Money & costs
Hungary is no longer the bargain-basement destination for foreign travellers that it was even five years ago, but it is still cheaper by a third or even a half than most Western European countries. If you bunk down in private rooms, eat at medium-priced restaurants and travel on public transport, you should get by on €30 a day in the provinces without too much scrimping, though Budapest will cost you closer to €40 a day.
Travelling in more style and comfort - restaurant splurges with bottles of wine, a fairly active nightlife, stay in small hotels/guesthouses with 'character' - will cost about twice as much (€60 in the provinces and €80 in the capital). Those putting up at hostels or college dormitories, eating burek street food for lunch and at self-service restaurants for dinner could squeak by for €20 a day.
Hungary is a very tip-conscious society, and virtually everyone routinely tips waiters, hairdressers and taxi drivers. Doctors and dentists accept 'gratitude money', and even petrol station attendants who pump your petrol and thermal spa attendants who walk you to your changing cabin expect something. If you were less than impressed with the service at the restaurant, the joyride in the taxi or the way your hair was cut, leave next to nothing or nothing at all. He or she will get the message - loud and clear.
The way you tip in restaurants is unusual. You never leave the money on the table - this is considered both rude and stupid in Hungary - but tell the waiter how much you're paying in total. If the bill is, say, 2700Ft, you're paying with a 5000Ft note and you think the waiter deserves a gratuity of around 10%, first ask if service is included (some restaurants in Budapest and other big cities add it to the bill automatic- ally, which makes tipping unnecessary). If it isn't, say you're paying 3000Ft or that you want 2000Ft back.
The Hungarian currency is the forint (Ft) and today there are coins of 5Ft, 10Ft, 20Ft, 50Ft and 100Ft. Notes come in seven denominations: 200Ft, 500Ft, 1000Ft, 2000Ft, 5000Ft, 10, 000Ft and 20, 000Ft.
The green 200Ft note features the 14th-century king Charles Robert and his castle at Diósgyőr near Miskolc. The hero of the independence wars, Ferenc Rákóczi II, and Sárospatak Castle are on the burgundy- coloured 500Ft note.
The 1000Ft note is blue and bears a portrait of King Matthias Corvinus, with Hercules Well at Visegrád Castle on the verso. The 17th-century prince of Transylvania Gábor Bethlen is on his own on one side of the 2000Ft bill and meeting with his advisers on the other.
The 'greatest Hungarian', Count István Széchenyi, and his family home at Nagycenk are on the purple 5000Ft note. The 10, 000Ft bears a likeness of King Stephen, with a scene in Esztergom appearing on the other side. The 20, 000Ft note, currently the highest denomination, has Ferenc Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise, on the recto and the erstwhile House of Commons in Pest (now the Italian Institute of Culture on VIII Bródy Sándor utca) on the verso.
ATMs accepting most credit and cash cards are everywhere in Hungary, even in small villages, and all the banks listed in the Information sections in this guide have them. The best ones to use are the Euronet ATMs as they dispense sums in units of 5000Ft. Many of the ATMS at branches of Országos Takarékpenztár (OTP), the national savings bank, give out 20,000Ft notes, which are difficult to break.
Nothing beats cash for convenience - or risk. It's always prudent to carry a little foreign cash, though, preferably euros or US dollars, in case you can't find an ATM nearby or there's no bank or travel agency open to cash your travellers cheques. You can always change cash at a hotel.
Credit cards, especially Visa, MasterCard and American Express, are widely accepted in Hungary, and you'll be able to use them at many restaurants, shops, hotels, car-rental firms, travel agencies and petrol stations. They are not usually accepted at museums, supermarkets, or train and bus stations.
Many banks, including K&H, give cash advances on major credit cards.
Having money wired to Hungary through an agent of Western Union Money Transfer (1-235 8484; www.intercash.hu) is fast and fairly straightforward, and the procedure generally takes less than 30 minutes. You should know the sender's full name, the exact amount and the reference number when you're picking up the cash. The sender pays the service fee (about US$40 for US$500 sent, US$60 for US$1000).
It is easy to change money at banks, post offices, tourist offices, travel agencies and private exchange offices. Look for the words valuta (foreign currency) and váltó (exchange) to guide you to the correct place or window.
There's no black market in Hungary to speak of but exchange rates can vary substantially, so it pays to keep your eyes open. And while the forint is a totally convertible currency, you should avoid changing too much as it will be difficult exchanging it beyond the borders of Hungary and its immediate neighbours.
Taxes & refunds
ÁFA, a value-added tax of between 5% and 25%, covers the purchase of all new goods in Hungary. It's usually included in the price but not always, so it pays to check. Visitors are not exempt, but non-EU residents can claim refunds for total purchases of at least 50, 000Ft on one receipt, as long as they take the goods out of the country (and the EU) within 90 days. The ÁFA receipts (available from where you made the purchases) should be stamped by customs at the border, and the claim has to be made within 183 days of exporting the goods. You can then collect your refund - minus commission - from the Global Refund (www.globalrefund.com) desk in the departures halls of Terminal 2A and 2B at Ferihegy International Airport in Budapest, or branches of the Ibusz chain of travel agencies at some 16 border crossings. You can also have it sent by bank cheque or deposited into your credit-card account.
You can change travellers cheques - American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Thomas Cook are the most recognisable brands - at most banks and post offices. Banks and bureaux de change generally don't take a commission, but exchange rates can vary; private agencies are always the most expensive. OTP has branches every- where and offer among the best rates; Ibusz is also a good bet. Travel agents usually take a commission of 1% to 2%. Shops never accept travellers cheques as payment in Hungary.