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Best Way to Travel Europe: Cheap, Easy... and Unusual Transport

Women on the Road
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Deciding to plan a trip can be a stressful, especially if it’s your first time. And figuring out the best ways to travel around Europe can be even more complicated. You’re dealing with several countries and languages, possibly several currencies, and certainly a number of transportation methods.

I'm French, have lived in France, Switzerland and Spain, and I'm a graduate of many a European trip, so  I’m going to untangle things for you and help you figure out the best way to get around Europe. I hope to help smooth your travel plans and take off for your holiday with a light heart.

the best way to travel around europe by plane

Surprisingly, on a continent that’s known for being expensive, flying is often one of the cheapest ways to travel. Here’s how to make it manageable. And it's among the most convenient, allowing you to travel across continent in just a few hours. Here's how to make it manageable:

Using regular scheduled airlines

Regular airlines - the British Airways and Air Frances of the world - often have impressive sales and specials that undercut everyone else, even the no-frills airlines.

Usually deals are released once a week so check their websites regularly to be the first one in - the number of low-cost seats is often limited.  You can also subscribe to their newsletters and be the first to grab those seats once they’re advertised. (Here are a few more resources for cheap flights in Europe and beyond.)

Special airline discount sites

Sites like Secret Flying and Flynous specialize in cheap flights and error fares (what the name implies: mistakes, caused by a glitch in the machine or a sleepy employee).

These are special sites that scrape fares mistakenly published by airlines, which don’t stay on the market for very long. It may be an error fare, but a ticket is a ticket and the one you’ll get will be the same as any ticket you buy online.

European charter airlines

Many countries have charter airlines managed by tour companies. The dates of travel are usually rigid but prices can be very low, making it one of the best ways to travel to Europe cheap.

These are especially useful if you're heading to a resort destination, say a beach on the Mediterranean. Combined with a package deal, you can end up paying less for your entire vacation than for your flight.

European discount airlines

These are perhaps the best flight deals in Europe, the EasyJets, the Ryanairs and the Vuelings of Europe. You can actually buy an occasional ticket for $1 and travel across Europe for two hours for that unbelievably low fare.

Of course most tickets are more expensive but still, you’ll easily be able to get on flight to pretty much anywhere on the continent for under $50 (as long as you book well ahead of time, of course). These are no-frills airlines and you may have to pay for such things as carry-on bags or hold luggage, but you’ll still be paying very little.

A few air travel tips to make traveling through europe easy

  • To get comparisons, head to your favorite booking engine (I use Momondo but there are plenty of others out there). Let technology do the work for you and provide you with a comparison of costs.
  • If Europe is just a stop on your trip and you're planning on long-term travel over several continents, round the world tickets may be your best bet.
  • And of course there are mileage clubs and points you can accumulate either by traveling a lot or through credit cards. Outfits like points.com let you track and consolidate your various loyalty schemes.

How to travel through Europe by train

While flying is often the cheapest way to travel around Europe, taking the train is often a lot more fun. Trains have plenty of advantages:

  • They usually take the scenic route - a train ride through Europe is often as beautiful as the cities you’re traveling to (and you’ll get a better view from the tracks than you will from up there).
  • Trains are often frequent and can get you from one place to the next at the time you want.
  • Most train stations are downtown, which lets you avoid lengthy rides to and from airports.
  • Imagine that - you could actually pack your nail clippers and a water bottle without having to worry about X-ray security machines.
  • Take that big suitcase, go on. No one will tell you you’re over the weight limit.

While you may come across some great inexpensive train trips, unfortunately in some countries (Switzerland and the UK are two good examples), taking a train can be far more expensive than flying. So if you're visiting one of the more expensive countries, consider buying a rail pass if you plan to spend any amount of time on the train.

(Click for an in-depth explanation of Eurail passes and how they work.)

Rossio station, Lisbon - travelling around EuropeRossio train station in Lisbon - one of the joys of traveling around Europe are the glorious train stations across the continent

travel to Europe cheaper by bus

If you have the time or the inclination the bus is probably the cheapest way to travel in Europe over long distances. It's not quite as comfortable as the train, nor is it as fast (most times). But it can be very efficient, and night-time buses allow you to travel while you sleep.

The best place to check the various European bus schedules and timetables is on Omio. Here are a few things to consider if you plan to travel through Europe by bus.

  • Many bus companies have pass systems, like Eurolines
  • With Busabout, you can either get a pass or a hop on hop off ticket. 
  • Some companies offer extreme long distance rides, especially between immigration countries - Sweden to Portugal, or Poland to France for example.

For an overview of information and resources on bus travel, have a look at my travel by bus page.

Renting a car to travel Europe cheap

A wonderful way to travel Europe is by renting a car, which can cost a lot less than you think. This type of travel gives you tremendous freedom to explore the continent, its smaller roads and rural corners. 

Driving can be slower than train trips (and certainly flights), but slow travel can lead to the best experiences. You might end up enjoying that village two hours away even more than your final destination. Getting there is often at least half the fun!

tips for driving in europe


Do watch out for a few things, though:

  • Beware, if you’re North American, that most European cars have standard shift sticks - you can sometimes rent an automatic transmission but you’ll pay premium rates and have to reserve well ahead of time, because these vehicles are rare.
  • In England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, people drive on the LEFT - that’s on the opposite side of where they drive in Canada and the US. Some visitors manage just fine. I’m utterly unable to drive on the ‘other’ side without taking out someone’s side mirror.
  • If you are younger or older, check because some companies will not insure you below or above a certain age.
  • Driving while under the influence is a serious offence in many countries, some of which have zero tolerance. If you’re caught breaking the law, your Europe road trip may be cut far shorter than you expect.
  • Many private vehicles have dashcams in front or back so if you drive badly, there will be evidence.
  • Take the time to learn the rules of the road. Some of them may make absolutely no sense. In France, for example, you could be driving at high speed on a main road and someone merging from a tiny street on your right may have priority and cut right in front of you.
  • Beware that speed limits might be higher than what you’re used to - and roads far narrower and sharper.
Freeway speed limits across the EU - KaterBegemot [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Other forms of transportation in Europe

Ask 'what is the best way to travel in Europe' and you'll have plenty of answers. One of the great things about travel is novelty - trying new things, experiencing different approaches to life, and, why not, new modes of transportation. There are many surprising options!

  • I've tried hitchhiking but wouldn't really recommend it in Europe - which doesn't mean some people don't do it. This article will give you a few pointers on finding rides online, which also requires a lot of care. While sticking your thumb out can be commonplace in some parts of the world, I would consider it trickier in Western Europe, especially as a solo female traveler. If you want to know more about this type of travel, click here.
  • You could travel on foot, walking at least part of the way. Like hitchhiking, walking carries safety issues for solo women but Europe is replete with hiking trails and if you have the time, you could walk clear across the continent… I admit this is tempting. 
  • There are boats! I get motion sick, but Europe has plenty of rivers and coastline , and sailing around the continent or along the Mediterranean could give sailing buffs a thrill. There are other ways to travel Europe by boat - for example, plenty of ferries will carry you between one or more countries.
  • Europe is criss-crossed by rivers and river cruises are increasingly popular with solo women (especially since an increasing number of companies are waiving their single supplements).

If Irish author Dervla Murphy could ride a bicycle from home all the way to India (not to mention a mule across Ethiopia), surely we can be creative about how we get somewhere.

Unusual transportation methods:Travel through Europe in offbeat ways

There's more to travel than getting from A to B and for many of you, the journey is as important as the destination.

Sometimes, just for fun, why not try something utterly different, offbeat, crazy even? Perhaps for an hour or two, or days on end - turn your transportation method into the actual trip.

Donkey

This would never have occurred to me had I not come across a woman with a donkey in my own town. Across central France and northern Spain it's not wholly uncommon to see people on a pilgrimage to Santiago pulling their donkey along, and I happen to live on one of the French branches of the Camino.

They tend to carry your packs, not you, so don't get your hopes up. 

Kayak

kayaking in ghent, belgium

Europe's amazing network of rivers makes it a wonderful place to kayak - just slip in, push away and start paddling. Even near my own home in Eastern France, I'm on the shores of the Rhone River. All I have to do is put my kayak into the water and I could reach the Mediterranean.

The only hassle is getting a kayak back to its starting point, or carrying it because they can be heavy. For ease of travel, you could use an inflatable kayak and get rid of the weight problem altogether - and just enjoy the winding rivers of Europe.

River barge

Long a favorite in France or the Netherlands, a barge is more for short-term travel simply because it has limitations - it can't go everywhere. But like a kayak, a barge is an ideal way to travel across Europe slowly, taking your time and relaxing. Have a look at Le Boat if you want to explore this further.

Bicycle

Cycling long-distance doesn't really qualify as unusual travel, certainly not in Europe, where pedaling up rugged mountains is a common sight. Jumping on a bike and heading clear across Europe isn't anything unusual and on some roads you'll find more bicycles than you will cars.

It's also a great form of cheap travel in Europe. For a closer look at cycling on the continent, Europe Bicycle Touring has plenty of information.

Recumbent bike

If sitting for hours on a bicycle isn't your idea of fun, a recumbent bike might be the thing: you get to pedal, but you get to do it semi-lying down with your legs stretched out. Not quite like a nap but an intriguing form of unusual transport, which you can occasionally see on European roads.

I've never tried one but they're said to be both faster and more comfy than a regular ride, unless you're climbing. Imagine they're great conversation-starters, too.

Motorcycle

Europe has a stunning variety of roads - from gentle curves to terrifying zig-zags. Any Sunday, you'll see (and especially hear) bikes roaring up Europe's roads. If you're wondering where to start, the HUBB motorcycle forum is the most frequented online.

Adventure Motorcycle Travel is good for information on European motorcycling, and for something more woman-specific, there's Coyote Trips.

roads that are perfect to travel around Europe - RomaniaRoads that curve like the Transfagarasan in the Romanian Carpathians are challenging for motorcyclists - and hugely popular

Campervan

If you were backpacking in the sixties and seventies (and some of us were), you'll remember the ubiquitous Volkswagen vans dotting the Hippie Trail across several continents. They were usually furnished with a foam mattress and little else, as thousands of young people searching for something headed East. 

Europe is ideal for campervans - you can either use a campground or, in many countries, simply find a pleasant spot to park, and enjoy.

How to decide where to travel in Europe

Armed with your knowledge of the best ways to travel Europe, your next step will be deciding where to go.

Of course you’ll have your favorites and they should be at the top of your list, but what about other places to travel in Europe?

If you're into urban travel, here are some great city overviews to inspire your Europe trip itinerary:

These country guides are perfect for solo female travelers:

And if you’d like to travel with a theme, try one of these:

Europe travel tips: 10 things you need to remember when you plan a trip

  1. Make sure your papers are in order (and keep checking the visa situation, which is fluid)
  2. Plan your itinerary 
  3. Research the background of where you're going
  4. Work out your budget 
  5. Book your tickets and accommodation
  6. Buy your travel insurance 
  7. Buy skip the line tickets 
  8. Pack the right walking shoes or walking sandals
  9. Greet people hello, and learn how to say please and thank you (these words go a long way in some countries)
  10. Sort your mobile wifi or roaming or SIM card - figure out how you'll stay in touch with friends and family back home

And get ready for an extraordinary trip!

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