Budget railway companies are taking on the budget airlines - minus the carbon emissions.
Plenty of eco-conscious travellers feel the pangs of flight shame - but still struggle to resist ultra-cheap flights.
According to a 2021 study by UK consumer group Which?, trains emit six times fewer emissions than planes on popular routes but are 49 per cent more expensive.
This pricing edge - sustained by billions of euros in government subsidies - keeps planes in the sky.
But the tide is turning. Across Europe, low-cost train companies are opening new routes. And it’s just in time, with the French government having banned short-haul flights in 2022 - making low-cost trains all the more necessary.
Like budget airlines, they offer cheap, no-frills fares. Unlike budget airlines, they don’t heat up the planet.
Read on for everything you need to know.
Which European routes have low cost train journeys?
It’s possible to get cheap rail fares on almost every European route by following a few simple tips. If you book ahead and book off-peak you can secure a bargain deal even on premium trains.
Governments are also introducing a number of schemes to encourage rail travel. Germany recently relaunched its cheap regional travel ticket, while Spain introduced free tickets on various routes. In a scheme announced earlier this week, the EU is giving away 35,000 free rail passes to young people.
But there’s also an increasing number of train providers that explicitly market themselves as ‘budget’ alternatives.
Their branding often resembles that of low-cost airlines like Wizz Air - bright colours, bold fonts, and catchy, sub-three syllable names.
Like these airlines, they sometimes have baggage limits and fees for extras like charging points, so it’s worth checking before you go.
Ouigo: France’s best cheap train company
Ouigo - established as a budget arm of France’s national provider, SNCF - run low cost high speed trains between Paris and major cities including Lyon, Avignon, Aix, Marseille, Cannes, Nice, Nimes, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rennes, Angers, Nantes, Strasbourg.
France train travel: How much are Ouigo train tickets?
Fares start at just €10 if booked in advance but can be much more than this if bought on the day of travel.
According to flight search engine Skyscanner, an average flight between Paris and Lyon in March will set you back €65. A flight between Paris and Marseille will set you back €39. Ouigo offers cheaper fares on both of these routes, starting at €10.
Does Ouigo charge extra for baggage?
Like a budget airline, Ouigo does charge for optional extras - including €2 extra for a seat with a power socket. Baggage is strictly limited to one item 36 x 27 x 15 cm max and one item 55 x 35 x 25 cm max, including handles and wheels. There aren’t any weight restrictions.
Spain cheap trains: Avlo, for ‘Basic’ but low-cost options
Avlo is the budget subsidiary of Spanish train provider Renfe. They run high-speed services that travel at 300 km/h between Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona. Tickets for these services start at €7, or €5 for children under 14. There is just one class - the basic fare.
Renfe has just released tickets for the low-cost service between Madrid and Andalusia starting on 1 June with prices starting at €7. Avlo's initial service to Andalusia will be between Seville and Madrid and Malaga and Madrid with two trains a day leaving early in the morning and returning in the afternoon.
These trains are significantly cheaper than flying. Average flights cost around €30-€60 for the same route between Spain’s two biggest cities.
Does Avlo charge extra for baggage?
Avlo passengers are allowed one piece of hand luggage, measuring no more than 36x27x25 cm, with no weight limit, and one cabin bag, with maximum dimensions: 55x35x25 cm. You can purchase additional luggage for €10 at checkout, or €15 at the station.
Spain cheap trains: Iryo for more regular services between big cities
Iryo is a privately owned low-cost Spanish operator competing with Renfe. The company began its services between Madrid and Andalusia at the end of March this year. It also has routes from Madrid to Barcelona.
Like Avlo, Iryo's high-speed trains take around two hours and 30 minutes to travel between Seville and Madrid. Their trains offer more options, however, with four services a day from early in the morning until late at night.
Ticket prices start at around €18 with four different classes to choose from depending on your budget. All fares are flexible and allow for unlimited changes.
Does Iryo charge extra for baggage?
Iryo passengers can take up to three pieces of luggage for free as long as they fit in the space provided and don't interfere with security measures on board the train. These three pieces can be: two with a maximum size of 85x55x35cm, one piece of hand luggage with a maximum size of 36x27x15cm.
Italy cheap trains: Italo rules for budget, high-speed options
In Italy, Italo trains are operated by a private company that competes with the national rail provider. It operates very cheap rail options.
Tickets from Florence to Rome and Milan to Venice start from €10.90. The average flight for March for these options will set you back around €45.
Tickets from Milan to Rome and Rome to Venice will set you back €19.90. In comparison, the average flight in March will cost around €20-€30.
Does Italo charge extra for baggage?
Your ticket price includes luggage, and there is no limit on the number and size of the items of luggage you take on board.
London and Edinburgh train: Lumo is here to help with flight shame
Lumo urges travellers to “cure their flight shame” by opting for a train journey. “A great trip shouldn’t cost the earth,” their website declares.
The company offers an all-electric east coast London to Edinburgh line. Fares start at £26.90 (€32). In comparison, an average flight will set you back between €35 and €70.
“Lumo is a 100 per cent electric rail operator which runs between Edinburgh and London along the East Coast Mainline. Our most recent statistics show that only 0.006 kg CO2e is released per passenger per kilometre, which is 40 times less than the 0.24587 kg CO2e per passenger per kilometre for air travel,” a spokesperson says.
The city-to-city model also cuts out the time and cost required to get to and from airports.
“Our pricing model has now encouraged over one million customers to take the train between the capital cities, with more people getting the train than the plane between Edinburgh and London for the first time in decades,” Lumo said.
Does Lumo charge extra for baggage?
All customers can bring on board a maximum of one small bag and one suitcase. The small bag must fit on the overhead rack, while the large bag cannot exceed 63 x 41 x 27cm.
Why travel by train?
Ditching air travel is one of the biggest actions an individual can take to reduce their carbon footprint, alongside not driving a combustion engine car, keeping household energy usage down and eating a plant-based diet.
According to Flight Emission Map, a reputable carbon calculator, a return flight between Athens and London will release 622kg of carbon dioxide - or roughly six times the annual emissions output of a person in Burundi.