Hi from Rick: Why They're Taxing and Spending
|Rick opts for an old fashioned mode of transportation in Ireland.|
This year is the 30th anniversary of my first Eurail trip. And travel in Europe has changed as much as...I have. Tucking what must be my 30th railpass into my moneybelt the other day, I couldn't help but think about the differences.
In marked contrast to government-gutting 21st century America, Europeans are piling taxes on their own automobiles in order to fund better public transportation. London's new "congestion fee" ($8 per car entering the city center per day) is keeping traffic down and funding cheaper, more frequent bus service. Now buses cost half what they did, and make their rounds every 3 or 4 minutes.
Sounds socialistic? Yankee-style competition is alive and well, too. While the plummeting fares of Europe's discount airlines have been grabbing the headlines, a nice ripple effect is how well the rail system has risen to the challenge. I just read an "advert" in London claiming that more business travelers now ride the Eurostar train from London to Paris than all airlines combined. I can see why on my last trip under the English Channel, the ease, speed and comfort of the train impressed upon me that this was better than flying. By October, travel time from downtown London to downtown Paris will drop to just to 2.5 hours. Factor in time saved by avoiding the trip to the airport, check-in lines and security delays, and the numbers speak for themselves.
When I do fly, I'm zipping out to airports on new express train services (Oslo's new airport is even farther out of town than Denver's). Just today, I zipped right past Milan's rush hour gridlock to Malpensa airport on the sleek Malpensa Express (2 hours, 40 minutes, $10).
Planning this summer's trip, I was disappointed that the overnight train no longer runs from Stockholm to Oslo. Then I realized why: a brand new train does the trip in a zippy five hours. Rocketing across Scandinavia, I was surprised with a hot dinner (it came with my first class railpass and reservation). Under a late evening Scandinavian sun, my train seemed to skate over glassy lakes, then banked around corners through lush birch forests. I stuck the Swedish flag toothpick in my meatball and just gazed in amazement out the window.
When I made my reservation in Denmark, the lady at the counter asked me a new question: "quiet car?" Having lots of writing to do, I said "Ya sure." And I rode with local businessmen in silence: no cell phones, no children, no walkmen. Just serious readers, Danish workaholics, and a travel writer organizing his thoughts.
For those with play on their minds, France is all abuzz over how the TGV is bringing the country's quiet corners within easy striking distance of Paris. A beach break on the Mediterannean is now an easy half-day away from the Champs-Elysees.
Beyond speed, today's rail traveler has choices that were unheard of thirty years ago, when my railpass choice was kindergarten-simple: 30, 60 or 90 days to cover 17 countries (whether I wanted 'em or not). Today, travelers can be flexi in both days and countries paid for and covered. In other words, you can choose any individual 5 to 10 train days in a two month window and lace together any 3, 4, or 5 neighboring countries to tailor the most economical pass for your trip needs.
Every time I finish a train ride caught up on my research, well-rested, and unfrazzled, I think "I could be behind the wheel about half way to my destination fighting European traffic." Sure, some trips make sense by car. But for big city hopping, rail is my choice. And perhaps the biggest, most costly mistake American travelers make in planning their trip is under-estimating how well Europe's public transportation system can lace together the trip of their dreams.