Ways to Travel through Europe

Revised January 2019

There are four basic ways to travel through Europe: take a tour, take a train, take a boat, or drive a car. Consider your feelings about being part of a group, driving on narrow, unfamiliar streets and lugging your baggage down the boulevards of Europe before you make a decision. Think about your past travel experiences--what did you enjoy and what bothered you. Do some serious self-evalutation before you make any reservations. That will help you decide what is right for you and ensure you have the best trip possible.


The easiest way to see a country or region of Europe is to join a tour group. There are many English language tour companies that will provide you with a great trip to the most popular sights in Europe. They will put you at ease because you will probably travel with other English speaking tourists, you'll know where you'll be spending the night and you will have a general sense of the entire cost of the trip before you board your airplane to Europe. For more adventurous travelers, there are companies that are experienced organizing bicycle, canyoning, ballooning and other specialty tours that will give you the chance to enjoy your favorite hobby in a beautiful setting.

The primary drawbacks to tour travel in Europe are that

  • you are travelling with a large group that may often overwhelm an attraction;
  • you will get to the most famous sights but you may miss some of the most memorable moments that are off the beaten path; and
  • that you are living on someone else's schedule and on the budget they have planned

Whether a tour is right for you is a personal question. It takes a lot more time and effort to travel as an independent tourist...more research, more planning, more time making reservations and more effort to get from one location to another. A tour operator has the expertise to get you to the top destinations and takes care of all the little details. Also, the comfort of a bus makes it easy to strike up conversations with other tourists and develop quick friendships. Even if you aren't extremely gregarious, the nature of tour travel promotes comradery. It is possible that you will return home with plans to share pictures and even visit the new friends you made as you discovered the continent.

It may cost you more to travel on a tour because it is more difficult to do some of the cost-cutting you can do as an independent traveller. Under most circumstances, your tourist class sleeping accommodations will cost more than you would spend if you were camping or staying at economy class hotels. Also, you will probably eat most of your meals in restaurants or cafes, an expensive alternative to campground meals and picnics. Still, tour companies have significant buying power and create economies of scale, so that if you would independently book 3 or 4 star hotels for your accommodations, and would eat most of your meals out, the tour is likely to save you money in the long run.


The convenience of trains throughout Europe make them an ideal way for a lone traveller or couple to see the continent. This is especially true for those who want to visit non-EU countries which you can not reach with most rental cars from the EU. There are a number of different ways to buy passes, depending on your travel plans. Start playing with your vacation time, build a possible itinerary and check a Eurail ticket agent to see if your routing works. Then calculate how many times you will travel and which type of pass will be the best for you.

The train can be an economical form of transportation if you are only travelling between a few major cities and buy second-class tickets for transit between those destinations. Trains are also economical if you plan to visit many cities, travel frequently and use the train as a place to sleep some nights. This method of travel is great for the tourist who has a checklist of European sites/cities they want to visit, but for most travellers, you'll want to spend a day or two at most of the places you visit.

The three major drawbacks to train travel are:

  • making arrangements to get from the train station to the sites;
  • getting to accommodations from the train stations; and
  • carrying gear on your travels

If you plan to do a lot of city-hopping, trains put you at central locations in most cities, leaving you just a bus or subway ride away from lodging and attractions. If, on the other hand, you want to see the countryside, you need to make arrangements for transportation. The more remote the site is, the more difficult the planning may become. For many, the best solution is to bring a bike along on your journey and to use it for local transportation. Taxis and shuttles are also an option, but are expensive. Renting a car for a day or two may be a good solution...but if you use this solution too often, it would probably have been better to have done the whole trip in a rental car.

If you are staying in major cities, traveling to your hotel from the train station is usually a short walk or taxi ride. Getting to rural accommodations from a train station can be a difficult experience. Campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts that are off the beaten path may be an expensive taxi trip away from the depot or a long walk from a bus stop. Some campgrounds assist the train traveller by providing shuttle service from the depot to the facility but many are too far from the depot to provide this service. As you start to make reservations, get detailed information on how you can get from the train station to your accommodations.

If you are carrying camping equipment, the journey from the depot to the campsite can be arduous. You can reduce the amount of gear you carry by leaving your tent at home and renting a permanently-pitched one at the campground or staying in one of the facilty's bungalows. This usually requires reservations and longer stays at the campground. But if you're travelling by foot, the extra time is probably necessary.

Even if you aren't carrying camping gear, schlepping luggage from train to the hotel is not easy. Get luggage that makes it as easy as possible and reduce the amount of clothing and supplies you are carrying to the minimum.

Still, the intricacy of the European train system allows tourists to get to many sites by rail. Small towns are usually served by at least one train per day. The train system integrates well with bus services, so that there are few destinations that are unreachable by public transit. If the majority of your trip is to be spent in big cities and there are only one or two travelling, the train may be the most cost effective way to travel.


One of the most pleasant ways to visit parts of Europe is by boat. For most tourists, the ideas of Mediterranean or Norwegian fjord cruises come to mind; others think of sailboat charters to the Greek Isles. But there are navigable waterways throughout Europe that provide opportunities to see beautiful parts of the continent from the deck of a boat. You can travel as part of a group or captain your own boat. Whatever way you choose, sailing the waters of Europe will be a most memorable experience.

The benefits of an organized cruise are similar to the benefits of a tour...the chance to meet other English-speaking tourists and to conveniently travel from one destination to another, without a worry about lodging or connections. Additionally, most cruises include meals and snacks so that when you pay for your tickets, you've paid for almost all of your expenses for the trip. And, once you've settled into your cabin, you are there for the rest of the trip...no need to worry about repacking or moving luggage until the ship reaches its final destination.

The drawbacks are of an organized cruise also similar to that of a tour....you're on someone else's schedule, you're travelling in some level of luxury that is more expensive than what you would spend if you were travelling by car and staying in economy hotels, and when you visit tourist attractions, it's as part of a large group. Additionally, if you are taking a Mediterranean or Norwegian Cruise, you will do most of your travelling in open water and see less of the continent as you go.

Still, some European destinations are best reached by ship/boat. Sailing past the castles and monuments of the Rhine is unforgettable. Barge cruises through France and the Netherlands give you a unique impression of local life. And your first glance of St. Marks and the Grand Canal in Venice should be from a boat, whether it is gondola, vaporetto or cruiseliner.

If you don't want to take a cruise, you can make arrangements to rent a boat in many locations. Even inexperienced landlubbers can navigate most of the rivers and canals; cruising the open seas of Europe and the lagoon of Venice require more experience. There are a variety of options available and standard trips can be as short as a weekend or as long as 2 weeks. There are so many beautiful lakes and rivers in Western Europe that we are planning to use a boat for some part of our next journey.


Throughout Europe, you'll find great public transportation, including bus systems, that get you to most places you want to go in a city. If you are just visiting major cities, you should opt for public transportation because driving and parking in the major cities can be nerve-wracking. We pick up our rental car when we are on our way out of a big city to avoid the traffic and congestion. We stayed in Windsor and took a local train to London because of the rules that regulate cars in the British capital. But if you are heading to small towns far from major cities, the convenience of having a vehicles outweighs the stress associated with driving in the cities. Throughout Europe, the roads are safe and well-maintained.

Before our first trip to Europe, good friends who had visited Europe twice encouraged us to do the trip by car and to camp along the way. They suggested that our money would go much farther and that our experience would be unbelievable. Others warned us to stay in the right lane and beware of the lead-footed Europeans who would pass us on the major highways. After research on the cost of Eurail passes and auto leasing, it was clear that even with high European gas prices, a car would save us money and give us much more freedom to visit rural attractions we wanted to see. The cost savings worked for us as a couple travelling for an extended period of time; as the size of your group goes up, the cost savings can become very substantial. If you are traveling with a few friends or children, appropriate rental of a car will definitely save you money, keeping in mind that you will pay tolls on some of the major roads of Europe and need permits to travel on roads in other countries.

Typically, your domestic liability insurance doesn't cover you while driving in Europe. Generally, liability insurance for harming other people or property is included in the price of your rental and then you have to make decisions about the other coverage you want. Car rental agreements hold you liable for any damage that happens to the car you are renting (dings, scratches, dents, and bangs). They sell additional insurance to cover damage to windshields. If you have a credit card that provides collision damage insurance coverage when you rent a car, you do not need to buy collision damage insurance from the rental agencies which is a significant savings. But under current rules, credit card companies only provide this coverage on rentals of 30 days or less. Typically, travellers who are going to be gone for more than 30 days are advised to lease rather than rent because the car and insurance end up being less expensive. Planning our last trip, we found the best price by changing cars during our 37 days of driving. We switched companies as well on the last rental, though in the past, we simply changed the credit card we used to pay for the second rental. On our last trip, we saved enough by renting and changing our car midway to pay for a couple of nights lodging.

We explored the option of purchasing a car in Europe and then shipping it back. These programs are great for travelers who would normally drive a Volvo or similar. We, on the other hand, drive vehicles that maximize mileage and minimize expense and, despite incentives including round-trip airfare, the European purchasing programs didn't work for us.

Consider how much gear you will carry and try to get the smallest car that will suit your needs. Fuel efficient cars will help you save money despite high gas prices; a diesel vehicle may bring you additional savings which you should consider if you think you'll be driving many kilometers per day. Also, you'll get lots of reminders that vehicles in tourist areas are often prey to thieves; you'll have a bit more security if you are driving a sedan and can lock your luggage in the trunk. If you think that you will be moving frequently on your agenda, you may want to check into a camper van or even a motor home but remember that when you get into towns, you'll often be travelling on medieval streets that are crowded with tourists. At some points, even a small sedan is intimidating; vans or motorhomes are for those who have both patience and confidence or plan to walk from the outskirts of town to the sights.

You may hear lots of stories about European drivers whisking past you on highways and through narrow city streets, with their thumbs firmly planted on their horns. Don't let them frighten you. If you have survived cruising the streets and freeways of LA, San Francisco, New York, Boston or DC, you'll be comfortable with the roads of Europe. I bounced more on the potholes of Chicago in one weekend than I did in 37 days of driving on the continent over cobblestone and generally felt the drivers were more considerate and cooperative than those I encounter in the states. Understand that Europeans take driving seriously, especially in France, Italy and Germany, so that you need to be alert and attentive. Also, you will often be traveling on country roads with one lane moving in each direction. Use caution when you pass, watch out for the other guy and don't let a horn or flashing lights pressure you to do something that isn't safe.