Driving In Romania: My Experience

Filed Under: Travel, Trip Reports


Planning A Romanian Road Trip
Introduction: Transylvania Unknown
Getting An International Driving Permit
Review: The Club At ATL
Review: Turkish Airlines 787 Business Class
Review: IGA Lounge Istanbul Airport
Review: Turkish Airlines A319 Business Class
Review: DoubleTree By Hilton Cluj, Romania
Romanian Road Trip: Amazing So Far
Review: Art Hotel Sibiu, Romania
Brunch In The Transylvanian Countryside
Review: Copsamare Guesthouses, Romania
Review: Casa Savri Sighișoara, Romania
Romanian Road Trip: Part Two
Review: Vila Economat Sinaia, Romania
Driving In Romania: My Experience
Review: JW Marriott Bucharest, Romania
Review: TAROM Lounge Bucharest Airport
Review: TAROM Business Class A318
Review: Hyatt Place London Heathrow
Virgin Atlantic’s Puzzling New Business Class Seat
Review: Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Heathrow
Review: NEW Virgin Atlantic A350 Upper Class

When Tiffany first recommended a road trip I was open to the idea, but also a bit apprehensive. As it turns out, I think that Romania may have actually been my favorite place ever to drive.

Several people have asked about our experience with the actual driving on the trip (in terms of safety, enjoyment, and more), so in this post I wanted to share my thoughts on that.

I Don’t Like Driving, Especially Internationally

First let me add a disclaimer. Some people like driving and taking road trips… I’m not one of those people. I think cars are dangerous, and I find driving to be kind of stressful.

Then there’s the added element of driving internationally in a rental car, which made me even more skeptical:

  • Rental cars are often poorly maintained and not particularly fun to drive, so in general I do what I can to avoid renting cars
  • Driving in a new place can always be challenging, no matter how much reading you do online; it’s not just about the road rules, but it’s also about the unwritten “rules” of driving in a place, what’s acceptable, what’s expected, etc.

We Rented A Nissan Juke

We rented the Nissan Juke, or as I came to call it, the Nissan Junk. Ultimately the car did the trick, but it wasn’t exactly my favorite driving experience ever in that regard:

  • When driving the speed limit on the highway the car vibrated like crazy; I think driving was actually smoother on a rocky dirt road than on the highway at the speed limit
  • The car doesn’t have armrests in the front, which, like… why?!
  • I wouldn’t have personally chosen those yellow finishes, but…

In all honesty, driving in Romania is otherwise so laid back that the car ended up serving its purpose, and I don’t have any huge complaints.

Road Quality In Transylvania Was Amazing

We rented the car for five days, and drove it around Transylvania. I was amazed by the road infrastructure, which put the US to shame (as does road infrastructure in many parts of the world):

  • The highways felt brand new, the speed limit was 130km per hour, and there was virtually no traffic
  • Most of our driving was just on small roads between towns where the speed limit was 50-80km per hour; in many cases we wouldn’t see any other cars for kilometers at a time
  • Even in the bigger cities (Cluj, Brasov, etc.) driving was reasonably easy

Overall Safety & Other Drivers

Beyond roads being good, I wondered what other drivers would be like, and how closely speed limits would be enforced. Well:

  • I found other drivers to be really good; I don’t think we saw a single accident during our entire trip
  • It felt really safe to just leave our car anywhere locked with luggage, which is kind of important on a road trip
  • Even though there were speed limits, the actual pace of traffic was much higher, and we almost never saw any cops pulling people over for speeding; so unless I have a dozen tickets coming my way in the mail, you can basically drive as fast as you want

I do have one question for you guys. In the towns leading up to Sinaia, the biggest signs in the city by far were for Coke or Pepsi. Like, a restaurant would have a sign with their name, but then the Coke logo would be five times the size of the restaurant’s name.

This was just in a few towns leading up to Sinaia, and was consistent. Can anyone make sense of that?

Driving The Transfagarasan

Driving through Romania in general was awesome, but nothing compared to an activity that we weren’t even planning on doing initially.

Romania has what’s called the Transfagarasan, which is often regarded as one of the world’s craziest and most beautiful roads.

The mountain road was built in the 1970s as a strategic military route. The history is fascinating, like how it was built as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, and how about six million kilograms of dynamite were used to build this road.

Now it’s a road that many people drive just for fun. We were lucky, because we were there the last weekend of October, and the road closes for winter in the first week of November, so we made it just in time.

The road was incredible, by far the coolest road I’ve ever driven on. Here’s a Top Gear clip that gives you a sense of what to expect:

Bottom Line

I was initially apprehensive about doing so much driving, so the experience exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I simply couldn’t imagine a better place to drive than Transylvania — there was little traffic, not many cops, the roads were great, and the scenery was jaw-dropping at every turn.

Driving the Transfagarasan was definitely the highlight of the driving experience, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Having done this trip I’m so into the concept of doing another road trip, though I fear that most places would be a letdown after Romania.

If you’ve driven in Romania, what was your experience like? Any other great countries/regions for road trips that we should consider next?

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  1. “The car doesn’t have armrests in the front, which, like… why?!”

    Armrests are many times an extra in Europe, that only come with in models with higher levels of equipment. Your Juke was probably a base model.

  2. I love driving in Europe. Countries in Europe offer so much to explore and you can only do that if you have a car and explore yourself. However, I have to agree with you that I find most of the renta cars in Europe to be in terrible shape. They are usually beaten up that you have to tale pictures all over ti avoid being charged for damages that were already there. No matter what you have reserved they will just say “this is what we have, take it or leave”. The other problem I find most in Italy is that no matter how careful you are you will get tickets. I have been driving in the US for over 20 years and never had a ticket. One week of driving in Italy awarded me 6 traffic violations that I just have no idea what the mean. Also, car rentals companies make that a profit center for them. Avis charged me 50 euros per ticket to inform the local authorities of my name and address so they could send me the tickets by mail. So, 300 euros for them to inform my name and address. What a scam!!!!!

  3. I’m happy you enjoyed the driving, but boy, I doubt you would find any Romanian or expat living here who would agree!

    Yes, the views are awesome, main roads in a generally good condition, and thefts from cars are extremely rare. But those highways you mention are unfortunately an exception! There are two (older) highway from Bucharest to the coast at Constanta and Bucharest to Pitesti. The latter *should* be extended all the way into Transylvania, with links to Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj. Another planned highway should run north from Bucharest to Sinaia, Brasov, Targu Mures and Cluj (and on to the Hungarian border). Yet this is unfortunately all talk for now… Yes, a few miles here and there (the bits you drove) have been completed. But so many other stretches have been for years stuck in the planning/being built phase due to corruption and sheer incompetence. Heck, even Bulgaria has a better quality road network overall and more miles of highway than Romania in all of the EU.

    As a foreigner living in Romania I have driven a lot around the country, and while I so much agree that it is lots of fun as a visiting tourist and would highly recommend it, it absolutely s**ks if you need to drive regularly on long distances as due to traffic, one-lane roads and the hilly and mountaineous terrain average speeds are extremely low. I love Romania and am really happy to hear you enjoyed it, but the country’s infrastructure (including rail and airports) is generally speaking extremely outdated and not up to modern-day standards. It’s painful to see countries like Azerbaijan (Baku airport) or Poland (nice new high speed trains) continue to improve while Romania is stagnating on the infrastructure front. But perhaps I should look at it from the bright side as it does keep tourist masses and globalised modernity at bay a bit!

  4. “I do have one question for you guys. In the towns leading up to Sinaia, the biggest signs in the city by far were for Coke or Pepsi. Like, a restaurant would have a sign with their name, but then the Coke logo would be five times the size of the restaurant’s name.”

    This used to be common in the US and Canada (many decades ago) – Coke and Pepsi (I’ve seen 7-Up and Canada Dry ones too, and RC in some parts of the US) paid for the signs in exchange for the restaurant putting them up. Restaurant gets a free sign, soda company gets advertising. There are still examples of this in the US, mainly in really rural areas, but they’ve gradually died out. The size discrepancy, that might be unique to Romania?

    “I was amazed by the road infrastructure, which put the US to shame (as does road infrastructure in many parts of the world)”

    Romania has received bountiful road funds from the EU, courtesy of the taxpayers in the “net contributor” countries. Surprised you didn’t see signs extolling this generosity.

  5. This is very cool. I hate driving internationally as well but I will gladly make an exception for this road. Amazing scenery. In the winter I’m sure it’s beautiful as well. Just not passable:)

  6. Coke and Pepsi probably pay for the signs is my guess.
    Iceland is great for driving; l was there in late March and it snowed every day but the roads are well maintained and l chose an SUV for that reason. If you do it, though, be aware there are speed cameras set up and the fines are steep.

  7. The Coke and Pepsi signs are common ways that those companies can get small, privately owned businesses to display an ad for them. They basically offer the proprietor a large display sign with the business’s name on it in exchange for having their logo prominently displayed. It’s a common tactic all over second and third world countries and it used to be a lot more common in the US too, back when “mom and pop” restaurants and grocers were ubiquitous.

  8. Oh the wonderful police photos In Europe that you aren’t aware of for weeks or months. Speed cameras are nice addition to a vacation. 🙂 not to mention the many marriage breakups because spouse opens up mail and “i didn’t know You were there “. And”who is that person next to you in photo? “.

  9. Don’t understand the jab at US road infrastructure. Seems like a case of “the grass is always greener.” The US road infrastructure, in my opinion, is the best I’ve seen anywhere including Germany. Cities in the Northeast have issues from older infrastructure that is hard to replace, true. The vast majority of the country is covered in really well built highways. There are countless miles of perfectly paved, wide open highways with top notch safety standards. Even the hated NJ Turnpike is 3+3 lanes with huge entry/exit ramps, excellent signage, frequent rest stops, great lighting, etc.

  10. A drive through the countryside in excellent weather isn’t too much of a challenge.

    As someone who has lived in Europe off and on over the past 30 years, I would never rate European road infrastructure superior to US, even Germany where I lived for four years in the ‘90’s. I have plenty of European friends and relatives who visit here and are very impressed with the roads.

  11. You asked for good countries for road trips, so I’ll mention one: Driving around Jordan was shockingly really cool. It was easy to get around, roads were well maintained, and it gave a ton of flexibility for getting between all the different sights we wanted to see. Most importantly, I never felt unsafe, and when we got stopped for random police checks, they were so friendly when they found out we were American. Plus, Jordan is a small country, so it’s generally pretty quick to drive between points (as long as you plan them in the right order).

  12. @Endre: it gets worst that that. You drive through little towns in Italy where even Italians get tickets. There was one city that forbids cars in some streets in the city center during very specific hours. Problem is “if” there is a sign it is hidden and in Italian and Waze and GPS do not inform you of those restrictions. Same for parking. They make the rules so difficult to understand that by the time you try to figure out if you can park there you already got a ticket. None of my violations were for speeding. Luckily in my case wife and kids were with me in the car and shared the WTF moment when I got the tickets on the mail.

  13. Seriously? The Romanian road infrastructure “puts the U.S. to shame”? lol. That’s pretty much an admission you didn’t get Romania much. Kind of surprised a seasoned traveler such as yourself would make that kind of blanket judgment based on such a limited experience. Romania is a pretty big country. And you obviously didn’t stray very far off its usual well-trodden, well-developed tourist paths and most busy/popular sections of highway in the country. Please, for your readers thinking of visiting, be prepared to slow down a bit for potholes the likes and numbers of which you’ve never seen if you want to get off the smooth asphalt most casual tourists experience. But it’s well worth the slower pace.

  14. Was the Juke the only car available or did you guys just rent the cheapest car available? If I knew I was going to drive on the Transfagarasan, I would have rented a much nicer car to really enjoy the experience.

  15. Booohooo, maybe your simply shouldn’t drive then? Try driving on the left side of the road, that’s a challenge, or on snaking roads in the West Indies in a 15 year old rental. You got a fairly new car, so I really don’t see what the complaining is about…

  16. Of course Romanian roads are excellent… Romania can thank the European Union for that, which they actually don’t. The EU has been an absolute bonanza for those countries, Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece…, while it has been a total drain on the original founders, Germany, France, Italy and Western Europe in general, where the insfrastructure begins to crumble and is in bad need of overhaul. Look no further to find one reason (among many others) for Brexit: Becoming tired of constantly being the game’s suckers.

    Nations-Building may be an American coined expression but it remains widespread all over the world, not necessarily for its good.

  17. Did you use Waze or Google Maps or what to navigate by?

    I’m like you when it comes to driving internationally. Although I’m not concerned about safety in most cases, it is just the stress of trying to navigate unfamiliar roads, especially if it is at night. Not to mention, I can’t remember the last time I had to parallel park 🙂

    On work trips to the UK I always had someone else to drive since I didn’t trust myself driving on the left side. The only place I’ve been (and I’m sure there are many others) that I would never drive is Naples. A complete mess of traffic and a lot of following any kind of rules of the road.

  18. @Endre. Exactly! That is why in Hungary the police no longer mail you the actual photos. I do remember that story in the Hungarian papers back then.
    I am sure you remember those good ol’ Traffipax-es affixed to the front the of police Zsiguli’s with their trunk opened to hide their nefarious deed :-))), and our way of notifying other motorists by flashing our headlights and drawing an imaginary circle with our index fingers……..

  19. Have you ever driven the Hogsback in Utah? It’s also a gorgeous stretch of road. Hell’s Backbone Grill is a place to visit once in your life at least.

  20. @ Luis — Pretty much the only car available given our constraints (and it definitely wasn’t cheap). We weren’t planning on driving the Transfagarasan when we rented the car, but keep in mind that unless you pay the government to have the road closed for your use, you will still be restricted by everyday people out on the road, and their vehicles.

  21. @ rich — Google Maps, mainly, but I like to navigate and am a strong believer in “curating” GPS instructions. I typically download offline copies of the maps, and often make adjustments to the recommended route, so a current paper map would have probably served the same purpose.

    It definitely helps having one person in charge of driving and another navigating; that made it much less stressful for both of us, I think.

  22. I’m interested in driving the Pamir Highway. Looks like your Romania trip only next level (though probably one or two levels back in terms of comfort and safety, but I don’t know, haven’t done it yet).

  23. I can’t believe that anyone would rent a car in Europe and get an automatic. That’s just sad and defeats the whole purpose of driving on a beautiful and exhilarating road. And yes – this is coming from a millennial who – believe it or not – 1) knows how to drive a manual and 2) has never owned a single car with an automatic transmission.

  24. If Transfagarasan was enjoyable, next up: Road to Hanna?

    But if you like to raise your adrenaline levels (and enjoy the scenery at the same time, if that is possible), try Moraca Gorge in Montenegro (and never, never try to take over, no matter how slow).

  25. “The car doesn’t have armrests in the front, which, like… why?!”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that armrests on the front seat are often the exception rather than the norm.

  26. Tiffany or Ben, Who did you rent the car from, and what was the reason for choosing them? I typically use Avis, not always the cheapest but I’ve never had issues with an Avis car.

  27. The Juke is a cheap car, even if your rental wasn’t, so you can’t expect an Audi A4 driving experience. You are paying to get from point A to point B. I recently rented a Ford Escape and it was awful compared with my Mazda CX-5, but it was a rental…. never as good as the car you buy.

  28. Our Romanian road trip started in Warsaw Poland and went through Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Each country had different roads, taxes and conditions. Because we rented in Poland the cars were probably in much better condition. We were driving through more than one country so our only option was Enterprise (with a tasty multiple country surcharge) but the car was excellent (upsold to a Toyota Camry) in every respect including gas mileage. Most other rental companies will not allow cross border to all the countries we visited.

    Romanian driving conditions were challenging at times because some other drivers were a little over the top (extreme speed, passing on double lines, etc) and one time in the mountains we were passed on a corner by a car that then spun out in front of us as the road surface was very wet and almost icy. We avoided a collision and then proceeded on our way. Average speed in Romania was slow and on average less than 80 km/hr.

    Vibration at speed is either wheel balance or the possibility of a tire cord separation. Very occasionally incorrect tire pressures can also give the same symptom. Glad you survived.

    Romania was a very good holiday and reading your report has rekindled the desire to return.

  29. Can’t you drive a manual car? You do know if you rent an automatic you won’t get a large range of cars to choose from in Europe….

  30. I love a road trip. Being Australian more often than not it means driving on the other side of the road. My favourite trips are:
    1. India – Delho to Manila – to Leh Ladakh via the Rohtang pass. From Leh to Nubra Valley via the worlds highest motor able road Khardung La – well that it what the sign says – 5,359 m (17,582 ft). From Nubira back to Leh then onto Kargil and Srinigar. I did have a driver but he and I shared the driving as long days.
    2. Abu Dhabi to Muscat – as a solo female traveller, the border crossings where entertaining
    3. Road to Hana
    4. Larapinta trail

  31. I love driving in Europe, except Italy, where their B.S. laws get you ticketed without knowing.

    I apparently drove down a street I wasn’t supposed to in Sorrento, and four months later, Avis charged my card, saying I got a ticket I knew nothing about. I’ll admit my hotel in Sorrento warned me this would happen and warned me about pictures being taken by invisible cameras which invariably lead to these random tickets when you get back to the States. But in this instance, Avis never provided me any proof or evidence and thus my card refunded me the fee after I complained.

    Driving through Greece, about two hours from Athens, I learned how their speed trap works. One cop is hiding in the bushes and clocks you. Two miles down, you get stopped. As a former street racer, I have a sixth sense for cops and slowed down by the time I got to the cops waiting for me. My sixth sense, however, had never before encountered cops hiding in bushes to get you in a tag team effort! Even worse, the cops that stopped me were male and female, with the female cop sent to speak to me, defeating any possible effort to show some leg and/or cleavage to get out of the ticket. No, I have no shame. Anything that gets me out of a ticket!

    Everywhere else has been wonderful, my favorite being Portugal where no one uses the highway because locals don’t want to pay the tolls. I rented a car and drove the entire country, stopping in towns in between, while staying in Lisbon, Porto, Evora and Algarve. I was able to do 235 kph almost the entire trip without being stopped, again, because locals don’t use the highway, thus cops are few and far between. Did I mention I have a lead foot?

    But to your point, Lucky, when you’re in Europe, you’re better renting from companies that do business in America, such as Avis, Enterprise, Hertz etc. I’ve had good luck with Sixt Car rentals as well. Coincidently, however, Romania is where their options of cars really sucked. I rented a Mercedes that had absolutely no power whatsoever for a speed demon as myself, and it was the best car in their fleet.

    Romania is a beautiful country and there are parts of it that to this day, memory of driving on some of the roads still makes me smile.

  32. We did a road trip across Romania on our motorbikes in 2016. Tackling the Transfagarasan on our super bikes was fantastic and thrilling. Man did we have a blast setting split times. It was part of our pan-Euopean motorbike trip. Road tripping through Europe is definitely a great way to see the continent.

  33. You could not have picked a more hard riding small SUV than a Juke. Still got your fillings? Kidneys healed?

    The bright colour inside is supposed to resemble the painted tank of a motorcycle, or so Nissan said when this model – now dumped from the US – was launched here in Europe. The thing has now had a complete redesign.

    It’s not that long ago the European car industry was pretending a/c didn’t exist and automatic was impossible to find in small rentals. Centre armrests are reasonably common but you obviously had a garish coloured, stripper spec Juke – the spec they foist on rental companies when they can’t sell it retail.

    As to Romania’s infrastructure, is this the same Romania where a businessman recently built a symbolic metre of freeway to protest the lack of infrastructure? Where the head of the Ford plant in Polesti said infrastructure was a problem? Where a Mercedes plant went to another EU funded former Communist country because infrastructure was not up to scratch?

    Corruption is also endemic.

    You obviously got Lucky with your choice of route.

  34. Wow, Lilian, what a surprise. If you know the law, but break it anyway (drive in a ZTL, speed), you get tickets. Imagine!

  35. Why on earth would you rent a Juke, let alone a Nissan is Europe.

    SUV is an American abomination. Can’t go offroad like a 4×4, can’t handle like a sedan. Cheaper ones tend to be under powered, all have bad mpg. It is good for the American highway system, nice big and comfy ride with mostly straight and very little sharp turns.

    If minivans are for soccer moms, SUVs are for grocery dads. If you ever want to have fun driving outside USA, never rent an SUV if you can. Sadly many family travels make it impossible to fit all those stuff for everyone.

    Now it would be a dream to do it like TopGear. Close Transfagarasan and do a downhill race.
    If you watch the YouTube it says James is the happiest. Yes because, he’s got an mid engine AWD Lamborghini. The best grip and balance you can get for high speed corners.
    Now racers like @Lilian might be able to handle RWD, most amateurs do better with AWD.
    And no, AWD is not for offroad, it’s for paved road handling.

  36. Wow, what an amazing country for driving is Romania, i want to go now and try also the famous Transfagarasan, amazing views and road. It also looks in excellent shape despite the altitude.

  37. I drove on many roads in the world but I agree with Top Gear that none was better than the Transfagarasan, Romania. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

  38. I quite enjoy the intuitive nature of driving in countries like:

    Fun twisty roads in:

    Fast and efficient highways in:

  39. Santastico, I feel your pain. We had the same experience in Italy. Stopped at the hotel to ask where to park legally and were told we were fine where we were. Guess what, two months later a ticket shows up at home. Rental car company (Hertz) was no help. Had no recourse other than to pay the fine. Think the mafia runs the parking scam 🙂 Nice way to fleece the tourists.
    Austria was just as bad. Had my vignette on the dash, basically in front of the steering wheel. And of course, another ticket shows up, because the vignette was not on the left side of the windshield. What a ripoff.

  40. @snic — I’m not complaining about getting a ticket for speeding. I wasn’t speeding in Sorrento. I just went down a street that I apparently wasn’t supposed to because my GPS sent me down it. THAT’S what I was complaining about — getting charged by Avis for a ticket I never physically received because, allegedly, I was caught on camera.

    I generally take great joy in getting out of tickets. Greece just presented a new experience.

  41. Avoiding fines in foreign countries is mostly just common sense – and actually reading. It doesn’t take much foreign language expertise to be able to read parking and road restrictions.

    And as for the Austrian vignette issue – the leaflet that comes with it clearly states in multiple languages that it must be attached to the windscreen (not the tinted section). The reason is very simple – to stop it being transferred and also it has various anti forgery and auto recognition features and that are only obvious when it is attached properly.

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