Traveling within Europe
Once you’ve made it to Europe, there are a number of ways to get around, from cheap flights to scenic train routes, from buses to ferries. It can take some research to find out the most cost-efficient options, but it can save you time and hassle in the end.
Europe by air
Those who fancy traveling by air will be happy to hear that Europe is home to dozens of low-cost airlines that make traveling between countries easy. These cheap and cheerful airlines might have abandoned all frills, but that doesn’t mean they are unsafe or unreliable. To save as much as you can, you will need to either book well in advance or at the last moment (a week before your departure or less). Searching for the ideal flight can be a little tricky, since low-cost airlines usually don’t use large airports like London Heathrow, but settle for smaller airports further away from the city instead. You don’t need to worry, since there are usually cheap shuttles or direct train lines available for the passengers if that is the case. There are plenty of websites that can search all the airlines for you: try using WhichAirline, Skyscanner or Momondo.
Of course, there are disadvantages to traveling with a low-cost airline. Some of the airlines offer online booking only. Forget about travelling to the airport and buying a ticket for the next plane - you need to book everything in advance. The earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket. Also, it’s always better to be at the airport early, since these airlines do not tolerate anybody showing up late.
Be prepared for a lot of advertising on board - the crew will try to sell you perfumes, cosmetics and other products. Also be aware of the fact that meals are usually not included in the price. Another thing you should look out for are the fees. It’s easy to travel expensive, even with low-cost airlines. With some airlines, including the popular Ryanair, you even have to print the boarding pass yourself instead of going to the check-in counter. You will be charged for having it printed at the counter. Also look out for the baggage fees - the same rule of thumb applies to them. If traveling from the USA, double-check the baggage limits, they could easily be different than what you’re used to.
The bottom line is that traveling with low-cost airlines requires some thought and careful planning, but it can save you a lot of money.
Europe by train
Europe is crisscrossed by a dense rail network, making traveling by train a suitable option for those who prefer to stay on land. Trains are fast and efficient when it comes to shorter distances and much less of a hassle when it comes to checking in etc. Some of the routes are also very scenic and let you see Europe from a different perspective. Trains can be an opportunity to meet locals and make new friends, too, since you will probably share the compartment with other people.
Overnight trains are also perfect for longer trips as they save precious day time for sightseeing. The price for one compartment on a night train is cheaper than a mid-range hotel. Traveling on night trains in Eastern Europe can be risky, however.
Railway network in Europe
The big advantage of trains is that almost any town a tourist would like to visit has its own train station, so the possibilities are endless. The routes between major cities in Western Europe also use high-speed trains, so you will get to your destination quickly. And if you are traveling to a destination farther away, the train will be fitted with a special sleeping car so that you can arrive fresh the next day.
European train tickets
Train tickets can be easily booked online, so you can avoid the queues and sometimes land a deal if you book in advance. Most railways also offer discounts for students or groups. Another way of saving money is purchasing a rail pass for the region that you would like to travel in. Perhaps the most famous is the Eurail, which covers 23 European countries and allows unlimited train travel inside their borders for a set number of days. Some European countries also offer their own national passes (e.g. United Kingdom or Germany).
There are a number of railway operators in Europe. Countries usually have one national operator and may have several private ones. However, there are also international operators that you can use when traveling between countries:
- Eurostar covers the UK, France and Belgium
- CNL covers Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany
- Eastern Europe is mostly covered by national operators, but you can use the Eurail pass in some of the countries, too.
Europe’s scenic railways
The Trans-Siberian railway is a classic example of a scenic ride across Europe (and Asia). You don’t need to go to Russia to see stunning sceneries, though. A simple train ride through the Swiss part of the Alps can offer breath-taking views, too. Check out the Glacier Express website for more information. We also recommend the Oslo-Bergen line or the Scottish West Coast Railway which is served by the locomotive from Harry Potter movies in summer! And finally, if you are longing for a truly classical European experience, you can try the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, although it is not a budget option.
Europe by bus
Buses are a good choice if you are traveling shorter distances or on short notice. They’re also very cheap, even when booking a ticket at the last moment. There are hundreds of smaller bus companies all across Europe, but also bigger providers. Eurolines is a good choice if you would like to travel between large cities, since it covers more than 500 destinations across the continent.
A number of ferry companies operate on European seas (the Baltic in the north, the Mediterranean in the south and the Black in the east). They usually connect the biggest ports and islands that are popular tourist destinations. These ferries can also transport cars, so they are an efficient option if you want to save on gas and are a fan of amazing scenery (especially in the Baltic Sea). Ferries are also an option when traveling from the UK to France with a car and vice versa. There are also companies like Smyril Line which sail to Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
Ships are not limited to the seas - you can also go for a cruise on the Danube, Rhine or Volga rivers. Scenic cruises are also a very good option for exploring coastal cities in the Mediterranean. Typically the ship travels overnight and you can explore a new destination every day or so, while having all the comforts in your cabin and saving yourself the hassle of arranging transportation and packing / unpacking your bags.
You can also go on a cruise along Norway’s fjords.
For a comprehensive schedule of European ferries and destinations, visit ferrylines.com.
Driving in Europe
Driving in Europe is a completely different experience than in the USA. If you are visiting big cities only, you won’t need a car. Most big cities have good public transportation systems (see below). However, if you’d like to have maximum freedom while visiting the continent, want to explore one area thoroughly or are traveling in a small group, definitely consider renting a car.
Renting a car in Europe
The first thing you should consider if you want to rent a car is the documents you will need:
- your passport
- a valid driving license
- a credit card
- an International Driving Permit (not necessary in every country, but useful if you do not know the local language; get one at your local AAA)
Additionally, the following should be provided by your car rental company:
- the Original Registration Document of the vehicle
- a motor vehicle insurance certificate
What car should you rent
When choosing the car, it might be better to settle for a smaller one, especially if you’d like to wander into the cities and use their often-narrow parking spots. When picking the car up, take some time in the parking lot to get acquainted with it and ask about the local driving rules.
Visitors from the USA should expect the cars to have manual transmission, not automatic, if you don’t specifically ask the car rental company for it. There might be a GPS installed in the car, but definitely bring your own map or device to make sure you don’t get lost on the road! Parents should also think about child and booster seats, since these are required in most (if not all) countries.
To save money, try to avoid picking up the car at airports, since this often comes with additional charges. Beware of renting cars from the "Micro" segment - they are truly small and not suitable for longer journeys on the highway and have very little luggage space. Apart from the class, the price also depends on the age of the driver, with younger drivers paying a bit more. Expect to pay for additional drivers in most countries.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of car rental companies in every major city. Prices at the counter or even on the website are generally much higher than when booking the car in advance using an online comparison website.
To choose the best company that suits your needs, you can use Tripomatic's car hire search.
Rental car insurance
By law, all rented vehicles are insured for liability - you are protected when it comes to damage to other persons and their property. Most of the time, the insurance should also cover collision damage waiver. This covers accidents, thefts and any other damage the car could sustain.
Always double-check the insurance conditions as there is usually a minimum you must always pay yourself in case of an accident. Car rental staff will usually try to upsell you full coverage. It may pay off to check the conditions of your own insurance (often included with a gold credit card if you use the card to pay for the rental) and see if this is necessary. If you do not choose full coverage, be prepared that the car rental company may hold a deposit on your card, affecting the amount you can spend during your trip.
Always check your car and insist on every scratch being recorded prior to setting off, especially when renting your car from an unknown chain in southern or eastern Europe.
Beware that in the UK and Ireland, people drive on the left and driver's seat is on the right. In combination with a manual gearbox with the stick on your left, it can be challenging just to drive out of the parking lot, not to mention handling complicated intersections and heavy traffic in cities.
Gas prices in Europe
Be prepared for the gas costs in Europe - roughly $7 a gallon. This may seem astronomical when coming from the US. The distances, however, are shorter and cars generally have lower fuel consumption. You can also rent diesel cars that are somewhat less expensive to fill.
Gas stations are common in most countries and are self-service. Most of them accept credit cards (Visa or Mastercard). As for the vocabulary, unleaded gas is called “benzine” or “petrol” and usually marked “95 octane”, diesel can be called just “diesel”, “nafta” or “gasoil”. Bear in mind that in some countries, particularly in southern Europe, gas stations are closed on Sundays, especially out in the countryside.
Plenty of Western European countries have toll roads where you receive a ticket upon entering the road and pay the toll after leaving it. The toll is either a flat rate or paid by the distance travelled. On some motorways in Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland, you will need a “vignette”, a sticker that belongs on the windshield and enables you to use these paid roads. You can get them at border crossings or gas stations. Rental cars generally have the vignette valid for the country of rental.
Road traffic regulations in Europe
You need to be at least 18 years old to drive in most European countries, with the exception of the UK, Ireland, Iceland and Hungary, even if you have a valid license and are younger than 18. Bear in mind that in UK & Ireland, people drive on the left side of the road. It is forbidden to use your mobile phone while driving in most countries. The use of seatbelts is compulsory and so is the use of child seats, although different countries might have different guidelines for them. The same goes for the use of headlights, which are sometimes required even during the day, especially in the EU. The blood alcohol limit is 0.05 in most countries, but some countries have a zero tolerance policy - it is best to not drink and drive at all.
On the motorways outside the UK and Ireland, it is forbidden to overtake on the right – you must use the left lane for that. Also, the left lane is for overtaking only, it’s not a “fast lane”, so make sure you don’t stay there too long. It is also a rule to give way to the traffic from the right if on an intersection if there are no signs. In most countries, it is also forbidden to turn right on a red light - you need to wait for the green light or the right arrow before you can turn. Signs are similar across most European countries and easy to understand. The quality of the roads may also vary greatly, especially if heading to the former eastern bloc.
Units of measurement
Europeans use the metric system. One kilometer equals 0.6 miles and one mile per hour roughly equals 1.60 kilometres per hour. However, if visiting the United Kingdom, be prepared to switch back to miles again. The speed limits are usually around 120 kph (70 mph) for motorways, 90 kph (60 mph) for highways and 50 kph (30 mph) for cities. These change in every country, so make sure to double-check to avoid speeding tickets. You’ll generally find a sign with the speed limits at border crossings.
Public transportation is a great way to get around most cities and you shouldn’t be afraid to give it a try. In fact, if you plan to visit cities only, you won’t need to rent a car at all.
Another advantage is that the public transport networks are integrated in most cities. You only need a single ticket for all modes of transport - metro, buses, trams, trolleybuses etc. It is also easy to save money, since many cities offer discounts if you buy a ticket that is valid for a longer period of time (usually one, three and five days). Major European cities also give you the option of using pre-paid cards that you can top up in advance.
Usually the public transport covers the cities well, giving you access to the center and outskirts as well. This gives you a lot of freedom with your itinerary. The city center is usually serviced by the subway (metro) with an additional network of buses or trams. Buses can also go to the city outskirts and beyond. Timetables can be easily found on the websites of the transport operators. Most cities also run night lines at regular intervals, making it easy to get back to your hotel if you stay out late.
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