Getting Around Europe: Rail vs. Air

By Eric Miller, WSA Core Team

Traveling around Europe can be quite confusing to the inexperienced traveler, as commuting options and price variability seem to be infinite. One of the questions we're asked most is whether rail or air is a more efficient option. Simply put, there is no one right answer, but rather what works best for your situation.

Airplanes and trains each have their own benefits, as well as drawbacks. It’s important to understand how these stack up in order to make a cost-effective decision when purchasing transportation.


When Europe deregulated its airports this past decade, budget airlines gained the opportunity to offer ridiculously cheap tickets. Europe uniquely has a huge selection of cheap flights, if you do it right.


  • If purchased far in advance, you can nab a flight to any destination in the continent for well under $100 (sometimes even under $40)!
  • There is a greater selection of airlines to choose from → More competition → More competitive prices
  • Flying is best for covering large distances, since planes are faster and are not limited by fixed tracks or terrain.
  • The option to collect miles, which can add up to some great savings later on!
  • Many assumptions about flying often ring untrue when hopping around Europe. Bag checks and security checkpoints are generally pretty quick, and passing through customs is almost never as much of a grind as we’re used to in the US.                                                                                                                


  • Airlines severely lack in flexibility. Once you purchase a ticket, you’re pretty much stuck with it, since cancelling costs a hefty fee.
  • Additionally, if you do not purchase your ticket far enough in advance, you are looking at a fare that is triple to quadruple the original price. Don’t expect budget-friendly options a week before departure.
  • Also, keep in mind that the base fare may be cheap on the surface, but once luggage and other fees are tacked on, the price might skyrocket.
  • Important note: flying is a much bigger commitment. While train stations are conveniently located in the heart of a city, airports are usually 20 to 30 minutes out. After adding that commute time, arriving the suggested 2 hours prior to departure, and transporting from the arrival airport, even a short flight can add hours to your travel.

Important Note: Budget airlines are a great option, but make sure to read the fine print, plan in advance, and shop effectively. If done correctly, one can cover huge distances across the continent quickly and for near criminal prices.



Europe is loaded with thousands of miles of high-speed rail systems that make for speedy and convenient travel.  For the most part, taking the train makes for a much smoother experience.


  • Train stations are easier to get to as they centrally located within the heart of a city, as opposed to airports which reside outside the city.
  • Security checkpoints are minimal to non-existent
  • No need to check bags  → no tacked on fees or lost bags, no need to wait in baggage reclaim for your luggage after arrival
  • Spacious, less claustrophobic
  • More amenities such as food stands, multiple toilets, plug-ins for electronics, and often more available seating for last-minute bookings.
  • Tickets are flexible. If you purchase a ticket, you are given several different options for arriving at your destination. If you miss your first train, you can usually take a later one for no additional cost.
  • The addition of a Eurail pass means that you can travel whenever want, when you want. There is no equivalent in the airline industry

Important note: One aspect of trains that can’t be measured is the opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. Make your commute part of the travel experience!


  • Not recommended for traveling unusually long distances due to limitations of ground transport
  • Lack of direct routes, occasionally frequent train changes are required
  • Tickets can be quite pricey in comparison to budget airlines, as the selection for airlines is greater
  • Complex transfers can add to travel time
  • Sometimes you have to pay for both your ticket AND seat reservations
  • Vulnerable to labor union strikes

Verdict: When choosing between train travel and air travel, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. As a rule of thumb, trains are more convenient for traveling in short distances. They are typically more flexible and less stressful, yet can be a bit pricey and take much longer when traveling greater distances. Airlines are less flexible, more hectic, but often cheaper and quicker for longer distances.

Now that transportation's sorted out, let's start booking those Spring trips!



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Lauren Wallender, Elon University

Happy Backpackers

I definitely have WSA to thank for my exceptional experience in Amsterdam. One would think 4 days isn't enough to tour a city but WSA facilitated an optimum weekend full of sightseeing and fun. Amsterdam may have a notorious reputation for its lax drug and sex culture but there’s so much more to the city. Luckily, our tour guide, Arthur, native to the Netherlands, steered us away from the tourist traps and showed us around his beloved city, highlighting all of its gems. I'd definitely like to try other WSA trips in the future. It's hassle free traveling with an awesome itinerary - nice that the tour guides are flexible with the schedule and willing to cater the itinerary to the group's interest! Highly recommend WSA to any student with only a weekend to see a city.

Lauren Wallender, Elon University ~ Fall 2014

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