For most people, getting to Bucharest, Romania for a Danube river cruise is easy. Fly to Bucharest, collect your luggage and you’re there. Done. But because I don’t fly, the Dacia Express overnight train to Bucharest from Vienna was my only option.
Across Europe by Train to Bucharest for a Danube River cruise.
My 24-day Danube cruise aboard Uniworld’s River Duchess began in Rousse, Romania, but Bucharest was our meeting point. I just completed an MSC Splendida Mediterranean cruise but needed to leave the ship one day early in Marseille.
With my hectic and over-stuffed itinerary, I had only two nights to reach Bucharest. There was no time to spare and no margin for error.
Reality Check Had Too Many Trains to Reach Bucharest!
Here’s my schedule from the moment I left the ship in Marseille.
1. Three-hour train from Marseille to Paris.
2. Taxi from Paris Gare de Lyon to Paris Est.
3. Overnight train from Paris Est to Munich. 11 hours.
4. Four-hour train from Munich to Vienna. Wait five hours.
5. Board the Dacia Express overnight from Vienna to Bucharest. 25 hours.
Time to Board the Last Train to Bucharest
When the glaring headlight signaled the approach of the Dacia Express, my excitement grew at the thought of yet another train adventure.
A small electric cart driven by an even smaller woman clothed in a drab blue uniform, parked in front of my coach car. Here were our clean linens, neatly folded. She quickly unloaded the cart and carried the wrapped bundles onto the train.
Once underway, the same woman who loaded the linens introduced herself as the conductor. She very sternly advised me to stay in my room, use all three door locks and never open the door without first using the peep-hole.
Without a dining car or even a club car, I wasn’t planning to go anywhere. Except for the one bathroom.
Here is my quick video tour of the sleeping car aboard the Dacia Express:
It Was Going to be a Long Night Aboard the Dacia
With the exception of a few quick visits to the bathroom at the other end of the car, I didn’t leave my room for the next 25 hours. There was no dining car, despite the online photo of happy people having a delicious meal on the train.
Luckily, I brought a couple liters of water, a package of cheese, some fresh bread and a chocolate bar. I learned my lesson after the previous overnight’s 11-hour train trip from Paris to Munich.
Despite enticing photos of bountiful meals in a beautiful dining car, don’t expect every European overnight train to be so well-equipped.
Door bolted, I snuggled under my duvet and started to watch a movie on my iPhone. Sometime around 1am I fell asleep.
The Train to Bucharest Just Got a Whole Lot Creepier
In the middle of the night, without warning, the train came to a jarring halt. Men were heard pounding on doors, yelling, “Passport photos, show passport photos. Open doors now!”
Startled but not totally panicked, I remembered rumors about unexpected passport checks at the border into Romania and Hungary.
Cautiously I opened my door and saw a pistol-packing, quasi-uniformed guard. “Passport photo, you have passport photo?” I immediately handed over my passport.
Then he requested my train ticket, which I surrendered. Several minutes passed, and as he handed back my documents, he added, “Have a nice trip.”
Here We Go Again
Once more under the thin duvet, I fell back to sleep only to be awakened minutes later when the train again abruptly stopped.
And once again men were angrily shouting in the corridor and pounding even louder on the doors. Since I thought we had already met the Romanian police, who were these men?
With marked hesitation and pepper spray held behind my back, I looked through the peephole as advised. I had no choice but to open the door.
“Show passport!” the angry uniformed man demanded. I handed him my documents. This man was dressed similarly to the last inspector; dark clothes, pistol in its holster, scowl on his face.
Laboring over every page of my passport, he asked, “Where are you going?” I replied, “to Bucharest.” He wanted to know why I was going there, for how long, where I’d stay, where I was from and my occupation. I complied with his questioning and hoped he’d pivot and leave.
Note to self: next time, don’t say “journalist” for occupation.
Still shaking from this second intrusion, I extended my free hand and accepted my newly stamped passport. But he didn’t leave my compartment.
Instead, I was pushed aside and he stepped inside. The “whatever-he-was” looked underneath the small wooden platform bed. Standing on tiptoe, he peered into the overhead storage area. Finding no one and nothing of interest, he pivoted and muttered, “Have a nice trip.” Yeah, right.
If our conductor had told me that both the Hungarian and Romanian police would board the train in the middle of the night, this incredibly frightening experience could have been avoided. To her, it probably was an everyday event. Chalk it up to experience.
Where Did Everyone Go?
On my early morning jaunt to the bathroom, almost every compartment door was open with no one inside. Quite a contrast from the previous night when there wasn’t a single door open, with voices heard from within. Now the coach was eerily empty, despite so few stops during the night.
There was no morning coffee or croissant so I grabbed another of my water bottles and enjoyed a piece of bread that I saved from dinner.
The bright spring sunlight reflected off the remaining snow on the mountains and cast long early morning shadows of our train alongside the tracks.
Our train rumbled past the distant snowcapped Carpathian mountains, springtime’s newly plowed fields, and small-town station masters who held simple red or green signal signs. These were the highlights of my trip.
Finally, the Dacia Express Arrives in Bucharest
At 10:30am, about an hour late, we pulled into Bucharest Gara de Nord station.
I had arranged for a driver to meet me on the platform and luckily he was there with a sign bearing my name. Within minutes I was in his car headed to the Radisson Blu Hotel for my two-night stay before the river cruise.
Reflections on a Very Scary Solo Train Ride
It’s an incredible train ride and I’m amazed I did it. While terrifying and unnerving, the romance of following the path of the historic Orient Express was just too alluring and mysterious to resist. And my only way to get to Bucharest.
If I ever return to Bucharest, it won’t be on the Dacia Express.
I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels, collecting recipes along the way. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath…stop for a local meal and a glass of wine along the way.
Sherry Laskin says
Thank you for reading my Dacia article and for your question. I did not walk through the train as was advised by the conductor when I boarded. In fact, she explicitly told me not to leave my compartment except to use the restroom.
When I booked my trip, I was told that there was a dining car, as I mentioned in my post. When I boarded, I was then told no dining car and no snack car. So please do bring food and water with you, just in case. The Dacia is not a luxury train. I was spoiled with my Munich Wagonlit overnight and a Paris overnight train among others.
But have a wonderful time with your friend! Budapest is extremely fascinating. Bucharest as well. And plenty of fabulous food! Thanks again for writing and Greetings back to you from the U.S.!
Hi Sherry, your article is great and I’m looking forward to take the Dacia this summer to spend some time at the black sea with my girlfriend as well as exploring Budapest und Bucharest!
As I read in other articles and saw on YouTube, there is a dining car attached to the train in Cluj-Napoca, where the train stops in the morning. Did you went through the train in the morning or just when you boarded? As I hope to get some breakfast in this dining car. But I will take your advice and bring enough food for the trip!
Greetings from Germany!
Sherry Laskin says
Good to know things have changed. There were three sliding locks on my plywood door. Thank you for reading my article.
Matt w says
Well perhaps they have had some feedback because the border guards for both Romania and Hungary were very polite and respectful. Certainly no door pounding.
I’m not sure about the lock your door advice, it all feels very safe to me (apart from a drunk woman who tried to smoke and was promptly taken away by the guards, but that kind of thing happens in the UK where I’m from too). There is a bistro car on the Bucharest to Vienna direction, up to the border with Hungary.
Sherry Laskin says
Thank you for sharing so much information! Good thing you thought to buy food in Vienna – it’s a long train ride on the Dacia without food or water, for sure! So there’s still that middle of the night knock on your door…interesting. My ride, as you know, had two door-poundings (definitely not “knocks”) and I was totally shaken up by it. When the conductor told me to secure all three locks and not open the door for anyone, I took her advice very seriously.
Romania’s mountain scenery is beautiful and I’m glad you were able to get around the country and safely explore. Except for the Dacia and maybe one or two other trains in Europe (another creepy experience I had was on an “old-time” daylight train from Verona to Basel shortly after the Bataclan attack.)
Thank you very much for reading my Dacia experience and taking the time to relate your experience in detail. Your trip report was very interesting to me. Much appreciated.
Werner Schrooyen says
Good article. Wish I read it before getting on the Dacia (we had a reservation for a six berth coach…) in Vienna last July. Indeed, once be boarded the train, we soon realised that there was no restaurant-car or any other possibility to buy something on the train. At least in the former Soviet Union there was a babushka tending a samovar with hot water in each wagon. We did buy sandwiches for dinner in Vienna and stocked up a little water. But with the high temperatures this summer, it sure wouldn’t last for the whole journey. So when we stopped in Budapest Keleti, I quickly hopped of the train and bought all the water I could from a vending machine. And yes, once you finally get to sleep, there ‘s the police knocking at the door. Being Belgian and traveling in Europe, that came as a big surprise. But Hungary is the final frontier of the Schengen zone and Romania is awaiting its Schengen status. Once in Romania, the train started driving very slow and it made a lot of stops. Think we finally got to Bucharest with a 3 to 4 hour delay. But our B&B was at walking distance from the station. The rest of our stay, we traveled during the day using trains and busses to go to Brasov, Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca. Cheap and different levels of comfort… Luckely, we could travel back by train from Cluj to Vienna and head back to Brussels (by night train) from there. All in all our holidays was a fine experience. Romania is definitly worth the visit. If you have the time and your destinations are not to amitious, there is no reason to go on holiday by plane or by car.
Sherry Laskin says
Thank you for reading the article, much appreciated. Because I don’t know what train you will take (doesn’t sound like the Dacia!) I don’t know if it will accommodate three people. I’ve had a Deluxe Sleeper on a Europe train and there were three bunks stacked over each other (head space was very limited!) but of course I only needed the bottom bunk. You could probably find a diagram of your train car somewhere online or ask the reservation person at your booking source. I booked my Vienna to Bucharest train with Rail Europe and the guy assured me it was a “deluxe” train with a dining car. Far from it, for sure.
I’m sure you’ll have a great experience…the Romanian countryside is very pretty and in December I’ll bet the mountains have snow. Sounds like you might be going on a Christmas Markets river cruise. And your description of the border patrol was hilarious.
Have a wonderful European vacation and thank you again for reading the article and taking the time to write your comment.
Dr Douglas B Willingham says
Wow! That was an eye-opener. We stand warned! We are going from Bucharest to Budapest this December. There are three of us. Somewhere I saw reference to a “Deluxe Suite” with en suite toilet and shower on the sleeper. If this is true, do you have any idea if it would accommodate three?
By the way, in 1975 while in college I went from Frankfurt to Prague by rail and remember an aggressive passport check. It’s like a lot of state troupers–they love to intimidate! LOL.
Thanks for your reports,
Sherry Laskin says
Thank you very much for reading my article and taking the time to comment. I didn’t know if that train was still running…it really was an experience. And it’s interesting to know that even airport passport checks can be rough. It was not knowing there wasn’t any food or water to purchase and then the unsuspecting middle of the night passport checks that put me over the top.
Good for you for heading back to Europe in the tourist off-season. I’ve spent November and December on the Rhine route between Basel and Amsterdam and totally loved it. Unfortunately, I’m at the mercy of cruise ships to get over there so I’m hoping for fall 2022 but who knows.
Happy travels and I hope you get to Europe this year!
We took this train in 2019. We loved it. But, we love trains. We having nothing against flying and in a pinch will hop on Easy Jet or Ryan Air – but the trains give us a chance to breathe between adventures. Although, I will admit, that passing between Hungary (Budapest) and Romania (on our way to Cluj) we were also very surprised that there were two aggressive passport checks as we crossed the border. But – having flown in and out of many airports, I can honestly say some of them are pretty aggressive also. I’m glad you ended your journey on a positive note! We are looking forward to 2 months in Europe (Dec 2021 and Jan 2022) if this virus is gone! I hope you enjoyed your river cruise! Bon Voyage, Gute Reise, Buon Viaggio, Viajes Felices!
Sherry Laskin says
Thanks very much. I hope you get to visit there someday. It’s a fabulous city.