If you ever find yourself in a Romanian city of a decent size, sooner or later you’re going to see a lot of buses trundling about and you may begin to wonder how you too can climb aboard and enjoy the adventure as you are whisked on your way by the reliable and earth-friendly scions of public transportation.
The first thing you need to know is that all city buses (ie buses that circulate within the same city versus buses that go between different cities) are always marked with a logo that starts with RAT. For example in Cluj it is known as RATUC while both Brasov and Bucharest are known as RATB. The RAT stands for Regia Autonoma de Transport, a delightfully Communist phrase which literally means “Autonomous Transportation Regime”.
This being 2010 and the modern age, most “RAT”s have their own websites but sadly, as in the case of Cluj, finding a route map still remains pretty much useless. Therefore I have prepared this handy guide on how to ride a city bus in Romania!
- Step 1 – The ticket. Before you board any Romanian bus (or tram), you must have your ticket ahead of time. Some cities (like Timisoara) have a very liberal policy on who can sell tickets. Just look for any corner store or kiosk with the little RAT(x) sign on it and you can buy your ticket there. Other cities (like Cluj) only sell tickets via official RAT(x) kiosks and these are located only at major bus stops and sometimes the kiosk is closed so good luck finding one that’s open!
The odd thing is that in almost every city they only sell you a bus ticket for “two rides” (or more). This is bad if you only need one single bus ride but the good news is that the tickets are generally affordable. For instance, in Cluj a “two ride” bus ticket is 3.5 lei or slightly more than 1 US dollar.
- Step 2 – Which bus to take? So now you’ve got your ticket (good for two rides or more) but you’re in one part of town and how do you get to the other part of town? Usually the front of the bus will show you the destination but generally it’s pretty useless as it will just say “So-and-so Neighborhood”, which is pretty general and not specific.
To begin with, there are no maps. Even if you find a map, it is useless. Therefore you MUST ask another human being which bus to take. Every long-term resident of the city has an entire bus map route in his/her head and can tell you exactly which bus to take and where to catch it. I know you can ask me which bus to take in Cluj and even if I haven’t been there in years, I know exactly which routes run where.
- Step 3 – Waiting for the bus. First of all, make sure there’s other people waiting around with you. Romanian bus stops don’t follow the logic of “well there’s a stop on this side of the street so there’s also one on the other side”. No! Sometimes one bus stop is miles away from another one, depending on which direction you’re traveling.
What you want to do at this point is cast your eye slyly over the crowd of fellow people waiting on the bus. See any old ladies? These are your “markers”. They’ve got arthritis and bad hips so they know exactly where to stand to be as close to the doors as possible when the bus stops. Teenagers who are goofing around and men fiddling with their phones are less knowledgeable about these sorts of things. So find some old ladies and stand directly to the left of them.
- Step 4 – The bus arrives. Immediately there’s going to be a scrum. First, the passengers disembarking the bus will exit down the open doors. Remember how you were staked out just to the left of the old ladies? Before the doors open but after the bus stops, slide directly in front of the old ladies. DO NOT GET BEHIND THEM or you will rue the day! Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to cut directly in front of the old ladies so you can pop through the open doors the second the last passenger disembarks.
- Step 5 – Validating the ticket. You never deal with or interact with the driver. Instead, scattered throughout the bus are devices mounted to poles which you will use to validate your ticket. Some cities (like Timisoara) have fancy, modern devices which print a timecode stamp on your ticket. Others (like Cluj) have essentially a mechanical “punch” that you slide your ticket into and then pop out a coded set of holes. Either way, your first mission must be to validate your ticket as quickly as possible.
If you possess one of the ubiquitous “valid for 2 rides” tickets then only validate slash punch ONE side of the ticket! Save your ticket and then at a later time you can use the other side of the ticket for another ride. Things like “transfers” do not exist in Romania so every time you switch buses you must validate another (half) ticket.
- Step 6 – Finding a seat. You’ve got to be super quick about validating your ticket because a lot of your fellow passengers have “passes” and don’t need to punch a ticket. And they’re all scrummed up right behind you and scrambling to get a good seat so this isn’t time to daydream and dilly-dally around.
Cast your eye over the length of the bus and figure out where an elderly person might like to sit and do not choose those seats, if possible, because later on they’re going to board the bus and then you’ll feel guilty and want to stand up and give them your seat just because they’re aged and tired and put in 80 plus years of hard work and perhaps remind you of your sweet grandma, the sneaky devils. Otherwise, anything is fair game but watch out for the rearward facing seats as it can induce a sense of nausea in all but the hardiest of bus passengers.
- Step 6 – The ticket inspector. In Romania, the driver just drives the bus and nothing else. It’s up to a separate guy (and it’s ALWAYS a man) to covertly board the bus and then after it’s in motion, unzip his jacket and whip out his RAT(x) ID badge and begin inspecting tickets (and bus passes).
Since you’re an honest and upstanding person, you’ve got your ticket handy and already validated so you just hand it to him and you’re done. If for some inexcusable reason you either don’t have a ticket or haven’t validated it yet, you can get in a world of trouble and have to pay a large fine. If you’re a foreigner and have some “genuine” (snort) excuse not to have a ticket, begin shouting and waving your hands and make a scene and you can probably get away without paying the fine as most ticket inspectors don’t speak English. It’s still rather unpleasant though so don’t do it.
- Step 7 – Your stop. Where the bus stops is always fixed and immutable and so you don’t need to worry about ringing a bell or otherwise signaling the driver you want to get off. The bus just stops where it stops and each stop is often QUITE a ways away from the next one, so you aren’t likely to get confused.
Your goal, however, is to get up close to the door before it stops because you don’t want to get caught in the surge of boarding passengers. If you’re sitting in an inside seat or otherwise caught behind some passengers and want them to move the phrase to know is cobariti? (coba-roots literally “You go down?”) which means “Are you getting off at the next stop?” and they’ll move to let you get by.
Tada! Congratulations, you did it! You successfully rode a Romanian city bus!
A couple of notes: sometimes the number on the bus is flat out wrong. It doesn’t happen often but it happens so be aware of it. Also, half the bus passengers are blind so they can’t even read the bus number so be sure to ask someone (with good eyesight) if you’re not 100% sure which bus it is you want/are taking.
Also: your ticket is good for all forms of public transportation in the city equally, ie either bus or tram or in the case of Bucharest, a ride on the subway. One ride is one ride is one ride.
The good news however is that just about all Romanian buses run extremely frequently so you don’t need to worry too much about timetables and schedules. They also run 365 days a year, including holidays, and in just about every kind of weather so whenever it is you need to avail yourself of public transportation, you’re in luck!
HAVE FUN AND DRUM BUN