Sandy provides an update on our time in Budapest, Hungary, and reviews the challenges of train travel in Europe.
September 5, 2012
It was just a few minutes before our train from Budapest, Hungary, to Cluj Napoca, Romania, was scheduled to depart and we had no idea if we were in the right place. We were fairly certain that we were at the correct Budapest train station (there are three major ones in the city center) but none of the trains on the departure board matched the tickets in our hand.
We had been in Budapest for the past three days, enjoying one of Europe’s great cities. The seventh-largest city in the European Union and a historical, cultural and iconic wonder, Budapest exceeded all the expectations that we had. We ventured to both sides of the city and crossed the Chain Bridge over the Danube River. We saw the major sites, including the Buda Castle, Matthias Church, Parliament and Heroes’ Square. We walked along Andrassy Street and even rode the M1 metro line, the second-oldest subway in the world (only London’s is older).
Now it was time to move on and this latest train station confusion was just another issue that we have encountered during our overland traverse of Europe by ferry, bus and train. Traveling through Europe may not pose some of the challenges found in Asia or Africa, but we have had our own set of problems to solve as we make our way through a total of 19 countries on this continent. In the almost two months we have been in Europe, we have traveled just under 5,500 miles (8,047 kilometers) by ground or sea. Because we are, on average, visiting two destinations a week, we have to stay organized with all of our bookings and reservations. This has not always been easy.
When we planned our route through Europe, our preference was to use trains wherever possible. Our rule of thumb was to keep train travel duration to no more than eight hours in a day and then add a few overnight sleepers when it made sense. In order to ensure that a reasonable routes existed between cities, I used the German Bahn.de rail website to look up timetables between destinations. It lists the schedules for pretty much any train in Europe. Another great website I used was Seat61.com, which provides train information, by country, worldwide. It was especially helpful for us in that it lists the individual country train websites and whether or not tickets can be purchased on-line. There were a few cases where trains were not feasible (ferries to Helsinki, Finland, from Tallinn, Estonia, and from Helsinki to Stockholm, Sweden, or bus in northern Norway where there are no train lines) so these alternatives were noted.
Based on the train research, the hotels were all booked before we left home, using a combination of guidebook recommendations and crowd sourcing reviews from TripAdvisor.com and Booking.com. Because we have a schedule to follow and our much of our travel through Europe was during high summer season, it was important for us to reserve tickets. Train tickets cannot be purchased until a couple of months before travel, so we began buying them while we were still in Asia. The Internet has made this easy. For Norway, Sweden, Germany and Italy, tickets can be purchased on-line, complete with seat reservations. At the end of the process, the website sends a PDF file, which can be printed at the front desk of our hotel, and shown to the conductor on the train. By buying early, we received substantial discounts (sometimes as much as 50%), which helped our budget.
Booking other train routes got more interesting. For example, the Oslo, Norway, to Copenhagen, Denmark, train could only be booked on-line through the Swedish rail website. This journey took us on a much more circuitous route through Sweden, with a train change, but we did see some beautiful countryside along the way. Similarly, we could book our Bamberg, Germany, to Bled, Slovenia, train on the German train website because the train began in Germany.
Other trains, especially in Eastern Europe, were more of a challenge to reserve. In theory, the European train system is computerized so any train station should be able to book a train anywhere in Europe (some caveats on this to come!). We kept a list of trains to book and tried to tick them off when we had time to buy tickets. In this way, we bought our overnight train ticket from Slovakia to Dresden, Germany, in Helsinki, Finland, our Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Budapest, Hungary, ticket in Poprad, Slovakia, and our Belgrade, Serbia, to Zagreb, Croatia, ticket in Ljubljana.
This is where those caveats kicked in: we found out rather quickly that we could not buy any Romanian or Bulgarian tickets outside of those countries. Digging in and doing some more research, I discovered that the Romanian train website had just started selling tickets on-line for its internal routes so we could at least buy those. Then, for our Hungary to Romania ticket, I determined that I could buy it on the Hungarian rail website and pick it up at the Budapest train station.
With Bulgaria, a real problem began to surface. We needed to travel from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Belgrade, Serbia, which was an eight hour train trip. I had found a day train when putting together our itinerary. When we arrived in Europe and rechecked the timetables, the day time train was no longer running! The overnight train alternative arrived in Belgrade at 4:15am which was not appealing, especially to maneuver out of a 6-person sleeping compartment at that hour.
I did some checking on the Internet (including the translation of some Bulgarian websites) and found what looked to be a day time bus option. Then, I emailed our hotel in Sofia to confirm if this bus existed. They not only verified its existence, but offered to reserve two seats for us! In this case, we ended up choosing the bus over the train.
Even with train tickets in hand, there have been other challenges. In Germany, two of our trains ended up having segments that did not run that day, even though we had purchased a reserved ticket! We received no email notification but discovered the issue when double-checking the departure times against the German rail website. When we encountered the problem, we made our way to the Dresden, Germany, train ticket counter. They had to print out a revised schedule, attach it to our ticket, and then write a note on the e-ticket to let the conductor know that it was all valid.
We also have had issues finding the right trains at stations. Armed with our departure times and destinations we found that these did not always match what was displayed on the train station boards. Going back to the Budapest story at the beginning of this post, the only train that matched the departure time for our eight-hour journey to Romania was listed with a destination of the airport. Given that our train was supposed to depart in 25 minutes, we quickly tried to find someone who could help us as we could not find a sign for a train station ticket counter. Eventually, we found a station worker who pointed out the ticket counter location halfway across the train station.
Since time was so short, I jumped into the smallest line and I showed the agent our ticket. She indicated that our train was indeed the one listed as going to the airport. The board just did not list any stops after that even though we were scheduled to ride on that particular train for several hours! This is not the first time this has happened and it probably will not be the last. So we continually rely on finding conductors or visiting the train station ticket counter to ensure we are on the right train.
Even with all of these challenges, we have so enjoyed train travel. We find that it gives us a great appreciation for the physical geography of Europe. We have also met many interesting and friendly locals in the process.