TLDR; Deciding to travel by bus and train is adventurous – and not something our current travel agency is prepared for. But, we would do it again!
It was never an explicit vow, but when considering going to the ICT4S conference in Plovdiv Bulgaria, earthbound means were the priority for several of us. At first it seemed like a straight forward decision, but quickly the catch phrase “It will be an adventure” became our slogan.
This blog post will roughly be divided up in four parts, getting the tickets, the travel to Plovdiv, the travel from Plovdiv and a summary of what we learnt. Before we begin, there are four travelers who will appear in this story – Elina (author), Arjun, Daniel and Joe.
With previous “experience” of trying to book train tickets from our procured travel agency, Elina prepared the order by looking up several alternatives. On the way down, Elina found a trip with only three legs, but which included a 17 hour long bus ride. On the way back home, the itinerary included 6 legs. Main sources of information were Deutsche Bahn website, Google maps and of course the Man in seat 61.
Since the travel agency could not be contacted by telephone, they were too overburdened by travel requests, it took many emails back and forth to get the tickets. In the end, the agency could only book tickets from Stockholm to Vienna on the outbound journey and Craiova to Stockholm on the way back. These were based on a first class Interrail pass (foreshadowing: which will come handy) and seat reservations. The rest we had to book ourselves. In the end, the itinerary became as follows (bold booked by travel agency):
Friday June 10
Stockholm C - Malmö C
Malmö C - Hamburg Hbf
Night train (single bed)
Saturday June 11
Hamburg Hbf - Wien
Wien - Plovdiv
Bus Arda Tur
Friday June 17
Plovdiv - Sofia
around 8 am
Sofia - Vidin
12:10 - 17:06
Hotel night in Vidin
Saturday June 18
Vidin - Craiova
Craiova - Wien
Night train single couchette
Sunday June 19
Wien - Berlin Hbf
Berlin Hbf - Stockholm C
Night train (single bed)
This short text about “getting the tickets” is highly abbreviated, the process was rather painful, with unclarities of how to get tickets, deliberations on what would be the best strategy and uncertainties of how long changing times we needed. The tickets were also of several different kinds – one mobile Interrail pass, PDFs with seat reservations, one paper ticket that needed to come through the mail, and one ticket only in Cyrillic. The tickets we booked ourselves required us to make accounts and come up with passwords, for a service we likely only will use once in our life.
100% of our trains on our outbound journey were delayed. Fortunately, we (Elina, Daniel and Arjun) managed to catch all our connections. In Stockholm, we happily learnt that we could use the SJ Lounge with our 1 class Interrail pass, something that came handy when the train was delayed with more than an hour. The night train from Malmö was also late, and none of us slept well on the hard bunk beds. In Hamburg we got roughly an hour and a half to eat breakfast, and we also made a walk around the station building to stretch our legs.
The train to Vienna was comfortable at start, but soon became overly crowded and warm. It took a while for us to realize, since all calls were made in German, but we were delayed. And the crowd was due to another train that had broken down. To add pain to suffering, the train started going backwards at one point since there was a fire further along the train line. This is where we found out that the Deutsche Bahn app has a really neat feature of checking the progress of your train. We were biting our fingernails since our ample time (3 hours) in Vienna were shrinking. Fortunately, the fire seemed to have been extinguished and the train did not take a detour, in the end we were only 2 hours late. In Vienna we had time to eat, buy some food and water, use the bathroom, before taking a taxi to the bus stop. The bus drivers did not speak English, but we got our seats and were off. On the minute.
Since we were pretty tired, we all fell asleep in our seats, to be brutally awakened at the Serbian border. This was something we should have figured out – that we would go through Serbia. Serbia is not part of the EU or Schengen – and the border passage and passport control was terrifying since we were not sure if Daniels national ID card or Arjuns Indian passport and visa would be valid travel documents. While Arjuns passport were put to great scrutiny (sadly, at every passport control this happened), we were allowed to continue or travel. The bus was not super comfy, but the 17 hour ride was made less excruciating by the bus taking regular breaks, where restrooms and some kind of shop were available. Fellow passengers helped us with translation of how long the breaks were – Arjun quickly figured out, it will be a one or two cigarette break. Also the bus was slightly delayed, but we arrived in Plovdiv almost on time.
The conference organizers explicitly recommended to not take the train in Bulgaria. So, early Friday morning we (Elina, Daniel, Arjun and Joe) took a bus to Sofia. In Sofia we bought some provisions and water, before boarding the train to Vidin. We had originally planned to stay the night in Sofia, but since the time in Vidin between the train from Sofia and the daily train to Craoiva in Romania were only 30 minutes, we remade our plans and had booked a hotel in Vidin. The train ride was uneventful, peaceful, beautiful and on time. Vidin was a really nice lite town, with a beautiful fort on the banks of Danube river.
Saturday midday we boarded the train to Craiova. Yet again we had a bit of a nervous experience where a policeman took our passport when boarding the train – and did not come back with them until exactly when the train was leaving. The train felt like a commuter train, and to our astonishment, almost all windows were cracked. The reason for this turned out to be unkempt trees and bushes along the train tracks that were hitting the windows.
In Craiova, a fellow, and more train travel experienced ICT4S conference attendee, told us that we needed seat reservations for the next leg of our journey. This was the paper ticket we had been mailed, where we thought we would have single sleeping couchettes, but where the Interrail app informed us it was actually two legs, Craiova – Arad, Arad – Vienna. At the international ticket desk, after much hand waving and phone calls, we got free seat reservations in first class. The scenery of this leg was beautiful, but the first class compartment we had was less well equipped than second class. No electricity for example. We arrived in time in Arad. Unfortunately, our connecting train was over an hour late. And when boarding, we were shown to sleeping compartments that was numbered differently than on our tickets. Joe did not even have a place in his second-class wagon, so he bunked trepidatiously with Arjun. There was not much sleep – borders were crossed, police were checking passports and compartments – and we were quite rudely awakened in Budapest instead of Vienna. The train were not going further and we were directed to take a train an hour later that was heading towards Vienna.
However, now we were worried since we most likely would miss our connecting train from Vienna. Which we did. With 4 minutes. Elina, Arjun and Joe got off in Vienna, to take a train less than one hour later. It was not possible to book any seat reservation, we just hoped we could travel with our Interrail pass. Daniel continued with the train we had been on; he had found a connection through Munich. Elina, Arjun and Joe managed to snag (the last?) three un-booked seats in first class, and settled in. Elina slept, and when she woke up, Daniel was on the train again! He had realized his connection would need a change of train stations in Munich. Now the wagon was warm, and there were people standing and sitting in the aisles of the first class wagon. The train stopped in Passau and was still for a long time – and there was considerable irritation by the passengers. Finally, there were an announcement (in German) with the word “Polizei” – and we asked for a translation. Apparently, the train was more than full and the train conductor were telling people without a seat reservation to get off the train and take a bus to Nürenberg, or they would call in the police. We really wanted to get to Berlin to not miss our night train to Stockholm, so we decided to just be seated, without seat reservation, and act as if we hadn’t gotten the message. Finally, some people left the train, the border police checked all passports and we were on our way. When we got off in Nürenberg, it felt cool – despite there being a heatwave warning – the AC in our train wagon had broken down. The train personnel had the last hour been handing out water and small bags of candy to all passengers, but in Nürnberg the train was taken out of traffic. For the next (new leg) we managed to book seat reservations in first class, and Elina, Arjun and Daniel continued (in much cooler wagons) to Berlin, while we said goodbye to Joe who was heading towards Bonn.
We reached Berlin with one hour marginal, said goodbye to Daniel who was staying in Berlin. The train to Stockholm was a bit delayed, but nothing compared to all other trains. We made the beds for all four passengers that would sleep in our compartment, and in Hamburg, two German students boarded. Both Elina and Arjun fell soundly asleep, and the only hassle was the Danish boarder police that yet again spent some extra time perusing the “exotic” passport. This time we stayed the whole trip in our compartment, and the young Germans turned out to be excellent conversation partners up through Sweden. Arjun managed also to (albeit with some connection issues) attend a PhD course seminar with the help of his mobile internet. Tired, but happy, we actually arrived on time, in Stockholm.
It was great to have an Interrail pass – and first class – since it (theoretically) gave us better seats where we could work. It also gave us access to train lounges, not in Germany, but at other stations. We had been looking forward to the lounge in Vienna – sadly – there wasn’t time to hang out there. Interrail also helps if you miss connections – to just hop on the next available train (that does not require seat reservation) instead of struggling with bookings. However, it was also clearly necessary to check the rules around Interrail passes before accepting the tickets from the travel agency. We were instructed that the Bulgarian trains were not covered by Interrail and hence had a pass with fewer days. But when installing the Interrail app it was clear that Bulgarian trains were included.
Generous times for connections are needed, after this trip I read a rule of thumb in the excellent Facebook group Tågsemester – stating that one should have at least an hour between normal trains and three hours for night trains.
One would like to have some more know-how from the travel agency – we got really good suggestion from another ICT4S attendee with previous experience, it would have been great to get this support from the travel agency.
Even though we worked during this train ride, one should be prepared with work that does not require WiFi. In some trains it worked really well, in others it could at best be called patchy.
Traveling as a group was excellent, at train stations we quickly made a baggage pile, that one person guarded while others used the facilities or bought provisions. The company was also excellent during the rides, although all of us happened to have really nice conversations with other passengers, Elina even exchanged folk songs with one old man in Romania.
Despite this being “an adventure” we still really enjoyed the travel, and we will do it again. Perhaps for ICT4S 2023 in Rennes – do you want to join us?!