INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL : Europe's Trains on a Roll in Price Competition

Saltzman is co-author of the 18th edition of "Eurail Guide--How to Travel Europe and All the World by Train."

The unceasing advances by Europe's passenger trains since the 1950s have been accelerating in the '80s.

Since the start of this decade there have been two major developments.

For starters, second-class is more comfortable and attractive on many routes than first-class was in 1980. And travel time has been reduced dramatically on many major lines, such as Paris-Geneva, Milan-Rome and London-Edinburgh.

The time required to travel many other routes will be shortened significantly in the next two years.

Competitive With Flying

For distances of 350 to 450 miles, the European railways pile up one victory after another in their quest to compete with air travel.

A one-hour flight invariably involves having to check in at an airport 60 minutes before flight time and taking 30 minutes to retrieve luggage after landing. Then there's at least 45 minutes on a crowded highway transferring from one's hotel to the departure airport, plus the same amount of time going from the destination airport to your hotel in that city.

A one-hour flight involves four or more hours of hotel-to-hotel travel time, and considerably longer if inclement weather delays a flight, something that rarely affects train schedules.

For an increasing number of journeys, the train in Western Europe can accomplish the same result in about 5 1/2 hours at far less cost, in addition to offering the amenities of sightseeing and space to stroll and stretch.

Trains on the Milan-Rome route recently offered reduced travel time, from seven to five hours, including city-center departure and arrival. Both rail stations are only a few minutes from many hotels.

The 37 first-class-only Trans-Europ Express trains reigned royally from the early '60s until they were replaced last year by 64 high-speed EuroCity trains that serve 200 cities in 13 countries.

Choice of Seats

Except for two Paris-Brussels trains that are first-class only, all the other EuroCity trains offer both first-class and second-class seats.

To qualify for EuroCity status, each train had to meet 20 criteria that cover comfort, speed, food service and cleanliness. Nearly all of them require a supplementary fee from $2 to $8 U.S., and that includes a seat reservation.

Nine overnight trains that have no coach seats (bedrooms only, or bedrooms and couchettes) also have EuroCity designation: Stockholm-Hamburg, Paris-Barcelona, Paris-Madrid, Paris-Milan-Florence, Paris-Milan-Venice, Paris-Rome, Hamburg-Basel-Chur, Hamburg-Basel-Brig and London-Amsterdam.

Typical prices of fixed-menu meals on EC trains are $16 U.S. for lunch and $35 for dinner. (I prefer to board any train with my own salads and cold cuts, selected at a charcuterie on the way to the station.)

Fastest Trains

France's TGV trains have been the world's fastest since they were introduced in 1981. They average 160 m.p.h. on many stretches. Those that run Paris-Bern, Paris-Geneva and Paris-Lausanne are also in the EuroCity network.

The European rail authorities are always a year behind when they set the U.S. dollar prices for their train tickets. Because they were establishing 1985 ticket prices in late 1984, they couldn't anticipate the sharp fall of their currencies measured against the dollar in mid-1985.

Consequently, their 1985 tickets were grossly overpriced in dollars when the English pound was selling for only $1.05 and a French franc could be bought for a mere 9 1/2 cents.

Conversely, in late 1985 they failed to guess the 1986 start of the dollar's fall. Attempting to adjust for the 1985 overpricing, they reduced the dollar price of their tickets.

So the pendulum swung. Prices for 1987 tickets were increased substantially to recoup from the error in the previous year.

Price Increases

When U.S. currency plunged even further in 1987 as the pound zoomed to $1.80 and the franc fetched 18 cents, prices for 1988 tickets were adjusted to the highest they have ever been.

Here are some examples of the increase in cost over 1986 prices: Cologne-Copenhagen 51%, Milan-Rome 76%, Rome-Vienna 69%, Madrid-Paris 46%. Even the popular unlimited-travel, low-price train passes cost considerably more than they did two years ago.

The second-class 15-day Brit-Rail Pass ($249) is up 42%. The second-class 15-day Swiss Holiday Card ($140) has increased 49%. The first-class 15-day Eurailpass ($298) is 15% higher than it was two years ago.

Still a Bargain

Nevertheless, trains remain the same relative bargain they always have been compared to rental car and airplane prices, which have increased proportionally in the same period.

Begin by finding the least expensive pass for your itinerary. Compare various combinations of national passes with the $370 first-class, 21-day Eurailpass.

The Italian Tourist Ticket is $168 for eight days, first-class. France Railpass costs $140 for nine days, second-class. The GermanRail Tourist Card is $115 for nine days, second-class.

Keep in mind that a pass is not always a bargain. Before investing in any pass, consider the number of days you plan to be on a train. A rough rule of thumb is that four or five days' use of a 15-day pass (or seven or eight days' use of a 21-day pass) is usually a losing proposition. In such cases, individual destination tickets will probably be cheaper than a pass.

Compare the Costs

List the trips you plan to take, add the ticket prices and compare the total against the price of a pass.

Second-class tickets, especially, can be far less expensive for some tours than either a Eurailpass or the numerous national and regional passes.

They cost only two-thirds of the first-class price and the quality is generally good in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Holland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany.

Here are some examples: Paris-Amsterdam $47, Copenhagen-Oslo $66, Hamburg-Cologne $53, Geneva-Zurich $31, Vienna-Munich $44, Oslo-Bergen $57, Frankfurt-Munich $48, Innsbruck-Vienna $47, Luxembourg-Paris $34, Venice-Vienna $48.

It was precisely because the quality of second-class travel improved so much in recent years that the first-class-only Trans-Europ Express trains became passe and were phased out.

Having to wait in lines to buy tickets on peak travel days or at peak hours when large crowds are on the move cuts into time better spent sightseeing. That drawback can be easily overcome by buying them before leaving home.

Tickets (as well as Eurailpasses) for Italy and all of Europe can be bought from Italian State Railways, Suite 1090, 6033 W. Century Blvd., Suite 1090, Los Angeles 90045, (213) 338-8620.

You can buy Eurailpasses from French National Railroads, 9465 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90212, (213) 274-6934, and GermanRail, c/o DER Tours, 11923 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90025, (213) 479-4411.

Tickets and/or passes also can be ordered through travel agencies.

If you decide that either a particular pass or a combination of two or more is sensible for your journey, make sure you know well in advance of starting your trip which pass or passes must be bought in the United States, and which are sold only in the country you will be touring.

For example, Austria Ticket is sold only in Austria, Switzerland and West Germany. Benelux Tourrail is available only in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. Holland's Rover is sold only in Holland.

But France's Railpass and England's BritRail Pass must be bought before you arrive in those countries. Once you get there, it's too late to buy them.

On the other hand, both Switzerland's Holiday Card and West Germany's Tourist Card can be bought either before leaving home or after you arrive in those countries.

Tips for Choosing

Whatever choice one makes, Eurailpasses or regular rail tickets, the cardinal tips we have been recommending for 18 years to enhance any train journey are:

--Avoid night travel on trains. Any sleeping accommodation other than a couchette (such as sleeping in a bunk, in a compartment with up to five other people) is almost always expensive and usually uncomfortable. Moreover, you miss both the scenery and the chance to visit with fellow passengers.

--Reconfirm your departure time as soon as you arrive in a city. Even the monthly issues of Cook's Timetable can't keep up with changes.

--Focus on carefree one-day excursions from a base city. A train ride of less than three hours in the morning, followed by an afternoon of sightseeing and a restful return to the base city in time for dinner, is preferable to sleeping in a different hotel every night for two or three weeks.

--When moving from one base to another, carry light luggage. Porters and carts are scarce.

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