Tuesday Travel Trouble: Train-a-palooza

Last Christmas we packed up the family and headed to Portugal to visit Emily’s parents for a week.  It was a wonderful trip, in spite of the challenge getting there and the added stop on the way home.  As we geared up for our trip, our train-loving son, Peter, was particularly excited to hear that we could probably ride a train while in Portugal.  Yet with access to Grandma’s car for most of our trip, we found ourselves nearing the end of our stay, not having been on a real train.

Since Emily’s parents were only a few blocks from the train and trolley connecting Belém to central Lisbon, we decided that we would treat Peter (and the other boys) with a little train adventure—an activity we dubbed Train-a-palooza!  We’d catch the train from Belém, head into central Lisbon, transfer to the subway for a couple of stops, and then hop on the trolley back to Belém.  A perfect activity for our train lover, and pretty low risk as far as adventures go.

Yet we still had some unexpected obstacles!

First, as we waited on the platform for our train to Lisbon, it turned out there was only an automated ticket machine.  No desk, no person.  Not necessarily problematic, but after repeated, failed attempts to purchase our tickets, the train approached.  I decided we would just buy tickets once we arrived in Lisbon to cover the trip we’d just taken.  The chances of controllers sweeping the cabin were slim, and I figured with as an English-speaking family with several small children, they’d cut us some slack.

I was right—no control check.  What I didn’t count on was that at the terminus in central Lisbon, we’d need a validated ticket to exit the station.  Hmm…  Again, no employees were around.  And by the time we found the proper exit, no people were around, either.  We could see a ticket machine just outside the barrier—we just couldn’t get to it!

We started trying to wave down others who were walking past (outside the barriers), hoping someone might take our money and buy us some tickets.  After a few minutes of frustration and uncertainty (our train-a-palooza wasn’t going quite as flawlessly as planned), our second son, Lincoln, with an innocent, surprised, and happy look on his face, said, “Mom and Dad, how about we just go out this way?!”  He’d found a section of the barrier (probably intended for employees or handicapped access) off to the side that wasn’t secured.  There was something about his delivery of the line and the stress of the moment that caused us to laugh and laugh and laugh.

So we were FREE!  We headed out to the machine, buying tickets for the trip we’d just taken and the return trip via subway and trolley back to Belém.

Then we headed down the stairs to the subway, only to discover that the return tickets we’d just bought wouldn’t work.  This time, we were successful at finding an employee, and while his English was limited, he understood our error and pointed out that the tickets we’d bought upstairs couldn’t be used on the subway.  Go figure!  So he showed us the ticket machine down on this level, and we bought NEW tickets to get home.

From here the trip went smoothly.  Peter, our train lover, was delighted.  We’d brought a few M&M’s along for the ride to celebrate the fun, which everyone enjoyed.  It was the boys’ first time on a subway, and then their first time on an extended trolley.  They were happy guys, and the neighboring passengers enjoyed their enthusiasm.

While it didn’t work out perfectly—and it cost us a bit more than it should have—we learned a few things on our train-a-palooza:

  • Taking time to plan an activity geared at one of the kids can be a great addition to a trip. Whether it’s a Harry Potter fan visiting Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station, a Wimbledon visit for the tennis fanatic, or a train-a-palooza for our train-loving 3-year-old, it can make for a special kind of happiness, and one that the whole family can cherish.
  • Barclaycard Arrival+ is one of the few US-issued cards with chip-and-pin technology

    Barclaycard Arrival+ is one of the few US-issued cards with chip-and-pin technology

    In hindsight, our problem purchasing tickets at the first (Belém) station almost certainly stemmed from the fact that I was using a credit card without chip-and-pin technology. While this technology is widespread in Europe, it’s relatively hard to come by in the U.S. and on U.S. credit cards.  But it’s growing!  If you don’t have a card with chip-and-pin, you can always call your credit card company and ask if they have a version of your card with it.  In a few cases they can send you a new card with your same account number with the added technology/security.  If that’s not a possibility, then you might check out the Barclaycard ArrivalPlus, which offers this feature for all customers.  Cards with chip-and-pin technology come in especially handy at automated ticket machines across Europe where there’s no option to validate with a signature.  Some cards that feature chip-and-signature do not allow chip-and-pin—and so you may still be out of luck with ticket machines or other automated payment systems.

  • If you run into a problem, ask someone for help. In our case, we struggled to find anyone, since it was a quiet time of day and no employees were around.  But once we found the guy down near the subway ticket area, he was kind and helpful.  We English-speakers have the good fortune of almost always being able to find someone who can communicate with us in our own language—truly a blessing that enables family travels abroad!
  • Be flexible, and don’t stress the small stuff! In spite of the concern we had as we looked for a way out at the Lisbon train station, there was no chance we’d have to sleep there.  While plans may get frustrated, there’s always a way out.  Just get creative and laugh it off once your problem is solved.

So what are you waiting for?!  Get out there and plan your family’s train-a-palooza!

Subway barrier photo ©Sergios

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