To Train Or Not to Train

With some trepidation, your "anti-train" editor is about to again grapple with one of the great non-issues of our time: whether tis nobler to travel in Europe by rail or auto.

I say trepidation because "Dear Subscribers" current approval ratings seem to be below Ken Starr's. Among other things, I've been accused of staying in expensive hotels because it makes me "feel important," and even called a "yuppie" (that one hurt, I'm 60 and a card-carrying yuppie basher). Remarks about rail travel that are viewed as unfavorable are likely to launch even more arrows in this direction. It's a tough job but somebody has to do it.

I say non-issue because I have concluded that train travelers and auto travelers are like liberals and conservatives: they'll never see eye to eye. The train-car choice has more to do with culture and life-style than with relative merits such as cost and convenience. It is a choice that gets made early in the game and is pretty much "locked-in" from then on. This little treatise then is for the "undecided."

To start with, I love trains. We've used rail in six of our last eight trips to Europe. I would rather ride a train in Europe than drive a car. I am speaking of the physical act of riding. It's some of the related stuff that gets a little sticky.

The thing about train travel in Europe is that it's a tourist attraction in itself as much as a great castle or a glorious mountain range - a real-life Disneyland "E" ticket. Nobody visits Europe to drive a cheap rental car but many go at least in part for the trains. Rail service to most Americans is a novelty, something we don't really have. So a speedy ICE, say from Berlin to Munich, is a great treat.

Rail travel's status as a tourist attraction is well-deserved: the astounding Swiss rail network is more than a transportation system it's a bloody marvel. I am fascinated just watching it in operation; the high quality of its employees and equipment, and the fact that even very small towns often have trains coming and going every five or 10 minutes. This, of course, is not news but it helps make my point that rail travel in Europe for tourists is an end in itself.

While auto travel has its moments, - stopping to picnic in a pretty spot or gliding over a deserted back road - the car, unless you've rented a very expensive one that is fun to drive, is simply a means of transportation.

It is, however, a means that offers greater flexibility and is usually cheaper; especially if two or more travel together. Many travelers don't care to drive and that's understandable. "I would rather attempt a maiden hang-glider flight from the top of the Matterhorn than drive a car into Munich or Vienna," is the way subscriber Robert Biehler puts it.

But for others, a meandering auto itinerary via backroads is still a pleasant way to get from city to city. You'll probably save money, too.

Let's say two persons are traveling together. A compact rental car, such as the VW Golf, can be rented for two weeks in Germany for about $235 with tax and airport charges. Add $250 for fuel (2,500 km) and parking for a total cost of $485. A subcompact would be about $425, a midsize about $580.

Two 15-day Eurail Saverpasses total $916. Two Europasses—five days rail in Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy—are $522. Add Austria to the mix and the cost is $618.

Limit your travel to Germany and the cost pendulum swings back toward rail. The German Rail Pass provides five days first class travel for two persons for $414 or $286 second class. For 10 days the cost for two is $650 first class and $456 second class.

Remember, however, that unlike those five-days-in-two-months rail passes, you can travel in the car on every one of the 14 days you have it.

Rent in Switzerland and the 14-day cost for a compact car is about $650; a subcompact $600 and a midsize about $750. Travel only in Switzerland and a four-days-consecutive Swiss Pass for two is $422 first class and $300 second class. Eight-days is $506 and $380. For 15 consecutive days the tab is $588 and $460. The Swiss Flexipass for two is $411 first class and $282 second class but you get only three days travel. To add travel days, the cost is $24 per day per person first class and $19 second class.

In most cases, a solo traveler is probably better off financially and otherwise with a rail pass. (I can't imagine finding my way around a major European city or even through those mazes of country roads without a map reader/navigator.)

Besides economy, car travel offers a couple of other advantages. The first is access. Though the rail networks of Europe are extensive, many small towns and villages do not have train service. In addition, it seems to us a little harder to get off the beaten path and away from fellow tourists when traveling by train. On the major routes, especially during the high season, be prepared to travel with plenty of other U.S. visitors.

Flexibility is another car advantage. Though there is usually a train going where you want to go, when you want to go - not always. With a car, of course, you set the timetable.

And finally, for those who don't pack light and/or want to shop along the way, the trunk of a rental car is a good storage place.

Trains are unique and wonderful. If you're only visiting the larger cities, they beat cars for convenience and comfort. If the trip involves more than a couple of hundred kilometers, the train gets you to your destination in much better shape - both physically and mentally - than a car. Auto rentals, however, are usually cheaper, more flexible and still the best way to explore the countryside. In the end, of course, it comes down to what makes you feel most comfortable and your own style of travel.

Bottom Line: I must say, the older I get the more I like trains. When I stop writing this newsletter, I'm going to put an extra pair of bluejeans in a backpack and ride those rails for about three months straight. RHB

(Please note: You can purchase rail passes and get quotes for the lowest car rental rates elsewhere on this website)

July 1998