By road or by rail? Options for getting around

Picking a mode of transport is an important choice so should you take the train or get around under your own steam?

Car or train? This is the choice many travellers have to make when planning an overseas holiday.

Until a couple of years ago, Louise and I travelled almost exclusively by train in Europe.

Rail became an easy option for me after a man changing a fluorescent tube in my office saw me searching the internet  and told me about The Man in Seat 61 website, a guide for train travellers. It  shows you how to book seats in various countries.

 In Europe, this can involve using train websites of varying degrees of difficulty in different countries. But now allows you to book across most countries without any financial penalty.


There are some simple rules to follow when booking that will give you the cheapest tickets possible and the best seats.

Tickets usually come on sale about three months before departure, though in some countries this has been extended to six months. The earlier you book, the cheaper the tickets and the greater the choice.

Tickets are usually emailed to you, though in some countries a number is issued that has to be entered into a machine at a station to retrieve them.

On the date you want to travel there will be a number of trains, at varying prices, on your chosen route. If you are willing to travel off-peak there will be considerable savings.

I book specific seats if possible. Though this often costs a little more, it means you don’t have to search for unassigned seats. It also allows for convenient configurations such as facing each other with a table in between.

First class allows more room with three seats across a carriage, while second class has four. First class also includes lounges at city stations where there is wifi, toilets and perhaps food and drinks. It allows you to get to the station early and relax before boarding.


With rental cars, I have found it is cheaper to hire cars through websites that include all the major rental companies. Various renters will offer the same vehicle at different prices.

Check on the insurance cover before you commit. What you think is a cheap deal can become expensive at pick-up when you find only limited insurance is included. Your credit card may help here because some of them include rental car insurance excess cover.

Also, make sure the car has enough space for your luggage, and that it is hidden from view. This becomes particularly relevant for families or when two couples are travelling together.

Our rule of thumb in Europe is to hire the smallest car that can carry the required luggage. We recently hired a VW Touran (a sort of cross between a Golf station wagon and a van) to drive around Spain and Portugal with another couple for a month.

Our luggage of three medium suitcases and a similar-sized soft bag just fitted under a tonneau cover. The car was roomy enough for four with individual rear seats and had an economical 1.4 litre petrol engine that cruised well on motorways at 120km/h.


So what are the advantages and disadvantages of these two modes of transport?

A car offers greater flexibility. 

We had some lovely picnic lunches and a memorable stop to pick figs by the side of the road. We could also deviate to points of interest along the way.

One such stop on the way to Toleda was at Consuegra to visit the Man of La Mancha windmills. We also discovered  the area is known for its saffron and were able to buy some at cheap prices.

But the flexibility comes with the stress of navigating and negotiating traffic, especially in cities.

We found when we entered cities, our sat nav would invariably take us though old towns with extremely narrow streets, to the point of having to fold the wing mirrors, even if our accommodation was on a two-lane street. In Toledo it tried to direct us on a track that was overgrown.

It came to the point where we realised we needed to plan the routes at destinations to our accommodation. This involved studying Google maps to the point of street view the night before arrival.

The car restricted our range of accommodation because we needed a place to park. In Porto, Lisbon, Seville, Granada and Cordoba, we found it more convenient to leave the car parked and use public transport

Trains largely remove the stress while lobbing you near the centre of cities. We used to then increase it again by catching public transport to our accommodation. 

We now use taxis or Uber.

I prefer trains in Europe because they are comfortable and the rail network is comprehensive. In the US, the trains are not as fast as in Europe, taking longer to cover distances and the rail network is not as diverse. A car can be a quicker and better option.

Many people find discount airlines the way to go. I am not in a position to comment because I have not used them.

(Top image: An SNCF train crosses the Rhone in Lyon, France. Picture: Stephen Scourfield)


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