When it comes to European travel, many people turn to the new budget airlines or the extensive train network (including overnight trains, which are seeing a revival). There is, however, another often overlooked travel mode, one that comes with an economical price tag, even for the most spontaneous traveler. It provides decent views with many windows, and more often than not, it’s easily accessible right in the city center.
It’s the modest coach bus.
Bus travel may not be as comfortable as that on a plane or in a first-class train compartment, but not dramatically less so. Much of the European bus infrastructure is a step up compared to the many of the coaches in the United States. European buses usually provide Wi-Fi and screens for entertainment, as well as decent leg room and plush seats.
And whatever you sacrifice in comfort, you gain in significantly cheaper tickets — even if you wait until the last minute.
For train travel, ticket prices aren’t fixed. These can and often increase each passing day toward the date of departure, a problem if you enjoy traveling spontaneously. Eurail passes allow for more flexible travel, but they can cost hundreds of euros. Tickets for shorter city-to-city trips can be reasonable, but prices increase when traveling longer distances, especially if your travels are between different countries, on a high-speed rail line or an overnight sleeper car.
The cheap fares from Ryanair, easyJet or another budget airline are attractive, but additional fees are almost always required for extra baggage or boarding passes. And if you’re traveling a shorter distance, the stress of the airport and airport security may not be worth the hassle. Not to mention the lovely countryside won’t be part of the journey.
A couple of nifty apps are available to compare travel prices, not only for bus routes, but also trains, planes and even ferries and car pools. I have used both Omio (formerly GoEuro) and FromAtoB, both available free on desktop, iOS and Android. These travel aggregators sift through hundreds of listings from transportation companies and display transit options for each mode of travel sortable by price, time and transfers.
Using Omio, I recently priced out a trip from Prague to Berlin. I set the sorting filter for “cheap and fast.” The top result for trains came out to cost $64 for a 4-hour, 17-minute journey. The bus, meanwhile, arrives two minutes earlier for just $26.
If you have already decided on the bus, the United States-based search platform Wanderu has expanded to Europe, providing another option to compare and aggregate prices from multiple carriers.
Beyond savings, bus travel supplies a means of transportation to locations with no train service. Want to explore those quaint little villages in the Italian countryside? Chances are you’ll need to take a bus.
Above all, buses could be the perfect choice for the spontaneous traveler: Backpackers, students or those travelers who want to leave their options open can benefit. With its many borders and some smaller countries, Europe is easy to experience at the drop of a hat, and bus travel can provide an affordable and sometimes faster route to doing so should your plans shift for any reason.
This isn’t to say that trains aren’t a great option, or sometimes even the best option. But you can guarantee train prices will spike significantly if you don’t book tickets weeks in advance.
Otherwise, feel free to live a little, knowing a cheap bus ride is an option, no matter how long you decide to stay.
Aric Jenkins is a staff writer at Fortune magazine, based in New York City. He has been featured in Travel + Leisure, Time, Newsweek, and Vibe, among others. You can follow him on Twitter or read more of his work here.
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