Long trips on public transport can have their perils in Europe.

Long trips on public transport can have their perils in Europe. Photo: Martin Moos/Lonely Planet

Taking trains, coaches and ferries, Stephanie Gardiner finds long-haul travelling in Europe is a mixed bag.

The novelty of taking a fancy overnight ferry from the UK to Holland was almost shattered when my husband and I ordered drinks from a cheery bartender on board.

"Are you celebrating your pregnancy?" the well-meaning Dutchman asked me.

I looked down at my protruding belly - a new addition thanks to a fortnight enjoying pints and pies - and shook my head, blushing.

I had a few more drinks that evening to numb the humiliation and, in the weeks since, it almost become a fond memory - one of those travel tales I'll never forget.

That's the beauty of choosing longhaul travel over Europe's famous budget flights to explore the continent - often the journey itself proves more memorable or exciting than reaching a new city.

About a week after that fateful ferry trip, we took a much less glamorous and cheap overnight bus for the 10-hour journey from Amsterdam to Berlin.

I was prepared for a night from Hell, but equipped with an eye mask, ear plugs and some generous leg room, it was a cosy trip.

As a first time traveller to Europe, it was exciting to sporadically wake up and see the lights of mysterious towns I'll never know the names of and probably never return to.

Waking up just in time to see the sun rise over a windfarm, with the giant modern wind turbines slowly moving in the dawn breeze, is an image that will always stick in my mind.

Of course, long trips on public transport can have their perils. On the stuffy train from Berlin to Warsaw, a group of three dodgy-looking people started smoking illicit cigarettes at the end of the carriage.

A brave non-smoker scolded one of the women and a loud, passionate multilingual fight erupted. One of the smokers, who looked to me like a Polish mobster, angrily joined in, calling the protester a few names I couldn't translate but sure could understand.

Eventually they agreed to move to the smoking carriages and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Long trips are their most arduous when they are unexpected. Recently, we booked a ferry that would take us from from Pula, in Croatia's north, to Zadar, further down the coast. We arrived at the dock, armed with some food for breakfast and ready for an exciting cruise on the Adriatic.

Instead we were greeted by the captain yelling "No! No!" and pointing us down the road.

A woman translated the captain's cries for us.

"No ferry today," she said. "Bad weather, go to the bus station."

So our highly-anticipated adventures on the high seas turned into a surprise seven-hour coach ride, which teetered along cliffs of the Croatian coastline.

Travelling on sleeper trains can be much more of a treat than bus trips. Having booked a trip from northern Poland to Krakow, in the south, I had nightmarish visions of sleeping sitting up next to a sweaty man named Boris and his dog.

But we were welcomed on board by a friendly man and shown to our twin cabin, where he had left us bottles of water and chocolate croissants.

We paid about $70 each for our tickets and were given first-class treatment the whole way - tea served to us on silver trays, fresh linen and a friendly wake-up call at dawn.

Marathon trips have also proven to be a great way to meet people who we never would have otherwise.

On the sleeper train from Krakow to Vienna, we were in a cabin with two elderly men, who were obviously seasoned travellers.

One of the men, an American named Alani, went to the bathroom and returned in striped pyjamas, with his hair combed and his passport and ticket safely tucked into his top pocket.

In the morning, he struck up a lively conversation, telling us he had a PhD in Arabic and had escaped the Saddam Hussein regime. He told us he was most famous among his colleagues for once leaving his wife of 38 years at work, despite having driven her home from the factory they both worked in everyday for 15 years.

The other elderly man didn't speak a word of English but asked us to help him put his shoes on in the morning and help him off the train.

When we arrived in Vienna, the four of us wandered out of the station and parted ways, never to meet again.

Long haul travel survival tips:

Travel at night. You can sleep most of the way and save on accommodation at the same time.

Pack an eye mask and ear plugs to make sleeping easier.

Take plenty of water with you.

If you can, carry a pillow case with you just in case one is not provided.

Bring some entertainment - a book and MP3 player are good if the beautiful landscapes aren't enough for you.

FAST FACTS

The ferry from the UK to Holland can be booked as part of the Dutch Flyer, an integrated rail-ferry ticket from London. Visit: www.stenaline.co.uk.

Eurolines buses cover over 500 destinations across Europe, including Amsterdam to Berlin. Visit: www.eurolines.com.

Many European rail timetables can be found at www.bahn.de.

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