I boarded the train from Budapest to Prague without hesitation. Elizabeth and I had taken public transportation around Russia, Egypt, Turkey, and other parts of Eastern Europe. By that time, it was something I did without thinking. We always opted for the night train or bus because we saved money by not having to pay for a night in a hostel.
Little did we know, the Budapest-Prague route is not your typical train ride.
photo credit: adam_sporka
We got to our compartment and hunkered down for the night, determined to be well rested for our first day in the Czech Republic. I locked the door and closed the curtains. Exhausted after a day of exploring Hungary’s most well-known city, Elizabeth quickly drifted off to sleep. I stayed up reading our travel bible of the moment, Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring, in preparation for the next day’s adventures.
The train paused twice not far from Prague to pick up more passengers. After the second stop, I heard the door handle to our compartment jiggle. I reached for our tickets, assuming it was the conductor coming by to do his routine check.
But the conductor had a key and whoever was on the other side of the door didn’t. Someone was trying to pick our lock. I reached for the curtain and moved it slightly to alert the intruder that I was aware of his presence. He scurried away.
Shaken, I sat back down on my bench. What would I have done if he had persisted? Five minutes passed and I felt like someone was watching me. I looked at the window to the hall and saw a man’s eye peering in. He caught my eye and disappeared. I pulled out the scotch tape we used for scrapbooking our travels and taped the curtains to the walls so there were no cracks.
I pulled our backpacks down from the top rack and told Elizabeth to sleep on hers in case the intruder came back. But that was the last I saw of the persistent prowler.
Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night.
At our hostel in Prague the next day, Elizabeth and I joined in a conversation in the communal kitchen. It went something like this:
Traveler 1: Whatever you do, don’t take the night train from Budapest back here.
Traveler 2: Oh yeah, that’s an awful idea. Don’t do it.
Traveler 3: Why not? I’ve taken lots of night trains in Europe.
Traveler 1: It’s dangerous. People break into compartments and rob travelers.
Traveler 4: It’s notorious for being unsafe.
[Chorus of agreement.]
At this point, I broke in and shared our experience. I said I had been scared, but the door had been locked so I wasn’t too afraid of being robbed. Traveler 1 looked at me pityingly. Traveler 2 informed me that the keys that open the doors to train compartments are incredibly common in Europe; they’re WC keys and anyone can get one.
The Moral(s) of the Story
- Even experienced travelers can walk into dangerous situations, so keep your guard up (within reason — don’t let fear guide your travels).
- When in doubt about a night train route, ask your fellow travelers for advice. If we had asked in Hungary about taking a night train to Prague, we wouldn’t have had to learn its dangers the hard way.
- No matter how careful you are when you’re traveling, you’ll find yourself in a sticky situation. When that happens, use your best judgment and hope for the best.