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train or car

my family, husband, wife, and 3 adult children, are planning a european vacation. we will be visiting relatives in paris till june 28 and would then like to travel to italy and tour the country. my children want to see the sites but also want to experience the people and their culture.

although we have never driven outside of north america, we are both experienced new york city and boston drivers. what is recommended trains, cars or both? considerations are safety, cost, and flexibility. also, if anyone has ideas about itinerary, we would appreciate any assistance. thanks,
excited nubies

Posted by
9079 posts

A lot depends on exactly where you are traveling to and what type of vacation you want. Urban, rural or a bit of each. But in general, if you're spending most of your trip going from city to city, the train is often the quickest, cheapest, and most stress free way to get around. Of course it doesn't have to be just the car or just the train, when it makes sense ride the rails-do that, when a car works better you can rent one for just a couple of days.

Don't even think about driving from site to site in a city like Paris, or Rome. Seeing as how you're from NYC and Boston you probably already know that:)

Posted by
18941 posts

I was riding on a bus in Bavaria last August, when we came to an intersection. There was this sign,

Bittebis zuHaltelinievor fahren

Traffic behind you, no place to pull over. What do you do?

Posted by
18941 posts

Also, if you are going to Italy, you Really better know what this sign means.

Posted by
2876 posts

In my experience driving is a lot more fun. Driving gives you maximum flexibility. And one of the best ways to experience the people and their culture is to stay at B&B's, which you'll find are numerous in both France & Italy. France & Italy both have good roads and highways and I found driving there much easier than I had expected (except in the old cities!) Think of it this way, if you had European friends coming who wanted to experience New England, would you tell them to do it by train?

Posted by
4132 posts

First argument against driving, I think, is that it is far to go and will eat into your trip time and energy.

A different story if you plan to make sightseeing stops along the way, including a few overnights. There is some great stuff enroute.

Second is that you may have to pay a pretty steep drop-off fee unless you plan to return the car in France.

It may still be worth it but I would at least price trains and airfare.

Posted by
8700 posts

A car is a hindrance, not an asset, in cities.

As Adam pointed out, there is a stiff fee for picking up a car in one country and dropping it off in another. You could rent a car for visiting smaller towns in France, drop it off in France near the Italian border, take a train into Italy, and pick up a new car there for visiting smaller towns in Italy.

Posted by
2297 posts

With a larger group like yours renting a car can certainly be the more affordable option. I'd rent a station wagon which would offer enough seating and probably tight space for luggage. As mentioned you don't want to have a car IN Paris or Rome. So it would make sense to fly into Paris, rent a car when you're ready to leave. Ditch it before you hit the Italian border. Take a quick train ride across the border and rent another car with which to explore Italy. Make Rome your last stop and hand in the car as soon as you enter the city. Walking and public transportation is best to explore Rome. Fly back home from here.

This option makes sense especially if you don't want to limit yourself to the large centres like Paris, Florence and Rome, but also want to see more of the countryside and the smaller places in between.

However, even if the car is be the cheaper option the train might still be preferable:

  • driving in Italy is the worst place in all of Europe to drive around

  • taking a comfortable train is a typical European experience that can be fun in itself

As a family of 4 we usually opt to drive because the economics work out better. And we often rent appartments in rural areas that are easier to access by car. Last Christmas we decided to take the train instead since ALL our destinations were large cities in which the car would have been a liability. Moreover, driving in winter on icy streets can be more dangerous and much more stressful. Renting a car would have been considerably cheaper for us, even calculating for gas and parking on top of the rental fee (and we would have gotten a car for "free" saving even more). But looking at the horrible winter traffic from the comfort of an ICE was well worth it.

Posted by
9110 posts

To clarify what Steve often posts, but of which he has extreemly limited knowledge:

The signs are not a mystery, but simply a variation of the "no vehicles" standard international sign, which, rather than being absolute, permit access under certain conditions. The signs are as visible as any other traffic control device and are no more "dreaded" than a speed limit or school zone sign.

The crossed hammers do not mean that the restriction applies only on "weekdays" -- they mean that the restriction does not apply on Sundays or holidays.

You may drive into a ZTL to go to a hotel or parkiing garage, car rental agency, etc. A call must be made to the controling agency to account for the intrusion so the driver will not be penalized.

Posted by
18941 posts

To be fair, I was the one who posted the picture of the ZTL sign. A lot of people have posted here about coming home and getting a ticket, with a big fine, in the mail, from Italy, because their rental car was photographed entering a no traffic zone.

In a way, I have no sympathy for them. The red circle is an international road symbol for "restricted traffic", but how many Americans bother to learn even the international signs (Steve's link showed only a few), "I think 'that' sign meant passing allowed (or was it passing prohibited?)" - splat.

But even worse, the international signs only cover a few general conditions. There are a myriad of other conditions covered by local signs, and most of these are not in English. Do you understand the local signs (or have Internet access in your car to have Google translate it, assuming they get the translation correct) well enough to make split-second decisions?

Posted by
9110 posts

To be fair ......Lee posted the picture, Steve erroneously described its application.

Posted by
2297 posts

All the international signs are designed so people can learn and understand them without knowing also the local language. Do learn these!!! If you know them you won't get into trouble. Additions that are in the local language are extras to make life a little easier. But not understanding them won't cause danger.

examples mentioned here:

If you don't understand anything but the red circle of the ZTL sign you don't enter. That isn't dangerous and won't be followed with a ticket. If you could read Italian or are good in guessing you'd know that you could enter this street on Saturday/Sunday and during the night and to access a hotel and to make deliveries to a store and a few other exceptions. That makes life a bit easier but you can certainly drive safely without knowing about these exceptions.

The German sign "Bitte
bis zu
vor fahren" can often be seen at intersections when there's an embedded traffic sensor in the pavement that can control the light. Not understanding this sign won't cause any danger nor get you a fine. It simply means that you might sit at a red light for more than a couple of minutes and wait and wait and wait. And then most drivers should understand that this is like something they also experience in Northamerica and advance a bit. No harm done. Or they will hear somebody honking at them - exactly like what they'd experience at home in the same situation.

It is the drivers responsibility to understand international signs if they want to drive internationally. Fortunately, it's not super difficult and doesn't require any language learning. Language learning of course helps in any event, even a little can go far. That's true for any traveller including those who travel by train. Train stations come with their own set of signs. Fortunately, these too are easy to comprehend. But even then you may hear announcements you can't understand or see additional information that you can't read. Still managable.

Posted by
2854 posts

Hi ellie,

I'm not "promoting" one form of transportation over another. I just wanted to mention that driving is relatively easy in Europe. We love driving and it works best for us (not everyone). Just get an understanding of the road signs. I still don't know them all (not even close, I'm sure) and have had no trouble driving on 8 trips to Europe. No tickets either. Use common sense. For the signs like the ones that were posted... when in doubt, don't enter. It's not as difficult as some try to make it out to be.


Posted by
32107 posts


Before offering any suggestions on an Itinerary, it would help to know the time frame of your trip? That will have some bearing on what type of transportation to use. How long do you have to "tour the country"?

Also, as you're "excited nubies", I'd highly recommend pre-reading the Guidebook Europe Through The Back Door, as it will provide lots of tips on things like Itinerary planning, transportation, language issues, money, etc.

Generally speaking, I usually prefer travel by train as it's much faster and a more efficient way to get around. A few things to keep in mind are that for driving in Italy, each driver must have the compulsory International Driver's Permit. Failure to produce one can result in fines on the spot! The others have mentioned the aspect of ZTL areas (Zona Traffico Limitato) and driving through one of the automated Cameras results in a €100+ ticket EACH TIME. A GPS unit along with a good Map would also be a really good idea.

A few more points to note - some countries require a mandatory "highway permit" (Switzerland among others) and car rental firms usually charge a huge fee to rent a car in one country and drop-off in another. Using open jaw flights would be the best choice, so where to drop the car will be something to consider.

The best advice I can offer is not to try and see everything in one visit. Choose sights carefully and allow adequate time for travel between locations. As Rick often says "assume you will return".

Good luck!

Posted by
16 posts

We have been 4 times and each time we buy the rail pass and take trains everywhere. we really enjoy the sights of the trips. On 2 occasions, we traveled with another couple and there was no problem. We had many opportunities to talk with locals while riding. Germany and Austria are especially friendly and we really enjoyed it. Going back in Sept and plan on the trains!

Posted by
1525 posts

This is a common enough question that creates an uncommon level of tension between people who are very pro-car and people who are obstinantly pro-public transport.

The short and simple answer to your question is that you NEVER want a car in any large city. Use trains. Trains are fun, efficient, and drop you in the center of the city, exactly where you want to be.

Personally, I think every trip should have a significant portion that is largely small-town rural. Try to organize your trip so that this portion falls within one time frame and rent a car for this part as it gives you maximum flexibility (driving can be fun, too) and will likely be more economical for your group. If driving distances are short you may even get by with a mid-size car.

Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, but the argument can be simplified a lot by assuming the above is pretty much true 80% of the time for most groups.

Posted by
12154 posts

With five people, a car is probably cheaper (especially if you will have it more than 17 days and can lease). I've done both. I prefer the train personally but often can't justify the added expense or have an itinerary that doesn't lend itself well to trains.

The advantages of a car:

You can go on your schedule, no waiting for train connections or getting up at wierd times to make the train. No long stops at places you didn't plan to visit.

You can stop when you want rather than relying on train stops.

You can get off the beaten path. Some places aren't covered by trains. Germany is well covered but the British Isles and Italy are more of a challenge.

The advantages of a train:

I'm fresher when I arrive because I didn't have to drive or worry about navigation. You can use the time to nap, review your guide book for your next destination or catch up on your journal.

More room to stretch out.

Sometimes meet some very nice fellow travelers or locals.

Takes you into city centers without the hassle of city traffic or parking.

Posted by
2 posts

If you haven't checked this out yet, it might work for you. For a lease of 21 days or more it is less expensive than a rental and includes insurance and roadside assistance. It is a great lease program with Renault.