So a funny thing happened when I took the metro in Budapest …
To rewind: American tour-mate Randy and I leave our sightseeing posse mid-afternoon to make a stop at the hotel and hoof it over to the Gellért before the pool shuts for the evening.
We enter the metro at Kossuth Lajos tér. Randy spots an automated ticket machine. I think, Great! I don’t have to worry about dealing with people!
Um, not so great.
Randy has enough change for his ticket, which costs about 220 Hungarian forint (0.94 Euro, or $1.46 CAD). I, however, only have a 5,000-forint note (about $33 CAD) – and the machine doesn’t take bills of that size. Plus I don’t have enough coinage. So I have to deal with a ticket person.
I walk over to the ticket booth. I can barely see the woman behind the glass, because apparently Budapest Metro feels it’s necessary to use the kind of opaque glass seen in police interrogation rooms. So I’m squinting and trying to ask her for a ticket.
I slide my 5,000-forint note onto the sliding stainless steel plate. The lady swivels the plate onto her side of the glass, takes my cash, and then swivels the plate back to me, presenting me with a ticket and a bunch of coins.
As I’m walking away from the ticket booth, I slow down to check the change in my hand.
Wa-aaait a minute …
I stay right where I am and count it twice before realizing the woman has only given me 280 forint ($1.86 CAD) … and is holding on to my other 4,500 forint (almost $30 CAD).
I turn right back ’round, approach the booth, and say, “‘Scuse me, please – I paid 220 forint, and I only got 220 forint ba – ”
The woman puts the missing bills on the plate, swivels it my way, and is like, “Okay, okay, bye-bye.”
“She totally tried to rip you off,” Randy remarks as we go down the elevator. “And she was watching you, too. Good job. If you hadn’t have checked …”
“I KNOW,” I say, really annoyed that she’d tried that shit on me. I can’t believe it … and I want justice. But I have to settle for getting belatedly my money back.
Riding the metro on the way to the Gellért, though, is another story.
We enter at Blaha Lujza tér station and buy our tickets from one of the machines. It isn’t until we validate the tickets and ride the escalator downstairs that Randy realizes our mistake: we only bought 220-forint tickets, which you can only use on one metro line. If you have to change metro lines, you need to buy a ticket for 270 forints.
Randy apologizes, saying it’s his fault; I say, “No worries. You couldn’t have known that.”
The only solution: ride to the transfer point – Deák Ferenc tér – and simply buy another ticket.
We get off the train, go down another escalator, and walk to the nearest ticket machine.
It only takes coins.
Randy doesn’t have any change. I don’t have enough change. And there’s no other machine or even a ticket booth.
“What’re we going to do?” I ask.
Randy looks at the validation machines, and looks back at me.
“I dunno, ” says Randy. “Do we take a chance?”
“I dunno about this … ” I say, looking at the validation machines, then back at him.
In the end, we head right past the validation machines and then down the escalator.
This makes me nervous. As someone who rides the subway in Toronto, the last thing I’d ever want to do is incur a fine of any sort. (Fare evasion on the TTC, for example, will cost $345 when the by-law is approved this week.)
I remember the little handout we get from Carla earlier in our trip, which says that it’s a 1,500-forint fine (about $9.92 CAD) for travelling around without the proper ticket. So I’m trying to rationalize things by thinking, Maybe we won’t get caught … and if we do, maybe it won’t be so bad …
Waiting for the train, I take my backpack off, hold it in my hands, and look straight ahead. I already feel like a TV show criminal.
Randy spots a Budapest Metro lady on the platform and tells me as such; we move farther along the platform. The train arrives a couple moments later and we board.
As we pass the stops one by one, the fear of having my ticket checked subsides, and is replaced by relief. Which is then replaced by a little cockiness. We’re just bending the rules a bit, I think smugly. Besides, that woman at the ticket booth tried to RIP ME OFF. I’m getting some subway justice.
That justice, as it turns out, is short-lived. As my ex-pat friend Martin would later explain, the Budapest Metro folks tend to check certain stops more frequently than others. In any case, anyone who gets caught isn’t spared from a fine, especially residents.
So the feeling of getting away scot-free lasts from the train, mid-way up the escalator – right about the moment when Randy and I look up and see the two middle-aged ladies in blue Budapest Metro shirts, standing at the top of the escalator.
We look at each other and know we’re so very SCREWED. Our only defence at this point is to play as dumb as possible and hope, at the last possible minute, they wouldn’t ask for our tickets.
Randy gets the lady on the left; I get the lady on the right.
She asks for my ticket, which I produce (and cringe as she checks it). She motions to me that it’s the wrong ticket (to which I respond by wearing my “dumb” face) and she gestures to me to step to the side.
She asks if I speak German or English (I obviously choose the latter). She asks me how long I am in Budapest for; I tell her, “One day. We leave tomorrow.”
In her fragmented English – and I’m sure Randy’s getting the exact same spiel – she tells me about the one-day ticket one can purchase, which can be used on whatever metro line one takes; one can even transfer to other metro lines, if one chooses.
Then she looks down at her cell phone (which maybe she wants me to think is her magical “ticket fine calculator”), looks up at me and tells me I have to pay 6,000 forints (about 25 Euros, or almost $40 CAD).
“Six thousand forint?” I repeat a bit incredulously. Gulp. I fish around in my wallet and show her I only have 4,500 forint.
The woman pauses a moment, then says, “Okay, okay … give me 30 Euro, then.”
Same problem – I only have a 20 Euro bill.
That’s when opportunity presented itself.
She looks over to her co-worker, who is talking to Randy, looks back at me and says:
“Are you …” and makes the international waving-finger symbol for “together”.
I think I understand what she’s getting at, but I doubt myself.
“What?” I ask, confused.
The woman repeats, “Are YOU …” and takes my hand and Randy’s, and holds them close together, as if she’s about to join us in holy matrimony.
Randy knows exactly what’s going on and is nodding empathically. I start half-nodding too – whatever will get us out of this mess. Especially if that lady likes Randy.
So instead of paying 6,000 forints each, I end up paying 20 Euros, plus 2,000 forints (which equals roughly 6,600 forints – 28 Euros or $43 CAD) for the pair of us. Randy and I later do the math, and we figure the odd sum is actually the 6,000 forints I was originally going to pay, plus a nifty 600-forint “tip” the Budapest Metro lady generously took for her leniency.
So either way I lose to the metro. But at least the lady was nice. It could’ve been a lot worse. And now I have a fake husband for the rest of the trip.
So boys and girls, the morals of this story are:
(1) If you’re going to use the metro in Budapest, buy an all-day ticket.
(2) If you don’t want – or don’t think you need – an all-day ticket, then make sure you buy a fare that allows you to transfer onto different metro lines.
(3) If you don’t have the right fare and get caught, (a) pray you get a nice transit lady that reprimands you, (b) act dumb whenever possible and (c) if you’re with another person, pretend you’re married to get the fine reduced.
Okay, so maybe not that last one. But now you know. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.