Most of our getaways involve flying into a city, exploring the urban area for a few days, then retreating back to London. When we only have a few days, it is hard to do more than that. So when we take a week long holiday in Europe, we like to rent a car and explore the countryside.
After booking our trip to Romania and Bulgaria, we knew that we would be renting a car in Romania to explore Transylvania and Bulgaria. Having rented cars dozens of times before, we did very little research about driving in Romania and Bulgaria. That proved to be a mistake. So here are some tips in case you are thinking of renting a car in Romania.
Drives Will Take Longer Than You Expect
Due to the lack of a major highway system in Romania, it took longer than expected to drive between towns. When calculating time, realistically expect to cover 50km per hour of driving. That sounds slow, because it is slow. Aside from the hour drive from Bucharest to Pitesti where we were on a four lane motorway with a 130km/h speed limit, we never saw a speed limit over 100km/h again in Romania or Bulgaria.
The main issue is that the major roads cut right through towns, meaning that every few miles, you enter a village, and the speed limit drops to 30 or 50km/h. The constant slowing down means that it just takes longer to cover distances.
Choose your Rental Agency Carefully
We booked our car through Hertz at the Bucharest airport without much thought. It was the cheapest option frankly and we made the booking a month or so before we traveled. When we arrived to pick up the car, they asked where we were going to drive. I mentioned that we were going to spend a few days in Bulgaria.
“Do you have a power of attorney for driving into Bulgaria?” Uh, what? I was unaware that the hour drive to Bulgaria would require a formal document.
After charging an additional €75 to our credit card, we were provided with the necessary letter. We were surprised to find out that many rental car companies simply due not allow Romanian registered vehicles to enter Bulgaria, apparently due to the high theft rate. So before booking, make sure to check with the car rental agency if they allow you to cross into Bulgaria. If they do, prepare to pay extra for the official letter.
The Issue with Road Tax and Bridge Construction
We crossed into Bulgaria on the Giurgiu/Rousse Bridge. Unlike other EU countries with barely manned borders, at this particular crossing, there is full border control.
We had to pay a road tax upon leaving Romania (as well as providing the letter from the rental car agency), which was €6. We had researched these border crossing fees in advance, and knew that euros is an accepted currency on both sides. Therefore, we had cautiously brought €20 to cover our various tolls. However, at this particular toll booth, the border patrol officer would only accept the local currency, Lei, for the toll. Fortunately, we had some lei leftover since we would be returning to Romania, but keep this in mind.
After passing out of Romania, we sat in traffic in no man’s land, the stretch of road after being stamped out of Romania but before the Bulgarian border. The back up was due to construction on the bridge, rendering it a one lane road. Rather than allow one side to traverse for a few minutes, then switch, they operated by alternating traffic every 30 minutes.
We apparently just missed our side’s turn, and we didn’t know yet about the bridge construction, so we sat in our car wondering what was happening. You know it’s bad when all of the drivers get out of their vehicles and smoke cigarettes by the side of the road. We experienced the same thing on our return journey, but we were prepared for the backup and wrote our grocery list in the car – bring entertainment if you utilize this crossing.
The Dreaded Bulgarian Vignette
In retrospect, the process is very simple. But due to a lack of information, we made a comedy of errors, creating a situation for ourselves. When we picked up the car at the Bucharest airport, we were told we had to pay Bulgarian road tax at the border crossing. After crossing through the Bulgarian border control (which required us to pull over and park while they took our passports to a different office for about twenty minutes), we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city of Rousse.
“Where do we pay the toll?” we wondered aloud. We passed a handful of places with “Vignettes” signs, but not knowing what that word meant, we carried on driving into Bulgaria. We just figured that you pay the tax on the way out of the country or that we would soon pass a toll booth where we would pay a few euros for the pleasure of driving in Bulgaria.
At breakfast the next morning, I spent some time researching it, and found that we needed to buy a vignette, which is a sticker, placed on the windshield, allowing the car to be driven in Bulgaria. We had driven about 30km illegally into Bulgaria, passing numerous stores at the border with “Vignettes” signs. Whoops.
After determining that post offices also sold vignettes, we found a small village with a post office, ensuring we did not have to back track all the way to the border. After standing in line in a one room post office with about a dozen elderly Bulgarians picking up what I presumed to be their pensions, I was able to show a picture of vignette on my phone to the teller (no one around spoke English) to show her what I needed. It costs 9 Lev (€5) for a week long pass.
Securing the proper vignette from a rural Bulgarian post office was the highlight of my day. It reminded me of our experience maneuvering UK bureaucracy when we moved abroad, but this time there was a different alphabet and I had to rely solely on hand motions. In case you were wondering, you can also buy lottery tickets, tissues, lotion and paper plates from a post office in Bulgaria. At least that was what was on display.
Despite the Difficulty, We Wouldn’t Change a Thing
Both Romania and Bulgaria have fantastic scenery and renting a car is the best way to explore the more rural areas. There are some trains that run between larger towns and cities, but they are slow and not that frequent. For the best vistas, you need to rent a car and lose yourself down a country road.
Renting a car in Romania certainly wasn’t easy and we had a few challenges (I also didn’t mention that I got pulled over. Luckily, no ticket!), but in the end it was totally worth it. From the stellar Transfagarasan Highway, slicing through the mountains of Transylvania to the rolling hills of wine country in northern Bulgaria, the views just got better the further afield we drove. Which reinforces my commitment to, whenever possible, get a car and hit the road.