The infamous Budapest to Belgrade overnight train

Keleti Station photo by Ian Brewer

I’m a big advocate when it comes to train travel.  Given the choice of trains or planes, I’ll take the train every time.  Let’s just say that I would prefer to keep my feet on the ground whenever possible.  Having travelled across Europe by train to various destinations, I have experienced the good, the bad and the downright ugly! The Budapest to Belgrade overnight train was in the downright ugly category.  Faced with the prospect of being thrown off the train in the middle of the night, at the border of Hungary and Serbia, is something you do not want to experience.

Having spent around 24 hours sightseeing in the amazing city of  Budapest, my sister and I both vowed that we would be back one day – but for now our journey was to continue on to Belgrade. Earlier that day we needed to call into the Keleti Station to buy our tickets for the overnight train to Belgrade.  When we walked into the ticket office, there were only two women serving at the counters, so  we found ourselves waiting in a small queue.

This is where our problems started – unbeknownst to us – this encounter would turn the train ride into our worst nightmare! Firstly I will say that the lady that served us was extremely unhelpful and utterly rude.  When we reached the top of the queue, this woman’s counter was free and we proceeded to move toward her counter.  She motioned for the group of guys behind us to come forward rather than us, which we thought a little strange, as we were ahead of them in the queue.  We looked back at the guys and they were just as confused as us!  We went to the counter anyway – big mistake!

I asked her if we could book some sleeper tickets for the night train to Belgrade, which left around eleven p.m that night. She proceeded to roll her eyes and became disinterested, looked at her computer and said no tickets for a sleeper. She offered no alternative, so I prompted her by asking if there are any in first class? Once again, I got the eye roll as though it was a total inconvenience to her. She immediately said no without even checking her computer! I asked her to please check, so she tapped on the keys and said no seats. Once again, it was like pulling teeth to get some sort of customer service from this woman, so I then asked if there were any seats of any kind left on this train, as we had to be on that train! I again, asked her to check the computer. There were tickets for 2nd class, yet I still had to prompt her to even let us buy them! At this point we were pretty perplexed as to why she would behave this way as we were very polite at all times. She hands me the tickets and on inspection, I see our seat numbers and carriage that we were to be booked on. I did ask her if this was all we needed as I thought it was a little cheap but then again, it was for 2nd class and they looked like tickets to me!

So we went on with the rest of the day sightseeing and then headed back to our hotel, had a lovely dinner and then got a taxi to the train station.

10 p.m

When we arrived at the station, it was dark and seemed a little deserted, which was understandable as it was ten p.m at night. The first sight of the train had us thinking, what are we in for? It was pretty old and no doubt had seen better days! We found our carriage, seat allocations and it soon appeared that no one else had reserved seats as people were just sitting anywhere. At least each compartment could be closed off by a glass door and at that point we had the compartment to ourselves. The train was full of young travellers, backpackers and generally people who were ready to party! I’m not sure whether alcohol was allowed to be consumed on the train but I saw a lot of people drinking on board.

Anyhow in the last ten minutes prior to the train leaving, a man seated his elderly mother in our compartment. I guess ours was the best option as the other compartments were noisy to say the least.

So we settled into the train journey, talking, laughing, making plans for the next day, as we were meeting up with a good friend living in Belgrade.  I had to turn my phone off at that point as it was in danger of running out of power due to us being out all day and having no opportunity to charge it. So we decide to go to sleep in what were uncomfortable conditions. This train is notorious for being freezing anytime of the year and for having valuables stolen whilst you sleep. So as we could no longer lie down, we put our luggage on the ground where your feet go and then stretched our legs across them.  This also doubled as security, if someone wanted to break into our cases they would have to extract our bodies off them first!

Midnight

So around midnight the conductor comes by, aggressively banging on our door demanding to check our tickets. We handover ours, he looks at our tickets and begins yelling at us in Hungarian. Okay so we are a little confused and he keeps demanding for our tickets, to which we kept stating these were our tickets. He says they are not tickets; they are seat reservations and gave them back to us. He told us we had to pay more money to make up the difference,  he got out his ticket machine and gave us a price in euros. I had just enough cash on me that would take us to the border and he gave us a receipt.

We tried to ask him what will happen once we are at the border? He said we will have to sort it out with the Serbian authorities and walked off, it was no longer his problem. Now in Europe, fare evasion is a very serious offence, so we knew we were going to be in some sort of serious trouble when we hit the border as I had no cash left on me after paying for myself and my sister’s fare. The poor old lady next to us gave us a sympathetic look and a hand gesture to let us know she couldn’t help us, not that we would have asked her anyway.

So here we sat, thinking what on earth are we going to do to get out of this mess. I couldn’t believe that the woman at the train station sold us the wrong tickets when she knew perfectly well we had to catch this train! My sister thought they will probably evict us from the train at the border in the middle of nowhere and even worse – in the middle of the night!  We had no more cash to buy the rest of the fare. We discussed the option of going around the compartments and asking if anyone would lend us the money and that we would pay them back when we got off the train, yes we were desperate and desperate times call for desperate measures!

At this point my sister had worked herself into a state of panic over the possible consequences, so I had to be the voice of reason and decided that I needed to go and sort this out in order to calm my sister’s fears. I walked through all the 2nd class carriages until I reached the first class carriage and luckily the conductors’ compartment was the first one. I knocked on the door and opened it to which they asked me what I wanted.  I relayed my concerns about what will happen once we reach the border and that I needed to know what would happen if we didn’t have the fare.  He didn’t have a solution and just told me to deal with it once the Serbian conductors take over the train.

After more thought and discussion with my sister on what we were going to do, I suddenly remembered that I had 50 British pounds in my suitcase! So now we have an option, a slim one at that but it was an option! My sister said when she went to the toilet earlier (I should mention here that the toilets were a horrific sight) she thought she heard someone speaking English from one of the compartments. She set off to negotiate and indeed found a tourist who just happened to be an Australian from Melbourne in a group of Germans. He felt bad for us and said he would help us out if we needed and that he would be happy to swap his euros for pounds. So my sister said she will come back and see him if we needed his assistance and thanked him.

3 a.m

Okay so we didn’t sleep much due to the stress and worry. Then about three a.m the train slows down and we suspect that we are at the border, glancing outside into the darkness we notice kids running with the train outside which was rather odd because it was 3 a.m!

Then suddenly loud voices begin calling out passports and banging on doors, this is the usual drill once you pass over the border into Serbia. So we sit waiting and dreading our fate as they get closer to our compartment. The door flings open, they are shining torches into our faces like some sort of interrogation and demand we put the lights on and to handover our passports. Their presence was very intimidating as they were in full military uniform and armed. Our passports were checked, stamped and away they went. So you can imagine how relieved we were that our tickets weren’t checked and that we weren’t going to be thrown off at the border, but we still hadn’t seen a Serbian conductor at this point. We were hoping we wouldn’t see any!

4 a.m

Four a.m and once again we hear the commotion from banging on doors and tickets being called out. Our hearts are racing as the Serbian conductor arrives at our carriage, we show him our tickets, together with the ones we purchased from the Hungarian conductor and we explained what had happened to us earlier. He patiently listened and was very sympathetic for what had happened and that we only had British pounds. He explained that he couldn’t accept the pounds and we knew that this would have been a long shot but it was worth a try. My sister then offered to go and swap our money with another passenger a few carriages away. He said that was fine and he will come back later. What an absolute stark contrast this fellow was to the Hungarian conductor. The Serbian conductor was patient, polite and friendly! Furthermore we were stunned that he allowed us to do this without any qualms!

So my sister heads back to the Australian guy’s compartment and he trades 20 euros for our 50 pounds. He made a nice little profit from the swap and he did feel really bad about it but it was all he had – besides that was the least of our concern, we just needed to get a ticket!

The conductor comes back and dispenses new tickets and we hand over the cash. Finally this nightmare is over and we survived this crazy ordeal!  

7 a.m

Finally the train ride is over and we arrive safely (albeit a bit shaken up) in Belgrade.

I must add that there are numerous scams that happen on this train and there are countless stories of people being robbed or asked to pay exorbitant amounts for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. I don’t believe this was the case for us, as our problem was with the original sale of the ticket. After further investigation, you are required to have another part to the ticket which we were not given ( I suspect on purpose). I usually research everything when I am travelling, but as I hadn’t looked at what a 2nd class ticket would have cost, I was unaware that it was far too cheap.  

Moral of the story is if the ticket counter person doesn’t want to serve you – wait for another ticket counter and be sure to check that your ticket is valid.

Have you taken the overnight train?

If you have or are about to take the overnight train in either direction, please let us know how your experience was. The good the bad or the downright ugly, add your comment below.

**Edit:

I am told that there is now a new Russian train that runs the same route every night. The train is a newer train with better facilities on board than the old and tired Hungarian Train. 

 

31 COMMENTS

  1. Did this trip 25 years ago, sounds like nothing has changed. Will be taking our children on the trip with us soon (met my wife on this train so showing them where they come from as it was and encouraging them to be adventurous), perhaps the day train this time……

    • I’d almost be certain that you might ride the same train from 25 years ago, no new trains when I went just over 2 years ago. Good luck with your family trip and maybe the day train will be a little more sedate … no interrogating like conditions in the middle of the night!

  2. Load of tripe ! Done this trip 4 or 5 times. Its a piece of cake, as long as you know HUs will try and milk every tourist.

    • Glad to hear your trips have been a piece of cake and I’m sure most go on uneventful. My one and only trip was a vile experience. Would this stop me from taking this train again … of course not. I’m just a bit wiser about what I might encounter next time.

  3. I am in the throes of planning a trip and was considering train from Budapest to Belgrade and maybe onto Istanbul, but having read your blog I think backtracking to Vienna and flying may be more my style. At 70 I am a little old for a risky train ride. Hopefully the night train from Kraków to Budpaest isn’t fraught with the same risks.

    • Hi Alison, it’s definitely a long train ride with frequent interruptions and everyone’s experience is different. Some are uneventful or you may have an experience like my sister and I. If you value your sleep (like I do) then this is one train you are guaranteed to have broken sleep. If I was travelling on my own I would probably take the day train to feel a little more safer. Although if I did have the opportunity to go this route again, I think I’d fly into Belgrade instead. I hope you enjoy Belgrade, the people are really lovely and that you have an amazing holiday! 🙂

    • Hi Vladimir, yes we would have loved to have told him that and if it had of happened in my country Australia we could have argued the case. The conductor was extremely aggressive which scared the crap out of us, which is want I think he wanted to do. Anyway, next time I know better 😉

  4. Wow… I am just considering my transportation options from Belgrade to Budapest, and here I am… The night train sounded like a good option, until this article came up 🙂

    To be honest and realistic, I live here, so I kind of knew what I would be in for.. but from your perspective the ride sounds seriously intimidating. I feel ashamed for both of our countries, even though, when you look at the economic state here, you can’t really expect brand new trains. But the part about rude staff at counters is actually an internal joke topic. A lot of them are older ladies, still stuck in a former YU way of thinking. It wold take up some space to explain that one 🙂

    Anyways, thank you for the nice words on people from Belgrade and please do come visit again.

    P.S. If I still decide to take the adventurous ride, I’ll make sure to write.

    • Hi SSania, we bought our tickets in Budapest and yes from your description, they were both older ladies at the counter. The one we encountered was unbelievable rude to us. All we wanted was to buy a train ticket and we got met with disdain. I will visit Belgrade again (I’ve been twice now) at some point as I have wonderful friends who live there. If you do decide to ride the train, let me know how you went, whether good or bad. Good luck and safe travels 🙂

  5. I had a bad experience with a Hungarian train guard in 2011. But we had the correct tickets and seat reservations. The problem she had it turned out was that I had been given a family ticket as I was travelling with my son. Basically she did not believe that we were related because he is black and I am white. I gave her our passports and she stormed off down the train with them ignoring my demands that she not disappear with our passports. She was a really nasty piece of work. It hot worse when she came back, slammed tge passports on the table and then I demand that she tell me what the problem had been. I should have said that she spoke to me only in Hungarian but then miraculously loudly broke into English speaking to my son.

    I took a photo of her as evidence and she brought the senior conductor across who tried to intimidate me into deleting it. She refused to apologise for her rudeness.

    • Wow Alan, I feel for you. Sounds like a terrible and humiliating experience for both you and your son, at the hands of someone who lacks any respect for people. It’s just a shame that for such a nice country like Hungary that it’s tainted by people like this. Most people will catch a train in Budapest and these people leave a lasting impression. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  6. Well first of all, if you go to Serbia for sightseeing, skip Belgrade and go straight to Novi Sad. Belgrade is frankly shit. I know a lot of Australians go on a Euro trip, so Serbia is definitely on the visit list, but it is your money and you can be picky and go for the cultural capital instead of the administrative center. Second – yeah, the night train is crap. All HU officers are like that, and most of them are not very sattisfied with their jobs, which ultimately gets people in these wierd and sad situations like the one you described.

    I just took the train in the opposite direction last night, everything was perfect. So it may be dependent on the day of the week you pick, or something else, but it can be fine. Day trains often have those old movie-like restaurant wagons so that may be worth looking at too.

    Hope you have better luck next time!

    • Hi Denis, thanks for the tips on Serbia. I will most definitely checkout Novi Sad on my next visit, I love history and unfortunately my last two visits were a fleeting one. I enjoyed Belgrade myself but I guess that is due to being friends with people who live there. I agree that Belgrade seems a place where lots of young people will go to party, lot’s of bars and Splavs and not so much as a cultural trip. But like you say each to their own.

      I really feel that the HU side of the train is the issue, coming from the comments here and on other forums. It’s really great to hear that you had a positive experience on the night train and I agree, it’s not like something bad or weird is going to be happening every night of the week.

    • Hi Liz, I used the local Hungarian train that runs between Budapest and Belgrade. Apparently there is a brand new Russian train which now operates on this route every night.

  7. Travelled tonight. Absolutely awesome experience. Every wagon has an attendant, and a male and female for the first class sleeper. Except for the sleep bit (if you’re crossing borders you’ll be asked to show passports anywhere) which wasn’t too bad as they check tickets right after journey commencement and then twice they wake you up (at 1 and then 3) for passport check. 2nd class sleepers are a bit shabby, business class is decent, but may be tiresome for a seated 8 hour journey. First class sleeper, my favourite! Clean sheets, attendants, locked cabins, temperature control, wash basin in your cabin, a full size mirror and brand new beds/seats. Loved the journey and the staff, plus passport and ticket crew were absolutely amazing. I reckon it’s also important to remain courteous towards them and they’ll quickly warm up to you. In fact the Serbian passport police returned to bid me a happy journey but all I could understand was ‘Aussie’!!

    • Great to hear of your positive experience on the overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade. Looks like having a rival train company servicing the same route has encouraged better customer service. Thanks for sharing your experience and tips on riding this train and yes being courteous certainly takes you far.

  8. When I traveled to Eastern Europe, the one piece of advice my brother gave me was to not take the overnight train to Budapest. Having missed an earlier train, I ignored that advice, and took the midnight train, alone, from Prague to Budapest. There were no cabins available so I slept in a 2nd class open air seat as best I could. I was 30, ten years too old for that sort of travel. An older man, extremely dirty, with his face constantly hidden in a hood and a long dirty beard, continually sat next to me on the train station benches no matter how much I moved. I got on the train and shortly after that the same man moved to sit next to me on the train. I moved along with my backpack with my wallet and passport, but left my suitcase in the overhead. Needless to say, when I woke up, my suitcase was gone. I asked one of the conductors to help me search for the suitcase thinking foolishly it might have been misplaced. He began screaming at me that I didn’t sit in his section and it wasn’t his problem (until I began screaming back with tears in my eyes that he was a horrible person). A slightly less horrible conductor looked on with apparent sympathy. I began searching myself until the first conductor saw me and began screaming again to get off his train. I then went to see the Hungarian police station in the train station and report my suitcase stolen. They looked at me blankly and asked what I wanted them to do. I requested they complete a police report which they did begrudgingly. Only one police officer spoke English, and it was very broken. He repeatedly asked me if I had travel insurance to cover the suitcase, and I continually explained it wasn’t about the money but the fact that I had no clothing for the next 10 days. I was required to provide a detailed inventory of my suitcase including whether the two bottles of wine in it were red or white. They provided nine copies of the police report, each requiring six separate signatures. No copy machine was readily available. It took almost 4 hours to complete the police report. During that time I acted as a translator between immigrants from the Balkans that spoke decent English and the one Hungarian officer that spoke broken English. I also tried to explain to the Hungarian police officer that the racial American slurs he was using to describe the Hungarian Gypsy population were not appropriate, with no success. I have traveled to over 30 countries and this was the overall worst experience I have had.

    • Hi Megan, I Know exactly how you would have felt. We were also very worried about having our luggage stolen due to many warnings we had received from others on the night train. I feel so bad for you, not only being harassed by said scary passenger, your gut instinct was right. But to also receive little help from conductors and police. It’s a sad state when a country’s police force is corrupted by a few (not all) with zero care factor. The Hungarian conductors were horrendous, yet the Serbian conductors were lovely on our journey. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. I did the trip last night (1st Jan 2017). It was minus 7 in Budapest and nowhere warm to wait at station. Had already booked couchette via Internet so no problem with tickets. Sleeper carriage was awful; no lights and no heat. Made a BIG fuss and was eventually allowed to sit in the 1st class carriage instead. No beds, only chairs, but at least it was warm.

    Delayed for 1.5 hours at border but still arrived in Belgrave exactly on time so I guess they have allowed for delay.

    At the next station after entering Serbia, several groups of young men joined the train (2am). I later got chatting to three of them. They were Kurdish refugees from Syria and Iraq. They had tried that night to cross into Hungary but we’re rounded up by the police after a couple of miles of walking and we’re taken back to the Serbian border. They were disheartened to have been caught but all agreed they would try again. They were polite young men and I feel privileged to have met them and heard their stories.

    • Great to hear of your experience Anne-Marie. Wow no lights in your sleeper carriage is pretty poor, I’m glad you were able to swap carriages. But changing carriages has given you a chance to chat first hand with the refugees, I’m sure their stories would have been incredible. My heart goes out to these displaced people and I’m sure you will have a better perspective of their plight having met them (not what the media tells us). Thanks again for sharing you experience.

  10. Sorry to hear about your experience. I’m studying in Slovakia and have used the night trains frequently to get around to different parts. And whilst I know it’s unfair to generalise, Hungarians have a rep for rudeness and justify it regularly whenever I have to deal with them. I’ve similarly had that experience with a woman at a ticket office, who booked us in for a train the next night that was at a later time. We ended up missing the last train out of Bratislava, meaning a 6 hour wait until the early morning one, and an uncomfortable stay in a dilapidated train station inhabited by all sorts of characters. When we asked her why she did it, we just received a non-chalant shrug.

    People in this part of the world are not generally as warm as other parts, but you learn to deal with it. If you get someone like that ticket sales woman again, my advice would be to wait until the other seller is free.

    • I’m sorry to hear of your experience, I can only imagine what it would have been like waiting at a station all night, feeling not only uncomfortable but vulnerable too. Yes, I agree it is unfair to generalise a country (I try not too), but unfortunately one bad experience can leave lasting memories of a country, it’s people or service. I don’t understand why people find it easier to be difficult when employed to do a job. The ticket sellers aren’t interested or care about what the fallout is from their actions. Without tourists, they would possibly be without a job. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

      • Thanks for your detailed post, I definitely won’t be taking the night train now. Traveling solo by train all around Hungary, I’ve actually been surprised by how nice many people have been. Not outgoing or excited to chat but when I’ve been in a pinch they–mostly older women actually–have surprised me with their kindness. Maybe it helps that I’ve only used electronic machines to buy tickets. There’s an English option on the machines; I don’t know if the machine will sell tickets to Belgrade but I’ll find out soon enough. Happy travels.

        • You’re welcome Anna! I also found that people in general in Hungary were very nice and it’s just unfortunate that this experience taints that. I’d love to go back one day though! I hope you continue to have a wonderful experience travelling around a gorgeous country.

  11. After reading your story earlier today I bought a ticket for this exact train. It cost me around 15 euros in the central railway booking office in the heart of Budapest.

    I arrived at the Keleti station one hour before departure. So, having in mind your experience, I rushed towards a customer service desk which was still open. I showed them my ticket and the guy said, that this one is a 2nd class ticket and it doesn’t offer a sleeping berth. So I asked him if I can upgrade it. The answer was simple – it will cost me around 10 euros and I would have to ask the conductor.

    So far this is it. The train departs in 3 minutes. I will keep you updated)

    • Hi Vit, thanks for sharing your train journey, I hope it works out and you get the sleeping berth! I’d be interested to hear how your experience went on this train and that it was uneventful too!

      • So. I found a conductor and shared my problem with him. He offered me a berth in a six-berth compartment with a korean lady. There were no people but us. And that’s about it. We weren’t robbed, asked to pay any additional fees and the border guard officers were polite. Nothing else happened. I am dissapointed 🙂

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