There are times as a traveller that you’re glad that you didn’t do much research and you let your experiences happen organically. There are other times, where you wished that you had researched thoroughly and knew every event that was possibly to come.
Taking the overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade is one of the latter …
If you’re a regular reader of my blog … especially of my European posts, you’ll know that I LOVE rail travel in Europe. I think it’s one of the best travel perks ever. Many train routes are unique and take you through beautiful winding passages that you could never drive through. Given the choice of trains or planes, I’ll take the train every time. I have experienced the amazing (going from Zurich to Zermatt) , the sketchy (taking the Circumvesuviano in Italy) 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.
After spending the last 72 hours in Budapest – even with their racist train taxi drivers, I wasn’t prepared for the nonsense of this particular train ride to Belgrade. I had tried to buy a ticket for the sleeper train/couchette from the Marriott Budapest, but I was told that the reservation cut off time was gone and I would have to buy the ticket in person at the train station. Having seen Keleti train station on my way to Bratislava, I was familiar with where to go and what to do … or so I thought! overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade
9:35 p.m overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade
I had to leave this view with all the amenities and food in the lounge
For this … and mind you, this was not in the night where it was dark and grim … these are earlier pictures where it looked nice.
10 p.m. overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade
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. However, looking at the train didn’t give me tons of confidence … it was pretty old and no doubt had seen better days and the sleeper car smelled of piss! With this in mind, I went to the ticket counter and had to decide on a first or second class ticket.
Question : What is the difference between a first and second class ticket on this train?
Answer : As I was to find out later …
NOT ONE FUCKING THING … NOT ONE! NOT EVEN HALF OF A THING!!!!
The woman at the ticket counter was actually very, very helpful. I asked her multiple times on which ticket to buy and she was adamant that I should I get the 2nd class ticket. However, based on my experiences with trains in Europe, I was very partial to first class tickets. She tried to get me to buy the second ticket 5 times and I refused …
NOTE : I also should have done a walk through on the train between first and second class. It would have saved me 30 Euros and a bunch of hassle.
The conductors on the other hand were complete nightmares. The Hungarian conductor spoke no English or didn’t even try to helpful … so when I asked about making a reservation for the sleeper car … he said it was full (well he motioned that there was no space). There was a Serbian train conductor on the other end of the train … but it seems that his activation switch would only come on after we crossed the border … he was completely non functional before then.
In the end, I made a call and bought first class tickets.
We get into first class and it’s full … not completely full but more people than I would expect to see in a first class cabin at night. A couple people were drinking beer and having a nice time.
There were no full tables for me to blog on my laptop and trying to find a power switch was next to impossible. These were the conditions … again, not first class – which I paid 30 euros more for.
Of course, at this point I get the non functioning conductor and ask him where is first class. He laughs and says that we’re in it. I motioned to him that this was complete garbage and he said this was Serbian first class and wandered away.
I’m livid at this point and then I start talking to other people on the train and explaining the situation. They’re all getting a laugh, especially after we start comparing ticket stubs and prices. That’s when this got all real … one of our Serbian seat mates was embarrassed at the situation and decided to walk up and down the train with me to find the Serbian conductor. He explained the situation to the conductor and the next steps, I wasn’t prepared for.
The Serbian conductor came into “first” class and then kicked everyone but myself and Stephane (my travelling partner on this train) into “second” class.
This didn’t get us any brownie points but the Serbian passenger who was helping did say that we got ripped off by the train – because there was no real “first” class on the train.
The first conductor and customs comes across … It’s a non event, although they looked at our passports for a long time. They seemed confused that I had a Canadian passport … but there was no conversation. No one likes a conversation with a border guard.
There was no sleeping on this train. I had accepted that a long time into the journey. By 2.45am, we’re close to the border but it looks like something from a horror story and you could hear voices in the darkness but see no people. By 3am, the train stops and a number of people are asked to get off the train.
Then a border guard comes on and inspects my passport and says that I have to get off the train and he continues along to other passengers.
Like hell I was going to get off this train.
There was zero probability of me getting off the train unless there were border guards with guns coming to escort me off that train. I stood my ground and just waited at my seat, to see if the troops were coming back.
No one came and the whistle blew and the train started moving. I didn’t see those people come back on the train … the ones who were asked to get off.
This is more like what I expect in “first” class … space to sprawl and not having to see lots of people.
It was nice to see civilization again … my stress levels were definitely going down.
As we pulled into the Belgrade train station, I connected to the available Wi-Fi to think about next strategies on how to complain. I quickly realized that this train was one of those infamous ones, where people are scammed or robbed. As I think about the night … this is definitely not a train journey for your average tourist – too many things could have gone wrong on this train with possibly unfortunate consequences. I’m just glad that I had company and I stook my ground when a customs guy asked me to get off the train.
Lesson #1 : There should be almost no reason for you to ever get off a train. If you paid for the wrong class seat … simply change cabins. If you don’t have a ticket – pay the fine and buy the ticket on the train.
I read that there are countless stories of people being robbed or asked to pay exorbitant amounts for all sorts of ridiculous reasons.
6:30 am – 7:30 a.m
Getting into the Belgrade train station at 6.30am wasn’t the greatest idea … the information services aren’t open till 7am. You have to think about a different currency and the exchange. You have to deal with pushy taxi drivers asking you question, when you really want them to fuck off and leave you alone. The Belgrade train station is also just a grim place … it’s not fancy like other European train station … it’s pretty brutal.
Once we had figured out how to get to our hotel : Metropol Palace … it was then time to figure out the tram system.
In the end, we took the #7 tram to the Metropol Hotel. It was pretty easy sailing after the train.
Conclusion : Our train experience was poor because the conductors were terrible. The train itself is pretty garbage, but if you paid the second class fare of €15, then it is a bargain. I’m a bit specific about what I want – so in the end, the night train between Belgrade and Budapest is cheap and semi comfortable. I’m not going to as far as to say it’s that safe … the fact that I stood my ground when being asked to get off the train could have turned an annoying story into a scam one.