Budget plane and train travel: Explore Europe without breaking the bank
Now that you’re stationed in Europe, you are so close to exciting destinations like London, Rome, Barcelona, Paris and Berlin. The hardest part may be choosing where to go first! Use our tips to help you stretch your budget and find the cheapest mode of transportation from Point A to Point B.
There are a number of well-known budget airlines with routes across Europe, but the two main airlines are Ryanair and easyJet. Be warned: Ryanair flies to smaller airports that are generally a half-hour to an hour outside of major tourist destinations. For example, if you want to visit Barcelona, Ryanair will get you to either Girona Airport or Reus Airport, both of which are about an hour outside of Barcelona. The good news is that most of these airports have bus or train services that will take you to the city center and back on a regular schedule.
To save time and energy, use websites Sky Scanner and Kayak to search for flights across almost all available airlines. These sites will allow you to compare fares, schedules, flight times and more. You can even sign up for price alerts via email to let you know when a fare you have been looking at changes in price.
Be prepared for a no-frills flying experience on many budget airlines, especially Ryanair. It starts with booking, as most budget airlines require you to book tickets online. You will most likely pay for checked luggage; in particular, Ryanair has strict weight and dimension limits for both checked and carry-on luggage. If you go over these limits, there are monetary penalties, so be sure to read through their policies before flying.
Ryanair also requires online flight check-in. Not only that, you must print out your boarding pass; if you do not, you will be charged to check in at the airport. You must hand over checked luggage at least 40 minutes before the scheduled flight departure time; if you are a non-EU passport holder, it is also required that you have your passport stamped prior to passing through security. Be sure to leave plenty of time to get to your gate for boarding.
Once onboard a Ryanair flight, don’t expect free refreshments. Flight attendants will even try to sell you items like smokeless cigarettes and lottery tickets. If nothing else, the non-stop barrage of sales announcements will keep you entertained.
While you may not have done much of it in the States, train travel is very common in Europe. Sit back, relax and let someone else drive you to your destination!
Train travel allows you to choose different levels of comfort and speed: book a second-class ticket to enjoy savings. You’ll also pay more for high-speed trains, which make fewer stops. An overnight train allows you to skip a night of hotel expense.
To ensure a successful trip, make sure to follow these tips:
- Book in advance.
- Travel second-class – you’ll get there at the same time!
- Make sure you know at which station you exit the train. Major cities often have a “main” train station and several other stops within the city.
- Make sure you are on the right car; many trains split at some point or points in the journey, so verify the car you are on is labeled with your destination. Many times your ticket will tell you which car or platform to board from to ensure you are riding in the correct car.
- Visit the Seat61 website, run by avid train traveler Mark Smith, for great tips.
Ways to save
Each country has its own train system, but there are similar offerings that will help you save money. Below we highlight some special offers you can look for when traveling in Germany, Great Britain, Italy and beyond.
Germany and beyond
Deutsche Bahn offers a very efficient train system that gives you the freedom to explore within Germany and into other countries.
Look for Sparpreis tickets (Saver Fare) for trips within Germany. For regional travel, the Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket (Cross-Country Ticket), Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket) and Länder-Tickets (State Tickets), give you the flexibility to travel alone or in a small group during the week and on weekends for a low fare. Europa-Spezial (Europe Special) tickets allow you to travel to 13 other countries at a low price.
If you plan on using the Deutsche Bahn frequently, look into the BahnCard 25, which gives you 25 percent off your ticket price. There is an annual fee that automatically renews, so stay on top of your subscription.
For travel within Great Britain, check out National Rail. If you have children between the ages of five and 15, you’ll want to look into the Family & Friends Railcard. A Family & Friends Railcard costs just £30 and you save one-third off of adult fares, and 60 percent off of kids’ fares on travel throughout Great Britain. Up to four adults and four kids can travel on one card, and they don’t even need to be related.
For those traveling from Great Britain to the mainland, Eurostar is the train that travels through the Channel Tunnel.
In Italy, look for the Economy and Super Economy tickets on Trenitalia. This ticket type is available on all trains in first and second class and for Business, Premium and Standard service, as well as couchettes and wagon-lits.
For those traveling with children, take advantage of the Familia Offer. This offer is good for two to five people (at least one is an adult and one is a child under age 12) and entitles you to a 50 percent discount (30 percent for couchettes and wagon-lits) for children under 12 and a 20 percent discount for the other travelers.
Planes, trains and adventures
No matter how you get there, your European travels are sure to give you wonderful lifelong memories. Once you get the hang of budget plane and train travel, you’ll be leaving your bulky American SUV at home and saying hello to new cities and experiences.
Tips for finding low airfares
- Shop around: check the airline’s website as well as sites like TravelZoo, Orbitz and Sky Scanner.
- Call the airline directly to ask about military discounts.
- Fly in the middle of the week.
- Take an early morning or late night flight.
- Fly during low seasons (spring and autumn).
- Don’t fly on the holidays.
- Book at least two weeks in advance.
- Buy round-trip tickets.