Safety on the Train
I remember reading that you had to watch your things carefully on the train. The implication was that there was a lot of stealing going on etc. I didn't find that to be true at all.
On the international train to Prague (stops in Bratislava and goes on to Berlin) the carriages were nice and spacious. There were lockers located in the car that had room for storing bicycles. We just stuffed our luggage and valuables in the locker (I think it cost like 2 euros) and that was that, no problem.
Some Problems, but Generally Safe
According to the US department of state travel advisory, Budapest is rated as a city with relatively low levels of violent crime, but relatively high levels of petty crime, like pick pocketing.
For me Budapest feels generally safe, but the huge numbers of drunks, drug addicts and homeless people can make people uncomfortable. It's a city with possibly the worst problem like this that I've seen anywhere in Europe. They are never aggressive towards me, and are often either sleeping or stumbling out of my way with an embarrassed look on their face. I've seen them urinating in public and bothering people on the metro begging aggressively for money. Many areas of the city, especially around the main public transport terminals can stink strongly of urine.
In general Buda, especially the Castle District, is very safe, although Moscow Square is a bit of a dive. Pest is also generally safe, but there are rougher parts, and one district with a very bad reputation. Most of the train stations are a bit grotty, and the underground section near Nyugati doesn't feel 100% safe at night. Keleti also gets bad reports. According to the locals, the worst place to be is district VIII, especially around Blaha Lujza Ter and Rakoczi Ter.
Despite that, I often go drinking in these areas and have never experienced any problems, even in the early hours walking about on my own. But I have heard tales of people getting mugged and beaten in the dark side streets when they are drunk, so if you don't know what you are going stick to the well lit areas and get a cab home. But in general, Budapest is one of the safest cities in Europe, so you don't need to take special precautions.
The metro has a bad reputation for pick pocketing, so keep your hands in your pockets when the crowds gather around you. I've never had any problems on the trams or metro, though, and I have never seen anyone acting suspiciously. Taxis also have a bad reputation for ripping off tourists, and I've had experience of this, so stick to reputable taxi companies like City (2111111) and Fo (2222222). These are very cheap, and the call centers generally speak English.
Whatever you do, don't get into an unmarked cab. These mafia cabs hang around, especially at night, and usually have nothing on them except the word "taxi" on the side and lit up on the roof. You'll probably get home alive, but the price you'll pay will be extortionate.
Watch Out! - Pickpockets
In certain areas there are groups of pickpockets working. Such areas are zones with a high pocket density, that is:
- near most tourist attractions, especially Pest downtown and Buda Castle
- as the end-of-year holidays and celebrations come, near shopping centers and Christmas fairs
- all year long at marketplaces, especially Grand Market Hall
- the following public transportation vehicles: metro lines, the 'four-six' (trams #4, 6), the 'sevens' (buses #7,7E,173,173E, also 5,8,112,178,233E), Little Circle tram lines (#47,49).
When traveling on a crowded vehicle or moving in a crowd, hold your valuables close to your body so that you feel when someone tries to take it. If you notice some one wants to steal something, look at the person in question. He/she will know why are you looking - but don't shout (criminals never like people who draw attention on them - for your safety, just forget about the insult or make a report later), unless you see a policeman around (you won't see one anyway, pps are cautious enough about them).
Watch out! - Ticket Controllers
BKV ZRt Budapest Transport Limited's ticket controllers love tourists, because it's quite easy to cheat on them.
The best way to avoid getting cheated by a ticket inspector is to hold and validate a ticket or pass. Don't forget that there are generally no free transfers in Budapest, with the exception of the metro system where your ticket is valid for a given time length, depending on ticket type.
When transfering to a tram, trolley or metro replacement vehicle (denoted by VILLAMOSPOTLO, TROLIPOTLO or METROPOTLO JARAT or letters V, T or M after or before the route number), the other end of the ticket (without numbers) must be validated.
Once in trouble on a bus, trolley or tram, just leave the vehicle and don't begin any negotiation with the controllers - unless if they are working together with city police (Közterület-felügyelet) personnel, to whom you must identify yourself and refusing to do so is a criminal offense. Most of them don't speak or understand English well enough anyway. When you are not willing to pay or show any ID, the controller must make you get off anyway (again, unless accompanied by the city police) - so it's a legal (though immoral) way of escaping from being punished. And please, don't let them catch you in the stop, they are not allowed to. Just walk away confidently.
When you get caught without a valid ticket or pass at a metro, underground, HEV or cogwheel railway station, don't pay, or if you do, don't pay more than 8000 HUF on the spot but show an ID without address. And then, if you are willing to, you can still pay the fine (16000 HUF within 30 days or 23000 if payed beyond 30 days) later at Akacfa utca 15.
If they ask for more than 6000 Fts on the spot, DON'T PAY, even if they warn you like 'Police, Polizei, Telefon Police'. Just make sure you have proper identification with you in case they would really call the police, who would take a look at your passport/ID, write down your name and send your address to BKV at a later time. And then you're okay, BKV is unlikely to mail you abroad...
Ticket controls are common at the entrances and exits of metro stations. In most cases, ticket inspectors don't pay much attention except if they see you're a foreigner. Still, you can try to show eg. a restaurant receipt - some inspectors even say thank you, believing it was some pass issued at a railway station... Also expect controls on night services. Some of the security staff on night services had been reported aggressive, so if you - for example - don't get a ticket in exchange for your money, you may consider NOT demanding one. That amount of money, of course, will land in the personnel's own pocket, not at BKV...
On some outer bus routes you may only enter the vehicle through the first door and you have to show your ticket to the bus driver. In such a case, you can not escape paying for your journey: a ticket bought on board will cost you 400 HUF.
Updated 17 January 2012.
Don't be put off
More than anything else this is a response to the horror stories I've seen posted here. Budapest is a wonderful place to visit, as long as you remain aware/alert as is the norm whenever you travel to a foreign country. The mero system is simple, validating your ticket is a basic requirment for using the metro and other transport, same as certain other countries. Although you don't even have to worry about that if you buy a 3 or 7 day travel card which is what I tend to use.
Let me relate an experience I had while using a taxi. I stayed out in the center of the city one night past the puplic transport closing time which was worrying because the hotel I was staying in was more towards the end of town towards the airport and I didn't know or carry the address of it because I never needed to as I am fine getting around via the metro but now I was stuck.
I reluctantly went to the taxi stand near nyugati station and made sure I got a quote before I entered the cab. The driver spoke English but because my lack of address we ended up going to the wrong hotel. Being a lone female I felt pretty vunerable but the driver took it upon himself to make the phone calls needed to figure out what the address of my hotel actually was and then take me there. By the time we arrive we had gone around in a big circle yet he still kept to his original quoted price.
The bottom line is not all modes of travel end up in disaster due to crooked individuals. As long as you keep to the rules and legit cab cars you will be just fine
- Women's Travel
I just returned form our first and possibly last metro ride in Budapest- we started our horrible adventure in the square in front of Gerbeaud Cafe. We asked the a lady standing in front of the ticket takers for help and she rudely gestured to the ticket computer- we spent literally 10 minutes researching which ticket would be best for our family. We then selected the family ticket for my self , sister , husband, daughter. We printed the ticket and presented it to the same metro attendant -an actual person - to make sure it was correct- to get on the metro. I specifically asked her if we were ok as a "family ticket" she gestured yes and to board the metro. We boarded the metro and a couple of stops later a group of metro "police" boarded the train and b-lined it straight for our family. We were the only people asked for their ticket. We then were informed that my sister was not included in our "family " ticket (you can have up to 7 kids) but no sisters- something to be said for family planning! I explained how we had specifically ASKED a metro ticket taker to make sure we were ok and given the WRONG information. We were fined 6000 huf - after asking for the police to come and being told it will take hours for this to happen. The next metro exp was as horrible and after all of this I will recommend to video EVERYTHING! It is funny how people act when they know they are being taped!
- Family Travel
Babies and Budapest
As a new father I'm learning just how difficult it is to move about Budapest with a baby. It's no surprise that the Budapest Mother's Association was recently out in force campaigning against the awful conditions. It's not as bad as for bicyclists - that's an outright danger to health and safety - but it is a problem.
Pushing a pram can be difficult because of the awful state of many of Budapest's pavements. They are uneven, potholed, camber steeply to one side and have high kerbs. The buses have pram spaces, and the trams too, but many don't have easy access. This means you will often find yourself dropping the pram down large gaps to the floor. Thankfully many Hungarians are polite and help.
I haven't found a single underground station with a lift - so the metro has become a no-go zone for me now. I've seen some parents carrying one child under their arm, while pulling the pram backwards down the steps to the metro. I guess Hungarians just develop skills the rest of us never imagine we would ever need!
To make it worse the new, smooth pavements in the city, which have sprung up in recent years, have been inlaid with what I can only imagine is an anti-cycling device. So at regular intervals, and at pedestrian crossings, you have to navigate across pavement that is worse than a cobblestone street.
There aren't any real dangers in Budapest - it's very safe for a big city. But a few places have a bad reputation, and probably warrant a little concern on that basis.
Although you may hear district 8 (the Nyocker) being called a ghetto, it's only really bad past Joszef Korut, a street most tourists won't visit. Just be aware of where you are going if you find yourself at Keleti Station or Blaha Lujza ter, as both of these are on the edge of the "ghetto". Even these areas aren't so bad, but may feel a bit hairy at night.
Other problem areas, especially for tourists, are Vaci Utca and the pedestrianised streets leading off from Deak Ter. These areas get so crowded with tourists at peak season that it attracts the worst elements, mostly bums, beggars, hustlers and pickpockets. Most of the big transport hubs, especially Nyugati (underground), Moscow Square and Keleti station attract prostitutes, bums, petty thieves and drug addicts, and are probably best avoided late at night if you are alone.
I've heard reports from the embassy that the 49/47 trams are prone to pickpockets, but I travel on this route every day to and from work and have never seen any problems. The 4/6 tram line had a spate of late night robberies, but this was a gang who picked on drunks who had fallen asleep on the last tram. This is typical of most Hungarian crime: opportunistic and non-confrontational. Violent crime is rare.
You might hear dire warnings of the dreaded Kontroll on Budapest's public transport. They are generally not well regarded, and are believed by some to prey on tourists unaware of the rules of travel. But from my experience that is not the case. I've been caught several times making stupid mistakes, like forgetting to stamp my ticket, and have always been treated politely and never fined when it was obvious I was making an effort.
There are some genuine stories of bad treatment, but it's quite likely that these were at the hands of scam artists. There are rare occasions that criminals will pretend to be Kontroll and demand to see tickets, and if they think you are a good target, say you are a tourist, they will find something wrong with your ticket and "fine" you. But this is rare. So rare that I've never experienced it in over a thousand journeys. But I have read about it, so it must happen. Just be aware.
It's hard to be sure. Kontroll dress as other passengers - they have no uniform when they perform their surprise checks on buses and trams. They wait until the tram is moving and then place the Kontroll armband on. They also have identification proving who they are, which you may ask for, but it will be hard for you to be sure its genuine.
So this is what I recommend: If you are in doubt, don't pay. The fine is 6,000 forints on the spot, but 12,000 if you pay later. Refuse to pay, and insist you will pay later. Just get off at the next stop. They can't arrest you, and if they threaten you then you can be sure they are not real Kontroll officers.
One last tip: One of the best Hungarian movies is called Kontroll, and is set in the Budapest underground. It follows a group of ticket officers on their crazy adventures. It's a ton of fun and should be required viewing before a visit to the Hungarian capital.
Nothing has improved since 2006!
In 2006 I wrote here:
"After all the warnings I read about Budapest, much more than I read for any other EU town, I felt somewhat worried about dangers when I arrived at Budapest airport.
I staid 5 days and had no bad experience of any kind.
I suppose I was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nobody tried to steal, aggress, cheat or rip me. I had only one, quite normal, control on the metro.
Of course I was watchful, like always in towns, did only visit museums, castles, monuments and did stay out of Vaci utca and limited my nightlife to a walk on the Chain Bridge after sunset."
When I see now that there are 238 tips about warnings and dangers of which many are from recent years I can not avoid thinking that Budapest has a serious problem especially when I see the many complaints about the BKV controllers.
Nothing has improved over the years it seems and maybe I was just lucky on my trip in 2006 and might become a victim on a new trip.
Maybe you wondering why there is a McD*nald's restaurant in the Warning AND danger tips? Well, you're visiting a East European country, and you shouldn't visit a restaurant like that! I know that Budapest is becoming more and more a modern western city, however, this is too much. Practically in every street you can find a McD. So, me advice would be to be careful, don't fall in the McD trap by going there every day cause of you're addiction to at and then missing all the other delicious dinners Budapest had to offer. (Okay, that was a long sentence. I'm not going to check whether the grammer is correct, sorry.)
PS. This warning also holds for Burger King and others!
Don't be fooled then exchanging money
Currency of Hungary (at the moment) is very small. You have to pay big sums for things that cost not much in euro, dollars or other stronger currency. For example, postcard can cost 70 forints, it is about 0,3 euro.
The one problem appears about that - some people can fool tourists in exchanging money or giving odd money. For example, they can give 70 forints instead of 700 forints.
Lot of cars in the morning
Budapest is a big city (as for me). Traffic can be found terrible, especially in morning time and evenings, when most people return home from jobs.
We wasted a few hours in traffic jams, mainly on roads coming from the newer districts to the center (Buda, Pest).
Don't put Budapest on your travel itinerary !
I have visited Paris, London, Boston, Amsterdam, New York, Miami, San Francisco (I wish the list were longer...) and then I visited Budapest.
I have taken some fantastic memories from each city with the exception of Budapest. I have to say Budapest is the worst, most unfriendly, cold city I have ever visited. All the other cities are unique in their own way and I have many of them on my re-visit list.
I just don't know how Budapest can be advertised as a city to visit. Tourist beware - they are just waiting for you to arrive so they can screw you. As a tourist to Budapest, so it appears, you are viewed as an ATM machine which can be robbed. They just love to cheat you of your money, in the most conniving, cunning way possible.
We had the unfortunate experience of not validating our Metro tickets - on Christmas day no less. It makes me very sad that so many people say - 'so what if it was Christmas day' - and - 'we should have known better', etc. This does not seem to be a very caring world we live in.... or is it just Budapest?
- Family Travel
Driving in Hungary and Budapest
I thought about driving in Hungary on my last visit, in order to visit some outlying towns. In the end we stayed in the city. The following information may however be useful to potential drivers :
Motorways are toll pay motorways and can be used with prepayed vignettes. Vignettes can be purchased at bigger filling stations and at bigger post offices.
Typical 1 week vignette for a car : 2750 HUF
If you forget and the auto cameras pick you up then add on another 11,000 HUF !
With major offences, police may revoke driving licences on the spot.
Most important of all : The blood-alcohol level permitted in Hungary is 0%.
Some areas in Budapest are closed to Public Traffic :
The Castle District in Buda is a separate, restricted area (closed using barriers); drivers must pay a special fee to enter.
Passenger cars are not allowed to drive from Margaret Bridge onto Margaret Island. Passenger cars may enter from Árpád Bridge, but only to the car park at the hotels.
Driving is restricted in the following areas: Óbudai Island, Római part, Népliget and Városliget.
Driving is prohibited in the downtown shopping precincts.
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