Helpline Question of the Month: Planes, Trains or Automobiles?
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Rick Steves' Travelers Helpline is where we take a step back, and let travelers share information directly with one another.
A few weeks ago, Laurie from Texas asked for help figuring out which mode of transportation would be best for her upcoming trip. And boy, did she get advice...from a number of savvy, opinionated (and not always agreeing!) travelers.
Did it help? Was it a case of information overload?
Tag along on Laurie's pre-trip journey through our Travelers Helpline...
Planning a June, 2010 trip: 3-4 days each in Berlin and Rhine area (maybe Bacharach), 5 days in Paris and 3 in Normandy area with husband and 3 17yos. Hoping to snag a decent open-jaw fare into Berlin, out of CDG. Have looked at train/car/Eurail pass possibilities, trying to figure it out in terms of price and convenience. Husband has driven Germany before but the boys are TALL and rental cars are either small or expensive. Found a reasonable Thalys family fare from Cologne to Paris, but am wondering about 1) car vs. train travel in Germany and 2) logistics when depending on train from Paris to Bayeux, Mont Michel, D-day beaches. Rental car seems the best way to maximize time in that area. Thanks for any suggestions.
Kyle, TX USA 11/10/09
11/10/09 7:22 PM
wishing I was in Europe
Trains in Germany are great. And hope you get a free upgrade to a larger car. Three in the back seat is pretty tight. It depends on what/where you want to go in Germany. You can train Berlin to Frankfurt and to the Rhine Valley and do without a car, and just take the boats and trains on the River. That's actually pretty easy by public transportation (my car sat for a couple of days in Bacharach). But if you want to get into the Mosel, a car makes it better.
Same with France, a train is okay getting to Paris and out to start your Normandy trip, but a car is really needed for the beaches and then on to MSM.
11/11/09 4:29 AM
There's places that you definitely don't want a car, like Berlin and Paris. Then you don't want the drop fees involved with renting a car in Germany and dropping it in France. I'd think the only parts you may want a car for are your days in Rhine (depending on how much exploring you want to do — there's plenty of trains and boats along the Rhine, renting bikes may be a cool option, too) and for your days in Normandy. If you want to get off the Rhine, then you may want to have a car.
11/11/09 5:22 AM
Normandy: Without a tour, you definitely want a car if you want to get to the beaches and small towns easily. Bus service is very marginal. We took the train to Caen and picked up a car there at the station for the trip to Bayeux - driving the area was pretty simple. If you want to start in the Paris area, I've found it pretty easy to drive out of Versailles.
Berlin to the Rhine: A long trip that will be pricey on the fast trains - about 6 hours, standard fare over 110 Euros each. See the DB website for schedules.
"Happy Weekend ticket": Total cost for 5, 37 Euros!! Travel on Sat or Sun between Berlin and Koblenz on the regional trains. Trip takes about 10-11 hours and requires 4 changes of train, but it's an absolute steal if you have the time. There's an 8:11 departure from Berlin that gets you into Koblenz at about 7 pm.
Car: Maybe a little faster than the Happy Weekend alternative but a lot more expensive and you still have to pick up, drop off, navigate, etc. Also, train transport in the Rhine area is excellent and daypasses for 27 Euros will cover your whole family while there.
"Dauer-Spezial" train tickets: Advance-sale, limited quantities. They'll probably still be offered next year but the cheapies go fast. Lowest price now is 29 Euros each and they go up from there.
Rhine to Paris: Check the DB website for advance sale tickets.
11/11/09 10:04 AM
Minot, ND USA
For weekdays there is also the Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket which, like the Happy Weekend Ticket, is limited to regional trains and is good for travel all across Germany. However, travel cannot start before 09:00. The first person pays 34 EUR. Persons 2-5 each pay 5 EUR.
I assume that the Koeln-Paris Thalys family fare you found was 39 EUR/person. If you book well in advance (up to 90 days allowed), you can get a Smoove fare of 25 EUR/person.
If you decide to take the train from Paris to Bayeux, book well in advance (up to three months allowed) at www.tgv-europe.com to get a Prem's fare as low as 15 EUR. To keep the site in English and to avoid being bumped to the Rail Europe site that doesn't offer discount fares, choose Great Britain as your country of residence.
11/11/09 4:38 PM
Kyle, TX USA
Thank you all for the great info. on fares and deadlines for purchase. We will be traveling on a Sunday, so family fun fare would work. I appreciate the help!
11/14/09 8:04 AM
Get a car for northern France! It will save you a bundle overall and there's lots to see along the way. (Ex: Le Mont St Michel is outrageous — but a must-see. Do not eat or sleep there. Plus you can see it all in a couple of hours. Plus it's a long hike from the train/bus stations out the causeway. This savings alone will pay for most of the rental car.)
Try this itinerary: Day 1: Paris to Rouen (1.5 hrs). Richard II's (Lionheart)heart is entombed in cathedral and site of death of Jean d'Arc just down the street. Two hours will cover it all and lunch as well; therefore, if you left early enough, you schould have stopped at Les Andelys for second cup of coffee and driven to top of hill to see ruins of Chateau Guillard. (Only castle built by Rich II in France, although he spend most of his life there.) Day 1 (cont): Rouen to Honfleur (1.0 hrs). The absolute best small seaport in France. Note sign on harbormaster's building saying that Champlain left for new world from here. Walk the port, have a drink, but don't eat there. Visit church uphill from the port that was made by shipbuilders — the roof structure looks identical to the skelton of an overturned wooden boat. Eat supper on the square or one of the side streets — much cheaper and better than the port area eat anything but mussels, these come later. Day 2: Honfleur to Normandy beaches and cemetery (1.5 hours). Two hours here should do it. the head back 15 min to Bayeux spend an hour seeing the tapestry and have lunch. Day 2 (cont): Bayeux to LMSM (1.5 hrs). Drive all the way out thecauseway to park. Spend a couple of hours walking around and leave. Buy a drink and eat cheese and bread from the car if you must. Day 2 (cont): LMSM to St Malo (1.0 hr) Gorge on mussels for supper at any of the places just inside the wall. Day 3: St Malo to Paris (4.0 hr) with a stop for lunch three quarters of the way (at Chartres, the very best of the Notre Dame cathedrals.
11/14/09 8:39 AM
Denver, CO USA
The €27 day pass Russ mentions is the Rheinland-Pfalz-Ticket, which is valid on the Rhein from Mainz down to Bonn and up the Mosel to France. For a little smaller area, Oberwesel to Remagen on the Rhein and up to Bullay on the Mosel, you can use an VRM (Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Mosel) Minigruppenkarte, €20 all day (after 9 workdays) for up to five people. Bacharach is just outside the VRM area of validity.
The Dauer-Spezial fare have to be booked at least three days in advance, online or at a station (counter costs more for personal service or automat at same price), but realistically, you want to book it months in advance from over here. You can print the ticket at home from a pdf file they send you.
11/21/09 12:00 PM
Sierra Madre, CA USA
We have traveled often with our son. For the three of us, it is cheaper and infinitely more convenient to rent a car. Train for one is fine, right? But x3 adds up. Our son, on last trip, was quite long-legged. Plus, Normandy is wonderful in a car. You can drive down to the beaches, out to the historic sites, see all the nooks and crannies. We only do rental cars now.
11/22/09 8:42 PM
Denver, CO USA
I don't know where you have been doing your traveling, but apparently you are not familiar with public transportation in Germany. There (9 trips, 18 weeks) I have consistently found public transportation to be less expensive than a car, for 1, 2, or more people. For short distance travel in most German states (Länder), you can travel all day on regional trains and buses for about €30 for up to five people. Three people are no more expensive, total, than two. Three people are only €10 per person. For cross-Länder travel, you can use a Schoenes-Wochenende- or Quer-durchs-Land Ticket for €37 to €44 for three people. For longer distances, you can purchase Dauer-Spezial-Tickets from anywhere in Germany to anywhere in German for three for as low as €87. For longer trips, fuel for a car can often be that much.
The two week trip I took through Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria a few years ago with my wife is a perfect example. The lowest car rental quote I got, without CDW, was over $600 (with fuel). With CDW, the best car quote was almost $1000. We actually spent about $300 on public transportation, a savings of $300-$700. Since we used mostly Länder-Tickets, the cost for 3 of us would not have been appreciable more, but the car was a compact, probably too small for three people and luggage, so a car for three would have cost more than that.
I would hardly call driving a convenience, particularly for the driver. I'd much rather sit in a big comfortable train seat, watching the scenery, than behind a car steering wheel watching the road. For the driver as well as passengers, you can get up and stretch your legs or use the bathroom without having to stop. It's nice to be able to choose between watching the scenery, reading, working on my journal, editing my photos.
In this country, everyplace I go, I have to drive. I consider that a major inconvenience. Part of the "vacation" of going to Europe is not having to drive.
11/23/09 4:54 AM
Lewiston, Idaho USA
I completely agree with everything Lee says! It's also nice to not have to wonder for months after a trip if a ticket might show up in the mail for having been in a ZTL. (See http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/italy/florence.htm )
11/23/09 5:41 AM
Most of the areas you're travelling have excellent public transportation, so using trains would be the most efficient and quickest method of travel.
Given the very short duration of your trip (16 days?), I'd suggest minimizing travel times as much as possible. Rental cars can NOT travel as fast as the TGV or other high speed trains (300 kmH) so trains are the quickest way to get from point to point.
With two adults and three teenagers, being stuck for many hours in a car which will probably not be too "large" would not be the most enjoyable travel experience (IMO). At least on a train, it's a bit easier to get up and move around and I've met some interesting people on trains. Also having a car in Berlin and Paris especially would not be a good idea.
With the Itinerary you listed, the only place where having a rental car would be useful is the Normandy area, as the public transportation (especially to the D-Day beaches and other sites) is a bit "limited. If you're planning to see some of the historic sites, there are two choices. You can use a rental car to travel to the beaches, however the sites are a bit "spread out" and when you arrive at the beach there's not much to look at. There's a rental car agency in Bayeux, so you could take the train from Gare St. Lazare in Paris and pick up the car there.
The other alternative (depending on your budget) would be to take a day tour with a firm such as BattleBus. They're highly recommended by many here (including me!), and their Guides do an outstanding job of imparting a sense of the history of the events that took place (and they know all the obscure and interesting places). They use Mini-Vans which would perhaps be a bit more comfortable. While in Bayeux, you could also have a look at the famous Tapestry which depicts another famous battle that took place in 1066 in England.
Rick has a Map in the front of most of his Guidebooks which shows the distance between cities and the approximate cost for P-P tickets. I believe it's somewhere on this website also, but I'd have to search to find it. When you've finalized your Itinerary, it should be fairly easy to work out a comparison between Railpasses and P-P tickets. Note that Railpasses do NOT include the reservation fees which are usually compulsory on the high speed trains - you would need to pay for these separately. If you have any questions, send a note to the Rail department at ETBD, and I'm sure they'd be able to help (as well as selling you Railpasses if you decide to go that route). You may find it useful to download the Free PDF Rail Guide from this website - click the "Railpasses" tab at the top and then look in the lower right corner for the link.
You can weigh this against the cost of a rental car for the entire trip, which would of course include fuel (expensive), CDW, parking, tolls, possibly traffic tickets, etc. You may also need an International Driver's Permit to operate in some countries (ie: if you'll be passing through Austria), and each driver must have one. It would also be a really good idea to pack along a GPS unit and a good map for "backup" (I usually use Michelin maps). On my last trip to Normandy, even though I was using a good Map, I unforunately got "lost" a couple of times. I always travel with a GPS now!!!
Good luck and happy travels!
11/23/09 5:51 AM
Kyle, TX USA
Thanks, Lee. I was hoping you would respond. It's been difficult to figure out the special deals/family fares, etc. from point to point (Berlin to Rothenburg to Cochem, to Köln for the Thalys train to Paris) and compare prices. Car rental is at least $100 a day and that's for a small one that our kids wouldn't even fit in. I would much prefer the train and love watching the scenery rather than navigating.
Thanks to everyone for the help.
11/23/09 8:19 AM
Denver, CO USA
Laurie, I suggest you get familiar with the German Rail query page. This is where you can find a lot of the specials, such as the Dauer-Spezial. You can also start with www.bahn.de, but it well eventually get you to the page I use in the link. You might also want to look at my website, www.germantravel-info.com. I have a few pages on how to use the Bahn schedule site.
If you put in, for example, from "Berlin", to "Rothenburg ob der Tauber Bahnhof" and a date at least three days in the future, you should see connections with "from 29 EUR" in the next-to-last column, "Savings Fares". If tickets at that price are still available, you can order them online with your credit card and they will email you the tickets as a pdf file that you can print at home. Dauer-Spezial fares are tiered (some at €29, some at €39, etc) and are very popular. The least expensive ones sell out quickly so order them as soon as you can commit.
Dauer-Spezial tickets are an offer of German Rail, the Bahn, which runs the Fernverkehr, express trains, ICE/IC/EC, in Germany. A Dauer-Spezial ticket must include at least one leg on a train of this class. It can also include a leg (legs) of regional train travel from small towns without Fernverkehr service to larger stations where you can get the express train, and visa versa. Although you must take the designated express trains (or forfeit the ticket), you can actually take any regional trains as long as the travel starts after midnight on that day and concludes before 10 AM the following day ("vor- und nach-Lauf").
For Berlin to Rothenburg, I found a Dauer-Spezial offer for a connection with ICEs from Berlin to Wuerzburg with a change at Fulda followed by two regional trains from Wuerzburg to Rothenburg with a change in Steinach - all for €29 pP.
The connection for which I found the Dauer-Spezial fare is 5h12m and would cost €145 for 5 people. ViaMichelin estimates the time by car at 4h54m, less than 20 min faster, and the cost of fuel as €65. So, you can probably rent a car for less than €80 for that day, but if it sits idle the next day, while you are in Rothenburg, you've spent another day's rental.
If you don't mind spending 9 hours on the train, all five of you can go by regional train using a Schoenes-Wochenende-Ticket (€37 for five on weekend) or a Quer-durchs-Land ticket (€54 for five on a workday).
For travel around the Rhein/Mosel area, most of it is in the VRM (Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Mosel). A entire district Tageskarte (Day Ticket, called a Minigruppenkarte) for five people is €20 and gives you complete use of the regional trains and buses from Oberwesel to Remagen/Linz and up the Mosel to Bullay. For extended travel, a Rheinland-Pfalz-Ticket, for €27, gives five people unlimited travel on regional trains and buses from Mainz to Bonn and up the Mosel to France.
You can also use the Minigruppenkarte along with a VRS (Verkehrsverbund-Rhein-Sieg) 5 person PreisStufe 6 TagesTicket (€27,50) for Cochem to Köln (€47,50). The VRM ticket is valid to Remagen or Linz; the VRS TagesTicket covers from there to Köln and any travel by train, S-Bahn, or bus once you get to Köln.
11/23/09 11:33 AM
Minot, ND USA
On the Thalys site the cheapest advance purchase fare for Köln-Paris is a €25 Smoove fare. You can get the same fare on the German Rail site. In either case, book well in advance (up to 90 days) because the allotted number of cheap tickets sell out fast.
And the ending?
We contacted Laurie at the start of January, and here's what she had to say:
"We have settled on covering the Berlin-Rothenberg-Rhine area by car; Thalys to Paris; then hopefully an apartment for 5 days and car travel through Normandy. I am waiting for airfares to drop, and hope to have the nerve to wait it out! The Travelers Helpline input was quite helpful. The thoroughness of information (like from Lee — what is his day job??) regarding "deals" was remarkable. This is our second family trip we have planned using Rick Steves resources, and I am very appreciative of the wealth of information."