Friday, June 14, 2024

There’s a simple solution to having a cheap holiday in Europe, and no one knows about it

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Carpooling is taking off in Europe. Photo / Getty Images

More than 110,000 people carpool in Europe each day, making it one of the most economical ways to travel, writes Anna Richard

When did you last get off the train, or plane, with a great story to tell? Or chat to locals en route to your destination? While carpooling around Europe, I’ve had private city tours from people I’d met just hours before, been sandwiched in the backseat of a Peugeot; I’ve spent the journey speaking to circus performers, artists and medics, and I’ve encountered people I’d never meet in my day-to-day life – most recently, and particularly memorable, a nudist and her pet chihuahua.

While for me, these interactions are all part of the experience, for many they might be the reason sharing a car fills you with dread. But there’s another, incredibly good reason why carpooling around Europe is a great idea. It’s dirt cheap.

READ MORE: Europe road trip guide: 9 incredibly scenic drives

The lowdown

The carsharing website BlaBlaCar counts 21 million active users across 21 countries, most in Europe (Turkey, Mexico and Brazil are the only non-European countries with active BlaBlaCar communities). Some 110,000 people travel using BlaBlaCar each day. That’s a lot of routes covered, and some of them are incredibly niche. Rail fares are on the rise in Europe and they also see an annual inflation rate of 11.1 per cent on average in the European Union. For example, a return train fare from Oslo to Kongsvinger, in Norway, costs over €50 ($87.87) for a journey that only takes an hour each way. And when there are four of you in a car, the CO2 emissions aren’t so different to national rail services (48g CO2 per km/41 CO2 per km respectively).

Over 110,000 people carpool across Europe daily using BlaBlaCar. Photo / 123rf

Stay safe

For those of us who grew up in countries where we were told never, under any circumstances, to get into a car with a stranger, carpooling can be an unnerving concept to get your head around. Carpooling, however, is not hitchhiking, and there are some easy precautions that you can take to keep yourself safe. If you’re the passenger, tell someone about your travel plans. Let them know what time you expect to arrive, and before you get in the car, take a picture of the number plate and send it to someone you trust. Only request rides from verified BlaBlaCar users (a blue tick shows that they’ve submitted their ID card), and look for users with reviews as preference. BlaBlaCar shows two types of reviews, one on the person themselves, and the other on their driving skills.

Carpooling can reduce CO2 emissions to levels comparable with national rail services. Photo / 123rf
Carpooling can reduce CO2 emissions to levels comparable with national rail services. Photo / 123rf

As a driver, I find it preferable to activate accepting or declining requests manually, rather than automatic confirmation. That way, if someone doesn’t have any reviews, or if I find anything about their profile or request suspect, I can decline the ride. You can also set a meeting place away from where you’re staying if it makes you feel safer.

I recommend booking 2-3 days before your trip, particularly for shorter journeys, as that’s when many of the lifts get put online, but on popular routes, it often pays to look earlier. Booking at the last minute does, of course, require a degree of flexibility.

More than 110,000 people carpool in Europe each day. Photo / Getty Images
More than 110,000 people carpool in Europe each day. Photo / Getty Images

While mainland Europe is your oyster for carsharing, there are some routes that work better than others. If you’re in a public transport black hole, the chances are you’ll find a lot of carpooling rides available (eg. east to west France, where train routes are poor). Western Europe has the most BlaBlaCar users, with France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland having particularly widespread usage. Central Europe (including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) work fairly well too, and the number of BlaBlaCar users steadily declines as you move east, although it’s still worth checking to see if there’s a ride going.

The sad exception, much as it pains me to say as a Brit, is the UK. Even though rail fares are through the roof, and the UK has the most expensive rail fares in Europe, carsharing hasn’t taken off here. I’ve never once had a full car, and in fact, often the passengers I pick up in the UK are French.

Get glowing reviews

There’s etiquette to respect, whether you’re a driver or a passenger. If you’re a driver, I’d recommend opting to leave the middle seat free. It’s much more comfortable for your passengers, and if you’ve got five people in the car, plus bags (even if they’re small), the journey will be like a game of sardines. Check your passengers are happy with you putting on music or podcasts if that’s how you like to travel, and check in regularly for rest stop breaks.

As a passenger, make sure you arrive on time, or a little early. It’s not up to your driver to wait for you and risk inconveniencing other passengers. Respect the pick-up and drop-off points – this isn’t Uber. If you’ve got a lot of luggage, let the driver know in advance and offer to pay for two places. It’s a courtesy not to travel with more than a medium-sized backpack or holdall without alerting your driver first.

Carpool journeys to incredible destinations on a tight budget

Vienna-Salzburg. Cost (booked 24 hours before): €16. Time: three hours.

From Austria’s capital and foodie paradise to Mozart’s hometown, the Baroque city of Salzburg, the drive goes through the farmland and little villages of northern Austria.

Seville-Malaga. Cost (booked 24 hours before): €15. Time: two hours.

From the terracotta plazas of Seville to the swaying palms of seaside Malaga, the drive goes through the arid heart of Andalucia’s wine-growing region.

Watch the sunset on the freeway en route to Malaga in Spain. Photo / 123rf
Watch the sunset on the freeway en route to Malaga in Spain. Photo / 123rf

Lyon-Bordeaux. Cost (booked 24 hours before): €31. Time: seven hours.

Start in the handsome city of Lyon, with its two rivers and numerous restaurants, and drive through the rural Auvergne’s rolling hills (a part of France often referred to as the ‘empty diagonal’ to reach the seaside city and wine capital, Bordeaux.

Rome-Bari. Cost (booked 24 hours before): €25. Time: five hours.

From the Colosseum, Roman Forum and cobbled streets of Rome, cross the country eastbound to reach the seaside city of Bari, where locals dry pasta shells on street corners.

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