I’ve been traveling in Europe for over 20 years now. Whether it’s traveling by sleeper train through Central Europe, road tripping through Eastern Europe, or catching budget flights for many a Mediterranean holiday, I’ve used lots of ways to travel throughout the continent.
I’m from the Netherlands, but I know many of my readers are from the USA and other countries. If you are coming from afar, keep in mind travel in Europe can be a bit different from what you’re used to.
Read on as I’ll tell you the most important tips for traveling around Europe.
The best way to travel around Europe
How you get around Europe all depends on your trip. There is really no best way, as each mode has its own pros and cons — and you can mix them all the time.
But do consider traveling by public transport. Many Americans may have negative associations with those syrupy slow Amtrak trains or sketchy Greyhound buses in the US — or so I’m told — but the trains and coaches in Europe are nothing like that. Chances are you’ll actually enjoy using them.
Due to the liberalization of European airspace in the late ’90s, there is also a wealth of budget airlines servicing all corners of the continent, sometimes flying you for peanuts. Air travel isn’t the best for the environment, but it can be fast and cheap.
Finally, there are also car rental and ride-sharing services to consider.
Travel Europe by train
I just love traveling Europe by train. It’s comfortable, you can watch the landscapes pass you by, there is little to no security hassle to deal with, the trains often arrive right at the heart of a city, and they give you more leg-space compared to buses or planes.
(It’s also 10x to 20x better for the environment than flying!)
If you have any romantic notions around train travel then you’ll surely love taking trains in Europe.
Trains are especially good in Scandinavia, Western Europe, and Central Europe. But trains can be quite poor (or nonexistent) in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Taking domestic trains
If you just need to use a local or regional train within a country, you can just get tickets from the local railway company. Sometimes it can be a good idea to book ahead your journey a day or two in advance (especially for busy holidays like Easter), but typically you can also just show up at the station and get your ticket there.
On these trains, there are usually no assigned seats and prices are fixed.
Taking long-distance trains
It’s a different story with high-speed trains (such as France’s TGV, Germany’s ICE, or Spain’s AVE), overnight trains, or long-distance international trains.
These do require a seat reservation or at least a ticket for the specific day. They also often have variable pricing, so booking early could save you money.
Sadly, the European rail system is still a crazy patchwork of different rail companies, ticketing systems, and languages. Some trains still need printed tickets, others just an e-ticket with a QR code. If you travel through many countries in Europe it can be frustrating having to figure this stuff out every time.
Luckily, some sites have made it easier in recent years. I highly recommend using RailEurope.com (formerly known as Loco2) where you can book trains from pretty much any rail company. After booking you also get clear instructions in English on how to use your tickets.
Unlimited train travel with Eurail
If you’re planning a big backpacking trip through Europe, you may want to consider getting an Eurail pass. (Note: Eurail pass is for non-Europeans. The Interrail Pass is for European citizens.)
Eurail is a global pass that you pay once and can then use for unlimited travel within the number of days you’ve purchased. For example, the most popular EUrail pass gives you 10 travel days within 2 months — and during those 10 days, you can have unlimited travel on trains.
The time limit only starts when you start using the pass. You may still need to reserve seats on some train journeys, especially when using high-speed rail. 31 countries are included in the pass.
These passes will give you the best deal if you’re under 28 years old. For example, you can get 10 days of unlimited 2nd class travel within 2 months for just $542. Or you can get 5 days of unlimited 2nd class travel within 1 month for $363. These prices go up if you’re older.
If you plan to use trains a lot and if you’ll travel long distances within Europe, I think these passes are great. If you’ll be covering lots of ground it will probably cost less than buying individual tickets.
But if you plan to make smaller hops between cities (and so you’re not using your ‘unlimited travel’ days to the maximum) or you want to use rail for only some of your travels, then an Eurail pass might make less sense for you. Try doing the math and see if it will actually save you money.
Travel Europe by bus
Low-cost bus companies let you hop around Europe with ease. Short domestic bus services can be booked locally, but for long-distance and international buses it’s best to book them online.
Buses are a great way to get around everywhere, but especially in Eastern Europe where the rail infrastructure isn’t as good.
If you’re on a budget, you should definitely try Flixbus. It mainly has routes going through Germany and Central- and Eastern Europe though its network is rapidly expanding.
Flixbus can be crazy cheap, especially if you book early, as it operates on a model similar to budget airlines like RyanAir. Flixbus works as a franchise so the type and quality of the buses vary a lot, though I’ve been fully satisfied with the Flixbuses I’ve been on. Just don’t expect the Free Wi-Fi that’s advertised to work, or actually exist.
I recently took a Flixbus between Lisbon and Seville for just €10, which is normally around €45 with other bus companies. That beats even the cheapest airlines.
Before writing this today I even saw Flixbus tickets on this same route for just €1! Granted, that was a 5.40 am bus that had to be booked a week ahead, but if you’re traveling on a shoestring you’ll surely want to keep your eyes peeled for such amazing sales.
Travel Europe by car
Traveling around Europe by car is a great idea, too. If you already have your own car, then you’re all set!
If you want to rent a car, then there are a few things to know:
- Make sure you can drive manual as most cars in Europe are
- Not a European Union citizen? Then you’ll probably need an International Driving Permit
- Rental cars are usually quoted without insurance, but it’s a legal requirement to always have third-party liability insurance. Add it during the reservation process or ensure you have your own
- It’s usually fine to cross borders between European Union member states, but going outside the EU (with a car rented within the EU) may be disallowed or incur extra fees
Rentalcars.com is a pretty good site to look for — wait for it — rental cars. After searching there, you can still check the companies and book with them directly, as this will cut out an unnecessary middleman. In Europe you’ll find all the usual car rental companies like Avis, Hertz, Thrifty, etc. as well as Europcar.
Personally, I like to travel around Europe mainly by bus, train, or plane, but sometimes I’ll get a rental car in location or for a mini-road trip for a week.
Another option is long-distance ride-sharing. The biggest platform for this in Europe by far is Blablacar.com.
It works vaguely like hitching between cities, except all the drivers have verified profiles and you pay them for their services. You can rate your profile from ‘bla‘ up to ‘bla-bla-bla‘ depending on how much you typically like to chat during a journey. I’ve had some mixed experiences with Blablacar, but on certain routes it can be a convenient and affordable option.
Travel Europe by camper van
Traveling by camper van will give you a whole different feel for Europe, as you’re able to stop in scenic nature locations and go far beyond the usual city-hopping itineraries.
To do this properly you could buy or renovate a van yourself, just as my dad did in the ’80s when he modded a vintage Type H Citroen and drove it from campsite to campsite through the Alps. (I really need to do something like it one day!)
But if you want to get just a little taste of the #VanLife, you can also easily rent a campervan for a European road trip.
Europe’s largest provider of travel vans is Indiecampers. They were founded in Lisbon (where I live now), so I see their vans going up and down the Portuguese coast all the time, though they are currently based in dozens of locations all over Europe. They have a fleet of Millenial-friendly high-top campervans.
You can drive the vans all around the European Union, plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. The costs depend hugely on location and season, ranging from €39 per day in the winter off-season in Spain to about €169 per day during August in Germany.
Travel Europe by plane
If you want to hop around Europe quickly and cheaply, then planes can make that happen. Numerous budget airlines cross the skies in Europe, including easyJet, Wizz Air, Eurowings, Vueling, Level, and — the biggest and arguably most notorious of them all — RyanAir.
The base price for these flights can be very low, but keep in mind these airlines will ding you for anything extra. You’ll have to pay to add checked-in luggage, for drinks or snacks on the flight, for seat selection, and many other things. The restrictions for carry-on luggage also differ per airline, with RyanAir being particularly stringent.
Sometimes I’ve found that a ticket with RyanAir is just barely cheaper than one with a full-service airline, at least once you start adding all the extra costs. Still, if you can limit your luggage to carry-on size, you can fly around Europe rather cheaply and easily.
I have many expert tips for booking flights. But generally, try researching flights using Kiwi.com, which I think is the most powerful search engine, but then book the tickets directly with the carrier. Avoid booking with sites like Gotogate, Travel2be, or eDreams (often linked by flight search engines) as they have poor customer service or terrible refund policies.
Consider the impact on the environment of flying, especially for shorter distances. You can also choose to offset the carbon emissions of your flight.