If you are travelling to Romania but you don’t have a car or a driving licence, the train is likely to be one of the first transport modes you’re going to look at. You may have noticed that planning your journey isn’t always straightforward! However, travelling by train in Romania is definitely both doable and enjoyable. In this post, I explain how travelling by train in Romania works (and sometimes doesn’t work). Learn where to buy your tickets, which operator to use, train types, pros and cons, and more.
Travelling by train is perhaps the most obvious way to get around Romania. As it happens, it is also my favourite mode of transport. Travelling by train in Romania is arguably the best way to really get to know the country and its inhabitants. Romanians are very sociable and more often than not, someone will strike up a conversation, whether you speak a shared language or not. But let’s skip to the practical part. How to go about it?
Most trains in Romania are operated by CFR, short for Căile Ferate Române. Now you can forget about that, but the first step in your journey should be to go to their website, www.cfrcalatori.ro. I’ll run you through the steps of planning your journey, and buying a ticket online or at the station.
Buying a train ticket online
If you want to buy a train ticket for domestic travel online, please bear in mind that you must do so at least one day in advance. On the day itself, you can only buy a ticket at a station. There may also be some trains for which you can somehow never buy a ticket online. But mostly, it works like this:
How to buy a train ticket in Romania (online)
- Enter your departure and arrival station and departure date
First, enter your departure and arrival station on the CFR website, as well as your departure date. Please note that many placenames have accents and/or different spellings in Romania. Cârța for example can also be spelled as Cîrța – but you can simple enter it as Carta and it will show up in the drop-down menu. There may be various places with the same name, so make sure you get the right one! If a station has the letters ‘hc’ or ‘hm’ after it, it means it is a railway halt (halta), rather than a station.
- Browse available connections
Clicking on ‘Search’ will open a new tab, where all the trains on that route for that particular day are listed. Select ‘EN’ in the top-right corner of the page to see it in English. Click on ‘Details/Price’ if you want to get more details and calculate the price of the ticket. I can already tell you that train tickets come very cheap in Romania. You’ll even get a small discount when buying your ticket online.
- Select a train and a ticket
If you want to buy a ticket online, click on ‘Buy’, right next to ‘Details/Price’. On the next page, select the class you want to travel in, and the type of carriage if applicable (if you are booking a sleeper train for example). Then select ‘Standard tickets/offers’, unless you want to book a return ticket in which case you select ‘The Round-trip offer’.
- Buy train ticket
Click ‘Next’, then click on the + button next to ‘Adults’ to add adult passengers, or select another type of passenger. You can buy a ticket for a dog as well. Bicycle tickets can only be purchased in the 2nd class on trains marked with a bicycle icon on the overview page. Again, click ‘Next’, after which you will be shown the sum total; click ‘Next’ once more.
- Create an account
If you don’t have an account yet, you can create one here by clicking ‘Register as a new user!’. After having created an account, you can use it to buy your ticket. For this you will need a credit card.
- Receive your digital train ticket
Your ticket will be issued by email; no need to print. Make sure the name on your ticket corresponds to the name on your ID or passport! Please note you will have an allocated seat; the carriage number and seat number are printed under or next to vagon and locuri respectively.
Buying a train ticket at the station
Buying a train ticket at a station (gară) is fairly straightforward. Either you go to a ticket desk (turn up in time – there might be a queue!), or you buy a ticket from a ticket machine. If lining up at a desk, make sure it says CFR and it’s the one for domestic travel, or you might be waiting in vain. With a bit of luck, the clerk speaks English. If you need to resort to Romanian, you may need to use some of these phrases:
One ticket to Sibiu, please.
Un bilet la Sibiu, vă rog.
Two tickets to Sibiu, please.
Două bilete la Sibiu, vă rog.
Where is the station?
Unde e gara?
Platform (one, two, three, four)
Linia (unu, doi, trei, patru)
In the direction of
And of course, tren meaning train! The ticket machines are easy to operate and mostly take cards as well as cash. You can choose your day and time of departure as well as your carriage of choice (although not your specific seat), so you can buy a ticket ahead of time if you like.
Buying a ticket on the train
But what if there is no desk nor a machine at your departure station? This happens a lot in Romania, since there are a lot of railway halts that are no more than a platform, a sign and a bus stop-like shelter if you’re lucky. In that case, you can simply buy your ticket on the train. Simply state your destination to the conductor when they make their round, and he or she will issue a hand-written ticket. I love this.
Other railway operators
CFR is not the only railway operator in Romania. There are quite a few destinations that are only served by other operators, such as Zărnești, the gateway to the Piatra Craiului mountains. Here is an overview of all the operators:
CFR (Căile Ferate Române)
Astra Trans Carpatic
Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever used any other operator than CFR, Regio Calatori and Interregional Călători. Regio Calatori is the one that serves Zărnești from Brașov. You can consult their timetable by clicking ‘Mersul Trenurilor’ in the top bar, then ‘Rute’ in the drop-down menu. Interregional Călători connects Cluj and Oradea. If you just want to get from one city to another, take a faster CFR train; however, if you want to get off at one of the stops in between to visit the Vlădeasa Mountains or the Padurea Craiului region, you might well want to take the Interregional Călători train, which stops at every halta.
Bear in mind that different operators have their own desk at major stations; if they don’t have a desk you can usually buy your ticket on the train. You may well want to compare different operators to find the ticket that suits you best. In short, CFR controls most of the network and is your go-to operator; if they don’t go where you want to go, you use one of the other ones.
For a complete overview of all train timetables, go to the Infofer website. Using their journey planner, you will be able to see which operator serves which line, and compare different offers.
Types of trains
It’s important to know that there are different types of trains in Romania. The most important distinction to make is between R (Regional) and IR (Interregional) trains. Basically the IR trains are faster ones that only stop at bigger stations and the R trains are stop at every halta. Consequently, they are a lot slower, but they can also get you really, really close to the mountains sometimes! For instance, if you want to hike in the Retezat Mountains, you may well want to take a train to Ohaba de Sub Piatra halt. From there, you can get to the heart of the Retezat on the same day, if you’re lucky! Check out this post if you want to learn more.
Let’s talk comfort levels for a moment. These vary widely. It looks like CFR is quite busy replacing its old stock with state of the art carriages and trains. For instance, the regional diesels that run between Brașov and Sibiu, and between Cluj and Oradea, are new and pristine-looking. Still slow, however – because as explained, they stop at every cluster of houses and the terrain is also to blame. After all, Romania is a mountainous country and that means trains have a lot of hard uphill work to do. There are a lot of old trains too – and unless you’re already a seasoned traveller in Romania, it’s hard to tell what you will get. So be prepared to sacrifice some luxury – you will get an adventurous ride in return!
Sleeper trains deserve a paragraph of their own. I simply love overnight train travel, and although Romanian night trains are not very luxurious, they offer a unique experience. Romania is a big country, and travelling by train from one end to the other requires an overnight train, called an InterRegio train. This page lists all of Romania’s sleeper train connections, including international ones. Did you know you can travel straight to Bucharest from Vienna or Budapest these days? Here’s a post I wrote about travelling from Belgium to Romania by train. To find the night train you need, simply enter your departure and arrival station as described above. Sleeper trains are marked with a bed icon in the listing. There are two varieties of sleeping cabins. CFR distinguishes between vagon de dormit and vagon cuseta. A vagon de dormit is fitted with two berths and a wash basin, bed linen and a complimentary toiletry kit. On international routes, there are (shared) shower cabins too. A vagon cuseta contains either four or six berths. Read more on the CFR page here. I recommend you book your sleeper train online and well in advance, although it is technically possible to buy your sleeper train ticket at the station these days. Make very sure that you book a direct train so that you don’t have to get off in the middle of the night, and that you have actually selected a berth, not a seat! One last note: count on sleeper trains developing substantial delays. A couple of hours isn’t extraordinary. Of course this tends to happen later in the journey, so if you board a sleeper at or close to its departure station you should be good. Just don’t book your connecting train or flight too tight. I had a narrow escape once…
Pros and cons of travelling by train in Romania
Although I’m the first one to sing the praises of travelling by train in Romania, I’ve got to be honest: there are some downsides to it. The main one being that trains are often slow: although Romania has Europe’s 4th largest railway network in terms of track length, many connections are cumbersome. You may have to change trains several times to get from A to B. If your planned journey looks unreasonably long, look into buses below. They often are a good and faster alternative. Also, count on trains being delayed often. As a tourist, I don’t mind too much; I know Romania is like this and I can accept it. For Romanians, this is a frustrating fact of life though. If you decide to travel by train, make sure you allow ample time between connecting trains, and in general, be prepared for contingencies.
Now, for the fun part. You may already have gleaned that I just love trains. I love travelling by them, but I also like the things themselves. Let me just randomly list some of the many things I like about the whole train experience. Many Romanian trains are pulled by locomotives from the eighties or perhaps even from the sixties. At stations, you will often see a man hammering away at the wheels to adjust I don’t know what exactly. Before every announcement at a station, a catchy jingle is played. In fact, there are multiple – and until I wrote this post, I had no idea which one was played when and where. But thanks to a sweet reader I now know that these jingles are based on Romanian music and that different stations play different ones! Find out all about it in this video. The first three are very familiar to me and cause me to feel a knot of Fernweh in my stomach.
You might like to know what to expect in terms of services. Larger stations always have several shops and even smaller ones have kiosks where you can buy ice cream, snacks and drinks. Don’t expect too much from the kiosks though! Romanians habitually get off the train to saunter over to buy some snacks during the interval at the station – but as a tourist you’ll want to be very sure how much time you have exactly! You can find out from your online itinerary at the CFR website.
One thing that used to amaze me but I got used to, is that on older trains on slow routes, the doors are often left open. I love hanging out of the doorway and seeing the landscape pass by. That is perhaps one of the biggest perks of travelling by train: you get to see a lot of Romania through your window, meanwhile enjoying the chatter of your fellow passengers – who may well want to know where you are from and where you are going. Many Romanians travel long distance by train to visit relatives, carrying huge amounts of luggage and food (chances are they will share it with you). All this supported by that wonderfully soothing cadence that only a train can offer.
Go on that ride!
All this should have convinced you that train travel in Romania is doable as well as affordable and entertaining. It’s different, it’s untidy, it isn’t always what I as a western European person deem safe: people crossing the rails, a marked hiking trail right next to a busy train line, boys sitting on the edge of a platform dangling their legs… And then there are all the funny stories – the one time where I hugged a friend goodbye and my train started pulling up and I had to run for it (the doors were still open), the one-carriage diesel train that took us to the Cozia mountains and where the conductor refused to sell us a ticket… And finally, I cannot resist sharing this highly amusing video of a diesel train in eastern Romania trying to cross a road in a very laborious way. Shot by my friend Nagy Pál. So if you’re looking for some adventure, hop on that Romanian train! Drum bun! PS I will handle international train travel in a separate post, please bear with me.
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