Thursday, July 5, 2012

NIGHTMARES AND SLEEPING CARS

We interrupt this travelogue for a bit of commentary on the European Sleeper Train Cars.  In one word:  Don't.

However, being that I am not a one-word kind of a gal, here are a few more words justifying that single word.

Bob thought taking a night train from Prague to Vienna would kill two birds with one stone: For about the cost of a hotel we would have a place to sleep, AND when we woke up we would be at our destination, therefore not wasting precious time traveling.  Kind of like a "Cruise on Tracks."

We followed the hotel concierge's recommendation and arrived at the train station with only a half hour to spare.  Our train was leaving around midnight, and since this was the first time we were using our Eurail passes, we were supposed to get them stamped in some office at the station.  No problem, except we were the only people in the entire station:
 It was downright creepy, like the Twilight Zone.  There was no one to stamp our passes, and even worse, there was no one to tell us where to go.  There were no boards that said "Vienna" with a flashing arrow telling us which hallway to go down, no friendly helpers to look at our tickets, nothing.

After about 20 minutes of frantic searching, we did see a sign at the very end of a long hallway that said "Wien" and seemed to point up a flight of stairs.  We lugged our suitcases up those stairs (They were all the size of Chris's in the picture above) and arrived on a train platform.  Alone.  Completely alone.

Since there was no indication that we were in the right place and it was five minutes until our train arrived, Bob and Stan took off in different directions trying to find someone, anyone, who might be able to verify we were in the right spot.  One of them, both of them, I can't remember which, discovered that we were almost in the right place.

The right place was on the other side of the tracks.  We had only a couple of minutes. We really had no choice but to cross.

I think our station looked somewhat like this (which is a photo of one of the Prague train stations, but not ours), but the drop from the walkway to the tracks seemed more like three feet and I'm pretty sure there were 100 sets of rails.  At least that's what it seemed like as we hauled our bulky suitcases across the tracks in the Twilight Zone at midnight in Prague.
I'm also pretty sure it was seconds before we heard the rumble of the train and maybe a minute before it arrived in the station.  Still somewhat uncertain, we boarded.  We were relieved to discover we were on the correct train.

After some confusion, we found our "suite."  It was two rooms, each the size of my hall closet, joined by a door.  Each room had a bunk bed on one wall and about 3" of space for our suitcases.  For this to be enough space, pretty much you couldn't be traveling with more than a change of underwear.  Still, we were on the train!  It was ever so much better than missing our train and sleeping on the cold, hard concrete of the station floor.
Very happy campers.
Wow, a congratulatory bottle of bubbly for each of us!
Enough water to wash down our Tylenol PM!
Stan . . . Stan!  Remember who you are!
Perhaps GIDDY is a better word to describe how we felt.
 Of course, we weren't done.  The porter came by to check our tickets and discovered that *gasp* WE HAD NOT HAD THEM STAMPED BY THE PROPER AUTHORITIES!!!  He left with our passports and tickets, and for just a few minutes, we were worried that when he came back we were going to be tossed off the train, along with our luggage, as we rounded the next bend.

Forty euros (about $52) took care of it.  Yep.  It didn't change our circumstances at all, but he asked for it, we paid it, and in the morning he gave us our passports and our tickets back and gave us a stern warning that we had better get that stamp when we got off the train.

We did as commanded and had a few unevental Eurail day trips to Bratislava and Budapest after that.

Our second experience with a sleeper car started off a little better than our first.  It helped that we had my nieces Julie and Alex to get us on the right train in Budapest, the one bound for Zurich, Switzerland.  It was also much earlier in the evening, which was nice.

The problems started when we were actually ON the train.  This time we were booked in a dorm-style room of six bunks.  Dumb, I know, but it was really expensive, and to get a more private room would be really, really, REALLY expensive.  It looked like this, except there were SIX beds instead of four.  Do you see a place for four large suitcases?  No? Neither did we.
There were already two very cute, very friendly college-age girls sitting on the lower bunk on the left. They had been on holiday in Budapest and were returning home to Basel.  There was a suitcase on the lower bunk on the right that did not belong to them, and it certainly didn't belong to us.  A few of us crowded into the room, and it was obvious that there was no way this was going to work. It got even worse when the owner of the abandoned suitcase showed up.  It was a crying young woman who had just said good-bye to her boyfriend.  Now we were seven people in a room hardly big enough for two.

We hailed the porter and tried to explain that they had overbooked our room and we weren't going to fit.  He wasn't sympathetic.  What did he want us to do?  Pay more money, of course!  For a small additional fee of six euro each (about $9), he put the four of us in an empty six-person closet.  We put our suitcases on the top bunk (a challenge, let me tell you), and bedded down for the night.  

Let's just say we've had better nights of sleep.

It helped--a little--that we "woke up" to this kind of scenery as we approached Zurich:


 

We got off in Zurich and had only twenty minutes to board the next train to Basel.  All went well, and we arrived safely in Basel, where we were picked up at the station by Dave and Pete.  How wonderful it was to see them come walking down the platform!

Some day I'm going back to beautiful Zurich, but I'm absolutely NOT getting there--or anywhere else--by sleeper train.

5 comments:

  1. Now aren't you glad we did sleeper trains. It gave you something to write about.

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  2. I'm glad we did those trains. I will never forget them. And I know to avoid them in the future, no matter what the cost.

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  3. We took the sleeper bus in Mexico. It was very comfortable. However, I learned that while John can sleep anywhere and anytime he is tired, including sitting up, I actually have to be flat!! So, no more sleeper busses for us, unless we are going right to a bed and I can sleep in/nap/go to be early.

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    Replies
    1. I think we would take an overnight train again (maybe), but we would never pay the extra money to be crammed into a tiny compartment so that we could have a "bed." We would have had more space and been more comfortable in a regular train seat.

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  4. We took a sleeper from Nice to Venice (I think) and it was about as you describe, only we left around dinnertime. Not much sleep, though, as I was worried about this and that and kept waking up every time we hooked up with a different train. They also took our passports, but didn't charge us any money.

    The couchette experience sounds miserable. I laugh when I think that Rick Steves just recommended doing just that on his most recent web post. He's nuts.

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