Car Hire vs. Train Price Comparison: Which Is Cheaper?

Rail fares have just risen by an average of 6% across the UK – with some fares as much as doubling.

Here at, our car rental search engine searches through more than 450 suppliers worldwide for the best car rental deals available. This includes all the major car hire companies with offices in the UK – so I reckon we are well placed to do a bit of train vs. car hire price comparison.

I decided it was high time to see if railway travel can ever claim to offer good value when compared to alternatives like car hire.

To try and present a reasonably balanced picture, I’ve priced up three journeys – each for two people travelling on different types of journey and route over varying periods.

For the sake of averageness, I’ve assumed that the driver is 30 in all cases and have also taken into consideration the journey time required for each type of transport (using to estimate road journey times). All prices are as quoted by and on 27th January 2009.

Car hire prices and rail tickets quoted are the cheapest available options.

1. Newcastle couple enjoying long weekend in Edinburgh

Valentine’s Day is approaching and the time is ripe for a romantic weekend away. Our Newcastle-based couple decide that they fancy a weekend in Edinburgh:

Depart: 5pm Friday 13th February

Return: Early evening Sunday 15th February

Rail Cost: Off-peak return £44.50 per person – £89.00 in total

Rail journey time: 1 hr 30 min

Car hire cost: £68.91

Car journey time: 2hrs 38 minutes

Not a great start for the car hire advocates. By the time you’ve added in fuel, the cost won’t be cheaper. On top of that, the journey takes longer, you can’t have a drink and snack as you drive and you have to pay for parking when you get there.

On the plus side, hiring a car gives you paid-for transport all weekend, unlike the rail option.

2. Day return business trip for 2 people, York – Cheltenham

Our two imaginary travellers need to take a business trip from York to Cheltenham and return, on the same day. They must arrive in Cheltenham by 0930 and will be leaving around 1600.

The trip has been planned at short notice – so they go on Thursday this week.

Depart: Depart 6am, Thursday 29th January

Return: Depart 4pm, Thursday 29th January

Rail Cost: Ouch! £124.00 each – making a whopping £248.00

Rail journey time: 3 hr 23 minutes – arriving at 0923

Car hire cost: £57.34 (including pickup previous evening and dropoff following morning)

Car journey time: 3 hr 25 min

Car hire does a lot better with this journey. Not only are the journey times a dead heat, but the cost of our two business people travelling by rail is around 4 times more than the car hire – even when you factor in some petrol. To add insult to injury, you have to change trains twice in order to arrive before 0930. Not good.

The hire car can also be picked up the night before, saving both people that frenzied, early morning dash to the railway station and allowing them to travel door-to-door to their destination.

Car hire wins, this time, I think.

3. Couple enjoying week’s touring holiday in south-west England, arriving Bristol Airport

This is where car hire really comes into its own. I gave up even trying to calculate the rail/bus/public transport options for this trip.

As anyone who has ever tried will know, touring south-west England by public transport is not at all easy. You can’t stop, detour or go where you want and you are tied to often bizarre and sparse timetables.

On the other hand, the area is perfect for exploring by car. Rural roads, tiny villages and major towns are all within your reach – as are the regions coastal paths, beaches and moorlands.

Here’s what a car would cost for a week in late March:

Pickup car: Saturday, 14th March

Drop off car: Saturday, 21st March

Car hire cost: £129.73

The Result!

I think it’s fair to say that the score is 2-1 in favour of car hire.

I freely admit that where two destinations are joined by a mainline railway service and you are able to travel off-peak, rail can outdo car hire in both cost and time savings.

On the other hand, throw in a few awkward train changes and peak ticket prices and you will soon be longing for the convenient ease and comfort of car rental.

What do you think?

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