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Bus in Europe cheaper than trains?

When you think about getting around Europe, chances are you automatically turn to train travel, on either individual tickets or a rail pass. But with the weak dollar, train tickets and rail passes aren’t cheap anymore, and some visitors may consider bus travel as a way of cutting costs. An experienced European traveler recently asked:

“We are planning to visit England again this year, but this time travel by bus. We want to avoid an expensive rental car or rail pass. We understand there is a bus pass and that we might be able to avoid tax by buying it in the U.S. before we leave. Can you tell us about this bus pass?”

The short answer: You can buy a Brit Xplorer bus pass that will prove less expensive than a comparable BritRail pass. However, you pay the same whether you buy it here or there.

For other travelers interested more generally in the possibility of bus travel in Europe, I found three pass programs that might be of interest: one in Britain, two on the Continent.

Brit Xplorer

The U.K.’s main bus operator, National Express, offers three versions of its Brit Xplorer unlimited-travel bus pass valid for National Express services in England and Scotland:

  • Hobo: 7 days, £79 (about $158; see for current exchange rates.)
  • Footloose: 14 days, £139
  • Rolling Stone: 28 days, £218

You can pay using a major credit card online or after you arrive in the U.K. However you buy, you pick up the actual pass after you land, at desks in Gatwick, Heathrow, or Stansted airports, or in major bus stations. The National Express site does not show any advantage to paying outside the U.K. nor does it show any youth or senior discounts.

The Xplorer pass provides for travel only. But you can reserve a seat on any trip for an additional fee of £1.50.

The Brit Explorer is generally cheaper than the BritRail pass. For example, the eight-day travel-any-day BritRail pass costs $371 in second class and the one-month pass costs $838; the pass for four days of travel in a two-month period costs $329. However, if you confine your travels to England, the BritRail England passes are less expensive, at, for example, $297 for eight consecutive days or $263 for travel on four days out of two months.

Eurolines Pass

The Eurolines pass provides unlimited travel between 40 major European cities in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and the U.K. Prices vary by duration and season:

  • 15 days of travel, low season €199 (about $296; see for current rates), midseason €229, high season €329.
  • 30 days of travel, low season €299, midseason €319, high season €439.

Low season is through March 13 and November 1 to December 15; midseason is March 14 through June 26 and September 14 through December 12; high season is June 27 through September 14 and over the Christmas holidays. Discounts are available for youth under age 26; there are no deals for seniors.

Schedules are relatively limited, especially compared with rail options. Buses operate daily or twice daily on popular routes; but only several times a week on less popular trips. Moreover, on many routes, the only available option is an overnight red-eye trip—and I can think of few travel experiences worse than overnight on a bus.

Pass prices are well below the cost of comparable Eurail pass options. A full 20-country Eurail pass costs $744 for 15 days or $1,198 for one month; Flexipass options start at $878 for travel on any 10 days over a two-month period. Rates drop down to as little as $471 for travel on any five days during a two-month period in three adjoining countries, but in general, rail prices are higher than Eurolines passes for comparable times and areas.

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