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Cost Quandary: Rent a Car or Stick to Trains?

June 08, 1997|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

When you travel to Europe, should you explore by car or by train? It all depends.

My preference, based on the city-based itineraries I favor, is to travel by train (or connecting bus) wherever possible. In 30 years of frequent transatlantic travel, I've rented a car only four times. What I definitely don't want on my vacation is to be trapped behind the wheel in an urban traffic jam. My wife, also a daily commuter, agrees with me.

But the editors of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, a monthly publication of Consumers Union, have a different view. For parties of two, the cost-conscious newsletter reports in its May issue, a rented car is often the most economical way to get around Europe. "Hundreds of dollars can hang on your decision," it says. Italy, where rail fares are inexpensive, is an exception.

Europe is linked by an extensive rail network and, at least in most northern European countries, trains tend to be clean, comfortable, fast and on time, and service between cities generally is frequent and convenient.

A drawback is that many trains do not offer reserved seating, and in summer they can be packed full. Petty theft has also been a problem on some routes, particularly on overnight trains.

A car allows you the flexibility of traveling at your own convenience, and it gets you into the countryside much more easily. And rental rates this year are either stable or cheaper than they were last year, according to the newsletter.

But theft of luggage from parked cars is also a problem in some European countries. I have heard sad stories from Spain of tourists who, stopping to visit a historic site, locked all their valuables in the car trunk only to return to find the trunk emptied.

So which way, by car or by train, is best for you?

Cost, of course, is an important factor--and the Consumer Reports newsletter makes some very informative comparisons of the expense of taking a train or renting a car in several European countries (see below). But the decision--car or train or a combination of both--also rests on a number of other variables.

Encased in a car, I sometimes get the feeling that I'm isolated from the country I'm visiting. Only English is spoken within, and encounters with local folks are infrequent. On a train, however, I'm often plunged into the middle of European life and languages. Part of the fun of travel is watching how different cultures do ordinary things differently, such as eating lunch--and a train is great for people-watching and people-meeting.

My wife and I were bound by train--the Zapadni Express--from Frankfurt to Prague in early 1990, just after the fall of the Communist regime in Prague. Initially, we were a little apprehensive about what we might find following the upheaval in what was then Czechoslovakia. But our experience on the train eased all our worries.

Soon after the train crossed the border into Czechoslovakia, the lunch car opened its doors, and we got our first glimpse of the mood of the country, and it obviously was a happy one. The car quickly filled with local people, many of whom seemed to be returning to Prague after a weekend in the country. They buzzed with the chatter and laughter of a crowd in a popular beer hall.

A comic waiter in white apron, full of high spirits, zipped from table to table, depositing bowls of thick soup and large plates of salami, dark bread and mustard.

What did we want? he asked in fair English. We looked around, pointed to the salami and beer on the table across the aisle, and he was back in a flash.

Already, we were beginning to feel comfortable in the country. We lingered over our beers, caught up in a wonderful afternoon of people-watching. The fun of visiting a free Prague had already begun. In a car, we would have missed this.

Among the variables in deciding how you should get around Europe:

* Is this your first European trip? If so, I'd recommend the train. Like many first-timers, you are apt to want to cover a lot of ground--skimming the continent's highlights under the assumption this may be your only chance to see all the places that intrigue you. The train will get you between Europe's capitals quickly, and unlike on an airplane flight, you can glimpse the countryside en route.

* What do you hope to see and do? As I said, I'm fascinated by Europe's cities--large and small--and so far I've not tired of visiting them. I've been to Venice and Vienna at least four times, and I'm eager to return. The train gets me into the heart of each city, and I can walk, use public transportation or catch a cab to my hotel. In the traffic-clogged streets of Europe, a car is an aggravation, and parking can be expensive. But you almost certainly will need a car if you plan to rent a villa in a village.

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