Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Eurail Pass - No more valuable

Thirty-five years ago, I traveled Europe on a rail pass as a student. Recently, we planned for a trip as a family of three. We almost bought the Eurail Pass - €576+€490x2 - but at the last minute we decided to drive.

The main reason we found the Eurail Pass not suitable was that despite the high cost, nothing can be a be planned with any degree of certainty. In France, the number of seats available for Eurail Pass holders are limited and nobody could say how limited. With such unknowns, it was difficult to book hotels. The other main reason was that lots of time would be spent waiting at train stations to catch connections.

As we flew into Amsterdam, we booked a Hertz car from Schipol Airport. The total rental bill for sixteen days worked out to only €483.96.

Hertz Rental Record (ignore pen marks)

Notice that there is a Location Service Charge of 18% or €61.01. I didn't see it till I got home. From my experience with Hertz in the US, this is usually because the car is rented out of an airport location. Try to rent from town and see if you can get rid of it.

For that €483.96, we had a huge car, a Kia SportAge. It was a stick shift, like most European rental cars, but it came with a built-in GPS Navigator (I didn't opt for it but the car came with it) which I found it priceless. Without it, I think we would easily spend much much more time undoing the mistakes from driving on the wrong lanes and taking the wrong exits. Like all Hertz cars I had rented, this one was also under 10,000km.

A car has some advantages in addition to costing only 1/3 to 1/4 of the Eurail Pass equivalent for a family of three or four:

  • Flexibility - if you meet delays, you can speed up by spending less time at your destination, or droping some destinations
  • Much cheaper hotels as you can stay away from big cities. In Paris, we stayed in Gennevillers next to a tram station for only €39 a night.
  • Mobility - you are not locked down to visit only places near train stations.

The time spent driving is not any longer than taking trains as there is no time spent waiting to change trains.

The cost of tolls and gas is not significant.

Driving needs lots of preparatory work, but I don't think any more than that needed to use a Eurail Pass effectively. You have to find out the driving requirements and practices in each European country. For example, in Germany you need a green Umweltzone sticker, which I got it without fuss at the first TUV station after crossing the border. In Austria, you need a reflective vest, which I found it in the safety package in the trunk. In Austria, you need to buy a vignette sticker to use motorways, which I bought it easily at a gas station in Germany near the border. In France, you need an unused breath analyzer. I didn't bother to check whether the safety package contained one, and I heard that it can be bought for €2 at Hertz.

The tough part with driving may be parking in cities. But most cities now have Park and Ride schemes. In Amsterdam, we could park the whole day for €1 with heavily discounted tram/train/bus tickets into town. In Berlin, we could park for free at a U- or S-Bahn station on the city fringes.

The big risk with driving is that you may get into accidents. As you are likely to be in a country other than the one in which you rented the car, this becomes an international incident and I don't know how it will be handled. I guess your holiday will be completely ruined if you are involved in an accident.

For the autobahn experience, see here.