Friday, February 26, 2016

BlaBlaCar - City hopping in Europe cheaply

We love the rail network in Europe. It’s one of the reasons why we go back to Europe again and again. There are so many countries to explore in this continent. We tend to be greedy and want to explore a few countries each time. Eurail pass has been the best option for us. Having been to Europe twice, the first thing to come to mind when preparing for our third trip is to ask ourselves what kind of Eurail pass to get. We thought of getting the Balkan Flexipass which covers the places we were going - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro. BUT! What about Slovenia, Croatia, Austria and lastly, Switzerland where we have to fly back home? So we researched and researched, trying to get the best combination of Eurail pass. We had to concede we cannot take the train if we want to be economical. We have to rely on intercity coaches! This was our itinerary: Athens – Greek Islands – Meteora – Thessaloniki – Skopje – Bay of Kotor - Mostar – Sarajevo – Zagreb – Plitviče Lakes National Park – Split – Zadar – Rovinj – Ljubljana – Salzburg – Zurich. It doesn’t include all the side trips we took from these places which was another round of transport we have to take.  
It was a challenge to find connecting coaches to all the cities. Every evening after all the sightseeing, we have to buckle down and search for transport. The Balkans is not very visitor-friendly for travelers who want to do cities hop. Information is all over the place due to the numerous coach companies operating in Europe and we have to scroll through websites after websites and the coach schedules were not even accurate. It was only towards the end of our trip that we discovered a super cool app – BlaBlaCar. 
Started first in France and it’s slowly rolling out to other countries outside of Europe. You just have to key in your point of departure and destination. Voila! The app will match you up with a driver who’s headed in the same direction. We were surprised at how cheap it was compared to taking the coach or train. We traveled from Salzburg to Zurich for €30. That was for two of us! Taking the train would have been €40 - €100+ per person. Via coach was around €35 - €100+ per person.  We want to slap ourselves for not trying it earlier in our trip. We saw it coming up in our research and brushed it off because the name is just too funky to be a serious mode of transport. We never heard of it and we were looking for coaches with dogged determination. We had great experiences with the rides we took and it saved us a lot of time as we do not have to make pit stops at various cities/towns. There’s even option for ladies only. So for lone female travelers, this is a safe way to travel too.

However there are always pros and cons to everything. Consider the following when you’re trying to decide between the train, bus and BlaBlaCar.


1) Cost. If you’re not traveling with a tour operator, chances are you’re a backpacker or fake backpackers like us. You definitely do not want transport cost to take up a huge chunk of your travelling budget. For us, we want to travel fast but in the most economical way. So, do your homework. Firm up the cities you’re going, check the prices to travel via the 3 options and you won’t have to slap yourself like us. We find BlaBlaCar to be the cheapest. Since we only used it twice (slap ourselves again), do let us know if your BlaBlaCar ride costs more.

2) Time. Time is precious. Most of us are not on a 6-month backpacking trip in Europe. We want to pack in as much sightseeing as we could and then scurry back to dreary life back home. BlaBlaCar uses private cars. You go from Point A to B without all the meandering in trains and coaches. This leaves you with more time to explore the city rather than being stuck in the train or coach for 2 to 4 hours more.

3) New friend. You get a local guide instantly! Our drivers were friendly and since we are obviously travelers, they recommended places to go and things to eat. We also got to know the local culture better as we chatted about their lives and even politics. Just keep things light because you don’t want atmosphere in the car to become ominous when the drive is 3 hours more.


1) Safety. This could be the deal breaker if you are trying this for the first time. You never know who you’re going to get and in this crazy world, be prepared for anything. However, since you have already stepped out of your home for an adventure (travelling is always an adventure!), try it! BlaBlaCar does its best to make it safe by having Experience Level of both drivers and passengers (safety works both ways). The higher level you are, the more trusted you are in the BlaBlaCar community. So read up on the driver’s profile and passengers’ rating before you decide whether you want to take the ride.

2) Reliability. If you are time bound and inflexible with your travelling arrangement, BlaBlaCar is a risk. There may not be anyone driving to your intended destination in the date/time you want. Drivers on this app are not doing it full time like Uber. They just happen to be driving to your destination for work, family/ friends visit or whatever reasons. It’s definitely a game of waiting for the right ride to come along. Works the same way as sticking your thumb out by the roadside. So if you plan to get to a destination by certain time, start your search early. Popular destinations should have no lack of drivers going that way but don’t bank on drivers going to small towns. Just drop at the nearest big town and take the local bus there.

3) Surprise factor. You turn up on time at the departure point and expect to go to your destination immediately. No, wait! The driver is picking up another passenger on the way, so it’s a bit of detour. Or wait! Another passenger is supposed to turn up at the same meeting point, he’s late, everyone waits. Worst, this passenger is a no-show, wasted 30 minutes waiting. That’s what happened to us. You just have to go along with the driver's plan. It's his car, right? However, all in, the journey time was still shorter than the other 2 options, so we have no complaints.

4) Accident liability. Common sense is that the driver should have third party liability insurance policy which covers all passengers travelling in their vehicle but do they have it? If you want to be safe or kiasu (not losing out), check with the driver before you take the ride.

5) Inconvenience. You may have to turn up at designated meeting point not to your convenience. However, it’s a moot point as it depends on how you negotiate with the driver. Once you booked the ride, the driver’s contact will be made known to you and you can discuss further on the exact location to be picked up. The driver may state a certain place as a passenger who booked a seat earlier may have made the request, so it’s up to you whether you want to convenient yourself or the driver.

As their motto says “Connecting people who need to travel with drivers who have empty seats”. It’s a good car-sharing platform which benefits both the drivers and travelers. BlaBlaCar is supposedly a community-minded enterprise. Drivers are not allowed to profit from the service, so the Euro we paid is for defraying their petrol cost. In addition, think of it as saving the earth, green environment and all, ya know, bla bla bla.

We used these to find our way in Europe:

Go Euro  (BlaBlarCar will appear in search if available)

Bus Radar(BlaBlarCar will appear in search if available)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Help Greece by holidaying there!

When we first floated the idea of visiting Europe in early 2015, our first desired destination was Greece. We’ve been to Europe twice but have not travel to the Balkans yet. We looked forward to seeing the beautiful white and blue domed houses depicted in travel photo. When we put Greece as the first country to touch down as part of our Europe tour, anxieties trickled in about the situation in Greece. We were bombarded with news about the financial crisis and the refugees. When news came about the ATM withdrawal limit, we questioned our sanity in going there. Athens seemed chaotic on news but when we googled about the situation, it didn’t seems so bad. Travelers raved that the chaotic news depicted was overrated and it was still safe. It was true! Been there in September 2015 and loved it!
 Oia on Santorini
We did not encounter anything out of the ordinary. Travelers still throng the Acropolis and we have to jostle with the busloads of tourists for the best position to take selfies in Oia, Santorini. Of course, locals living there would be affected by the situation but as travelers, we can do our part for Greece’s economy by not avoiding Greece. To some extent, the tourism industry is affected. We believed it should have been more crowded at the tourist attractions we visited. We were gleeful not to have to elbow anyone to take photo in some places. However, on hindsight, we realized the hardships the locals must be experiencing. Restaurant owners, guesthouses, gift shops, taxi drivers, all tourism related businesses were affected by the drop in visitors. It’s a sobering fact. Think of their families who are depending on tourists as livelihood. We couchsurfed in Athens (Oops! We should have supported local guesthouse) and got to talk to our hosts about how they were coping. We also chatted with our tour guide when we signed on for a free walking tour. The amazing part through all these craziness in Greece is the unbreakable spirit of the Greek. They still carry on with their daily lives and showed us their best hospitality. The scenery is still as breathtaking and you’ll miss out a lot by bypassing this great destination.
 Changing of guards at Syntagma Square, Athens

 Parthenon, Athens
 Lefkes, Paros
Here’s what you can do to be prepared:

1) Read up on the news before traveling there. When you’re there, keep abreast of any new development. Check the internet for news whenever you’re connected. Or do it the lazy way, ask the staffs of your guesthouse, the shopkeepers or even the locals. 

2) Find out the contact and address of your embassy. You’ll be surprised when you might need their assistance. We did! However, it was not due to being stuck in a protest or because we can’t withdraw money from the ATM. Athens was safe, really! It was due to the spirit of Greek hospitality that caused the Singapore Embassy to offer their assistance to us! That’s another story.

3) Have enough cash. It’s actually not a problem for foreigners to withdraw cash from ATM but since regulations can change anytime due to the political turmoil, we made sure to have enough anyway. Credit cards are still accepted but don’t expect to use them in small souvenir shops or cafes as they do not have such service in the first place!

4) Get travel insurance. We usually get one when we travel, hoping that the airline will bump us to the next flight and we can indulge during our holiday on the airline’s and insurance’s compensation. Alas, it has not happen yet.

So with these, just enjoy your Greek holiday. The worst you might encounter in Greece is the shock of finding out you can’t flush toilet paper!