It is 7.30 in the morning. Iona, a young Romanian, is heading toward the Méndez Alvaro coach station in Madrid. She is delighted, after a year’s stint as a servant, to be returning to Bucharest on holiday. With four ginormous suitcases in tow, she is waiting impatiently, like all the other passengers, for the coach to arrive. But it never will.

This sort of incident is becoming increasingly rife at Spanish bus terminals. Valence, Castellón, Barcelona, Madrid et al. bear witness to the odyssey awaiting Romanians whenever they try to head home. Endless delays, “gypsy” carriers hawking non-existent rides, ramshackle vehicles or last-minute changes of itinerary are but a few of the hassles in store for (would-be) coach passengers to Romania.

There are 13 licensed and more or less reliable Romanian carriers currently operating in Spain. Charging one-way fares of between €90 and €100, these lines allow passengers to stow more baggage than on an aeroplane, which makes the coach the preferred means of transport to the Carpathians – though it takes close to three days to get there. In recent years, however, the central terminals have become infested with unlicensed operators who, according to a representative of the firm Eurolines, offer theoretically the same service for half the price. These pirate firms send their touts out to solicit custom in the queues at the legal carriers’ ticket offices, enticing travellers with terms of transport they cannot refuse. “Romanians generally aren’t very fussy about their travelling conditions. All they ask is to get there,” explains the man from Eurolines.

These coaches pick up passengers in other regions of Spain to fill up the bus. If a bus is not sold out, some operators “feign mechanical breakdowns” and, in the best of cases, refund the fare. But many a conveyance never reaches its destination. “One day a coach broke down in France and they left us in the lurch without even offering to transfer us to another bus. We had to rent a van to get to Bucharest,” recounts one Romanian, who is resigned to using the bus in spite of all because it is the cheapest option. “Right now, in August,” he points out, “airfare costs close to €600 and you can hardly take any baggage.” Another passenger reports that his coach abandoned all its passengers one day “500 kilometres away from Bucharest without giving the least explanation”.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for Romanian companies to take advantage of the extra baggage allowance to transport raw materials quite illegally. “We often find Romanians using this means of transport to move phenomenal amounts of pork,” says one Eurolines employee, adding that “lots of these illegal businesses survive thanks to the transportation of merchandise”. To maximise profits, some put in more seats than allowed under current regulations, or use only two drivers instead of the five required by European law. “I’ve seen as many as 70 people get in a bus,” fumes one Romanian traveller, adding that some carriers block the lavatories and the aisles with merchandise. “We’re packed in like rats,” he seethes.

These vehicles are generally not searched during the journey, but, notes one frequent rider, upon arrival “at the Hungarian border” the driver systematically charges the passengers €5 to grease the palms of the customs officials and dissuade them from searching the bus. “On a bus you can get anything you like into my country,” he adds.

During periods of peak demand, several well-established carriers even sell tickets for pirate companies. Spain’s National Coach Carriers Association (ANETRA) nonetheless clearly states that “licensed companies are absolutely not allowed to sell tickets for illegal operators at their ticket offices”, adding that these “gypsy” carriers use “vehicles in a deplorable state of repair” that have not passed the required technical inspections.