Budapest has an extensive, efficient, and inexpensive public transportation system, but locals without global experiences, disagree with this. If you have some patience and minimal skills with reading maps, you can easily learn the system. Public transportation, however, is not without its glitches, due to the construction of a fourth metro line that will continue for the next few years. There have been interruptions throughout parts of the city at various points in time and this is likely to continue until 2013.
They are efficient enough to provide buses to replace any tram or metro that has been disrupted by construction, but it can be confusing.
The biggest disadvantage, however, is that metros and tram routes shut down for the night at around 11:10pm-11:30pm depending on the line. Some areas of the city, most notably the Buda Hills, are beyond the reach of some night bus services making taxi drivers happy to provide those late-night journeys. Increased night bus services to overcome some of these problems have been dramatic, but it is still not perfect with some long waits at dark and lonely bus stops. During rush hours, all forms of transport are crowded making it best to plan your travel around these times. A disadvantage, mostly pertinent to travelers, is that Castle Hill can be reached in only three ways by public transportation and all of these modes of transportation are quite crowded in the high seasons. Most importantly, crowded public transport is the place where you are most likely to be targeted by Budapest's professional pickpockets. Just keep your hand on your wallet and purse.
Fares -- Fares generally increase in January and July. Fares here were accurate at the time of submission. Transport passes provide unlimited transportation on all forms of public transportation (metro, bus, tram, trolleybus (an electric bus evident by the connection to wires above), some portions of the HÉV railway lines, and cogwheel railway) within Budapest city limits. If you are using individual tickets (vonaljegy), which cost 300 Ft apiece (children 5 and under or E.U. citizens 65 and over travel for free), you are required to validate the tickets as soon as you get on the transport. Each time you change lines, you have to validate a new ticket. You can buy single tickets at metro ticket windows, newspaper kiosks, and the occasional tobacco shop. There are also automated machines in most stations and at major transportation hubs, most of which have been recently modernized or installed and provide a somewhat reliable service, but I wouldn't depend on them. You can also buy a 10-ticket pack (tizes csomag) for 2,350 Ft.
I strongly recommend that you buy a transport pass, which does not require validation. They are available for 1 day (napijegy) for 1,550 Ft and are good for 24 hours from the day and time marked. The other pass options are 3 days (turistajegy) for 3,850 Ft, 7 days for 4,600 Ft or for longer stays, 14 days (kéthétibérlet) for 6,200 Ft. The 7- and 14-day passes need to be signed. If your plans are even longer, there is a 30-consecutive day pass (30 napos bérlet) at 9,400 Ft, which requires a photo. If you are going to be here for 4 to 5 days, the 7-day (hetijegy) pass is still a saving over individual tickets. Passes are so much more convenient than having a handful of tickets that you have to worry about remembering to validate each time or replenishing your stock at odd hours. Honestly, these will save you money in the long run.
While this standard ticket is valid on the metro, there are other types of optional single-ride metro tickets introduced years ago, making ticket buying a bit more complicated for those who want the exactly appropriate ticket for their journey. Personally, I don't think any traveler should waste time caring about this, but I have met some who do. A metro section ticket (metrószakaszjegy), at 250 Ft, is valid for a single metro trip stopping at three stations or less. A metro transfer ticket (metróátszállójegy), at 470 Ft, allows you to transfer from one metro line to another on the same ticket, without any limit to the number of stations that the train stops at during your journey.
Transportation inspectors are those dreaded people who, like the secret police of yesteryear, whip out a hidden blue or red (the old color, but still sometimes used) armband when approaching you or stand guard at the top or bottom of an escalator at the metro stops, or hop on the tram or buses after the door has closed. Some are uniformed, so you know you are heading into the lion's den. However, many have become trickier and more covert over the years and are often in plainclothes. It is not until they materialize the dreaded armband and greet you, that you realize you have had a false sense of security about having a peaceful ride. There were horror stories for years about how they treated people, screaming and yelling and causing a scene of hysterics when they caught someone without a ticket or an invalid one. Due to the hundreds of letters of complaints filling volumes, the BKV instituted mandatory customer service training meant to file down the teeth of these overly aggressive warriors of transportation justice. For some it has taken hold.
The fines for not having a validated ticket or pass are 6,000 Ft if paid on the spot or 10,000 Ft if paid later; this does not include the embarrassment of getting caught. An inspector has the right to ask for your passport (legally, you are required to carry it at all times) or ID and to call a police officer if the need arises. They do not have the authority to harm you or arrest you. Transportation tickets generally have an increase each January and June.
The Budapest Card, which is available for 1 or 3 days, does include transportation, but you should look over the other offerings to see if you will maximize your savings by purchasing it. Few museums are free with the card, while others are simply discounted. Realistically, how many museums or discounts included with the card are you really interested in?
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.