay in Europe. When you purchase a Eurail, you have to select how long you want the pass to last and how many days you want to use the pass during that duration. The longer you have the pass and the more days you select, the more expensive the pass is to purchase. For example, a 1 month Eurail Pass where you can only use it 5 days out of the whole month will be cheaper than a 3 month Eurail pass that you can use 15 times. There are also select countries that you can buy the Eurail pass for where it is only good for traveling in those 3-4 countries which is a little bit cheaper option if you know where you will be traveling.
However, when you purchase a Eurail Pass, this does not mean that you can ride any train for free. Many trains (especially fast trains and night trains) require a reservation in order to board. These reservations can be up to 20 euros per ticket. These reservations must be requested in advance so there is time for the reservations to be mailed to you. This was an inconvenience for us while we were traveling because we did not have a place to receive mail but our Airbnb host was gracious enough to let us use his address. When you receive your reservations, make sure to double and triple check the dates on the tickets for errors. Even though you may have submitted the correct dates, the Eurail can make a mistake and you will not be allowed to board with the incorrect date.
Each country in the EU has their own set of train lines. Some of the train lines are apart of the Eurail and some are not. Before going to a country, research which trains are included in your pass so you do not have to pay for a train that is not included. I found the Rail Planner app to be very helpful in showing me what to expect in each country.
The way the Eurail tracks how many days you have used your pass for, is they ask you to fill out a travel log each time you board a train which a conductor then checks. If you fill out the incorrect date on accident, they will ask you to fill out the correct date and you will lose a day of your Eurail. For this reason, IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO FILL EVERYTHING OUT CORRECTLY THE FIRST TIME. If you board a train after 7PM that does not arrive until after 4AM, you only have to count 1 day instead of 2. This is one way to save on a Eurail pass is to purposely find night trains that leave after 7PM.
I found my Eurail pass to be helpful because I was traveling a long way over several days and the cost of a train ticket from Rome to Istanbul outright would have been very pricyAlso while I was traveling through Greece on their train line called “Trainose” they did not charge for reservations so every train we took in Greece was absolutely free.
One thing Jonathan and I did to save money while we traveled was to stay in 1 Airbnb for over a month to get a monthly discount and then to travel for 6 days on night trains to our next destination while exploring each location we stopped in during the day. This is a great way to use night trains to sleep in and not have to pay for a hotel or Airbnb in every place you want to see. Most European train stations are very nice and have places to lock up your luggage for a small fee for the day so you do not have to carry around your luggage while you sightsee. You do need to be prepared to pay each time you use the restroom in these stations however. And some of the restroom attendants may charge you for toilet paper or expect a tip as you leave. While most train stations stay open 24 hours a day, the train stations in Greece close after midnight so do not plan to sleep in those stations overnight because they will kick you out.
While the Eurail can be a wonderful tool, be prepared for some reservation fees and if you are just planning to take the train a couple of times during your trip for 1-2 hours, then Eurail Pass is probably not the best option for you.
Travel by Taxi
Traveling by taxi can be very affordable when trying to travel for a few kilometers but in some eastern European counties precautions need to be taken when riding with an unfamiliar taxi service. When we were in Istanbul, our Airbnb host warned us against catching taxis in town because the drivers were known known to take the “long route” and charge their passengers steep cab rides. The best rule of thumb in this case is to take advice from the locals and only take the taxis if they recommend it.
One app that Jonathan and I took advantage of in Italy was BlaBla Car which is a little bit like Lyft or Uber except it is sharing longer rides between cities with an individual who is already going that direction. You simply post where you need to go and roughly around what time you want to go and drivers will contact you with carpool offers. This can be a cheaper transportation option if you do not want to deal with public transportation for the day.
Travel by Bus
Buses can be a wonderful, cheap, and easy experience in Europe. While there are many train routes, buses can help supplement in routes that are not offered by trains. Buses are also helpful for getting to the train stations. In Italy, they usually leave every hour and tickets can be bought at the bar closest to the bus stop.
One bus company we used for longer bus rides was “FlixBus.” A lot of locals travel on this bus because it is cheap and they also have an app where you can purchase the tickets ahead of time and show the e-ticket upon boarding. One way to save money if you want to stay in a major tourist city such as Rome for some time is to actually live in a small town within an hour of the city to get a local experience and pay small-town prices on accommodation. A €2 bus ride to the city for sightseeing is nothing compared to what you would spend on a hotel in the middle of Rome.
Also consider looking into bus rides when crossing over certain country boarders. For example, when we were trying to get from Turkey to Greece, there were no trains that traveled between those countries. If we had stubbornly stuck exclusively to trains, we would have had to go from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria and then backtracked over to Thessaloniki,, Greece (which would have taken around 37 hours). Instead, we found a bus that would take us directly from Istanbul to Thessaloniki on an overnight ride that only lasted 8 hours.
Since I am a sucker for travel apps, another transportation app I LOVE and helped us to plan out a lot of these routes, is called Rome2Rio. It not only shows different transportation options when you put in your departure and destination, it also gives you an estimated $$$ amount and a link to websites where you can purchase tickets. By using this, you can compare travel options and help your money go further every time.
Travel by Ferry
We took a ferry ride from Patras, Greece to Ancona, Italy which we loved and took about 22 hours one-way. If you are a Eurail pass holder, you get a discounted price on participating ferries and each ride only counts for 1 day in the Eurail travel journal. There are bars, restaurants, decks with beach chairs, an outdoor pool, and coffee shops and hot water showers to enjoy during the ride along with various sleeping arrangements depending on how much you want to spend. If you do choose the cheapest deck chair option, be sure to bring a blanket and pillow and stake out a sleeping area on the floor in the assigned rooms because the best areas will be taken up right away by experienced ferry travelers.