This is a travel diary-type story of my (mis)adventures in transit from France to Italy and the lessons I learned from them. Read on if you’d like to laugh along with me. Hindsight is 20/20. My current home base during this time was Wuhan, China.
Grab a drink. Or a snack. Sit back. This one’s a long one.
For future reference: If you enjoy reading short travel stories, you might enjoy these:
- The 8 Best and Worst (and Sometimes Hilarious) of my China Stories
- My Top 8 Memorable Travel Misadventures
How we Started Planning for Our Trip
In the summer of 2017, my roommate C and I decided we wanted to branch out of our Asia-countries-only travel routine and explore part of Europe. We looked at a map and found some countries we both wanted to see that were close to each other and that maybe we can turn into a 4-week trip.
For our first venture into Europe, we chose France, Italy, England, and Ireland in that order. About 3-4 months before our trip, we booked all our flights, reserved inter-country transit (by air, bus, and train), and just made sure that our plan was as fool-proof as we could make it.
This was our first time in some primarily English-speaking countries after all, what could go wrong if we could communicate? We’ve both experienced a few misadventures living in China–nothing could top those experiences! (Or so we thought.)
Little did we know that we would hit a travel hiccup in our transit from France to Italy.
Let me paint the picture:
C and I are complete opposites in personality. C is the type of person to reserve tickets WAY ahead of time, make sure all the ducks are lined up in a row, researches places to the nth degree–let’s just say she’s a little type A (which actually helps so much in the planning phase, don’t get me wrong).
Me on the other hand, I know I have to research places. I know I have to book tickets… But I’m the type of person who waits until the very last minute to do so. I’m also pretty flexible in my travel planning; I don’t really care very much where we go, just that we do–more type B (with a little procrastination mixed in).
We get to planning our trip, and I’m actually trying this time since I also don’t want things to go wrong. This is about the time that I started creating my personalized travel planner since we were hitting up so many places and I wanted to keep track of everything so we don’t miss something important.
We book our one-way flight into Paris, France, perfect. We reserve a rental car to drive down to Marseilles, done. Next, we reserve bus and train tickets to the Cinque Terre in Italy, beautiful. We then get the rest of our tickets and everything is fully booked and finished. Yay! (Our other one-way flight was from Dublin to back to Wuhan, just in case you were wondering.)
Our flight to France goes as planned. We also had a friend who went to Paris with us and her roommate met up with us in Marseilles–to this day C and I joke that those two helped keep us in check since trouble started as we headed to Italy.
So remember, we booked bus and train tickets from Marseilles to Cinque Terre. We even found the right bus stop the day before just to make sure that we knew where it was. We were supposed to take this bus from Marseilles to Genoa, and then from there hop a train to the Cinque Terre.
We were also leaving our 2 friends behind as we were all going our separate ways, C and me onto Italy and them back to their home country.
At this point, I was already a little bit nervous. Our hostel in Cinque Terre only took in a certain age group and C fit that range, but I didn’t. I saw this in their listing description but didn’t think too much of it so we went ahead and booked anyway (don’t do that). So I was a teensy bit on edge.
But I digress.
We find the right bus to the right place and start making our way to Genoa.
Where it Started Going Wrong: The Middle-of-Nowhere
Here’s where things started getting interesting. I did my research to find that most sim cards should work in the EU, and so I purchased an international phone plan in the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
Since I was the one with an iPhone, a smidge above the Chinese prepaid phone that C had, we were kinda counting on my phone to keep us sane and not lost. Sometime in the middle of our bus ride, my cell phone loses service.
And in the midst of me contemplating this, the bus pulls off the road and drops everybody off… right in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not joking.
We look behind us and there’s a chain-linked fence that doesn’t seem to have anyone or lead anywhere. We look in front of us and there are just tall buildings. We look around and there’s dead grass… and no sign of humanity.
Okay, maybe a few cars parked in front of those buildings, but how were we going to ask them questions anyway?
And with our powers of observation, we realized that we were the only Americans on that bus. There were a few Spanish people, an Indian couple (who spoke English, we think), and then other French and Italian people.
Everyone on that bus was so confused–that made us feel just a bit better; we weren’t alone. Did we even make it to Italy? This was about 1 or 2 PM, by the way.
So as C and I are critical thinkers and tried to figure out a plan, we notice the Indian couple walking off–the only people that we would feel comfortable asking questions to in English.
Oh no. Should we follow them?
At that point, I decided to take a picture of our surroundings (see above) just in case we were abducted or something (you know, that movie Taken).
We then noticed some of the Spanish speakers poking around so we tried sticking close to them in case they found important information that we needed to hear. We had spent the past 2 years practicing our Chinese so we tried to muster up ANY Spanish that we had from all those high school years–very minimal indeed. I think we both knew how to ask for the bathroom; not helpful in our current situation.
A few minutes later, we heard rumors through broken English that this was actually a bus stop and that around 4 PM, another bus should come and take us directly to Genoa, our original intent. We still had a train to catch after all.
We decided to wait it out until then and if another bus didn’t come, then we would figure out plan B. We waited. And we sat. A car/taxi came by to pick up a few of the other guests. And we waited some more.
Finally, the chain-linked fence that was behind us (which we thought led to nothing) started opening. And that was when we noticed there was a black bus parked there this whole time! Whew, disaster averted. And our minds calmed down. We were going to be okay.
By 4 PM, we, and everybody else, were on our way to Genoa. Yes! It always feels so much better when you’re on the move even if you don’t truly know what’s going on.
The 2nd Time it Started Going Wrong: Catching a Train to Genoa
We get to the bus stop in Genoa and have about 20 minutes or so to catch our train to Cinque Terre.
We’re so close!
Since my phone wasn’t working, it couldn’t load the map to orientate us and neither of us really knew where we were going. Because we were running late, we grabbed our travel backpacks and make a run for it.
The wrong way.
Again, hindsight is 20/20.
As we’re running, we decide to flag down a taxi. We figured even if we have to pay a little, the taxi will at least valet service us right to the front door of the train station. We get in, ask for the train station.
And the taxi driver points behind us, to what looked like a park filled with trees, and said it’s about 2 minutes that way. Not our brightest moment.
We get back out of that taxi and start running. Again. We get to the end of the trees and FINALLY see the doors to the train station. And get this – it was right across from the bus stop!
Ten minutes ’til departure. And we didn’t have our train tickets. I was the one carrying our travel documents, but when I went to purchase these tickets, they said the tickets would be issued at the train station. However, we got in and there wasn’t a stand with a person to get our tickets issued. We did find a vendor-looking machine and tried to input our confirmation number, but that wasn’t working.
As I’m trying to figure it out, C is looking around for our platform. She finds it and makes the decision for us to just hop on the train. In my head, this was wrong…
…buuut I also didn’t want to miss this train. It was about 7 PM at this point and we really wanted to get to our hostel before they closed. So we both ran to the platform. I’ve never ran so fast upstairs before. We find the right train, thankfully, and found seats.
We still didn’t have physical tickets in our hands. I was scrambling to find my order confirmation printout that I had stuck in my backpack somewhere. C on the other hand was pretty calm. Quite a switch of character for both of us.
The ticket master comes by and all I could hand him was our ticket confirmation. And he just notes it in his book that we made it. What?! All that stress and we didn’t even need a physical ticket in hand.
So C and I just sit back and relax, hoping the rest of the travel day would go smoothly.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
We Made it to the Cinque Terre! Kind of.
We get to Corniglia, one of the towns in Cinque Terre (the middle one to be exact).
But our hostel was actually in Riomaggiore, the most southern town. This was around 11 PM. We didn’t have a taxi lined up (driving wasn’t encouraged here anyway), and we didn’t really want to go walking in the middle of the night either.
We decide to climb a ton of steps to get into the town and ask how we could get to Riomaggiore.
Long story short: take the train and continue heading south (biggest SMH moment).
We trek back down all those steps we just climbed and found some vending machines we were supposed to buy tickets from. It was about 1 Euro or so per person. We definitely had money on us. Just not the Euro coin, which is the only form of cash this machine takes.
What do we do?
As we’re contemplating our options, and practically our life at this moment, a nice couple overhears our situation and so very kindly offers us 2 Euros to get our tickets. And thankfully, we catch the very last train of the evening to Riomaggiore.
Side story (feel free to skim): As we were waiting for the train to come, the restaurant manager, who we think considers us crazy Americans and who we asked directions from, also came down to wait for the train with us.
There was also a group of older Italian men who looked like they were in construction suits and possibly working late took pity on us and tried to make conversation. They were only able to understand that I was from Colorado and that we like spaghetti.
Oh, the joys of travel.
Seriously though, we had so much fun with them and had so much laughter at that moment during this whole travel ordeal.
Where We Slept That Night
We’re almost done, I promise. If you’ve stuck it through this far into the story—thank you for your investment.
Ok, so I was still a little on edge because our hostel only accepted a certain age range. Well, I somehow magically got my phone working again while we were on the train and finally managed to pull up the location of the hostel.
We get to Riomaggiore and start walking up, trying to find this hostel. I check my map, then I check the signs on the building. Keep in mind, this is MIDNIGHT, and maybe one restaurant was open with people in it. No one else is on the streets.
As I keep walking, I can see on my map that I’ve gone past the location, but my eyes aren’t actually seeing the hostel sign on any of the buildings.
At this point, I was starting to come to terms with the fact that there’s a high possibility we would be sleeping on our packs in the train station, which is more like an open-air tunnel, not inside a building like you would imagine.
C on the other hand was also scouting with no luck. But before we tucked our tails and head back towards the train station, we see a flashing open sign for a different hostel. We figured we’d try our luck here and see if they have any vacancies. There wasn’t a person behind the check-in desk, but there was a sign that said to knock.
And start hearing some very loud cursing (we think) in Italian. An old lady comes down, we ask if there are open rooms, and she says she’ll get her son.
There’s a vacancy. We book a room. And finally, get to sleep.
Whew! What a story. So… what are the lessons learned, you may ask?
Lessons Learned From Our (Mis)Adventure
- Sometimes misadventures still happen even if you have a foolproof plan. Though there was one hiccup (in the grand scheme of things, this was only a day), it doesn’t mean that the rest of your plans were for nothing. We went on to have a great time at the Cinque Terre and it’s one of our most loved trips.
- If you can still engage with the people around you and laugh with them, the world will be okay again. You have resources available to you, namely, the local people. For us, it was the taxi driver, the ticket master, the restaurant manager, and random men who confirmed that we were on the right track to get to our final destination.
- Having an awesome travel partner to share your trials and joys with can make the whole misadventure worthwhile. And not so lonely.
- Low-key freak out if you get dropped off in the middle of nowhere. But keep in mind that there might be a good reason and if you gather the courage to ask (unlike us), you might be able to get some answers.
- There’s always a solution. You’re not as stranded as you’d like to think.
- Keep looking until you find that one place, or activity, or accommodation that you have a good gut feeling about. If you don’t feel good about a reservation (like our hostel), don’t do it. Or cancel it within the free refund time frame.
I believe that crazy travel fails actually help you to grow as a traveler and also make great memories. In the moment, we were stressing and trying to figure out our next steps, but we had so much fun retelling this story to our friends when we got back home. To this day, I still think fondly of our time and it brings me joy thinking about the whole trip.
What about you? Do you have a crazy travel story to share? I would love to hear all about it. Let me know in the comments below.
More travel stories and cultural posts you can read about:
- The 8 Best and Worst (and Sometimes Hilarious) of my China Stories
- My Top 8 Memorable Travel Misadventures
- 21 Best Foodie Cities in Europe For Food Enthusiasts
- Top 17 Southeast Asia Destinations to Visit
Other travel tips you might enjoy:
- 25 Useful Airport Tips for Stress-Free Travel
- 10 Reasons to Hop on a Plane Today
- The Best Travel Credit Card
- 40 Essential Travel Safety Tips
- 101 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust (Photos Included)
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My Favorite Travel Tips + Resources
Here is a quick glance at all my go-to travel tips and resources that I use to plan every trip! For more information, check out my travel resources page.
- Booking flights: I use Google Flights to check all routes and find the best flights. Then I compare them with Expedia (for reward points) and Skyscanner (for the lowest prices) before I book.
- Accommodations: I love budget-friendly rentals or booking at a hotel where I can earn points. For hotels, I go through Booking.com or book directly with Marriott (for points + rewards). When I travel internationally, I’ll book through Hostelworld for very budget-friendly stays. For vacation rentals, I usually look through Airbnb, but you could also use Vrbo. Expedia also has some great bundles for hotels, flights, and car rentals altogether.
- Transportation: For travel in the United States, I love renting through Expedia with Enterprise or Thrifty. They have been consistent and provide the best customer service. For international travel, I’ll book through Rome2Rio or Eurail for trains or bus fares.
- Travel Credit Card: I book all my travel (flights, hotels, car rentals) through my favorite travel credit card. I also use this card for everything on my trip including dining, excursions, and souvenirs. Apart from earning 5x more points towards free travel, there are amazing benefits: no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement (so I can book worry-free), fraud protection, emergency assistance – it’s really a great deal! Check it out here!
- Vaccines and Medications: Check the CDC website for updates on necessary vaccines to enter a country, including updates on Covid-19 and recommended places to visit. I recommend getting all the vaccines you need before you go!
- Tours + Experiences: I absolutely love my tours! Everything from eerie walking ghost tours to food tours, I’ll usually book something every trip either through Viator or GetYourGuide. I also love LastMinute.com for very affordable tickets to theaters and other experiences in Europe.
- What to Pack: I almost always travel by backpack. For products I like, check out my packing guide page for all the things I take with me on different trips.