The Communists never saw much of a need for inter-city public transportation (besides the train of course) and so today this industry is dominated by a plethora of private companies.
Although it can be confusing sometimes how to find the right transportation, the good news is that you can get just about anywhere you want to go without needing a car, even very rural areas.
Let’s go over a few terms:
Minibuz (mini-booze) – This is the most common term (along with “microbus” occasionally) for a vehicle that has several names in English, always referring to a “smaller” vehicle that can hold 8-15 passengers.
In USA English I think of them as “vans” but they’re also referred to as “maxi-taxis” and occasionally even as marshrutki (the Slavic name).
Whatever the name of the vehicle, they are privately-run passenger vans (like this) that follow a scheduled route between two (or more) cities.
Unlike city buses however, you usually buy the ticket directly from the driver when you board.
Some minibuz routes focus exclusive on travel between two larger cities (say, Cluj and Brasov) while others specializing in shuttling people between a larger city and smaller, rural areas.
If you are trying to get to a rural area (without a car), your best bet is to take another form of transportation to the nearest large town and then find a minibuz going where you want to go.
Note: Usually the space for luggage is quite limited (except for international routes) so don’t expect to find room for bulky items.
Autocar – This is the Romanian word for a large, full-sized bus (think Greyhound if you’re American). These focus exclusively on travel between larger cities in Romania as well as international travel.
Again, just like with a minibuz, generally you just board the bus and pay the driver on the spot. For some routes, however, especially international ones, reservations and buying tickets ahead of time is mandatory.
In some cases, while a reservation is not mandatory, calling ahead to make sure there is a free spot is a common custom.
Note: Standing in the aisles is often done on crowded routes and yet the cost of the ticket remains the same. No use in getting angry about it!
Autogara – In some cities there is a designated spot for inter-city bus travel pick-ups and drop-offs, known in Romanian as the autogara or the (inter-city) bus station.
That being said, not every company in town uses these special bus stations.
Finding out which bus (or van) goes where and where they do their pick-ups and drop-offs and what their rates and schedules are, etc, can be a daunting task. The easiest thing to do is find a local Romanian and ask them. Websites with useful, pertinent information are rare.
Especially for travel between large cities and international travel, many travel agencies and hotels sell tickets at little to no mark-up.
Despite all the wonkiness, traveling by autocar or minibuz is usually incredibly affordable and a great way to get around this country with not much money.
Although I’ve survived it many times myself, I will again reiterate the warning that night-time travel, especially via minibuz, is extremely dangerous. In fact, it’s easily the most dangerous thing you can do in Romania.
Generally speaking, autocar and minibus travel is faster and more efficient than the train, and quite often cheaper to boot as well. That train from Cluj to Budapest, while much more comfortable and scenic, takes twice as long as a quick trip overnight ride on a minibuz directly to the airport.
The inter-city bus companies also do a thriving business in transporting cargo (marfa) both domestically and internationally and are far more popular (and cheaper) than international delivery firms such as DHL or FedEx.
If you are traveling around Europe and want to ship goods efficiently and cheaply, usually one of the autocar companies are going to be your best bet (a big company with a half-decent website is ATLASSIB).
With the advent of low-cost airlines however, transporting yourself around Europe by plane is usually going to be cheaper than (or on par with) bus routes and much, much faster.