Although I’ve been to Europe several times – and used some sort of public transportation each time – I can’t say that there haven’t been problems. Each time there is a problem, though, I learn how to avoid it or prepare for it for the next time I travel.
Research and preparation is the best way to avoid problems, but sometimes even when I’ve been well prepared, I make mistakes or run into something that is unavoidable.
Rail strikes are common in Europe. On one trip we had planned to spend the day in Versailles – an easy day trip from Paris. When we stepped up to the counter to purchase tickets, though, we were told the trains to Versailles were on strike. There were some trains running, so we would probably be able to get there, but we might be stuck in Versailles overnight or have a long wait for a ride back. The weather forecast for the day was not great, so we decided to spend the day in Paris and see Versailles a different time.
Strikes can interrupt other activities, too. Workers at the Louvre Museum went on strike last year, protesting the lack of security and number of pickpockets in the area. I support their cause, but would have been disappointed if I had planned to go to the Louvre that day. Keeping your plans flexible is the only solution in this case. Visit a different museum; come back to the Louvre later.
Train tickets can usually be purchased from a ticket machine, but for someone who speaks only English it can be a problem. Most machines have an English option, but it can be difficult to find, or the translation may not be clear. When we arrived in Germany after a long flight, even my German-speaking daughter was struggling.
The problem was that we were looking for the specific discount tickets we had read about. We eventually went to the ticket counter and spoke to a very helpful agent. She sold us the tickets we wanted and we were on our way. What if there was no agent available? We have found that local citizens are happy to help. If you are having trouble understanding the machine, ask someone for help.
In Amsterdam, we didn’t have trouble reading the machine, but we had trouble paying for the tickets. The machine did not like the credit card we were using. We had enough money to pay for the tickets, but the machine wanted it all in coins – we had paper. We wanted to catch the 8:59 am train but the ticket desk didn’t open until 9:00. After asking around to see if anyone had coins to change for our bills, our credit card actually went through. We caught the train with a minute to spare.
The same problem occurred a few days later in a different part of the Netherlands. We exchanged bills for coins with some Dutch young people for one set of tickets. Another time we asked some women to put our tickets on their credit card and we gave them the cash.
The lesson we’ve learned when traveling in Europe is the need for a credit or debit card that works with a pin number. The newer ticket machines no longer take regular credit cards. Regular credit cards can usually be used at ticket counters, but these are not always available. Even if they are, the lines are usually shorter at the machines than at a ticket counter.
Another problem we could have avoided, was missing information. My daughters and I had worked together to plan our trip. Unfortunately, we didn’t share all the information as fully as we should have. As we traveled toward our B&B, one evening, I realized that I did not have the phone number for the place we were staying. We were running a bit late and were not able to call to let our hostess know. We made it there eventually, but had a rough start with the hostess because of our lack of organization. Now we always make sure we have every phone number and address in an easily accessible place, whether it’s on paper or digital.
The biggest, and most expensive, problem we ever had was when we underestimated how long it would take to travel with the Paris metro. The metro moves quickly, getting passengers to their destinations with well-coordinated ease. However, it still takes time to get from place to place – and more time if the route includes transfers.
My three daughters and I needed to catch a train to Lucerne, Switzerland. The tickets we had purchased were for a 6:00 am route so we would have more time at our destination. We left our rented apartment to take the metro to Gare du Nord, a larger train station, but we did not take into consideration that there might be fewer metro trains so early in the morning. We arrived just in time to watch our train leave the station – without us.
It was heartbreaking and we had no idea where to begin to fix the problem. We looked into renting a car, but the prices were astronomical. Two of the tickets we had purchased were non-refundable, the other two were youth tickets for my daughters who were under 24 years old. We were able to exchange the youth tickets, but had to purchase two new adult tickets. The mistake cost us over $200, but we learned our lesson and will never make that mistake again.
In this situation and a couple others, we’ve found that transportation often takes more time than you think it will. The trains in Europe are usually very punctual, but connections take time. Transportation by car has also taken longer than we’ve expected. When driving, we seem to make more stops than anticipated – everything looks so interesting – and the stops add up. Now we always plan extra time – we figure if we get to our destination earlier than expected, it would be a good problem to have.
Misreading the Map
Finally, I’ve had trouble judging distances when looking at a city map. What looks like the distance of a couple city blocks, can turn out to be a walk of a half hour or more – something that would have been much easier with public transportation.
Every time that I run into a problem, it teaches me how to avoid it or handle it better the next time. Maybe you can also avoid problems by learning from my mistakes.
Have you struggled with transportation in Europe? How did you solve your problem?
One time, mom (Ms. Mae) and I were looking for a specific restaurant in Amsterdam, and couldn’t find it ANYWHERE. Finally, we went to a Starbucks in the vicinity to use the wifi and find the restaurant using maps on our phones. The funniest part is that the restaurant was almost next door, but because of one-way streets, the map was directing us around the block to get there!