God, I wish I had taken the train.
It's close to midnight, and I'm on a bus going from Rijeka to Split. The bus officially departs from Rijeka at 22:30 and is supposed to arrive in Split around 6 in the morning, being part of the longer Autotrans nightline Pula – Dubrovnik. Autotrans had a couple of great moves in recent years – they revamped their website and it's now much easier to pick a bus and get the tickets online in no time, they lowered the ticket prices, they introduce new buses with usb sockets and wi-fi on the regular, and in general, the company has a much better image now than it had ten years ago. Even good things could use some improvements, though.
Before I say anything, I want to note I'm more than used to taking buses everywhere. This isn't coming from a tourist who's here for the first time and is taken aback by the traveling conditions, but from a person who spent more than ten years driving back and forth from Rijeka to Zagreb and other cities in Croatia and abroad. I've been on endless bus lines operated by endless companies, I know the price ranges by heart, I know both the highways and the local roads, and I'm not usually the type to complain, so I aim to remain neutral.
That's how I also know it's just not right to send a bus full of people from Pula to Dubrovnik along all the coastal road curvings in July without working AC.
Let's break the night down to a couple of tips for all of you who haven't yet tried the exclusive coastal bus trip, just so you know what to expect:
1) Buy the ticket in advance and make sure to book the return trip as well.
I always get my bus tickets online and if you know you'll be returning the same way as well, it's both more practical and cheaper to book a return trip at once. Autotrans offers three options on their website: one-way, open return trip, and return trip with all departure times booked in advance. Opt for the open return if you're not sure what time you'll be getting back, but keep in mind that buying a return ticket doesn't automatically grant you a seat in every bus throughout the day, and you'll need to either book a seat for your desired departure time online or at a bus station.
That might seem like a logical thing to do, but speaking from experience, there's a good 20% of both locals and tourists who still don't manage to grasp that one. Tourists can't be blamed as they shouldn't be expected to guess the terms and conditions of all carriers around the world, but the locals who 'forget' to book their seats and just board any given bus do it on purpose. If the drivers started to kick them out in case they don't have a reservation, things would maybe look up, but as nobody says anything, we keep having to board the buses, run into arrogant travellers taking our seats, than proceed to fight over said seats for unholy amounts of time.
The line I booked departed on Friday evening and was completely sold out two days in advance – summer and Ultra working its wonders. When I boarded the bus, I ran into a guy who took my seat, politely asked him to get up, and got a polite reply that he "bought the ticket just as I did and therefore has a right to sit down". Yes, he does, but at his designated place, could he check the ticket to see what it was? He did, there was no seat marked, so he'll rather remain in that one and I could talk to the driver to sort something out. If no seat is noted on a ticket, it's a return ticket without a booking. I expected him to move at once, but had to fight for 10 more minutes. Usually I'd give up and find the seat elsewhere, but as the bus was packed to the brim, I told him that was my seat, I wasn't going anywhere, and if I went to get the driver, he'd tell him the same thing, only 10 minutes later. I got my seat in the end, and thanks to at least 10 similar situations in the bus, instead of 22:30 we departed on 22:50 with more people than seats. Woo! Book your tickets, people, and don't give in to idiots.
2) Try to find the line using a shortest route.
Split and Rijeka are the second and third largest cities in Croatia respectively. One would think they'd be well-connected on all fronts, and yet, there's no bus line from Rijeka to Split that takes the highway, even though that would significantly shorten the journey. No, it's summer season, which means the coastal route is dotted with smaller towns brimming with nightlife, resulting in lots of people in need of a ride back home to another town close by. Bus companies in operation rationally use that, and depending on location, there are multiple lines a day to help you hop from town to town. However, if you're driving on a longer route, you're not going to be enthusiastic about hopping anywhere, you'll just want to reach the finish line in shortest possible time frame. When buying a bus ticket, check what's the shortest route to a certain place in order to find out if you'll be taking the highway or going the local way. On that note...
3) Keep in mind 'sleep' is a relative concept.
In this particular case, between Rijeka and Split, you'll stop in Crikvenica, Novi Vinodolski, Senj, Karlobag, Zadar, Vodice, Šibenik, and Trogir, not counting one or two where I wasn't actually sure where we were. I'll admit, it's a scenic route that would usually throw one gorgeous view after another into your lap, but it's a nightline – noone on the bus was there for some sightseeing. We all wanted to get to our destination and maybe catch some shut-eye along the way. Sadly, stopping every 15 minutes entails the lights turning off and on and off and on until you're traumatised and paranoid, feeling like a prisoner of a terrorist group that's keeping you sleep-deprived as a form of torture. A sleeping mask might come in handy, but in any case, don't take a nightline along the coast believing you'll sleep through the night.
4) Bring a hand fan along... just in case.
Ah, the joys of driving 8+ hours in the summer without any kind of air condition. The bus wasn't old enough not to have any AC, and there were air vents above every seat, but even when you put them on max, they gave off what could best be described as someone's dying breath. You couldn't have complained about no AC because technically there was some – exactly the right amount to make fun of you throughout the night without enabling you to breathe. It was close to 30 degrees Celsius in that bus, and with 55 people cramped together in such a small space, you can imagine the lovely scent in that warm, warm air. I remember enviously watching a girl who sat close to me and had a hand fan – a perfect, old-school but working AC tool. I also remember thinking about mine that I left at home. On all-nighter bus trips, people tend to get as comfortable as they can, desperate for some sleep, which usually means everybody kicks off their shoes and spreads around what little space they have in awkward, twisted positions. Without AC, this also means everything smells like dirty feet. Bring a hand fan with you.
On second thought... on my way back I was lucky to get a bus with AC that blasted Arctic air into my face. It was glorious, but opposite from 30C wonders, this time it was a bit chilly. So, bring that hand fan, but bring a shirt or a shawl as well.
5) Use every break like it's your last.
Every bus line longer than 2 hours will always make at least one stop along the way. A line of 8+ hours might have up to 4-5 breaks, depending on the route and available facilities, so you don't have to worry about toilet breaks and getting snacks. However, that might mean 3 breaks in 2 hours and then nothing for 4 hours, so if you're leaning towards the needs-toilet-often side like me, don't skip a break just because you know there'll be another one. There will, but you never know when exactly.
An extra one:
6) Remind yourself it'll be worth it.
A ride can be hellish, but what awaits after you step out of that bus might make up for it. In this case, I walked into a tranquil sunrise in Split, birds flying over the cathedral, the walls of the Diocletian's palace bathing in a gentle morning glow. A waterfront lined with boats, seagulls yapping, an odd tourist sleeping on a bench until their ferry arrives. I had a coffee while I was waiting for others to get there, watching the city slowly starting to buzz with life. It was a perfect intermezzo between the all-nighter and the following fabulous boat trip, leaving me refreshed and making every second of that ride worth it. If you find yourself wide awake and on the verge of tears in a bus at 3 AM, drink some water, turn on your music player, and remind yourself the goal is always worth the journey.