Trains to Serbia
A common way for people to reach Serbia is by train. There are good links to Belgrade, Novi Sad and other cities in Serbia, and although trains are somewhat slow, they tend to get there in the end. Just one note – do not schedule tight transfers when travelling to, in or from Serbia. The trains are not reliable enough. For example, it is tempting to try to get to Bratislava from Belgrade via Budapest using a train which leaves Keleti for Slovakia only half an hour after the train from Belgrade arrives. I have missed this connection before now – don’t risk it! And don’t trust the train to get you to Budapest in time for a flight either, unless you leave a good half a day’s margin at least!
Trains from Budapest to Novi Sad and Belgrade
Because of the cheap flights coming from Europe into Hungary (though as of summer 2010 Wizz-Air flies into Belgrade too!), the most common train service used for getting to Serbia is from Budapest. There is a twice-daily service from Budapest Keleti station, passing through Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade, and continuing down south all the way to Istanbul. You can check out the Hungarian train timetable here, just enter Budapest and, say, Novi Sad as your starting and ending points.
The service is not too bad for all its slowness, though expect the toilets to be less than hygienic and don’t be surprised if there is a long wait at the Hungarian-Serbian border (though things have improved in recent years). The price of a second-class return ticket to Novi Sad or Belgrade was in the region of 50 EUR last time I travelled which, given that a return minibus to Novi Sad is 60 EUR direct from the airport, means it is pretty unlikely that you will bother taking the train to Serbia if you have arrived at Budapest airport. If you do decide on the train make sure you have a full ticket before leaving Keleti – including reservation, as these can work out more expensive when paid for on the train itself.
Be vigilant both in Budapest and on the train. Keleti used to be rife with pickpockets and bagsnatchers, though an increased police presence in the last few years has hugely improved things. Serbia is relatively free of crime, but still be careful, there is always someone around who might try to take advantage of foreigners.
Oh, and for cyclists, this route being an international one, there is more understanding of those wanting to take bikes on board trains, but ask at the departure station before trying to get on board exactly what the arrangements are. Your best bet is to take the bike apart as much as possible and wrap in cardboard so that it takes up no more room than some of the dirty great bags people bring on board! That way you won’t have to leave your precious two-wheeler in some freight carriage. Or why not just cycle down along the Danube!?
Another interesting sight on this train, which may be less common now, was the vast numbers of people smuggling goods from Hungary to Serbia, especially while sanctions were still in force. If you see a lot of wrapped-up bags, that’s what it is. The train used to slow down in the area between the two borders and the smugglers would hurl all the stuff out of the windows to accomplices who were presumably waiting in No Man’s Land to pick it up. A similar thing used to happen during the approach to Belgrade, where, presumably with the complicity of the driver, the train used to slow down and passengers would throw out big bags of cigarettes, to avoid getting fingered by police waiting for them in Belgrade station!
On the way back out of Serbia, you will get old ladies coming up to you in the carriages seemingly offering bottles of liquor to you! It took me ages to figure out what that was about! They are basically trying to earn a few pennies by taking bottles of Serbian rakija over into Hungary and selling them at a much higher price. Because the allowance is only a couple of bottles per person, they enlist obliging passengers to carry the booze over the border for them, upon which they will reclaim the bottle from you. It’s up to you whether you want to help! Personally I would rather not get involved in anything like that, even though it’s pretty harmless.
Other rail routes to and from Serbia
There are also direct services to and from Vienna, Zurich, Zagreb, Thessaloniki and others. See the Serbian rail timetable here, where you can enter a route and see which direct services are available.
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