Trier – Flixbus

On the same day I tried both Wizzair and Flixbus for the first time, breaking a habit from my usual budget options of Ryanair and the rail network. I’ve used Polskibus and Megabus many times before, although the former and the international routes of the latter are now part of Flixbus. I’ll do a review of Wizzair shortly, but I was suitably impressed and will use them in the future.

I’ve heard many bad things about Flixbus, but then again, I’ve heard many bad things about Ryanair and Greyhound buses. It’s usually the case that the majority of people who leave reviews have negative experiences, so I pretty much ignored the poor reviews of Flixbus.

As an advance note, I very rarely complain about public transport, usually it’s my confusion which causes issues. However, for this journey, the customer service wasn’t functioning as it should, so this whole splurge of text will sound a bit whingy and complainy.

Anyway, back to the positives. The Flixbus bus network is exciting to me, it’s vast and spreads across Europe. The prices are very reasonable, so I was really hoping that this was an enjoyable experience, as I’d be very keen to explore more destinations using it.

The web-site is well designed and it’s easy to find out routes and to find out the times of buses. The payment process was entirely broken though for me, or at least it was on my devices, as just before the final screen it reported a “system error” and returned me to the front page. However, I resolved this by switching to a mobile device, and that worked. I’m sure this bug has been fixed now, as I noticed a few complaints on-line at the time, and very little since.

Undeterred, the first part of my journey was from Cologne to Trier, with a stop-over before going from Trier to Luxembourg. The first bus was around 20 minutes late, but I liked the automated update on the app and by e-mail, so I was happy that I knew where the bus was. I couldn’t find a coach tracking facility, but this update via the app and by e-mail was really useful, and it’s one of the best I’ve seen from a coach operator.

My first thoughts about Flixbus started to get just a little negative when I saw the driving of another one of their coaches. The driver turned into Cologne airport bus station and then stopped in a random place. blocking everyone else. He then stood outside of the bus on his phone whilst taxis sounded their horns and struggled to get by. Eventually another Flixbus turns up behind him and since that’s now blocked, the driver of the bus gets off, says something to the first Flixbus driver, and he finally moves. All is well again.

So, ignoring that, the bus pulls up right to where I’m standing, as I consider myself excellent at judging this. This made me very pleased with the driver, and I’m confident that we’ll have a rapport based on my being very pleased at where he stopped.

The driver’s customer service though was simply inadequate, and the way he spoke to some American passengers was unacceptable to me. I take offence on behalf of other people more readily than I take offence myself, I’ll never understand why…. The Americans call him an idiot, the driver doesn’t hear, so again, all is well.

I’m always very conscious that there’s a language barrier here, but the driver’s lack of engagement, lack of smiles and general lack of interest caused more confusion than understanding. It was a shoddy piece of service, and my impressions of Flixbus were dented. However, I’m conscious that the driver had probably had a long drive and perhaps had other things on his mind, so I didn’t want one thing to damage my perceptions of the brand.

The coach itself was much better, the seats were clean, functional and all of the power points worked. The bus could have done with an information card to help passengers understand that the driver sold drinks, etc, but there was nothing in the seat pockets to explain the entire service. The driver did though play a pre-recorded announcement which gave the appropriate safety information.

The bus arrived into Trier on time, and I liked how the driver explained that passengers staying on had 25 minutes in the city. He mentioned where the toilets and cafe were, and I liked that he gave that information in a clear and concise manner. The driver’s driving was fine and the views of Bonn and the countryside en route were rather lovely. This is one of the advantages of travelling by coach, it can sometimes (although obviously not always) offer much better views than would be possible by rail.

Anyway, after my few hours in Trier, I returned to the same point to catch the next Flixbus to Luxembourg. I was aware that the coach was an hour late, as again there were updates on the e-mail and on the app.  I’d far rather the driver was late than felt forced to rush to meet deadlines, so the wait didn’t matter. The facilities at the bus stop were limited, well, limited to the fact there weren’t any. But, I’m used to that with Greyhound (although they seem to be investing in new coach stations), Megabus, and just about every other low fare long distance coach company. Low fares means that the coach operators don’t use the premium coach stations in many cases, but that’s all fine because of that reasonable pricing.

There was a board at the bus stop which gave the stopping times of all of the Flixbus services. This is often simply not there with other operators, and it’s confusing for customers who aren’t sure where to stand. But Flixbus seemed to do this well, there’s been some investment in information boards to ensure customers know that they’re in the right place.

The coach pulls up an hour late, which was exactly as the app suggested. There were two staff members and they appeared to be engaging and helpful, so my impressions were quite positive. Well, until it was clear that they were being engaging and helpful to four female customers. It was a muddled piece of customer service as these four didn’t have tickets, so it would have seemed best to board those who did. However, they didn’t, but such is life.

So, I’m waiting quite excitedly to board with my ticket showing on my phone. I held it out and smiled in the hope that the driver might be happier than the last one. He did appear mildly happier but he then told me that my ticket was wrong and I needed the next bus. I queried this with the other staff member, who said that the next bus would be here soon. I thought this was a particularly impressive piece of intuition as neither felt it necessary to look at the ticket I had held out.

I decided that this wasn’t an ideal situation as I was sure that this was the right bus. The driver said that he didn’t go to Luxembourg, which was where I was heading, and that the next bus did. However, the bus had Luxembourg on the front of it, so I was pretty confident that he did go there. I double checked the route number and it was quite clear that I did have the right coach.

Anyway, I put it down to a translation issue and explained again that I had the ticket on my phone. The staff member didn’t believe me and decided to show me the passenger manifest on his phone as evidence that I had the wrong ticket. The passenger manifest had my name on it. The driver let me on.

To be fair again to Flixbus, the service into Luxembourg was timely, well driven and comfortable. The power sockets worked again, the temperature was appropriate and the interior was clean. The driving seemed safe and we arrived into Luxembourg at the time I had expected, given that the coach came in an hour late. I didn’t use the wi-fi, but I heard another customer say that they thought that the connection was fast, so I’m sure that it was fine.

I found that there was one information card in a seat pocket on the coach, and this was surprisingly well laid out. I wasn’t sure that I’d be leaving the driver a tip as the card suggested, but it was written in an informal manner which gave the appropriate information.

The professionally printed information card informs customers that coffee costs €1.50. The rather less professional signage on the bus suggests that it’s €2.50.

So, overall, the service is entirely usable for passengers, as it’s clean, comfortable and the infra-structure seems well managed. However, the infra-structure is that of a centralised set-up from Flixbus, whereas the actual driving is franchised out to local coach companies. Which is clearly leading to all manner of issues.

My biggest disappointment is that I was a very big fan of Polskibus, I thought that they were world class and their pricing was excellent. Their drivers were, in my experience, happy, helpful and keen to engage when they could. However, Flixbus have taken over Polskibus, and I fear that they will decimate it and their excellent customer service.

So, would I use Flixbus again? No. I’ve learned my lesson, I’m going to revert to travelling by rail and plane again, I feel safer with those. I’ve had some excellent experiences with rail in Europe over the last few years, such as the Polish rail conductor who last week showed me across the railway station to ensure I caught the right train.

Although having said (written) that, Flixbus also operate a parallel service, conveniently called FlixTrain which is an open access operator. For all manner of reasons I think that’s exciting and appealing, so I might perhaps try their rail services in the future.