Driving, busing, car rental & hitchhiking in Romania
Car rental is as common in Romania as anywhere these days. My favorite Europe-wide car rental agency is Auto Europe. I’ve used them in Italy a few times now and have been very happy. Autonom is my favorite Romania-based company with offices nationwide, who also almost always have the best prices. D&V Touring are very well run, friendly, offer excellent long-term rates and they have a convenient booth in Bucharest’s Henry Coanda International Airport. A newcomer to the scene is Maki Car Rental, with offices in Bucharest, Timisoara and Sibiu. Tiger Car Rental have offices in Bucharest (airport and city), Brasov, Constanta, Sibiu and Timisoara (airport only). Avis, Budget, Hertz and Europcar have offices in most larger cities.
The skinny on driving in Romania
Though slowly improving, driving in Romania is still comparable to a video game: often lawless and frequently fatal. If you’re a timid driver, or just plain high strung, I don’t recommend it. Stick to public transport. And even then, wear blinders and take a shot of tequila before departure.
If you do chose to drive, particularly a car you bring in from outside of Romania, make sure all your documents (personal ID, insurance, registration and visas, if required) are in order before crossing the border. The Green Card (a routine extension of domestic motor insurance covering most European countries) is valid in Romania and can be purchased from travel agencies and from shacks at border crossings.
Romanian mechanics, formerly very limited in the types of cars they could effectively service, have branched out in recent years, so driving a private car into the country isn’t as perilous as it once was. That said, if you really love your car, leave it behind. The roads in Romania are legendarily bad, though a very ambitious effort to repair them is currently under way. In the meantime, these potholes could shake a Sherman Tank apart. When you leave the ‘European roads’ (autostrada), which range from pristine to shockingly bad, and get on the countryside roads (drum judetean), or worse the forestry roads (drum forestier), that’s when the real damage begins.
Your troubles don’t end with the roads; horse carts, free-range animals, people, moonshine aficionados and debris that fell off other cars will keep you bolt upright in the driver’s seat, scanning for the next disaster-waiting-to-happen.
Western-style petrol stations are easy to come by, though occasionally there will be long stretches without any station, particularly on the super new road from Bucharest to Constanta (not a single exit, much less a petrol station, for 70km I learned the hard way), mountainous regions and remote village areas. Fill up before any long journey, just for luck.
International and EU driving licenses are accepted here, as well as your home country license (technically only for the first 30 days, but no one on the ground checks on this). Romania, has a 0% blood-alcohol tolerance limit (one of the few road laws vehemently enforced), seat belts are compulsory (but almost never used), and children under 12 are forbidden to sit in the front seat (but do). They’ve changed the law recently and now you must have your headlights on day or night. The police love to stop drivers for this one.
Speed limits are usually indicated, but generally speaking they are 90kmh on major roads, 100-110kmh on motorways, and 50kmh inside cities. Having a standard first-aid kit is also compulsory (again, rarely enforced). Honking unnecessarily is theoretically prohibited but try telling that to 10 million drivers that use the horn more than they use the brakes.
Automobil Clubul Roman is Romania’s automobile association. They have some information for foreign drivers (in Romanian, so get a translator), but this is mostly a resource for Romanians.
There are numerous maxitaxis and private cars making the trip daily between Bucharest to Chisinau . This may be quickest (usually 10 to 12 hours), but you’ll feel that seat-ache again come winter, not to mention the white knuckle driving, which could make a NYC cabbie weep. Additionally, there are also at least five daily maxitaxis running between Chisinau and Iasi (about four hours).
Fleets of buses from nearly every major city in Romania head to Istanbul . This is not an easy ride (I did the trip from Iasi to Istanbul once, 24 hours, with a sore on my back that didn’t allow me to sit back all the way… for 24 hours… I was miserable), but it’s cheaper and no worse than the train. Some of the buses are modern, with air conditioning and refreshments.
Budapest is another place you can get to from just about all major hubs in Romania, including Bucharest, Arad, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, Targu Mures, Miercurea Ciuc and Satu Mare, usually with stops along the way.
Eurolines is still hanging in there, despite budget airlines routinely under cutting their prices these days. They link all corners of Romania to the rest of Europe (eventually). Buses to Germany cost 50-70 euros one way. Someplace as far as Spain can cost up to 150 euros. Many routes offer a 10% to 15% discount for those aged under 26 or over 60. Children under 12 and under 4 years old receive additional discounts. Some discount passes are available.
State buses in Romania are slow, busted and tired. Other than the low cost and the priceless cultural exposure, there’s really no advantage to taking these monsters, if you have the choice. Modern buses, the caliber that you might find in Western Europe, are slowly making their way into the domestic fleet. Maxitaxis (small buses/vans) are faster and more comfortable and run with delightful frequency, but these guys drive without any sense of mortality. I don’t condone the regular use of Valium, but this is one of those times. Swallow ’em if ya got ’em.
Bus stations (autogara) are often chaotic and bewildering. Schedules are dependably out of date and ticket clerks are sometimes surly. Check out the time table, but confirm those times with with the ticket taker before laying concrete plans. Keep in mind that many maxitaxi companies don’t operate out of bus stations, or even nearby in some cases. The only way to uncover maxitaxi routes outside of the bus station is to ask around. To get a general idea of bus routes (but this is by no measure, comprehensive), check out Autogari.ro.
As my dear Lonely Planet states in all it’s books, ‘hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it’. I agree whole heartedly. However, hitching in Romania is still a common way to get around, especially in the countryside where bus and maxitaxi service is limited. Hitching in pairs is recommended and let someone know where you’re headed – just in case. To hail a car, you do a kind of a pat-the-dog motion, using your whole arm. Sticking your thumb out is kind of a new gesture and will still sometimes get you a perplexed look. Normally, hitchers pay the driver about the equivalent of bus fare for the ride. You may even encounter local motorists at bus and train stations trying to pick people up to offset their fuel costs.