1. Flexibility is essential.
If you’ve spent any time in Europe, you know there’s so much more than what’s in your guidebook. Sure, there are the major sightseeing attractions, but the best places are the ones you stumble on while traveling between the big names.
Unfortunately, on an airplane your view of all those in-betweens is restricted to 30,000 feet. And even if you did happen on a particularly delightful town and wanted to change your itinerary to spend a few extra days there, you’d face a hefty change fee.
Most trains, in contrast, can be booked shortly before you need to leave. Better yet, with a Eurail pass you get to pick the day you want to travel. You can stay in one place for the rest of your trip, or you can leave early if you’d rather see more.
2. Budget airlines make for a miserable travel experience.
Budget airlines have taken over European travel. And they are a nightmare. Yes, the base fares can be pretty cheap, but you’ll understand why when they’re trying to sell you peanuts from the snack cart, putting glaring advertisements on the seatbacks, and charging you exorbitant fees for having a bag that weighs an ounce over the limit. There’s even talk from some budget airlines about making people pay extra to be able to sit.
Oh, and you have to go through airport security for the privilege of being so nickel-and-dimed.
3. No one falls in love with a beautiful stranger on a plane.
There’s a reason the movie Before Sunrise begins on a train — trains offer a uniquely social travel experience. You have space to turn and talk to neighbors. No one is insanely stressed after getting an invasive patdown from security, so people are more likely to be relaxed and talkative. Dining cars offer an even more communal traveling experience.
Who knows? Maybe you meet Julie Delpy. Maybe you fall in love. Or maybe you’re simply able to have a pleasant conversation with someone without fighting over the armrest and battling knee defenders.
4. You’ll have speed when you need it.
Planes get all the credit for being fast, but when you add the time spent in security lines and getting to and from the airport, high-speed trains, in many cases, become the more appealing option. Europe has a solid and expanding network of high-speed rail routes (some trains travel at 200+ mph), so you can get around by train pretty fast.
5. You need to see the Alps.
The Alps are one of the most dramatically beautiful mountain ranges in the world — snow-capped peaks, alpine forests, and the tiny, picturesque towns clinging to their slopes. To truly experience these mountains, you need to travel by rail on one or more of the scenic routes through the French, Italian, Swiss, German, and Austrian Alps. There’s no reason to skip over this region by plane.
6. You’ll have much less of an environmental impact.
Trains are one of the modes of travel with the lowest carbon emissions — usually second only to motor coaches, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. They’re almost always more eco-friendly than travel by plane.
7. You won’t get lost in the ‘burbs or screwed by cabbies.
Most European train stations are smack-dab in the middle of the city. So unlike at an airport — often on the outskirts, especially when you’re flying budget carriers — or when you’re driving, you’re not going to have to navigate the suburbs or possibly wonder if your cabbie is screwing you by taking the long way to the city center. When the train gets in, you get out, you’re in the middle of the city, and boom, you’re exploring.
8. You’ll save on hotels.
Got a long journey between two places? Schedule it at night. Get on the train in one city, fall asleep, and wake up in your next city. You just saved on a night at a hotel by bundling it into your travel. Even if you pay a little extra for first-class seats or a sleeping berth, you still come out on top.
9. You’ll spend less time at customs.
Trains in Europe don’t require that passengers have their passports checked at every international border, so your customs and immigration experience is usually just a quick stamp when you leave / arrive in a country.
10. They’re BYOB.
Still have half a bottle of wine and a baguette from your picnic in Paris? Good luck getting that on a plane.
11. You can go pretty much anywhere.
Amtrak, the main passenger train service in the US, is a beautiful nightmare. Beautiful because train travel comes with the benefits listed here, but a nightmare because Amtrak covers an absolutely pitiful amount of the country beyond the East Coast, and because it’s underfunded and horribly run.
Europe, on the other hand, has invested in its rail networks. Trains go everywhere, are fast and efficient, and aren’t beset by constant delays. European trains are infinitely more enjoyable than American trains. And this is coming from someone who still enjoys American trains quite a bit.
12. Because Europe is huge, and driving is hard.
Europe has great road infrastructure, of course, but traveling between countries by car isn’t for everyone. For one thing, you probably won’t know all the rules of the road in each country you’re in; for another, driving requires your full attention for long distances. And that’s going to make you exhausted when you arrive.
13. Two words: Eurail pass.
Eurail passes provide an incredibly affordable and convenient way of seeing the European continent. They allow flexibility in terms of both the places you visit and the timing of your travel, and they’re priced so that any budget traveler could afford them. Browse the many pass options and find the one that’s best for you and your particular trip.