Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Getting Around Europe

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As Americans, we’re used to basically two options when we need to get somewhere: cars and planes.  We drive places in our cars that take less than a day to get to.  (Well, sometimes.  We are, in fact, a country that has mastered the epic road trip.)  For destinations that are farther away, we fly and then usually rent a car in the new location.  Some areas of the USA have train options, but not many.  And they are often expensive.

In Europe, there are many more travel options to choose from, as the continent has in place a complex and comprehensive public transportation network.  You do not need a car when you are in Europe. 

This post helps the average tourist get acquainted with the  types of transportation available to one in Europe.  I discuss planes, trains, buses, and cars.  Each one has pros and cons.


When you have a relatively longer distance to travel and don’t want to waste time, just fly.  Prices can be ALL over the board, but there are many discount airlines that will offer super cheap flights.  (Although, check for their hidden fees!  Some even charge for carry-on luggage.)  Americans are used to living in a BIG country, and the continent of Europe is relatively small in comparison.  Traveling from country to country in Europe is basically the same as traveling from state to state in the USA.  And as a result, flights are super short.  Flying from Vienna (Austria) to Zagreb (Croatia) is just 45 minutes.  Amsterdam to Zagreb is less than two hours.  Everything is so compact!

Flying pros:

  • Fastest way to get there!
  • Sometimes you can find super cheap flights

Flying cons:

  • It can be the most expensive option, depending on the date and route
  • Extra time is required to arrive early at the airport and get through security
  • Airport might not be near your final destination, so you will still have to figure out the additional travel and transportation steps
  • Weight and size restrictions on luggage
The view from above...
The view from above…
Croatia Airlines gives you snacks!
Croatia Airlines gives you snacks!


For the past four years, from January – March/April, I’ve traveled Europe with a Global Rail Pass.  My Rail Pass essentially allows me to jump on any train anywhere in Europe and just go.  It offers ultimate flexibility, and there are many types and price options to choose from.  (Rail Passes MUST be purchased in advance while still home in the United States.) 

However, train travel is time consuming.  REALLY time consuming.  For example, Vienna (Austria) to Rijeka (Croatia) is anywhere from 10-11 hours. (Depending on which  itinerary you take.)  I’ve done the train thing and continue to do it on long trips because of my Rail Pass being all-inclusive, so I have no additional costs attached.  (Except for the rare times I have to book a seat reservation for a few bucks.)  Via the train system, I’ve traveled between Austria, Croatia, Switzerland, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, and Slovenia.  It’s been a great way to really see the nooks and crannies of Europe’s various landscapes.  One of the most amazingly beautiful train routes is the one from Salzburg (Austria) to Zurich (Switzerland.)  The ride takes you all the way through the Austrian and Swiss Alps.  To this day, it remains one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life. 

If you don’t have a Rail Pass, and just want to buy individual train tickets, do your research ahead of time.  Depending on the country, prices can be ALL over the place.  For example, if part of your train travel is in Austria, your ticket might be pricey.  Price out your options to see if flying will be cheaper for you.  On one of my trips from Rijeka (Croatia) up to Vienna to work for a few days, Miloš came with me.  I traveled with my Rail Pass.  But just imagine our shock when we got to the station to buy his ticket, only to find out it was going to be approximately 200€ round trip!  (And his mom had already dropped us off at the station and left, so Miloš was coming with me regardless.)  That really put a dent in our budget, to say the least!

Between some cities in Europe, though, the train is your best option of all.  Going between Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest?  (Any combo of those three.)  Take the train!  It’s quick, easy, and relatively cheap.  (I’ve done this option quite a number of times without a Rail Pass.  Vienna to Bratislava round trip is only 15€ and includes public transport IN Bratislava when you get there!)

One thing to note – when you cross borders from one country to another, the train will get a new staff of conductors.  So with each border crossing, you have to pull out your ticket and show the new conductor.  And be ready for passport checks when coming and going from the Schengen Zone.

Train Pros:

  • Train stations are usually right in the middle of major cities, making it easy to get around once you reach your destination
  • A scenic travel option
  • No luggage weight or size restrictions (BUT, be able to maneuver your luggage easily and quickly, as you will get no help with it and you lug it up and down on those narrow steps going into the train!)
  • You can literally get to your train five minutes before it leaves, so you really don’t have to get to the train station early

Train Cons:

  • The actual travel time can be LONG
  • Some routes do not save you money over flying
  • Need to exercise caution when traveling alone and at night – if you are a woman, try to sit in a couchette with at least one other woman around
First class section on one of my train journeys.
First class section on one of my train journeys.
Sitting inside a typical six-seat couchette
Sitting inside a typical six-seat couchette
Amazing train ride through the Alps
Amazing train ride through the Alps
More from the train ride through the Alps, just because they're awesome!
More from the train ride through the Alps, just because they’re awesome!


If you’re looking for another option to get around, there are many bus routes available all over Europe.  It’s also an option for getting to smaller towns and villages that don’t have their own train station or airport.  Miloš and I have taken the bus between Croatia and Vienna several times.  It’s not too expensive (much cheaper than the train), and time-wise, it was the same or slightly less than taking the train.  When we travel within Croatia, we almost always take the bus, and every city and village has a bus that stops in it.

Bus Pros:

  • Access to smaller towns and villages
  • Tends to be an inexpensive option

Bus Cons:

  • Time consuming (flying is still quickest!)


If you have access to a car in Europe, great! You will have optimal flexibility when it comes to your travel.  You can go pretty much anywhere, whenever you like.  If you are renting a car, though, it’s not always cheap, so do the research.  Just Google “rental cars” in your destination location and see what prices come up.  Depending on the type of vehicle you get, the price can really vary.  Plus, more people in Europe drive manual transmissions, so if you need an automatic, be prepared to pay more.  (For example, I only know how to drive automatic, which really limits my driving options, when in Europe.)

I also recommend going to AAA before you leave the USA so you can get an International Drivers Permit.  My last one was $15.  Super easy.

Car Pros:

  • Ultimate flexibility
  • Fastest option next to flying
  • Can access the most remote of locations
  • If you are able to rent a budget-sized, manual transmission car, you might get a good deal on price
  • You can take as much luggage as your vehicle can hold!
  • Privacy while you travel – just you and your group

Car Cons:

  • Gas in Europe is INSANELY expensive.  Super dooper, off-the-charts expensive.  Americans have never seen prices like this before.
  • Renting a car can be pricey
  • You have to pay extra for automatic transmission


•As I mentioned in the train section of this post, your train tickets will be checked by a new staff of conductors every time you cross a border into a new country.  Keep them in a handy place, as you’ll have to keep getting them out.

•When leaving and entering the Schengen Zone via train or any automobile, there are passport checks.  Be ready to get your passport checked TWICE.  You will get checked by the police from the country you are leaving, and then by the police of the country you are entering.  On the train I was on today, it was literally at the same station.  The Croatian police came on and checked, then the Slovenian police came through and checked right after them.

•If, like me, you are a dual citizen of the USA and an EU country, just use your EU passport while traveling within Europe.  It will make border crossings SO much easier.  Before I had an EU passport, my American passport was always greeted with suspicion and resulted in LOTS more time to “process” it before they stamped it. (Perhaps I stirred up suspicion due to the fact that I had LOTS of stamps in it?  I really don’t know, but as an American, plan on having your passport scrutinized more than the EU citizens traveling with you.)  I travel at all times with BOTH my passports and I keep them in the same place.  But I keep my American passport tucked in my bag while using my Hungarian passport in Europe.

•When traveling on an overnight train, I personally prefer a standard couchette (the little rooms with six seats in each) to a sleeping car.  The sleeping cars are really cramped, and you can’t even sit up in the beds.  You are forced to just lay down whether you are tired or not.  And they cost much more. 

•When traveling by train, they don’t always call out the stops.  Set your alarm for 15 minutes before your scheduled stop, so you can have your things ready to get off the train as soon as it stops.  You often have just one or two minutes to get off the train before it moves along to its next destination.  No one is going to tell you when it’s time to get off at your stop!

•Global Rail Pass users automatically can ride first class whenever it’s an option.  Do it.  It’s awesome.

•Trains in Austria and north/west are quite nice.  They are modern with many features and amenities like electrical plugs to charge your devices, and sometimes even wifi.  First Class sections have tons of room to spread out, and you have an attentive wait staff that will serve you directly at your seat if you want to order something off the food menu.  (This evening, my dinner was a ham and cheese panini sandwich, while I sat comfortably in the first class section of the Austrian train, using their wifi.)  However, trains that run south and east from Austria are usually the older trains.  Don’t plan on charging your devices.  Your seat might also be broken.  There might be graffiti all over  your train.  There is absolutely NO first class section to be had.

•When you do have wifi on the train, it doesn’t always work.  This is normal, people.  The train is traveling at high speeds through remote and sometimes mountainous areas.  Our technology is still not at the level where we can expect perfect wifi every single place we go on the planet.  Just be patient with the slow connection, or if the signal drops out altogether for a bit.

•Often, your best bet is going to be a combination of some of these transportation options.  You may fly, then take a bus.  Or take a bus and transfer to a train.  Regardless, you DO have options if you are car-less like me!

•Sometimes when taking the bus (especially in Croatia), you have to pay a small fee for every piece of luggage you put under the bus – and you are required to put luggage underneath, unless it easily fits with you on your seat.  (I keep my purse and back-pack with me at my seat, but any suitcases have to go underneath.)

•If you are taking a night train that does NOT cross international borders, you do NOT need a seat reservation.  (Just your ticket will do.)  Two Spanish girls and myself had a horrible experience with an aggressive, threatening train conductor who forced us to pay for seat reservations or he said he’d kick us off the train.  We were in the right, he was in the wrong.  But it was the middle of the night, so we paid.  Once in Vienna, we went right to the office of the Hauptbahnhof and filed formal complaints on the conductor AND filled out the paper work to get our money refunded.  However, if you are taking a night train that will cross a border, you technically have to pay extra for the seat reservation.  (However, depending on where you happen to be traveling, they don’t always enforce the rule.)

•If you’re a woman and you are traveling by train alone, practice your crazy bitch face.  You may need to ward off the unwanted attention of strange men.  Ignore them and look mean and unpleasant..  (Let me add that even though I’ve had men come and sit in couchettes with me after seeing me there alone, never once was I accosted or had my safety threatened. *knock on wood*  The most that has happened is they try to strike up a conversation, and I find a way to stop it right at the get-go.)

•That last note being said, I’ve also made friends, and met some really interesting people on my train travels.  Some of the girls I’ve met on the train are still my Facebook friends, even years later.  And there was one time going from Vienna to Amsterdam in a full couchette, where we all of us got to talking after an “interesting” passport check.  All six of us were from different countries and were quite entertained with each other’s stories of travel and life.  The one guy had something like 30 SIM cards for his phone because he worked for a major freight company and traveled constantly for business.  I once met an au pair from South America who was working for an Austrian family for a year.  Our only shared language was German, so we had quite an interesting and challenging conversation as we killed time on the train journey from Vienna to Munich.

Fortunately, getting around Europe is quite easy.  So even if it seems overwhelming at first, take a deep breath, go, and enjoy the ride!

Passports at the ready!
Passports at the ready!
Photo of author
Jennifer was initially drawn to Europe for two reasons: music and love.  She lived in Vienna for four years, and now calls Croatia home for much of each year, as she married a native Croatian. Since 2015, Jennifer has worked as a tour director and cruise director on European river cruises for a major American travel company, and has become an expert in all of the cities along her routes on the Danube, Rhine, and Main Rivers. She also has traveled to Disney World almost every year since 1985, and knows Disney World inside and out. As a travel agent, Disney World is her primary specialty, and she has helped many Disney newbies and veterans have amazing trips with her insider information.

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