Tag Archives: transportation

Riding Around

I’ve ways been a fan of public transportation when traveling. I think part of it stems from the lack of options where I’m from back in America. Having to drive everywhere gets old quickly.

The ability to multitask on a bus or subway is pretty great. I’m actually writing this post while taking the bus across town. Instead of sitting and fuming in traffic, I’m sitting and writing in traffic. A much better option I think.

The cost of using the local transportation is also a huge draw. Unlike Washington DC where a single bus trip is more than three dollars, municipal transportation is still seen as a public good in most places which keeps the prices low. It’s always far cheaper to get around like the locals than take a taxi when traveling. I’ll save my money for fun things like food and adventures thank you very much.

A final reason I prefer buses to cabs is what you can see. The bus is great for people watching; everyone going about their daily lives of work and school. It’s a small glimpse into another world. I also enjoy watching the city or scenery go by. You never know what you might find in passing. Taxis have to drive quickly to make more money. Buses have to drive slow and stop often because that’s their job. A bus trip is a great way to learn more about the layout of a place.

However it’s not always perfect on the bus. Sometimes, like literally right in the middle of writing this entry, you realize that you got on the wrong bus. Or in this case the right bus going in the wrong direction. It has happened to me more than once so I’ve learned to give myself lots of time to get somewhere. I can bring a book to wait with.

German Inefficiency

Germany’s a country of engineers according to the stereotype. Everyone works hard and makes it a point to get things done well and on time. Nice and orderly. Of all the national stereotypes to have, Germany has a pretty good one these days. Too bad real life gets in the way.

I had just spent more than a month tramping through Uganda with few problems. Everything wasn’t perfect, but it for the most part no major issues. I was still excited to get to Germany. The thing I looked forward to the most was the idea that things would just work. I’m an easily excitable person.

I landed in Frankfurt because it was cheap, and the next day I had a bus to take me to Berlin where I was visiting a friend. Pro tip, don’t go to Frankfurt. It sucks. The bus was going to be a five hour ride and I would arrive in Berlin in the evening after she got off work.

But what’s travel without a few hiccups right? About half way through the drive, the bus broke down. Long story short we were stuck on the side of the road for six hours. First the driver and conductor tried to fix the problem. That took an hour. Then they called the ADAC folk, they took about two hours to show up. They messed around for an hour and fixed nothing. Finally the company sent a new bus to pick us up. After six hours in the beating sun we were on our way.

Now if that was the end of the story it would be pretty boring, but I’m just getting started.

I was in contact with the friend I was staying with in Berlin over Facebook. I had her phone number stored in my messages on my iPhone that the Facebook app automatically saves. Except for the first and only time since, the app decided to delete all the messages on my phone. Strike one against Facebook. I don’t know why, but that mean I had no phone number to contact my friend and tell her I’d be late.

I’m stuck in a strange country with no means of communication with my only contact, no way to start looking for a hostel, and I’m going to arrive at my destination after 11 PM. Not the most conducive time to figuring things out.

After we finally got moving I found myself sitting next to a cute German girl a Lonely Planet about Eastern Europe. Having a little experience in the region I struck up a conversation and we chatted most of the ride. I told her my problem with Facebook and she told me it shouldn’t be too hard to find wifi in Berlin to re-download all my messages. That relieved me some.

We finally got to Berlin around midnight and the bus parked in some way out of the way metro stop so there was no internet available. The cute German girl had a brilliant idea. Why don’t I just call her friend she was staying with, she can log in as me, check my messages, and get the number. Then we call my friend. Awesome, this should work. We call her friend and I give my log in information, but then Facebook’s security scheme made her identify pictures of my friends. Impossible of course. Strike two against Facebook.

Now I’m kind of frustrated, especially because Germany is supposed to be organized. So far it was a much bigger hassle than Africa was. The cute German girl invited me to her friend’s house so I could get on Facebook and dig up my messages.

Eventually I got on Facebook and was able to call my host. She met me at the metro stop near her house seven hours after I told her I would be in town. We got a couple of falafels and beer and spent another hour in her apartment catching up before conking off to sleep. I was relieved to finally arrived but pretty unhappy with my first few days in Germany.

13 Hours in Germany

First, if you’re ever in Europe, don’t take the trains. A complete waste of money. Buses are the way to go these days. It might take a little longer but you’ll pay about a third of the price. That being said, I was in Germany and I decided I had to do the train thing once because ‘Hey I’m in Europe.’

I wanted to go from Berlin to Munich. My first plan was to take a bus, but the bus company I knew wasn’t running Berlin to Munich for another two days, so I’d have to find a hostel for two nights. I looked up some info on the train using the ticket machines in the train station and it wanted 120 Euro! Real greedy SOBs right?

I was almost resigned to paying out the nose but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to mess around a little bit with the times. Maybe it would be cheaper if I left at a less reasonable hour. So I started my search around 8 PM and it was still pricey, just over night sleeper cars.

But then I saw something that caught my eye. SPECIAL. 40 Euro. Nice. The price was right. I checked it out. And it was 40 Euro, no hidden fees. The problem was the route sucked. It left at 11 PM and to go the 500 kilometers the route was going to take 13 hours. Instead of an intercity express train, it hooked me up with a string of regional trains.

I would ride a train for an hour and hop off at some station. I’d wait there for another hour for a train. Then two hours on the train, another couple hours in a new station, all night long. There was one station where I sat outside near the tracks for two hours because nothing was open. That was kind of expected since it was 4 AM.

Eventually I did make it to Munich a bit after noon. I checked into my hostel, took a cold shower to wake up, grabbed a cup of coffee and started my time in the city.

On one hand it was pretty nice getting such a good deal on the tickets. And I saved money on a hostel. But it wasn’t an easy trip. The constant transfers made it impossible to doze off because if I missed the right station it could have made things difficult for me. Part of me was so amped when I got to Munich that I wasn’t really tired. Kind of a big ‘F you’ to Deustche Bahn because I beat the system.

I’d probably do it again given the chance.

Polish Buses and Trams

Transportation in major Polish cities is extremely efficient and pretty easy to navigate once you understand the rules. The first step might be to check out the websites for the different cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Wroclaw. There may be more sites for other cities but unless you’re using Couchsurfing you’ll probably be staying somewhat close to the center of town and Polish cities are quite walkable. If you’re staying with someone, they’ll know the exact website to use to look up the bus and tram routes. If there is a route planner like the one for ZTM Warsaw you can easily put in your starting and ending points to get the information you need. If there isn’t that option, you just have to do it the old fashioned way.

By Panek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Most bus and tram stops will have a big map of the city with the routes highlighted. If you know where you are and where you are going, you can trace the route and which buses or trams you will need to take in order to make the trip.

At each stop you will find a small timetable. I’m bad at this blogging thing and thought of writing this after I left Poland so I didn’t think to get a picture and can’t find one online. But it’s easy to describe. At the top in bold numbers will be the bus route. Under that will be a listing of times looking similar to this 14 :02 :12 :22: 32: 42: 52. This tells you what times the bus will arrive. There may be different schedules for the weekends, so look for the words sobota and niedziela, Saturday and Sunday respectively. If the schedules are different it’ll be marked with a new timetable.

Next to the timetables on the paper will be the bus routes. First you need to locate the name of the stop where you are on the route. Each stop is labeled on the waiting area so match that up with the stop on the route which looks like a line with circles on it and words next to the circles. Then find the small numbers 1, 2, 3 next to station stops. Those are the next three stops on the route telling you which direction the bus will be going.

Now here’s where you need to pay attention. If the stop you need to get off at is a white circle instead of black, the bus will only stop there if you push the Stop button near the doors as you approach it. If you skip this vital step, the bus will continue on it’s merry way until the next black circle stop arrives or someone needs to get on or off.

Sometimes you’ll arrive at a bus stop but not find any bus going to where you need to go even though the internet said the routes run that way. This often happens when you need to transfer buses or trams. In this case, look around for another waiting area in the vicinity. It’ll have the same stop name, but a different number next to it. Visit that station and repeat the previous steps to ensure you are going to where you want.

By Mateusz Włodarczyk via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve finally found the right bus route, the right stop, you know how far to go, it’s time to buy a ticket. There are three main options for buying a ticket. You can use the automated ticket machines at the stops. This is the best method because you can have the machine work in English. You may also go to a small shop near the station and ask for a normaly bilet. The odds of the person working there speaking English are pretty low unfortunately. And lastly you can take a risk and hope the bus or tram you get on has a ticket machine on board. If it does just buy a ticket there.

Wil at pl.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

The system is run with the honor method. You’re supposed to purchase a ticket for one of the options (one trip, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes, etc) then validate the ticket on a little stamping machine on the bus or tram. No one actually sees you validate the ticket so there is a bit of temptation to simply not buy a ticket and save a few zloties. I did this the first few times I visited Poland. But now I’ve learned from a Polish friend of mine that they are beginning to crack down on fare jumpers. In between stops a plainclothesed officer will announce something in Polish and people will start rummaging around in their pockets and purses. This is the cue to pull out your already validated ticket. Don’t try to validated now, they don’t like that. Also don’t think you’ll be able to play the ignorant tourist card. I was coming back from Wieliczka mine to Krakow and one of the officers was able to nab five Korean tourists who didn’t have a ticket because they didn’t know where to buy one. You’ll get a bit of a fine and then allowed to go.

It’s a pretty easy system right? I learned how it all works through trial and error. My first experiences with the buses in Warsaw came on my first trip there. I was returning with my friend from dinner on the metro and saw a poster with a guy doing BMX tricks. It got me interested so I asked my friend to write down the details since it was all in Polish. We got back to her apartment and looked it up and where it was being held, I wanted to go while she was at work. She plugged the information into ZTM Warsaw’s route planner and wrote down what buses I needed to take and where to transfer.

The next morning I take my piece of paper with the details and head out to the bus stop. I get on the first bus no problem and place myself near the route maps located in every bus. I counted each time we stopped at and was getting ready for my stop… and then we drove right past it. This is where I learned that the buses don’t stop at every single stop. I hit the Stop button and figured I could just walk back to the stop I missed, no problem. Well of course the stop I was supposed to get off at was the last stop in the district so the bus crossed the bridge into the Praga area of Warsaw. A mile and a half later I hopped off the bus and started walking back.

I come from really rural areas in America. I’ve never ridden public transportation before because it doesn’t exist where I live. This was brand new to me. My yokel side will come out in a moment.

I finally get back to stop I missed and check my paper so I know what bus to hop on next. It arrives and I get on, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this problem all alone. We’re cruising along and after twenty or so minutes I get this sinking feeling that I should have reached my stop by now. But we didn’t pass it yet, I knew that for a fact. I looked at the route on the wall of the bus and realized we were going away from where I needed to be. My lack of public transportation use never allowed me to think that ‘Hey, buses with the same numbers go in opposite directions along the same line. That means each bus stop should have another bus stop with the same name to service both directions.’

I hopped off the bus and looked around, finally finding the other waiting area. I dashed across the street and saw a bus coming up. I glanced at the number at the top of the bus and then quickly at the route list. It was going to the stop where I made the mistake. Smiling at my good luck I hopped on the bus, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this new problem all alone. I’m riding the bus and I hop off at the stop. I’m not at the BMX show yet, I’m just finally at the last stop I before I get there. Since there were no buses coming I decided to spend a few minutes making the acquaintance of the waiting area, maybe there was some information here I could use. I started looking at the schedules and route maps and was pleased to discover that the bus my friend wrote for me was expected to come in about five minutes bringing me to the show. I was a little less pleased to discover that the bus I just hopped off of also went to the show.