As at: July – September 2019

Time for another long holiday

Decades ago, in my twenties, I went backpacking a few times. With the headiness of youth, paucity of funds was not a deterrent. Those were the days when I would work, save up money, quit my job, go travelling till the money ran out, and then return to look for another job. I took the cheapest airlines, even if it meant several transit landings to reach my destination. Within Europe, rail travel was the cheapest option then (besides car-pooling with the Mitfahrzentrale).

I just loved the feeling of a loosely “planned” (if one could even call it that) trip, the flexibility to just go with the flow.

In the days before the internet, rail passes had to be purchased from local travel agents. In later years, it was possible to purchase EurailPasses online, and have them sent by mail. Besides the Eurail official website, the passes began to be offered on other portals as well, sometimes at lower rates because of promos.

As years went by, and my jobs came with ever increasing levels of responsibility, taking time off work for even two weeks at a stretch was a challenge, so forget about taking a break for several weeks. It has now been nearly two years since I left full-time work, and taken on a series of part-time and/or freelance work, in a state I call “semi-retirement”.  Although I worked fewer hours per week, there was still a requirement to report for work at certain times on certain days.

Months before my contract ended in June 2019, I made up my mind to splurge on a long, lazy holiday. To just hang loose. My soul needed it. So I announced way in advance to my company that I would not be renewing the contract when it ended. And started planning for my trip.

Much time, little money

Now, I have come full-circle. And returned to the “much time, little money” style of travelling of my youth. I now have the luxury of time, but not the spending power of when I was working full-time.

Coach travelling cool again

In the early stages of my holiday planning, I chanced upon an article in the Financial Times about Flixbus and the founders’ vision “to make coach travelling cool again”.

The coach trips I made in the 1980s were usually for day tours to scenic spots. There were long-distance coaches, but I never considered them an option as I had little information about the routes, where to get the tickets, and how to get around at the destination. I was usually travelling on a tight budget, so taxis were out of the question.

But now, the world has changed.

Low, low fares

After a quick web search on Flixbus, I knew Flixbus would feature prominently in my trip. In no time, I had downloaded the app. And fallen in love with the wide, wide network and low, low fares.  We are talking crazy prices as low as €4.99 for a 4-hour bus journey from Berlin to Hamburg. Heck, I paid a lot more than that for a carpool 30+ years ago to get from Hamburg to Berlin.

The fares vary depending on the route, the time of departure, the day of the week, as well as how far in advance the booking is made. In general, the further ahead you booked, the cheaper it was. As a case in point, I just looked up the price of a Berlin-Hamburg trip on a Friday, and the fare ranges from €9.99 to €19.99.

With the app in hand, I could search for connections, pick the departure times, book the seat, as well as extras such as seat selection and additional check-in baggage, and pay for everything with my trusty Youtrip card.

Interflix – €99 for 5 direct trips

On this much-time-little-money holiday, spending half a day in a comfortable bus enjoying the scenery or surfing the net with the on-board wifi to get to my next destination didn’t sound like much of a hardship. As my itinerary was firming up and I was checking with various friends on their availability to host this vagabond in their homes, I came across a promo on Flixbus.

For €99, I could get 5 promo codes which could be used to pay for direct trips (no transfers allowed) anywhere within Europe. That came up to about €20 per trip. As I planned to take a couple of long journeys by Flixbus, I was sure I would spend more than €99 in total. Using the promo codes meant the price was locked in, and I could book at the last minute and not have to worry about how much the fares for each sector have gone up.

The long night

My first Flixbus journey was also the longest. Based on the availability of my friends in the various cities, I ended up travelling from Zurich to Hamburg by bus. What a disaster! The positive side was that things could only get better after that.

Depart Zurich 7.20pm, arrive Hamburg 9am. Total travel time 13 hrs 40 mins.

Is that my bus?

Zurich Bus Station

Not all bus terminals have clearly signposted berths

The bus terminal in Zurich was just a big parking lot! There was a small information counter at the terminal manned by an elderly gentleman. After waiting for him to finish a long phone conversation, I asked him in German where I should wait for the Flixbus to Hamburg. He looked at me totally without expression, and said slowly and deliberately, “Ich habe keine Information” (I have no information.) I was stunned. Not the response I expected from someone manning the information counter. I repeated my question. And he simply repeated his response, just as expressionlessly. “Ich habe keine Information.” It was a wee bit surreal.

Okay….  No problem. I’m good at asking for help. I went around asking several people. Being able to speak German helped – but not much. Nobody had any idea where I should wait for the Hamburg-bound bus.

How do you recognise your Flixbus? Look for the Flixbus paintwork? Be aware that not all Flixbuses are painted in their corporate colours! The buses are actually owned and operated by a variety of travel companies. Though most of the buses are in the familiar green and orange, some could be plying the Flixbus routes still in the colours of the tour company.

So in bus stations without proper berths and signage, you need to get up close enough to each bus to read the signs on the bus for the line number or destination. Your stop might not even be listed on the signs on the bus, only the final destination. For instance, I didn’t know that my Opatija bus was terminating in Crikvenica. But by then I had learned to look for the bus line number. That, together with the matching departure time, gave me confidence that it was my bus.

Singtel data roam costs S$25.00 per MB?!?!

I wanted to login to the Flixbus app to find out the status of the trip, but did not have internet access. I do not subscribe to data-roaming AND I decided against getting a Europe SIM card for data as all my friends whom I would be staying with had wifi at home. I figured many public places have wifi nowadays.

But not that bus terminal in Zurich, obviously. I checked the rates for Singtel data roam, and had to look twice. No, I hadn’t misread the text – roaming data costs S$25.00 per MB (MB!!). No way was I going to pay that kind of money.

A gentleman I approached was very helpful. He thought he knew which bus was going to Hamburg, and led me to it. I asked the bus driver if he was going to Hamburg and he said yes. But when I showed him my Flixbus ticket, he said he was going a different route. He was headed for Kiel via Hamburg. And he pointed out the bus line number printed on my ticket, and told me I had to look for that number on the buses.

So I retreated to one side of the bus park where there was a shelter and some benches – all fully occupied. By now, it was half an hour after my scheduled departure time, and I had no idea when/if the bus was coming. I started asking people around me where they were heading to.

A guy standing nearby said he was going to Stuttgart. Each time another bus pulled into the bus park, we would rush forward to see if it was our bus. When I saw the Stuttgart-bound guy heading to a newly-arrived bus, I stayed put. He looked back and asked “Aren’t you going?” I said I was going to Hamburg. He said it was the same bus. I took a look at his ticket, and found it was the same line number. So finally, I found my bus.

Passengers with luggage board last

Many passengers with no check-in luggage boarded the bus while those of us with luggage had to wait for the bus crew to load our bags. They were stowed away in different sections of the luggage compartment depending on our destinations, so it was not a simple case of throwing the bags in.

Finally, I could board the bus. There were only two empty seats, and I was just happy to get a seat.

Stay clear of the loo

After we set off, the wafting smell reminded me of something I’d read online about travelling on Flixbus. Don’t sit near the toilet! Yes, they do stink. A couple of stops later, when some passengers up front disembarked, I took the chance to move further away from the toilet. But in an enclosed bus, you can’t really escape the stench.

Comfy seats

The seats on board the buses were wide and comfortable. I was quite tired from all the excitement, and managed to doze off a little.

You can’t really sleep on a night bus

At every stop we drew up to, the cabin lights would be switched on. Some people may be able to sleep through all that, but I found myself waking up at every stop. And after getting over the worst of the fatigue, I just stayed awake. As morning dawned, I could enjoy the passing scenery of the German countryside as we drove northwards.

Limited Wifi

While logging on to the wifi, I saw a notice that free wifi was limited to 100MB. That wasn’t a lot. So my idea of surfing the net throughout the trip flew out the window. I tried to conserve some data so that I could message my friend in Hamburg who was coming to pick me up when we got closer.

Hamburg Bus Station (or Bus Port Hamburg, to use its official name)

Not all bus terminals are equal

When we arrived in Hamburg, I was surprised to see that there were proper parking berths with digital boards showing the bus line, destination, and departure time. So well organized! But this is Germany, after all. But then again, you would think the Swiss could do as well? In Opatija, the bus station was rather small, and there were fewer buses stopping there, so there wasn’t as much confusion.

The Hamburg Central Bus Station also goes by the moniker Bus Port Hamburg. It also has its own website! And if you see the acronym ZOB on any German destinations, it stands for Zentral Omnibus Bahnhof. Which means (you guessed it!) Central Bus Station. In major cities, there may be multiple stops, such as at the ZOB and at the airport.

Flixtrains too!

While I was looking for a bus to get from Hamburg to my next stop, my friend in Cologne reminded me that there are Flixtrain services too. At the time of my visit (summer 2019), the train services only operated within Germany, though there were plans to go global. I wasn’t sure if my promo codes could be used for the train service, but gave it a try. And they could! The trip was 2 hours shorter – 5 hours by train, 7 hours by bus.

Which costs more – Flixbus or Flixtrain?

It depends. On the timing, on the demand. I have seen some routes where the train was costlier than the bus for the same sector. At times, it was the other way around.

The seats looked travel-worn.

Rickety trains

The Hamburg-Cologne train was rather old and rackety. It was the type of train I travelled on in my youthful backpacking days decades ago, and the compartments looked pretty much worse for the wear. The upholstery was worn and stained, the windows rattled noisily as the train clattered along. My friends told me that the Flixtrains were old German Rail trains.

And the toilets were another level of gross. The first one I went to on the train was blocked and full of piddle. I beat a hasty retreat, and went forth in search of another. A passenger standing outside pointed me in the direction of the next toilet. It smelled, but I was just grateful to have a functioning toilet I could use. Based on my experience on my first bus trip, I brought tissue paper, which was of course not to be found in the train toilet too.

Free scenic tour

Depart Munich 8.00 am, arrive Opatija 5.20pm. Total travel time 9 hrs 20 mins.

For my next long bus trip, I chose a daytime trip. Just as in Hamburg, the bus terminal in Munich was well sign-posted, had seats for waiting passengers, proper berths for the buses, and free but erratic wifi at the station. I queued up early so that I was among the first few to have my luggage checked in, and had more choice of seats. I picked one several rows away from the loo…..

Our route took us from Munich, via Salzburg and Villach in Austria, Udine and Trieste in Italy, to Opatija in Croatia.

Oh, what a beautiful journey that was. The landscape was a kaleidoscope of green fields with grazing cattle, towering grey mountains, wild flowers growing by the roadside, placid lakes in cool shades of blue and green, picturesque farm houses, trees both tall and straight, and wizened and spreading, little villages with hand-painted murals, church spires, mountain tunnels, and above all, the blue, blue sky with fat and fluffy white clouds, or dark clouds, throwing patches of shadow over the land or letting the golden sun burnish it all.

There I sat in my Flixbus enjoying my Reiseproviant (a German word that brings back memories of the thoughtfully put together food packets to sustain me on my train journeys, which my friends or their mothers had prepared for me, way back when, in a way that the English words “travel provisions” simply cannot convey), complete with Raffaello chocolates which my host in Munich had packed for me for dessert. Once in a while, I would WhatsApp some pretty pictures, among the hundreds I took along the way, to my friends. And hear them complain about the haze back home then (August 2019).

But I digress. This story is about my experience travelling with Flixbus.

A huge fan

Despite the stinking toilets, despite the occasional delays (all my trips were only slightly late, including the bus from Zurich which left one hour late, but made up the time along the way), the miserly wifi quota, I am now a huge fan of Flixbus. The schedules of my friends in the various cities set the framework for my travel sequence, and the time constraints made it necessary to limit the number of cities I visited.

But each time I looked at the Flixbus app and saw the very attractive prices to various cities, I was sorely tempted to visit other places. And so sorry I couldn’t. Before my trip started, 50 days sounded like a long holiday. Towards the end, it didn’t feel long at all.

Despite the issues, and the room for improvement, my viewpoint is strongly tempered by the super low fares and the amazing choice of destinations. How I wished there was Flixbus in my backpacking days.

In the palm of my hand

I loved the sense of freedom of having all the information I needed in the palm of my hand, on my mobile – when I had wifi. 🙂 A few keystrokes on the mobile phone, and I could browse, choose, book, pay and get an e-ticket. While boarding, I just had to flash the QR code on my mobile for check-in.

At times like this, I love the times we live in.