Rent a Car or Take the Train?

Rental Car, Norway
Cars are generally a better option in more remote areas, such as northern Norway. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
By Rick Steves

Whether to take the train or rent a car is one of your biggest pre-trip decisions. Consider these variables when deciding if your European experience might be better by car or train:

Concern By Car By Train

Packing heavy

No problem

Must go light

Scouring one area

Best

Frustrating

All over Europe

Too much driving

Great

Big cities

Pointless

Ideal

Camping

Perfect

More like boot camp

One or two people

Expensive

Probably cheaper

Three or more people

Probably cheaper

More expensive

With young kids

Survivable

Miserable

Environmental

Less green

More green

Some places are easier to handle than others. The British Isles are good for driving — reasonable rentals, no language barrier, exciting rural areas, and fine roads...and after one near head-on collision scares the bloody heck out of you, you'll have no trouble remembering which side of the road to drive on.

Other good driving areas are Scandinavia (hug the lip of a majestic fjord as you meander from village to village); Belgium and the Netherlands (yield to bikes — you're outnumbered); Spain and Portugal (explore out-of-the-way villages and hill towns); Germany (enjoy wonderfully engineered freeways much loved by wannabe race-car drivers); Switzerland and Austria (drive down sunny alpine valleys with yodeling on the stereo for auto ecstasy); and Slovenia (a picturesque country with many diverse sights hard to reach by public transit).

Comparing Rough Costs

When comparing the costs of renting a car, leasing a car, using a rail pass, or buying point-to-point train tickets, consider these factors:

  • duration of your trip (dramatically affects the cost of car rental; less important for train tickets or rail passes)
  • miles you'll cover (important for point-to-point train tickets; irrelevant to rail passes and car rental/leasing, except for fuel costs)
  • countries you'll be visiting (very important for a rail pass; less critical for car rental/leasing, unless you pick up in one country and drop off in another).

Here are sample per-person prices for a three-week trip from Amsterdam to Rome to Paris, covering about 2,000 miles:

Means of Transport Cost per Person

Rail pass (first class)

$750

Point-to-point train tickets (second class)

$950

Subcompact car rental (2 people)

$1,050

Subcompact car lease (2 people)

$900

Midsize car rental (4 people)

$600

Midsize car lease (4 people)

$575

Fine Print

Rail Pass: This is the approximate cost of a pass covering 10 days of train travel (not necessarily in a row), valid across continental Europe, and priced assuming that two or more people are traveling together. Seat or overnight-berth reservation fees are not included.

Car Rental/Lease: These prices are for cars with manual transmission and include tax, the fee for drop-off in a different country ($100–300), and gas costs of about $7/gallon at 35 mpg for smaller cars (30 mpg for midsize). Rental rates also include CDW supplements (but not "super CDW") and fees for an airport pickup (about 10 percent); leased cars do not come with these expenses.

The Case for Train Travel

The European train system shrinks what is already a small continent, making the budget whirlwind or far-reaching tour a reasonable and exciting possibility for anyone. The system works great for locals and travelers alike, with well-signed stations, easily accessed schedules, and efficient connections between popular destinations. First-time train travelers get the hang of it faster than they expect. Generally, European trains go where you need them to go and are fast, frequent, and affordable. Lace this network together to create the trip of your dreams.

For many travelers, the pleasure of journeying along Europe's rails really is as good as the destination. Train travel, though not as flexible as driving, can be less stressful. On a train, you can forget about parking hassles, confusing road signs, speed limits, bathroom stops, or Italian drivers. Watch the scenery instead of fixing your eyes on the road, and maybe even enjoy a glass of the local wine. Compared to flying, rail travel allows more spontaneity. If a town looks too cute to miss, hop out and catch the next train.

It's also quite time-efficient, especially with Europe's ever-growing network of super-fast trains. With night trains, you can easily have dinner in Paris, sleep on the train, and have breakfast in Venice, Munich, or Madrid. And (with the exception of the Eurostar Chunnel train) you don't need to show up early. As long as you're on board when the train leaves, you're on time.

As Americans, we're accustomed to being shoehorned into a cramped car or an economy-class airline seat. On the train, you can walk around, spread out in comparatively wide seats, and easily retrieve an extra sweater from your luggage. The popularity of clean-air laws has made trains even more comfortable, as most of Western Europe's trains are now smoke-free.

Trains remain the quintessentially European way to go, and the best option for romantics. Driving to the Austrian lakeside hamlet of Hallstatt is easy, but arriving by train is magical: Hop off at the hut-sized station across the lake, catch the waiting boat, and watch the town's shingled roofs and church spires grow bigger as the mist lifts off the water.

The Case for Car Rental

While most European travel dreams come with a clickety-clack rhythm of the rails soundtrack — and most first trips are best by train — you should at least consider the convenience of driving. Behind the wheel you’re totally free, going where you want, when you want.

Driving is ideal on countryside-focused trips. The super mobility of a car saves you time in locating budget accommodations in small towns and away from the train lines. This savings helps to rationalize the "splurge" of a car rental. You can also play it riskier in peak season, arriving in a town late with no reservation. If the hotels are full, simply drive to the next town. And driving is a godsend for those who don’t believe in packing light — you can even rent a trailer.

Every year, as train prices go up, car rental becomes a better option for budget travelers in Europe. While solo car travel is expensive, three or four people sharing a rented car will usually travel cheaper than the same group using rail passes.

Leasing and Buying

Leasing (technically, buying the car and selling it back) gets around many tax and insurance costs and is a great deal for people needing a car for three weeks or more. For trips of eight weeks and longer, leasing can be more economical than buying a rail pass. Leases are available for periods of up to six months. Prices include all taxes, as well as zero-deductible theft and collision insurance (comparable to CDW), and you get to use a new car. Leased cars can most easily be picked up and returned in France, but for an additional fee you can also lease cars in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Great Britain.

Europe by Car, which invented leasing more than 50 years ago, still offers good deals. For example, you can lease a Citroen C3 in France for as few as 21 days for about $1,030 — about $50 a day. Renault Eurodrive offers similar deals. In general, the longer you lease the car, the lower the price (a 60-day lease can be as inexpensive as $30 per day).

Although Americans rarely consider this budget option, it's possible to buy a used car for your trip and sell it when you're done. The most common places to buy cars are Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, and US military bases. In London, check Craigslist, the used-car market on Market Road (Tube: Caledonian Road), and look in London periodicals such as Loot, which lists used cars as well as jobs, flats, cheap flights, and travel partners.