So, what’s the best way to travel around Europe? Is it to sit back, relax and take in the scenery as your train speeds you, uninterrupted, to your next destination? Or is it to be the master of your own destiny, hunting down your own personal piece of paradise from behind the wheel of a rented car?
They both have their pros and cons, so to help you decide which fits you best we’ve written a guide that pits interrailing against roadtripping, mano-a-mano.
Would you believe it? It’s actually cheaper to rent a car for three weeks than it is to buy a 22 day Interrail Global pass. It seems it’s not just in the UK that the price of public transport is skewed the wrong way. Of course, there are far more options as far as companies go when it comes to renting a car, we have a huge range of cars to rent!
For a manual Mini Cooper with unlimited mileage and a ‘full to empty’ fuel policy (meaning you pay for a full tank in advance and return the tank empty), prices start around the £190 mark (approx. £9.00 a day). On the other hand, a Global Interrail Pass that allows you to travel to 30 different countries costs £285.16 for travellers who are 25 and under and £427.33 for those over 26. Of course, you can get cheaper passes that offer less travel over fewer days, but it’s this one that works out as the best deal.
In some countries, France and Italy for example, your pass isn’t enough to cover the cost of the train ticket and they charge you extra to book onto a train. It’s worth reading the small print on the ticket. Else you’re probably going to find yourself in a rather nasty and lengthy argument with a conductor at some point during your trip.
Still, you’ll need to keep in mind extra costs when it comes to driving too. If you’re doing a lot of driving, then you’ll undoubtedly need to fill up on fuel a few times, and then there’s insurance. But remember, you do not have to get your insurance policy with the rental company. You are entitled to shop around for a better deal and don’t let them bully you into believing otherwise.
Strangely, the car wins out here. It’s unlikely your overall bill is going to be more than the price of an Interrail Pass, especially if you’re over 26.
This is kind of a no-brainer really. When it comes to lugging a backpack around Europe, the car with its beautiful boot wins.
The trains in Europe don’t have the widest of walkways and it’s really not very fun when, while looking for a seat, the tent hanging from your bag hooks onto an old lady trying to shimmy past you the other way and drags her behind you for three carriages before you finally notice.
You’ll start apologising profusely, but it’ll be in a language that she doesn’t understand. Even if she does usually understand it, the stress of the situation will have turned that part of the brain off. No, people on trains do not like those with over-sized backpacks.
Freedom to Explore
Where a car really wins out over the interrailing option is in the freedom to explore. While Europe is covered by a pretty extensive rail network (even Eastern Europe is well covered when compared to other parts of the world like America or Australia), these only really stop at cities, towns or sometimes very rarely at the odd village. It’s true that you can get to out of the way places, but that involves booking a bus or coach from a tourist office or your accommodation and shelling out extra on top of your pricey interrail ticket.
If you want to climb some out of the way mountain peak in the Picos de Europa, off the beaten track, then you will need to get yourself a car. You’re unlikely to find your secluded piece of paradise using public transport.
It’s quite hard to get lost on a train. The only real problem you’re going to have is if you hopped on the wrong train at the station, or if you make the dreaded unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere.
Being bundled off a train in a remote village in the Czech Republic is kind of scary, especially when no one speaks a word of English. You genuinely start to believe you are going to have to live there and momentarily you start mentally making those calls home. “No, sorry Mum, I’m not coming back. I live in the Czech Republic now, apparently.” Luckily, the universal language on pointing at a map and imploring “Here? Do you know here?” usually works after a while.
Getting lost in a car is probably nigh on impossible to actually do now too, what with sat nav and all those magic apps. If you do get lost – say the gadget breaks and like most modern folks you can’t read a map – then at least you have the shelter of your car to keep you warm, rather than just a train station platform.
The real problem comes if you break down. If you take your own car, make sure you have adequate cover with from a reputable company like AA or Green Flag. It’s best to do a little research before you book.
This is a tough one. There are a lot of travellers out there using interrail, so you’re quite likely to bump into a few of them on the trains around Europe. Otherwise, you’ll no doubt find a fair few interrailers in the hostels you visit and will probably find yourself shifting your plans to hop on the same trains as them. Those long train journeys across the continent are a great way to get to know new folks and make some friends.
On the other hand, a car is great for bribery. Offer a fellow traveller a lift and you have a firm friend for life… or at least until you arrive at your destination.
Only a prize fool likes driving with a hangover, so there’s not really much of a contest here. Not only is it unpleasant to fight that nauseous feeling while focussing on those white lines painted on the road as they zip by, but it’s also pretty dangerous too.
On the other hand, if you wake up in the morning with a great stonking hangover and the only thing you have ahead of you is a train journey – no problem. Set up your bag as a pillow, lean and relax. Get a little shut eye. Dream, recover and wake up right as rain at your next destination. Just make sure you don’t over-sleep and miss your train in the morning. Or worse, over-sleep, miss your stop and end up in the wrong country.
If you’re travelling in a couple then arguments are an inevitability, as sure as night follows day. Since navigation is now left to a machine, arguments have now become slightly less volatile than they were in the days of the A – Z Atlas, however they aren’t entirely gone.
There’s still plenty to bicker about, even in the digital age, like music choices, or why you didn’t stop at that last petrol station, whether it’s OK to go in the bushes by the main road or use the empty Coke bottle. Also, unfortunately, the machine giving directions doesn’t argue back, so when it shorts out and sends you the wrong way, your passenger must become the unfortunate victim of your ire.
The train is a little less stressful, but by no means free of travel tensions. Understanding the train timetable in a foreign language isn’t always the easiest of things to do. When you do hop on that wrong train, then it’s always the other persons fault. The memory becomes very short when you’re lost.
Whichever means of travel you take, avoid Monopoly or Scrabble directly after you arrive. Any amount of competition, no matter how small, will end in a murder charge.
Relaxation and View
You’re travelling through Europe, a beautiful and varied continent that throws up wooded mountain ranges, lush alpine landscape, and dusty Mediterranean olive groves, all in relatively close proximity. It’s a view you’re going to want to take in as you travel.
Naturally, the best way to do this is relaxing on a train. Some train lines are even built specifically with the view in mind. Check out the specially designed Golden Pass scenic train in Switzerland with its awesome panoramic views. The route is truly awe inspiring, running beside Lake Geneva through to the Alpine summits and on to Lake Lucerne – incredible. It also doesn’t cost any extra to ride.
While driving, you don’t quite have the same freedom to simply take in the sights. You have a road to focus on, other cars, pedestrians, that kind of thing, and that can be stressful. And you’ll probably become very jealous of the passenger sitting next to you, snapping shots of those awesome mountain peaks you are taking all the trouble to drive by. Then you’ll arrive at your hostel, play Monopoly and… well, we’ve already covered that, haven’t we.
So there we have it, the pros and cons of interrailing and road tripping around Europe. Now it’s up to you to decide. For the true adventurer, the car will always have to win out. It’s the best way to find those out of the way spots – the unspoiled lakes, those incredible and deserted mountain peaks. But at the same time, a few hours in a train carriage isn’t going to take as much out of you as hours staring at the road. It rather depends on who you are. For the city explorer, the train will more than suffice. But for the traveller looking for adventure out in the sticks, you better get yourself your own set of wheels.