The various budget airlines in Europe are my preferred mode of transportation in the continent. Need to fly from London to Prague or Scandinavia to Portugal? Flying makes great sense for backpacking through Europe when distance makes train travel costly and time consuming by comparison. Yet Europe is small enough to make both train and bus travel viable options for traveling to countries in the same or neighboring region.
Consider the fact traveling over ground often gets people from Point A to Point B quicker than flying. After taking into account the hassle of travel to mostly suburban airports and the log-jam associated with checking in, security lines, and managing the departure gate fiascos, most people waste hours sitting or standing in place. Why not use a bus or train departing from a city center instead and jump right into work or that much-needed nap while backpacking through Europe?
Backpacking Through Europe: Eurail Passes
Rail travel in most of Europe is fast and efficient. Trains arrive on time and make Amtrak trains in the United States look laughably inept by comparison. Still, the popular rail passes romanticized in travel articles as a way to take unlimited trips to different cities are seldom the best idea for a budget traveler. The passes are incredibly expensive for adults and crunching the numbers highlights the reality from a cost perspective.
The above screenshot shows a 5-day pass for train travel in a zone spanning the countries of France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Belgium. The pass gives travelers an option to travel via train for five 24-hour spans within a two month period. A cost of $474 for a single adult traveling in second class for five days might initially seem like a steal for many people backpacking through Europe and used to travel in the United States.
A Better Alternative: Single Trip Tickets
Now consider a trip from Paris to Amsterdam; a popular, longer route available with the same $474 Eurail pass.
The route takes over three hours on a high speed train, crosses through Belgium, and still only costs $84 when purchased as a single ticket. Even taking a significant trip like this five times during the two-month span and buying tickets individually—perhaps down to Munich, Geneva, and back to Paris, for instance—still costs less than the $474 price tag for a pass. While not impossible, the chance of exceeding the $474 costs with only five days to travel in a smaller region of Europe isn’t very realistic unless someone’s sole point is to spend the entire five days in and out of trains.
Wanderlust TipBuying one-off tickets is easy at station kiosks for those backpacking through Europe and gives passengers a clear seat reservation.
Eurail passes also involve unassigned seating and more confusion over what sections of the train are available to passengers. On popular routes, travelers might need to go to the train station in advance to reserve a spot or risk not having a seat on the train. Single trip tickets on Europe’s rail system are simply a better idea for backpacking through Europe in most cases.
Bus Travel in Europe
Bus travel in Europe rivals budget carriers like Bolt and MegaBus in the United States in terms of pricing. The latter even introduced travel across the pond in recent years and gives travelers backpacking through Europe one of many alternative options to rail or air travel. Buses do take longer than high speed trains, but trip costs are much less. Most buses also offer free WiFi and other perks to make the trip more enjoyable.
A quick glance at popular bus lines shows the following ticket prices for travel from Paris to Amsterdam:
Both trips are around eight hours—or over double a high speed train, but at about a quarter of the cost. At this price point and duration, many might rightfully justify a cheap flight on a budget airline, but last minute options are limited and people with a lot of luggage incur extra fees not found on bus trips.
Choosing an overnight route also save on hotel costs. Travelers backpacking through Europe with months on their hands typically won’t find the added time spent en route to a new city a big concern if the savings are right. For shorter distances, bus travel quickly becomes more and more efficient as well when considering any flight—both short or long distance—requires the same type of wasted time for ticketing, security, and boarding.