Saturday, June 21, 2014

Autobusni in Croatia - A Guide to Getting Around

We recently traveled to Croatia and prior to our trip, we found it difficult to find good information about the bus service, which is the primary means of transportation for most of the country. Train service is centered mostly around Zagreb with connections to other European cities, so if you are planning on traveling in other areas, namely along the Istrian or Dalmatian coasts, you will likely encounter a bus.

In general we found the bus service to be extremely well organized, on time, and affordable. We were traveling in May, which is just before tourist season (June-August), so our observations may not be true for high season.

Schedules
Generally there are plenty of buses between major cities, even on the weekends. There is sometimes a lull between 12pm and 2pm when people take a siesta (especially true for buses between smaller towns). The most reliable and up-to-date information about departure times can be found on timetables at the station, which are usually posted outside with destinations and arrivals to various cities, or by asking at the ticket window. Every station we visited had a ticket seller who spoke English so it was easy to get information. At least along the coast, all the buses took the small coastal roads rather than the large interior highways which made for longer trips, but much better views. There didn't seem to be any difference in the quality or price of service among different bus companies. We used Brioni, Autotrans and ńĆazmatrans simply because they left at times we wanted.

Time and Price Estimates
  • Trieste (Italy) to Rovinj: 14.60 Euro, 3 hrs
  • Rovinj to Pula: 64 kuna, 45 minutes
  • Rovinj to Rijeka (via Pula): ~140 kuna, 3 hrs
  • Rijeka to Zadar: ~200 kuna, 5 hrs
  • Zadar to Split: 127 kuna, 3.5 hrs
  • Split to Dubrovnik: 130 kuna, 4.5 hrs

  • Buying Tickets
    Tickets can be purchased online for some bus companies, although we did not attempt to do this since we were not sure of the legitimacy of the websites and many were not in English. Tickets can be purchased at bus stations in all major cities which are generally open 8 to 5, although many take pausas (breaks) at odd hours like 9-10 or 12-2. All the bus stations we saw just had one ticket window for all the bus companies. Even if it looked like it was for just one company, they could sell you tickets for other companies as well. At the station it was possible to pay with debit card or cash and you can buy tickets in advance.

    You can also purchase tickets on the bus from the assistant if you are late or get on in a small city without a station. These tickets are about $1 cheaper because you don't pay a reservation fee. On the bus you must pay with cash. After you board and are seated, the assistant will come to you with a ticket machine and print you a receipt after you pay.

    If you buy a round trip ticket, you receive a discount of 30%, make sure you ask about it. We heard that you could by an open ended return ticket, but we never tried this. There are also discounts available for students with an ISIC card (possibly 10% although this is not verified).

    Your ticket will have the name of the bus company, the origin and destination of the bus as well as your origin and destination, times of departure and arrival, and price. For example, you might be traveling from Zadar to Split on a bus that goes from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, so both routes are listed on your ticket. Make sure you check this information before boarding so you know which bus to look for. Tickets will come with a detachable bottom part that the bus assistant rips off when you are on the bus so be sure not to lose or detach the bottom part.

    It was not necessary to buy tickets in advance for any route. Most buses were only about 1/4 to 1/3 full upon departure, although many did fill up along the route. We did purchase tickets 1-3 days in advance, mostly for the convenience of not having to do it later.

    On The Bus
    In smaller stations (like Rovinj) buses just pull up in front of the ticket office for boarding. In larger stations, there will be numbered slots that buses pull into. Ask at the ticket window to determine which numbered slot your bus will be at. Buses will have signs in the front window with the origin and destination so you should check this or ask the driver/assistant before boarding to make sure you are on the right bus – especially in busy stations. Most buses will not arrive at the station until 15 minutes before departure and you can board immediately when they arrive. Tickets are checked once the bus departs, not as you get on the bus.

    Most buses have limited luggage storage in the seating area (tiny overhead racks that fit a small shopping bag or purse.) If you have a carry-on size bag or anything larger, it will have to go under the bus. Many people will be lined up outside the bus to put their bags on and the assistant will ask what city you are going to since depending on your destination they may place your bag on one side or the other. Each bag placed under the bus costs 8 kuna, payable in cash to the assistant when you load it. Small bills or exact change are ideal. They will give you a receipt.

    Brioni Bus - Trieste to Rovinj/Pula

    Tickets technically have seat assignments, however no one adheres to them so feel free to sit where you want. Since my husband and I were traveling together, we would typically split up so I would get on to get us a good seat and he would wait to pay for and load the luggage. This worked well! There are no working bathrooms on the bus, however the buses make stops approximately every 1.5 to 2 hours where you can use restrooms (usually free). The driver will announce these as pausas (breaks) for 10-15 minutes. This is also when most people take a smoking break.

    If you are traveling down the coast from north to south, we highly recommend sitting on the right side of the bus to take in the magnificent coastal views. Every bus we took traveled on the small roads right along the water so we had the best views.

    Buses are comfortable and have air conditioning which is often chilly so a light sweater or scarf is recommended. Windows either have pull down shades or curtains if you want to avoid sunlight. You can bring food and drinks on the bus, there are trash cans. It seemed like buses could and would make stops in every tiny town we passed and even along the highway where there were turnoffs to other towns (at designated stops). Just make sure to indicate to the driver where and when you want to get off well in advance of the stop.

    Bus Stations
    Bus stations usually have paid toilets which range from 2 to 5 kuna and generally only accept exact change in coins. They also almost always have garderoba (luggage storage) which can cost up to 5 kuna/hour. Most also have some type of food vendor in or near the station which usually have wi-fi if you buy something.

    Rovinj: Bus station is right at the edge of old town peninsula. Easy walk into old town or nearby suburbs where many room rentals are. Next door is a bakery/cafe and a tour operator. 5 kuna restroom.
    Pula: Bus station is about a 5-10 minute walk to the amphitheater and then another 5 minutes to the old town. Cafe in the station.
    Zadar: Bus station is on a main road about a 20-30 minute walk to the old town along a pleasant and safe road. Across the street from a super Mercator grocery store. 2 kuna restroom.
    Split: Bus station is in the harbor area next to the ferry terminal and just 3-5 minutes from the old town. Ferry terminal building has a grocery store. Also many shops and cafes next to the bus ticket office.
    Dubrovnik: Bus station is next to the ferry/ship terminal. It is a 15-20 minute taxi ride from old town. It is not recommended to walk to town since it is far and uphill. Local buses are also available. 5 kuna restroom. Cafe at the station and across the street.

    Monday, June 16, 2014

    Navigating the Italian Train System

    Having recently traveled to Italy, I thought I would try to shed some light on the sometimes complicated train system. Part of being a thrifty traveler is knowing all your options before you go so you aren't easily misled into a more expensive option you didn't know about, so hopefully this helps other thrifty travelers out there navigate the Italian train system.

    There are several types of train services in Italy. I refer here to trains run by Trenitalia which is the bigger and older train company, but there are other services as well (Italo, Eurostar...).

    Types of Trains
    • Freccia Fleet - Divided into Bianca, Rossa and Argento. These are faster trains that make fewer stops, the different divisions are just nicer/faster. Seat reservations are required. Prices range from super economy to premium class. Can book in advance which is generally recommended since the cheaper seats do sell out quickly.
    • Regional or Regional Veloce (R/RV) - Regular trains that make more stops and thus often take longer than the Freccias. No seat reservation required. First or second class only. Prices are fixed and purchased tickets can be used for up to 2 months so there is no need to buy in advance.
    • Intercity - Still not quite sure how this is different speed-wise from the RV. It seemed to make fewer stops than the RV, but you get a seat reservation. Range of classes. May purchase in advance although it's less necessary.
    • Local Trains - Service all the small towns along a route - usually have to go to a larger town/city and then get the local train to smaller places. Cheapest, slowest, most stops.

    General Tips and Notes

    • Names of stations/cities are in Italian, even on the English web pages and monitors, so Rome is Roma, Venice is Venezia etc. It’s helpful to know the name of the place you want to go in Italian. 
    • You can buy tickets online from Trenitalia directly. Other websites like RailEurope may lure you in by having more easily accessible information in English, but they will charge a fee on top of the normal ticket price to book you on other trains (they do not operate their own trains). You can avoid these fess by booking directly on Trenitalia, which does have an English page. 
    • Many larger towns have multiple train stations that can be in very different locations so be sure you select the exact station you want. Rome for example has at least 4 plus the airport. The “centrale” or “cle” station is usually the main station. 
    • Trains generally run on time, but of course the one train connection you need to make will inevitably be the one you miss and most tickets cannot be refunded or changed (some business and premium Freccia seats can). For this reason, I recommend only buying direct trains in advance. If you will need to be changing trains, I recommend purchasing each leg as you go. 

    Buying a Ticket Online

    The Trenitalia website (www.trenitalia.com) is actually quite useful and has an English page which usually works fine. On the website you can search for your route and time and it will show you different options. It's generally very good at finding the optimal route for you. It will also show you different class pricing options and you can select your seats online. Sometimes the website does get messed up and doesn’t show you all the options (may omit some regional and local trains) so if you are skeptical, go to a train station. If you don’t have an Italian address, online you can only buy tickets for the Freccia and IC trains. You cannot buy R/RV tickets online without an Italian address. You can use any major credit card to make your purchase (I used my BankAmericard Travel Visa with no issues). You will be emailed a copy of your ticket. You can either print the email you receive that has the PNR code, or use the PNR and CP codes to retrieve your ticket at the station.

    Buying a Ticket at the Station
    Every station will have Biglietto (Ticket) machines which are big green automated machines with touch screens where you can buy tickets for any Trenitalia train/route. You can select a language other than Italian, including English, German, French or Spanish. The interface will start off by assuming you are buying a ticket from the station you are at, but you can easily change it to go between any other stations. Once you’ve selected a route you can browse through times and different types of trains.

    *Note* The prices displayed are often the “general” or “non economy” fares and there are usually cheaper tickets available. If you select the train you want, you can click the information button and on the left there is a button for “promotions” which will show you the discounted fares. Note that economy and super economy are cheaper but non refundable. If the ticket machines are driving you crazy (which they often do), most stations also have a ticket/information counter where you can ask for help and purchase tickets as well. You can use cash or credit cards to make your purchase at the machine and it will instantly print your tickets for you. If you are buying tickets for more than one person at a time, it may print one for each person or both on the same ticket so check to make sure it has the number of people you want on the tickets that print.

    At the Station, Before Departure
    If you purchased tickets online, you can use the PNR and CP codes to retrieve your ticket at the station. Supposedly you can do this at the biglietto machines, but we tried several times and it never worked so I don’t recommend this. You can, however, go to the information/ticket counter and give them your PNR code and they can print the tickets. The counter isn’t open 24 hours, so if you have a very early or late train, don’t count on this, pick up your tickets in advance. Most stations also have a variety of cafes, tabacchi (cigarette/snack shops) and other places to buy food before you get on your train.

    At the station you must also VALIDATE tickets which simply means getting them timestamped. You do NOT have to validate any ticket that has a car and seat number assigned since these tickets are only valid for one train/time - this includes all the Freccia fleet trains and IC trains (although it never hurts to validate tickets if you are unsure). You DO have to validate R/RV and local tickets. Your ticket is good for any train on that route for 2 months so the day you wish to use it, you must time-stamp it to prove you are using it that day. The validation machines are small red, white and green ovular shaped machines that are located on train platforms and in the station (I’ve read other bloggers say they are yellow, but I did not see any yellow machines… Also, make sure the machine has a green light on, indicating it’s working). You simply insert the left hand side of your ticket into the slot and you will hear it stamp the date/time (check for the stamp when you pull it out). Validated tickets are good for 6 hours after validation. IMPORTANT: If you are caught without a validated ticket, you will have to pay a 100 Euro fine and they don’t accept the “I’m a tourist and I didn’t know” excuse!

    Sample Train Ticket

    Train stations will have large digital displays that show the departing and arriving trains. Look to these displays to find the track (binari) your train will be at. Make sure you know your train number, not just your destination, since most often your train has a final destination different than where you are going. Many stations also have large posters of the timetable that are displayed throughout the station with Partenze (departures) and Arrivi (arrivals) which also indicate departure track.

    Once you've determined your track number, you will probably have to take an underground passage to get to it since you cannot walk over/across the tracks. Note there were limited elevators except in major stations, so be prepared to haul luggage, kids, etc up and down stairs. Once at your track, there should be a another display that shows the next arriving/departing train so you can confirm you are in the right spot.

    On the Train
    If you’ve been assigned a seat and car, you should probably sit in your assigned spot even if the train isn’t full. Car numbers are posted on the outside of the train. Seats are likely to fill up as the train makes additional stops, although it depends on the route and time. Trains mostly have four seats grouped around a small table, but you can also find seats that do not face other passengers. Seats are generally quite comfortable and most trains are very clean. Luggage can be stowed above seats in the racks, in the triangular space between seat backs, or in some trains, a designated luggage rack in the center of the car.

    Regional Veloce Train

    Typically trains have a restroom in each car. In my experience the regional trains had the worst bathrooms, while the IC and Freccia trains were better, although it mostly depends on the age of the train. Some regional trains were fine. The nicer ones had toilet paper, running water, soap, and paper towels. I would still always recommend bringing your own TP and hand sanitizer. You should not go to the restroom at or near stations since the waste simply spills out onto the tracks.

    Freccia trains usually always have a cafe car, and the conductor will make an announcement when it is open for business – they sell a variety of snacks and drinks. In certain business and premium seats on Freccia trains you will also be offered a free drink and snack (juice, coffee, cookies, chips) and free newspapers.

    We are happy to report that every single one of our trains left exactly on time and that of the 8 or so trains we took, only one arrived late – and only by about 5 minutes. So glad we could count on them to be on time!

    Hope these tips have been helpful and feel free to leave a message with other questions!