I would like to think that the times of the excitement of cheap air travel are over. Now, whenever I have to use planes (which I try to avoid, but sometimes due to time, money and land constraints, I use them), I am always dreading what comes along with air travel: Cumbersome transport to the airport, long queues, noise, masses of people within a small, soulless space, shops that sell useless junk and paraphernalia that no-one needs, exorbitant food prices for take-away sandwiches or croissants, the usual food chains with little variety, shelves full of plastic water bottles with no (or at least, hidden) water fountains, fluorescent, headache-inducing lights, being forced to go through the Duty Free section where clouds of perfume, glitter and advertisement envelop you, and bored, smiling shop assistants flinging perfume samples and shots of expensive whiskey at you. (Note: My experiences derive from the busiest airports in Europe)
Then, just when you have come to rest in an empty, cold metal seat, the announcement for boarding comes up and a queue of at least fifty people congregate within minutes and you gauge whether you wait until the end or better join now before another hundred people stand in line ahead of you.
For the reader’s sake, I will leave out the actual journey on the airplane. I am sure most of you know are experienced in it. This is now where European trains come in. I often hear people bemoaning the high prices but actually, surprisingly, there are a lot of affordable options. Railcards and membership discounts aside, the French, for example, also have the Ouigo and the iDTGV, basically cheap ‘no-frills’ trains. I think train prices often offers good value for long distances, even across countries: For example, the Austrian OEBB nightjet sells tickets from Berlin to Vienna for 29 euros. The journey takes around 12 hours during nighttime and includes only a seat (for a couchette you pay an extra 60 euros), but who can complain for 30 euros? The nightjet also goes from Berlin to Zurich for 39 euros in 10 hours. The night train line operates in Berlin, Duesseldorf, Hamburg and goes south via Munich to Milan, Venice and Rome.
With the French iDTGV, I once travelled from Irun/Hendaye, the French-Spanish border at the Atlantic coast, to Paris for 19 euros. The journey took 6 hours and although the leg space was very small for such a long journey, I was walking along the compartments and noticed a lot of empty seats in the same economy compartments. The iDTGV often starts and ends in Paris and goes as far as Marseille, Nice and Montpellier starting from 19 euros. I have not had any experiences with Ouigo, but prices are offered very low, starting from 10-15 euros from Paris to Bordeaux or Montpellier. The Ouigo system is similar to budget airlines: You can take a backpack for free but need to pay for each luggage.
Then there is also the famous night train from Lisbon to Irun/Hendaye starting only from 29 euros and taking 13 hours. I am sure train connections in Eastern Europe are cheap as well, but I haven’t had much experience about it. Some countries, such as Spain, are in my opinion not so train-friendly. Sometimes the French or Spanish TGV release some cheap train tickets, for example from Lyon to Barcelona for 40 euros, whereas the standard price would be around 100 euros. The train system within Spain is very expensive and the infrastructure does not link smaller cities very efficiently.
Instead, I have found that within Spain, people use buses or car sharing platforms. BlaBlacar is probably the most popular car sharing website in Europe, but in Spain, many people use the Spanish equivalent Amovens, which does not charge any booking fees. Usually hitchhiking is my first mode of travelling, but for reasonably short distances, where trains would be too expensive, I have used BlaBlaCar many times and most conversations have been extremely interesting. It also helped me in using different languages that I have learned, when I used it in France, Spain or Portugal for example. Sharing the car with people from different countries, I got to hear a lot about their culture or country from a local’s point of view.
I think train travel (and perhaps I could include car sharing as well, but more often than not, trains pass through a nicer landscape and you can just stare out of the window, whereas in cars, sometimes you feel forced to keep a conversation or start panicking about the person’s driving skills) still evoke the romantic and anticipating feeling of travelling. I feel the momentum of getting closer to another country or culture coming up rather than just being literally dumped into a different place by a plane.
A good site for reference is seat61.com, which offers excellent advice and routes for train travel in Europe and worldwide. It is run by a single man who used to work as a railwayman. It is also worth checking out his Facebook page to see new updates regarding train travel. For example, today I just found out that a train ticket from Madrid to Lisbon costs just around 24 euros for November. This shows again that train travel can be really affordable if booked in advance and off-season. Now I know why my intention to travel from Germany to Portugal by train was so expensive: I was looking at prices in August. I am also signed up to newsletters from TGV and RENFE and during low seasons, I often get notified regarding discounted train tickets which are very reasonable and often even cheaper than going by plane.
For hitchhiking, I use hitchwiki, and the advice there has been mixed, both positive and sometimes confusing. Some of the descriptions and directions would have been better to see visually, whether through a drawn map or photographs. There were some times where I ended up on the highway on a little tiny spot where only one car could fit in and cars passing by at 80-100 kph, looking at me bewildered for a split second. Nonetheless, most of my experiences with hitchhiking have been fun, especially when you are not in a rush to get anywhere soon and open for the destination.
I should also mention Flixbus here (and the other big bus companies such as Megabus, Alsa etc). Again, I have no experiences as I have not used the company and usually only use buses as the last option as I get sick in them. I really have developed an aversion for long-distance bus travel. Looking at prices for Flixbus, most journeys seem to be cheaper than train travel but not necessarily cheaper than BlaBlacar. I have heard mixed reviews: Many complaints seem to be about traffic delays. And last but not least, there is also InterRail (for Europeans) or EuRail (for non-Europeans). Again, I haven’t used it as I found them a bit expensive but seat61 gives good advice about it. Personally, I think the height of InterRail has passed some decades ago, when my mother used to be my age and used InterRail to travel around Europe as a cheap mode of travelling. Prices vary according to your age, days of travelling and countries. Just as an example, for four days within a month you can travel in one country (such as Portugal, Greece, Turkey) for 71 euros, in Italy for 111 euros, in Spain for 159 euros. The InterRail Global Pass costs from 206 euros for 5 days within a period of 15 days, or 253 euros for 7 days within a period of one month.
Aside from the joys of train travelling where not doing anything but staring out of the window for hours is an accepted way of passing time (which, under different circumstances would be called lazy, boring and useless), there is also an important factor of reducing our carbon footprint. A good website is ecopassenger.com which displays carbon dioxide emissions, energy resource consumption and other emissions for each journey you enter.
I hope this article will get people excited about train travel and other ways of travelling. And if anyone has any recommendations or tips about train travel in Eastern Europe, which I would love to explore soon, please share it with me!