I teamed up with the eco-friendly Pan-European train-booking company Loco2 to make this article possible. They generously covered four train tickets for me and my husband so we could try out their system and train travel in Europe. What follows is my honest opinion after a lot of research!
Train travel has been increasing across Europe, and especially the UK. But along with that, there have been complaints about the price of rail tickets. Meanwhile, Ryanair posts inexplicably cheap fairs, like €12 from Lisbon to Porto. And EasyJet isn’t far behind.
You might think that it’s a ridiculous deal when you find a flight like that. But you know Ryanair’s record profits must come from somewhere. Some people think it comes out of lax safety. Ryanair and EasyJet fortunately operate under the same safety regulations as other European airlines, so that’s probably not it. More likely you’re just not taking into account all the hidden costs of flying on these cheap airlines as compared to trains.
Some people look at me weird when I tell them I decided to take the six-hour train ride from Brussels to Berlin instead of hopping on a “cheap” and “short” flight. Um, I think you’re the crazy one, my friend. Here’s why “low-cost” carriers will actually cost you more than trains:
1. The Health Costs
Flying on any airline versus a train comes with very real health costs. According to a recent study, flight attendants are at a higher risk of several cancers, including uterine, cervical, breast, gastrointestinal, thyroid and melanoma cancers. This is probably due to them having long-term exposure to bad air quality inside the sealed body of a plane, including fire retardants (applied to all flammable textiles) and jet fuel fumes. Some countries even require the application of pesticides to cabins on some flights. And then there is the cosmic ionizing radiation, and higher-intensity UV radiation coming through the windows. (Always wear sunscreen on flights!) And researchers think it might also be due to regular sleep disruption – did you know that long-term erratic sleep patters elevates your risk for cancer?
Flying on a plane also puts you at increased risk for blood clots, because of long periods of time confined to a small seat with limited mobility, and you might experience back or neck pain for the same reason. There’s also the recycled air in the cabin spreading the germs out from other sick passengers. Several times I’ve come down with a cold after taking a flight. No wonder, you have an 80% chance of getting sick if you are in the same row or in front of or behind a sick passenger. That means six to seven people are likely to get sick from each one sick person on a flight, and hopefully they all have paid sick leave from their work! Oh, and the low humidity and air pressure contributes to you feeling uncomfortable. (There’s a lot of other small things, read about them on the BBC.)
And the terrible food. Because of security, you’re limited in what kind of food you can bring on a flight. (Trust me, they consider yogurt a liquid.) And then, once you get inside the airport, the healthy food options are extremely limited and overpriced. On the plane, the food options are even worse: processed, sugar-rich, and meat-heavy. You have to specify vegetarian before you fly, and I still haven’t figured out how to do that. Even the healthiest, most budget-conscious travelers who pack their meals will start to break down if they are inside the airport system for more than 12 hours and lacking sleep. Speaking of…
Finally, lack of sleep. As I mentioned above, one of the cancer risk factors for airline attendants is disrupted sleep. Airlines purposely make coach class as uncomfortable as possible for long haul flights, so that paying $4,000 for eight hours of sleep starts to seem like a smart choice. It’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep on red eyes. When you land, you’ll need to get straight to a hotel (hopefully it’s not too early to check in!) and take a good long nap.
How the train costs less:
Train cars are definitely not sealed in – you can open the window to get air flow, and also the doors are opening and closing throughout the trip. Higher exposure to radiation or pesticide application isn’t a concern. Leg room is ample, and you can get up and take a 20-minute walk to one end of the train and back, stand in the dining car, or even break out a few yoga moves in the hallway. You can pack whatever food you want, or grab something healthy and less overpriced if you are switching trains. On the Deutsche Bahn, for example, they offer a variety of organic, vegan, and gluten-free meals.
And if you buy a sleeper car on an overnight train, you can lie down horizontally for a full, peaceful night’s sleep, and so save on a night at a hotel.
2. All Those Fees!
One time we showed up to the airport, and were told that we couldn’t use digital tickets on our phone to check in. We had to have printed tickets. Oh, and the fee for printing the ticket was $30 a piece. Luckily, we had given ourselves extra time, so I dashed to the airport hotel to print off my ticket. The hotel had a requirement that I buy something from the café to use the printer, so I got a coffee for $3. A lot less than $60, but still, it was frustrating and stressful!
This was in South America, but according to Tripsavvy, Ryanair in Europe will charge you a fee if you fail to check in online and properly print your ticket – the entire ticket, including the advertisement. Don’t have a printer at your AirBnB? You’ll have to go find one and pay for its use. If you type your name wrong or put in your shortened name that is different than what is on your passport, you’ll be charged from €42 to €160, depending on the carrier. If you go over the paltry carry-on baggage allowance of Ryanair (which is basically the size of a backpack) you’ll be charged from €12 to €20 per extra kilo. And there are additional fees for checking more luggage than is allowed, from €100 to €200, and other checked baggage fees (more than 30 of them) from €15 to €150. If you miss your flight because of Ryanair’s own super long lines, and that would cost you €75 to €90. There’s the fee to use the wifi, and you have to pay extra for more legroom if you’re taller than the average man. Oh, and be prepared to be marketed and advertised to relentlessly! The UK is considering cracking down on these hidden fees, but until then, you either need to play their video game, or choose an option in which there aren’t hidden fees, like trains.
How the train costs less:
If you buy a train ticket, that’s pretty much it in terms of fees. Your suitcase can be the biggest size – as long as you can drag it onto the train and stash it, you’re golden. You don’t need to check-in or print your ticket to avoid fees. You can spell your name completely wrong – as long as you show the conductor your scannable code on your phone, you’re set.The fee to change your ticket is much lower on trains – about €19 – and you can do it until midnight the day before you travel. The wifi is free. The seats have lots of leg room standard. On a train, Second Class feels like First Class, and First Class isn’t even that much more expensive. Basically, the price you see is what you get, and the experience of traveling by train exceeds your expectations.
3. The House Always Wins the Ticket Price Algorithm Game
The “dynamic pricing algorithm” that airlines use can shift ticket prices hour by hour, and is designed to take advantage of you when you are struggling – last-minute flight searching because of an emergency, train travel disruptions, indecision – all these situations cause prices to spike. Websites throw cookies on your computer so they can play you psychologically, and flight comparison websites don’t actually help that much. There’s a ton of advice across the internet on how to beat this, but since there are so many secret variables involved, there is a superpowered computer relentlessly mining data to get you to pay the highest price possible, and every airline is different, the house will always come out ahead. At best, you will lose hours of your time researching and learning how to get the best price. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll decide it’s not worth it and just book the damn ticket, knowing a lot of people probably paid less.
How the train costs less:
Train ticket prices might rise as you get closer to the date, but that’s about it in terms of the algorithm.
With Loco2, you can easily compare prices across several routes and train systems, so you can find the best price. Plus, you can set booking alerts for when the tickets you want to book go on sale. (Loco2 is the only website that has this service.) Most people aren’t familiar with when train tickets go on sale, which can differ according to country, rail operator and even type of train. Booking alerts let you buy train tickets the moment they are released, which can help you save money and get the best possible seats and times.
One more thing that will make your booking cheaper: Loco2’s website and app is in English, Spanish, Italian and German, and gives you the ability to process your payment in pound sterling, euros and US dollars, which helps you avoid surprise foreign transaction fees!
Once you buy a plane ticket, that’s it. You are locked in. If you miss your outbound flight or second connecting flight, they’ll likely cancel your return flight on you. The fees to change your flight are so high that you might as well just not cancel at all and let them keep your money. You have to buy way ahead of time, or else you’ll pay through the nose.
How the train costs less:
You can show up to the train station and buy a ticket 15 minutes before departure if you want. If you like the look of a city on your way somewhere, you can hop off the train and then just buy another ticket again the next day to complete your trip – or not, it’s totally up to you! If you have a low-cost Interrail pass – you can hop on a full train, as long as you’re cool with sitting in between cars and making friends with other backpackers. And conductors and ticket agents don’t check to see if you have an onward ticket for rail passes, but they sometimes do for flights. So you can take the train into a country without having to decide when you’re going to leave ahead of time. The fee to change your ticket is much lower on trains – about €19 – and you can do it until midnight the day before you travel. In short, train travel is way more flexible than plane travel, which will save you money if you have to (or want to) change plans at the last minute.
Loco2 also lets you set up email compensation alerts, which – depending on which train operator you travel with – will email you to alert you to a potential compensation claim, if your train is late or cancelled. And they recently launched a new Cancellation Protection service, which lets you apply for reimbursement of non-refundable, multi-leg journeys, in the occurrence of rail strikes or other unforeseen cancellations. Loco2 is the first train booking site to provide this feature for international rail trips.
5. Losing or Leaving Behind Valuable Items
This starts as you pack up your items. If you’re flying on a low-cost carrier, you need to fit everything in a mini suitcase. If you’re packing at home, this is mildly annoying, as you can’t bring all the outfits or supplies you might want. But when you’ve been traveling for a while, this becomes an emergency, as you start leaving things behind that have value that you could totally sell for money at a flea market if you had the time (guilty). Even if you’re flying on a normal airline and don’t want to check your luggage, you start getting rid of half of your toiletries or buying special travel-sized items.
Or you might be human and make a mistake, as we all do. There was traffic on the way to the airport, the security line is scarily long, and you’re rushing through, and they hold up your expensive reusable water bottle that you forgot to empty and tell you that you have two choices: go back around to do the security line again with the empty bottle, or let them keep it so you can make your flight. They’ll also throw out that expensive artisanal jam you bought as a gift, your razor blades that go with your safety razor, your metal reusable spork, expensive skincare products, and a myriad of other items that, silly you, you never considered could be used to murder someone. Apparently security operates on the assumption that we could all secretly be ninjas.
Or, even worse, you pull everything out of your luggage or off your person (laptop, camera, cell phone, tablet, toiletries, watch, sunglasses, belt, necklace) to put in three different bins, and you leave something behind. My best friend showed up to Berlin stressed and upset because she somehow left her expensive toiletries at security and had to repurchase all of them. If you’re into nontoxic skincare like us, that can cost hundreds.
How the train costs less:
You can bring anything on the train, though! There’s no security check or luggage weighing or allowance. Bring your safety razor and blades, all the leftover contents of your refrigerator, your full water bottle, full-sized organic aloe vera, and aerosols. Load up on a case of wine, if you want. No one will stop you.
6. Lost or Damaged Luggage
When I arrived to Copenhagen, I found out that my luggage hadn’t made it, and they were giving me a €50 allowance to get everything I needed for a sustainable fashion conference. Haha, okay. My suitcase did eventually show up – two days later, after I had bought myself replacement makeup, skincare, and professional clothing. Two things made this barely tenable: one, Johanne from Bedremode took me and Holly from Leotie Lovely to an amazing flea market where almost everything was under €20, and two, I had already been planning on buying a few new things since I was coming to Europe after traveling in South America. But still, it cost me a lot of money and stress.
How the train is better:
You don’t have to worry about this on trains. If it’s a carry-on, you can put it right above your seat. If it’s large, you can put it at the end of the car. Thieves aren’t very, very rarely interested in a heavy piece of luggage that probably just has used clothing inside, but if you’re worried, you can buy a small, thin bike lock for it.
7. Getting to That Weirdo Airport
Low-cost airlines often fly out of that other airport, the one that is 45 minutes away. Besides the risk that you show up to the wrong airport, it often costs money and/or time to get to these weird little airports. There’s the stupidly slow but affordable bus, or a taxi or Uber, which can cost up to €40 or more!
How the train costs less:
Meanwhile, trains leave and arrive to train stations right in the city center, which you can walk or take the metro to for about €2.
8. The Time Cost
If the flight takes an hour and the train takes five, obviously you should choose the flight, right? Well….
First of all, you should aim to be at the airport two hours before your flight. And then it might take a half hour to an hour to get there. Once you land, you have to wait to get off the plane (20 minutes), and if you need to get your checked luggage, that will take another 30 minutes. Oh, and now you have to get from the airport to the city center again. Wow, that took almost five hours from door to door!
Oh, and many planes don’t have wifi or sockets for your laptop, and you can’t use your laptop for the first and last 20 minutes of each flight. So that’s dead time for you stressed business travelers or bloggers.
How the train costs about the same:
SNCF, Renfe’s AVE trains, and Eurostar all offer high-speed rail options that rival flights in time and beat them out in comfort and ease. But even elsewhere, with a train, you’re able to show up to the train station that is 15 minutes from your hotel downtown, and get on the train. I’ve gotten on an international train literally two minutes before departure. (Hot tip, it takes three minutes to run through Berlin’s Central Station from door to train. Try that in an airport that routes you through the duty-free mall on your way to your flight.)
Once you’re on the train, you can pull out your laptop, plug it it, connect to wifi, and maximize your work time until you’re five minutes from your destination.
And then there is the very real phenomenon that time compresses on a train. Whether it’s the interesting landscape to look at out the window, the fact that you can get up and take a long walk to the dining car for a meal, or just the fact that you aren’t being ordered into your tiny seat by a stressed-out airline attendant, the five hours pass by quickly, and before you know it, you’re stepping off into downtown Brussels or London.
9. The Environmental Costs
Beyond the carbon emissions generated by a flight (an estimated 2% of global emissions and 3% of the EU’s emissions) there are probably additional global warming effects from nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus changes.
If you did literally everything else right – ate vegetarian and local, ran your energy-efficient house on solar and green electricity, rode your bike to work, lived in a small apartment, never bought anything new, and recycled and composted everything possible, it would only take a little over one roundtrip flight per month to somewhere in Europe to undo all your significant efforts and expenses over the course of the year and bring you back up to the average footprint of someone from the UK. **
Plus, there’s the huge amount of single-use plastics throughout the airport and plane, from bottles to snacks to the plastic wrap on every piece of food.
Oh, and lets not forget all the toxic substances – jet fuel, de-icer, fire-fighting foam, etc. – that pour off of the tarmac into the environment around airports.
How the train costs less:
Depending on the trip, taking the train instead of the plane can cut your emissions from 73 to 91%! (When you are researching train trips, Loco2 will tell you how many kilograms of carbon emissions you will be saving by choosing the train instead of a flight.)
There are other ways trains are more eco-friendly. If you sit down for a meal in the dining car, where everything is served on reusable plates and in reusable glasses, you can avoid creating a lot of waste. What waste you do create gets recycled on trains. Plus, you’re able to eat responsibly sourced food. For example, according to Loco2’s Great Train Comparison, Deutsche Bahn (DB) leads the way in environmentalism, sourcing food responsibly (I enjoyed organic, vegan, and Fair Trade options in their dining car), diverting waste from the landfill, and favoring green energy to power its electric trains. They will even give you a discount on hot beverages on board if you provide your own container, a policy I definitely took advantage of!
Another lovely perk is that many train systems now let you bring your bike onboard, and you can even prebook a place for your bike ahead of time on some railways, so that you can take a train out to the countryside for a day, or even bring it with you if you are going to a summer home across Europe!
10. The Psychological Cost
Every time I travel somewhere by plane, I think about what a shame it is that a beautiful travel experience is book-ended by getting shoved from a large parking lot into an antiseptic terminal and then into an uncomfortable, tube-shaped cattle car, with all its indignities and infantilizing rules. The poor physical conditions when you’re above the cloud contributes to a variety of negative psychological effects, like amplifying hangovers, increasing anxiety, making us less friendly, and more fatigued. Flying by plane is a soulless, stressful, degrading experience these days, one I wish I could give up completely forever.
How the train costs less:
Train travel is still such a romantic, inspirational experience, from the moment you step inside the gorgeous or charming train station, then climb aboard and settle into your ample seat to watch the scenery flash by, listening to the languages of people stepping on and off at tiny stations along the way, and maybe enjoying a leisurely meal in the train car, the whole experience feels like a luxurious adventure that respects you as an independent human being.
Train travel is an essential part of my sustainable, thoughtful, and meaningful travel experience. And who can put a price on that?