Public transportation can be daunting, even if you live in a big city and take advantage of it almost daily. When you travel abroad it can be especially confusing, but it’s necessary if you’re budget conscious. Andi lived in England for three years before moving to San Francisco, where both of us are very familiar with public transportation. Ultimately, the more time you spend in big cities, the easier navigating the various systems becomes. We still put in several hours of research, figuring out the cheapest and easiest ways to get around each country. We have listed our tips below, things to consider and companies to use, to make your traveling easier and give you back more time and money for the fun things.
Our Route Through Europe
One of the most difficult parts of the trip was figuring out what route we wanted to take. We didn’t want to back track or waste time, after all we only had 6 weeks there and a lot of ground to cover. We also hate “plans” but traveling through Europe is it’s own beast, different from other parts of the world, because ticket prices may go up if you wait and you have probably reserved hostels/hotels/Airbnb’s ahead of time so you’re already aware of the route beforehand. We left for Europe at the end of the September 2015 with the aim of starting in Munich for Oktoberfest. Here was our itinerary:
- Munich, Germany
- Berlin, Germany
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Budapest, Hungary
- Rome, Italy
- Florence, Italy
- Cinque Terre, Italy
- Barcelona, Spain
- Paris, France
- Bruges, Belgium
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Norwich, UK
- London, UK
Below are some of the popular ways to travel around Europe, how we used them and our advice for other travelers. As a guide for pricing, we typically used a site/smartphone app called From Rome to Rio. The site is incredibly comprehensive and displays several options for the route that you are looking to take.
The Eurail/Eurostar Passes
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend Eurail Pass. This is the pass that gives you a few travel days over a select period of time, or continuous travel by rail throughout various countries. Of course it has it’s perks (i.e. night trains and simplicity) and many travelers may find it convenient but I think if you are willing to put in the time to find better deals you can find much cheaper and more flexible options. I never met a European who used a Eurail pass and as a rule of thumb for us, if the locals aren’t using it, then I probably shouldn’t be using it either. The trains, buses, ride sharing programs and low-budget airline companies make inter-country travel so easy and convenient these days.
The Eurostar is different from the Eurail. The Eurostar is the train that travels under the English channel with limited services from London to a few select destinations. I have used the Eurostar train to travel from London to Paris and London to Brussels. I didn’t find it to be the cheapest method although it was much cheaper to travel to Brussels than to Paris. The tickets cost less if you book in advance, for weekdays, during off-peak times.
We found that the buses were the best value for money, quick, efficient and how many local residents were traveling through Central and Western Europe. I did a ton of research on bus companies trying to figure out pricing ahead of time, but didn’t have much luck. The websites were difficult to navigate and I couldn’t figure out if I even had the correct companies or schedule for the area I was in. When we got to Munich, we asked our Airbnb host for information on getting to Berlin and he recommended Meinfern Bus Company. (This company is also called Flix Bus in other countries, but they are the same company.) This is a German based bus company that operates all throughout Central and parts of Western Europe. Their website is easy to use, but you can also go to their ticket counters at the bus stations to purchase tickets and view timelines if you don’t have access to internet. We downloaded their smartphone app where we could view schedules, as well as purchase and download tickets online so we didn’t have the hassle of finding a printer. (Note: The ticket price doubles if it’s purchased within 15 minutes of the scheduled departure.)
We used Meinfern Bus to travel from Munich to Berlin (22€), Berlin to Prague (19€), Paris to Brussels (13€), and Brussels to Amsterdam (8€). All of the tickets were booked within 2 days of the scheduled departure.
Another company we used for our journey from Prague to Budapest (21€) was Student Agency Bus Company (based in Prague). Their website was more difficult to use; we thought we had booked online but we only told them our preference apparently. They emailed back saying the bus was full and gave other options to choose from and then completed our booking for us. However, this was the most convenient way to get to Budapest as Flixbus didn’t have a route there.
The buses for both companies are comfortable and clean, wifi equipped and have bathrooms. All were on time, both in departing and arriving, apart from one Flixbus trip due to bad weather. With Flixbus, if the bus is going to be late, they send text updates to let you know the new approximate departure time. For long journeys, the bus will also stop along the way for a quick coffee/food break.
There were many other bus companies that had counters to purchase tickets at the Bus Stations that we visited in each city. If you are unable to find the route that you want with either of these companies, you can just as easily stop by the main Bus Station in the city that you are in and try to find a company that works best for your route.
Sometimes the bus journey doesn’t make sense and flying is the only way you’re going to get to the next country. Luckily, Europe is the leader in budget airlines and many times, the flight will cost even less than the train or the bus. EasyJet and Ryanair are the two biggest budget airline companies with service throughout Europe and North Africa.
I used both companies frequently during my stint in England and for our 6 weeks in Europe. We used Ryanair for a flight from Budapest to Rome and EasyJet to fly from Milan to Barcelona, Barcelona to Paris and Amsterdam to London. Keep in mind that these airlines fly into and out of different cities and airports so make sure to check both for flight options. (For instance, Ryanair was the only option to Rome from Budapest but they fly into Rome-Ciampino rather than Rome- Leonardo DaVinci). Make sure to do research on the various airports in each city and reference their distance from the city center and factor transportation into the city into your overall cost of the travel. For cities with multiple airports, check all of them for the best prices. For example, EasyJet operates flights out of multiple London airports, Stansted, Gatwick and Luton, and the prices are different everyday for each airport.
Both airlines are your typical a la carte companies that have incredibly cheap flight prices throughout Europe everyday, but where they make their money is baggage fees, in-person check in, ticket changes, etc. We have big backpacks so there was no way around the baggage fee, but pay for the bag when you book the ticket online as it’s cheaper than in person. With both companies, they only allow 1 carry-on bag unless you have upgraded the ticket. They are not always strict about it, but if they happen to be that day, you will have to check your carry-on bag as well if you can’t fit your laptop or purse and duty-free goods in your one designated carry-on bag.
Trains are usually my first option when traveling within countries, but my last option when traveling between them. I have found that once you cross a border the price jumps significantly and you have to book in advance as the prices usually go up as it gets closer to departure (that’s why we opt for buses and flights between countries).
Each country has it’s own rail system and for the short distances between cities, the journeys are quick and trains run frequently and are overall, very reliable. The price is typically set for the journeys so it will cost the same to get from Rome to Florence (for example) whether you book the same day or a week before. The kiosks are easy to use, as are the corresponding websites. Watch for price hikes during peak hours though, commuter times will likely be more expensive than the off-peak alternatives. Most websites will let you book up to 90 days in advance.
The train systems I’ve used most frequently are Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and the UK. I have also done a lot of research on train companies within Spain and France as well and have found that the information is very similar to that of the countries I’ve traveled within via train.
As a tip, when using the National Rail Service in the UK, make sure to book as far in advance as possible. This is one of the countries that has ridiculous price hikes if you want to book the day or week of.
One of the great things about rail travel and something to consider versus buses and flights, is where in the city you arrive. Airports will likely be several miles outside the city and will require a ride in to the center (see my tips on airport transfers below), and bus stations are all over the city, there may be several stations and you have to be clear on where you are getting picked up and dropped off. Train stations on the other hand are usually right in the middle of the city. You can walk outside and easily find where your going and the station will link to other local public transport services that you can use to travel to your hotel/hostel. Factor in the cost of getting to the city center when deciding which option to go with.
Another way to move around that’s on the rise in Europe is ride sharing. We looked into it extensively but didn’t end up using any of these sites/apps during our trip although I have friends that had great things to say about it. BlaBlaCar and Karzoo are popular websites to find people traveling to the same place your headed, allowing you to split the cost of the ride with the driver and other passengers, a cost that is determined ahead of time based on distance and number of passengers. The possibilities for places to go are endless and sites like BlaBlaCar even let you select rides that are non-smoking, music type, and a preference on pets. It is definitely worth looking into as a cheap option to get around.
One of the quickest ways to waste money immediately when arriving to a city, is by taking taxis from the airport to the city center. Yes it’s convenient, and if you have enough people traveling with you to fill up the car, it might make financial sens, but most of the time it’s a waste of money. Any big city should have some means of low cost public transportation to and from the airports whether that’s a bus, subway or train.
Before you land do some google research or use google maps to direct you to your hotel via public transportation. We use the google maps app because it gives multiple routes, times and (usually) prices. If google maps doesn’t work, search for blogs containing information on airport transfers or look at the airport websites themselves. Often times they have information on how to reach the city center by the most cost effective means. (Note: Even EasyJet now has a transfer service that we used from Charles de Gualle Airport in Paris, called EasyBus. This was cheaper and quicker than the subway and I could book a flexible ticket online for a few Euros.)
Using the local subway system from the airport will also make you more familiar with the city and the transport system that you will likely be using for the coming days. It may be confusing at first but between information desks, friendly locals and a little brainstorming, you get there eventually and it builds more confidence for every subsequent city break when your up against directions in a different language and a whole new system.
We were able to get to the city center from the airport via public transportation in the following cities:
- Munich (Train: ~10€)
- Rome (Bus: 4.50€)
- Barcelona (Bus: 5€)
- Paris (EasyBus, as mentioned above: 5€)
- London (The Tube: 8£)
Local City Transportation
I’ll start by saying we prefer to walk everywhere. It’s absolutely the best way to explore a city, because city breaks aren’t just about the beautiful monuments and squares, but all of the neighborhoods and quaint cafes in between. Sometimes, however, cities are far too big to walk through (i.e. London and Paris) and the best way to move around is the subway or bus. This is also how the locals are getting around (remember my tip about “if locals do it, you should be too”).
Almost every major city will have a 2-3 day or week long pass that you can by giving you unlimited rides on the subway/bus. I made that mistake once, buying a 3 day pass my first time in Rome and I have never bought one again (I only used it once). Most cities have a booklet of tickets you can buy containing 5 or 10 rides that you can share with the person you’re traveling with (Barcelona and Paris). If the city is big enough and you know you will use 10 rides over 4 or 5 days then get a booklet, if not, then just buy tickets for one ride at a time. Often times we will walk wherever we need to go, wander all through the city and by the end of the day we’re exhausted and will take the subway back to our hotel. Over a long weekend though, that’s only a few rides and nearly enough to get your money’s worth on a city break pass. Every station should have ticket information and places to buy passes.
Again, these are just our tips for traveling through Europe and what we found to have the best balance between time and money. There are tons of options for every budget and time frame but hopefully you have found these helpful. If you have other Europe travel tips, paste them in the comments below, we would love to hear it!