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Europe by Rail: The Sustainable Way to Travel While Overseas

Austria's Highspeed Railjet (c) ÖBB Harald Eisenberger
Austria's Highspeed Railjet (c) ÖBB Harald Eisenberger

Much of the world is now traveling full speed ahead, venturing forth to enjoy other cultures in faraway destinations. The UN World Tourism Organization reports that over the first five months of 2022, Europe welcomed more than four times as many international arrivals as in the same period last year. Increasingly, however, tourists want to explore their destinations in a sustainable way, as a response to growing concerns about global warming and other threats to the earth’s environment.

Indeed, according to a study conducted by Booking.com in April 2022, 71 percent of global respondents say they want to travel more sustainably in the coming year, up from 61 percent the year before. And, as many are finding, exploring a destination by train is a perfect marriage of the urge to explore and the desire to conserve.

Seeing the Sights, Saving the Earth

Rail transport may well be the most environmentally responsible way to travel, other than walking and biking. Compared to automobiles and airplanes, trains emit between 66 and 75 percent fewer carbon emissions, according to travel supplier All Aboard . Moreover, a train emits on average of six times less greenhouse gases than a plane, per data from the science experts at The Company of Biologists. In some countries, less than 3 percent of all transport-related gas emissions come from trains. 

But there’s more: Trains are extremely efficient at moving people. A typical train line can carry up to 50,000 people per hour, compared to a freeway lane’s capacity for up to 2,500 people per hour, according to the advocacy organization Interesting Engineering. And thanks to an extensive network of rails, one can easily and efficiently travel all over the continent. 

Unlike air travel, which deposits passengers in often remote airports requiring lengthy (and expensive) journeys to the center of town, major train stations often reside in the heart of Europe’s storied cities. The best example is Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof (Main Station — the largest and one of the most state-of-the-art train stations in Europe), which is right in the midst of the popular Favoriten District and just a 12-minute subway ride from the magnificent 14th-century St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna. The station offers convenient connections into all of Europe.

Vienna's Main Station  (c) ÖBB Harald Eisenberger
Vienna's Main Station (c) ÖBB Harald Eisenberger

Comfort and Value Also Ride the Rails

Then there’s the sheer comfort of getting around by rail. “Sitting on a plane is a cramped affair,” notes Elizabeth Wilkinson, senior account manager at U.K.-based Yes (Your Event Solutions), “whereas traveling by train allows for free movement so you can stretch and keep your circulation where it should be.” And what’s better than to sit back and watch the world pass by your window on street level? 

For those who want to keep their days free to enjoy their destination, Austria’s railway company ÖBB offers Nightjet trains within Austria but also to all major European cities, all outfitted with cozy sleeper cars and other amenities to make a night’s traveling pass in regal comfort. 

Celebrated British mystery writer Agatha Christie perhaps said it best: “Trains are wonderful. To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, and rivers, in fact, to see life!” 

When it comes to value, a recent study by Bloomberg News found that total travel time and cost by rail is comparable to or better than air travel on many intra-European routes, while an array of train-travel options exist to fit almost any interest and budget. One could ride the rail to Vienna from Prague, for instance, beginning at just $15.51 at press time; from Berlin, $30.42; and from London, $91.26. 

On the higher end, premium class via the high-speed Thalys train system will take you from Amsterdam to Paris for about $168. Perks include extra leg (and luggage) room, free WiFi (with more data), food and drink served at your seat, informative free apps and more. Austrian Railways’ first class includes adjustable seats, extra-wide tables, power outlets at each seat and F&B served seatside.

For all of these reasons and more, traveling overseas by train is itself likely to become one of the highlights of a memorable vacation.

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