Europe trains vs. planes vs. buses: Popular routes compared by price

Many years ago, taking the train in Europe was by far the most popular way to hop around, and it helped that it was also cheap and provided good scenery. But the market has changed dramatically in the last 5 years or so, with low-cost airlines now connecting most major cities, including many that are only a 5-hour train ride away. With the trains getting more expensive in most cases, and flights getting cheaper, it’s unclear which is best for most routes.

There’s also a bus network, thanks to Eurolines, which connects regional companies together to cover nearly all of Europe. Fares on those buses range from astonishingly cheap to weirdly expensive, so those add even more confusion to the debate.

So to test out the fares I chose 7 common and popular routes around Europe that are all served by mostly-direct trains and buses plus mostly non-stop flights. Would there be a clear winner? Would I be able to even find pricing information on the horrible network of Eurolines websites? Finding train fares was also a challenge so I searched around for the lowest promotional fare that I could find.

Sample trip: One-way travel, September 14, 2011, research 10 weeks in advance

Trains vs. planes vs. buses

For comparison’s sake the prices are all converted from local currency to US dollars on June 2, 2011.

London to Paris

  • Air: US$62 – 1 hour on EasyJet (inc. 1 checked bag)
  • Train: US$64 – 3.5 hours (including check-in time)
  • Bus: US$41 – 8.5 hours

Winner: Train

While the promotional Eurostar fare is about the same as the EasyJet fare that includes one checked bag, the cost of transport to and from the airports plus all the time waiting around for security checks makes it a much worse deal. The bus is a good option for those with more time than money on their hands.

London to Amsterdam

  • Air: US$62 – 1 hour on EasyJet (inc. 1 checked bag)
  • Train: US$64 – 5 hours (including check-in time)
  • Bus: US$41 – 11.5 hours

Winner: Train

This one is similar to the above one, but since the train requires a change in Brussels it will take about the same amount of time door to door. The money savings from not having to deal with airport transportion, plus the indignity of flying EasyJet, gets the win.

Paris to Barcelona

  • Air: US$61 – 1.75 hours on EasyJet (inc. 1 checked bag)
  • Train: US$98 – 12 hours
  • Bus: US$62 – 15.25 hours

Winner: Air

Here the clear winner is the flight since it’s actually the cheapest as well (not including airport transport). In this case the bus is only good for cheapskates who are afraid to fly, or at least afraid to fly EasyJet.

Paris to Rome

  • Air: US$69 – 2 hours on EasyJet (inc. 1 checked bag)
  • Train: US$56 – 15 hours (overnight)
  • Bus: US$62 – 22.25 hours

Winner: Air

The advance purchase airfare on this route puts it very close to the trains or buses, which take a hell of a long time. The overnight train could be a good option for long-term travelers who want to save a hotel night.

Munich to Milan

  • Air: US$75 – 1.25 hours on Air Berlin
  • Train: US$130 – 7.5 hours
  • Bus: US$110 – 9.25 hours

Winner: Air

This route shows suspiciously high train and bus fares, and I suspect some promotional deals might be available at times. But still, with the nonstop flight being by far the cheapest as well, it’s a clear winner.

Copenhagen to Berlin

  • Air: US$53 – 1 hour on EasyJet (inc. 1 checked bag)
  • Train: US$128 – 9.5 hours
  • Bus: US$13 – 7.5 hours

Winner: Bus

The Eurolines bus system is fairly comfortable, and in this case it goes direct whereas the train needs a connection in Hamburg. When you add in all the airport transportation and security time, the city to city bus is only a bit slower, and much cheaper.

Munich to Prague

  • Air: US$169 – 4.5 hours on GermanAir
  • Train: US$42 – 5 hours
  • Bus: US$13 – 5.25 hours

Winner: Bus

This route has no nonstop flights so the flights will actually take the longest time including all the airport stuff. This is another where the bus and train take about the same amount of time, but the bus is far cheaper.

Conclusions

The lessons we’ve learned here are that a value-conscious traveler in Europe needs to stay flexible for the best and cheapest trips. It seems clear that between far-away cities that have nonstop flights from budget airlines that the flight is going to be your best option, but only if you book well in advance. Nearly all of those cheap seats are gone a month or more before the flight leaves, so the train or bus might be better for procrastinators and seat-of-the-pants types.

The best place to start will be an airfare search tool like our new find cheap flights engine. If the fares look appealing and the cities aren’t too close together, then flying will usually be best.



11 Responses to “Europe trains vs. planes vs. buses: Popular routes compared by price”

Hengist says:

In general, train fares are absurdly high in Europe, especially when cross-frontier journeys are concerned. The pricing of trans-national trips makes a nonsense of the Single European Market – something to which the bureaucrats in Brussels seem depressingly oblivious. While the politicians spout about cutting CO2, most budget-conscious travellers in the EU have no real choice but to travel by ‘plane. So much for reducing greenhouse gases.

 

There is a new train from Barcelona to Paris in 7 hours but the price is still high.

 
sara says:

dear sirs,

it is possible to get italy by bus from hungary. what about from sofia in bulgaria to italy. Meanwhile ,how much is it price.

 

    Sara,

    Yes, you can get from pretty much anywhere in Europe to anywhere else in Europe by bus, and it’s usually quite cheap. From Hungary to Italy you might have to take one bus to Zagreb and then another to Italy from there. From Sofia to Italy it’s a bit more complicated, but still possible. You could take a bus from Sofia to Belgrade, and then another bus to Split (Croatia), and then a ferry to Italy. Or from Belgrade you could take a bus to Zagreb and then another to Italy. For all Europe bus information and prices go to the Eurolines site. It can be confusing at first, but it has everything you need. As for price, the earlier you book, the cheaper the fares usually are. Good luck. -Roger

     
saumya says:

Hi. I am planning a trip to Europe this september. My trip will be of 10 days. This includes swiss-france-italy. I know for sure that each of these countries are worth travelling extensively. Though as this is our(me and my husband) first trip to europe and we are dealing with time and budget as a limiting factor, we could manage only a ten days itinerary which excludes two days that we will be travelling to and from our country. I really want to cover Nice in this trip. Problem is we are finding it quite far from Paris. We are unable to decide the best way to travel to and from Nice. So far, we have planned for – Home > Paris>Zurich>Lucerne>Interlaken>Engelberg>Milan>Nice>Venice>Rome>Rome>Home. Please suggest if this is the best itinerary given we will fly in to Paris and fly out from Rome.

 

    saumya,

    I understand the desire to see as much as possible on your first trip to Europe, and I’m actually a fan of moving quickly on a short trip because you’ll have time to rest when you get home. But still, this plan feels much too ambitious as you have it now. Basically you are describing a train tour of Europe where you stop in a different town each evening for dinner and a short walk around before resting at a local hotel for your train ride the following day. It’s true that most of these cities you have in mind are only about 3 hours apart by train, but still, from the time you’ve left one hotel until you’ve checked into your next hotel, it will be 5 or 6 hours in the middle of every day. And you’ll only have time to see maybe 1 or 2 things each afternoon before finding a place to eat dinner and then resting in your hotel room.

    My recommendation would be to do something like this:

    Paris 3 nights
    Interlaken 2 nights
    Milan 1 night
    Venice 1 night
    Rome 3 nights

    You could easily substitute Nice for Interlaken for those two days. Those train rides would be around 5 or 6 hours each, but also quite scenic. Even an itinerary like this will be moving pretty quickly (because you’ll be very busy even on non-travel days). Best of luck with this, and feel free to follow up if you have other questions. -Roger

     
Sug says:

More of a help!

For a unplanned cheap traveller I guess buses are more affordable, as time is the only thing in mind!

Thanks

 
Saurabh says:

Can somebody please advise me on what would be the best and cheapest way to travel from Rome to Nice(or Monaco). Also,how good are one’s chances in general, of getting a seat on a Eurolines bus without adavnce reservation?

 

    Saurabh,

    It looks like the Eurolines bus from Rome to Nice is around €60, which seems expensive for a bus. A train is cheaper (€44) as long as you buy it at least a few weeks in advance, or preferably a few months in advance.

    Those Eurolines buses are hard to predict. I’ve ridden on quite a few and it seems like there are always a few empty seats, but most routes only go once a day so it would be a gamble to not book ahead. Best of luck with this. -Roger

     
Judy W says:

Dear Roger,

My husband and I are trying to decide whether to take the train or plane from Copenhagen to Berlin… until I came across your blog. Do you still think it’s best (considering it’s several years later)? I’d really appreciate your advice! Thank you so much. Best, Judy

 

    Judy,

    This one is perhaps a toss-up, depending on how much the train or plane fare is for the date you want to go. The train takes 7 hours and 15 minutes, with a change in Hamburg and then an interesting ferry crossing where the train carriages actually get loaded onto the boat for the crossing. Generally speaking, trains are a much more pleasant experience than flying, and even a 1-hour flight takes about 5 total hours from city center to city center. So if it was me, I’d probably take the train, and I have taken this train in the past, but the scenery is quite plain pretty much the whole way.

    Most likely, a flight would actually be cheaper, although it depends on how early you check the price of the airfare and train ticket. If one is much cheaper than the other, do the cheap one. If the price is the same and you aren’t in too much of a hurry, the train journey will be much more enjoyable and pretty much stress free, while the flight will involve racing to the airport and all of that security, and then the train from the airport into the city once you get there. So factor that transport into the price as well. Both are great cities, so I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time. -Roger

     

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