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Europe -- By Plane or By Train?

Paris - Barcelona - Lisbon - Paris
airport suitcase woman departure board europe citiesThis itinerary is a bit less common than our first two, and it proved impossible to book on Ryanair, which doesn't offer flights to Lisbon. We used Paris, another common gateway for U.S. travelers, as a starting point. Because the cities are relatively far apart, this itinerary favored easyJet over Eurail.

The Winner: EasyJet came out on top with an affordable total cost ($304.90 if booked with a Visa debit card or $313.79 with a non-Visa Electron credit card) and direct flights for all three legs. The fare above includes a single checked bag of no more than 20 kilograms.

The Runner-Up: Rail travel comes in at a distant second place, at $481 for a Eurail Select Pass, which allows five days of train travel in three countries and is several hundred dollars cheaper than booking point-to-point tickets. We added up a total of about 47 hours of travel time. While that's significant, keep in mind that overnight trains are an option; these allow you to save time (and money on a hotel room) by traveling while you sleep.

Learn About Eurail Passes

The Loser: Ryanair is the loser by default, as the airline doesn't fly to Lisbon. It does fly elsewhere in Portugal, to Porto and Faro, both about three hours away from Lisbon by train. Ryanair flies direct between Paris Beauvais and Barcelona's main international airport -- but Beauvais is more than an hour by bus from downtown Paris.

The Bottom Line
We learned quite a few things in the oft-laborious process of testing all these itineraries -- first, that finding a good deal takes time! Though easyJet.com, Ryanair.com and RailEurope.com are relatively easy sites to use, it often takes a bit of manipulation to get the itinerary you want, especially when connections are involved.

Our second lesson was that although discount airlines may be on the rise, you shouldn't dismiss the train option altogether. Particularly for itineraries where the cities aren't far apart, the train may still be your most economical and even your quickest choice. However, the more distance your itinerary covers, the more appealing a plane is likely to look (unless you're willing to consider overnight trains).

You might also want to consider combining your options. EasyJet may offer the cheapest fare for the first leg of your trip, but the next leg may be better served by train. If easyJet doesn't fly to your city of choice, there's a chance Ryanair might. To search more than one discount airline at a time, try SkyScanner.net, which shows you estimated prices for routes within Europe on various airlines including Ryanair, easyJet, bmi, Aer Lingus and more.

train young man music Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

Finally, ultra-cheap flight offers aside, beware of the many hidden costs that could significantly boost your price tag -- everything from baggage fees and credit card surcharges to the price of transferring from one London airport to another. Keep in mind that flights may look shorter on paper, but you'll also spend more time going through security and transferring into the city you're visiting than you would for a journey on the rails.

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    --written by Sarah Schlichter; updated by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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