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European Air-Rail-Bus Price Comparison

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The European railway system, according to public opinion, suffers from extraordinarily high fares. Liberalization in the European passenger aviation market has led to cut-throat price competition on many domestic and international air connections. As a result, the airlines have heavily advertised extremely low airfares. Despite the fact that only small numbers of tickets are available at these low prices, this marketing has had a strong effect on the public perception of intercity rail fares.

The purpose of this study is to review the current ticket prices on trains, planes and busses on selected national and cross-border routes in Europe, where air and rail can be realistically substituted due to similar overall travel times. Including more than 2,200 travel prices from several online sales platforms, this survey primarily compares the fares of air and rail travel, based upon three typical traveler types and four different booking lead times.

The results show the complete opposite of popular opinion. Rail - not air - dominates the air-versus-rail price comparison, and it is far and away the best-priced travel option. The five train operators surveyed won in 82% of more than 720 investigated booking cases. One can save an average of 37% by taking a train instead of a plane. The French train operator SNCF provides the greatest price advantage when compared to the airlines, winning in 96% of all travel cases. This result is closely followed by Renfe in Spain with 83%, Deutsche Bahn in Germany with 79% and Trenitalia/NTV with 78%.

A closer look at the survey in regard to types of travel reveals a correlation between price and booking lead time. While holiday trips booked a day in advance show the biggest saving potential when taking the train, business and weekend trips generate comparably smaller but still significant savings. The highest savings can be realized by booking three months in advance. Overall, the different booking lead times show a heterogeneous picture, but taking the train will nearly always save money. Only on certain single connections are airlines cheaper than the railway companies due to intense airline competition (e.g., London-Paris).

A further outcome of the study is that the sales practices of many online flight distribution portals are still non-transparent and unfair. The airfare initially displayed is rarely the price customers have to pay at the end of the sales process.

The price positioning of railway operators in competition with airlines is considerably better than expected. However, there is obviously a lot of work to do before consumers are convinced of this rail price advantage.