Should we drive or take the train in Europe?
March 4, 2015 10:06 PM   Subscribe

We are finalizing our plans for our honeymoon, and we're wondering whether train or car travel would be the best approach.

The rough itinerary is fly to Prague from the States, Cesky Krumlov, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Mittenwald, Munich, Paris, back to States. Our car/train travel will NOT be in Prague, Munich, or Paris proper. This question only pertains to traveling between those smaller cities.

Driving seems like there would be a lot more freedom and easier to manage bags and whatnot, as we could just pull up right to the hotel or near it and bring our bags in rather than still have to find our way from the train station to a hotel with all our bags.

However, we are a little bit hesitant about driving in foreign places, if our CA driver's licenses will suffice, how to rent a car, etc.

So I would love any thoughts from people who have either driven or taken train rides across different European countries.

Thank you.
posted by madonna of the unloved to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why not do some of both? For many city-to-city trips taking the train and getting a taxi from the station to your hotel will probably be the least hassle, but in some cases having a car will save time or give you the chance to see some of the surrounding area at your own pace. I have only rented cars in Germany but going through one of the major international rental companies is pretty straightforward and, once you get outside urban areas, driving there is a real pleasure. Your California license is sufficient for driving as a tourist.
posted by 4rtemis at 11:05 PM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

We rented a car for the couple of weeks we were in France last year. We rented it as close to the edge of Paris as we could and got out of town as fast as we could! We got international drivers licenses from AAA. (I think they are required in France but I can't remember for sure.) We rented the car on my MasterCard and it covered the insurance on international rentals (not in all foreign countries) so long as we rented for less than 15 days. Saved us a ton. We used Hertz since I know it's an established company here in the US plus we got a bit of a discount via USAA.

I can't find my links right now but search around and get a handle on the road sign systems. That was the biggest hurdle. We spent the extra to have a car with a GPS and it was a lifesaver! (We didn't have one when we drove around England and Scotland it was a (mis)adventure that neither of us want to relive.)

Driving itself was okay. Drivers there seemed aggressive - not angry just "I have a place to go and I'm going to get there right now!" Motorcycles and scooters drive on the lines between lanes all the time. Way more than I ever saw in Los Angeles but we didn't see a single accident. So they are aggressive but seemed to be very skilled. We just got out of their way and let them go along.

We rode trains from Nice to Ventimiglia to Florence to Rome to Zurich. I really liked the freedom of having a car and would do it again but it was a nice break to just sit on a train and watch the countryside go by. Italy and Switzerland were the last 12 or so days of our trip and our suitcases were heavy and we'd lost at least one wheel. Changing trains and going up and down the stairs was a huge hassle. Next time I think we'd rent a car for shorter periods and mix in train travel. And either pack lighter to begin with (ha) or spend the money to just ship our treats/souvenirs/gifts home.

If you do decide to train it, I can't recommend The Man in Seat 61 highly enough. He's done a ton of train traveling all over the world and offers up a wealth of info on his site for free. He's a treasure.

Have fun and travel safe!
posted by Beti at 11:07 PM on March 4, 2015

The autobahn is terrifying to some drivers, from what I understand. But I found it to be just like driving on the 5 freeway in Greater LA... when there isn't a traffic jam you have people in flashy cars going a million miles an hour... getting right on top of you and flashing their lights for you to get out of the way.

Hertz is also offering little wifi boxes for 6 euro a day... they are AWESOME... we often use that with our google maps ap, which is great as a sat nav!
posted by catspajammies at 12:31 AM on March 5, 2015

Catching the train is easier, particularly in Germany. Catch the train unless there is something you want to see on the way (might be the case going over the alps), or you find being punctual for a train too stressful.

You might consider flying from Munich to Paris. is a great website for making these decisions.
posted by kjs4 at 12:57 AM on March 5, 2015

There is also a sleeper train Munich-Paris, can feel more like an adventure but not necessarily cheaper than a flight. Day train looks like €90pp and takes 6-8 hours so might be a nicer experience than driving (~8 hours). Sleeper will cost more but you save cost of a night in a hotel. Not everyone gets a good night's sleep on a sleeper train, but then you are on your honeymoon.
posted by biffa at 1:39 AM on March 5, 2015

Hi, I am a German living in Europe and this is what I would recommend:

Rent a car in Prague and drive it all the way to Munich. The drive will be more convenient and enjoayable as you can just stop and go at your own pace. Don't worry about the highway. Remember to keep to the right and you will be fine. A reminder: you need a vignette (road permit) to drive a car on the highway in all of Austria. You can get it at the first gas station behind the border. Do not forget, the fine is high!

From Munich to Paris, I'd take a flight. Book no later than 4 weeks in advance. The night train is fun but as biffa already explained not cheaper.
posted by Fallbala at 2:00 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in learning more about European rail travel and it's advantages and drawbacks, The Man in Seat 61 has basically every possible bit of information you could ever need, including video tours of all the different kinds of trains.

He also recommends Loco2 for booking between different countries - they've got an excellent search engine.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:27 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nowadays, with navigation available in your language on your phone, it's probably easier to drive than it used to be.

1. Can you drive a manual transmission?
2. Do you have a Visa or MasterCard? They are unlikely to take other flavors of credit card.
3. No right on red.
4. Stay in the right lane on the autobahn, except to pass (which you will be doing, since the trucks are required to drive slowly). If you see a car appear behind you in the distance, especially with its lights on, assume that car will be whizzing past you in about 10 seconds.
5. Learn what the road signs mean. Most of them are pretty straightforward, but the speed limit signs are different.
6. You may need to kind of know which cities are on the way, because the highways aren't "A-21 North (or South)" or something like in the US. The directions are expressed by which city it's going to. So "A-21 Regensburg" is the A-21 that goes to Regensburg (whatever direction that is), as opposed to some other direction. You will need to know if that's the direction you want to be going. [Note: I made up A-21. No idea if it exists or where it goes.]
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:00 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, depending on timing, there may be snow, because Alps. Are you OK with driving in the snow? In the summer, you'd probably be OK.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:05 AM on March 5, 2015

Seconding Fallbala. Don't pass up the opportunity to drive through Bavaria. It's beautiful. The Munich to Paris run is oooookay but I'd rather get to Paris quickly as well.

Definitely spring for a GPS and definitely photograph your entire rental car before and AFTER your trip. The rental companies there are a lot more picky about dents and scratches in my personal experience.
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:42 AM on March 5, 2015

Check before you rent as to whether there will be a drop-off charge if you return the car in a different country from where you rented it. These can be hefty.
posted by sevenstars at 5:11 AM on March 5, 2015

Good point: a lot of European rental car companies have rules forbidding their cars from going into the former eastern bloc countries. Not sure about them going in the other direction. Definitely check with the company before you make a reservation.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:40 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've done both extensively in much of Europe. It honestly depends. Germany is a lovely place to both take the train or drive, just know the rules of the road. I will never again drive in Georgia or Malta. And while I've not been to Russia, I wouldn't there either.

Anyways, based on your itinerary you'll most definitely want to use rail to get into and around your latter cities, in particular Paris. Driving and parking there is expensive, stressful, time consuming and that's not how you want to spend your trip(unless you're staying outside of the peripherique). Overgeneralizing a bit, eastern Europe is more interesting to see by car. Austria will be more fulfilling with one, too. If I were in your shoes, I'd take a car as far as the suburbs of Munich. The high speed trains from there to Paris are about 6 hours.
posted by hylaride at 8:35 AM on March 5, 2015

Also, get an international driving permit. I believe in the USA you get them via AAA.
posted by hylaride at 8:36 AM on March 5, 2015

International driving permits are not required. They exist, they're not a requirement. I've never needed one or been asked for one.

If you need an automatic, reserve a car in advance online with a company that clearly offers them as an option. Probably a good idea to reserve the car for pickup at a major city airport or train station where foreigners (that is, Americans) are more likely to pick up cars. They'll be more expensive. I've never failed to get one--but I've also gotten the last one on the lot a couple of times.

I've found driving in rural France to be a real joy. Driving in Italy....nerve-wracking but doable. Very rural France would sometimes involve sticky situations in remote, mountainous areas (one-lane bridges in the middle of nowhere, narrow mountainside roads with little or no guardrails) but that was only in very remote areas. But driving down a French country road with those perfect rows of plane trees on both sides, just like in a commerical....oh, yes.

Your thoughts on getting to a hotel by car are spot on. So nice just to pull up, park in a lot next to the hotel and check right in. Small town hotels might be a small cost savings, too.

I thought signage in France was excellent, and for popular spots could be detailed enough to get you where you want to go without maps, GPS, or stopping to ask.

Rental car companies should have info posted online (it's definitely on the printed agreement) about what countries you can or can't take the car into. Your itinerary probably has no problem at all, but double check to be sure.

Do be prepared for tolls on the main highways. Standalone automated toll booths might not accept U.S. credit cards, be prepared with euro coins and small bills if possible.

That said, doing Munich to Paris by train also sounds like a decent option. I've done TGV services on the French side--they're fast, comfortable and very punctual. Driving is great too, but you may want to spend that time exploring Paris instead. Arriving at a train station in Paris puts you right into Paris' outstanding transit network (Métro/RER/trams, etc.)--getting to a hotel in Paris from there shouldn't be a ton of trouble.
posted by gimonca at 3:08 PM on March 5, 2015

« Older The World Wins   |   Finding out if a Life Insurance policy exists? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.