Simon Calder: There is no such thing as a free ride

The Man Who Pays His Way
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The Independent Travel

The last time I flew to Vienna, the journey went all wrong. I was trying to reach Budapest without paying the ambitious fares charged for flights to the Hungarian capital by British Airways and Malev. The Austrian capital is a handy gateway to both Slovakia and Hungary.

BA's flight to Vienna was much cheaper than to Budapest, and would get me to the Austrian capital in good time for the last Hungarian-bound train of the night. That was what the schedule said, but the air-traffic controllers had different ideas. The plane arrived an hour late. A bus and a sprint got me to Vienna's Westbahnhof just in time to see the tail-lights of the Dacia Express disappearing into the deepening Danube gloom.

I took the U-bahn to the shabby suburb of Erdberg, ripped my jeans climbing over the fence to the autobahn, and spent an hour getting soaked while failing to hitch a ride to the Hungarian frontier. Then a battered Volkswagen Golf stopped. "Ich fahre nach Belgrad," yawned the driver.

The Belgrade-bound driver was drowsy partly because, by now, it was dark as well as gloomy, but mostly the reason for the yawn was that he had been on the road for 17 hours, having driven from Cologne without a break. Hence he was looking for a co-driver: sure, I could have a lift to Budapest, as long as I drove through the night, in an unfamiliar car, on unreconstructed road, with an unconscious passenger.

When we rumbled uncertainly into the Hungarian capital in the early hours, he was ready for the last 500 miles of his journey. I felt as weary as Jack Kerouac at the end of a particularly indulgent road trip – but without the benefit of the many pharmaceutical compensations that the On the Road author enjoyed to help fuel his epic American drives.

This week, it was all supposed to be much easier. I was heading only to the Austrian capital, on a ticket that cost exactly the same as 14 years ago.

The first flight on Austrian Airlines from Heathrow to Vienna is seriously early: 6.35am. The only economical way to get to the airport from London is on bus N9, a fine service that delivers travellers to Britain's busiest airport all through the night for £1. Good value, indeed, especially when compared with £12 for the Heathrow Express train or £40-plus in a taxi.

Not everyone agrees that it is a service worth paying for, which is why things started to go awry. The packed double-decker set off cheerfully enough from Trafalgar Square. At Green Park, four more people got on – but they were not passengers.

They comprised a SWAT team of revenue protection officials, whose job is to catch fare-dodgers. An improbable number of the passengers were using out-of-date travelcards. By Knightsbridge, when about half the bus had been busted, the inspectors told the driver to stop while a wad of £5 penalty fares was issued.

One man "Took the Fifth", Enron-style, and refused to say anything at all that might incriminate him. A woman was arguing that it was all, in fact, the driver's fault for not spotting that her travelcard had expired some months earlier. The fare-paying contingent soon started arguing, too, since most of us had planes to catch or work to attend.

Eventually the driver was told to start up again; with a slalom at some speed through the sleepy suburbs, the airport was reached just in time for a the remaining contingent of passengers to hurtle to check-in just in time for the flight.

¿ Hitch hikers, of course, have no schedules to keep. When thumbing, it is best to adopt a certain fatalism, and assume that each driver elects to continue at speed past my beckoning thumb for perfectly sound reasons. An occasional motorist does pull up, open the window and squirt a water-pistol at the hapless hitcher, before driving off with great haste and hilarity.

Malevolence was not in evidence during my trip to Cornwall last week, but getting a ride to the nearest railway station proved sluggish.

After a long walk that put the hike back into hitch, a double-decker bus implausibly drew up and took me fare-free to Par station (fortunately, no ticket inspectors got on). When I finally made it back to the office, I found the following delightful e-mail:

Dear Simon,

My husband and I were visiting the Eden Project on Monday of this week and passed you thumbing a lift as we were leaving. I would like to apologise for not picking you up.

We would love to have done so, but we took so long deliberating that we were a couple of miles down the road before we realised we'd missed out on the chance. I hope you did manage to get a lift to where you wanted to go. If you are ever in East Anglia and need a lift we will be prepared this time.

Yours trying to be a little bit more spontaneous, Rebecca

I am heading north along the A10, and expect to reach the A1123 junction by tea-time. But I can't help speculating on the nature of those deliberations.