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Train travel between Eastern & Central Europe: Mission barely possbile?

Train travel between Eastern & Central Europe: Mission barely possbile?

Old Dec 9th, 2023, 11:21 AM
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Train travel between Eastern & Central Europe: Mission barely possbile?

I'm planning a trip from my home base in Sofia, Bulgaria for next year to Zagreb, Maribor (with day trips by train to some nearby Slovenian towns), Graz and probably also at least 2 nights in Vienna.
I've already been in Vienna so it's more of a trip for fun, vising bars and cafes as well as the train travel in itself being the purpose. Might skip Vienna to spend more time in the other cities as I'm more into small cities. Passing trough the beautiful countrysides would be amazing, although I'd agree there are even more beautiful sights in the Western parts of Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, but I just want something closer to home.

My plan is to take a 11-13 hr bus ride from Sofia to Zagreb, sleep in a hotel there for 1 or 2 nights and continue via a train to Maribor where I will spent 2 or 3 nights, visiting other beautiful towns in the area like Celje and Ptuj. Then on to Graz 2-3 nights and ending in Vienna or alternatively going back to Zagreb and getting a bus to Bulgaria, although I could in theory take a train from Vienna through Hungary, Romania and then to Vidin and then to Sofia... My main destinations of this trip are Eastern Slovenia and Austria but thought that Zagreb is on my way anyway I might as well experience it as well. No time for visiting the amazing Lake Bled, Ljubljana or any sea towns in Croatia or Slovenia on this trip.

I could also fly into Zagreb from Sofia with RyanAir & save many hours but after so many years of plane travel I feel like I'm done with airports, having to be there for hours before departure, the cramped planes, the annoying (but much needed) security measures. It's just too much stress. Not to mention I live near an airport and I hate the annoying droning & air pollution that planes cause so I don't want to fund air companies. Back in 2020 the air in my 'hood was definitely cleaner when most flights were cancelled.

Anyway, unfortunately there aren't easy ways to use trains for the whole trip so I'll probably have to suffer rely on a bus from Sofia to Zagreb. 11-13 hrs in one sounds like hell & they're every bit as cramped as planes but have less annoying security measures, and being on ground is better in my opinion. A car would be better but it's less social than trains and from Zagreb to Austria I will use exclusively only trains.

I always feel weird for days after flying on a plane and airports cause me extreme anxiety that I don't get on bus/train stations. My peeve is that many bus companies here do not allow you to use the WC on the bus at all, so it's really inconvenient compares to a train. I've also found people on trains to be friendlier than those using buses or planes for some reason. It's crazy that there aren't any direct trains from Sofia to Belgrade and probably not even from Belgrade to Zagreb. I got so used to the nice trains in Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic where they're miles better than the FlixBuses that it's really surprising.

Should I get a Eurail Pass, and will it cover Slovenia, Austria and Croatia? Or should I just buy multi-country passes? Any suggestions from experienced train travelers would be appreciated! Or would you suggest I take more days on this trip and use a train all the way to Austria (from Sofia through Vidin, Romania and Hungary)?

Last edited by tanek; Dec 9th, 2023 at 12:04 PM.
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Old Dec 9th, 2023, 12:54 PM
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It's crazy that there aren't any direct trains from Sofia to Belgrade and probably not even from Belgrade to Zagreb.
Serbia is isolated from it's neighbours, there are no trains between Serbia and other countries so that makes things a bit trickier. Short story: Not every country in the area has great relations with its neighbours. Long story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breakup_of_Yugoslavia

Although if you want to travel by train, you can do it via Bucharest and Budapest. A Eurail pass might not be good value as single tickets can be very cheap in the area.
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Old Dec 9th, 2023, 08:43 PM
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In general passes are bad value. In addition I didn't think European residents could even buy the Eurrail pass
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Old Dec 9th, 2023, 11:50 PM
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Flix bus no idea but I was hearing goodish things about it

Trust pilot https://uk.trustpilot.com/review/flixbus.de may be a bit depressing

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Old Dec 10th, 2023, 06:52 AM
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Thanks for all the tips!
I wonder if I should skip the bus/train idea for the Bulgaria-Serbia-Croatia or Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary parts of my trip and just take my car?

I suppose I could have a night stay in Zagreb/Maribor or somewhere in Romania and Budapest, leave my car at the hotel parking or a paid one & continue with a train to Austria, spend a few nights there and take trains within Austria, Slovenia or Hungary visiting interesting small cities or nature areas and then get back to my car and either drive off back to Bulgaria directly or stay again at the same hotel in Maribor/Zagreb/Budapest or wherever and drive back home?

I want one of these trips where you don't know where you will stay and book rooms and take trains as I go. Lots of uncertainty but also the joy of freedom! I don't want to be stuck at a hotel in a city/country that I won't like.like it happened the last time. This way I would be able to stay more nights in the places I really fall in love with on my trip.

The thing is I would like to experience train travel as it gives you a better chance to mix with licals and fellow travelers but the trains between Bulgaria and Croatia or Bulgaria and Hungary require too much time, changes etc. In Serbia I even have to cross the border by foot to the nearest Croat town to continue by train to Zagreb. No direct trains exist. It's too much a hastle. Once in Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary or Austria it's very easy to travel by train.

I'd like to avoid having to cjange trains in Serbia and having to walk over the border to Croatia if possible and with a car I could just pass through it in more comfort I think. Unfortunately the roads through Romania are less nice for driving as they pass through too many villages and towns.

The more I think the more a train + car journey seems the best for my needs. Car for Bulgaria, Serbia/Romania to Croatia/Slovenia or Hungary. Leave the car and take trains, go back and drive back to Sofia. I could even go all the way with my car to Austria, park there and take trains to Budapest or Maribor/Zagreb etc. Go back to AT and drive off directly to Bulgaria. Of course I bet parking in Austria is quite costly compared to a place like Maribor or even Budapest, Zagreb etc.

My aim is to get a feeling of as many countries in this trip except Serbia which I will pass through (not that different to Bulgaria really) with wanting to spend the most time in Austria & Slovenia.

Last edited by tanek; Dec 10th, 2023 at 06:58 AM.
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Old Dec 10th, 2023, 09:00 PM
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At some point on your way out or coming back you should stop in Pécs which is a couple of hours from Budapest by train.

or Kecskemet

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Old Dec 10th, 2023, 10:31 PM
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I always prefer trains if possible. I feel special emotions when I travel by train, something special, it's easier to make new acquaintances here.
I envy you so much. Have a nice trip!
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Old Dec 11th, 2023, 03:00 AM
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I agree, Pécs looks amazing. I will add/drop cities or towns as I go basically and base myself in Austria.
After reading horror stories with Serbian border patrols doing problems to cars with Bulgarian registrations (long story short the two nations have quite the history together), and told I need to change trains several times and even cross the border between Serbia and Croatia on foot on what looks like a country road without any pavement (between Bac and Tovarnik) I decided to go by train through Romania to Hungary instead.

I will base myself in Austria (probably divided between 3-4 nights in Vienna and 1-3 nights in Graz) and do day trips by train to Hungary (Budapest is a must, could even spend one night there if I can squeeze it), Slovenia (Maribor, Ptuj only and Celje valley if I'm lucky) down to Zagreb. I'll probably have 2 full weeks, but as trains are slow basically almost 4 days will be dedivated to the train travel from Bulgaria to Hungary and back, so the number of nights in Austria isn't that far off my estimation. Thankfully the connections between Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Eastern Croatia are faster due to the closer distances and better tracks, so probably no need for sleepovers there.

With all the toll taxes/vignettes, parking fees and fuel costs driving will amount to taking the train to Bucharest or Craiova and heading to Hungary in the end and could even surpass my train ticket costs from Sofia to Budapest even. And some of the trains have sleeping compartments so no need to book a hotel or motel.
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Old Dec 11th, 2023, 05:10 AM
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Besides Pecs I highly recommend Szeged. See: https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/?s=szeged

I'm also a huge fan of Budapest, although I gather it's a lot more popular than it used to be, and it deserves several days. Graz is well worth a visit, too.

Do you know about the Seat61 site? See, for instance, https://www.seat61.com/international...from-Sofia.htm
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Old Dec 11th, 2023, 10:27 AM
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Originally Posted by Traveler_Nick
In general passes are bad value. In addition I didn't think European residents could even buy the Eurrail pass
Interrail we can buy. I often use short duration passes as a stand in for a more expensive point to point ticket. E.g., often my train returns to Berlin are in the shape of interrail passes. Especially over 60, inter/eurrail has large savings
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Old Dec 15th, 2023, 03:56 AM
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^^Yeah, I know of his site, it's amazing!
Indeed, Hungary has many amazing cities but I'm trying to squeeze in as many countries as possible and they're better for another trip. The train connections to them from Austria are just not as good as going all the way to Budapest. I'd also like to spend a few hours in Bratislava for nostalgia's sake. I used to live there for a whole year and it was amazing. I honestly felt better there than in my home country! So many great memories. Back then I wasn't much into taking pictures, and I'm so sorry now but I have to gp back and take photos of all those amazing places I used to frequent. I forgot to mention the aim of my trip is to just feel the places, the trip itself so to say and mixing with the locals in supermarkets, trains themselves. Of course I will try seeing the main sights if I can like the Fisherman's bastion, the Parliament, the Chain bridge...but aside from Budapest, the other cities on my trip don't have much to see, really. I've already been to Prague (lived there for 6 months) with its amazing old town and recently visisted Athens with its ancient monuments. Been to Paris, London and Amsterdam. Only Rome left, so most old buildings and churches no longer do it for me so now I travel more about feeling what living there might be. How being around the locals feels, what their local food is etc.

The cheapest and best option from Sofia to Zagreb is by bus. About 13 to 28 EUR depending on how long before you book. Still cheaper than RyanAir for 36 EUR (non including the seat reservation, in reality it's like 46 EUR one way maybe?) and the public transport from my place to the Central Bus station in Sofia is nicer than the annoying changeovers required for the airport. And no scanners or much passport control until the chekpoints. I legitely get more stressed at airports than having police enter my bus/train. Only bad thing is buses are just as cramped and it takes all of 12-14 hours from Sofia to Zagreb.

On the other hand I could get a feeling of what Serbia is like, so that's the option I will use. Saves me having to walk over the Serbian/Croatian border on food on a country road because the stopped the railway connection. Balkan trains for you. At least Serbia has a good highway.

Then I'll spend 1 night in Zagreb to recover, do a quick day trip of Zagreb, then move on to Maribor and try to visit as many cities around it like Ptuj. Then I will probably sleep a few nights in Graz afte which I will move over to Vienna and visit Budapest/Bratislava as quick day trips to get a feel of Budapest and to visit the places I used to frequent when I lived in Bratislava for a year.

I'm just not sure if the nights in Vienna are worth it as I didn't feel it like a city I like. Just not my thing. Last time I was glad I was going home to Bratislava. Maybe I should just stay one night there and have a night or two in Budapest instead. A nigth in /Zagreb would be required at the end of my trip and I'll take a bus from there back to Sofia.

Last edited by tanek; Dec 15th, 2023 at 04:09 AM.
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Old Dec 15th, 2023, 08:12 AM
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Bitola - Skopje
Gevgelija - Skopie
Bar (Montenegro) - Prijepolje - Beograd - Novi Sad
Nish - Beograd - Vrsac

Gevgelija - Polykastro (25 km): TAXI
Polykastro - Thessaloniki: BUS (Ktel Kilkis)
Nish - Sofia: BUS (Nis Exkpress)
Vrsac - Stamora Moravica (18 km): TAXI
Stamora Moravica - Timisoara - Budapest - Szombathely - Graz - Maribor: TRAIN
Stamora Moravica - Timisoara - Budapest - Koprivnica - Varazdin: TRAIN
Beograd - Zagreb: BUS (Flixbus)

Sofia dp 7.30 - Vidin - Craiova ar 16.06, dp 16.21 - Piatra Olt ar 17.07, dp 19.08 - Sibiu ar 23.15, dp 23.41 - sleeping car - Budapest ar 8.50, dp 9.15 - Sopron - Wiener Neustadt - Graz ar 14.33
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Old Dec 18th, 2023, 03:03 AM
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I would like to ask a new question. I decided on the trip but it seems that using a tour company would be cheaper.
Has anyone gone on organized trips? Are they usually cheaper than booking everything yourself if you're a solo traveler?
Because in my case it seems to be the case:

For a 5-day trip (4 nights: 1 in Zagreb, 1 in Vienna and 2 in Budapest plus quick panoramic tours in Maribor or Ptuj and Graz as they're on the way) would cost me about 250 to 359 EUR, depending on which company I chose.
I tried to calculate how the same itinerary solo trip would cost me. With a bus to Zagreb, train to Vienna and stopping on the way 2 times to see Maribor/Ptuj and Graz plus another train from Vienna to Budapest the cost easily becomes about 420-500 EUR.

I think those travel companies have promotions on the hotel prices or something. I could find better prices for Airbnbs but they won't have the breakfast included usually. The best thing is that I will use their bus if I sign up for it so no need to switch Flixbuses/trains.
Another good thing is I could see the main must-see sights and it focuses on Budapest where I haven't been yet.
On the other hand the free time is tiny, so not enough time to really mingle with locals or be able to get a vibe of the places on my own.

So I wonder if maybe the best thing would be to just sign up for an organized trip, see the listed places and then stay longer for another round of 4-5 nights in total on my own in one or two cities that I liked the most on this trip? The organized trip ends in Budapest and then the company goes back with the bus directly to Sofia but I could ask them to stay behind and I will get my way back to Vienna (passing through Bratislava to see my favorite places there), probbaly sleep a few nights in Vienna and mingle with people, maybe a night in Graz and then go on a train to Zagreb where I will take the FlixBus to Sofia.
Even if I use Airbnbs with the company it would be cheaper because the Interrail ticket for 10 days is more than 400 EUR. So just for transport I will pay more than the organized trip that includes 3-star hotel stays plus breakfasts included.

So my idea is do the organized trip the first 5 days and do a solo trip with trains the other 5 days. I'll already have seen the must-see sights and be able to enjoy mingling with locals in bars, cafes, nigth clubs, trains and just do nothing else. And it would be much cheaper than booking accomodation for the whole period as a solo traveler. I'll also be able to buy the 7 or 5 day Eurrail/Interrail pass instead of the 10 day one. Additionally the bus company's bus departs from a place very close to my home so no need to go to the central bus/trailway station in Sofia.
The second part of my trip will be more lax. I know that if I do everything alone I might miss some important sights but if on my budget organizing all 10 days on my own would set me back more. I think self-organized trips are cheaper if it's two or more people traveling together and using planes.
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Old Dec 19th, 2023, 10:52 AM
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OK so my itinerary is getting shaped:
With the tour company by bus
1 night in Zagreb
Panoramic day trips in either Ptuj or Maribor, depending on the company.
A quick panoramic trip of Graz old town
1/2 nights in Vienna
2/1 nights in Budapest
4 night or 5 days in total.

On my own:
Here I will try to use only trains and skip the buses except between Zagreb and Sofia.

Walk around a bit in Budapest in the morning, people watch etc.
A day trip in Bratislava to revisit my favorite spots & lunch.
1 night in Vienna & 1 night in Graz or 2 nights in either one.
Sightseeing in Ljubljana
1 night in Ljubljana. Maybe a Celje daytrip. Bled is amazing but the aim of my trip isn't nature but mingling with local people, towns & trains.
A day trip to Trieste. I thought about Venice but it's further away & deserves more time.
1 night in Zagreb

Maybe it's too packed but I'd like to do as many countries as possible. The good thing about doing 2 separate parts of the trip is I will save on hotels and traveling for the first 5 days and also see the must sees. For the next 5 days it will be more about the journey and the trains. Not about architecture (much, I will still photograph old towns).

The more I think the more certain I am I'd like to include an Italian day trip.
How do you find my itinerary?

Last edited by tanek; Dec 19th, 2023 at 10:59 AM.
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