Budapest: My First Trip Abroad and One Big Mistake
In the fall of 2010, I took my first trip overseas. My parents had been living in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the better part of a year and I finally had the opportunity to visit them. Bosnia is not always the easiest country to get to and flights in and out of Sarajevo can be quite a bit more expensive than flying into the major hubs of surrounding countries, so my mother, who had spent a few weeks visiting family back in the states, and I made arrangements to meet up with my dad in Budapest.
Why Budapest? Because Budapest is one of the cheapest Eastern European cities to fly in and out of, it has great transport connections to nearby countries, and it also happens to be a fantastic city to spend a weekend or longer. There’s definitely a reason that Budapest has been nicknamed “Paris of the East,” though it’s my belief that the city has enough appeal to stand on its own without the comparison. Though I’ve been to Budapest a few times now, it seems that every time I’ve been there it’s in a rush or just passing through. Even though my time there has always been short, the city still holds a special place in my heart as the first city I traveled to in Europe and a place that I always look forward to revisiting.
At the start of this particular trip I had learned a valuable lesson during our layover in Munich, when my debit card was declined. Inexperienced traveler that I was, it had never occurred to me that I ought to notify my bank of my travel plans ahead of time. Thankfully my mom was with me and told me she would cover my costs until we made it back to their flat in Sarajevo, where I could call my bank from their Skype account. Since this time, I always make sure to travel with several activated cards and a decent sum of U.S. dollars that can be exchanged in the worst-case scenario.
My dad met us at the airport with the driver he had hired to transport all of us and our luggage to the hotel where we would spend the next few nights. We stayed at the Radisson Blu Beke, which not only had a restaurant and bar, but a gift shop filled with Hungarian made items. As we drove through Budapest, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with the combination of seeing my dad after he had been away for so many months, being in a large foreign city for the first time, and the effects of jet lag. I remember feeling a little unsure when I saw some graffiti on street corners that we passed and my dad explaining to me that graffiti in Europe is generally politically motivated and not like the gang related tagging one sees in the United States. I recall noticing how friendly and helpful everyone was at the hotel, from the doorman to those at the reception desk. I remember being relieved that our hotel rooms looked exactly the same as what I would expect in the states.
The fact that I was finally fulfilling my lifelong dream of traveling to Europe didn’t sink in until later that evening when we left the hotel to walk around and grab some dinner. As we strolled down the sidewalk, I remember that surreal feeling that this wasn’t all a dream. I was in a foreign country, excited to explore, and couldn’t wait to try some local foods. My parents on the other hand, couldn’t believe all the western amenities that Budapest had to offer. In their very own version of an I Spy game, my mom and dad called out excitedly as they pointed out all the American restaurant and fast food establishments as we walked. As we passed several McDonald’s, Starbucks, and KFCs, my dad pleaded with us to eat an American meal for just one night. My mother and I consented and we soon found ourselves at a T.G.I. Friday’s. I don’t even remember what I ate, but I do remember my parent’s excitement over having ice in their drinks and all the free refills they could ever want.
The next morning, which turned out to be our only full day in Budapest, we went down to the reception desk to ask for advice on what we should see and the best way to get around the city. We settled on taking the Hop-on-Hop-off bus because we thought it would be the best option to see all the major sites and it also included a cruise up and down the Danube river. The bus also made a stop near Keleti Station, where my parents wanted to purchase train tickets to Sarajevo for the following morning. The HoHo busses can be found in most major cities, if you have several days to see a city, I probably wouldn’t recommend them, but if you only have a limited time to spend, they can be a great option. Some HoHo services even offer commentary, like the one that we took in Budapest. We enjoyed the opportunity to learn a little about all the locations we were passing since we didn’t have time to explore them in great detail.
All in all, we made a loop up to Heroes Square, grabbed our train tickets at Keleti, and made our way across the river to admire the views from the Citadel and Fisherman’s Bastion, before enjoying a nice meal at a local establishment on the Buda side of the river. That afternoon we took the riverboat up and around Margaret’s Island and enjoyed the views of Parliament, which had been blocked off because of some sort of festivities taking place that weekend. It was dark by the time we made our way past St. Stephan’s Basilica in search of a Starbucks. We didn’t find one, but we did stumble upon a Costa Coffee and decided to stop in there for some hot drinks and pastries. After discovering their delicious desserts and soup bowl sized coffees, we’ve been Costa converts ever since. After a full day in the city, it was back to the hotel for a dip in the indoor pool and to repack for our early morning departure.
At what seemed like the break of day, the following morning. We left the hotel, stopping to grab some bottled water, takeaway coffee, and sandwiches at a small coffee shop down the street, my mom also insisted on grabbing some egg McMuffins from McDonald’s for breakfast since that would be my parents’ last opportunity to eat American food for the next several months. We arrived at Keleti station well before our train was due to depart, but there were no signs or indications of which platform our train would depart from. My mother asked an employee who mumbled something in Magyar, the National language in Hungary, and gestured in a general direction. We headed that way in hopes that we might find another employee that could offer better information. We arrived to a platform we thought was probably the correct one, but again there were no signs to confirm which train was ours and there was no one else on the platform. My mother finally decided she would walk back to the information counter and try to get more clarification there. After she had been gone quite awhile, my dad began to worry that we might miss our train altogether, so he instructed me to wait there with the luggage, while he went in search of my mother. So there I sat for what seemed like an eternity, with a pile of suitcases, and a bag of egg McMuffins. I began to worry when it seemed like they had both been gone far too long. I also started to think about what I would do if they simply vanished. I had my passport, but without any cash or a working credit card I was going to be up a creek if my parents failed to reappear. Also, just how exactly was I going to manage to drag all of that luggage around on my own? Panic had had begun to creep in when I finally saw them walking back toward me.
My parents hadn’t had much better luck obtaining further directions in English at the information office, but my dad approached the only nearby railway worker and though he didn’t speak much English either, he understood the word “Sarajevo.” He assured us that the train on the platform in front of us was the correct one and proceeded to grab our luggage and help us board the train. Once we were finally settled into our seats, my dad was grateful to offer him a very generous tip for all of his help.
Later my dad asked me what I would have done if he and my mother had never come back. I shrugged and said “I’d probably beg someone to take me to the embassy.” My dad laughed at my naïveté and said “and just how do you think the embassy would have helped you?” I’m happy to say, I’ve learned a lot since that trip and as I’ve had the opportunity to travel more and more.
Have you ever made any embarrassing rookie mistakes while traveling?