You know how sometimes you get the hang of Sri Lanka’s train and bus system and you totally assume that you can conquer anything after that? That was me two months ago and boy was I wrong. I am not an expert traveller by any means and I’ve never pretended to be. I’m just doing my best and figuring this whole thing out as I go. But the fact that I haven’t died yet or that I haven’t gotten permanently lost in a foreign land is some sort of testament to my abilities to learn and adapt. Or maybe it’s just because European trains usually have outlets to charge your phone now and GPS is a thing. There have for sure been some struggles in the transportation department though. When I started planning this whole trip, I actually put an uncharacteristic amount of research into transportation options. I wanted to see a lot of Europe and I wanted it to be flexible and relatively inexpensive. I looked into long-term car rental, trains, busses, jet packs, combinations of all of that, but I ultimately decided that the Eurail Pass was the best route for me. It was a bit pricey at the onset, but it lets me travel by train as often as I want throughout most of Europe for 90 days. So to make the most of it, I am moving around every two or three days and mostly using trains to get around. In a lot of ways, I feel like a 16 year old who just got his driver’s license: I have so much newfound freedom to move around, but man have there been some accidents along the way. And I’ve learned a lot!
I was actually doing pretty well for a while. Probably because I started in Spain and I speak the language there, but also because their train system is relatively simple. I got the Rail Planner app and it was pretty easy at that point to figure out what was going on. My first mistake happened in Madrid. I got complacent. I planned on taking an overnight train to Lisbon to save on lodging and to get the long trip over with while I was asleep. It was win-win! I hadn’t had any issues with getting reservations on my trains for my first two weeks in Spain, so I just figured I’d get to the station about 45 minutes before my 10pm train took off. After about 6 beers, I said goodbye to my friends and made my way there. When I got to the station and finally got to the front of the line for my seat reservation, they informed me that I was at the wrong station. Despite the fact that this was the one I arrived at in Madrid, it’s a huge city and there were a few others so I should have paid closer attention. Or maybe been less drunk. One of those. The man at the counter told me I could get on a train to the other station, but I was running out of time and a taxi would be faster. So I got the taxi and we rushed to the next station where I missed my train by about 3 minutes. So instead of a ten hour train trip, I ended up catching another one that left shortly after but took about 6 extra hours. Lesson learned: pay attention to which station you’re leaving from.
A few weeks later, for my first trip in France, I ended up missing my train not just once, but twice in one day. It was pretty impressive actually. I had gotten into the habit of researching train times in advance and making a note of them in my travel calendar. That way I only had to look them up once. But sometimes I forget how to read, or I black out and write the wrong time down. So I usually end up looking them up again the morning that I leave just to double check my work. I started doing that after this first day in France. Somehow I wrote 1:15 instead of 11:15 and ended up having to make an extra connection and waiting four hours in a tiny French town instead of just making a simple, 4 hour trip. Then at that connecting station, in my exhausted state, I misread the timetable and got on the wrong train to my final destination. So that set me back another few hours. And I got to my hotel at midnight instead of at 6pm. I think I learned a few valuable lessons that day. Like, the importance of accurate reading and writing. High level stuff.
Sometimes you can do your best but things will still go wrong. In Portugal, the trains were often so late that I thought they weren’t going to come. And in Italy, they would start on time, but end up being a half an hour late to their destination somehow. And other times, the tracks would be closed along the way and they’d make you get off the train and onto a bus that would take you to a new train, also delaying your arrival. By now I don’t really care about delays. I’ve become pretty patient with the whole thing. I can get to my destination whenever – it will still be there. But other people on the trains often don’t have the same mentality. And this can be fun to watch. On my train from Venice to Innsbruck, Austria, I enjoyed solitude in my 6-person box for a few hours before being joined by a German family of five. They included three young daughters aged 3-7ish. They all got along fairly well until our train stopped shortly before the Austrian border due to a tree that had fallen in the snow. It was about one hour into our 4-hour delay that they began to unravel. One by one, starting with the youngest, the girls began to have meltdowns. Someone would come over the intercom to give an announcement in German with an update on our situation and each time it happened one of the girls would put her hands on her face and scream. They started to bicker with each other, pull each other’s hair, and scream clearly offensive things in German. By hour two there was a full “Lord of the Flies” situation going on as they fought over the last apple and spilled the package of crackers on the ground. The father was pacing around the car, muttering about the incompetent Italian train company. The mother remained calm and tried to get us all involved in an alphabet game. I sort of understood the rules, but lost because I don’t have any idea how German spelling works.
Traveling Europe by train is an amazing experience. It takes a little longer than flying would, but it’s a lot less hassle. And you get to see the beautiful countryside as you go. Road trips by car are fun with a buddy or two, but by yourself they might be boring or dangerous. You can nap or read or play games on the train. And the people-watching is exceptional. So I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It’s now been one week since I’ve had any sort of train debacle. Maybe I’m getting the hang of it, or maybe the farther north you go, the fewer problems there are? Either way I definitely just jinxed myself.