Travel can be exhilarating, eye-opening, and full of breathtaking moments. It can also be frustrating, panic-inducing, and downright miserable at times. And no trip would be complete with a disaster or two.
Like the time when you’re standing along the road at 12:30 am waiting for a bus that should have left an hour ago, and you’ve got the sinking feeling that it’s not going to show up. Again.
I was supposed to leave Budapest Sunday night on the night bus to Prague.
Random Budget Travel Tip: Take overnight trains or buses – they save you a night’s accommodation.
I had packed up my bags, checked out of my hostel, and was just getting ready to head to the bus station when I decided to check my email (you know, gotta make use of that free WiFi when you have it). Good thing I did, because this little nugget from Orangeways bus lines was waiting for me:
On 2014-08-03. 23:30 our bus from Budapest-Bratislava-Prague-Dresden-Berlin won’t departure because of technical reasons!
The tickets are valid for 08-04. 23.30. or 08.05. at 8:00 bus!
Oh goody. I immediately went down to the reception of the hostel and asked them if there was room for me to stay an extra night. Luckily, there was. I then emailed the hostel that I had a reservation with in Prague, explaining the situation and asking if there was any way, pretty please, that they might let me move my reservation back a day. I got back a cheery little “Sorry about your problem but it is not our problem. You still have to pay for the night even if you are not here.”
Thanks, Orangeways. Now I have to pay for two extra nights.
The next day I was itching to get to Prague. I mean, there are much worse places to be stuck in than Budapest, but still. I was all packed up and ready to go. My Budapest hostel (Lowcostel) was really understanding about my situation and went out of their way to help me out. Since it was raining, they let me officially check out but leave my bags in the room and keep the key until I actually left for the bus.
After hitting refresh on my email every 15 minutes until it was time to go, still no word from Orangeways. I made my way to the station, plopped my backpack down, and waited for the bus to arrive. And waited. And waited.
11:30 came and went. Then 11:45. Then midnight.
When some of the Hungarian friends I had met heard that I booked with Orangeways they started telling me all kinds of horror stories from the bus leaving half an hour early without half the passengers to it bus leaving two hours late without a word of explanation. I wish I had known this BEFORE I booked a ticket with them. Let this be a lesson that sometimes the cheapest option does not end up saving you money.
Finally, one of the passengers with a working phone received a call from Orangeways customer service informing them that yes, indeed, the bus was still suffering from mechanical issues and would not be arriving. SO nice of them to let us know an hour after it should have departed.
I’d been passing the time chatting with a tall, dark, Bradley Cooper-lookalike named Manuel and his friend. When we heard the news we immediately jumped into action. This was not happening again. We WERE going to Prague tonight.
Two others joined our little group of determined rebels and we ran through our options. We considered hijacking another bus or hitchhiking, but in the end decided to walk until we found some place with free WiFi to assess the transportation situation. And write a few not-so-nice emails to Orangeways.
We found a hotel with the slowest WiFi on the planet (I’m talking an average page load speed of 3-4 minutes) and started looking for ways out of Budapest. Another bus? Nope, they were completely booked. For the next 2 days. Our only option was the train that left at 5:25 am.
At this point five other stranded backpackers wandered into the hotel and we were able to save them 40 minutes of page loading by sharing our information. We decided to join forces. The hotel lobby was closing but they kindly called a couple of taxis to take us to the train station. We figured we could wait out the rest of the night there and hop on the first train out. Ever tried to stuff 9 people with luggage into two regular-sized cabs? Oh yeah, it’s an adventure all right.
We made it to the train station around 2 am. It was closed.
Clearly at this point there was nothing to do but drink. We spotted a flashing sign that said “pub” and headed toward the light. And there we found the trifecta: Cheap beer, free WiFi, and open electrical outlets.
We set up camp and enjoyed a few drinks while waiting for the station to open up. At 4 am we were able to buy our tickets…for $70. Ouch. Thanks again, Orangeways. My original bus ticket was only $22. At least I had a decent buzz going to help soften the blow.
Never have I slept so well on a non-sleeper train. Sure, I may have been using my arm for a pillow and there was absolutely zero leg room, but I was exhausted. What is it with me and trains??
We finally arrived in Prague! After dealing with everything alone for months now, it was so great to have travel buddies.
Three of us ended up getting together and exploring the city together the next day. There are destinations I’ve been totally content spending time on my own in (Sarajevo, Zagreb…) but some cities need to be enjoyed with fellow travelers. Let me tell you, Prague is better with friends.
We ate, we drank, we took one million pictures (mostly Sarah, film student and photographer – Sebastian and I just posed as directed). We climbed to the top of the “Mini Eiffel Tower” together (which looks nothing like the actual Eiffel Tower and sways alarmingly when you reach the top).
We drank home-brewed beers at the monastery – traditional Saint Norbert Amber, refreshing Red Summer Ale, and a crisp, flavorful IPA. (Yep, Prague has a monastery/brewery – why doesn’t every city??) We also tried pancakes (which are what Americans would call crepes) with cream and beer ice cream. That’s right, beer ice cream. It might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
We walked 25 minutes through the city to find a pho restaurant that a friend of Sarah’s had recommended. Prague has a sizable Vietnamese population and the food was supposed to be excellent. It was, and now I can say that I tried pho for the first time ever in Prague. I’m a convert.
We discovered a “secret” underground bar that you had to walk through dimly-lit stone tunnels to find, which is when we realized that between us we had the US completely represented. Sarah is from L.A., Sebastian from New York, and I, of course, have left my heart in Chicago.
As a solo traveler, I often join up and hang out with other travelers, but this was the first time I was genuinely sad to part from new friends. I’m thinking a weekend in New York might be in order when I get back. And once February in the Midwest rolls around I’ll be only too eager to book a ticket out to sunny L.A.
So I haven’t quite forgiven you for costing me $100 I hadn’t budgeted for, Orangeways. Or for informing me that it will take 6 weeks for you to refund the ticket price to my credit card (why is it that companies can TAKE the $ instantly but it takes 6 weeks to give it back? Mmmmhm.)
BUT, that being said, I don’t regret one minute of getting stranded in Budapest, because it led to friendships with two awesome people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And really, all the delicious food, amazing architecture, and thirst-quenching drinks aren’t what make a travel experience truly special: it’s the people that you meet.
Who knows? Maybe sometime in the future the Orangeways Survival Group will all meet up and explore another destination together. I have a feeling this isn’t the end of our adventures.
Have you ever had a travel disaster? Were you able to find some good in the experience or did it scar you for life?
This post is part of the #SundayTraveler series. Find other fabulous travel posts (or link up your own) at Chasing the Donkey or any of the other hosts listed below!