Ister Train (EN 473) Sleeper Train Budapest - Bucharest Review
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
I’m not exactly sure why we decided to take a 17 hour train to Bucharest. We had been in Croatia for about a month and we knew it was time to move. When looking at the map, it didn’t appear to be too great a distance and we were moving between two capitals, both part of the EU. But Zagreb turned out to be woefully disconnected. We tried to book a train to Budapest, the nearest and most accessible major transportation hub, but the track was being worked on. When I asked the woman sitting behind the ticket counter if it would involve an extra transfer, she sighed and said “several”.
Step 1: Getting from Zagreb to Budapest
So instead we decided to take the bus. We had already taken Flixbus from Split to Zagreb and had a mostly unremarkable journey. Sure we should have gotten there earlier so we could sit together. And we wished the AC was in better working condition. But ultimately it was fine.
So we booked a 5 hour bus ride from Zagreb to Budapest and headed on our way. We had learned our lesson and arrived early enough to sit together and enjoyed an uneventful drive to the Croatia/Hungary border. This was our first time crossing an international border on a bus so we were a little excited to see how this part went. The bus rolled up and a border official came through and collected everyone’s passport and walked off with them. I can’t imagine what having 50 passports in your hand must feel like. What if you slipped and dropped them in a puddle?
We waited about 20 minutes before they asked everyone to get off the bus. They called our names and countries one by one. “John - Australia, Emma - US....” and as our name was called we could collect our passport like we were receiving our high school diploma and get back on the bus.
We drove for a few more hours before we took a rest stop. This time we were somewhere in Hungary at one of the prettiest rest stops I think I’ve ever seen. There were some nice picnic benches outside, a buffet restaurant with very fresh looking offerings, a well maintained play park, a small convenience store, and even a small herb garden in the front.
After 20 minutes we were back on the road and fast approaching Budapest.
Budapest: Getting from the Bus Station to the Train Station
When you book bus tickets, you have a few arrival options: Kelenfold or Népliget. Kelenfold is part of a major train station. Unfortunately it’s not the train station we needed to board our sleeper train to Bucharest. We had a choice - find a reasonably priced taxi to Keleti Or take our chances on the metro.
We’d been to Budapest a few years ago and remembered it to be affordable and easy to navigate. We had all of our luggage with us but we’ve been successful in paring it down to a very manageable carry-on roller bag and medium sized backpack. The metro station was right outside the bus station, we headed down on the escalator, waited on a short line to buy our (very affordable) tickets, and were on the metro within minutes. Since this is one of the terminating stations, it was easy to find a seat and we rode the 15 minute subway ride very comfortably. It saved us a lot of money and, given the rush hour traffic, probably also saved us a lot of time. If you’re in the same situation, I highly recommend taking the subway.
Budapest Train Station: The Journey Begins
Budapest train station. It reminds me of more romantic train travel of days gone by. The days of the orient express and the grandeur of travel. It may be a little rough around the edges, but there are still pockets that remind you that this was once the center of the world. We had been to Budapest on a previous trip, and we were happy to be back even if only for a few hours.
We had reserved and purchased our tickets online but we had to pick up the physical tickets at the train station. We found the map soon after walking in and it directed us to the international ticket booth. Initially I took a ticket to speak with a representative in the kiosk. Luckily it was a very short wait because it turned out waiting in line was not necessary, I just had to go next door, punch our reservation number into the ticket machine, and it would spit out our tickets. It was easy and painless and left us plenty of time for a meal before our train departed.
There is a restaurant called Baross Étterem in the Keleti train station and, as the plaque states, it’s one of the original restaurants and has quite a bit of history behind it. It had seen better days, but it was still a comfortable place to sit down with a beer and a plate of goulash. If you’re tight on money and/or time, there are also a few convenience stores. These will only have the most basic offerings though. You’ll be able to grab a few beers, a bottle of water, a bag of potato chips and a candy bar but not much else. There were also a few bakery window fronts with the standard offerings. If you’re paticular about the snacks you’d like on this journey, I’d recommend shopping prior to arriving at the station.
The Ister Train
We approached the train as soon as the track number was announced on the departures board. We couldn’t find much information about this train online but we had our expectations set pretty low. As soon as we saw the train we knew we were right not to expect very much.
The train looked old, much older than many of the other trains. We boarded and I asked about a dining car. The attendant said there wasn’t one, but they might attach one later on and I could try at 6am. We were very full from our goulash and had enough snacks to munch on in the morning, but if you’re considering this train, I would recommend eating beforehand, bringing your own snacks and beverages, and having something to munch on for breakfast.
We had reserved a private 2 person sleeper cabin but I had still been worried that I had reserved the wrong cabin. The website was a little strange to navigate, the seat numbers were not consecutive, and overall I just couldn’t 100% confirm that that was what we would end up with. Turns out I was overthinking it, as usual, and we were indeed in a 2 person private sleeper. We were also directly next to the bathrooms. More on that later.
The room needed a good clean and an update. It was also very narrow with a washbasin in the corner. There were pillows and sheets already laid out on the bunk beds and a ladder that could be attached. Ofer’s back was still hurting so we decided he should have the lower bunk.
We had expected there to be an outlet in the room (there was a symbol on the online booking that appeared to indicate an outlet) but apparently I was mistaken. The only outlet we could find was for a shaver in the small vanity cabinet. It was also pretty hot in the room despite the temperature being quite cool outside.
I’ve been on a few trains in my life and I had forgot to pack an important tool: toilet paper. I went to directly to the toilets (right next to our cabin) and scanned it for supplies. There was a small, single roll of toilet paper in each of the two bathrooms. I considered myself lucky but considering the length of the journey and how many people would need the toilet in that timeframe, I knew it was a dwindling resource.
The bathroom itself was, unsurprisingly, very dirty. It looked like it hadn’t even been wiped down in weeks and everything was in disrepair. I went to wash my hands and to my dismay - no soap in the dispenser. I went to the bathroom next door and found that it had some soap left and washed my hands. No towels of course. I took a small rationing of toilet paper and stuffed it in my pocket.
We started putting away our bags and making as much room as possible. The sounds of flushing toilets were quite loud in our room, as was the slamming door. Given the choice, I wouldn’t recommend seats 15 & 11 (car 422) if the sounds will bother you. Of course there was the normal sounds from the neighboring cabin and the moving train that are to be expected. You can hear coughing, talking, rattling of the train, etc.
All this being said, I think it’s time to point out that this is NOT a luxury train ride. Many Europeans reading this are probably well aware of that fact, but I think some Americans watch movies like the Orient Express and perhaps think of it as something much more magical. Luxury train travel is expensive and it is marketed as such. These are trains that will get you places. If you are expecting to leave Budapest and arrive in Bucharest - it will suffice.
The fact that the train was old was fine, but I do wish they would have put some more resources into cleaning and maintaining the train. Simply wiping down a surface with a wet napkin revealed a lot of grime. The linens were mostly ok. A few spots here and there but they smelled mostly fresh. I did, however, put a large T-Shirt over my pillow as an extra precaution.
The bed itself was firm but pretty comfortable. We’re always happy to stretch out with our laptops for hours on end so we were pretty happy in that regard. The joy of not going through airport security and being crammed into a seat was also a comfort.
We knew that the border crossing would happen some time around midnight so we decided to stay up until then, get everything sorted, and then turn in for the night.
As scheduled, the train came to halt around midnight and there was banging on the doors telling us to prepare passports. We were towards the beginning of the car so they started with us. It’s an odd feeling being in bed but doing something so official as getting our passports stamped.
Our Full Train Experience:
Ofer’s passport was just about full and we had resorted to politely asking officials not to stamp in his last blank page. Not only that, but he has recently embraced a new haircut (bald) and looked very different from the picture in his passport. Luckily, it made the three officials laugh. They passed his passport around, each having a chuckle. One of them even took off his hat to reveal his own bald head. Overall it was smooth and actually a little fun. It definitely beats waiting in line at the airport. I was able to drink a beer and eat some chips, in my pajamas, in bed, while getting stamped. We waiting another 30 minutes or so before the train rolled away.
It wasn’t long before the train stopped again, this time at the border control for Romania. The procedure was much the same. Another stamp, a few more chuckles, a little more waiting.
When we rolled away we tucked into our (somewhat clean) beds and got some sleep. Our train wouldn’t be arriving until 12:30pm the next day so we set our alarms for 8 hours of sleep. We woke up the next morning feeling somewhat refreshed. We definitely got sleep but there was always the occasional waking up when the train stopped.
We also ALWAYS have ear plugs on us and we used them on the train. I think we can attribute much of our sleep to them because without them there are a lot of noises. As can be expected.
We had plenty of time to splash some water on our faces, brush our teeth, and get dressed. I have no idea if the water coming from the washbasin was potable but we chose to brush our teeth with the bottle of water we brought with us. The basin did not look clean and it didn’t instill much hope regarding the quality of water. The vanity with the mirror was helpful for putting on a little makeup but the latch the keeps it open was broken so I had to hold it open with one hand to keep it from swinging shut in my face when the train rounded corners.
Conclusion: Should You Book this Train?
When all said and done, we arrived on time and stepped off the train feeling relatively refreshed.
Ultimately, if you’re trying to decide whether you want to take this train you have a few things to consider
-Price vs flying
-Baggage - costs and convenience
-If you’re already in Budapest its nice and convenient
-You save a little bit of money on a hotel room
It still wasn’t the cheapest of train journeys. Each ticket cost about $100 USD (per person) for the private 2 person sleeper.
The biggest deterrent was the cleanliness. Everything else we found to be quite enjoyable. If you’re used to traveling long distances, you probably have a few things in your tool kit that help you navigate these type of situations. For us we have
Big shirt that doubles as a pillow cover
Light sarong to add an additional layer between you and the sheets
A lot of backpackers also travel with a little bivvy that you can slide into like a sleeping bag.
If you’re a clean freak, you will not enjoy this journey. If you’re expecting the Orient Express, you will not enjoy this journey.
If you’d like an alternative to flying and enjoy long train rides. It’s perfectly fine.