Trains versus buses — which is better? (The List)

A look at train versus bus travel

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Given the fantastic experiences I had on the trains through the Balkans, I decided to write-up a pros/cons list of taking the bus versus taking the train through most of Europe.

Both can be good.

Both can be bad.

Often times — at least in the Balkans — trains are the less expensive option, so when watching the budget, they are the only mode of transport that can work.

So, travel by train or bus? Which is better?

Why opt for a bus?

1. They don’t have to stop at an entrance to a tunnel for 40 minutes so a train going the opposite direction can pass through.

2. Most times (except in the Balkans), you have an assigned seat. That means the person next to you has an assigned seat, too. You don’t have to sit and silently pray to be the lucky couchette that doesn’t fill up. (Every train I have been on has had one couchette, for some reason or other, that has remained blissfully near-empty).

3. There aren’t sliding glass doors where people in the small aisle can glare at you while they think you are sleeping or reading your book.

4. No one can come into your little bus aisle. On trains, people come into your couchette in the middle of the night.

5. There (most of the time) is air-con.

6. There are stops for food and drink.

7. The toilets aren’t from the 1970s. Yes, most buses don’t have the toilets on-board open, but when you stop for #6, you get to use a REAL restroom. Granted, you have to pay, but is a small fee to know you won’t get some rare disease or have to dodge the grime and gross that comes with toilets that are never cleaned on the train.

8. The lights on the buses turn off at night. You don’t have to wait for everyone in a couchette to finish reading, word puzzles, etc. to turn the light off. The bus driver does it for you. And then, if you WANT a light on, you have your own little light you can turn on.

9. If you stop for a long period of time you can get off of the bus, and tell the driver you are doing so. On trains, good luck finding the conductor.

10. You don’t have to lift your heavy bag into the storage compartment above. It won’t fit. Instead, it goes below (sometimes for a small fee), but you are gloriously rid of the extra baggage until you arrive at your destination. (Just keep your valuables on you, not stowed away.)

11. You don’t have to worry about avoiding eye contact. No one is sitting in front of you and facing you. The only thing you can stare at is the scenery out your window, or the back of the person’s head who is sitting on front of you.

12. The guy in the food car can’t blare his loud polka-style music so everyone the next car over can hear. There is no food car on the bus.

13. At stops, you have a selection of food. On the train, you have a choice of a few very overpriced sandwiches, none of which are actually filling or tasty.

14. Unless there is a problem with the bus, every time you stop, or go down a hill, or wind around a mountain, you don’t damage your ear drums with the high-pitched scraping of the brakes.

15. Buses take less time to get to the final destination than trains.

Why travel by train?

1. You can walk around.

2. You can’t watch the conductor and hope the person doesn’t fall asleep. You just have to assume the person won’t.

3. You can use the toilet on board. At your own risk. And wash your face … if you trust the water coming out of the faucet. If there is water coming out of the faucet.

4. You get off of the road and get to see some beautiful and untouched parts of the world.

5. If people speak your language in your couchette, you can have a conversation. Or a party.

6. Trains are cheaper (at least in the Balkans).

7. You don’t have to worry about traffic.

Which do you prefer and why?

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The longest day

In theory, I should have arrived to Bar, Montenegro from Belgrade, Serbia around 8:30 p.m. Which, in theory, would have given me plenty of time to catch the bus from Bar to Budva and check-in to Hippo Hostel.

In theory …

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

As I sat in the train at the Belgrade station I was reminded of what my friend, Frances, had said to me when she booked me in to Hippo, the hostel she worked at.

“It’s the Balkans, the trains are always at least two hours late.”

Not mine, I thought.

But, as the clock ticked, her words began to sink it.

Shit.

We were only 20 minutes late leaving the station, but during the course of the next five hours, we stopped and started and crawled along at a snails speed in the hot summer sun, making us really late when my couchette got its first guests, a French couple.

“How late are we?” I asked.

“Two hours,” the guy replied.

Well, we’re on track.

Then, the train stopped. And, then it went. And, then it stopped again. Each time the wind would begin to cool the cars, the train would stop. People would get off, buy ice creams, and then get back on 30 minutes later.

But the time we arrived in Podgorica, we were five hours late. And, I had missed the last bus to Budva from Bar.

Of course, we were stopped here, too.

I got off the train and started talking to someone who spoke English.

“There’s a protest on the tracks down a bit, 500 people,” he explained.

“Oh my god,” I sighed. “Any idea how late we be?”

“Nope, but if you can get the bus, I would.”

He pointed to the bus station, a quick two-minute walk from where we were standing outside out idle train.

Right.

I grabbed my belongings off the train and booked it to the bus.

I ended up on the midnight bus to Budva.

After 12 hours on the hot train, the bus was a welcome relief. Air-con.

Comfortable seats. Darkness.

I didn’t want to fall asleep. I knew if I did, there would be a chance I would miss my stop since the night before my sleep was negligible.

So, I kept my eyes open as we drove towards the Adriatic.

I looked up and the view was incredible. Breathtaking. Stars twinkling in nearly every inch of the sky.

Then, one streaked across.

Shooting star!

I wanted to tell someone, but there was no one to tell, so I smiled to myself, happy with my decision to head to Budva instead of sit on the train.

Then, another! And another! And one more!

I knew there had been a meteor shower a few nights earlier, but this was my own special show, my reward for enduring the hell train journey for the past two days.

As the bus wound down the mountain, I could make out the sea below, black and blending in with the sky, but I knew as soon as I would wake up the next day, my favorite sea in the world would be staring back at me, welcoming me to where I had been less than a year before.

I didn’t get in to Hippo until 2 a.m. and when I did, crawling into that dorm bed was pure bliss. The pillow was soft. The bed was perfect.

I still felt like I was in transit, but as soon as I closed my eyes, I was out.

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Midnight Express

The women on our couchette looked straight out of Halloween Eve … long, eggplant dyed hair, small beady eyes, long hairs sprouting from her upper lip next to a large mole with more hair protruding, and on her chin, whiskers spreading down towards her neck. She was dressed in a long black dress and from time to time, would lower her voice to a whisper to chat with the other older ladies sitting in the seats next to me.

She was the perfect Halloween witch.

I had boarded the train from Sophia to Belgrade early, at least what I thought was early, but by the time I arrived to my couchette, there was only one seat remaining, excluding my faded green window seat.

I sat down and surveyed the scene.

Two French guys who later told me they had an inter-rail pass and were exploring the continent, and two older women, the witch and another, more regular looking woman.

The two ladies spoke in hushed tones, occasionally closing the door to our car, trapping in the smoke-filled air of our non-smoking room, to talk about something they clearly did not want anyone else to hear.

This was going to be a long trip from Sophia to Belgrade.

I could feel it.

That, and the nice Serbian gent in the couchette next to me told me.

“These trains run two hours late. Always. I don’t know why you would choose to take a train in Eastern Europe. They are shit.”

I looked around. Windows covered in spray paint. Fake wooden paneling. My couchette’s light didn’t even function. And the toilets … I don’t think they had been flushed since the 70s.

But, it was my place of rest for the night.

If I could do that.

I was concerned at first by the lack of air con (naturally), but as soon as the train started from Sophia, causing sparks to fly from the wires above, I was struck with the late summer breeze catching my face.

I’m no stranger to overnight trains. I often take them since it is more cost-effective than taking a day train and then sleeping in a hostel. I had taken one from Budapest to Brasov, from Cluj to Prague, from Prague to Berlin. I hadn’t slept beautifully, but I had slept.

This train might be a different story.

Instead of just sitting in the car, I decided to get out … even in the dark, the Bulgarian countryside seemed peaceful, serene.

I crossed the narrow corridor to the open window and stuck my head out, getting whipped in the face with the cool wind.

In front of me, homes whizzed by. Small dirt roads holding cars came and went next to the tracks. Lights from the little train-track towns twinkled. I could just make out mountains behind a slightly glowing dark night with only a crescent moon to illuminate the scenery.

At passport control, I was first greeted by Bulgarian immigration, asking me how long I was in Bulgaria. One officer directed his flash light towards my backpack, stowed above the witch lady’s head.

“Do you have anything to declare?”

I almost laughed.

Sure, a bunch of clothes, a tiny bottle of absinthe I always forget I have that I have been carting around since May when I stopped in Prague …

“No,” I said.

Then, it was time for Serbian customs.

Again, they directed a light towards my belongings, this time my bag containing my laptop.

“Who’s is this?” Another uniformed officer asked.

“It’s mine.”

Please don’t make me take it down and open it.

“No problem.”

“Ah, your accent is your passport,” said one of the French guys.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of it, and then I understood.

They didn’t ask me any further questions.

They never do.

As soon as I open my mouth, they leave me alone.

The witch lookalike wasn’t so lucky.

A woman officer looked at her plastic bag, likely carting her belongings, and emptied it on the seat, taking out each article of clothing, one-by-one.

After immigration, we stopped at the border, a train stop where, inside and in our car, people were being penned until the inspector gave the all-clear.

One girl ran off the train and into the arms of her beloved, embracing, kissing, loving.

Outside, families waited expectantly for people they knew to disembark from the train.

I wanted someone to be waiting on that platform for me.

Instead, I just sat and watched, marveling at the interaction of people, and how it doesn’t change based on what country someone is in. Yeah, that love thing is universal.

I kept my head out of the train window for a long time, watching people, listening to the crickets, trying to let sleep take over my body.

By the time we left the border, so had the older women in my car.

The two French guys had made friends with someone in another couchette.

I had the car to myself.

I kicked my flips off and stretched out on the soft and dirty seats and threw my caridgan over my torso and eyes.

Come on, sleep. Let’s do this.

I laid there for a few minutes and thought to myself.

Music would help.

I dug through my purse for my iPod. It wasn’t there.

Oh, shit.

I dug through my messenger bag.

It wasn’t there.

Oh, shitty shit shit.

I looked through my purse again, dumping its contents on the seat.

Wallet. Knee brace. Tickets. Food. Camera. Phone.

No damn iPod.

Gone.

Now, normal D would have freaked. Cried. My music!

But, the only thought running thorugh my head was “Thank God I still have my laptop.” Now, losing that would be catastrophic.

So, I came to grips quickly that my soundtrack for my trip would now solely be the one in my head, and again closed my eyes.

This time I slept.

At some point in the night, a girl came into the couchette and took court across the seats from me. And then, later, around 3:30 a.m., an older gentleman came in, slapping my naked ankle to get me to move my feet so he could sit down.

Three hours later, we arrived to Belgrade.

Leg One of my 26-hour journey from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Budva, Montenegro: Complete.

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