By Plane, Train, and Bus: Tracking My Trip Around Central Europe

Introduction:

I’m not sure if you’ll believe me when I say that living as an English teaching assistant in France isn’t as glamorous as it seems. The salary is humble, but it’s definitely been enough for me to take advantage of my time in Europe. You just have to be willing to be flexible and resourceful when it comes to travel (scan the internet for good deals, cook meals, stay at cheap hostels, simplify to one carry-on sized backpack etc.) And every once in a while the stars align, opportunities present themselves, and you find yourself on a bit of an unexpected adventure. This is exactly what happened to me during my most recent school holidays.

Yes, it’s true, I’ve been able to pull off my fair share of traveling this year. In October, I spent 5 days in Paris. In December, I went on a crazy, but memorable overnight trip to Luxembourg to see the Vienna Philharmonic live. I spent the winter holidays in London and Berlin. In February, I did a tour of southern France. And during the most recent school holidays, I went on my longest stint yet, 19-days across Europe.

It was never really my intention to do an extended backpacking trip, but like I said, sometimes opportunities fall into our laps. And if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s to take them and run as fast as you can. In this blog entry, I’m going to take you along with me as I briefly recap my latest travels.


Itinerary:

  • April 8th-11th — Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • April 11th-13th — Venice, Italy
  • April 13th-16th — Rome, Italy
  • April 17th-20th — Zagreb, Croatia
  • April 20th-23rd — Vienna, Austria
  • April 23rd-25th — Prague, Czech Republic
  • April 26th — Bonn, Germany

How It All Started:

In about January of 2017, I was finally feeling more settled with my life in France. The language was slowly working itself into my brain. I had traveled during the school breaks, but nothing too intense. I wasn’t really into the country hopping every weekend thing that us Americans are known for in Europe. Generally, I prefer to nest a bit in my corner of France.

How does someone who claims to like nesting end up going on a 3-week runaround Europe? As much as I like settling in, I know there’s an even bigger part of me that loves sharing new experiences with others. So, when a friend sent me message in early 2017 saying she wanted to go see the tulips in Amsterdam in April. She was going to be here during my school vacation. I was in. Hook, line, and sinker. No questions asked.

Around the same time, another group of my friends from the US let me know that they were planning a trip to Italy and asked me if I wanted in on it. These were some of my close friends from college and it had been months since we’ve seen each other. They were also going to be here during the same time in April. In my mind, this was fate. Again, I was in.

Then in mid-February, my Academie (French administrative subdivision for education) sent out letters to all the assistants letting us know that we had the option to extend our April holidays for an extra week. We just had to make up the hours. My friend and fellow assistant reached out and told me she was going to take the extra week. Would I be interested in joining her around Eastern Europe? Could it really be a coincidence that the administration was offering us additional time off? I decided to interpret this as a sign. So, of course, my answer was yes.

That’s how I–a self-proclaimed homebody with a somewhat contradictory penchant for adventure–found myself committed into a 19-day backpacking trip around Europe. And now, I just had to work out the “fun” part. Logistics.


Pregame:

Each time I am getting ready for a trip, I am always reminded of why travel agents still exist our internet age where motivated people can book everything online themselves. Maybe some people really do enjoy the game of hunting for deals, figuring out the best time to book, and mapping out each budgetary detail. I, however, am not that type of person.

That’s not to say that I’m not good at doing it. Au contraire, I’m actually quite proud of my organizational skills. It comes from years of being that student who was in all the extra-curricular activities and needed to have a finely honed and efficient scheduling system.

Around February, I had most of my dates locked in and I had separated my logistics into two basic categories. Advanced planning and short-term planning.

For me, advanced planning travel is usually made up of these details:

  1. Budget
  2. Travel dates
  3. Long distance transportation
  4. Lodging
  5. Tickets to special events (concert, museum, exhibition) might also fall into advanced planning

Depending on how far I’m traveling, I like to have these steps figured out at least a couple of weeks in advance. I needed to decide on these things before anything else.

For me, short-term planning is usually made up of these details:

  1. Public transportation within the city
  2. Sightseeing
  3. Restaurants
  4. Exploring local neighborhoods

I might not look into these types of details until a day or two before. Usually I’m pretty spontaneous and flexible with these plans because you never know who you might meet in a new city and where they could point you.


Game Day (Execution and Analysis):

Because I have been frugal throughout my months as an assistant, I felt comfortable about my budget for the trip (approximately 800 euros). That meant my biggest logistical challenge going into the trip would be planning the long distance travel from city-to-city while also coordinating dates and lodging for the different legs of the trip with different groups of friends.

After researching various options (trains, planes, buses, car share) and various companies, I ended putting together this travel plan.

April 8th — Nancy to Amsterdam

I headed out bright and early at 6:30AM on April 8th. I knew it was going to be a long day because I had bought intercity trains, which are cheaper. This means the trains are slower and have more connections, but I wasn’t discouraged. It was Amsterdam or bust!

I made it from Nancy to Luxembourg to Brussels without a problem. When I got to Brussels, I got on a train towards Amsterdam. Everything seemed to be going off without a hitch, but as the ticket agent came into my compartment to check my ticket, I was informed that there had been a rerouting for those passengers headed to Amsterdam. I would need to get off at Antwerp and catch another train.

This was all fine with me, but when I got off at Antwerp to make the connection, I found out that it wasn’t just another train to Amsterdam. What I really needed to do was board a train headed to a small town on the Belgian and Dutch border called Noorderkempen. From there, I would need to catch a shuttle to a city called Breda. From Breda, I could finally catch a train to Amsterdam Central.

In the end, I made it to my houseboat AirBnb slightly haggard and delayed by two hours. Upon reflection, I still think trains are one of the most comfortable ways to travel around Europe. The downside is figuring out which company to buy from and how far in advance you need to buy your ticket to get a good price. I used two different companies to buy train tickets because French trains are pretty expensive, but I do have a discount card. This allowed me to buy a ticket from Nancy to Luxembourg at a discount.

April 11th — Amsterdam to Venice

  • Budget airline ticket from Rotterdam to Venice/Mestre (ticket purchased directly from Transavia)
  • Train ticket from Amsterdam to Rotterdam (ticket purchased directly from Dutch Railways)

After an amazing couple of days in Amsterdam, it was time for me to meet up with my second group of friends in Italy. Starting in January, I would periodically check typical flight search engines like Google Flights, Skyscanner, and Kayak just to see how much flights would cost from Amsterdam to Venice. After a month of tracking flights, I noticed that prices for flights from Amsterdam to Venice hovered between 80-120 euros. This wasn’t horrible, but it was a bit more than I was willing to spend.

Around March, I decided it might be worth it to expand my search to include other airports in the surrounding area. Low and behold, results for cheap flights from Rotterdam to Venice starting popping up. I ended up finding a flight through a company called Transavia for 29 euros. Although I used the search engines to help find the flight, I booked and paid for the ticket directly through the company’s website. As a general rule of thumb, I always try to book directly through the company to avoid potential hidden fees.

That left getting from Amsterdam Central to Rotterdam Airport. Luckily, there are trains that run all-day between the two cities. I took the train from Amsterdam Central to Rotterdam Central (18 euros) and then a bus from Rotterdam Central to the Rotterdam Airport (2 euros). This leg went very smoothly. I have nothing but good things to say about Dutch efficiency.

I landed in Venice on-time. Figuring out how to get from Marco Polo Airport to Venice was a bit more difficult. Things weren’t very well marked, but Italians are helpful when you ask for directions. I was glad to be traveling with just one backpack. My general consensus, I would recommend Transavia all things considered.

April 13th — Venice to Rome

  • Train from Venice to Rome (ticket purchased in advanced through Italo)

I’ve already talked a bit about how much I like trains. There’s just something about being on train tracks that makes me feel like I’m incontrovertibly going somewhere. As it turned out, the train was probably the most efficient way for me and my friends to get ourselves from Venice to Rome. Due to our schedule, we knew we didn’t want to spend too much time in transit.

I started looking for train tickets using Kayak about 6-weeks before the departure date. I was able to find a direct high speed train from Venice to Rome in 3 hours for 50 euros. I’m sure if we had really wanted to, we could have found another means of transportation for less. However, we felt like for time and money spent, this train was a good deal. It was easy to get from Venice city center to Venice-Mestre Train Station, then a direct train to Roma Termini.

April 16th and 17th — Rome to Zagreb

  • Overnight bus from Rome to Munich (1 out of 5 Interflix from Flixbus passes)
  • Bus from Munich to Zagreb (2 out of 5 Interflix passes)

Now, this is where my transportation story takes a turn down a bumpy road. During my February vacation, I had had success with the Interflix pass from Flixbus. It’s 99 euros for any 5 one-way routes around Europe. I checked on Rome2Rio for other transit options from Rome to Zagreb and it was either going to a long trip or an expensive trip.

I decided in order to save some money I would by the pass again and take the long way to Zagreb. Flixbus has a direct bus that goes from Rome to Zagreb once a week. Unfortunately, it was sold out because I was leaving Rome during the Easter season. In my inexperienced mind, I thought I would still be able to make it to Zagreb by bus. I would just make a connection in Munich. This was supposed to take 2 out of 5 of my one-way Flixbus tickets.

At 9:30PM April 19th, I boarded an overnight night bus from Rome headed to Munich. The bus was a couple minutes late, but I wasn’t too worried. It took a long time for the bus driver to get everyone on board and by the time we pulled out of the terminal we were already half an hour behind. Again, I wasn’t too stressed. I put on my eye mask and headphones and settled in for the night.

When I woke up the next morning, we were somewhere in Austria. We were about an hour behind schedule, but again I did not panic. I was supposed to have an hour and 40 minutes to make my connection in Munich. Then the bus stopped for a break. I understand that bus drivers need breaks, but the break added another 20 minutes to our delay. I began worrying. My bus to Zagreb was scheduled to leave at 11:00AM. By the time we pulled into Munich it was 11:04AM.

I tried not to panic. The bus drivers had said that they alerted the buses in Munich. It should be ok. I bolted off the bus, grabbing my backpack, asking the staff for the bus to Zagreb. To my dismay, the bus had gone.

I was directed towards the ticket office where I was informed that they could not rebook my ticket because I had bought the two tickets separately (which is something you have to do if you use Interflix). I had to purchase a new ticket at full price for 45 euros. At this point, the frustration and fatigue set in. I had missed the connection at no fault of my own. The next bus to Zagreb wasn’t leaving for another 3 hours. I was expected to pay for it in full. I calmly told the ticket agent that I was going to inquire at the train station for other options and might return later.

As I walked away from the counter, I felt stress tears spring into my eyes. I wiped the tears from my face as I walked from the bus station trying to find the train station. And of course, it was raining in Munich. After 20 minutes, I gave up. I didn’t make it to the train station. I decided to go back to the ticket office and ask the agent again if there really wasn’t something they could do. In the end, they gave me a ticket for the next bus to Zagreb, asking me to pay the difference between the new and original ticket.

I took my new ticket and decided to walk off the stress in downtown Munich. At 2:45PM, I boarded the bus to Zagreb. New expected time of arrival, 11:15PM. While driving through Austria in the afternoon, I was greeted by the Alps. They were stunning enough to almost completely erase the events of the last 12 hours. I say almost because then we crossed the borders of Slovenia and left the Schengen Area.

Croatia is not part of the Schengen Area. Border control was in full force and at the ready. Our bus got delayed by another two hours or so. By the time I figured out Croatian currency, public transit, and made it to my AirBnb it was 1:00AM. Only 7 hours delayed for my original expected time of arrival. I had been traveling for roughly 28 hours straight. And I couldn’t have been happier to see my friend open that apartment door.

April 20th — Zagreb to Vienna

  • Bus from Zagreb to Vienna (3 out of 5 Interflix passes)

Despite the initial trauma of getting into Zagreb, I had a great time exploring the city. Croatia really is quite the hidden gem. My friend and I got on another bus, this time towards Vienna. Things were on schedule until we hit border control while entering the Schengen zone. That being said, we got to Vienna only about 30 minutes behind from the projected arrival time. Things could have been much worse.

April 23rd — Vienna to Prague

  • Bus from Vienna to Prague (4 out of 5 Interflix passes)

For this portion of the trip, I had planned on parting ways with my friend. She wanted to go to Amsterdam, but I had already been. So, I planned on going to Prague. I purposely booked an afternoon bus, wanting to arrive sometime in the early evening. My friend and I arrived at the bus station. We said our goodbyes and I waved to her as her bus pulled out of the station. My bus was scheduled to leave just 15 minutes after hers. I stood at the terminal waiting and waiting. Then there was an announcement that the bus to Prague had been delayed. As it turns out, the bus route from Vienna to Prague starts in Zagreb. There was that Schengen area haunting me again.

3 hours later, I finally get on the bus towards Prague. Once again, I found myself arriving in an unknown city in the middle of the night, trying to figure out currency exchange at ATMs, and of course, it was raining. This seems to be a common theme in my travel adventures.

April 26th — Prague to Bonn

  • Overnight bus from Prague to Bonn (5 out of 5 Interflix passes)

After a few days of fun with some fellow travelers at Hostel One Prague, I got on an 11:00PM overnight bus to Bonn. As far as I know, there isn’t a direct route from Prague to Nancy, so I decided to make a stop in Bonn (birthplace of Beethoven and Haribo gummies). If I had to make a connection somewhere, I might as well make it a place I wanted to visit anyway. Thank God for being back in the Schengen. Even with passport control at German borders, we still made it to Bonn on-time.

April 27th — Bonn to Nancy

  • Overnight bus from Bonn to Nancy (ticket purchased directly from Flixbus)

After a 20 hour stroll around Bonn with my backpack in tow, I boarded my final bus to Nancy. It was an 11:50PM departure with a projected arrival time of 5:00AM in Nancy. Once again, no problems or delays. I made it back to France in time for the sunrise and crashed hard into my bed.


Conclusion:

Planning your own discount adventure can be a bit of a hassle, but it is definitely worth it. At the end of these 3-weeks I learned so much. Not only did I get to spend time with great friends, visit new places, try new foods, but I also pushed my own boundaries. I learned how to effectively manage my time, money, and personal security. I learned how to take on obstacles and handle unexpected circumstances in foreign countries.

Even if there were times when I was stressed and exhausted, I made it through. My trip around Europe has given me a whole new perspective on the saying, “it’s about the journey.” Spending the mental and physical energy to get myself from place-to-place might have been tiring, but it made each new city feel all the more worthwhile.

One thought on “By Plane, Train, and Bus: Tracking My Trip Around Central Europe

  1. That sounds like an incredible trip – of the places you visited, I’ve only been to Amsterdam, Vienna and Prague (the latter is definitely my favourite of those three cities). Trains on the continent are great – all the more so when they run on time – but budget travel definitely necessitates embracing long-distance bus rides on occasion. Flixbus has certainly saved me a fair bit of money on several trips – though it’s true that if you book journeys separately, you do run the risk of missing connections.

    Like

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