Can you believe that it’s been over a year since my last train review? As much fun as I had writing my review of the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and Los Angeles last year, I have taken exactly *zero* train trips since then and it had me feeling an awful itch to write another one. Making matters worse is that my house overlooks a canyon with train tracks running through it, and every day I watch those trains zipping back-and-forth down there, taunting me to throw caution (and responsibilities) into the wind and hit the rails. Thank god I don’t live next to an airport.
As I mentioned in my Pacific surfliner review, I don’t consider myself to be a proper “railfan” – but I do have a boyish fascination with all things mechanical, so combined with my love of travel, it only seems logical that I find trains so interesting. Commuter trains, freight trains, long-distance trains – it doesn’t matter, and I’m totally game to take a ride on anything.
The ironic thing about my fascination for train travel is the fact that I am an absolute dunce when it comes to figuring out public transportation. Flying into a new city and having a look at the map for the metro or rail system always gives me heartburn, and more often or not I just throw my arms up in surrender (fear is more like it), ending up in Uber or a taxi instead.
However, now that I am self-employed without a fat corporate paycheck coming in every two weeks, money is a lot tighter than it used to be and I’ve got to be a lot smarter about my travels. That’s why I made it a goal for this trip to Vienna to use nothing but public transportation while on the ground. Seems like not a very big deal, but it actually IS a pretty big deal for a sheltered dude like me who grew up in the Midwest and never had to use public transportation a day in his life before the age of 22. Not because I didn’t want to, but only because it simply didn’t exist way out there in the boonies.
I’m happy to report that my fear of public transportation was blown way out of proportion leading up to this trip, and once I found myself standing there in the Vienna airport looking for the CAT (City Express) train, it took literally seconds to get my bearings and figure out exactly what I needed to do. For those that don’t know, CAT stands for “City Airport Train”, and it’s sole purpose is to shuttle people between the airport and the city center of Vienna in exactly 16 minutes.
“His palms were sweaty…”
First of all, the CAT train is very well branded, featuring a neon green logo that is plastered everywhere in the arrivals section of the airport. I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t notice Michael Jackson if he was standing right next to me, but finding the signs that lead the way to the CAT train was extremely easy and I didn’t even have to ask anybody for directions like I normally do.
The other thing is that gives me anxiety about public transportation is the process of purchasing tickets – mostly because it requires a bit of research beforehand, and you’ve got to know exactly where you’re going and how to find it on a map so that you can select that option on the kiosk. This sort of on-the-fly wayfinding is something I am admittedly very terrible at, so much so that I even had to have someone help me the first time I tried to purchase a BART ticket at SFO several years ago. Yes, it was as embarrassing and soul-crushing as you’re imagining it to be.
Thankfully there was no embarrassment this time, and purchasing a ticket for a ride on the CAT train from the airport to the city center was extremely easy thanks to the kiosks that are scattered throughout the station. There was absolutely no confusion at all as I followed the prompts on the screen to purchase a round-trip ticket for 21 Euro, and once complete, I was free to board the train.
I’ve mentioned several times already that my public transportation experience is very limited, so I didn’t really know what to expect as I was getting on the train. I did know that I wanted a seat on the upper deck if possible (for the best views), and once I climbed the stairs I was happy to see that there were plenty of single seats available and I was free to sit anywhere I pleased.
Shortly after the train started rolling out of the station, it occurred to me that no one (or nothing) verified my ticket and I was wondering if there were no checks in place to prevent someone from using the train without paying. It’s a completely different experience compared to what happens in the airline world (where you can’t step 10 feet without someone asking to see your ticket or identification), and for the moment I thought it was kind of neat that they had enough faith in humanity to run this business on the honor system.
Just as I was sitting there thinking happy thoughts, a stern-looking CAT employee came through the aisles verifying everyone’s ride with a scary-looking stamping device that he stuffed every ticket into. So much for the honor system…
Returning to the Vienna airport
After a fun and adventure-filled afternoon roaming the streets of Central Vienna, it was time to return to the Vienna airport (and the Moxy). You already know how bad I am with directions, so I was feeling pretty good about myself as I found my way back to the central station without a hitch. Who says I can’t be left alone unsupervised?
The central station here in Vienna is a huge shopping mall-like experience, and it’s an excellent place to hang out and wait while you wait for your train to arrive. There’s even a dedicated CAT lounge here which was more like something you’d see at the airport than a train station. There are ticket and baggage drop counters, kiosks, and plenty of seating available just like you’d see any major airport.
Come to think of it, a very airport-like experience is no coincidence, because it is possible to check your luggage here which will then automatically get transferred to your flight. Pretty neat, huh? I was half tempted to go out and buy a suitcase (and an airline ticket) just try this out to see if it really worked as advertised – but then I remembered that I’m poor and self-employed, so it was best to skip it.
And there you have it! The Viana CAT train was by far one of the most easy to use (and convenient) modes of public transportation that I have ever used, which means a lot considering how fast my brain turns to jelly when confronted with things like this.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that the CAT train is not the cheapest option between the airport and central Vienna. There is a local train which is significantly cheaper, but it’s more crowded, takes a lot longer, and is nowhere as convenient as this. For some people, the cheaper option will always be the best choice – but I value convenience and speed over a low fare, and that’s why I’ll choose the CAT train every time.