Tübingen-Sofia by train/bus/ride-share, September 2019
When we both had papers accepted for the 13th Pan-European Conference on International Relations, we wondered whether it would be feasible to attend the conference whilst staying on the ground. After all, Sofia/Bulgaria is almost 1600km from Tübingen, and it soon became clear that the journey would take us several days. But with a bit of planning, it turned out to be not only a smooth, but also a very enjoyable (and very recommendable!) experience.
First, we traveled from Tübingen to Munich, where we were joined by another friend, by regular RE and IC train. From Munich, an ÖBB night train took us to Zagreb, where we had time for breakfast and a quick look around before meeting the driver of our Blablacar ride-share to Belgrade. If we hadn’t found a ride-share, there would also have been a direct train from Zagreb to Belgrade, but traveling by car reduced the journey time by half and meant we had the entire afternoon to enjoy Belgrade. We spent the night in Belgrade, staying in a modest accomodation and treating ourselves to a celebratory dinner. The next morning, we took the direct train to Sofia (daily during the summer months), where we arrived in the evening.
One of us also returned home by train: first, a direct train from Sofia to Bucarest, spending the night there and taking the following day to have a look around the city; then, a (very comfortable) night train from Bucarest to Budapest; and finally, trains to Munich, Plochingen, Tübingen. Overall, the journey took three days and two nights – and while it might have been possible to cut the travel time by half a day or even a day, this would have meant relying on very tight train connections and a less comfortable night train.
The other one returned home by Flixbus and train: the first part of the journey from Sofia to Vienna by an overnight Flixbus – which was a normal coach and therefore not the most comfortable part of the journey. After a nice breakfast in Vienna, it took three more trains (from Vienna to Munich, to Stuttgart and finally back to Tübingen) and seven more hours to arrive back in Tübingen. Despite the slightly faster journey and the lower costs, for reasons of comfort, I would rather recommend doing this part back by train as well ☺
All in all, our mode of travel was not necessarily more expensive than an air journey would have been. We paid roughly 140 Euro for transport from Tübingen to Sofia, plus 13,50 Euro each for the accomodation in Belgrade. The return journey by train cost ca. 150 Euro, plus 20 Euro for a night’s accomodation in Bucarest. The return journey by bus and train cost 79,89 Euro in total (29,99 Euro for the Flixbus plus 49,90 Euro for the train journey from Vienna to Tübingen).
Advice for fellow travellers
- Seat61.com is a fantastic resource for planning international train travel. Also, bahn.de provides timetabling for trains all over Europe, even when the journey does not originate in or cross Germany, and even when national tourist offices and similar entities do not know about a train connection (which came in handy in Belgrade). For booking (and finding) night trains, the Austrian train company’s website oebb.at was of great help.
- Belgrade Central Station is currently being “remodeled”. There are very few (international) train connections from Belgrade, and the majority of them – including the train to Sofia – leave from Belgrade Topcider Station, a tiny station in the outskirts of the city. The tourist office may not know about this train, but don’t let them deter you. To get to Topcider Station, take Tram 3 from the centre.
- Advance booking can get you really cheap tickets. The night train from Munich to Zagreb cost us 70 Euro for a ticket in a four-berth compartment (and there was even a cheaper option for a compartment shared by six), and the night train from Bucarest to Budapest only 59 Euro (for a “real” bed in a three-bed compartment). ÖBB night trains can be booked via nightjet.com. Romanian trains, including night trains, can be booked in English and using an international credit card via www.cfrcalatori.ro/en/ – but beware that you must pick up the ticket in person in Romania, so this is only viable if your international train journey starts there, not if Romania is your final destination.
- Blablacar ride-shares are a common, safe and cheap mode of travel in Southeast Europe and can be booked via www.blablacar.de. We paid 20 Euro each for the ride from Zagreb to Belgrade and got interesting conversations with our driver for free. The only downside is that ride-shares are usually only offered a few days in advance, so it is advisable to have a back-up plan. (With special thanks to the Croatian friend who told us about Blablacar!)
- Making the most of it: our slow way of traveling was not only relaxing and full of new impressions – we had never been to Belgrade, Sofia or Bucarest – but it also provided us with a lot of time to get work done, especially to read papers and monographs. This meant that although the journey took longer than a plane journey would have, it wasn’t time lost, but actually time gained for focused reading.