Posts Tagged train

Adventures in Overnight Train Travel

Barcelona Sants Train Station

Remember how hard it was for us to buy train tickets in Spain? That may have been a foreboding sign for our upcoming overnight train trip.

We tried to book a sleeping car with an actual bed, but those were all reserved. We ended up getting Perferente tickets, which is first class. Keep in mind that there are 2 classes (Litera and Turista) worse than ours as you read.

Barcelona-Sants Train Station

We arrived at the train station early, assuming that the train would just be stopping for a few minutes to pick up passengers in Barcelona before continuing on the journey. In our limited train experience, you need to be on the right platform at the right time, or get left behind. But as an American, much of the tempo of Spain is slow and train travel (especially the ticket buying process) is no different.

In all fairness, we didn’t give them much of a chance to be fast by booking the 9-hour overnight train instead of the 3-hour day train, which is three times more expensive.  Once again, we learned that you get what you pay for!

When we approached the entrance to our platform, we were told that it was too early to get our bags scanned and to come back in an hour. We grabbed a bite to eat and then looked for seats in the terminal. There were very few seats, and most of them were in the middle of the shops, not near the platform entrances.

While we sat, I used the time to edit photos on our netbook. After several minutes, a young man with a large rucksack approached Mr. HalfFull to ask we would watch his bag while he went to brush his teeth in the bathroom.

Red flag! Huge alert! Don’t they always tell you to never leave your bags unattended, and never to watch a stranger’s bags? Of course, Mr. HalfFull being a good guy, agreed to watch the bag.

After the guy returned, Matt decided to use the bathroom before boarding the train. But he couldn’t because there was a fire in the men’s room! It seems like a strange coincidence that the guy with the rucksack was just in there and didn’t want to be weighed down by his bag. I have no proof; it just seems very suspicious.

Finally, it was time for us to check in and get our bags scanned. This too, was different than the US. Granted, I haven’t ridden a domestic train in a while, but I’ve never seen baggage scanners for trains. The Barcelona scanners were a complete facade of security. We were required to place our bags on the conveyor belt, but no one was watching the screen! Plus, they didn’t require passengers to walk through metal detectors either. So it all seemed like a waste of time.

We proceeded to walk to the correct platform number, but were shooed to a section of seats. I was very confused by this. There was no explanation (not that I would have understood it in Spanish anyway).

Eventually, a man carrying a sign reading Madrid told us to follow him. So everyone grabbed their luggage and proceeded to follow this guy to the other side of the baggage scanner, past the ticket windows, past the shops, and out onto the street. I had no idea what was going on. I thought we were supposed to be boarding a train on a platform beneath where we had been sitting, but now we were walking back out onto the street!?!?

So remember all that heavy-duty security? Anyone could have joined our group walking through the terminal. So much for being secure!

Bus to ???

The man with the sign lead us to a bus. What? A bus? I thought we bought train tickets. Some of the Japanese passengers freaked out and started yelling about the train. I’m not sure they ever got a sufficient answer due to language barriers, but eventually, they too, boarded the bus.

The other problem with a bus is that all our luggage was underneath us, only accessible from the outside. This made me very uncomfortable since we had been repeatedly warned that thefts are common. We had no control of our luggage, but people on the outside had direct access.

Eventually, the bus started moving. We were driving through the city of Barcelona. Mr. HalfFull seemed to think that we were not heading toward Madrid, since he had guided us through the city all week. Eventually, we got on a highway. I began to panic as I wondered if we were taking this bus the whole way to Madrid. It didn’t have a bathroom! I really wished I had gone at the train station.

The bus drove farther and farther from the city lights until we were in a desolate area with a tiny train station 40 minutes later. Woo hoo, we were going to ride a train! Relief flooded over me and my bladder.

To this day, we still have no idea what the bus was about. But we think that perhaps there was some sort of labor strike, which may also explain the fire in the bathroom.

Overnight Train to Madrid

When we boarded the train and entered our 6-person compartment, there was already an older couple nestled in. Somehow, they must have known about the location of the train and avoided the bus ride. This couple had gotten so comfortable that they took over the entire compartment. None of their luggage was on the overhead racks; it was all across the seats and floor. Plus, they had each taken one side of the car in preparation to stretch out across 3 seats per person. Well, we ruined their ideal situation.

Mr. HalfFull proceeded to lift their luggage into the overhead racks, so that we could enter the compartment. They took one side of the compartment with 3 seats and we took the other. Not too bad; it still seemed like we could get some sleep before arriving in Madrid.

But then another man arrived. He was quite a loud, gregarious fellow. I know loud and gregarious; after all, I live with Mr. HalfFull! But this guy may have also been partially deaf, which made him even louder. Or perhaps Spanish is just a loud, boisterous language. He chatted up the other couple for quite a while. It was a rather animated conversation. Eventually, the loud guy left and we all went to sleep.

The chairs slid out into a full reclining position with your legs on the floor. It wasn’t super comfortable, but it was a much better angle than an economy plane seat. On the downside, the seats were old and some of them didn’t lock into place.

Unfortunately for us, the loud guy returned to slumber around 1 or 2 AM. I can only imagine that he was consuming copious amounts of alcohol elsewhere on the train. He was still loud and quite odoriferous. Of course, he sat right next to me. He was so drunk and/or his chair was so old that he ended up sliding all over the place. He would be mid-sentence and his chair would slide out from under him into a full recline. It was kind of funny, but also a bit scary because he was older, intoxicated, and not a small man.

Finally, the car got quiet again and we were falling back asleep when the snoring started. This was fully reclined, open-mouthed, drunk snoring. It was so loud. This old man was relaxed! He got so relaxed that he started talking in his sleep and at one point threw his arm across me. I freaked out and threw it back at him like a hot potato!

Later that night, we got a 6th compartment-mate. This guy was young, but was also a drinker. He slid in late at night with the lights off.  We were all back to sleep when suddenly, the overheads lights abruptly illuminated and a uniformed train officer was standing in the doorway.  The officer only asked the young guy for his ticket, and summarily kicked him out of our car.  The officer didn’t even speak to the rest of us.  I wonder where that kid was supposed to be sitting or if he was even supposed to be on the train.  Another young kid tried to take that same seat later in the night, but he too was removed by security.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much sleep that night between the people in and out, the snoring, the odors, the fugitives, the lights, and a random arm landing on me! We did save a night of hotel expenses, but I’m not sure we would do an overnight train again.

  • Would you watch a stranger’s bag?
  • Has your travel ever been affected by a strike?
  • Do you have much experience with train travel?
  • Have you endured an overnight train?
Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Train Ticket Turmoil

Our first morning in Barcelona was spent in our space-themed hotel room at Barceló Sants.  When we finally emerged at 1 PM, we were famished and opted for the nearest food — the hotel restaurant.

Lunch @ Barcelo Sants

A contented Ms. HalfEmpty prepares to enjoy her 3rd lunch course — dessert and a latte

We were the only patrons and weren’t sure if we were early or late for the lunch hour.  After a few misunderstandings due to our limited non-existent Spanish, we were seated and enjoyed a delicious 3-course lunch.  I think wine was included in our meal (as we later learned is customary with 3-course meals in Spain), and our server was quite shocked when we declined the carafe.  She didn’t know that we were still recovering from Germany.

Since we had gotten up at 1 PM and just finished lunch, it was time for siesta.  When in Spain, do as the Spaniards.  You really can’t get enough sleep!

The main reason for including Spain on the 30/40 World Tour was to attend VaughanTown.  It’s an English immersion program for Spaniards in various locations throughout Spain.  The program (including 4-star-hotel accommodations and meals) is free for native English speakers, who are there to help increase the fluency of Spanish business people.

Before meeting up with the VaughanTown group in Madrid, we planned to spend 4 days in Barcelona.  We figured that it would be easiest and perhaps cheaper to get our train ticket from Barcelona to Madrid while in Spain.  So obtaining those train tickets was on our agenda.  We were staying above the train station, so how hard could it be?

It was so much harder than we ever imagined.  But we had an inflexible schedule at this point and needed those tickets.

Our first attempt was online.  Mr. HalfFull was able to see the various times and prices.  He decided that a slow overnight train was our best option because it was less expensive and would save us on a night at a hotel.  He tried several times to book it online, but our credit card never seemed to go through.

At this point, we weren’t too worried.  We just headed down to the train station to buy tickets at the counter.  We saw one area with about 10 windows where people took numbers and waited to be called.  It seemed rather crowded, so we went to the shorter line on the other side of the station.  After waiting for our turn, we were told that this line was only for same day tickets and we needed to wait in the other line.

Sleeping in Train Station

If you had to spend all day in the train station, you might take a nap too! Never miss a siesta…that’s my motto.

Too bad we just wasted time in line, but no big deal.  We went over to the other line and took a number.  Then we discovered that there were 150 numbers in front of us!  It was already 4 PM and unlikely that all those people would be served by closing time.  Plus, we had sites to see.  We decided to try again via the website from our hotel room in the evening.  Hopefully, the site would work better this time.

Mr. HalfFull was so nervous about us not getting to Madrid on time that he stayed up all night trying to use our credit cards on the website.  He even set an alarm to try at various hours to see if that made a difference.  But the transaction always failed.  (We later learned from comments online that only cards issued in Spain will work.  It would have been nice if the website had that info!)

Worrying is usually reserved for me.  Mr. HalfFull is generally the one who tries to ease me out of my tizzy.  But the roles were reversed!

Barcelona-Sants train station

Efficiency was not the strong suit of the Barcelona-Sants train station, but at least Hotel Barceló Sants was right above it, so we could visit often during our ticket quest.

We finally decided that the only way to ensure that we get tickets and don’t spend all day waiting in the train station was to be in line before the ticket counter opened at 6 AM.  Apparently, a bunch of other people also had this idea.  Fortunately, it wasn’t another 150 people.

With tickets in hand, Mr. HalfFull was finally able to relax.  Travel within Spain is not as easy as you might think.  We’ll tell you the tale of the actual train ride from Barcelona to Madrid in an upcoming post.  For now, let’s just say it was certainly another adventure.

  • Do you make travel plans before leaving home?
  • Have you had difficulty with your home country credit card in a foreign country?
  • Have you experienced a painfully difficult time purchasing tickets abroad?
  • Are you surprised that Mr. HalfFull was losing sleep over our tickets?
Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Worst Flight Ever

Thankfully for our livers, all things must come to an end.  After a weekend of partying in Germany, it was time to depart for Spain — the 8th and final country on our 30/40 World Tour.

Everyone has heard of “German efficiency,” but there was none to be found in the airport security line.  The line wasn’t very long, but was so slow!  They were basically taking apart each person’s carry-on bag despite having a perfectly serviceable x-ray machine.  They even examined my empty water bottle and told me I was not allowed to take more than 3 ounces of liquid.  My water bottle was clear plastic and attached on the outside of my bag.  This extra scrutiny seemed ridiculous.  But I assured them that my visibly empty bottle was indeed empty by shaking it for them.

Our flight to Spain was not direct.  It was also one of the only flights we did not book through STA, since they didn’t have any deals.  We couldn’t find any reasonably priced direct flights from Munich to Barcelona, so we used a discount carrier with a one hour layover in Düsseldorf.

Of course, nothing could be that easy.  Remember how we always say you get what you pay for?  This was another case in point.

The flight from Düsseldorf to Barcelona was delayed.  We had done a great job of booking direct flights with week-long layovers in exotic locales.  Our only true airport layover of the 30/40 World Tour was at LAX, but even then we planned a beach outing in Santa Monica.  This time, all we were able to do was hang out in a terminal filled to capacity with people from various delayed flights.  There weren’t any seats; even the nuns were sitting on the floor.  So we headed to the bar to wait.

Once it was finally our boarding time, they packed us into busses en route to the plane.  Finally, we had made it to the plane.  Thank goodness!

Not so fast.  Our journey was not yet over.  It was not yet time to relax.  This flight involved screaming children from all directions.

AirBerlin plane

After escaping the worst flight ever and arriving in Spain, we paused in the terminal to capture photographic evidence of our tormentor

The irony is that we had been on plenty of other flights with children.  Long flights.  Hours and hours of being constricted to a little seat.  But this tiny little 2 hour flight was horrible.

Perhaps I have a special intolerance as a person without children, but it really didn’t seem like the parents were doing anything.  The little girl in front of us was traveling with her German mother and Spanish father.  She was perpetually backward in her seat so that she could stare at us during the flight.  She got increasingly bold and started sticking her arm through the gap between the seats.

This was a nuisance, but not a major problem…until her arm swatted my drink.  Of course, it spilled all over my legs.  So I got to spend the rest of the day with sticky legs and socks.  Just lovely.

To understand just how much I disdain messes and sticky things, I will take you back to kindergarten.  I hated using glue because it could get on my fingers.  Other kids would smear glue all over their hands and wait for it to dry.  I found this appalling.

Back to the flight.  In the US, they would never serve food on a 2 hours flight.  But this was Europe.  They gave us some sort of boxed meal, but all the “fresh” food was inedible.  I think the sandwich was just mayo — gobs and gobs of mayo.  Perhaps there was something else in the sandwich, but it was hidden by the mayo.

We eventually arrived in Barcelona where we had to hurry up and wait for the train.  Despite visiting Dubai, it seemed excruciatingly hot in the train terminal with little air flow.  I expected it to be cooler in the evening as the sun descended.  Perhaps I was just being my half empty self with additional annoyance and stickiness.

We ended up in a train car with a group of boys on vacation.  With a liquor bottle.  They ended up making quick friends with the two girls nearby, and the liquor went back and forth across the train.  Hilarious people watching!

Barcelo Sants elevator lobby

Can you spot Ms. HalfEmpty? She's sitting in the spacey egg chair in the Barcelo Sants hotel elevator lobby.

After an afternoon of travel that seemed like days, we checked into our hotel — conveniently located above the train station.  This hotel had a space theme.  All the hallways were dark until you walked by the sensor and then a group of vertical lights from floor to ceiling adjacent to each door would illuminate.  It was a neat effect and probably saved a good bit of electricity too.

Barcelo Sants room

Outer space portal above our glowing hotel room bed

Our room was elegantly modern with space touches including a captain’s swivel chair.  There were also round portals in the room with pictures of the moon.  Oddly, one of them was above the toilet.

Barcelona taxis

During our 4 days in Barcelona, I spent a lot of time watching the parade of taxis from my hotel room window while waiting for Mr. HalfFull to coif himself. He takes longer than me! It was great people watching to see the drivers smoke and chat. It was like I was spying from space!

We even had multiple sizes of pillows with varying degrees of firmness.  Plus, there was an amazing ergonomic backrest for sitting up in bed, and a perfect bed tray. Our room was so awesome and relaxing that we didn’t leave until 1 PM the next day in search of food.

Maybe the flight wasn’t actually that bad.  I mean it wasn’t great, but it could have been much worse.  Perhaps we had just been spoiled by awesome airlines with hot towels, edible food, and the gift of silence.

  • How do you select flights?  Price?  Schedule?  Number of stops?
  • Describe your worst flight.
  • Does a dislike of glue as a kindergartener make me an old soul?
  • Is it a sin to spend the whole morning of your first day in a new country asleep?  Or is sleep important to help you enjoy it?
Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Highs and Lows Come and Go

On our 30/40 World Tour, we would typically book our accommodation before we arrived in a new location. However, on the Oz Experience bus tour, we didn’t have much downtime to do research online. Because of the mechanical problems, we usually arrived at our hotel/hostel late and were so excited to have a bed for stretched out sleep. (Sleeping on a bus can get a bit cramped.) We also had to wake up early to cover the mileage the next morning, so neither the evenings or mornings gave us much time to surf.

Melbourne

Ms. HalfEmpty & Mr. HalfFull in downtown Melbourne

Everyone else on the bus tour had a reservation in Melbourne – even the backpacker teenagers! (I wonder if their moms booked it.) So Squatter made the rounds through Melbourne dropping people off at their various hostels. After my two nights on the tour, I knew I wanted a nicer place to stay. So we got off at the last stop and started walking toward St. Kilda.

We were tired and hungry at this point, which is not a great combo for a traveler with no idea where she is going and a heavy pack on her back. I don’t do so well with the unknown, especially under those circumstances. Mr. HalfFull often reminds me to live my way into the answers and embrace the unknown. But it’s so hard! I like to have a plan and direction.

Our goal was to find a restaurant with free wifi where we could eat and book a hotel like hobos with all our luggage. Even though we traveled light, I still found it a little embarrassing to have so much stuff at a nice restaurant. But they were super gracious at Phamish café and didn’t seem to mind. We were “phamished” so we ordered the sampler appetizer, which turned out to be a huge platter with all sorts of foodie deliciousness. It was quite a contrast from eating powdered eggs.

We didn’t find a lot of reasonable accommodation options in St. Kilda. There were a couple of fancy hotels, but they were rather pricey. I was leery of sketchy places after our last two nights, but reluctantly I consented to a hostel called The Coffee Place. I think its name and color scheme was the only reason I thought it might be okay.

When we arrived, I wasn’t so sure. It was basically run by kids playing video games. In other words, it could have been a frat house. I’m too old for this!

We went up to our room by climbing several flights of stairs. The door wasn’t secure like a front door; it was more like a lightweight bedroom door. Inside everything was clean, but very sparse. There was almost no furniture aside from the bed. However, there was one small built-in shelf with a coffee maker – after all, it was The Coffee Palace.

After seeing the room, I lost it. This was no palace. The tears streamed down my cheeks. There was really nothing wrong with the room; it was fully functional, clean, and spacious. I think I was just exhausted from the bus tour; I didn’t get my afternoon naps or sleep-in time in the mornings! Plus, I was an introvert on a bus full of people for three days. I was drained from all the interaction. I guess six weeks of being on the move left me feeling rather half empty – maybe even completely empty.

Phamish cafe

Ms. HalfEmpty enjoying cappuccino at Phamish café

We enjoyed Phamish café so much that we went back there for breakfast the next morning. I had a cappuccino and internet time…I was back baby! Plus, we were staying at The Coffee Palace for two nights, so I wasn’t lugging my bag around this time, and knew where I would be sleeping that night.

Mr. HalfFull loves sports; I become a football widow during the NFL season. We actually got married on a bye weekend for his football team! He also loves college basketball, and once again goes missing during March Madness. So he was super excited to have the opportunity to witness Aussie rules football in person.

It was game day, so we walked to the train station and were surprised that there were no ticket kiosks. A person on the platform informed us that you could buy tickets on the train. This seemed strange to us, but obviously we knew nothing about public transportation in Melbourne. So we boarded the train and found the ticket machine. We soon learned that the ticket machine only takes coins. What does an ATM not give you? Coins!

So we had no coins and couldn’t buy tickets; I felt like a fugitive. Hopefully, they would let us play the dumb American card. We really did have the best of intentions!

Melbourne Cricket Ground

Mr. HalfFull looking for tickets outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground

Finally, we arrived downtown at the enormous stadium that seats over 100,000 people. We were about to engage in some more illegal activity. We didn’t have tickets and were scouring the crowd outside the stadium looking for scalpers. We knew the game was a huge local rivalry between Carlton and Collingwood and thus, was sold out.

We didn’t find the shady people Mr. HalfFull was seeking, so we headed to the club ticket counter. The woman informed us that indeed the game was sold out, but she told us to look for scalpers and warned us not to pay more than face value. An employee advised us to seek out scalpers! Is scalping not illegal in Melbourne?

We walked all the way around the stadium with no luck. Mr. HalfFull didn’t seem so half full and resigned himself to the fact that we weren’t getting into the game. Then he spotted a guy with long hair, facial hair, tattoos, and rings on every finger. He looked like the type of guy you didn’t want to fight. Mr. HalfFull thought he might be a scalper. We hung around to listen to his conversation and learned that he too was looking for tickets.

Stadium Family

Ms. HalfEmpty in the MCG stadium with the side of the family who supports the Carlton Blues

Our chances seemed pretty much exhausted when I overheard the conversation of a family nearby. They were talking about how it was too bad that “those two” couldn’t come. What? Two tickets?

So I butted into their circle and asked if they had two extra tickets. They did, but they were tickets for children. Bummer!

Stadium Family

Mr. HalfFull with the other brother who's a fan of the Collingwood Magpies

We started walking away when they said, “But we aren’t going to use them, so you’re welcome to try. Just walk in with us and be our kids for the day! There’s no harm in trying.” I didn’t know what the penalty was for using the wrong age-group ticket, but we had already ridden the train illegally, so what the heck! Weren’t the Australians descendants of criminals anyway? (Kids, this is why they tell you not to smoke because it’s just a gateway to more and more.)

The tickets worked and we all got in! The introvert had accosted strangers in a foreign country to fulfill Mr. HalfFull’s dream. It was amazing.

Inside MCG

Watching Aussie football inside MCG stadium

The stadium was huge and circular, unlike our oblong stadiums. It was impressive to watch these super fit athletes play with no padding. There was a lot of leg to tantalize the ladies. Plus, there were no big bellies like in the NFL. Even the referees were super fit.

The family we sat with explained the rules to us; they were so much fun. We tried to pay them for the tickets and buy them beers, but they didn’t want anything. They even emailed us a few days later to ask if we wanted to grab “a pot.” After looking that up online, I learned that it’s beer, not tea.

Meat Pie

Sampling meat pie at the stadium

We knew that meat pies are an Aussie football stadium staple. Even after our disappointment with pies in Sydney, we tried the stadium fare. It was okay. I guess they can’t make them like the flaky pastries in New Zealand because it needs to be self-contained and more spill-proof for the stadium.

Red Stitch Theater

Ms. HalfEmpty at Red Stitch Theater

That evening we had tickets to see a play called My Romantic History at Red Stitch theater. It was a super cute playhouse. Much of the play took place in the bathroom and the set consisted of three bathroom stalls. That brought our live theater count to six on the 30/40 World Tour.

Mr. HalfFull got his football and I got my theater. It was a good day all around, especially considering the tears the night before.

  • Do you make reservations before you arrive or wing it?
  • How do you handle the unknown? Are you able to relax and let things unfold?
  • Did you have a breaking point while traveling? What helped you get over it?
  • Have you broken the rules while traveling?
  • If you are not normally a sports fan, do you still think it would be interesting to witness in a foreign country?
  • Have you been surprised by the kindness of strangers?

Related:  All posts in the 30/40 World Tour series

Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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