Let me tell you about the time we almost got in trouble with the law.
We had been in Vienna, Austria for a couple of days already, and had spent time admiring all of the beautiful buildings in the neighbourhood we were staying in.
On our last full day we wanted to see what the city looked like from a bird’s eye view, so we started a trek to Kahlenberg, where locals went to watch the sunset over this fairy tale city.
There are a few ways you can get there, but we were craving some physical activity so we walked 2 hours to a bus stop at the base of the hill, then took a city bus the rest of the way up.
Standing at the the top of Kahlenberg looking down over Vienna, we were pretty pleased with the journey we had made. There was only one minor hiccup: the lookout “tower” we were searching for was actually closed for the season, but we managed to find another great spot to enjoy the scenery.
It was the on the way back that things took a weird turn.
We bussed back down the hill, but instead of walking the 2 hours back to our hostel after dusk, we decided to take the train.
No big deal, right? Austria was our ninth country in Europe and we had rode on plenty of trains in the last couple of months.
We went straight to a ticket counter to buy our tickets, and asked the person working at the counter for help on which train to take by showing him on my phone where we wanted to go.
He was disinterested, but helpful enough, and pointed us to a platform to our left.
To avoid getting lost when we ride trains or city buses, Greg and I like to follow our journey with Google Maps so we can match the stops to our app to make sure we get off at the right place.
After a few minutes, Greg noticed that none of the stop names matched.
Shit, we were on the wrong train.
We got off at the next stop to gain our bearings. This “station” had no counter or ticket machine, it was just an empty tiled little room with a route map on the wall.
After taking a picture of the map, we figured out where we went wrong, then we went down a set of stairs and found the correct platform.
Five minutes later we were on the right train and heading towards the correct stop.
We were staying at the Wombat Hostel Vienna and it was very conveniently located right outside of a train stop. After getting off the train, we were literally 20 steps away from our hostel entrance when we were stopped abruptly by two uniformed officers at the exit.
They asked to see our tickets and without thinking anything of it, we handed them over.
The two officers started laughing and talking to each other in German while staring at our tickets.
I could feel my face starting to flush. Something was wrong.
We asked what was happening, and they had us explain several times when we bought our tickets and how we got to this particular station.
I could feel the nerves in my stomach start to ball up and I was having a hard time remaining calm. I was starting to panic.
The two officers continued to talk and laugh to each other until finally one explained that we had purchased two timed tickets and we were 20 minutes over what we had paid for.
I said, “Okay, what does this mean then?” “You have to pay us a 210 Euro fine.” WHAAAT!?
Our platform mix-up was going to cost us about $314 CDN which equalled to a couple of days worth of our daily budget.
I couldn’t help it, I felt so ashamed, but my eyes betrayed me and I started to tear up. Hot, burning tears were welling up and it took everything I had to keep them back.
First of all, we never carry that much cash on us.
On this night especially we had no money, because the next day we were travelling to Hungary and they use a different currency. We had planned to use almost all of our Euros earlier that day.
Greg explained to them that all we had was a credit card, and I desperately added that we could buy two more train tickets to make up for the ones we bought incorrectly.
They spoke off to the side to each other, more quietly this time. Eyeing us every so often while they determined our fate.
Finally one said, “Since this your first time, we’ll cut it in half. Pay us 105 Euros.”
That was the breaking point for me.
We couldn’t afford this.
Big, obnoxious tears erupted from me and I’ve never been more mortified.
They both looked at me, completely horrified at my reaction and, I’m assuming, in a desperate attempt to keep me from making a full blown scene, they quickly ushered us on.
That was it.
We made it without paying a fine. Unfortunately for me though, I couldn’t stop crying and after walking a few steps away, I buried my face into Greg’s chest and let out a huge sob.
Travelling is amazing but stressful in its own way, even on a good day.
I was so scared and worried in those few moments standing in front of two people, listening to them speak another language and nonchalantly deciding a punishment for a honest mistake. I felt powerless.
Vienna taught us a few important lessons:
Don’t assume that every country’s public transport operates the same. For example some require you to “punch” your tickets after purchase, while others you can scan after you board. Not all tickets are for full "trips" like we assumed, some are for a certain route in one direction or a set amount of time
Take a few moments to research how train in the city you are visiting operates before you use it
If you speak a common language, ask a staff member for help to clarify your purchase. If you don’t, apps such as “Google Translate” allow you to translate phrases directly by typing or speaking into a microphone and can be helpful to show to the person you’re communicating with
After that you might be wondering: Will we be back in Vienna?
The problem was everyone but the Austrians were happy that we were there. We felt very out of place, showing up to country #9 as grubby backpackers in a fairy tale city.
The biggest kicker? We had friends who were SO excited for us to visit Vienna. We felt like we were letting them down.
We want you to know that there were lots of aspects of Vienna that we did enjoy:
The Architecture is amazing
Very walk-able city
Schönbrunn Palace is gorgeous and really interesting to walk around
It just wasn’t a city for us, and as we travel we are getting more and more comfortable admitting to ourselves when that happens without feeling guilty.
Thinking back on that day I’m still really embarrassed that I cried, but I’m glad it happened.
Travel is about preference, attitude and adaptability, and this incident made us more resilient and optimistic for things to come.
And although Vienna did not work out, we haven't given up on you Austria! We’d still like to return and explore the more mountainous areas one day.
Travel safe friends,
P.S. no budget breakdown for this one! We cooked our own meals (except for one dinner out with a fellow traveller), mostly did free activities and stayed in a hostel. Not much to report this time.