It took awhile for me to wrap my head around the fact that plane travel within Europe is often the cheaper option for getting from Point A to Point B, train travel being the more expensive option.
Flights are much faster than train travel, so why is that?
Cheap Flights Within Europe
With deregulation of flights within Europe since the mid-90’s, low-cost airlines have sprouted like weeds. And with so many competing low-cost carriers throughout Europe, flights have gotten cheap within the continent. Flying, save for the time it takes to go through security and board, is already known to be the faster option, and the time savings increase exponentially as the distance increases.
Other than due to the competitive nature of the constantly growing number of airlines, prices are also kept low for flights within Europe due to their no-frills services. Most of the budget carriers, such as Ryanair and WizzaAir, maintain no or few customer service locations and kiosks. Booking and administration of flights are done by each passenger almost completely online. Though flights being cheaper than riding the rails is not always the case, as I saw on a trip aboard the Berlin-Warszawa Express last year from Germany to Poland, many times it is, especially between popular city pairs.
Here are some examples:
This is a round trip ticket with Ryanair from London Stansted to Frankfurt Hahn. Notice, the ticket is about £46 (~$71), which is quite a bargain for a return international flight, even if the distance is not great. The dates are for Aug 1, 2013 to Aug 8, 2013, and each nonstop flight is a mere 1 hour and 20 minutes in length. However, keep in mind that because security is involved, add at least 1 hour and a half to the start of each segment. Also, the worst part of booking with Ryanair, and many budget carriers, is the baggage allowance.
The baggage (dis)allowance policy grants few options at exorbitant fees. Each passenger is allowed one free carry-on baggage, but checking luggage is where it becomes costly and tricky. During their low season (which they define), the first checked bag (up to 15 kg/33 lbs) costs £15 (~$23) if you purchase it when you purchase your tickets. If you wait until later, but still book it online, it costs £20 (~$30).
And if you wait until you get to the airport to check in, it is a whopping £60 (~$92), more than the cost of the flight!!! And, just to add to the nausea, these are per flight fees, so you pay them going each way. And I gave you the low season rates. They charge £100 (~$154) per bag for what they define the high season!
Budget airlines are notorious for charging for everything. Just look at the next photo for the fee for just getting a simple text or email before the flight departs, something that does not cost them a dime and that most other companies would provide anyway, free of charge.
Riding the Rails in Europe
Though train travel is often the more expensive route, I still prefer the rails when going from city to city in Europe. There is a civilized feeling on board European trains, a night-and-day difference from the no-frills attitude that has come to define the budget carrier experience. Aside from the much more luxurious appointments, you are able to see the different small towns as you travel from one city to another.
Using the above example for a round trip ticket from London to Frankfurt, on the dates of Aug 1, 2013 to Aug 8, 2013, here is how train travel would work:
Since there is no direct train route from London to Frankfurt, you would have to transfer; in this case, the two main train routes from London to Frankfurt are via Paris or Brussels. The photo below shows the full fare of a ticket from London to Frankfurt and back with a quick stop in Brussels.
As you can see, the price, €248 (~325) is significantly higher than the Ryanair version. The total trip time, including the stop in Brussels, comes to about 5 and a half hours each way (there is a 1 hour time difference between London and Frankfurt/Brussels). However, if you are carrying much more than a backpack on this trip, the train price is not much greater than the Ryanair price including the baggage fees.
Also, the five and a half hours barely requires any extra “boarding” and “security” time.
You Get What You Pay For
In this situation, pitting train travel with plane travel within Europe, the age-old adage holds true: you get what you pay for. Cheap flights must still make each company a profit. Train travel, though longer in time, is more civilized due to the levels of comfort provided and the amenities offered.
As opposed to being crammed into a Ryanair plane like livestock, train travel in Europe is relaxing: many seats, including the cheapest “2nd class” services, offer compartmentalized cabins with 4 or 6 seats, reading lights, large, reclining seats, and a dining car, allowing you to walk around and stretch your legs while en route.
When not separated into compartments of 4 or 6, usually trains have one center aisle with 2 seats on one side and either 1 or 2 on the other, compared to the cramped feeling of 3+3 on a narrow-body plane.
For more like this, check out a brief commentary on the Eurail Pass.