Mass transportation in Europe is very big. Trains, buses, trams, trolleys and subways are packed everywhere. Cars are expensive to own, parking is often very limited, and mass transit routes and schedules are plentiful and frequent.
For someone like us traveling for short periods in many areas, though, trying to figure out the systems of how and where to buy tickets, and then to validate them, on some types of transit can be a little trying. So, we do a lot more walking.
Central train stations are usually easy to find. Not too long ago, grand and historic rail stations often had dingy ticket booths, manned by grumpy agents. Many have been replaced with ticket machines, and the machines often have English language capability. But, sometimes, trying to understand which line to book can be difficult. Fortunately, the larger stations still have information booths, in some cases with very long lines.
When we arrived at the Nice, France, station, to purchase tickets to Monaco, we were met with a dozen or so ticket machines, each with a line. As we got closer to our turn, we realized that these machines would not take paper bills (the Europeans rely more on change, since they have one and two dollar coins). And, credit cards need a chip AND a pin number. We made sure to have the chip, but we strongly suggest, when going to Europe, have your bank add a pin number to your credit card. This was not the first time we faced this challenge.
We dropped out of line and asked everyone from the information desk to inside food and magazine vendors where we could get change. Others seemed to be having the same difficulty, and the trains arrival was only 15 minutes away. A police officer saw our frustration and nicely volunteered that there was a ticket office but in another building. The very busy Nice railroad station has a large expansion underway.
What we found in the other building initially brought on some confusion. It looked like a large travel agency, with open booths, outfitted with beautiful booth and settee-style seating for “guests” Someone came to our rescue, punching a take-a-number button and telling us to have a seat and wait our turn. Now, it appeared we were in a fancy motor vehicle waiting room, watching for our number and booth assignment to come up.
As we sat in the comfort of this new idea ticket office, we relaxed and realized this was a great alternative to the pushing and shoving and standing in line. But as with so many good European ideas, they don’t know how to communicate them.
Later in the day, we and 100 others were waiting in Monaco for a return train to Nice. The beautiful on-time train rocketed into the station and put its brakes on quickly. Monaco’s station has tracks so long that trains often park a hundred yards away from where riders are waiting. We all ran to the train, some got on, only to find the conductors shooing everyone away.
This train, called a Thello, is a direct train between certain points (none of the quick local stops we experienced on the way to Monaco). The conductors in what we have seen in typical French railroad fashion played a little dumb, acting like this same situation doesn’t play out several times a day, every day. There is no signage to indicate that regular tickets can’t be used on the Thello train, even though this train was long and nearly empty.
We have no beef with the rail line trying to make more money on express trains, but they might get more business if they just communicated options to the masses.