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Transylvania - Travel and visas
Romania became a member of the European Union on 1 January 2007, although at the time of writing it is not part of the Schengen Agreement, between whose member states internal border checks have largely been abolished, although has applied to join. However, for visitors coming for stays of less than 90 days, travel from all EU but also many other countries, including the USA and Canada, is visa-free and straightforward.
At the time of research, the citizens of some 58 countries do not need a visa to enter Romania as a tourist for stays of up to 90 days, including UK and all EU citizens and those of Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan (full list on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website). EU citizens may enter the country with their national identity card; all other visitors require a valid passport. It is recommended that passports are valid for at least six months from the date of travel, since some airlines refuse boarding if the passport is not valid for at least three months beyond the intended departure date.
Holders of passports not exempt from visa requirements must obtain a visa from a Romanian embassy outside Romania before travelling. For stays of up to 90 days, the visa requirement is exempted for holders of Schengen visas, even though Romania is not in the Schengen Agreement, but only if the Schengen visa allows for at least two entries in the Schengen space and both the number of entries and permitted length of stay have not been exhausted. The visa requirement may also be exempted for holders of national visas or residence permits issued by Schengen member states or permanent residence permits issued by the UK or the Republic of Ireland.
If you intend to stay longer than 90 days in Romania, whether for business, study or to carry out volunteer work, you will need a temporary residence permit. This must be applied for at the Immigration Office (Birou Imigrări) nearest to you, at least 30 days before the expiry of your current status. The contact details and opening hours of all of these are listed on the website of the General Inspectorate for Immigration. This is a somewhat bureaucratic procedure, involving an application form, proof of employment, study or sufficient funds, and some additional requirements for non-EU citizens, including proof of accommodation. There are also some fees to pay: tiny but fiddly for EU citizens, rather more substantial for non-EU citizens.
Despite the red tape involved, please don’t be tempted to ignore the requirement to obtain a temporary residence permit as overstays can incur both a fine and a temporary ban on returning to Romania.
Transylvania has three international airports (Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and Târgu Mureş), although the airport at Târgu Mureş was closed for repairs at the time of research. But many visitors arrive at the international airport in Bucharest, which offers a much wider range of flight destinations and is straightforward to access by both road and rail, albeit at the cost of bringing you into Romania outside of Transylvania itself. There are also longstanding plans to construct a further international airport at Ghimbav, just outside Braşov, although these have long been stalled.
Airlines serving Bucharest are a mix of traditional or legacy carriers (including the Romanian national carrier, Tarom) and budget airlines. The former are more likely to offer more central airports at your city of departure (in London, Heathrow, rather than Luton or Stansted), better baggage allowances and some in-flight catering, but at a higher ticket cost. But the difference between the two types of airlines is gradually becoming less marked, particularly on the short European routes that make up the overwhelming majority of flights into Romania, as the legacy carriers trim all frills, including in-flight catering, and both types of airlines offer low prices for customers able to book their flights well in advance.
It’s more expensive to travel to Transylvania by train (tren), but you can take your time, admire the view and feel good about decreasing your carbon footprint. Train tickets often allow stopovers en route, so train travel can be an affordable and relaxing way to include Romania in a European trip. The shortest London–Bucharest train journey takes about 36 hours, but you can choose from a variety of routes. If you are travelling from the UK, note that British railway stations generally do not sell international tickets, with the exception of the Eurostar office at London’s St Pancras station, which just sells tickets on that service to Paris and Brussels.
A possible journey from London to Transylvania could be to take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, then walk across to the Gare de l’Est. From there take a train to Munich, and the onward overnight sleeper to Budapest. Take a day to explore Budapest, before another night on an overnight sleeper, this time taking you to Braşov. Remember to always make reservations for sleepers.
By coach or bus
There is quite a number of long-distance coach connections between Romania and western European cities, including the UK. Prices are considerably cheaper than train travel, though will not necessarily work out less expensive than flying on a low-cost airline if you book your plane ticket well in advance. And you do spend a lot of time in a coach seat. Thus the Eurolines coach departing London Victoria at 23.00 on a Sunday evening does not arrive in Braşov until 19.00 on Tuesday. The services tend mostly to be used by Romanian migrant workers attracted by the more generous baggage allowance of coach services as against flying.
It is possible to drive from the UK or continental Europe to Transylvania and do some sightseeing on the way. The shortest driving distance between London and Bucharest is around 2,500km, or 1,500 miles. That between London and Târgu Mureş is around 2,280km.
EU citizens can drive in Romania with the driving licence from their home country. Citizens of a range of other countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are also able to drive using their home-country driving licence for a period of 90 days from their arrival in Romania. The other key piece of bureaucracy is that, whether you are driving your own car or a rental, you will need to obtain a vignette called a rovinieta, which is essentially a form of road toll. These can be purchased online, as well as at the border crossings, post offices and many petrol stations, and have a validity period of one, seven, 30 or 90 days, or one year. If you are travelling from the UK, note that some of the other countries you will pass through en route have their own form of vignette requirements, though in most of these, unlike Romania, vignettes are only required for travel on motorways
Public transport in Transylvania is cheap but decidedly patchy. There is usually a good bus service between two reasonably large adjacent towns, but it can be limited or non-existent in more isolated areas. And although Romania has one of the densest train networks in Europe, the speed of travel is slow, frequencies can be limited and train times inconvenient. In rural areas with little public transport, the locals resort to hitchhiking. If your Transylvanian itinerary will take you away from the larger towns and cities for sustained periods then you are likely to be best off either hiring a car or arranging an organised or tailor-made tour.
Until recently, the domestic flight network in Romania was the preserve of the Romanian state carrier Tarom, but routes are also now being served by the lowcost carriers Wizz Air and Blue Air, which has brought down prices.
Romania has a dense railway network, with more than 10,000km of track, although less than half of this is electrified. The state railway company is Căile Ferate Române, universally known as CFR. The good news is that railways will take you between most cities and towns in Transylvania, and many small settlements, too; the bad news is hat they will rarely do so quickly.
There are several different types of train in Romania. InterCity (IC) trains are the fastest, most modern and comfortable. Unfortunately, they are few and far between, and only used on a few main routes. InterRegio (IR) trains will prove the mainstay of a train-based Transylvania tour.
By bus or coach
The Romanian bus network is not well integrated. It involves a plethora of private operators, with departures in larger cities, notably Braşov and Bucharest, from many different bus stations. The quality of the buses on inter-city routes varies enormously, and you might even find yourself on an airconditioned bus with a toilet, and even more rarely the latter might be working, but overall the buses tend to be older and less well-equipped than those of equivalent operators in western Europe. Buses in Transylvania are generally a feasible enough option between neighbouring largish towns, where the service frequency tends to be high, but are much less useful in rural areas. The Autogari website does a noble job of trying to keep track of the complex and fastchanging bus schedules.
The road network in Transylvania is comprehensive, but highway infrastructure lags far behind that of much of western Europe, and overall travel speeds can be slow. Expect an average driving time of around 50km/h, although this masks sharp variations. There are two motorways (autostrăzi) currently under construction in Transylvania. The A1 motorway will eventually run from Bucharest to Piteşti, then up the valley of the Olt River into Transylvania, then past Sibiu and Deva to the Hungarian border at Nădlac. The section between Bucharest and Piteşti has long been complete, but the rest is years late. The section between Sibiu and Deva is now operational, and has had the effect of considerably speeding up travel westwards into Hunedoara County. The A3 motorway is planned to run from Bucharest up the Prahova Valley to Braşov, and thence to Făgăraş, Târgu Mureş, Cluj-Napoca and Oradea, before connecting with the Hungarian M4 motorway. Only two segments of this motorway have been completed: that from Bucharest to Ploieşti and a short section near Cluj between Câmpia Turzii and Gilău.
Hire-car companies in Bucharest and the main towns in Transylvania offer a broad range of vehicles. The home-grown Dacia brand, a subsidiary of the French manufacturer Renault, is well worth considering. The Dacia Logan is the favoured car of Romanian taxi drivers, and is a good economical choice, with engine sizes available between 1.0l and 1.5l. And if you are looking to tackle some tougher tracks the Dacia Duster 4x4, with engine sizes from 1.2l to 2.0l, is a good option – and fits a pushchair in the boot. If hiring a car in winter, make sure that it is fitted with winter or at least all-season tyres, and that it is equipped with a snow-scraper (racletă). When hiring a car in summer, it is worth paying extra for an option with air conditioning.