A Long Day, or, How We Managed The Italian Train Strike

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July 22, 2011 by Leah

I think today was the most stressful – and possibly the most expensive – day Aaron and I have had since we got married. I’m reminded of the time I woke up an hour after a final exam started, but at least that situation was resolved within a few hours.

We learned on the way to the (absolutely lovely) wedding last night that the Italian train workers would be on strike today, but heard that some of the more major routes would have service. We had reservations on a train going from Milan to Zurich at 3:10 this afternoon, but we didn’t think getting to Milan by then would be a big deal, so long as we left extra time in our schedule. To that end, we left our hotel in Sirmione before 9 and took the 9:58 ferry across Lake Garda to Desenzano. After trying to get on the wrong bus and worrying the driver when we expressed an interest in the train station (he started telling us about the strike – in Italian, of course) we went to the tourist office. We were told some trains were running, there were no buses to Milan, and the only option was to go to the station and wait.

We took a circuitously-routed (read: sick-making to someone who may have done a bit too much celebrating the previous evening) city bus to the station (walking would have been faster), discovered several trains to Milan were scheduled with arrival tracks and everything, bought a ticket for a regional train from a machine, and went for lunch. Upon arriving back at the station, we discovered the train we were planning on taking had been canceled, so we bought beers and sat on the platform to wait.

Turns out, all the regional trains were canceled, so we finally caught a EuroCity at 2:22. Sadly, our train to Zurich was supposed to leave Milan at 3:10 so we knew we would miss it by about 20 minutes, but figured there would be another one. Additionally, when the conductor came to take our ticket on the EuroStar, he informed us we had the wrong ticket as we were on a special train, and we had to pay the difference (we ended up paying 50 Euros total, but I didn’t want to use the last day on our Eurail pass until we were certain of the timing of the international train trip – we figured there was the possibility of a night train). While we found the added fee outrageous considering all the cancelations, Aaron had taken the precaution of withdrawing some extra Euros yesterday, so we were able to pay and weren’t thrown off in disgrace at Brescia.

We got to Milan at 3:30, hoping against hope the Zurich train had been delayed. In fact, it had been canceled. Almost all the trains had been canceled, including all the international trains. The strike was supposed to end at 9 tonight, but when we consulted the posted schedule we could only find one train to Zurich per day, so my fantasies of a night train were dashed. The crowds at Milano Centrale were a sight to behold. A tired, confused, milling mass of overheated people. We sped by them and paid 7.50 Euros each to board a hot, crowded, smelly private bus bound for Malpensa Airport, figuring we could find internet access, a flight to Zurich, a rental car, or a representative of US Airways (worst airline ever) who might be able to change our flight (the one leaving Zurich tomorrow) for us so we could just head home.

We got off the bus after 45 km – and over an hour – in rush hour traffic on the autostrada, encouraged by all the EasyJet signage – they go all over Europe, right? The lady at the ticket counter looked at us like we were crazy when we asked for tickets to Zurich and pointed us to Swiss Air at Terminal 1 (4 km away). We got on another bus. After some confusion locating a ticket counter for Swiss Air, we were encouraged to find there were seats available on the 8:40 flight tonight. We were horrified to find they cost 380 Euros each (which Aaron figured as $1200 total). The ticket agent suggested we rent a car as it would be cheaper and we would arrive sooner. We thought this was a great idea.

Half an hour later, we’d talked to people at all of the rental car agencies at the airport. The three with cars left wouldn’t allow us to drop off a car in Switzerland. We began reviewing our options. There was no US Airways presence at the airport. If we could have located a phone, we might have been able to push our flight home back another day, which would mean taking the train tomorrow. It would also mean eating the cost of a hotel in Milan, the one we reserved in Switzerland, and the plane ticket change fees (total estimated at about $750, although that’s probably low – and getting our flight switched via phone struck me as potentially impossible). If we bought the plane tickets, we could be in Zurich before 10 and at our hotel by 10:30.

It hurt – a lot – but we bought the plane tickets. It’s just money, after all, and this whole experience will soon be an amusing blip on our memory radar. We spent our last 15 Euros on two sandwiches, a drink, and a celebratory chocolate muffin for Aaron (it’s his birthday tomorrow). The flight over the Alps was quick and scenic, if bumpy and expensive. We are finally cozy in our hotel here in Zurich (after a bit of minor getting lost in the rain), and we are finally (and very) ready to get home tomorrow. I can’t wait to resume my luggage-free life.

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