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Here's Why You Should Drive in Europe, Instead of Taking the Train

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author photo by William Byrd May 2017

Spring is in the air, and you may be getting the urge to travel. If you're heading to Europe, you should know that few places in the world bring you a better overall automotive experience -- so, once you land, you should skip the train and just take a car. Here are a few reasons why.

The Car Is Cheaper

The Car Is Cheaper

The train, long an overly romanticized method of travel, is no longer the best way to get across the Old World continent. My wife and I spent three weeks traipsing around Europe with our son, and yes, we considered taking the train. However, like trains here in the Colonies, it's not as cheap as you might think. To recreate our trip from Munich through Austria, on to Italy (with stops in Venice, Tuscany and Lake Como), over to the French Riviera and neighboring Monaco, up through Switzerland (Lucerne and Zurich) and back to Munich (via Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Stuttgart), it would have cost us $1,702 for Eurail passes.

Meanwhile, our rental car, a 6-speed Toyota Verso hatchback rented through Hertz, rang in at a mere $576.48. Sure, fuel is a bit more expensive there, but our rental car was pretty economical. Once you add in petrol and tolls -- plus acquiring a silly AAA "International Driving Permit" that never left my wallet -- you're still at just over $1,000! Cars rule, trains drool -- and we had more money for wine.

The Car Is Faster

The Car Is Faster

Cost isn't even the only issue. To see the beautiful little beach town of Castiglioncello, south of Pisa, in Italy, via train, you'll spend almost 14 hours of travel time and you'll stop half a dozen times after you depart Munich. You may think that, at the very least, you can "explore the towns along the way." Well, you could -- but actually each stop made by the train lasts all of about 20 minutes. So you'd have to make sure you can catch another train, or potentially get stuck somewhere. And those are just the stops you'll make while on the train to get to the coast. Once you get to the nearest station, you have to spend almost an hour on two separate buses (making 36 other stops) to endure before you're sitting on the beach. Once you walk there. Carrying all your stuff.

But you get to "see the countryside," you might say. That's true, but you know where else you get to see it? In a car -- and it only takes seven hours and 37 minutes. You can take your time, make the stops you want to make and enjoy the trip.

By my calculations, the entire multi-country route described above is about 31 total hours of driving. How much time would you spend on the train for the same route? 60 hours. 60! Where is your railway god now? Take that, Thomas the Tank Engine, you steam-powered punk!

The Car Is Easier

The Car Is Easier

So it costs less, and you can get to your destination quicker, leaving more time for wine and cheese intake. I haven't even gotten to the best part: You don't have to schlep your bags everywhere you go. Packing enough for three people, for three weeks, on another continent, is a challenge. Make one of those people a toddler and it's very near impossible. Now imagine having to carry that stuff with you.

All. The. Time.

Or, you can just pack it into the hatchback of your rental and grab what you need to take into each hotel, hostel, Airbnb, commune...whatever the case may be. That's particularly helpful when you're walking up centuries'-old steps to your hotel, inside a walled city, in the middle of an Italian heat wave. Plus, as I mentioned already, the train doesn't even go to some of the small towns we visited.

Regardless of what the Quad City DJs may have told you, don't you ride that train. Woo woo!

Except When the Car Is a Little Harder...

Except When the Car Is a Little Harder...

I know, driving in a foreign country sounds intimidating -- and at times, it is. You may end up driving on the wrong side of the road, and there will be the occasional language barrier -- that much is certain. We flew into Munich and had to decipher that "ausfahrt" (which is pronounced just like it sounds) means "exit." And that was just to get out of the rental car garage. Beyond that, you mostly just need to know the name of the city you are heading toward. Roads have names, but road signs typically just let you know where you're headed.

Speaking of that, you should invest in a good international voice and data plan before you depart. We used a mix of Waze and Google Maps, and both worked exceptionally well -- and took care of translating some of the directional bits like right, left and McDonald's.

If you find yourself near a decently sized city, be aware that they normally have some sort of area that you, the filthy turista, aren't allowed to drive through. Limited Traffic Zone (ZTL) boundaries are intended to reduce congestion and pollution, and your rental car is likely not tagged to enter one. This isn't Old-World technology either: Every car that enters is monitored by a camera, and if your plate isn't on "the list," you're issued a ZTL fine (usually 50-80 Euros) automatically. So, there's no chance to apologize or ask for forgiveness (scusami!): Hertz will just append it to your bill, likely with some sort of processing fee. Ask your rental car company ahead of time about the best way to visit these areas -- but normally, you can just park along the edge of the zone and walk in.

...But It's Always Worth It

...But It's Always Worth It

You'll forget all about costs -- and how long it takes to get there -- once you experience your first back-road blast in your small diesel rental. Depending on the road, second gear is all you need; although some turns are so tight that you'll have to drop it into first to keep your RPMs up.

I found some fairly empty roads in and around the small town of Radda in Chianti -- an awesome little walled village in Tuscany where the train doesn't even stop -- that put most U.S. roads to shame. Bellissimo!

Screw the vineyards: You'll want to visit the area just to explore the great driving roads...and keep an eye out for amazing Italian machinery to drive by (easily a Ferrari per hour, and higher in larger cities, based on my calculations).

If you aren't looking to go bombing through the countryside, be wary that most others are, especially the locals. If you get an Alfa up your rear, find a spot to pull off and let them pass. Otherwise you'll get a ton of rude gestures and high beams. Don't be that rude American; when in Italy, do as the Italians do. Go quickly or get out of the way. Veloce! Rapido!

So, it's cheaper, faster, offers more freedom, it's more enjoyable, but it can be a bit challenging at times. However, this only documents part of our trip through Italy. I haven't even gotten to Monaco, the Riviera, the Autobahn and some of the most amazing automotive museums in the world. There's a reason Hasselhoff was just as infatuated with Germany as the Germans were with the Hoff. Tune in next time for more European adventures and find out why I absolutely hate scooters.

Based in Northern Virginia, William is professional writer and editor and acts as the Editor-in-Chief of Right Foot Down. He misspent most of his youth on tracks in the Mid-Atlantic, as well as killing cones in parking lots, and he once taught at a teen performance driving school.

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Here's Why You Should Drive in Europe, Instead of Taking the Train - Autotrader