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AFFORDABLE THRILLS

Planes, Trains & Buses

You can get there cheap. You can get there fast. But can you get there cheap and fast? We hit the road to test transit options here and abroad.

September 23, 2007|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

London

Bargain airlines hold surprises in Europe, where trains zoom between cities at up to 199 mph. But not so fast! Which is best for navigating the Continent? Ease and economy duke it out.

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Cheap, fast transportation continues to be the talk of Europe, where dozens of budget airlines tout fares as low as $1 and trains blaze through 10 nations at 150 mph and more.

Planes cost less and get you there faster. Trains cost more and take longer. So it's clear that planes ace trains, right?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
EasyJet: An article in the Travel section on Sunday about Europe said EasyJet was run by Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Although he is the company's founder and a major shareholder, he is not involved in its day-to-day management.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
EasyJet: A Sept. 23 article in the Travel section about Europe said EasyJet was run by Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Although he is the company's founder and a major shareholder, he is not involved in its day-to-day management.For the Record

Wrong. Or at least partly.

To find out the best way to travel, I barnstormed through four countries in four days in August, pitting planes against trains on cost, speed and convenience. Along the way, I asked locals and tourists how they got around.

Starting in London, I flew to Brussels and returned on a train. Then I took the train from London to Paris and transferred to another train to get to Basel, Switzerland. Finally, I flew back from Basel to London.

From this, I evolved a rule of thumb for touring Europe: Use a train for short hops, a plane for longer trips (except between cities directly linked by high-speed rail) and a car to roam the countryside. The formula varies by your destination and budget, of course.

Impatient readers can disembark now. The rest of you may want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, as they say, it's all about the journey.

During my travels, I found out how extra costs can swell a bargain airfare 10 times over, when a fast train can be surprisingly slow and why you might have more fun on a no-frills flight in Europe than on a budget carrier in the U.S.

I learned a lot and slept little. Here's what happened:

THE COSTS OF FLYING CHEAP

My journey of 1,600 miles began with a single misstep: I fell for a $14 Web fare from London to Brussels on Dublin-based Ryanair, a 22-year-old pioneer of budget flying in Europe.

"Book it," I told my travel agent.

Soon after, I got his e-mail: With taxes and fees, the fare totaled $73. Cha-ching!

The tab would continue to rise.

To make my 6:40 a.m. flight, I needed to be at Stansted Airport, a budget-airline hub 34 miles northeast of London, by 4:40 a.m., too early to catch the train, the quickest way there. (Some buses run 24 hours.) So I reserved a hotel room ($173) near the airport the night before. In London, I boarded the Stansted Express train ($31) at Liverpool Street station for a 45-minute ride to the airport, then took a shuttle to the hotel and, the next day, back out to the airport.

At bustling Stansted, Ryanair dinged me $20 to check my small bag. The fee is tough to avoid because, under Britain's security rules, even a purse or laptop counts as your one permitted carry-on.

Boarding Ryanair, as with Southwest Airlines, was a cattle call: no reserved seats. But in the air, what a difference.

Instead of peanuts, I was handed a 40-item menu for an hourlong flight. The cheery crew took orders, accepting cash or credit, for bottled water, fruit smoothies, French roast coffee, sandwiches, wine and even lottery tickets.

Prices, by European standards, weren't bad. When my savory $6 pizza arrived just before landing, the flight attendant apologized profusely. Then, as I deplaned, he patted my shoulder and said, "Thanks a million."

I almost forgot I was flying a budget airline. But not for long.

It took more than two hours to get into Brussels from Brussels South Charleroi Airport, a utilitarian way station 37 miles south of the city, by bus ($15), the most direct transit.

The bus came every 45 minutes, and it filled up fast, leaving 20 people to wait for the next one. We shoved our luggage into the hold and, 40 minutes later, pulled up to Brussels Midi train station. Had we flown into Brussels' main airport, Zaventem, nine miles northeast of the city, we could have arrived there in 20 minutes for $4 by train

Total travel time, London to Brussels: More than six hours. Total cost: $139, plus the hotel bill.

Lessons learned: Budget carriers aren't always bargains. Many fly into out-of-the way airports. Still, Europeans rave about them, with good reason, as I was to learn later.

KEEPIN' IT RAIL

I began my afternoon train trip to London where I had ended my Ryanair odyssey: Brussels Midi station.

Eurostar, the high-speed train that darts through the Chunnel between England and the Continent, whisks you from city center to city center, eliminating airport transfers. You can check in up to 30 minutes before departure and take aboard two suitcases, plus hand luggage. Security screening, which is as stringent as it is for planes, was swift. The cafe car, although strictly stand-up, served decent salads, sandwiches and hot entrees.

My trip from Brussels Midi to central London totaled less than four hours, including wait time and two hours, 24 minutes on the train, and cost $149, my second-class fare. It was faster, easier and just $10 more than my Ryanair trip.

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