A very honest guide based my very own screw ups.
Check the friggin train times – at the station, NOT online.
Flashback to June 2012, I was sat with my friend in Pamplona Station desperately trying to figure out how we were going to get out of the city that afternoon. Although we’d arrived with [what we thought was] plenty of time to spare, just as we were reserving our seats our 11:43 train to Madrid Atocha departed right before our eyes – AT 11:30!
“A train which is due to leave at eight will normally leave at any time between nine and ten, but perhaps once a week, thanks to some private whim of the engine-driver, it leaves at half past seven. Such things can be a little trying. In theory I rather admire the Spaniards for not sharing our Northern time-neurosis; but unfortunately I share it myself.” ~ George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia.
I feel you George! The next train to Madrid didn’t leave for another four hours, and by that time we would have already missed our overnight train to Paris. It was a mess. We ended up having to go back to Barcelona, and make our way up to France from there…
Before planning your route, check the news.
LUCKILY for us, we arrived in Barcelona to discover that no trains would be leaving for France because of a strike, because of course France would have a train strike. The fates were not in our favour, and our one little screw up in Pamplona led to us losing over £100 on missed trains and a non-refundable hostel bed in Paris’ city centre. No fun, no fun at all…
Then triple check you’ve made the right reservation.
3 years later in August 2015 I thought I’d have got it right this time – seat reservations were always bought upon arrival at a station for my next train, and I would always make sure and arrive an hour before the train’s scheduled departure. Alas, I was not a pro just yet: proud of ourselves for making the right train, a group of older travellers burst my bubble when they pointed out to me my seat reservation was for the day before, and the train was about to leave.
Bugger. Bugger. Bugger indeed. We jumped off the train and ran to the train guard begging for a seat. I remember dramatically throwing my bag on the floor and sprinting for the ATM to get much-needed Florints. I think the train guards had no idea why this sweaty British lady was in such a rush, as they ended up selling us the wrong ticket… Regardless, after a lot of panic, we did manage to find a seat and were on our way to Romania.
Whatever you do, do not attempt train travel after visiting Auschwitz.
Or any concentration camp or holocaust related site for that matter. Not only will it give you far too much to think about on a rickety night train, but it is also not recommended you put a time restriction on your visit. 3 hours turned into 6 rather rapidly, and we realised about 1 hour too late that we needed to be on a much earlier bus in order to make our train the Prague.
By the end of our trip, frantically running up and down train platforms begging conductors to let us on became our forte and we managed to bargain a comfortable seat on the floor of the aisle… Classy. To make matters even more cosy, some lovely polish lads insisted on passing by us every 10 minutes, spilling beer by our feet and laughing at us every. single. time. When we eventually bagged ourselves a cabin, two Frenchies insisted that 3am was the perfect hour to loudly get to know each other, and needless to say we did not sleep a wink. That + feeling absolutely horrified by our day trip that day made it one of my top 3 worst train experiences of my life.
Bring water, earplugs, and a jumper.
The second worst train ride was bad in a different way. We’d managed to make the train on time without any trouble, but unfortunately our cabin buddies were either foul-smelling or obnoxious the entire way. The concoction of cigarettes, alcohol, and B.O. was like nothing my nostrils have ever inhaled before, and the snoring man it was coming from was like someone out of a horror movie (unfortunate, but true). A couple and a very loud family joined in on the noise party, and we were yet again left hating ourselves for not getting a private cabin. The cherry on top of an already inedible desert was that we were dressed for summer, but our train had come from the north pole. The air con blasted aaaaall night long, making us chilly and sniffly for a good few days after. Deeeeelightful.
Oh, one more thing: when heading deep into the south-east, just take the bus.
Every single backpacker we met on our way told us busses were not only cheaper, but faster and more comfortable in many destinations.
The award for the worst train experience ever goes to: Bucharest to Sofia! That
train tin can was bad in an actually really quite bad kind of way. Things got off to a bad start with a guy taking our luggage and trying to con us for euros, but matters only got worse once night fell. The train blacked out on multiple occasions, and during one of those blackouts a drunk man barged his way into our cabin, sat down spread-legged, and lit up a cigarette. He then proceeded to take photos of my friend and I, before the American lady with us asked him to smoke outside. After a brief fag break he tried to make his way back in, but Holly held the door shut until he walked away. Then the lights came back on, and he spent the remainder of the journey pacing up and down the aisle, staring into our booth royally pissed off. We were legitimately terrified, and stayed in panic mode right up until we were safe and sound in our hostel. Not good. We endured all of this, and we didn’t even have to. I don’t know which is really safer, but if I can avoid it I will never get on a train in Bulgaria again.
Now you know, you can GO. Despite the drama mentioned above, my two trips were fantastic and train travel is still my favourite kind. The views were spectacular, and I’d do it all again any summer.