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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.