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Trip Report Trip Report: Romania, Budapest and NE Hungary. Curses, blessings and cabbage

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This is my first shot at writing one of these things, so let's see how we go. I'm flying by the seat of my pants, as I wasn't as faithful as I should have been with the journal thing. To put it mildly. I'll try to start with a bit of an executive overview for some that prefer the basic facts and figures. I'm warning you though, knowing me, this isn't going to be short or pretty. Posting in sections, as life goes on.

A bit about us
We tend to travel fairly budget and were pretty loose with our plans. No spreadsheets. One American/UnitedStatesian ;) and one Australian traveling on her Irish passport, ages 41 and 27. Clean, comfortable and well located are fine for accomodations, anything else is a bonus. We like a good meal but manage on pubs or whatever, when necessary.

Language prep
We'd originally considered Italy for this trip, but decided on something different. I'd done some learn in your car Italian CDs, but Romanian, where we were going to spend the most time, was harder to find. Pimsleur does have a course though. And I found that the Italian very often was useful in picking up the Romanian, as it's also mostly a romance language. Very close to original latin, I understand, but with Slavic and Hungarian influences. Managed to be able to learn a couple dozen greetings, niceties and functional questions and we mimed our way through the rest. English was common in cities, but not so much in villages. It seems that French would have been very useful in rural areas, as a quite a few people asked if we spoke it. We did meet several ethnic Saxons who still spoke German, despite their being in Romania for many generations.

German would have also been somewhat useful in a couple of instances within Hungary. Hungarian though... whewww... we managed please, thank you and hello. It's a tough, tough language. English, fortunately, was widely spoken in the parts of Hungary we visited.

We also had a pocket size Berlitz Eastern Europe phrase book with us, just in case.

We took:
- A Nikon D70 digital SLR camera and 2 lens with a spare battery. I like my photography, even if it's not a real talent.
- Mini-camcorder
- A Flashtrax device with a 20GB hard drive, a built-in compact flash slot, a screen for viewing/organizing/renaming photos, plus you can listen to music and watch movies on it. Also took a car charger cord. This was a very useful device.
- Tri-band phone (ours from home on T-Mobile world service). Worked fine in both countries. Just had it in case of trouble.

Currency and costs
The bank exchange rates at the time we went were:

197 Hungarian forints = $1 USD
~33000 Romanian lei = $1 USD

Many hotels in both countries quote rates in Euro online. If they take credit cards, don't let them charge in Euro (they may), as you will pay for the exchange twice, unless you are from a Euro country. A couple of charges got past us, but overall it seemed to be in our best interest to have the charges in local currency.

ATMs were easy to find in Hungary. It wasn't really hard to find them in Romania either, but small towns and villages don't often have a bank or ATm that we saw. Larger towns such as Sighetu Marmatiei and Gura Humorului sometimes only have one at the center of town. We never had a problem getting our Visa check/debit card to work, as long as the ATM was working.

A word on credit cards. In Hungary, we were able to use a credit card in most places. The only problem we had was one shopkeeper who hadn't ever used her machine before. In Romania though, almost every time we tried to use one, except at a couple of larger hotels, we were told we MUST have a pin number. This included smaller hotels (that would take one at all) and gas stations. Only one Restaurant took one, that we found.

The trip started and ended in Budapest, arriving Oct 20, heading back Nov 6th. We flew out of St. Louis on American and had a fairly uneventful flight each way. Upgraded to business on the way back. (Yay - yes indeed, more warm nuts please).

We spent 3 days in Budapest, getting our feet under us and with the idea that if the bags didn't make it, we'd have a base to be found at. For these days, we pre-arranged the Taverna Hotel on the pedestrian Vaci Utca. They have a back entrance that allows for a taxi dropoff. However we took the airport minibus which is 2100 Forints. Can't remember what the return cost was, as we caught a cab back to the airport for the return trip, as we had to go at 5am. The minibus is very easy. Exit the secured area at BUD and look right. Walk up to counter and tell them you need the minibus and what your hotel is. Pay them, take ticket and sit in designated area. We waited about 15 minutes when someone called a short list of hotels, ours included. About 6 people in a roomy van, but our's was the first stop. Nice service.

More on Budapest later. After Budapest, we have no set schedule for the next few days and no lodging booked. Had Lonely Planet Romania and Rough Guide Romania books and a list of possibilities, though, so we're pretty much ready to roll. We also had the LP Hungary and the Eyewitness Budapest book. Would read in the hotel or the car then leave them when we were on foot.

We planned for a car through Autoeurope, which came from Budget, offices located inside a hotel in Buda, just behind Castle Hill, near the Deli train station. We declined the CDW in favor of MasterCard coverage. Hungary requires a sticker for driving on the M1, M3, M5 highways, but that was included in the rental and affixed to the windshield. Autoeurope was a good choice, as we faced fewer restrictions on crossing the border.

From here, we drove out of the city and headed for the Romanian border near Mako, Hungary. Driving out of Budapest went ok. Just go with the flow and look for a place to cross the river.

Crossing the border was fairly simple as well. Bypass the truck line and had only a couple of cars to wait behind. Watched someone's car being pulled apart and dozens of cartons of off-brand cigarettes being hauled out from a compartment behind the trunk. Later, I wondered why when I saw that Marlboro's were 32000 Romanian Lei (about $.90) per pack at gas stations. The Hungarian officials are all business, but efficient, then you pull a few hundred yards to the Romanian side. We pulled up to the immigration official's booth and fumbled through our first "buna ziua" and handed over the passports. A note here: Australians currently need pre-arranged visas to enter Romania, EU and US citizens do not. The guard asked where we were going (in English) and I began to rattle off a list of likely candidates, starting with Timisoara. Finally settled for "all over... shrug we're tourists". He grins, hands back the passports, and wishes us a nice trip. Customs were even easier. Barely open one of the passports, hands them back and waves us on. Julies from this board had warned about the disinfectant guys, and she was right. Just after we left immigration, there was a large gas station and a bunch of guys at the end of the parking lot near the road. A number of cars are pulled over. Two came running out onto the road, waving their arms, wearing jump suits. In that the road was wide, the officials just before said nothing about another stop, and I saw no official signs, we blew past them and were on our way. Hey, if they were for real and I had just screwed up royally, they'd have come after us, right?

But wait, there's more...

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