Why I prefer trains to airplanes in Europe

For many, if not most, people, a transportation method is a choice borne primarily of expediency: which options is cheapest, easiest and fits a schedule. For others, getting there is part of the overall travel experience: 

  • Should I make a connection rather than take a non-stop flight so I can fly a certain airline's business class?

  • By leaving two hours later, I can get us on an A380 in business class for our return!

  • I want to get to the airport early enough to check-out both lounges that I can access.

  • Even though I could fly in about the same amount of time, I want to take the train!

My wife falls into the former category; I am soundly in the latter. Fortunately, she tolerates my passion so long as I don’t get too crazy, such as routing us from Atlanta to London via Tokyo.

I have always been fascinated with all forms of transportation. This probably stems from being the son of a Trailways and Greyhound bus driver; I grew up riding intercity buses with my dad. Since taking my first flight in 1995, my greatest transportation passion has been commercial aviation. I am fascinated by different types of aircraft, the in-flight experiences, and the overall business of commercial aviation. However, since I began traveling to Europe, with respect to the travel experience itself, my passion for European trains is on par with my love of airlines. To be sure, there are practical considerations underlying this shift, but, there is something special about European rail travel that transforms me from an avgeek to a traingeek!

Arriving in Frankfurt on a Deutsche Bahn ICE high-speed train

Arriving in Frankfurt on a Deutsche Bahn ICE high-speed train

Trains are more time efficient

Passengers are requested to be on the platform no later than 2 minutes before departure.
— Thalys train ticket (2015)

My Thalys ticket in 2015 advised that "passengers are requested to be on the platform no later than 2 minutes before departure." (The language has since been revised to simply state to arrive early at certain stations for "potential" security checks.) Compare this to Ryanair's admonishment that "It’s important that you make it to your boarding gate in good time, at least 30 minutes before your flight departure time." That's 30 minutes after clearing security. Beyond the difference in arrival time, it's usually much quicker to get to the train station than the airport. The main train station is near the city center; the airport may be 45 minutes to an hour away via commuter rail. Consider Paris, where I have never taken more than 20-25 minutes to get from my hotel to Gare du Nord which serves Eurostar trains to London and Thalys trains to Brussels and Amsterdam. However, going to either Charles de Gaulle or Orly airports takes 50-55 minutes. Similar situations exist in London, Munich and Rome.

Gare du Nord is located in central Paris (click to enlarge).

Security also differs significantly. Much of the reason for arriving so early at the airport is to allow for the security screening. I understand the need for these measures in our current world, but there is no doubt that this takes a lot of time. Only select rail journeys require airport-style security checks and even those are generally much quicker. When traveling between London and the continent on the Eurostar, an airport-style screening is required which necessitates arrival 30-45 minutes before departure. Renfe AVE trains in Spain have a streamlined process which adds little to your arrival time at the train station. By comparison, I have never had any checks on Thalys trains leaving Brussels or Cologne or on Deutsche Bahn ICE trains in Germany. This means that you can be in your seat literally within minutes of arrival at the station. When was the last time that happened when flying? Sometimes, it's hard just to get to the security checkpoint five minutes after walking into an airport! 

Of course, offsetting this departure time advantage is a large speed differential between jet aircraft and even the fastest high-speed train. An airplane will make up a lot of time lost at the airport by simply getting from point A to point B much faster, making air travel the mode of choice for longer journeys. But for time efficiency, rail reigns supreme for relatively short distances. The longest train trip I have taken was Barcelona to Paris on an SNCF TGV. We could have saved a little time by flying, but that's where another advantage of rail travel comes into play: comfort.

Trains are more comfortable

Granted this is personal preference, but for travel within Europe, I find trains to be far more comfortable than the cramped confines of a single-aisle commercial airliner.  Even second class rail carriages - first class cars are even roomier, naturally - surpass airline business class in terms of comfort since European airlines' business class is generally economy with a blocked (i.e., unoccupied) middle seat. First class train seats can be more than 19.5 inches wide, while airline Euro business class seats are 17-18 inches wide. When you want to get up and stretch your legs, the mismatch is even greater. You can walk the length of the train, stand for a while in the vestibule between cars or hang out in the dining/snack car. Other than going to the restroom, there is nowhere to go on the typical Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 that operate most intra-European routes. Speaking of the restroom, train lavatories are positively palatial compared to airplane lavatories which are tiny with barely enough room to turn around or fully stand. And for this cramped experience, you generally pay a premium!

Train restrooms are much larger than those on airplanes (click to enlarge).

Thalys First Class carriage (click to enlarge)

Trains are cheaper

Low-cost airlines have changed this dynamic significantly in the last decade, but trains still tend to be as cost effective if not more so than airlines. Consider going from Brussels to Paris which I will be doing this summer. Looking at July 14, the cheapest economy airfare is $107 with a connection in Frankfurt (an overnight connection at that!). There isn't a non-stop flight that costs less than $200.

Google Flights search for Brussels to Paris on July 14 (click to enlarge)

Looking at SNCF train fares for the same day - I searched for first class, so you could likely find an even cheaper fare for second class - depending on departure time and exchangeability, you could make this journey on Thalys for as little as $48. Several other times are offered for $66. Even a fully flexible ticket is cheaper than most airfares.

SNCF search for Brussels to Paris by train on July 14 (click to enlarge).

My experience with other routes is that train tickets are similarly less expensive. I also love that first class on a train carries a much smaller premium over second class than does airplane first or business as compared to economy. 

Riding the train is a just special experience!

The value of time, comfort and cost are all of varying importance for each individual. The biggest reason I prefer European trains to airlines is the most personal of all: it's just a special experience. There is a magic to train travel that I admittedly struggle to put into words. Perhaps it is the "exoticness" of it.

In the United States, the opportunity to travel between cities via train is effectively limited to certain regions. In these areas of the country, America’s lone intercity train company, Amtrak, is not competitive with airlines outside of where long distances are involved. This is largely because the high-speed offerings similar to those in Europe are just now nearing reality in the United States. Also, I love the architecture of European train stations. Some date back a century or more and exude a stately elegance as their sweeping canopies arch over parallel tracks where a variety of trainsets sit side-by-side readying for departure to numerous known and unknown European destinations.

Gare du Nord in Paris  (click to enlarge).

Gare du Nord in Paris (click to enlarge).

Because I subscribe to the Rick Steves philosophy of experiencing Europe as a “temporary local” and since traveling by train is so quintessentially European, connecting two destinations of my trip by rail seems almost mandatory. This stands in stark contrast to commercial aviation. While there are slight differences in airline hard and soft products as well as airport procedures between the U.S. and Europe, air travel is pretty much the same the world over. This commonality makes an intra-European flight just another trip by airplane. All together, for me, no trip to Europe feels complete with traveling by train!

Bottom line

Trains are a key part of the European transportation infrastructure. They are quicker, more comfortable and cheaper than flying. But on top of that, there is a magic about taking the train when in Europe that leads me to a train station every time I visit Europe!