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Europe -- By Plane or By Train?

train switzerland swiss alps europeEurope's extensive network of railroads was once the only affordable option for folks traveling around the continent, but lately the rails have lost their supremacy. Discount airlines like Ryanair and easyJet have made jetting around the continent quicker and cheaper; in fact, Ryanair often offers sales with fares as low as 8 GBP (about $13.36 USD).

With fares this cheap, does it make sense even to consider traveling by train anymore? The answer: It depends. For one thing, the discount airlines aren't actually quite as cheap as they appear. Even if you do net an incredibly affordable flight, government taxes and fees bump the price up to at least $25 or $30.

Then come the airlines' own fees. On Ryanair, there are so many that the airline has put together a handy table so you can see at a glance what you'll be charged for checked bags (with higher rates during the summertime and December holiday "peak" periods), online check-in, priority boarding, even purchasing a flight (you'll pay an "administration fee" of 6 GBP unless you make your booking with a MasterCard prepaid debit card).

EasyJet charges similar fees for checked baggage and for booking with certain types of credit or debit cards.

One more factor to take into account? Discount airlines tend to fly into secondary airports that are an hour or more outside of the city you're trying to visit. Trains, on the other hand, typically arrive in or near the center of town, and usually link up easily with the city's mass transportation system.

We tested fares on easyJet, Ryanair and Rail Europe to see who had the lowest price, the most convenient connections and the quickest journey. See below to see how each travel provider stacked up on three common European itineraries.

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London - Paris - Rome - London
This popular itinerary was our first test subject since London is the cheapest gateway to Europe for most Americans. It's important to note that London has four different airports, and that most Americans will fly into Heathrow or, less commonly, Gatwick. The discount airlines, meanwhile, fly from Stansted, Luton or Gatwick, not Heathrow -- so be sure to allow plenty of time to transfer between airports if your itinerary so requires.

easyjet plane airplane easy jetThe Winner: EasyJet edged out Ryanair for first place based on convenience and total travel time. EasyJet offers direct flights for each leg of our itinerary, so booking was a breeze, and the travel time was a little less than six total hours in the air. The price with taxes: $317.94 (if purchased with a Visa Electron card -- which is not available to Americans), $332.64 if purchased with a Visa debit card or $341.53 (if booked with another type of credit card). These prices include one checked bag on each flight, prebooked on the easyJet Web site. (Check your bag at the airport and the fee doubles.) EasyJet's site was easier than Ryanair's to use, allowing us to search "all London airports" when booking.

Note: For our three flights, we had to fly in and out of six different airports -- Charles de Gaulle and Orly (Paris), Luton and Gatwick (London), and Fiumicino and Ciampino (Rome).

The Runner-Up: Ryanair offered somewhat similar pricing to easyJet -- $309.59 with a single checked bag up to 15 kilograms (33 pounds) or $376.35 with a single checked bag up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) -- but, surprisingly, offered no direct flights from London to Paris. Because the search function on Ryanair.com won't make connections for you, we were forced to try out a variety of connecting cities one by one. We found the best deal on flights from London Stansted to Glasgow Prestwick and then on to Paris Beauvais, but the extra flight and layover boosted our total travel time significantly. A few other caveats: Beauvais is probably the least convenient airport for Paris-bound travelers, requiring a shuttle bus ride of over an hour to get into the center of the city. And while Ryanair.com was easy to use, there was no option to search all London airports; instead, we had to test each of the three individually.

The Loser: The train was the clear third choice for this itinerary since the cities involved are so far apart. The total estimated time of all three legs was a vacation-eating 28 hours -- and the price couldn't compensate for the transit time, adding up to $412 per person.

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Rome - Florence - Venice - Rome
This itinerary is a common one for first-time visitors interested in seeing Italy's highlights. We assumed here that our test traveler flew from the United States into Rome, usually the cheapest Italian gateway city for Americans. Because of the relative proximity of the three cities involved, this turned out to be a much more train-friendly itinerary than our first test case.

The Winner: Eurail won this round by a landslide, offering the shortest trip and most convenient itinerary. The lowest available price was $137 for this itinerary, with a travel time of 12 hours. Cut the travel time down to seven hours (by taking high-speed express trains) and the price goes up to $313. Eurail was the only option of the three that served all three of the cities we wanted to visit (Ryanair and easyJet fly into Pisa, not Florence). One final perk of taking the train? In most cases you'll arrive at a train station near the center of each city, with quick, easy connections by subway to hotels and sightseeing.

The Runner-Up: Neither airline really shone in this comparison, with no direct flights between any of the cities on our itinerary. However, Ryanair gets our vote for runner-up because we did eventually manage to piece our itinerary together with 17 hours of flights and layovers. (That doesn't even take into account how early you need to arrive at the airport before your flights to get through security!) The initial fare quote was $298.82 for six flights -- 65 bucks more than the fast trains -- and that's not including the checked bag fees. Checking a single bag for all of those flights will set you back an additional $222.36 to $266.52 (depending on weight and whether you travel during peak or off-peak seasons), for a total price up to $565.34.

The Loser: EasyJet loses out because we couldn't find a way to get between Pisa and Venice on our selected travel date; we tried layovers in several different cities, but the flight times were simply incompatible. Our only choice would have been to stay overnight in the connecting city -- or to have skipped Florence altogether and just flown on the convenient, nonstop flight from Rome to Venice.

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