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Rail or Drive Southern Germany & Western Austria

After a river cruise disembarking at Basel we want to travel for 10 days in southern Germany and Western Austria next June. Better to rent a car or go by rail? Currently departing via air at Salzburg. We love small quiet towns; any suggestions?

Posted by
18373 posts

I have never found any place in Bavaria/Austria, no matter how small/quiet that I could not get to by bus, if not by rail. A car might be a little faster, but will be a be a lot more expensive.

If you are willing to use regional trains, there is the Bayern-Ticket, good for unlimited use of regional trains in Bavaria for a day (from midnight weekends and 9 AM workdays, until 3 am the next day). It's €28 for up to five people and also includes regional buses, such as RVO in Oberbayern, as well as all conveyances in metro areas such as Muenchen or Nuernberg. It is also valid for the train into Salzburg Hbf.

In Baden-Wuerttemberg there is the Baden-Wuerttemberg-Ticket for €28. It similar to the Bayern-Ticket, except might not include regional buses. It is valid for all conveyances in the metro districts (Verkehrsverbuenden=VV) in Baden-Wuerttemberg, and virtually all of B-W is in one VV or another.

Austria has a similar ticket, the Einfach-Raus Ticket, valid on regional trains all over Austria, for €28 for 2-5 people.

If you are traveling through more than one state (for example B-W and Bavaria), German Rail has two passes for unlimited use of regional trains all across Germany, the Schoenes-Wochenende-Ticket on weekends, midnight until 3 am the following day, for €37 for 1-5 people or the Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket on workdays after 9 for €39 for 2 people.

Posted by
2 posts

Really appreciate your responses, as diverse as they are. It gives different perspectives worthy of thought.

Posted by
425 posts

My question would be, do you travel by car or public transportion in Florida? Do you speak German well enough to understand the public transportation system? Do you want to go where "you" want to go or where the bus is taking you? I have read countless blogs from the dedicated "public transit" travelers and want no part of it. Most of the day is spent checking schedules and replanning after a missed bus or train. On more than one occasion I read about a traveler being tired and wet from schlepping his belongings from the station to his hotel. The funniest blog I read contained pictures as well. Every single picture was taken either from the train window, or included the train tracks somewhere in the picture. I think he was to afraid of missing his connection to venture very far from the station. Some say, if it was meant to be seen, the Germans would have a bus route to it. They may have, but you have to be an experienced traveler to get there. If you even know it exists. Some of my fondest memories are getting lost on purpose while zipping the backroads of Germany. If it's just about the money, stay home. Everyone knows that public transportation is cheaper. But is it better, I think not.

Posted by
8168 posts

There are other reasons for taking public transportation other than the cost. I for one find it stress free, and this includes riding the trains in Belgium and France where I do not speak the language. It just is not that difficult. You cannot tell me that looking up a train schedule is harder than reading a map of a foreign country!

Other reasons include: not wanting to get lost driving around, the person who is driving does not get to look out the window, if both people want to drink they do not have to worry about driving, I enjoy meeting and talking with fellow travelers, it is fun to walk down to the dining car for a cup of coffee or a sandwich while you travel, you don't have to look for a bathroom (this is really handy when you have children), you won't get stuck in traffic jams, you don't have to worry about driving in bad weather and this includes not only snow, but pouring rain, roads covered with slippery leaves, and heavy fog. I have had road trips that were supposed to be only 3-4 hours long extend to over 8 hours due to weather and traffic jams. In the summer, it is common to have jams up to 40 km long all through Germany.

There is no one way that is best, but it is also ok to look at different options. For many people, coming to Europe is a chance to try something new and that includes riding trains and using public transportation on a daily basis.

Posted by
220 posts

In my opinion, protecting the environment is the most compelling reason for going by rail.

Posted by
18373 posts

I was sitting in the right-front seat of a bus in Germany when we came to an intersection with a sign that said, "Bitte bis zu Haltelinie vor Fahren." What do you do? There is a line of cars behind you and no place to pull over to check your dictionary.

The point is that not all traffic signs in Germany are in international symbols. They sometimes have complicated instructions for specific situations in the local language, and you sometimes have to make split second decisions at high speed based on an explanation in a language you don't understand.

On the other hand, rail schedules are pretty much the same throughout Europe, regardless of language. It doesn't take long to learn to use them. And I have never met a counter worker in a German Bahnhof who couldn't speak English well enough to help people.

And, is cost important? I think so. People are constantly asking me how I can afford to go to Europe every year. Short answer: I don't waste money on easy-to-find, multistar, English speaking hotel; I read menus and order traditional German food instead of more expensive food with English names; and, I DON'T WASTE MONEY RENTING A CAR. On my last three trips I spent about $1500 each on the ground in Germany (lodging, transportation, meals). Before every trip I get an auto rental quote and fuel cost estimate. I've saved about $1200 on the last three trips, almost enough to pay for my next one.

Posted by
59 posts

I like a combination of both. I plan my trip well and take local transportation from town to town and see what I want to see in and around the towns and dorfs. But I can never go to Bayern or the little dorfs in Austria without renting a car for a day at a time and driving on the small beautiful country roads so I can drive slowly and take it all in stopping to walk in a meadow or up a trail for awhile and finding a beautiful waterfall or parking for an hour and just walk along the road. If I was doing 10 days in that area I would pick my spots well and probably rent a car twice for a day at a time and the rest of the time follow the advice of Lee and Jo. Its actually fun to miss a bus once in awhile which makes me challenge myself to talk to the folks who will usually go out of their way to give advice if I am pleasant and courteous. I have found that my German is actually better than I thought even though its been years since I studied it in College. There is something exciting about talking to the folks and accomplishing something I thought would be challenging

Posted by
220 posts

On the DB Bahn website (www.bahn.de) you will find an Environmental Mobility Check for each proposed itinerary. It is a tool for comparing the environmental impact of transport modes. It gives you a graphic representation of the energy resources, carbon dioxide output, and particulate matter output you will save by taking a train vs. a car. Food for thought...

Posted by
31510 posts

terry,

If you plan your journeys carefully, travel by Rail is usually MUCH faster and certainly much less hassle. In my experience, travel by car tends to be more tiring, especially in a location that is somewhat unfamiliar. Even in "small quiet towns" parking could be an issue, and of course there's the cost aspect with rental cost, tolls, CDW, parking, etc.

If there's a particular place that you want to see that's not well served by public transport, then a short car rental would be a good idea. For the most part, well planned rail and Bus links are a quicker and more efficient method.

Happy travels!

Posted by
1847 posts

My husband and I LOVE the public transportation in Europe (Germany included). It's a lot more relaxing to sit on the train and watch the scenery fly than having to constantly check a map. Plus there is also the parking issue and navigating through cities to your destination. A little pretrip preparation is all that's needed. Look at the train schedules in advance for the day that you plan to travel, make a copy and take it with you to the train station in case there is a problem communicating with the station agent. You don't have to schlep luggage to your hotel if you choose a hotel near the station or alternatively you can take a taxi to your hotel. And you can alos rent a car for a day or two or take a one day bus tour.

Posted by
11975 posts

Cost does matter to me. For one or two people rail is probably the better deal. By the time you get up to four people, a car will be cheaper. There are always exceptions. Using the regional trains with a Lander or Schoenes Wochende (one day on weekends) pass is a great deal. Regional trains are slower than the faster (and more expensive) intercity trains because they stop at all the towns. If you want smaller towns, you will use the regional (local) trains anyway.

I agree with Jo that taking the trains is more relaxing. That's especially true when you are trying to get into a major city center. The train drops you painlessly within walking distance of major sights - no navigating, traffic or parking worries.

It's also true that you have to adapt to the train schedules. If you miss a train, you will lose time. If it's hard to take a missed train in stride, a car let's you set your own schedule.

If I'm alone or with my wife. I use the train. When we pack the kids, we're driving.

Posted by
35 posts

It's true, there are few places, at least in Austria or Germany, you can't reach by train or bus - eventually. In my opinion, if you are only planning to stay 2 weeks or so in Europe, you should rent a car. You've already spent considerable sums on plane tickets, you are likely to spend a good amount of money on hotels and food, and you want to get the most for your time.

Last year I spent a few days in Bavaria, visiting towns near the Danube. If I had relied on public transportation, I would not have found that inn for 25 euros/night, including breakfast, in a small town 15 miles off the main road. I drove there on the spur of the moment, after I couldn't find any rooms in Eichstatt. My experience that evening, sitting around the table drinking beer and discussing the world with locals was priceless.

The next day, I drove down the Altmuehl Valley to Regensburg, more or less. That route is well covered by buses, but it would have been nearly impossible to make those impromptu stops along the way to take pictures of castles and medieval towns along the route. Also, it would have been difficult to stop at choice picnic sites and eat bread, cheese and sausage bought at grocery stores along the way.

There is much to be said about using public transportation, but using it takes up your time. If I only have a few days, I prefer to rent a car.

Posted by
3580 posts

I don't usually comment on "driving in Europe," because I never do and don't want to. My favorite mode of transit is the train. I have met and talked to many people while on long-distance train trips. I usually have bought rail passes, just because it's less complicated and I like to have part of my trip pre-paid. I usually include a couple of long-haul train trips, so the pass may save a few dollars. Car rental, from a financial point of view, seems to make more sense when there are more than two people involved or small children along. I think many Americans automatically think "car rental" because that's what they are used to at home and they think it will be too complicated to figure out train travel. True, there are complexities in train travel, but nothing that a reasonably aware and committed traveler can't deal with.

Posted by
18373 posts

"If I had relied on public transportation, I would not have found that inn for 25 euros/night, including breakfast"

For my trip this year, I used only public transportaion, but I planned it, and for 10 consecutive nights outside Munich I spent €252,50 (aver €25,20) for rooms (seven of them for €25 or less), all with breakfast. It's easier to find rooms using the Internet than it is by driving around aimlessly.

Posted by
18373 posts

BTW, four people are not necessarily less expensive with a car than on the train, especially if it is your own children under 15.

Two people and their luggage can fit easily in a small car, but four people would need a larger, more expensive car.

OTOH, Children under 15 ride for free on the Bahn when their parents buy standard, full fare, tickets. (This does not apply to Dauer-Spezial-Tickets.)

Posted by
1449 posts

I'd echo what Swan said; some of my most memorable times have been on trains talking to locals. You can't (unless you're VERY sociable!) plop yourself down in a restaurant next to people or stop them on the street and start chatting. In a car you're insulated from contact with locals that you easily get on a train or bus. That said, to me car is more convenient if you're traveling in hilly country where trains don't do so well, or in rural areas. If you have a decent command of the local language or have a high tolerance for uncertainty buses can be a good option, but in my experience they are harder for most people to use than the train system. And with a car in rural areas you can visit a couple of small towns, moving on when you feel like it instead of when the bus runs.

Back to the OP's question, I'd suggest first getting some good travel books for where you're going and then building an itinerary. After you know where you want to go you can see if you can do it by rail for the convenience, or if a car is a better option. Most guides have a paragraph or two on each featured location called "getting there" that will list your options.

If you decide on a car, I'd highly recommend bringing a GPS unit like a TomTom. We had one recently on a trip in Italy, and it was worth its weight in gold navigating thru twisty streets in small towns!

Posted by
1 posts

I stayed in a small town in southern Germany for 5 weeks this past August/Sept. While I was there I took the rail and buses everywhere. So did all my friends, with a few exceptions. Between the group of us we went to Italy, Austria (including Salzburg), northern Germany and Switzerland. None of us had any issues.

The German rail system is easy to figure out and everybody I asked for help spoke English (a lot more than I spoke German). The trains also stopped at a lot of tiny towns, towns I was surprised anything stopped at! Plus their public transportation system in Europe on a whole is much more organized and structured than the US's. So, unless you speak/read German and Austrian German, I suggest taking public transportation.

Posted by
35 posts

Here is another way to look at car vs. train of bus: if you are just planning to tour large cities,or even medium sized ones, then a car makes very little sense. However, cars are great for visiting and driving through rural areas. In the Salzkammergut in Austria, for example, there are many scenic routes that are best enjoyed by car. You can get from Salzburg to Hallstatt by train and ferry or bus in 2 – 3 hours, depending on transportation schedules, but you'll miss all those attractive little towns along the way – Fuschl, St. Gilgen, Strobl, or St. Wolfgang on the far side of the lake. Bad Ischl by itself is worth a stay of several days, and a stop at Bad Goisern or Obertraun on the Hallstatter See would also be memorable.

Those are just the more prominent towns. There are a quite few smaller ones along the way, too, all with their attractions, and they're set in one of the worlds most beautiful landscape. If you wanted to return to Salzburg by a different way, over the Gosau and by way of Golling, Kuchl and Hallein, you'd get a decent idea of the area. You could even stop at the Lammer Ofen for a hike through a chasm of rushing waters and a chat with the people at the small cafe there. Good luck doing that trip by train or bus. It can be done, and it would be hugely enjoyable if you have the time, but it would take far longer than even a leisurely drive by car.

So if time is your limiting factor and you'd like to see more of Europe's back country, use a car. Otherwise, public transportation is best. The third option, perhaps the best of all – a combination of rental car and public transportation - requires more advance knowledge and planning.