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Car or train?

Deciding between driving and rail travel: A do-it-yourself quiz

Eurostar trains in Paris Gare du Nord

ABOVE: Two Eurostar trains in the Gare du Nord, Paris. INSET BELOW: A Peugeot 206 from Auto Europe's short-term car leasing program.

photoFirst-time travelers to Europe often want to know, "Should I drive or take the train?" There's no one answer, but this Europe for Visitors questionnaire can help you weigh your options more easily.

Click the buttons next to the questions below, read our comments under "Yes" and "No," then record the score for each question. When you've finished, see "Adding and interpreting your scores" for help in deciding what's likely to work best for you.

Note: This questionnaire does not take COVID-19 into account, because there are simply too many variables at play. If you're in a high-risk group (or if you're simply leery of COVID, as you should be), the public-health situation at your destination is likely to matter more whether you travel there by car or train.

1.   Do you live in Europe and own a car?

Traveling by car is more appealing when you have your own vehicle, because you won't have the expense of renting or leasing (although you will need to buy fuel). Give yourself a point.

Long ferry trips can be expensive, so give yourself only half a point if you're crossing the English Channel, North Sea, or another major body of water with your car.

Score your answer:

YES (no ferry crossing) =  1 point

YES (with ferry crossing = .5 point

NO = 0 points

2. Are you visiting a country where people drive on the same side of the road as they do at home?

Driving on the opposite of the road from the one you're used to can be intimidating, especially if you're a nervous or absent-minded driver. (I have enough problems surviving in England as a pedestrian; I need to remind myself which way to look whenever I cross a busy street.)

Besides having to remember which side of the street to drive on, you may find it awkward to shift gears at first. Is low gear on the left or next to your knee? Instinct may tell you the shift pattern is a mirror image of the normal pattern, which means you may stall as you take off in fourth or fifth. When renting a car, consider splurging on an automatic transmission so you'll have one less thing to worry about. (Note: This advice doesn't apply to drivers with perfect instincts and superb coordination.)

Score your answer:

YES (same side of road) = 1 point

NO (different side of road) = 0 points

3. What's your itinerary: city to city, rural and small towns, or a mixture of cities and countryside?

If you most of your travel is between cities (e.g., from Paris to Amsterdam or from Rome to Berlin), forget driving and take the train. You'll probably save money, you'll almost certainly save time, and you'll avoid the hassles of driving and parking in crowded city centers.

If you're touring the countryside, a car is likely to be your best bet (unless you're a bicyclist, in which case you can spend your money on good food instead of motor fuel).

If you're visiting cities but also touring the countryside or smaller towns, consider taking the train between cities and renting a car for local and regional excursions. ("Rail and drive" railpasses are available, and many national railroads have their own train/car-rental packages.)

Where you're going may also influence your choice of transportation. In a country like Switzerland, which is compact and has an extremely dense rail network, you can visit most towns and resorts by train, postal bus, funicular, cable car, and/or lake steamer. In a country like Portugal, where the rail network is less developed, a car may be a necessity in many areas unless you can adapt your itinerary to local bus schedules.

Score your answer:


CITY/COUNTRY = .5 point

CITY TO CITY = 0 points

4. How many people are traveling in your group? What are their ages?

The more people in your group, the more affordable a rental car becomes. And if you're traveling long distances with children, you may find a car handy for the privacy and luggage space that it offers. (Just make sure the car is big enough. Anything smaller than a VW Golf won't have much room for luggage.)

Still, don't automatically assume that a rental car is cheaper than the train when several people are traveling together. Visitors from outside Europe can buy Europass and Eurailpass "saver passes" that offer savings of about 15% for groups of two to five people, and national railroads often have their own "family passes" and group discounts.

Score your answer:



ONE TRAVELER = 0 points


5. If you're spending most of your time at a single destination, what will you be doing there?

Rental cars aren't cheap, and an idle car wastes money that could be spent on other travel pleasures.

Once you've reached your destination, will you be running errands and taking excursions? (This is likely to be the case if you've rented a cottage or villa in the countryside.) If so, you need a car.

If, on the other hand, you're just driving to a city or resort and parking the car for a week, you're better off taking the train.

Score your answer:




Drop-off charges for rental cars can be expensive, so the train may be a better option if you're flying into Paris and going home from Rome or Oslo. Compare total costs (not just the basic rental cost) before making a decision.

Score your answer:

YES = .5 point

NO = 0 points

Adding and interpreting your scores:

First, a disclaimer: This questionnaire is not a scientific tool, and stock answers are no substitute for comparison shopping--or for making personal decisions based on your own preferences. If you love driving, you should rent a car even if it costs more; if you're a railfan, you'll be happier riding trains than you'd be on the highway.

Now for the scoring: Add up the scores from each question, then use the guidelines below to help you determine whether driving or taking the train is likely to be a wise choice.

Total score: Your best bet:
Invest in driving gloves and road maps.
It's a tossup.
Take the train and leave the driving to Dwayne.