T+L’s personal finance columnist, Jean Chatzky, answers your questions. This month: Plane or train for the European grand tour?

I’m taking a trip to Europe this spring—France, Italy, and Great Britain—and I’m curious about the most cost-effective way to get around. I’ve been hearing about low-cost airlines in Europe, but I’m wondering if train travel is still a good option. Are there any new deals?—Emily Jackson, Fort Worth, Tex.

It all depends on where you’re going, Emily, and how much time you have to get there. With many new, low-cost air carriers in Europe, flying on the Continent has never been more affordable. However, Margery Hunter, an agent with Rudi Steele Travel in Dallas, notes: "Budget airlines frequently operate between small, regional airports, which can be difficult and expensive to get to, offsetting your cost savings." For shorter distances, the rails are your best option. And with flight delays increasing, a train might get you there faster than a plane (Eurostar reported 91.5 percent on-time arrivals in 2006), even for longer trips. So how do you get the best deal on a ticket?

Decide between point-to-point tickets and rail passes

Get quotes for the legs of your journey from each country’s rail system—SNCF for France (www.sncf.com), Trenitalia for Italy (www.trenitalia.com), National Rail for Great Britain (www.nationalrail.co.uk), for example—and then go to Raileurope.com, where you can compare individual ticket prices with the cost of a pass.

Find the rail package that fits your itinerary

You can buy passes for individual countries or for groups of them. Croatia and Ireland just launched national rail passes this year, and the new Italy-Spain pass includes discounts on ferries between the two nations. If your itinerary is far-reaching, consider the familiar 18-country Eurail Global Pass. Rail options range from $90 (one day of unlimited travel in France) to $1,788 (three consecutive months of travel throughout the Eurail network). Note that Britain, however, is not covered by the Eurail Global Pass. To get to London, you can take the Eurostar train from France or Belgium. Prices start at $89 one-way, and passholders are eligible for discounts. But if your plans include an extensive tour through the United Kingdom, you’ll need a BritRail pass as well.

Get creative with your pass

Once you understand how passes work, you can maneuver within the system to save money. A shorter consecutive-day pass can sometimes cover a longer trip. For example, you can take a full-month journey with a 21-day Eurail Global Pass ($200 cheaper than a one-month pass) by starting and ending your travels in cities where you’d like to stay for several days. And you can stretch a flexible pass (which allows a certain number of days of unlimited travel within a one- to three-month period) by paying out of pocket for shorter jaunts. A three-day France Railpass costs $74 per day ($222), but a second-class one-way ticket from Marseille to Monte Carlo starts at only $64, so save your pass for longer trips.

Buy in advance

Passes aren’t widely available in Europe, and will cost you 20 percent more if purchased there. Since passes are good for six months after you buy them, get yours in December for a trip early the following year, saving the roughly five percent price increase that comes at the beginning of January.

With additional reporting by Arielle McGowen

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