Bucharest In Your Pocket explains why this sorry state of affairs has come to pass, and also offers a definitive guide to making sure that you get a cheap taxi as quickly and easily as possible.
How did we get here?First off, a little background.
For years Bucharest Otopeni Airport was home to some of the world's most expensive taxis. In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolution the airport was a free-for-all. Anyone and everyone was fair game for tens of drivers (often not even taxi drivers) who would harass and accost arriving passengers offering 'cheap' rides into the city.
By the mid 1990s a Mafia-like arrangement had taken hold. 'Preferred' drivers (almost always charging large amounts and using rigged taximeters) were allowed to park directly outside the arrivals terminal, and by hook or by crook kept cheap, honest taxis away, meaning that unknowing visitors to the Romanian capital could end up paying €50 - or even more - for a ride into the city centre.
In an effort to make arriving at the airport more respectable, in 2004 a company known as Fly Taxi won a tender to provide exclusive taxi services at Otopeni for five years. A fleet of shiny new cars waited for passengers directly outside arrivals; all well and good, except that Fly Taxi charged 3.50 lei per kilometre: almost three times the cost of a standard Bucharest taxi.
Those of us who wanted to pay a fair price had to call one of the Bucharest taxi companies and arrange to meet the taxi in front of a large clock (ceas, in Romanian) which stood at the food of the arrivals ramp. (Taxis other than Fly were not allowed to access the ramp).
Incredibly, in an effort to prevent this practice and force people to use expensive Fly taxis, the airport authorities dismantled the clock. Nevertheless, la ceas (at the clock) had become a point of reference and in-the-know passengers were still able to use the place it once stood as a place to meet taxis.
Those who were less in-the-know, and perhaps visiting Bucharest for the first time had little choice but to take a Fly Taxi. Still, at least there was always a taxi to be had, and while expensive, they were safe, and you did at least know how much a ride into the city would cost.
Once Fly Taxi's monopoly expired, Otopeni once again became bandit country. Only certain taxis (all of whom harassed new arrivals, and charged exorbitant rates) were allowed to access and wait outside the arrivals hall, and the practice of calling taxis and waiting for them la ceas continued. With the opening of the new departures terminal it also became possible to simply walk through to departures and pick up a cheap taxi as it dropped passengers off. Indeed, for most people this became the default method of getting a cheap taxi at Otopeni.
Then, in February 2013, everything changed.
A young Japanese student was raped and murdered by a rogue taxi driver, who had approached her in the arrivals hall. Finally, the airport - under pressure from the government - decided that enough was enough and moved to clear the airport of unsafe and rip-off taxis.
The solution chosen was simple.
For the first time ever, passengers arriving at Otopeni were allowed to call the taxi of their choice and have it collect them directly outside the airport terminal. All you had to do was order a taxi via one six machines stationed within the arrivals hall. These machines dispensed tickets which contained the taxi's details (number plate etc.), and which had to be handed over to the driver of the corresponding taxi. The machines offered taxis from almost all major Bucharest taxi companies, most of which charged the standard Bucharest rate of just 1.39 lei per kilometre. Those wanting a bit more luxury could order a more expensive taxi.
The system worked perfectly, and everyone - from arriving passengers to taxi drivers - was happy. As this is Romania however, and we are not allowed nice, efficient things, the airport's management last year decided to do away with it and reintroduce the taxi Mafia.
In August 2015, the airport announced new regulations regarding which taxis could access the arrivals terminal. In brief, only taxis with boots larger than 500 litres and which have been pre-approved by the airport could access the airport. This at a stroke meant that hundreds of Bucharest's taxis which do not have that kind of boot space (either because of the fact that they have LPG tanks installed or simply because they are small cars) were expelled from the airport.
Bucharest's association of taxi drivers cried foul, and the airport backed down. Unfortunately, this turned out to be only a temporary move: the new regulations (announced last August) came into force on April 1st last year.
The Current SituationSince then, finding a cheap taxi has become a total lottery. While the ticket dispensing machines still theoretically function, the pitifully small number of cheap taxis which have access to the airport means that in practice, most of the time they fail to find an available car. It usually takes at least 20 minutes - often far longer - to find one. Queues at the machines are therefore long, and all told it can take anything up to an hour to find a cheap taxi if you are reliant solely on the machines. (We should add that if you are willing to pay over the odds (3.50 lei per kilometre) you will find a taxi immediately: either at the machines or outside, where for reasons only the airport's management will know, some rip-off taxis - usually from a company called Class Taxi - are allowed to wait.
Our advice when arriving at Otopeni is as follows. Note that it depends on what time of day or night you arrive.
If arriving before 21:00 the easiest (and quickest) way to get a cheap taxi is to walk through to the departures terminal (turn right as you exit baggage claim) and grab a taxi as it drops departing passengers off. A steady stream of reliable, cheap Bucharest taxis can be found throughout the day and early evening: you will never have to wait more than a couple of minutes.
Arriving after 21:00 is more troublesome.
Few flights leave Otopeni late at night, and so taking a taxi as it drops departing passengers off is not really an option. As such, unless you are prepared to wait an hour at the taxi machines, you will need to be a bit more inventive. Here's how.
As was the case several years ago, the best option is to phone a Bucharest taxi company and arrange to meet your driver la ceas (see above). You can also arrange to meet it at departures. Technically, empty taxis are not allowed to enter the departures area, but we have had no reports (so far) of them being stopped. This situation is fluid, however, and we will keep you posted.
Bucharest taxi companies worth trying include Meridian (021 9444), Cristaxi (021 9466), Speed Taxi (021 9744) and Cobalcescu (021 9451). While English may be spoken, do not rely on it. As such, it is worth downloading a taxi app before leaving home. There are two we recommend: Star Taxi and Clever Taxi. Both apps offer cheap and reliable taxis from a wide range of Bucharest taxi companies.
While Uber is now present in Bucharest (and both useful and popular in the city) we have so far found it to be totally useless at Otopeni.
Finally, if you are prepared to pay a bit more, Black Cab is worth the extra, and cuts out plenty of hassle. A ride into the city will cost from 75 lei upwards (it will depend on your final destination), but that's still far cheaper than the rip-off taxis at the airport. You should book your cab in advance; your driver will wait for you in the arrivals hall.
Of course, there is also the option of public transport.
You can get to town by taking bus No. 783, which stops underneath the arrivals hall, in front of internal arrivals and leaves for the city centre (Piata Unirii) every 30 minutes during the day, and then every 40 minutes through the night. Another bus, No. 780, runs to Gara de Nord from 05:30 - 23:05.
The full timetable of the 783 bus from Otopeni is online at ratb.ro. The 780 timetable is here.
Note that the buses - meant to be 'airport expresses' - in fact stop at every halt along their routes. What's more, the buses are standard Bucharest vehicles not adapted for those travelling to and from the airport (there is nowhere to put your luggage, for example). Still, it's cheap.
You need to purchase an Activ card before boarding either bus (get it from the little booth which you’ll find on your right hand side as you exit the arrivals building). A return journey into the city and back costs 7 lei (no singles are available, but there is no time limit on using the return). You also need to pay 3.70 lei for the card, but it can be recharged as often as you like at any ticket kiosk in Bucharest, with as much credit as you like, and used on all Bucharest buses and trams. These cards cannot be bought on board. If you have a Romanian SIM card you can pay for your ticket by SMS: send the message E783 or E780 (depending on the bus you are taking) to 7456.
ConclusionOtopeni - not, in the grand scheme of things, a bad little airport: there are far worse - is currently a public relations disaster for Bucharest and for Romania. Taking a three hour flight from London (or wherever) and then being welcomed with a one hour wait for a taxi on arrival was not (the last time we checked) anywhere to be found in the 'How to make visitors to your city feel welcome' manual.
What's worse is that the current chaos is self-inflicted. There was no logical need to change what was a perfectly functioning system, and to reduce (by over 80 per cent) the number of taxis which can access the airport.
As such, Otopeni is an embarrassment. Its management (or whoever is responsible for the disaster) should hold their head in shame.
Instead, when we asked them why it was impossible to get a taxi they replied with this meaningless statement.