Public transportation throughout Europe is something else. While seemingly eons ahead of the public transportation in the typical U.S. town, functioning as the most popular form of city-to-city or country-to-county travel, it is also not the only way. Deciding which mode of travel to utilize while abroad in Europe can be confusing and deciphering the public transportation can still be overwhelming at best – especially for the first time. I feel ya, that was me just months before my first solo stint in Europe. So in order to aid other euro-travelers excitedly taking in massive amounts of info in order to figure out the best deals for the most efficient route on the of tightest budgets (which is almost as exhausting as that sentence)… Here is a concise summary of what you actually need to know and tips to guide your planning process.
DISCLAIMER – Initial Assumptions
Even before breaking it down, there are a few things we need to all be on the same page about. I am a poor, 24-year-old female, whose aim was to pinch every single penny while not sacrificing significant amounts of time or experience. While taking the necessary precautions to ensure safety, I did not shy away from situations that might seem awkward or uncomfortable at first, because I truly believe the best experiences come from straying outside your comfort zone. After my initial solo month in Germany, I spent three weeks traveling through three different countries with my boyfriend (who flew out to meet me), spending 1-3 nights in each location. So, my advice will reflect the style and speed of travel we wanted with goals I held while abroad, which prioritized: money-saving first, time-saving second, and comfort third.
BREAKING IT DOWN – Methods of transport
When travelling across Europe, you typically have the option to choose between three different transportation options: rail, rideshare, or rental.
1. Rail (Public Transportation)
Public transportation includes all the buses, trams, undergrounds, subways, and railways that create a massive web of transportation linking the villages, towns, cities, and countries of Europe. In general, it is reliable, efficient, and makes getting anywhere effortless with the right tools (maps, apps, analytical thinking, and helpful locals). Conquering the public transportation instills a special sense of pride that not much else can. How and when to use the public transportation will depend largely on the length of travel: long distance or local
Long-distance trips via public transportation will almost always be by train. Buses are sometimes an alternative option – but if traveling a short enough distance to make the trip not last a miserably long time, you can generally find a train for a comparable price; or if traveling far enough to make the price cut significant, the time it takes may not be worth the money saved. Personally, I never took a long-distance bus during my time in Europe.
Long-distance trains may run within-country (such as from Venice-Rome) or across country borders (such as from Rome-Paris). Long-distance trains offer high-speed, overnight, scenic, first-class, and second-class tickets, and sometimes require specific seat reservations. Reservations are always included in the price of the ticket when purchased as a single point-to-point ride, but are an additional cost for existing pass-holders and may even require advance booking (often nullifying the convenience and economical factors of the pass). Prices for long distance trains depend not only on the just-mentioned amenities, (which may or may not be optional depending on the route), but also the time of day you choose to travel and how far in advance the ticket is purchased. Remember these two factors, as they will be looked at more in-depth in the last section of this post regarding money-saving and smooth-sailing tips.
(scenic rail route from Innsbruck to Venice)
Rail Passes. The most common go-to for young people travelling to several different locations across Europe is to purchase a rail pass. Rail passes are available for a variety of coverage options:
- Regional (two neighboring counties)
- Select (four neighboring countries)
- Global (all 28 participating European countries)
- Continuous (unlimited travel for a set amount of days)
- Flexible (set amount of travel days within a period of time) validity
**Despite their popularity, you do not need a rail pass to use the long-distance public transportation. In fact, if you are 26 or older, don’t qualify for other discounts, and/or have an average-to-above-level ability for planning ahead I would recommend against it.
Local public transportation is completely separate from the long-distance trains. Rail passes do not cover local transit. Local transit includes each individual city’s system of buses, trams or metro (M), subways (S-Bahn), and undergrounds (U-Bahn). Once you figure out how to generally utilize the local transit, you will be golden anywhere you go. Simply figure out:
1. Which stop you need to get to
2. Which routes pass through where are and where you need to go
3. Which direction you need to take the chosen line
4. What it’s end-point is
So to get on the correct transit vehicle, you look for the desired line (M8) in the correct direction based on the last stop on the line (Alexanderplatz). Subways are generally ideal for faster, more direct cross-city travel, while metros and buses have more stops for central exploration. I highly recommend obtaining a free transit map upon arrival in each of your destinations (if available, not much is free in Europe) or simply take a picture of one at the nearest stop (I have yet to come across a route stop without a map posted).
(tram line in Berlin, Germany) (escalator up from the subway in Prague, Czech Republic)
Tickets for local transit cover ALL forms of transportation, and every time you ride the local transit you need a valid (further discussed in the tips sections) ticket or you run the risk of paying a high fee if caught without one. Though, realistically, some cities and/or countries rarely check tickets, it is not worth the risk and is not exactly lawful (or recommended) to travel without one. Tickets can be purchased via self-service kiosks at most route stops, from customer service windows at main stations, or tobacco shops pretty literally anywhere. Tickets options vary from one city to the next, but most offer at a minimum:
- Single trip
- Single ring or Multiple ring options (in larger cities)
- 48-hour and/or three-day
- Longer duration passes (such as 1 month)
Ridesharing is where a person driving from point A to point B with extra seats available in their vehicle, offers to take additional passengers wishing to travel in the same direction in exchange for gas money. Ridesharing is typically used in place of rail travel for medium-to-long distance trips, again, either in-country (Berlin-Munich) or across borders (Prague-Vienna).
By far the most widely (and the only one I personally) used rideshare website/app in Europe is BlaBlaCar. BlaBlaCar is a forum where users create profiles to be either a passenger, driver, or both, and can post and search for rides. It is very user-friendly and prices are regulated according to gas usage/estimated cost for each trip so drivers cannot overcharge. Simply:
- Create a profile (you can also search rides without one, but it is required for booking)
- Enter your desired starting and destination points in the engine
- Scroll down to the day you want to go to check available rides and costs
I have to admit, I did not personally do a ton of looking into the specifics of car rental during my most recent euro trip. For my trip, it made the least amount of sense. The length of time we would have needed to rent for, the much-higher-than-the-states cost of gas (petrol), and our route/itinerary didn’t create the ideal situation for driving ourselves. However, six years ago, when my whole family vacationed in Croatia for ten days and travelled from top to bottom with several stops in between, we rented a car. Likewise, last year when my roommate and his buddy (both over 26) spent ten days traveling Europe, visiting a new city nearly every day, they also opted to rent a car. There are some obvious stipulations to consider when renting a car such as age and driving confidence (those European drivers man, I tell ya!), but even more trip-specific factors which are covered briefly in the next section.
PROS & CONS – How to choose what to use and when to use it
Each mode of transportation comes with it’s own pros and cons in different situations, and each provides a unique travel experience when getting from point A to point B that may prove more or less attractive depending upon your personal preferences.
With rare exception, from the time you arrive in your intended location until the time you depart for the next one, you will either walk or you will use the local transit to get around. The ONLY exception might be if you have, in fact, rented a car. However, even then, driving in smaller villages is generally unnecessary, and in larger cities can be frustrating, dangerous, and counter-productive trying to avoid traffic, find parking, and navigate your way. So when discussing the pros and cons of using rail, I will be referring to LONG-DISTANCE travel only in order to accurately compare to the other two methods of traversing Europe.
- Relative comfort for long journeys + possible amenities including bathrooms, food sale, charging outlets
- No pressure for small talk with fellow passengers
- Reliable and (for the most part) timely departure
- Generally (though not always) the most expensive option – in some cases, like, quadruple the amount of rideshare
- If you have a pass and there is no reservation or additional fees – or its cost is less than that of ridesharing.
- You are travelling in a country whose rail offers a select number of extremely discounted seats if purchased in advance (i.e. Italy via https://www.italiarail.com/ or competing http://www.trenitalia.com/) and you are willing to forgo flexibility and wake up at the crack of dawn, to save significant money by booking a specific seat days-weeks in advance.
- The route is a short and popular distance – meaning there are likely no reservations, regular trains run frequently, and no special costs incur because the trip is standard and inexpensive, i.e. Padova-Venice or Viareggio-Cinque Terre.
- You value comfort and efficiency above all else.
- Save significant amounts of money
- Meet interesting and generally helpful new people and possibly practice your language skill
- May be faster than a train depending on the route/driver
- Potential to leave you stranded if the driver is unreliable
- Potentially unpleasant drivers or fellow passengers
- May take longer than a train depending on the route/driver
When to use rideshare:
- You are 26 or over and/or want to cover a lot of ground, travel often, and be abroad for long duration – making a rail pass less feasible
- You enjoy meeting new people!
- You have a flexible schedule to work with days/times rides are available
- You value saving money above all else
- Ultimate flexibility of departure times and routes taken
- Zero awkward interaction with strangers (unless asking for directions or participating as a driver in rideshare)
- Ability to cart around more stuff with you while abroad
- Rental fees + petrol costs may quickly add up
- Solely responsible for getting oneself from point A to point B in a foreign country
- Traffic, parking, maps, crazy drivers, etc.
When to rent:
- You are traveling in a larger group, making rideshares harder to find, individual train tickets more expensive (though discounts exists for groups if applicable), and gas cheaper to split.
- You don’t want to spend the money on rail the entire trip, but also don’t want the uncertainty of ridesharing, and feel confident in your ability to maneuver around.
- You value independence above all else.
DON’T GET SCREWED OVER – Tips for a successful and money-saving experience
I can only personally give accurate tips for rail and rideshare, since those are the are the two methods of transportation I researched and utilized most recently. Also, as a general suggestion, I recommend familiarizing yourself with your route ahead of time. I was hesitant at first about booking anything until arriving in-country because I simply didn’t want to forgo flexibility. However, you can plan a tentative itinerary including where you will go, how long you will stay in each place, and which day you want to travel to the next, and still have the freedom to spend each day as you choose based on what you discover when you get there – and it will save you loads of money. As an example, our transportation looked like this:
Rideshare from*: Berlin-Munich, Munich-Prague, Prague-Vienna, Vienna-Salzburg, Salzburg-Innsbruck
Pre-booked long-trip rail from**: Innsbruck-Venice (unplanned exception, thanks bad BlaBlaCar driver), Venice-Florence, Florence-Rome, Rome-Viareggio, Viareggio-Milan
On-the-spot shorter rail from: Viareggio-Cinque Terre, Viareggio-Pisa
*Booked between one week in advance up until the day before
**Booked two-three weeks prior online
I chose to rideshare through Germany, Czech, and Austria because the train tickets were, as a general rule, three times as expensive as the cost to drive and not any faster, yet rental and petrol prices were even more expensive when taken on between just us two. We railed through Italy because, as a country, they have a great system that offers extremely discounted tickets for undesirable (early) trains in an effort to de-crowd popular routes midday and get passengers onto the less popular trips that would otherwise run empty regardless. The shorter trips were the same price regardless of advance purchase or time of day. Because my boyfriend is 26, and we decided in advance that we would rideshare a significant portion of our travels, we did not purchase a rail pass. And after struggling with the decision for days, I am SO glad we did not. Even after a costly no-show driver, a broken tram at 5 a.m. that left us running to catch our train with all our stuff, and some situations only good for after-the-fact-stories, we ended up saving several hundred dollar each simply by making minor commitments and taking the time to plan ahead.
- If purchasing a rail pass (only available to non-EU citizens), give yourself plenty of time. It must be purchased from and shipped to a location (like the U.S.) outside of Europe. If you wait until the last minute, you may not get it in time or could pay a large sum to rush order.
- If you happen to have EU citizenship, buy an interrail pass
- In each destination, choose the local transit ticket that makes the most sense, for example:
- In Salzburg, Fugen, Florence and Viareggio we never even used the local transit because everything was in walking distance
- In Venice and Rome we only bought enough single trip tickets to get us from our accommodation to the city center and back each day, as it was cheaper than a several day pass and once in the major areas we could walk everywhere
- In Munich, Prague, and Vienna we bought 48 hour passes since in order to see the city properly, we needed to cover a lot of ground and often hopped off and on local transit throughout each day
- Always validate your ticket. This goes for all modes of public transportation – local and long. Validation boxes will either be at the entrance/platform to a railway/subway/underground or directly on the bus/metro. If you are using a single trip ticket, you must validate your ticket immediately at the very first stage of your trip and it will be good until you either leave the line you are on, leave the subway/underground, or reach your destination (according to the ticket type). If you are using a time-limit ticket, you must validate your ticket immediately the first time you use it – and then it is valid (and does not need to be stamped again) until the time period is over during which you may ride as you please as long as you carry it with you. If your ticket is not validated, you will still be subject to fees if caught even though you have a ticket.
- Create and boost your profile before leaving the states. Add pictures and info to become more likely to be accepted.
- Only use drivers with positive reviews and pictures. This is not only for safety, but also so you do not get screwed over. We made the desperate mistake once of booking with a new driver with no picture and no reviews, and they ended up being a no-show, no-call, forcing us to take an unplanned, expensive train ride to our next location.
- Make sure there is a very specific agreed-upon meeting place.
- Bring exact cash and pay the driver upon arrival at your destination
- For longer journeys, feel free to bring snacks – but always ask before eating the car and its nice to bring enough to share!
WRAPPING IT ALL UP – final thoughts
I write this post not as a final word but in the hopes that it will prove helpful for other wanderlust adventurers like myself. I highly encourage readers to comment with their own experiences, insight, disagreement, or questions.