Planes Vs. Trains: Traversing Europe

By Jane Engle

Los Angeles Times

LONDON ~ Inexpensive, fast transportation continues to be the talk of Europe, where dozens of budget airlines tout fares as low as US$1 and trains blaze through 10 nations at 150 mph and higher.

Planes cost less and get you there faster. Trains cost more and take longer. So it’s clear that planes ace trains, right?

Wrong. Or at least partly.

To find out the best way to travel, I barnstormed through four countries in four days in August, pitting planes against trains on cost, speed and convenience. Along the way, I asked locals and tourists how they got around.

Starting in London, I flew to Brussels, Belgium , and returned on a train. Then I took the train from London to Paris and transferred to another train to get to Basel, Switzerland. Finally, I flew back from Basel to London.

From this, I evolved a rule of thumb for touring Europe: Use a train for short hops, a plane for longer trips (except between cities directly linked by high-speed rail) and a car to roam the countryside. The formula varies by your destination and budget, of course.

Impatient readers can disembark now. The rest of you might want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, as they say, it’s all about the journey.

During my travels, I found out how extra costs can swell a bargain air fare 10 times over, when a fast train can be surprisingly slow and why you might have more fun on a no-frills flight in Europe than on a budget carrier in the U.S.

I learned a lot and slept little. Here’s what happened:

My journey of 1,600 miles began with a single misstep: I fell for a $14 web fare from London to Brussels on Dublin, Ireland-based Ryanair, a 22-year-old pioneer of budget flying in Europe.

“Book it,” I told my travel agent.

Soon after, I got his email: With taxes and fees, the fare totaled $73. Cha-ching!

The tab would continue to rise.

To make my 6:40a.m. flight, I needed to be at Stansted Airport, a budget-airline hub 34 miles northeast of London, by 4:40a.m., too early to catch the train, the quickest way there. (Some buses run 24 hours.) So I reserved a hotel room ($173) near the airport the night before. In London, I boarded the Stansted Express train ($31) at Liverpool Street station for a 45-minute ride to the airport, then took a shuttle to the hotel and, the next day, back out to the airport.

At bustling Stansted, Ryanair dinged me $20 to check my small bag. The fee is tough to avoid because, under Britain’s security rules, even a purse or laptop counts as your one permitted carry-on.

Boarding Ryanair, as with Southwest Airlines, was a cattle call: no reserved seats. But in the air, what a difference.

Instead of peanuts, I was handed a 40-item menu for an hour-long flight. The cheery crew took orders, accepting cash or credit, for bottled water, fruit smoothies, French roast coffee, sandwiches, wine and even lottery tickets.

Prices, by European standards, weren’t bad. When my savory $6 pizza arrived just before landing, the flight attendant apologized profusely. Then, as I deplaned, he patted my shoulder and said, “Thanks a million.”

I almost forgot I was flying a budget airline. But not for long.

It took more than two hours to get into Brussels from Brussels South Charleroi Airport, a utilitarian way station 37 miles south of the city, by bus ($15), the most direct transit.

The bus came every 45 minutes, and it filled up fast, leaving 20 people to wait for the next one. We shoved our luggage into the hold and, 40 minutes later, pulled up to Brussels Midi train station. Had we flown into Brussels’ main airport, Zaventem, nine miles northeast of the city, we could have arrived there in 20 minutes for $4 by train.

Total travel time, London to Brussels: More than six hours. Total cost: $139, plus the hotel bill.

Lessons learned: Budget carriers aren’t always bargains. Many fly into out-of-the way airports. Still, Europeans rave about them, with good reason, as I was to learn later.

I began my afternoon train trip to London where I had ended my Ryanair odyssey: Brussels Midi station.

Eurostar, the high-speed train that darts through the Chunnel between England and the continent, whisks you from city center to city center, eliminating airport transfers. You can check in until 30 minutes before departure and take aboard two suitcases, plus hand luggage. Security screening, which is as stringent as it is for planes, was swift. The cafe car, although strictly stand-up, served decent salads, sandwiches and hot entrees.

My trip from Brussels Midi to central London totaled fewer than four hours, including wait time and two hours, 24 minutes on the train, and cost $149, my second-class fare. It was faster, easier and just $10 more than my Ryanair trip.

What’s not to like? Well, last-minute Eurostar fares can soar above $200 each way, so book early. So-called club seats, facing each other across a table, were so cramped that to stretch my legs I had to squeeze them between a stranger’s. (Europeans say you can request regular seats, which have decent legroom.) At one point, an electrical glitch killed the lights and briefly stalled us.

But oh, the ride! Even at its top speed, 186 mph, Eurostar glided along like a Mercedes sedan, with minimal side-to-side sway. Instead of clacking, it emitted a soft, musical hum that lulled some passengers to sleep.

Trackside, shapes dissolved into streaks of color. When I looked up, the pace slowed. City skylines, then clouds, cows and verdant countryside drifted by. Even gritty urban scenes offered fascination: glimpses of private backyards.

After zipping through most tunnels, the train took 20 minutes to transit the Chunnel. Soon after, it pulled into London’s Waterloo station on time.

Starting November 14, you’ll arrive even earlier. That’s when Eurostar plans to start operating out of its new St. Pancras International station in north-central London, using a high-speed track that will shave 20 minutes off times.

Lessons learned: Rail beats air for traveling between Brussels and London, an opinion shared by the nearly two-thirds of London-Brussels travelers who shun the plane for the train, according to Eurostar. (Even more, more than 70 percent, take Eurostar between London and Paris.)

Of course, using major airports, as many carriers do, would help even the score, as would getting an affordable air connection tacked onto your ticket by a trans-Atlantic airline.

High-speed trains don’t always beat planes, as I learned by linking the Eurostar with France’s TGV East to get from London to Basel, Switzerland’s third-biggest city. And they can zip through your wallet. Even in second class, my rail journey cost $334, more than twice the price of flying back to London. (Not everyone pays this much. Fares vary by demand, and I booked just a week ahead.)

The trip totaled more than nine hours, about three hours more than flying, including wait times and transfers.

I lagged even though I rode the TGV’s newest line, touted as the world’s fastest conventional train (steel wheels on steel track), based on a modified train set with oversized engine and wheels clocked at 357 mph in April.

In practice, the TGV East’s top speed for commercial use is 199 mph. Because most of the track can’t support this speed, it goes this fast for only an hour before slowing to 100 mph and slower.

I lost time transferring from Paris’ Gare du Nord station, where the Eurostar ended, and the Gare de l’Est, from where the TGV East departed. It’s only a four-block walk, but I allowed a two-hour connection to be safe. One nasty surprise: I had to lug my bag down 50 stone stairs between stations.

Otherwise, my trip was idyllic. Without security or passport checks – typically waived for train riders within the European Union – I hopped the TGV just 15 minutes before it pulled out.

Sipping a Perrier in the cafe car, where I enjoyed a $16 three-course lunch consisting of a shredded carrot salad, “croque-monsieur” (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich) and strawberry-rhubarb compote, I felt very French as I surveyed passing pastoral postcards framed by big windows.

I couldn’t sense any real difference between TGV East’s 199 mph and Eurostar’s 186 mph. But I still felt smug about riding one of the world’s speediest trains.

Lessons learned: Fast trains aren’t that fast for long trips. But they’re relaxing (if you can forget the cost).

At last I got it: This is why Europeans love low-cost carriers.

After an evening mingling with merry crowds at a world culture festival in Basel that belied the sober image of this Swiss business and transport center, I headed out in the morning to catch my EasyJet flight back to London.

The 15-minute bus trip from the city to EuroAirport Basel/Mulhouse/Freiburg was free, thanks to a transit pass that my no-frills EasyHotel, like many hotels in Basel, gives its guests.

EasyJet flew more than 32 million passengers last year, about 10 million fewer than Ryanair.

At the airy, modern Basel airport, I sped through security. Boarding was chaotic, with a late gate change and no reserved seats. But all was forgiven in flight after I ordered a tasty low-fat chicken wrap ($7) from the huge menu and won $2 in the airline’s lottery.

After arriving at the pleasant London Luton Airport, a burgeoning bazaar for low-cost carriers, I took a $16 shuttle bus for the 30-plus-mile trip into London. Even in light weekend traffic, it took more than an hour to get to Victoria Station in the heart of London.

Total travel time, Basel to London: 6 hours, 15 minutes, including a one-hour, 40-minute flight. Total cost: $143, including a $127 airfare.

Lessons learned: Budget carriers can be great when they fly into convenient airports. Get a map.

Even when it’s all about the journey, you need to know where you’re going.

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