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Train vs. Car

We are trying to decide whether we want to travel by train or car? If we decide to travel by train, we would make sure that the cities we visit are accessible by train transportation. Our biggest question is the cost savings, is car travel a lot cheaper? We will be traveling mostly Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and France. I understand that we would have more freedom of travel with a car, and the possibility of parking issues if we visit big cities. Again, we are mostly trying to decide cost wise, which would be the better option

Posted by
6767 posts

All major cities in those countries are well served by train, so that's not a decision point you need to worry about (unless you're going to more rural areas, and those may very well bet served by trains too). There are two types of savings to consider: 1) time savings and 2) cost savings. There's also a less tangible but real "cost of comfort", "cost of stress/ lack thereof" etc. that everyone would put a different price tag on. It also depends how many people are traveling because that affects the number of train tickets you need. Price the rental car, plus an estimate of gas, parking, tolls, potential tickets, vignettes and compare it to the price of the train tickets.

You have to get down to the nitty gritty to conclusively answer which mode is cheaper, so unfortunately the mundane work of getting to that point is required. First start with the cities you want to see, then draw up a logical itinerary, then start pricing train tickets from Point A to Point B, Point B to Point C. etc. (use the Deutsche Banh website).

Posted by
1034 posts

It depends on so much. Would you rent the car and return it to the same country? (its much more if you rent in one country and drop off in another). Are you renting for more or fewer than 3 weeks (you could lease for less money if traveling more than 3 weeks)? How old are the people traveling (kids are free on trains)? How many are traveling (ergo, how big a car would you rent)? Have you looked at the price of Eurail passes vs. car rental prices (you can obtain passes that cover 4 countries for set lengths of time)? Where do you want to go?

In general, I would say that a combination works well. Take the train from one major point to another, but then rent a car in areas that benefit from it (i.e. give you access to villages the train doesnt go).

Posted by
4637 posts

Car is better for seeing the countryside, train is better for travel between cities. This is the eternal question, I don't remember how many times I saw it on this forum.

Posted by
298 posts

What are, and how do we figure these costs?(potential tickets, vignettes)

There would be four adults traveling, and we are starting and ending point would be the same, and rental time would be approximately 17 days.

Thank you for the info directing us how to compare, and I'm sorry it I'm beating a dead horse 😜

Posted by
6171 posts

You need to pin down what specific cities you want to visit, before you can come up with rail price comparisons. Car rental costs need to take into account the cost of parking, the size of vehicle you need, the much higher fuel prices, and the "non-monetary" factors, like stress on the driver, time wasted hunting for parking spaces near attractions, traffic jams, etc. Four adults with luggage means a bigger than compact car. The cars are smaller there too, so what you think of as a mid-size is not the same as in the US.

If you've not traveled in Europe before, its hard to explain how simple rail travel is, since its practically non-existent in the car-dependent US. Go to the menu on the left-side of this page, click on Travel Tips, then on Transportation and see what RS has to say. But please, you can't compare without knowing where you want to go. There are a lot of discount ticketing options for rail, depending on when and where, and how willing you are to buy tickets online in advance.

Posted by
6767 posts

What are, and how do we figure these costs?(potential tickets,
vignettes)

You literally have to learn about/research EACH country's driving rules (the time of doing that alone would keep me from trying to compare car travel - LOL:-). Tickets for speeding or pedestrian zones could be in the hundreds of Euros - you can read all about them by searching this travel forum. Many people are caught off-guard when they see these in their mailbox sent by their rental car agency (Italy seems to have the most ZLT violations, but speeding is caught by cameras in other countries very effectively). Vignettes are transponders stuck on your car and are required in certain areas. Cost of gas and things like that you'll have to Google and read accounts on TripAdvisor or blogs...there's no central easy-to-search database for this stuff. And an estimate is likely to be quite off but, for starters, you should know how much the rental car and gas will cost because those are your big ticket items. For 17 days, it may be cheaper to lease a car, so that's another option to explore.

The ages of all 4 adults matter too because some many qualify for differently priced train tickets.

The answer to your question requires a lot of legwork, so good luck!

Posted by
3645 posts

There are other aspects of this question besides cost. The car driver is necessarily limited in his/her ability to really take in the scenery due to the fact that focus must be maintained on driving. Train travel puts you in proximity to meeting locals and having positive interactions with them. We've met some extremely interesting people while on trains. A car insulates you a bit from those type of experiences.

A car may give you a bit more freedom of movement, but will also come with parking hassles and, in some countries, mysterious speeding tickets that arrive months afterwards.

Posted by
2506 posts

If we decide to travel by train, we would make sure that the cities we visit are accessible by train transportation.

I think that is backward. Decide first where you want to go. If it’s cities or sizable towns trains are fast, convenient and on time. The erstwhile driver can sit and enjoy the view, converse with the locals, have a snack, snooze. If, on the other hand, you are planning say a vacation in Provence where you base in a town and take day trips you’ll want a car. So, plan your vacation, then your transportation.

Posted by
92 posts

One other thing to consider is the designated driver. You will be traveling to places with great beer and wine and if the adults take turns driving you need to be sure you are adding the extra expense of adding on additional drivers on your rental agreement. I personally like the freedom of train travel. Even fairly remote areas are pretty well served by trains or buses. With 4 adults it may very well be more cost effective to rent a car. With a group of 3 or more we have used various private car services for the day to take us to places not well served by public transportation. We have done this in Scotland, the Czech Republic and in the Netherlands and we all got to enjoy the great countryside with no one having to focus on the roads and the sometimes nasty driving weather conditions. Whatever works best for your group, have a great trip!

Posted by
279 posts

seat61.com can give you the lowdown on train travel. The car will give you flexibility as the best prices on trains may be 3 months out, where a car allows more planning as you go. So, it also depends on how structured or unstructured your itinerary is.

Posted by
8889 posts

½dozmum, For driving, go to: https://www.viamichelin.com/
This not only gives routes, but also driving times (to which I would add 25%, as it assumes no stops whatsoever), estimated fuel costs and tolls.
Germany, Netherlands and Belgium are toll-free. France has tolls on most autoroutes, which are listed on the above site.
Other countries, mostly in southern Europe, either have tolls on their autoroutes/autostrada/autopista/autobahn/motorway etc., or charge a time-based toll. You buy a "Vignette", which is a sticker (not a transponder) which you attach to your windscreen and allows you to use the motorways for a certain time (weeks/months/year).
Most city centres are pedestrian only.

Assume any town over a population of about ~20,000 will have a train service, and some smaller ones as well. the station will often be on the edge of the pedestrianised area.
The subject of train fares is complicated, and each company has different pricing policies. As a gross simplification, short distance trains are flat rate (no discount for advance purchase), long distance trains have large discounts (30-60%) for advance purchase; but advance purchase tickets, like air tickets, are only valid on the train listed on the ticket.

You can look up train times on this website: https://www.bahn.com/en/view/index.shtml
This has trains for most of Europe, but only sells tickets within, to or from Germany.
For a fuller tutorial on using trains, see here: https://www.seat61.com/Europe-train-travel.htm

Posted by
3582 posts

1st suggestion about renting a car and driving in Europe: go to Gemut.com for general information.

2nd suggestion: download and thoroughly read the free rental car guide titled, What You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe in 2018.

It will cover a lot of your questions.

One more suggestion is to use Rome2rio to get some comparative hints about ways to get from one place to another. It's not perfect, but you can get an idea of time and costs.

I have driven or navigated in all 4 of the countries you listed. Driving can be lots of fun, especially if you don't take the fast roads all the time and are willing to occasionally get lost or get stuck in the very traffic you were trying to avoid.

Taking the train or bus can be just as much fun because you may be able to chat with strangers along the way and see parts of the countries that you couldn't drive to yourself.

Posted by
7205 posts

Taking the train is great fun because I don't have to sit behind the steering wheel attempting to navigate. I can actually look out the window of the train, see the sights, stand up and walk to the bistro car for a bottle of wine or a snack. I can talk to my traveling companions, read a good book, or take a snooze and wake up city center of my destination - all without getting lost, paying tolls, paying for expensive petrol, trying to find a parking place that won't cost an arm and a leg, being in a fender bender, etc. There are just MANY great reasons to take the train.

Posted by
5697 posts

Generally, we (2 adults) assume we will go by train, only get a car for "countryside" travel (Provence, Tuscany, Normandy) and then only for the specific countryside area, not the entire trip. For us, we would not consider driving as a cost-saving option; it's a "splurge"

Posted by
1217 posts

For longer trips, we tend to do a mix of car rental, city-to-city trains and local mass transit. And sometimes a mix of those on the same days. If you're going to be in the same rough region for 3-6 days and parking makes sense, we like cars then. And then drop them off at the train station or airport and letting someone else take us to the next region.

Remember it's the journey as well as the destination- if you're never taken true high speed rail before, the TGV is really quite cool and can be a very enjoyable part of the trip. If you've got a gear head or car buff in your party, do read up on German driving laws and splurge on taking a proper premium German sedan down the autobahn for a day or two.

While it's not the extended chat you'd get on a train, we've also had some nice shorter discussions with locals while waiting for the bus at the park-and-ride lot (love those things- far cheaper and way less stressful than trying to drive into a city center area built in 1537) or trying to figure out what turned out to be a broken pay-and-display kiosk at a national park parking lot.

Posted by
14449 posts

I haven't read all the responses thoroughly so I'm probably repeating a few things. Apologies.

Why do the starting and ending points have to be the same? It's almost always more efficient to fly open-jaw and travel in a more-or-less straight line.

17 days is about 4 days per country. That's a whole lot of moving around unless you are thinking of one city in each, maybe with day trips. If cities, trains travel a lot faster than cars (well over 100 mph) and don't have to deal with city traffic.

Even a largish car that seats 4 people comfortably will have very limited luggage capacity. You may have to pay around €10/day (i.e., €170 for 17 days) for each additional driver. While the driver is concentrating on the driving and the other person in the front may be navigating and both missing some of the scenery, the two folks strapped in the back (and maybe a little cramped), will have very limited views of the scenery zipping past through the back seat side windows.

I don't know what time of year your trip is planned for, but unless it's low season, getting two hotel rooms together "on the fly" (yes, even a day or two ahead) is likely to cost you more than booking ahead and finding bargains. The trip you describe doesn't seem to allow for much "freedom of travel", especially if you have to return to your starting point. The only apparent benefit to that is avoiding a huge drop-off fee on the car rental. IMO, it's not worth the amount of time you lose, both in travel and by adding another hotel change.

Posted by
298 posts

Starting and ending point are the same because our son and daughter-in-law live there (been there almost a year) and we are traveling with them as well. Also, more family is joining us at the end of the trip to spend time together before we head home. Otherwise, we would travel in a straight line. 😊

Posted by
18056 posts

our son and daughter-in-law live there (been there almost a year) and
we are traveling with them as well.

Why didn't you say that earlier? I assume then that they have a car and you would use it (?). There is a big difference, cost-wise, between using a car you own in Europe, one where you are paying the depreciation and taxes on anyway vs. renting a car and paying the rental company's fixed expenses and profit. I have made 11 trips to Germany and surrounding countries in the last 18 years, and before most of the trips (all the recent ones), I have compared renting a car vs. using public transportation, and renting a car has never come close to being competitive with public transportation.

Car is better for seeing the countryside,

That might be true for some places, like Tuscany, but I have never found that to be true in Germany. Germany has the most extensive rail system in Europe, only 1% less dense (miles of track per square mile) than the densest system, Switzerland, which is far smaller. I've travel extensively in Germany, particularly in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, stayed only 15% of my time in towns over 40,000 population (median less than 8,000) and never needed a car.

Posted by
400 posts

Dont forget the cost of fines and tickets. It appears that a fair amount of traveler's get these souvenirs.

Posted by
1 posts

We'll (two of us) train, walk and taxi from Scotland to Brussels, then to Brittany where we'll rent a car to catch some of the Tour de France. I just don't want the hassle of a car. When we're chasing the TDF we couldn't do without a car. You have to pay for a car everyday that you have it (even sitting in the hotel parking lot) but we'll only use the train on travel days.

Posted by
14449 posts

Well, color me confused!!! Are you renting a car or not?

Posted by
298 posts

Oh.my.goodness!!

Thank you to everyone who has given awesome information for us to make a decision. We will be traveling by train (with car rental, IF needed)

To answer a few other questions......not taking their car because they don't have one!!! They are working at a missionary boarding school and have been there less than a year 😊

And "confused", are we renting a car or taking a train?? That's what we were trying to decide and why I posted.

And thanks to some awesome answers, we done our research and made our decision!!

You guys are awesome!! On to other things 😊

Posted by
14449 posts

The question was whether you were renting a car or using one belonging to someone else. That seemed to be implied in some of the posts.

Now that you've decided, do you want to let us know which you chose?

Posted by
298 posts

^^^^^^Thank you to everyone who has given awesome information for us to make a decision. We will be traveling by train (with car rental, IF needed)^^^^^^

As stated in the last post....Train😊