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On which popular routes in Europe is train travel cheaper than flying?

Claudia Delpero, Europe Street
Claudia Delpero, Europe Street - [email protected]
On which popular routes in Europe is train travel cheaper than flying?
Some popular routes in Europe are possible by train instead of plane and are even cheaper. (Photo by Axel Heimken / POOL / AFP)

Travelling by train on certain routes in Europe can be twice as expensive as taking a plane, even if flying is far worse for the climate, Greenpeace has denounced. But on some common routes, the train is still the most affordable option.


In a report published recently, Greenpeace compared the cost of flight and train tickets on 112 routes in the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Norway, at 9 different times. Some 94 of these routes were international and 18 were domestic. While trains were more expensive in most cases, the analysis found that on 23 routes going by rail was cheaper than flying at most times.

Half of these routes involve long journeys on slow trains, several changes or bad connections, so perhaps not an attractive option for long-distance travellers or a viable alternative to a plane.

But 12 routes were considered “great”, with frequent links, good speed and a reasonable price. 

Berlin-Prague. This connection requires a relatively low travel time (the quickest train takes 4 hours 25 minutes), benefits from 6 direct trains per day and tickets start at €29.90. To be fair, there are no direct flights connecting the two capitals so the cheapest options by plane would be via Düsseldorf or Warsaw. But these would be more expensive and cause at least 30 times as many carbon emissions than the 10kg per person by train, Greenpeace says.

Zurich-Vienna. With 6 direct trains per day and a journey of 7 hours 52 minutes, the train between these two cities was on average 30 per cent cheaper than the plane. According to the study, in 2019, 941,000 people flew between Zurich and Vienna. If all had travelled by train, 75,000 tons of greenhouse gases would have been saved, the equivalent of the annual emissions of all cars in the city of Luzern (Lucerne).

Zurich-Berlin. There are 5 direct trains a day between the two cities, one of which is at night. The fastest train takes 8 hours and 32 minutes and prices start from €49.90. In 2019, more than 1.1 million passengers flew on this route, while trains would save 97,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year, according to Greenpeace.

Warsaw-Berlin. This route is served by 5 daily direct trains, with journeys lasting less than 6 hours at a price between €27.90 and €49.90. Tickets, however, are not available for sale very long in advance, the green group notes.

Hamburg-Munich. This is a frequent and fast train connection, as it takes 5 hours and 56 minutes. The train was found to be always cheaper than the train. In 2022, 1,039,000 people flew this route causing 161,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of 107,000 petrol cars. Considering the time and frequency of trains, Greenpeace says flights between these two cities should be banned.


Madrid–Barcelona. There are numerous direct trains between Madrid and Barcelona too, with the fastest ones taking 2 hours and 40 minutes. Ticket prices can be as low as €14 depending on the time of booking. Yet, in 2019 this was the fifth most popular short-haul flight route in Europe, according to Greenpeace, with almost 2.6 million passengers. Opting for the train would save 176,000 tons of greenhouse gases, or the annual emissions of all cars in the city of Granada.

READ ALSO: Could Spain ban short-haul domestic flights?

Trondheim-Oslo. The most used short-haul flight route in Norway, with 2,106,000 passengers in 2019, has in fact a good train alternative, according to the environmental organisation. There are 6 direct train connections a day, one of which is at night. The fastest day train takes 6 hours and 39 minutes. Prices are similar to flying, at around €65-70, but choosing the train would save 110,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, or about all car emissions of Trondheim.

The other easy train routes usually cheaper than flights are, according to the report, Helsinki-Oulu in Finland, Athens-Thessaloniki in Greece, Porto-Lisbon in Portugal, Košice (Slovakia)-Prague (Czechia), and Prague-Budapest (Hungary).


So expensive!

For other routes the train is surprisingly more expensive than the plane. For a trip from Barcelona to London for example the cost of taking the train - or at least two trains in this case - is over 10 times as much as the cost of a flight. Getting from the Spanish coastal city of Valencia to Paris by train is almost 8 times more expensive than flying.

These are not direct connections. Train trips tend to be more expensive if several rail companies are involved and separate tickets have to be bought for different legs. In addition the price may vary from one operator to another. Night trains are often cheaper because they involve fewer transfers and train operators. Some of these routes can also be cheaper by train, but only occasionally, the report says.

Countries with the most expensive train tickets compared to flights were found to be the UK and Spain (around four times as expensive), Belgium (2.6), France and Italy (2.5 times).


In May France formally banned domestic flights that are possible in less than two-and-a-half hours by train.

READ ALSO: France formalises ban on short domestic flights

Competitive disadvantage

So why such big price differences?

This aerial view taken on July 29, 2022 shows Ryanair aircrafts on the tarmac at Bordeaux-Merignac Airport in Merignac, southwest France. (Photo by Thibaud MORITZ / AFP)

Airlines benefit from a competitive advantage, Greenpeace argues, because they are exempt from paying taxes on kerosene, the main ingredient of jet fuel, while there is no equivalent benefit for rail companies.

Aggressive pricing policies of low-cost airlines, which operate on 79% of the routes analysed, also have an impact, the report says: 16 of the 23 rail routes that are cheaper than flying are not served by low-cost carriers or have no direct flights at all.


An analysis by Transport & Environment (T&E), another environmental organisation, has shown that emissions by Ryanair and Wizzair last year surpassed those of 2019, as passengers returned to flying after the pandemic.

The study argues that people “are being perversely encouraged to fly rather than take the train”, although the aviation sector has been the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe between 2009 and 2019 (+29%).

Despite 16 daily direct connections, for instance, flying from Paris to London was found to be cheaper than the train on each day considered for the report, with the Eurostar costing more than twice as much on average. In 2019, more than 2.1 million people flew between the two capitals, even though the train journey takes just 2 hours and 17 minutes.

Greenpeace has asked European governments to introduce ‘climate tickets’, such as those available in Austria or Germany, which would allow to travel at affordable prices on all means of public transport in a country or a region, and also across borders.

In addition, booking international train tickets should become easier, as this is another factor affecting prices. Governments should also adopt a fairer taxation system considering the climate impacts of different transport modes, the group added.

This article was produced in collaboration with Europe Street news.


Comments (1)

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Kris 2023/07/29 02:34
Taking a 1h20m flight from Madrid to Barcelona vs train at 2h40m, only saves 1h10m of travel time, in the long run it saves no time at all, you lose more time with a flight. Travel time to & from airport at both ends using public transport or driving (Google Maps) is 30m for Madrid & 30m for Barcelona. Arriving at airport for departure 45m-1 h beforehand. Waiting for luggage on carousel on arrival, 15-30m. Even with no checked in baggage, the train is still way more efficient time wise.

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