The fact remains that, despite the European Union’s support for rail, the bloc’s governments continue to grant enormous subsidies to airlines — in the form of bailout packages as well as low taxes on jet fuel — although that could change soon. And while the French and Austrian bans on short-haul flight bans attracted attention in Europe, in effect, the measures ended flights on just one route — Vienna to Salzburg — in Austria, and three in France: Paris to Bordeaux, Paris to Lyons, and Paris to Nantes. In the French case, passengers are still allowed to fly those routes if they make up part of a longer plane journey.
Herwig Schuster, a transport campaigner for Greenpeace’s E.U. Mobility for All campaign, called the French and Austrian measures “a starting point” and said the European Union should prohibit flights for which there is a train alternative that takes under six hours, instead of just two or three. Such a measure would eliminate about one third of Europe’s most popular short-haul routes, but Mr. Schuster maintained that consumers are ready for such a shift: A recent climate survey found that 62 percent of Europeans support a ban on short-haul flights. The biggest obstacle, he added, would be making sure that rail options are at least as affordable as flights.
On several European routes — especially longer-distance trips that cross multiple national borders — flying remains the cheaper option: A one-way, midweek flight from Zürich to Barcelona in July costs as little as 45 euros on the low-cost carrier Vueling, compared with 140 euros (and many more hours) to cover the same distance by rail. Flying is also usually the more affordable option for trips from London to Madrid, Copenhagen to Rome, and Paris to Budapest.
The fact that Europe’s vast rail network lacks a single ticketing system presents another challenge, said Mark Smith, who runs The Man in Seat 61, a website with resources for train travel in Britain, Europe and around the world. But he said that in many cases, trains are a good value compared with planes, especially when you account for baggage fees and the cost of getting to and from the airport. Booking in advance, just as you would for a flight, can also save travelers a lot of money, Mr. Smith said, adding that he advises people to reserve their long-distance train travel one to three months ahead to avoid last-minute price hikes. He also recommends sites like Trainline and Rail Europe for booking multicountry trips in Europe.
He added that many travelers still opt for the train, even if, in some cases, it does mean paying more for their ticket. When he started his site 20 years ago, Mr. Smith said, most people he spoke to who were interested in long-distance train travel were either scared of flying or unable to fly for medical reasons. These days, he hears a different rationale.
“People are fed up with the airport and airline experience — they want something less stressful and more interesting,” he said. “And they want to cut their carbon footprint.”
Paige McClanahan is the host of The Better Travel Podcast.
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