At the time, it sounded like a good idea.
And it was. Sort of.
We would take the train from Prague to Vienna – about a four-hour journey – and then take a taxi from Hauptbahnhof Station to our hotel. The only catch was our luggage, that is to say our too much luggage. As we had followed the weather reports, our clothing list kept growing, accommodating the potentially hot forecast as well as the area’s typical September weather. We also needed some nicer things for our Danube cruise, a port-intensive itinerary that left little time to think about laundry. Suddenly our one-suitcase-each became two. Add a carry-on bag, and that made six.
I booked our train tickets online through railjet. Herb suggested paying the extra fee for first class because “with so much luggage it will be easier to get one of the spaces by the doors.” I couldn’t select seats, but the instructions said they would be assigned on my receipt. I printed the tickets, packed them with my travel documents and didn’t look at them again.
Several months later, we arrived at Praha hlavní nádraží, Prague’s main railway station, with our six bags in tow and plenty of time before we boarded. We headed to one of the train schedule monitors, where dozens of travelers were standing, looking up at the screen as various departures clicked by in lightning speed. I pulled out our tickets to confirm our departure time, but couldn’t spot it anywhere on the screen. We later learned that each train’s platform is only displayed about ten minutes before departure.
As we stood watching the numbers flash by, we heard someone say, “Well, hello there!” A couple from Austin, Texas, whom we had met several days earlier in the Munich airport while waiting for our flight to Prague also turned out to be on our train to Vienna. It was one of those wonderful travel moments where people you barely know seem like old friends, especially when you find yourself in a place where you know no one.
We compared tickets – they had actual card-stock tickets, which looked much more official than my computer print-outs – and learned that we were all in car 27. But while their seat assignments were clearly marked, the ones on Herb’s and my tickets remained a mystery.
Soon another American couple from Ohio, also looking for the infamous platform, joined our group. It seems that confusion loves company when on the road! The Ohio man carried two small beige bags that looked like hanging bags folded over, one bag in each hand. His wife carried only a purse. “We’re using Rick Steves’ packing method,” they proclaimed, explaining that they were traveling for over a month by train and carried only one week’s worth of clothing. They planned to wash everything each week wherever they were staying. I smiled, explaining that we were combining our travels with a river cruise, trying to own up to our six bags as best I could.
Finally our train number appeared on the screen, and everyone headed to the platform. But instead of an orderly boarding-the-train experience, car 27 was surprisingly chaotic. Herb managed to get a couple of our bags in the space by the doors, but had to hoist the rest on the rack above, giving me one of those I can’t believe what you’ve gotten us into looks. Passengers seemed to be grabbing seats anywhere, like a game of musical chairs. We claimed two seats and hoped for the best, not wanting to be the last ones standing when the imaginary music stopped.
About a half-hour into our journey, a woman tapped Herb on the shoulder, telling him we were in her seats. A conductor was with her and asked to see our tickets. “Your seats are over there,” he said, pointing to the side of the train car with single seats in front of each other. It turned out that our seat numbers were not listed in chronological order and had zeros in front of them, discernible only if you knew what to look for.
We moved to our newly assigned seats…which caused another scramble of people in those seats to move to their seats…which caused the people from Austin to move to their seats…which caused two passengers to move to their seats in the car behind number 27! With the round of dominos finally figured out, a sense of calm settled over the train car, offering the scene I had imagined when booking the tickets months earlier.
When we arrived at Hauptbahnhof Station, we waited for most of the passengers to deboard so we wouldn’t hold up the line with our luggage. Several people asked if we needed help, and one man insisted that we get off ahead of him, handing our bags to Herb as we stood on the steps of the train. I’m continually in awe of the kindness of strangers when traveling.
We said good-bye to the couple from Austin and headed to the taxi stand. We never ran into each other again in Vienna or anywhere else along the way. And although we hadn’t exchanged emails or phone numbers, our time together will forever remain etched in my mind.
A serendipity at a train station on an early September morning.