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THE EURAIL ALTERNATIVE: An Open Letter to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

                                                                                                                                                             

Spaintrainave

(AVE train, Madrid, photo courtesy Seville Tourism)

By Ed Wetschler

    I know this will strike you as unmanly –- UnAmerican, even –- but after years of driving rental cars in Europe, I think I'll leave the driving to someone else.
    Maybe this change in attitude comes because of the high cost of car rentals and gas. True, gas costs less than it did this summer, but in many European countries it still costs twice as much as it does in the United States.
    Maybe, too, I've changed my attitude because I've been caught in one-too-many Eurotraffic jams. Or gotten lost. Or outgrown my burning passion for roundabouts.
    So last month I used railroads and a Eurail Pass to visit Portugal and Spain. Even beyond the money issue, this saved me time and spared me from a lot of stress. Important commodities, these, because my trips to Europe, and maybe yours, are a whole lot shorter than they used to be. Every minute matters.

THE TRIP, SANS REFUND
    My itinerary called for several days in Lisbon, a trip to Madrid for a brief morning meeting, three days in and around Seville, followed by a return to Madrid, where I spent another couple of days. For the first leg of the trip, I took a 10 p.m. overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid, sitting down to dinner in the dining car while the train was still in the station, then retiring to a two-bunk sleeper cabin.


Preferente_3

(Photo by Rail Europe)

   

    A perfect journey, it was not. Dinner was lousy — the only bad meal I've ever had on a train in Europe. Moreover, I didn't get a good night's sleep, what with the train's tendency to rock and roll. However, I'd gladly take this same train again, because it allowed me one more day in Lisbon instead of spending it in transit. Besides, a daylight train ride that ended at sundown would have meant booking an extra night's hotel room in Madrid.
    (If you ever take the overnight Lisbon-Madrid train, Mr. Earnhardt, here's how to game the system: First, instead of buying dinner in the dining car, eat in Lisbon before boarding. Then go straight to your cabin, change into your jammies, and have a little dessert: Ambien.) 
    Anyway, I arrived in Madrid on time. No surprise, considering that the Portuguese railroad system guarantees a full refund if the train is more than 30 minutes late and some of the Spanish trains refund your money if you're just 5 minutes late. The distinctions are meaningless, of course, because all these trains are maddeningly punctual.
   Atocha5(2) 

(Atocha Station, Madrid: photo by Ed Wetschler)

    I had my meeting at a station cafe, then boarded an 11 a.m. train to Seville. This was not the first time I had taken this train, a high-speed AVE that goes faster than you do, Mr. Earnhardt. The ride, as always, was an absolute pleasure: 2 1/2 hours in a very comfortable seat with a tray table, plus free headphones, courteous attendants, spotless restrooms, and an excellent lunch (included) with wine and devilishly cute little bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. If Amtrak is a Ford Pinto, this was a Beemer, and I was able to relax, read, eat, watch a movie, and enjoy the glorious scenery. Try doing that at the Indy 500. Or, for that matter, on the interstate.
    While in Seville I took a day trip to Cadiz, on the coast. Nice train ride, lovely town, no driving/parking responsibilities. And later that week I returned to Madrid via the same high-speed train that had gotten me to Seville. It was a pleasure to re-enter Madrid without having to battle traffic, fight fatigue, decipher cryptic signs, coddle a clutch, obsess about the next rest room.

CAR VERSUS TRAIN
    So call me a convert to train travel. Of course, this conversion didn't stop me from looking into what a rental car would have cost.
    According to AutoEurope, a compact with a manual shift for five days, with a pickup in Portugal and no additional insurance, would have been $386. (And an automatic transmission? Best not to even think about it when you're renting in Europe.) Add on a drop-off charge of 180 euros plus 21% tax, or about $285, and the total for the car comes to $659 plus gas, tolls, parking, more gas, an extra night in a hotel, and one fewer day in Portugal. (Some of these costs can be quantified, but others, such as the loss of one day's sightseeing, are impossible to calculate.)
    How do car costs compare with rail travel? Depends on how you arrange the rail travel. For starters, you have to figure out if it's better to buy station-to-station tickets or to use a Eurail Pass, as I did. This isn't easy, and I'm not saying that, Mr. Earnhardt, just to take a swipe at people whose life's work is to drive gaudy cars in circles. The calculations really are challenging, even for us pinot noir-sipping, bi-coastal elitists.
    For example, when I emailed customer service at www.euraildirect.com, one of the Eurail sites, for help, the rep advised me to use three different websites, one of which was a German site, to research my trip. Worse, I couldn't even find the two-person overnight cabin I wanted for the dates I planned to travel.
    So I'd urge you to do just a little research on the Internet, and then turn things over to the railroads' telephone agents. Sort of like this:

 

Eurail_map_small 

(Map courtesy of Eurail)

EURAIL VERSUS A LA CARTE TICKETS
    1. First, use the map at Eurail to figure out where you're going.
    2. Then, peruse the European railroad schedules to learn when you can travel here and there.
    3. Now that you have a good enough sense of your itinerary, call 800-848-7245 to find out the total costs of station-to-station tickets, including any surcharges. Then ask the agent to compare them with the costs of using a Eurail Pass for that route. The agent will point out the most cost-effective version of Eurail Pass (Global? Select? Regional? ), ask if you're traveling with someone (that entitles you to a Saver Pass discount of about 15%), and help you determine how many days you need on the pass (three days in two months? Four days? Ten?)
    She will even point out a few neat tricks. For example, if you're taking an overnight train that starts after 7 p.m., as I did, you only use up one day — the following one–on your Eurail Pass. Thus, I got my overnight trip to Madrid plus the train I boarded later the next morning, after my meeting, to go to Seville.
    Once you and the agent have determined the best itinerary and purchasing option, the agent will email you the itemized itinerary and hold the reservation for a week or two while you mull it over without penalty. This phone service costs $15, and it's worth every penny.

THE BOTTOM LINE
    As mentioned, a compact car for this Portugal-Spain trip would have set me back $659 plus other costs, quantifiable and otherwise (see above). Let's compare that to the costs for two people buying station-to-station tickets for the trip I took:

Lisbon-Madrid in a two-person "T2" cabin             $606
Madrid-Seville, "Comfort" 1st class on AVE train     386
Daytrip to/from Cadiz                                            72   
Return trip, Seville-Madrid                                    386  
TOTAL:                                                           $1,450   

And now, the Eurail Pass:

Three-day Regional Saver Pass @ 217 euros p.p.                $564
Overnight T2 cabin                                                            202
Phone service + shipping/handling of tickets                        33
Assorted reservations fees and surcharges (surprise!)         200
TOTAL:                                                                           $999

The prices listed above are not writ in stone; fees may vary depending upon the booking agency and the train. (Click, if you have the patience, on Reservations and Supplements) Nevertheless, Eurail Pass is clearly the better of the two options for train travelers. It also strikes me as a better deal than the compact car at $659 plus gas, parking, an extra night's hotel stay, stress, etc. and the loss of a day in Lisbon. 

    FYI, I determined these Eurail Pass rates using the current exchange rate of $1.30. Each additional day on the pass would have cost about 30 euros, or about $39, per person.
    So should you buy a Eurail Pass with more days of travel if you plan to take day trips? That depends on what each of those day trips would have cost you a la carte. The daytrip from Seville to Cadiz makes sense on my itinerary simply because Eurail Passes don't come any shorter than three days. And the pass saves so much money on this itinerary that it pays even if you waste one of the days. On the other hand, it wouldn't pay to buy a four-day Eurail Pass so you could take, say, a daytrip from Lisbon to Sintra. That ride is so short and inexpensive, better to just buy station-to-station tickets.

EPILOGUE
    There is a train from downtown Amsterdam to the airport. But like you, Mr. Earnhardt, I'm an extremely rugged American, so at the end of a recent visit to the Netherlands I hailed a cab to Schiphol, sharing the ride with a guy in a KLM uniform. Of course, we got stuck in wall-to-wall traffic, and soon I was fretting out loud about that I might miss my flight.
    "Don't worry, the plane won't take off without you," the other passenger assured me.
    "I'm not so sure about that; we are very late," I whined. "What makes you so optimistic?"
    His answer calmed me down, but it did not let me off the hook for having chosen to travel by car rather than by train.
    "The plane will wait," he explained, "because I'm one of the captains on your flight."

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