Train vs. Rental Car?
Compared with driving, traveling by train has a lot of advantages. You don't have to study road maps, get lost in roundabouts, or look for (or pay for!) parking. On a train, you can read your guidebook, write in your journal, chat with your travel pals, and enjoy the scenery while still getting from Point A to Point B quite efficiently. And it's statistically safer.
The main disadvantage of train travel is, of course, less freedom and flexibility. Trains don't go to all the best attractions and sites. Usually there are buses and taxis to get you there, but this can add extra cost and hassle that you wouldn't have with your own car. Also, when traveling by train you have to schlep your bags a bit more (mainly around the stations), so if you're not physically fit or not a light packer, a car may be a better choice.
When to Go by Train
My advice from personal experience with both: Use the train if you're mainly seeing sites in major cities, but rent a car if you're primarily interested in places off the beaten track. If your trip will be about half-and-half, you might try a "rail-and-drive" deal such as that offered by RailEurope.
How to Buy Tickets
If you're planning to ride the train frequently during your trip (i.e. more than a couple of days), buying a rail pass beforehand will save you a lot of money and time. Pay-as-you-go rail tickets for longer distances can be surprisingly expensive, and smaller ones add up quickly too. Rail passes not only provide significant discounts, they allow you to hop on and off almost any train without any advance planning or standing in line for tickets.
Below are some of the best websites I've found for planning rail travel.
A joint venture of the French National Railways and Swiss Federal Railways, RailEurope covers 60 railroads in 35 countries in Europe. It offers a variety of rail passes, such as Youth Passes, BritRail Passes, and the Eurail Saver Flexipass, that will save you lots of money on rail travel. The website also provides rail maps and timetables.
- Die Bahn (DB)
The website of Die Bahn, Germany's railroad system, covers not just Germany but all of Europe. Available in English as well as several other languages, it's one of the handiest online resources for European timetables. My typical process is to buy a railpass from Rail Europe, then make plans using Die Bahn's website (including once I'm in Europe).
- Japan Rail (JR)
Japan Rail travels throughout Japan and includes the famous bullet trains as well as slower, local trains. Japan Rail's website has timetables and maps and offers a Japan Rail Pass.
Rail Europe Timetable
For European train travel, you can search timetables and buy tickets right here:
Last updated: May 9, 2013.