My European Adventures
Well into month five of my European adventure, I feel as though I’ve finally reached at least an intermediate level of knowledge about getting around in Europe. I’m no seasoned backpacker, but I’m no longer the novice I was when I arrived.
I’ve found traveling in Europe to be, as reported, much easier than traveling in the US. Things are well-connected, close together and structured to be tourist-friendly (the latter can be both good and bad, depending on the situation).
The quintessential Eurotraveler has always been, in my mind, the rail-rider. It’s how my parents did it, it’s how my grandparents did it, it’s THE way to do Europe…or so I thought.
While train travel remains my favorite mode of travel, it’s largely for sentimental reasons, challenged and often trumped by the lucrative practical advantages offered by the scrappy newcomer to the European travel scene: budget airlines.
My airline of choice is Easy Jet, a bright and flashy budget airline that is really unbelievably low on the price scale. Ryan Air also comes highly recommended, but as it doesn’t operate in Switzerland I have no personal experience.
These ultra-budget airlines simply cannot be beat. Prices vary by the day, and weekends tend to be a little more expensive, but if you plan ahead and buy on an off-peak day you’re looking at prices as low as $20 for an international European flight. Sure, it’s cramped and stuffy, and checked baggage costs extra, but these complaints tend to fade in the face of a $40 round trip ticket from Geneva to Paris, or London, or Barcelona, or a host of other cities from Dublin to Budapest. Not to mention that flying cuts down on travel time considerably, making weekend trips to capitals all over Europe not only affordable, but possible. A six hour train ride from Basel to Amsterdam becomes a 1.5 hour flight. Cheaper AND faster, who said you can’t have it all?
That being said, I do love riding the rails. There’s something about watching European countryside glide by through a train window that couldn’t be beat by the easiest of Easy Jets. While a plane will get to you a big destination at top speeds, real exploring is best accomplished rail-pass in hand.
As far as rail-passes go, you’ve got a couple options- and there’s a ton of information out there, so I’ll just touch on it. For non Europeans you’ve got Eurail, which offers passes which can be bought by the day in different combinations of countries, regions and amounts of time. For European citizens and residents you’ve got Interrail (once you’ve resided in the EU for 6 months you are eligible for the much-cheaper Interrail pass). Certain countries (notably the UK) are not offered via Eurail pass, so take that into account when planning.
The good thing about having a rail pass is you’ve got hop-on, hop-off, all-day travel for the days that you have the pass. For example, if you have a 4-day Eurail pass, you have 4 full days during which you have unlimited travel on almost all European railways.
Rail passes also simplify the rail process, as every country has a slightly different system and it’s nice to avoid the lines and hassle of buying a specific ticket each time you change trains. But beware of using a rail pass as your go-to option. Make sure to do at least a quick review of a-la-carte ticket prices for your trip and compare them to pass prices before you go for it.
Ultimately, until they finally come up with a teleportation device, there isn’t a catch-all ideal travel system. I’ve found that the best travelers are flexible enough to utilize a variety of options: planes, trains, boats, cars, water-taxis, funiculaires, whatever it takes to find the best balance of price and overall travel experience. However, even the best-laid plans can go horribly awry. Learning how to shake off the frustrations of a pricier-than-expected ticket or adjust to the missed train in a strange city is part of what makes traveling an experience of growth and self-improvement.
I still have a lot to learn about effectively getting from place to place without too much strain on either my psyche or my wallet, but slowly but surely I’m getting better at choosing my routes and modes of travel. Nothing feels better than getting there and back again all in one piece.