Every time I travel to a new city, or when I return to Texas for a visit, I’m reminded of how easy it really is to get around Budapest. The public transportation network is vast – even with only four underground metro lines, you can get nearly anywhere in the city with a combination of trams, trolleybuses, and regular buses, at a really reasonable price. Here are my tips for getting around Budapest for first-timers.
Beginning in September 2013, Budapest instituted strict regulations on taxis to reduce corruption. The new regulations include two things that are very helpful to tourists:
1) All licensed taxis must accept credit cards.
2) All licensed taxis must charge the same rate and display the rates with a sticker on the window.
Additionally, as of September 2014, all taxis are required to be yellow (unless they are “elite” taxis, generally those used by the upscale hotels). With these rules, it’s much easier to spot a legitimate taxi.
At the airport, the official taxi is called Fő Taxi. Ignore anyone who approaches you in the arrivals area and offers a taxi – these are the so-called “taxi cowboys” (unlicensed and generally shady taxi drivers). Instead, once you’ve grabbed your bags and exited the automated doors, look to your left for a booth that’s marked for taxis, with a line of yellow cars parked nearby. The attendant at the booth will ask for your destination, then assign you a taxi and print out a receipt. This receipt has all of the information about your taxi driver, the rates, and your destination, so if there is any problem whatsoever with your trip, you can easily report it to the regulatory authority.
Based on my experiences, taxi drivers are about 50/50 as to whether they can speak English. Because of this, I always recommend writing your destination on a small piece of paper that you can hand to the driver if necessary.
Budapest is home to the oldest underground transport system in continental Europe, and in some ways, it shows. Tickets are still inspected manually by transportation officials clustered near exits, and some passes are hand-written with the date and time of validity. The system is modernizing, with fancy machines just installed this summer to dispense tickets and passes, and the city has just signed a contract to implement an automated entry system that should be in place sometime around 2017. Until then, the system has a few quirks.
Metro tickets are single-use, so you must have a new ticket for each type of transport you take (transfer tickets are available from some cashiers, but the discount isn’t very much). You must validate the ticket at the entrance to the underground, as well as once you board any tram, trolley or bus. On the underground and on newer trams and buses, there will be an orange box to electronically validate the ticket, but on older buses and trams, you’ll see red boxes that require manual validation. These boxes have a black slot on top where you insert the ticket, then pull the slot towards you. You’ll hear a punching sound, and when you remove your ticket, it will be perforated in a pattern unique to that bus. Keep your ticket handy until you leave the metro system – ticket inspectors can pop up at anytime, and they often also inspect as you’re leaving metro stations. Inspectors are often “undercover”, wearing normal clothes and riding the tram or bus for several stops before putting on their official armband and requesting your ticket. The fine is 16,000 HUF for riding with no ticket, or with an improperly validated one (8,000 HUF if you pay the inspector on the spot – don’t worry, that’s an official rule and not a bribe!)
You can buy tickets at most underground stations from a cashier, or you can locate an automated machine (in place at several underground and tram stops). Personally, I’d recommend the machine as it always takes credit cards and always speaks English – two things you can’t guarantee from the cashiers.
You can find the latest prices for tickets and passes in English here. Buying tickets in blocks of 10 is cheaper than buying single tickets, and if you plan to take public transport more than 5 times in a day, it’s more cost-effective to buy a 24-hour pass. Five times a day may sound like a lot, but trust me, it’s not! Nearly all my guests have started with blocks of tickets and have ended up with passes at the end of the trip due to how often we use it. If you’re traveling with a group, the best value is the 24-hour group travel pass – it costs the same as two individual 24-hour passes, and can be used for up to 5 people, so it’s a great deal!