Hungary’s mafia economy and Budapest Airport transportation

I just returned from an enjoyable visit to my birth country. Winter travel has its challenges and living in California made me forget Hungary’s often freezing winter weather. I was also annoyed with Budapest airport transportation, specifically the lack of comfortable and reasonably priced transportation between Budapest Airport and downtown. The airport recently reported that passenger numbers exceeded 12 million by November for the year 2017 with more than one million passengers in November for the first time. (Read airport report here.)

Budapest is a popular tourist destination and visitors get a taste of the country’s “anything goes” economy minutes after arriving to Budapest Airport. Unwanted drivers offer rip-off cab rides to foreigners, one “entrepreneur” followed my wife offering his services in broken English and left her alone only after I yelled at him in Hungarian.

Budapest Airport is only 12 miles from downtown, yet it has no metro or train connection. A high traffic train line is less than a mile away from the airport and it seems that it would be easy to build a connector. Actually, Ferihegy has a train stop but I would only recommend this approach for young travelers with muscle power to carry luggage up and down endless steps and time to figure out the complex transfer to the 200E public bus line.

Public bus transfer from Budapest’s city centre to Ferihegy (Liszt Ferenc) Airport.

Until recently Budapest Airport had no direct bus service to downtown and to top the transportation misery, the Orbán government banned low cost provider Uber. (Read about Uber’s exit from Hungary.)

Budapest Airport promotes an expensive taxi service; it costs 8,000 Ft (about 30 dollars) to take the 12 mile cab ride which can be more expensive than a cheaper plane ticket on WizzAir. To be fair, there is also a shuttle service at the airport. It would have cost 6,000 Ft for us (my wife and I with our luggage) to use it. The shuttle is still expensive and inconvenient when you are the last one to be dropped off after a transcontinental flight. There is also a public bus line, the crowded 200E that has dozens of stops and takes forever to get to the Kőbánya Metro station.

Why is Budapest Airport transportation so expensive and cumbersome? I suspect a cozy relationship between government and city officials and the Hungarian taxi mafia. Their mutual interest is to keep fares high and officials are willing to support this effort.

The government has already helped to eliminate competition with regulations to make it impossible for Uber to operate and only one favored cab company, Főtaxi, can provide airport taxi services. According to the official story Főtaxi was picked “because the company promises reliable, cheap and quality service.” (Read about Főtaxi’s airport monopoly.)

Cheap? The government had created a monopoly. Főtaxi is basically a dispatcher service owned by well-connected billionaires cleverly exploiting drivers who own their cars and act as subcontractors. Not much different than the banned Uber.

Stepping out from the terminal we bump into the Főtaxi booth. We give our address and an attendant gives us a ticket with the cab number and two Hungarian Christmas candies (szalon cukor). The service is efficient but expensive for the low budget traveler. Last year, I wrote about the lack of direct airport bus service. (Read here.) Must be a coincidence, but soon after my article officials announced that government owned BKK would launch a direct bus service, the 100E line as a relatively low cost (900 Ft – less than 4 dollars) transportation.

On the morning of December 31 we flew back to Budapest from a European trip and not having much luggage decided to try the service. In freezing weather we lined up at the 100E stop where the bus parked with closed doors. Using my Hungarian I asked the attendant: Why do we have to stand in the cold? Why can’t we board the bus? She discussed it with the driver and the doors opened. We piled in (no luggage racks) and within minutes the bus was jam packed. More people arrived and the attendant tried to squeeze them in when we were already smashed like sardines. Then we learned that we have to wait another 22 minutes because the bus leaves every half hour.

The ride was horrible, the bus was hot with no fresh air. An older Italian couple was visibly alarmed and I rarely feel claustrophobic but my wife and I decided to get off as soon as we could. When the bus stopped at Kálvin tér, we got out. I’m not the only one who has problems with this service, here is a Hungarian video report about the summer horrors of line 100E. (Watch video here.)

If you tried the 100E service once you will probably gladly pay the 8,000 Ft to the Hungarian taxi establishment; maybe this was a hidden agenda with the introduction of the 100E “torture” line. Politicians or EU officials probably never take public transportation. They should try the 100E and 200E lines for a first-hand experience of a failed policy which stifles competition, punishes low cost travelers and generates millions for connected cronies.

  • Although I have some reservations about Uber’s practices, Hungarian customers would benefit from this service and Uber would vastly improve competition.
  • Budapest Airport should cancel Főtaxi’s overpriced taxi monopoly.
  • Private, independent companies should be allowed to establish frequent dedicated bus services, just like they do in many European capitals with specialized buses, luggage racks etc.

With open competition, fares would drop and traffic congestion, pollution around the airport would be reduced. Another side-effect: funds for fueling the ongoing taxi corruption might dry out and competition among cab companies would be more honest and transparent. OK, I shall stop dreaming…

György Lázár


  1. Mr.Lazar;
    I have to respond to all your complaints with one simple remark: you are too cheap ! 8,000 Forint and even 6,000 Forint is too much for you and wife, plus all your luggage for a 12 mile trip? What do you pay for the same distance in California ? There is bus service, but that gives no convenience as a taxi or a private driver with his car, who hope to make a living. But what’s wrong with that?

    How much did your trip cost? How much did you spend and never complained about it ?

    When I traveled to Moscow, there they had absolutely NO transportation to the city from Sheremetthevo, other than some guy with his old car. Most travelers to Moscow had to arrange in advance for their ride at the travel agency in the USA. The normal fee to the city was $50, r if had no advance arrangement, $100. At least the poor guy had a chance to feed his family.

    I always had arranged a ride, so the guy was waiting just for me, and beside, he was always friendly and took me where-ever.

    Now you cry for spending 20 bucks for a safe and comfortable ride.

    Oh man !

  2. I have traveled extensively in North America, having gone through many mid-size towns and I have to say that the lack of metro line to and from international airports is rather common in the towns with a million + population. The mega cities may be an exception, but overall comparatively speaking, i’d say you made a story out of nothing. The last time I had to get a cab to the airport in the US, it cost me $50 and it was in a town with 1.2 million inhabitants. In another tourist town on the East coast, with about a million inhabitants I took a shuttle on a number of occasions, which came with a $20 charge each time, even though it was only a 10 minute ride.

    I really don’t see the connection between your experience and the “mafia” charge. I am not saying that there is not some sort of dirty business involved, but simply from your story, proof of it does not come across. Using the same arguments, I could make the same charge for most US towns I visited.

    BTW, the last time I used the shuttle service in Budapest, I thought it was a nice experience!

    • Yeah, US public transportation is poor. (The author happens to live in an area with some of the best in the US.) But, your “whataboutism” doesn’t excuse the poor situation in Budapest. I know Hungary can do better, so I hope they work on it. Since, it will make life more pleasant for Hungarians who use the airport.

  3. Avatar György Lázár says:

    Dear Peter and Bendeguz79… Bratislava did not ban Uber, Budapest did… Vienna did not ban it, again, Budapest did… Billions of Forints pocketed by the politically well connected taxi mafia. I find this shameful… apparently, you don’t.

    • Sure, but there is also the other side of the coin. Countries like Denmark got rid of them as well, and I don’t think you can claim mafia state this and mafia state that. It is basically an issue of a company providing taxi services, without necessarily abiding by existing regulations. And one of the reasons to ban it is because we should keep in mind that the “taxi mafia” happens to provide employment to people. That employment is unfairly undercut by the likes of Uber. If Hungary were unique in this regard, I would concede the argument, but given all the other places that are banning it or are in the process of doing so pending court orders, you are really off the mark!

  4. Avatar Jerry Kiersey says:

    Had a lovely three days in Budapest, our first time there and it is a really interesting destination, lots to see and do with perhaps the Country Market the most enjoyable – gorgeous traditional Hungarian fast food – great value overall to be honest. Met a couple from Philadelphia who had flown there for dental treatment, $40,000 in the states, less than €6,000 in Budapest, horses for courses my friend or more a case of “California Dreaming”

  5. Dear György
    You hate the Hungarian government I can understand, but you’re a free man living in a free country!! If you don’t like what happens in Hungary don’t go there it is simple.. Wait until your favourite maffia get in power!!

  6. Avatar StrandedinSopron says:

    “Must be a coincidence, but soon after my article officials announced that government owned BKK would launch a direct bus service, the 100E line as a relatively low cost (900 Ft – less than 4 dollars) transportation.”

    It was introduced just before the World Swimming Jamboree as the regime were petrified at the thought of the various spectators travelling back to the airport on the *accident-waiting-to-happen* M3. Guests to our fair city disappearing up in puff of smoke as a 40 yr old metro catches fire at Klinikak wouldn’t have been great PR.

    Regarding the taxi “mafia”, well, yes, no doubt there is a cosy relationship between them and the various local government, ermm../ mafias. But to tbh I have had no real problems with them and the prices are reasonable, in my opinion. The boys to watch out for are the unofficial hyenas operating outside the train stations and it is interesting for me that they are allowed to operate pretty much with a carte blanche. I guess that is down to more localised agreements with the District cops.

  7. I would have to disagree with this one as in small city Canada, I would pay approximately $65 Canadian for a 12 mile cab ride, so $40 would be a deal.
    I’m sure there are cabbies that do scam tourists, but I just wouldn’t have an issue with an 8000 forint cab ride for 12 miles

  8. Interesting… 8000Ft is a lot to downtown Budapest by taxi. The reason it is so expensive is that there seem to be far too many taxis there – I cannot believe a driver will do more than a handful of trips a day!!!
    In contrast it is only 10,000 Ft for a 200km taxi journey to Pécs door to door service. .. and there are cheaper options than that as well.

    The motorway makes getting away from Budapest much easier these days but they do need to think about the majority of visitors who stay there – and a short train link is all that is needed. I think if the Canadians had not been kicked out of their agreement when they built T2B, there would be one there by now.

  9. I don’t think the author is too cheap. After all he took the taxi. But, what about the average Hungarian? For them 6000ft can be a significant expense. Comparing the fare to other places requires you to consider differences in incomes.

    I too found the 100E an uncomfortable experience. I have travelled to many European airports and Budapest’s public shuttle option is among the low ranking ones. Prague is a bit awkward too, but they are working it.

  10. For 3 USD the 100E is probably the best direct bus from airport to city center that you can get in any OECD country in the world. Not “the best bus”, but “the best bus for the money”.

    Personally I think the transport options from Budapest airport are great: taxi for about 25 USD or a modern, though crowded and spartan, direct bus for 3 USD. Not too bad for an experienced traveller who’s encountered much worse in many (most) countries.

  11. Avatar Roland Matyasi says:

    I am not really sure about what point the writer of this post was planning to make. Comparing California to Budapest in terms of development and services is simply non-sense. Shall I point out the contrast between Budapest and Mumbai for example?? The GDP per capita is more than 6 times higher than in Hungary. Budapest simply cannot afford a usd1.5bn metro line from the airport to downtown. This is it.

    As per Uber, Mr. Lazar is clearly not aware of the power of taxi lobby in Budapest. Also just a few places where Uber is banned or will soon be banned: Denmark, Italy, London/UK, Austin/Texas, US, Alaska/US, Vancouver/Canada, NT/Australia. Are you trying to tell us that there is a Mafia Government in those countries as well?

    Iam sensing a some arrogance here in Mr. Lazar’s words. I saw this arrogance and indeed narrow minded thinking a few times from some US citizens travelling to Asia. They were expecting similar life style in China or in Thailand as what they are used to in the States

  12. I am an American living in Hungary, near Budapest. Before that I lived near Berkeley, CA. Very similar to Mr Lazar. To any American flying to Hungary, 6000 or 8000 forint tó take two people to our from the airport is not expensive. But for many Hungarians, it is expensive. On the other hand, most Hungarians will likely have someone local to drive them to the airport. And so this is not unlike many other tourist destinations where the local airport transportation is used mainly by tourists and the government sticks it to them.

    Btw, a taxi from Berkeley to the airport costs more than $100, but yes, there is the option of taking the a bus to the train to the airport for about $11 or $12 per person. That’s pretty close to the cost of the taxi here in Hungary.

    But once you are here, the hotel, meals and just about everything else costs a lot less than they do in the Bay Area.

  13. Avatar György Lázár says:

    Dear Mark, Uber from Berkeley to SFO for 2 people is $27.92 as I type this note… and the distance is about 26 miles… twice the distance to Bp downtown. Considering lower wages, car expenses etc. each Bp. airport cab ride is about $10 higher what it should be… 12 million passengers a year and in each ride the mafia takes in about 2,500-3,000 Ft “extraprofit.” Uber would certainly drive expensive cabs and shuttles out of business.. BTW …most lower income Hungarians don’t have someone “local” to drive them to the airport… especially if they live outside Bp. where 80% of the locals live…

    • Yes $10 higher than it should be if Hungary would allow Uber. But as I pointed out Hungary is not the only one not allowing it, and let us not forget that there are reasons for that. The reason that Uber costs less is because it offers taxi services without actually complying with regulations that govern that industry. Those regulations are there for a reason (employee & consumer protection) and they contribute greatly to the overhead costs. And yes Uber would drive legitimate taxi services out of business. But clearly, aside from Hungary, Denmark, Italy, London and a host of other places decided that it is a bad thing to allow for it.

      One can certainly debate the pros & cons of Uber. Problem is that you put it all within the wrong context because of your zeal to find “mafia” in Hungary, whether there or not. That is why it fell flat on its face.

  14. Avatar Horvath Istvan says:

    Reading Mr. Lázár’s words I can only say that despite the fact he moved to a better place 30+ years ago he successfully managed to keep all the stupid Hungarian negativity, bitching and whining about nothing. He should have learnt some positive thinking in CA.

    Just for the article. I use 100E weekly and never had a single problem with it. Claustrophobic? Too many people? What did Mr. Scrooge expect for 900 ft? He is tight enough complaining about a 6000 ft taxi but then complains about the bus also. Take your flight and go back to CA we don’t need you here.

  15. Avatar Actual Investor says:

    I’m also an American, living in Budapest now the better part of a decade and just stumbled across this idiotic self-serving article, and the excellent sane responses to it, including the last one. What “investor” and “senior consultant to Silicon Valley tech firms” balks at (especially when with his ostensibly also not young wife) taking a 20 Euro taxi? Others suggest a cheap whiner, but it’s probably better just to call time on this poor guy who wants people here to imagine he is a great American dream story. He can complain about Budapest, but the level of active effort on his part to inflate his own importance is embarrassing. His self-written bio says everything– the only time he gets the level of respect he thinks he deserves is when he’s in Hungary telling folks he’s important “over there”. You want to cast stones Gyorgy, try being a bit more honest for a start.

  16. Oh come on folks, you’re giving this guy a hard time but seriously, any of us who have traveled around Europe know that the transport options to the Budapest airport are poor by comparison to most European capital cities, except of course those further East. I’m not supporting Uber, but there is really no plausible reason for having no easily accessible rail connection.

  17. And, there are several reputable taxi companies in Budapest. There is no reason why the concession for the airport taxis cannot be shared. Its preposterous to claim it is given exclusively to one company to “ensure quality”.

  18. Mike, the only major airport in the Nordic countries where you have better transport options is Copenhagen. Budapest beats Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki.

  19. It should also be noted that the public transport in general is excellent in Budapest: quick, modern, well covering and cheap. Anybody who’s been to Los Angeles can attest that, when it comes to coverage, the public transport there is third world in comparison.

  20. Avatar notimeforhaters says:

    I randomly browse this site just to check what new and belligerant article has been written about Hungary, seemingly by North Americans that appear to bridge a lack of factual knowledge and evidence with an indiscriminate use of deducitve reasoning. This one is a classic example.

    Yes, Hungary can do better in many ways and there is likely to be a ‘relationship’ between Fotaxi and municipal officials. But Fotaxi is a private operator and Budapest Airport operates on a private lease owned by a Canadian Pension Fund. The airport and taxi relationship is a commercial one.

    You are also misinformed about light rail and metro services to airports. Most cities of 2 million do NOT have direct rail connections to airports and this applies not just globally, but also to Europe (Prague does not and handles more passengers, Warsaw recently built one, and Vienna does have one but handles double the passengers).

    Regarding Uber, again, you might want to check your facts. There are plents of other (western) European cities that have banned Uber on warranted grounds to maintain a standard of service, professionalism and safety. Of course, the taxi standards should be improved but letting anyone get behind the wheel without bearing a licence to operate a transport serivce is not a solution – you just like a cheap ride.

    On balance, it sounds like you have double standards, like a cheap holiday and and fit the pattern of others who write eternally slanderous things about Hungary from your ivory towers in Canada and the US.

  21. Avatar aussieinbudapest says:

    The master plan released by Budapest Airport last year includes routing the Szolnok line through the airport so the rationale of the mafia in the airport taxi business might not be that strong.

  22. Avatar György Lázár says:

    Dear Peter, I think cab fares to Bp. airport would be about 40% lower if competition among cab companies would be allowed, Főtaxi’s monopoly must be erased…. and fares could be 60% lower if Uber would reappear.

    • Avatar Horvath Istvan says:

      There are multiple problem with your comment:

      1. there is no “monopoly”. There is a contract between the airport and Főtaxi that the local taxi spots are served by them. Any other taxi provider can be called in by customers for pick up positions. Also you can use any provider to go to the airport. What you are trying to say does not exist. It’s simply false statement.

      2. lower fares: again. A clearly false statement. How can be anything be lower or even higher when taxi fare is currently regulated by the city council and it is fixed to 280 ft/km for everyone…

    • I agree with you in regards to monopoly. But such monopolies are not uncommon, yet we do not go around screaming “mafia” every time. For instance a touristic town in the US I went through on many occasions only has shuttle service, no cabs allowed. And yes, it is a pain, and expensive. A pain because they run on schedule, with each shuttle being assigned a certain part of town and I sometimes had to wait, as for the price, it usually cost me $20 for a five mile ride.

      But there are often valid reasons to offer such a monopoly. For instance, better control of the service. Airport could for instance demand minimum vehicle & driver standards, including perhaps criminal record checks or knowledge of common foreign languages. Finally, I personally have serious doubts in regards to your claim that allowing for other taxi services would cut costs 40%. Uber might deliver on that, but like I pointed out, there are other issues involved there. It offers services without adhering to the laws and regulations that govern such services. Whether one should allow or not for such a business to operate is a subject of valid debate. But you put this debate within an inappropriate context, unless you are willing to point the finger and scream “mafia” in every instance where Uber has been or is in the process of being banned. Is Denmark a “mafia state” now? Problem in general with you is that you are driven by your very strong personal bias, with no effort made to try to be objective.

  23. Avatar Julia G. Stone says:

    This is good news:

    I believe it was last week’s Kormányinfó in which Lázár János provided an update on this. If I recall correctly, he said it had been approved by parliament and they were working on financial arrangements. To get the exact info, I will try to go back to it when I have time.

    Otherwise, I cannot say that all other taxi companies are bad, but I can say that I very frequently encounter situations where companies other than Főtaxi quote me outrageous rates due to my accent, or try to trick foreigners into astronomical fares. A guy from 555.5555 not only tried to charge me 20,000 Ft to go from downtown to Szigetszentmiklos (the predictor said it should te 7,000 and the taxi I actually took came in under 9,000), but also when I refused to get in, he sent another taxi to that location, had given that guy my name, and said I ordered the taxi! So he then ‘lowered’ the offer to 15,000 Ft. Another time I was at Rudas Baths and the 222.2222 guy tried to charge a French man 5,000 Ft to take him to his hotel right across the bridge (it was cold out so the guy did not want to walk).


    I say all that because I believe the goal of vetting and recommending Főtaxi was to improve the city’s reputation among tourists. Obviously, this endorsement is very valuable to Főtaxi, so they have a vested interest in not risking the contract by cheating people.

    So, I am more inclined to believe that the government contracted with Főtaxi for constructive reasons, and am thrilled that a Ferihegy-Belváros train is in progress.

    Despite my having defended the government about certain things on this site, I do not agree with everything they do. Nor do I understand ubiquitous attempts to attribute an ill motive to absolutely everything done by the other side, regardless of where one starts.

    For instance, the government could acknowledge that Szél Bernadett’s organizations do good work for the homeless, and to praise those efforts. Instead they focus on her affiliation with immigrants, and further specify her assistance to illegal immigrants. If she is facilitating the entry of illegal immigrants then I, too, would condemn those actions, as I would condemn participation in or enabling of any illegal activity. However, when she or her affiliates are directly helping the homeless, that is most admirable and I commend them for it.

    Best to you, Mr. Lázár.

  24. I can’t agree on much here. As a frequent traveler to Budapest I think both the taxi service and the 200E bus to the Metro works better than in most other places I go and it is certainly great value for money.

    It is a bit sad that this place is so biased in a negative way that it becomes less interesting.

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