"No one has seen Europe who has not traveled in it by car. The life of the continent from a car window is a closely felt, personal experience." — Arthur Frommer
"The thing that I call livin' is just bein' satisfied with knowin' I got no one left to blame." — Gordon Lightfoot, "Carefree Highway"
In relating the nine myths about European motor travel, I've told you the fuel costs, the toll costs and the parking costs associated with a motoring tour of Europe. But how does the economics of motor travel compare to that of rail travel? In this respect a recent edition of budget-travel guru Rick Steves' Europe Through the Backdoor newsletter pointed out, "Every year, as train prices go up, car rental — even one way car rental, especially in terms of a tax-free short-term car lease — becomes a better option for budget travelers in Europe. It's surprisingly easy. While the lion's share of travelers are planning on train travel, you should at least consider the driving option."
Even if motor travel works out to be more expensive for you than rail travel, the value afforded by motoring tends to be greater and often justifies a greater expenditure. Many people hold that the value realizable in European travel is inversely proportional to the number of people traveling Europe at any one time. This is partly true. Europe does accommodate millions of tourists, and the crowds do become overwhelming at times, spoiling the integrity of the experience. Yet Europe is a big place. In most cases travelers who claim that the whole continent is saturated assume this based on samplings of anomalous concentrations of people. Apart from the sights that tend to concentrate visitors, the modes of transport which most visitors opt for — trains and bus tours — play a primary role in contributing to these concentrations. Trains and buses tend to lock you onto the beaten path, where you'll visit the same places and meet the same — often, understandably, jaded — locals that other travelers meet. This phenomenon results in something like 90 percent of the travelers frequenting 10 percent of the places. To this I say, "Great! These mobs are leaving the rest of the place to we intrepid types."
A motor vehicle allows you to wave goodbye to the sweaty throngs and the sometimes nasty, phony or otherwise fraudulent entities that dine on them. Of course once you're away from the tourist hordes, finding accommodation becomes easier. And prices tend to be cheaper off the beaten path. Regardless, traveling by motor vehicle forces both budget traveler and royalty alike to travel — to live — more like a local. Indeed I've found that the more business I do in Europe — including the procuring and driving of a motor vehicle — the less I act and feel like a tourist and the more I feel charged up with integrity.
A motor vehicle is like a special ticket to the great museum of the present. What makes the ticket so valuable is the flexibility it bestows. You can go where you want when you want. You're subject neither to train nor bus schedules nor to the strikes that all too often wipe them out. You have door-to-door capability. You can toss in virtually as much luggage as you like and transport it straight to a place where you can undue all the zippers. And you don't have to pay for all the short bus trips to outlying accommodations and sights. Essentially you have no downtime.
Some people might argue that motor vehicles are slower than trains and that the time spent driving should be considered downtime. That's largely a bad attitude speaking. I just mentioned the advantage of doing otherwise mundane business in Europe. As the operator of your own vehicle — of your own tour — you're doing business of sorts. Even if you never get out of your vehicle, driving forces you to look at a physical map and to work at creating a mental map, an understanding of the continuum that is Europe. You'll read the landscape while navigating it, and it's just as good a read as any book. Remember, necessity is the mother of invention; when riding trains or buses — which allow you to exercise your vision but don't require you to exercise a map — your understanding of the continuum, your mental map, is rarely constructed. It's only natural: the more you let other people think for you during your trip the less you'll know about the place when you leave. It reminds me of a Burma Shave (shaving cream) sign I'm told long ago graced US 30, the "Lincoln Highway," as that road ran through my home state of Iowa on its way from New York to California: "DON'T LOSE YOUR HEAD TO GAIN A MINUTE," the sign warned. "YOU NEED YOUR HEAD, YOUR BRAINS ARE IN IT." Rather altruistically this advertisement evokes images of horrible automobile accidents; but there are myriad more ways by which the value of your head can be compromised. Jumping on an overnight train or bus in Seville, for instance, and the next morning waking in Paris has its advantages, but the increased value of your head that results from experiencing how Seville connects to Paris is not among them.
And even during the day, trains constrain your vision. Trains, of course, run on tracks. Train tracks are much cheaper to build and trains more efficient to operate if the tracks run across flat ground. So train routes tend to follow the flattest land available — and the flattest land available tends to be unexciting. Even when trains venture into the mountains they spend much of their time in pitch-black tunnels. And even if the train window isn't dirty and you have a great view, it's gonna to be the same view that everybody else sees. What's more you won't be able to smell the pine or feel the breeze or hear the birds or taste the local wine. While train travel passively constrains your vision of the outside world, it strives to completely shield all your other senses.
Indeed you'll exercise the most important aspect of a motor vehicle's flexibility when you stop and open its doors. You can stop for photo ops. You can drop into this or that intriguing winery, taste a few samples of red and buy a bottle for dinner. You can stop and talk with that farmer or that group of old men or children on the corner. You can pull up and watch that local soccer or rugby or cricket match. If when passing a mountain stream on a hot day you see people swimming in a cool natural pool below, you can pull over and join them, like I did. In a train you zip by such joys. Compared to a day of motoring, a day of traveling by train greatly diminishes the chances that you and your stories will serve as objects of fascination later on. You're going to Europe to further your understanding of the world. Well, Europe and the world are infinitely more than hundreds of disjointed cities. Between those cities are thousands upon thousands of wonders, many of them untold or undiscovered, the perfect ingredients for adventure — get mixed up in 'em.
Among the wonders you can explore are thousands of outstanding campgrounds and ideal spots for camping that only a motor vehicle will allow you to frequent. It's worth noting that without a partner or two, camping is a bit too lonesome for me. As such I do most of my camping when traveling with friends.
This brings up a good point. You may worry that by driving you'll miss out on the social situations that pop up on train rides. You will miss out on those. But in a way driving will make meeting people even easier. Driving is a great subject for conversation, giving you an added mystique when you exchange stories with fellow travelers. Many of these travelers will want to travel with you; and if you're so inclined you'll be able to choose whom you want to share the traveling and costs with. (Although you'll have a tough time getting tag-alongs to pay for more than their share of the fuel costs.) Regardless, if you're traveling accompanied, you'll rediscover the special intimacy that develops during a road trip. Something about driving with good company spawns the best conversations.
Another putative advantage of rail travel is the overnight train ride which allows passengers to save a night's lodging expense and to maximize their sight-seeing time. Yet on top of missing many sights along the way, these night-train folks often arrive at their destination tired. You can expect to get only about five or six hours of sleep on a typical overnight train ride. I don't know about you but that's not enough sleep for me to feel good the next day. And I want to to feel good while I'm in Europe. As a motor traveler I average about eight hours of sleep each night. Moreover, not marching to someone else's schedule, I wake without an alarm — a vacation in itself. To get more sleep on a train, you'll have to fork over US$15 for a couchette. A couchette is a bed in a compartment — sometimes lockable, sometimes not — with two triple coed bunks (blanket, pillow, clean linen, and up to five compartment mates included). An attendant monitors the couchette and deals with conductors and customs officials for you. You could also opt to pay US$4080 for a two- or three-bed sleeper with a sink.
Whether you travel by train or not, you should expect to make several mistakes and face several surprises along the way. By giving you the ability to turn around in an instant, to act immediately on what intrigues you, to seize the moment, a motor vehicle empowers you to manage and exploit these inevitable wildcards. "A traveler who leaves the journey open to the road finds unforeseen things come to shape it. 'The fecundity of the unexpected,' Proudhon called it." So writes William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, his critically acclaimed account of traveling around the US in a camper van. This fecundity of the unexpected assumes a much more powerful dimension in motoring tours than in train or bus tours, and he's a wise traveler who ultimately and strategically surrenders to it in both the planning and execution of a trip. In other words, as a recent television advert has it, "Plan to be spontaneous."
It is prudent, however, to focus for a moment on the unpleasant unexpected happenings that may occur. Crime is a prime example. When traveling, of course, you're subject to a higher likelihood of petty crime than are the locals. Still, in many ways Europe is the safest continent in the world, and virtually no place in Europe is prohibitively dangerous for travelers. Yet in choosing to travel by motor vehicle you're choosing to travel closer to the ground, to open yourself more to the local population — including the subgroup of criminals. But the criminals probably won't be there to take advantage of you: their prospects are much better on trains, around train stations, and among the mobs I mentioned earlier. In other words, criminals go where the crowds go.
Perhaps no other phenomenon takes the potential for both pleasant and unpleasant experiences to the extreme as does hitchhiking — or "autostop," as Europeans call it. Many sources advise that picking up hitchhikers in Europe is a mistake. I'm not gonna to go that far. Unlike North Americans, Europeans accept hitching as an integral mode of transport. Thus a much wider sample of European society sticks out its collective thumb along the highways, improving the chances that your experiences with hitchhikers there will be pleasant if not wonderful. There are even organizations throughout Europe that match riders with drivers. Use your best judgment when it comes to hitchhiking. You're under no obligation to pick up anybody.
Many people consider touring Europe by bicycle. Of course bicycling leads to intimate experiences with the landscape and the people. But you'll pay for that intimacy: bicycle touring is hard work, and there's no way you can get around much of Europe by bicycle unless you have a ton of time and tremendous stamina. I know because I've met several bicyclists during my travels and I recently attempted — with limited success — to bike around Britain and Ireland in a month and a half. A good bicyclist on a long tour typically covers about 100 kilometers (66 miles) a day, an effort which requires about six or seven hours on the road and results in mild exhaustion in the evenings. You will sleep well but unless you're an experienced bicyclist you may get in over your head and end up dreading the next day. With the great effort inherent in such bicycling you can't justify many deviations from your planned route, and to avoid superfluous physical expenditure you must plan that route with extreme care. The overwhelming tendency, then, is to limit yourself, to keep on the move, to pass up the fecundity of the unexpected. In short, you'd better love bicycling for the sake of bicycling. Moreover you should seriously consider covering only 66 to 83 km (40 to 50 miles) per day. If you travel by motor vehicle you can still do substantial bicycling. In fact a motor vehicle facilitates enjoyable bicycle travel. With a bike carrier and/or industrial strength rubber bands, you can secure your bike(s) on your vehicle and drive across boring or hilly country before mounting the two-wheelers; and you can travel comfortably in the vehicle during unpleasant weather.
This brings up a very important point. Your choice of transport doesn't have to be either/or. You can combine motoring and rail travel and bicycling or whatever. For example, you can tool around the countryside for a week or two in a car rental, avoiding the snarled traffic and other troubles of the cities, and then bounce between a handful to cities over the next week or so using trains. Furthermore it may surprise you that there are "motorail" trains which will carry you and your car from A to B. And as you might suspect, most trains accept bicycles for a small charge.
Now that you understand the myths concerning European motor travel and you're thinking in terms of value, you're primed to make a good decision about how to tackle Europe. If you're worried that you're not up to the challenge of savoring Europe's roads, take heart in the True Story about my first day driving in Europe.