When you look at travel photos on something like Instagram, do you ever think about what someone’s trip was like other than how it’s portrayed in the photo? After my fall break trip, I can guarantee ‘behind the photo’ is not as glamorous as it may seem. I’m going to write about the bad aspects to the trip—of course, parts of fall break were fantastic and wonderful, but we had a lot of struggles too.
In mid-October, me and a group of friends set out on a 10-day, 5-city trip. We planned to leave Friday night for Barcelona, spend a few days there, fly to Nice Monday morning, take an overnight bus from Nice to Geneva, spend the day in Geneva, take another overnight bus to Paris, spend a few days there, then spend the weekend in Brussels. The trip didn’t quite work out well.
I’d say Barcelona was the most polarizing part of fall break (for me at least). I love the city—the weather was nice (for the most part), there was a lot to see, and we had a good time. However, Barcelona was both the start of the trip, and the start of some transportation problems.
I highly recommend that, when planning a trip, you research not only how cheap it is to get there (by bus, plane, train—whatever), but also how long and how expensive it is to get into the city from wherever you arrive. After we landed in the Barcelona International Airport at 9:30pm, we couldn’t find the public transit bus to take us into the city to our Airbnb. Instead, we ended up coughing up more Euros than we wanted to on one of those airport shuttle buses and an Uber—the bus didn’t take us close enough to the Airbnb.
The next few days in Barcelona went pretty well. We saw the main attractions: Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Barcelona Cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, Las Ramblas… You name it, we saw it! While the first full day we were there it was rainy and a bit gross (walking through Park Güell in the rain, even with an umbrella, led to soaked and muddy shoes and jeans).
Day two in Barcelona was nice and sunny: we went to the beach and my roommate and I spent the afternoon at Montjuïc Castle (free on Sundays after 3pm!). Pro-tip: if you’re visiting Barcelona and want to go into some of the attractions like La Sagrada Familia, you need to buy tickets online…They were sold out for the basic ticket and if I wanted to go in, I’d have to purchase one of the more expensive ticket packages. This applies not only to La Sagrada Familia, but other Barcelona attractions too (such as Park Güell).
The Monday we were supposed to leave for Nice, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4-something in the morning, caught the night bus to the airport, and made it through security with no problem. We settled down at a random gate and waited for our flight to be assigned. An hour or so before our expected boarding time, I decided to see if our gate had been assigned. I looked at the screen and was greeted with a dreaded word:
Well. That screwed up our plans.
Panicked, I rushed back to the group and we franticly came up with an alternative plan: we’d skip Nice and stay an extra day in Barcelona, taking an overnight bus straight to Geneva. At least that alternative plan worked out.
I wish I could say that we made the most of our extra day in Barcelona, but to be frank, we didn’t. We wandered around a bit: went to the Arc de Triomf, Parc de la Ciutadella, hung out at a nice café for a few hours, I sprained my ankle, and we almost got our things stolen from us—twice. You know, the usual.
About the near-theft of our stuff…you need to be aware of your belongings in Barcelona. It’s sometimes called the ‘pickpocketing capital of the world,’ so just take care in travelling. Keep track of your belongings, especially at bus/train stations.
Our overnight bus from Barcelona to Geneva went smoothly, and so did our day! After arriving in Geneva, we made a beeline for the train station, where we were able to store all our luggage in a locker for just $10 for the day ($10 total). We visited and took a tour of the UN building, then spent a few hours walking around the old town area.
Geneva was both hillier and smaller than I expected, but I’m sure we didn’t see everything—we were only walking around the city for about 6 hours (and those 6 hours were fantastic!). However, after those 6 hours were up, things went pretty downhill. First, I got a notification that the Airbnb we had booked for Brussels (Friday through Sunday) was cancelled. We were in Geneva on Tuesday.
I spent an hour frantically searching for an alternative Airbnb before I finally found one, with one caveat: it wasn’t in Brussels, it was in Aalst, a city about an hour away from Brussels by train. But it worked with our budget and we weren’t being too picky.
By the time all that was resolved, it was time to head to the bus station and wait for our bus to Paris. There are two bus stations in Geneva: one is more in the city center and the other is at the airport. We arrived at the station our bus is supposed to leave from, in the city center, only to be greeted with some sign in French. Even with Google Translate and the help of a kind stranger, the sign was cryptic. It either meant we had to go to the airport for our bus or stay at the bus station we were at. Of course, we decided it meant the latter: the wrong decision.
About half an hour before our bus was supposed to depart from Geneva, I got an email and a text message, telling me the bus departure location had been moved to the airport bus station. Of course it was moved. By now, we had come to expect transportation woes, and we were not let down this time!
Miraculously, there was an Uber driver right at the bus station and we sped off to the airport. We arrived maybe 10 minutes before our departure time, and after we all but sprinted from the drop-off to the airport bus station, we were greeted with a small crowd of people (all French or Swiss) and an empty Ouibus.
Unfortunately, our troubles weren’t over yet. After waiting long enough that our initial departure time has passed, a driver entered the bus. As the crowd waited in anticipation, the bus lights switched on to display its destination: GRENOBLE. My heart sunk. Just earlier that day, we were in Grenoble for a four-hour bus layover on our way to Geneva. The crowd broke into confused conversation; everyone whipped out their phones to contact Ouibus. My friends and I just stood there, confused and fed up with our transportation troubles.
Again, we started to plan some alternative way to make our way to Paris. Bus? Too expensive and too long. Train? Our best option, but the earliest train would leave at 6 the next morning. As we were deciding what to do, we noticed something wonderful: a Ouibus was arriving!
We got on the bus and we were off to Paris, at last.
Paris was blissfully issue-free in comparison to the other parts of our trip. After napping in our Airbnb for an hour or two and taking some time to freshen up, we set off for the Eiffel Tower. One of my friends and I decided to spend the 9-ish Euros to go to the top of the tower. Of course, by choosing the cheapest option to go to the top of the tower, we had to do some work…by climbing 674 steps to the second level.
After taking in the view of the Eiffel Tower (honestly, you can save money by going to the second level—the view isn’t much different from the top), my friend and I met up with the other half of our group to grab lunch before heading towards the Arc de Triomphe.
Here’s the best thing about Paris: with a long-term visa for somewhere in the EU or the EEA, you can get into a lot of places for free. Arc de Triomphe? Free. Sainte-Chapelle? Free. Want to go up to the towers of Notre Dame? Free. The Louvre? Free. Versailles? That’s free too!
Yes, my friends and I went to all the places I mentioned above, in addition to some of the parks and other outdoor spaces, such as the Palace de la Concorde and the Tuileries Garden.
Paris, much to my surprise, was probably the place I spent the least money during fall break. Granted, that’s partially because we got a really small, tiny, but cheap Airbnb, cooked our dinners, and ate a lot of baguettes instead of nutritious meals. However, we spent a lot less money than we expected, thanks to free entry to pretty much everything but the Eiffel Tower.
After two fun-filled days in Paris and half a day in Versailles, we boarded a bus to Brussels (okay…getting to the bus was a bit of an issue—there was a big concert and we had to make our way through the horde of girls waiting to get into the venue). And with that, we started our last bus ride of fall break.
We arrived in Brussels in the evening, not that late in my opinion (8pm), but the bus station was eerily empty. We purchased a ticket for Aalst and settled in for the hour-long train ride. After arriving, we headed straight to the Airbnb. The hosts were very nice and the room was blissfully spacious compared to the tiny Parisian apartment.
The next morning, we headed into Brussels to explore the city. We hit most of the tourist spots: the three famous statues, the Grand-Place, the Stock Exchange building, and Parc du Cinquantenaire. In addition to seeing the famous sights, we tried famous Belgian foods: Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolates, and of course, Pomme Frites.
That evening, we went back to our Airbnb and had a game of Monopoly and a game of Pictionary before we came to a disheartening realization: we couldn’t Uber from Aalst to the airport because Uber wasn’t a thing in Aalst. We took to Google Maps and discovered that if caught an early morning train into Brussels, we could then take an Uber to the airport. So we did.
Finally, after an hour-long drive and getting lost on the way to the airport drop-off spot, we made it to the Brussels-Charleroi airport. After a short wait in the airport, we boarded our plane and flew back to Prague. And thus, my fall break adventure ended.
First of all, if you made it through my long, and somewhat turn-off-ish story, thanks for sticking with it all the way! I didn’t write all this us just to brag about what I did for fall break or just to display how not everything is always how it seems, but I also wanted to give some advice to people planning trips (especially big ones) for the first time.
My number one piece of advice sounds a bit obvious, but:
Research everything when you plan a trip!
Research how much it costs, and how you get from the bus station/airport/whatever to where you’re staying, research the prices of attractions and how you can get tickets for them, and so on. Taking time to research the night before we left how to get to the airport from Aalst (and subsequently discovering that Uber doesn’t work in Aalst) probably prevented us from missing our flight.
I don't mean to discourage people from traveling--even though I wrote about a lot of bad things that happened during my fall break trip, there were more than enough good experiences that made up for the bad ones (and more)!