Now that we’ve made several trips in France using the train system and also by renting a car, I think it’s time to compare and contrast.
I’ve broken it down into three topics: Cost, Comfort and Convenience.
The cost of renting a compact car was really not that bad. It was the gas and tolls that stung – many times totaling more than the car rental. Tolls work out to about 14 cents per mile, and gas prices are the equivalent to $9 a gallon. However, compared to taking the train the expenses came out almost even, surprisingly.
For example, for the four of us to travel from Lyon to Paris in a rental car, it would be around $40 per person. The cost to travel via TGV would be roughly $100 per person if you didn’t think ahead and get your Eurail pass! We did have Eurail passes, so that price went down to about $30 per person.
Most of the time, we rented a compact car for the four of us, although on one occasion we ended up with a minivan. All of them were manuals, which is very common in Europe. Even with the larger minivan, the trains were much more comfortable. Besides the fact that Mark didn’t have to drive and I didn’t have to navigate, French trains (and Italian and Swiss) are general well kept. The opportunity to get up and stretch our legs (while traveling 200 mph!) or even use the toilet was quite pleasurable. The kids could sit farther away from each other. Need I say more.
I will say a little more, in defense of the car. The epidemic proportions of smoking in France is shocking. There’s no smoking on the trains but boy howdy when people get off, they are literally shaking for their next hit. This happens en masse right outside the doorway. We’ve been able to anticipate this and spend the first few moments off the train in search of breathable air. That’s not comfortable.
This is where the train looses ground to the car. Sure, this is a view from a spoiled American, but let me whine a bit: Deciphering train schedules. Having a schedule. Standing in line to get seat reservations. Checking marques for the track our train leaves from. Hauling the luggage up and down the stairs to get to the track (trains are not handicap friendly, by the way). Hoofing it (with the luggage) once we get to our destination. All of this is inconvenient – but, so are children. In the grand scheme of things, traveling by train is worth every bit of inconvenience.
I don’t need to list all the freedoms and independence that having our own wheels affords us – we’re all familiar with that. But I will remind you how much a pain it is to park in the city. Also, driving in an unfamiliar place has caused us to stress out more than a few times.
The final verdict? There are some trips that are better by car and others by train. Our day trip into the Beaujolais region is an example where the rental car was the best choice. We stuck to the scenic back roads (no tolls) and stopped frequently for photo ops. Sure we got lost a few times, but that’s part of the fun. The trip to Paris the weekend before was best by train. In fact, it is hard to see why anyone would need a car in Paris. One trip we made by car that perhaps we should’ve made by train was the long ride to Nantes. Oh well, live and learn.
Let me make a fourth topic.
As in we care about the environment. Trains in France use electricity, which comes mostly from nuclear power. I’m not a fan of nuclear energy, but I’m much less a fan of burning fossil fuels. Because of this, Mark and I choose the train whenever possible.
Unfortunately, in the States there aren’t any trains (really) so there isn’t a choice.