The Balkans can be boiling hot and freezing cold, but neither extreme will prevent travel. In fact, this is a fascinating place to visit at any time of year – even winter. July and August can be uncomfortably hot, particularly in the cities, but this is the time when mountains and beaches are at their best. From a climatic point of view, May, June and September are the best months in which to visit the region, with nowhere too warm or too cool.
Dangers & Annoyances
An accurate picture of what it’s like to travel in the Balkans can be found somewhere between overly-cautious government warnings at one end and claims that there is nothing to worry about at the other. If you can handle yourself in a big city of North America, Western Europe or Australia, you’ll have little trouble here. You are unlikely to have any threatening encounters, but at all times, you should look purposeful, stay alert and use your judgment and instincts.
Some locals will regale you with tales of how dangerous their city is and recount various cases of muggings, break-ins and kidnappings, often involving Roma or other popular scapegoats. Most of these stories are overblown or exaggerated and you are unlikely to have any threatening encounters.
Low-level corruption is largely disappearing. In all exchanges with people in official positions (such as police, border guards, train conductors, ticket inspectors or anyone else) be clear on what you are paying and why, so as to avoid ambiguous situations. Always insist on a receipt for any money you hand over.
If you do find yourself in a tangle with a gung-ho official testing the limits of his own power, consider the situation as a blog-worthy travel experience. Insist on calling your embassy, or suggest seeing their senior officer; assuming you have not committed a crime, more senior offices will likely let you go. The golden rule is keep your cool; if you’ve done nothing wrong, getting angry and potentially saying or doing something wrong is only going to make your situation worse.
There have been reports of credit cards being copied. Shopkeepers have been known to make several charge-slip imprints with your credit card when you’re not looking and then copy your signature from the authorised slip. There have also been reports of people making quick hi-tech duplicates of credit or debit card information with a machine. If you think your credit card has been gone too long, consider cancelling it. As a rule, you should never let your credit card out of your sight.
The days of black market currency exchange are largely over, so ignore anyone offering a too good to be true rate. Whoever is offering is intending to scam or just steal your money.
It’s not unheard of for solo male travellers to be approached by friendly blokes who quickly become their new best mate, or gorgeous women who become the evening flirt, only to be hit a few hours later with an outrageous bill and no way to not pay it.
- Be vigilant in looking after your passport, documents, tickets and money. These can be carried in a pouch on your belt or under your clothes.
- If you store luggage at train stations, don’t leave valuables and be wary of anyone who offers to help you operate your locker.
- Be aware of snatch thieves who make a grab for cameras and bags from motorbikes or scooters. Simple precautions can be a deterrent, like wearing bags across your body, or using day packs instead of shoulder bags.
- Keep a tight grip on your bag in crowds, particularly on or around public transport. Be wary of gangs of kids; it’s not unheard of to be distracted by some while one or the other deftly picks a pocket.
- Don’t leave valuables lying around your hotel room or visible in your car. Parked cars containing luggage or visible valuables are prime targets, and foreign number plates and/or rental agency stickers may stand out. While driving in cities, beware of snatch thieves when you pull up at the lights; keep doors locked and windows rolled up.
- Some thieving is done by fellow travellers. Carry your own padlock for hostel lockers and always use them.
- Always report theft to police and ask for a statement; some insurance companies won’t pay up unless you do so.
The notorious criminal underworld in parts of the region will leave you alone if you leave it alone.
In areas that are racially and ethnically homogeneous, non-white travellers may attract more interest than their white counterparts, but this is generally curiosity rather than hostility. It is highly unlikely that you will encounter any violence in Southeastern Europe, but racism does exist in the region. Some countries in the region have thriving neo-Nazi movements, which tend to target local Roma populations and won’t look favourably upon black and Asian migrants or travellers.
In Greece there have been incidents of non-white travellers detained and sometimes even assaulted by police upon being approached and requested to show their passports on suspicion of being migrants in the country irregularly.
There are still some landmines in remote areas of BiH and Kosovo; stick to established roads and paths and pay heed to signs warning of unexploded ordinance (UXO). In areas too remote to have signs, ask locals for the latest advice.
Emergency & Important Numbers
The emergency number 112 can be used throughout the region, though is still in its infancy in some parts. See individual countries for alternative specific numbers.
Plugs in the Balkans are the standard round two-pin variety, sometimes called the europlug. You’ll need an adapter if your plugs are different; you can get them at airports or more cheaply at supermarkets and electrical appliance stores. If you travel with several gadgets, consider bringing a double adapter and a travel adapter with a USB charger outlet.
Entry & Exit Formalities
Duty-free goods are not sold to those travelling from one EU country to another.
Look for Global Blue Tax Free shopping signs in Croatia and Slovenia; you may be able to claim tax back when you leave if you ask for a Tax Free Form when making your purchase (www.global-blue.com).
You won’t be surprised to learn that all countries require visitors to have passports with at least six months’ validity. Visitors from most countries can visit most of the countries and territories in the region for up to 90 days without needing to get a visa in advance, and entry is usually free. The small exception to this is Albania, where land and sea entry costs €1 and air arrival €10.
- Citizens of many countries (including Australia, Canada, UK, USA, New Zealand and Japan) generally don't require a visa for stays of up to 90 days in Albania, BiH, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Other nationals should contact embassies or consulates.
Always check latest visa information before you travel.
The European Union & the Schengen area
Europe, the European Union and the Schengen area are not the same thing. All the countries of the Balkans are in Europe, but only Slovenia and Croatia are in the European Union and are Schengen members. There are no border controls between Schengen countries, but border procedures between EU and non-EU countries can still be onerous.
The following reflects the membership of countries in the Balkans at the time of writing:
Country // European Union // Schengen
Albania // Potential candidate // No
BiH // Potential Candidate // No
Croatia // Yes // Yes
Kosovo // Potential Candidate // No
Macedonia // Candidate // No
Montenegro // Candidate // No
Serbia // Candidate // No
Slovenia // Yes // Yes
Check the European Union website (http://europa.eu/about-eu/countries) for latest information and always check latest visa requirements before you travel.
Citizens of many countries do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days in Schengen countries (Slovenia and Croatia) as well as Albania, BiH, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Other nationals should contact embassies or consulates.
Visas may sometimes be available in advance or upon arrival; generally visas on arrival are more expensive. Consider in advance if you want a tourist or transit visa; the latter can give you 48 or 72 hours and be issued more quickly and cheaply.
Be aware that any visa you are issued has an expiry date you should stick to.
In some countries you are required to register with local authorities within 48 hours of arrival, though your hotel will generally take care of this.
Though laws allow consensual homosexual sex, attitudes aren’t necessarily as just. You are unlikely to raise an eyebrow by sharing a room (or bed) with your same-sex partner, but in many countries, societies still frown on overt displays of affection, particularly between members of the same gender.
- Many countries have hosted gay-pride events in recent years, but bad experiences with anti-gay protesters now means that heavy police presence is necessary.
- Despite the don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation prevalent in many parts of the region, there are some lively gay scenes in many capitals and cities, with notable exceptions of Pristina, Tirana, Skopje and Sarajevo where there are no gay- or lesbian-specific events or venues on offer for visitors.
- Outside larger towns and specific hubs, gay and lesbian life is almost non-existent making the internet the only realistic way to make contact with other gay people in the region. Many countries in the region have online forums and advocacy groups.
With few exceptions, you will never be far from the world wide web. Any decent-sized town in the Balkans has internet access even if you find yourself in a stinky room full of teenage gamers. In some places, internet cafes can be a great way of meeting locals and travellers, but elsewhere they are all but disappearing as hand-held devices and ubiquitous wi-fi hotspots engulf the region. This is good news for BYO laptop, smart phone and i-everything users, who will enjoy hotspots in cafes, bars, libraries, hotels, hostels and even some public places. It is now almost universal for high-standard or boutique hotels to have wi-fi in rooms, though some still charge. Paradoxically, the more you pay for the room the more they tend to charge you for internet; five star international chains are the worst offenders. Boutique, mid-range and budget hotels are more likely to offer free internet. If you are choosing accommodation based on the availability of internet, check that it is actually working before you commit.
There are several print and online newspapers throughout the region, many of which have strong political leanings. Cross-check important information.
International television networks (such as BBC World News, Al-Jazeera, Deutsche Welle and and TV5MONDE) are widely broadcast throughout the region.
The euro is used in Kosovo, Montenegro and Slovenia. Countries that don’t use the euro are Albania (lekë), Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH; convertible mark), Croatia (kuna), Macedonia (Macedonian denar) and Serbia (Serbian dinar), though some business will accept euro.
Euro, US dollars and British pounds are easiest to exchange. ATMs are widespread, with some rural exceptions.
ATMs are widespread, with some rural exceptions. Avoid situations where you leave big cities relying on being able to find one.
Cash and debit cards can be used at ATMs linked to international networks like Cirrus and Maestro. The major advantage of using ATMs is that you don’t pay commission to exchange your money, although you may be hit by a bank fee (or two if you’re charged by both your home bank and the one in the destination country). Still, the exchange rate is usually better than that offered for travellers cheques or cash exchanges.
If you rely on plastic, use two different cards so you have a backup if one is lost or not accepted. Even smarter is a combination of cards and back up cash.
The main irritation you’ll face is switching between currencies. There is no longer any particular desire for ‘hard’ currency and most Balkan currencies are readily convertible. That said, the euro and the US dollar remain the easiest currency to change and can be used in Kosovo, Montenegro and Slovenia. In other countries, some businesses may accept euro for some transactions. It’s not difficult to exchange other major currencies in big cities, but you will be at the mercy of exchange offices and their exploitative rates. Note that in some countries you will not be able to change scruffy looking notes.
Unless you have no choice, never change your cash without first shopping around for a respectable rate. Rates are likely to be crappy in tourist areas, so try get away from them. Rates are never great at border crossings, airports and train stations, largely because people have to change money out of necessity.
Tipping practices vary from country to country and sometimes from place to place within a given country. Tipping often means simply rounding up to the next whole figure; if this means giving a good waiter peanuts, add a couple of coins. As a rule of thumb, you can’t go wrong if you add 10% onto your bill at a restaurant.
Porters at upmarket hotels will appreciate and expect a few euro for their efforts, as will wait staff in fashionable venues in urban centres, and taxi drivers. Meanwhile, tipping in rural areas may be met with astonishment.
While not as ubiquitously used as they are in Western Europe, credit cards are increasingly common at upmarket restaurants, shops and hotels, car-rental firms, travel agencies and petrol stations.
Exchange rates may have changed by the time your credit card bill is processed – to your advantage or disadvantage. Charge card companies such as Amex (and to a lesser extent Diners Club) have offices in many countries of the Balkans and can generally replace a lost card within 24 hours. But these aren’t widely accepted off the beaten track and will therefore be of limited use. Credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are much more widely accepted.
Business hours vary across the region, changing by season and arbitrarily at will. As a rough guide:
- Saturday and Sunday are official days off (even in predominantly Muslim areas), although only banks and offices close; many shops, restaurants and cafes are open every day.
- Banks and offices are usually open from 9am to 5am, Monday to Friday with an hour or two off over lunch. Some may be open on Saturday mornings.
- Shops stay upon until 7pm or later in busier areas.
- During the hot months, some businesses close for two or three hours over lunch, reopening at 3pm or 4pm and staying open into the evening.
- In Islamic areas, note that the working day is shorter during the holy month of Ramadan.
Reliability of postal services varies, but most things usually arrive in the end. In some countries your items will need to be taken unwrapped to the post office where they will be wrapped for you. Your passport and other information may be noted down, and you may be asked for a return address. If you don’t have one, provide the address of any large hotel. If you really need something important to get to where it needs to, you may prefer to use a private delivery service like DHL.
Schools get the summer months off (usually July and August) as well as breaks for Easter and Christmas. These dates are generally followed even in countries with a large Muslim population, such as BiH and Albania.
Orthodox churches celebrate Easter between one and five weeks later than other churches.
Muslim regions celebrate two major festivals or bajrams: the end of Ramadan and the Feast of the Sacrifice. Muslim religious holidays follow the lunar calendar, which is 11 or 12 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, so the dates of the bajrams fall 11 or 12 days earlier each (Gregorian) year. To make it even more interesting, the exact dates depend on the sighting of the new moon. In some cases, an imam from one town will spot a sliver of the moon a day earlier or later than his colleagues, so the local faithful will celebrate on a different day, which means that listed dates are often approximate.
Smoking in parts of the region is ubiquitous; non-smoking tables and rooms won’t always be available.
Telephone services are generally excellent. You will see numerous call centres in most cities, often with competitive rates catering to local migrant communities. Treat hotel telephones like you would any other thief. The cheapest way to make calls is with the winning combination of Skype and wi-fi.
- Mobile phones are ubiquitous throughout the Balkans.
- If you plan to use your mobile on the road, check with your provider at home that it has been unlocked. If you are already on the road, you may be able to get it unlocked at a private call centre for a small fee.
- Consider buying a SIM card; they can cost as little as €5 or €10, and be topped up with credit purchased at supermarkets, kiosks, newsagents and phone dealers.
- If you are using roaming, your phone will switch automatically to local networks. Calls can be expensive, but this is useful if you frequently change countries and only use your phone on an ad hoc basis.
- Check data usage fees for email and web; smart phone users may be able to reduce costs by buying data packages.
Local and international phonecards – available from post offices, telephone centres, newsstands or retail outlets – are widely used in the region. For local calls you’re usually better off with a local phonecard.
The Balkans belongs to the Central European Time (GMT+1). All countries employ daylight savings, usually on the last Sunday in March. They are set back one hour on the last Sunday in October. Note that the 24-hour clock is widely used in the Balkans, though not always conversationally.
You aren’t in for too many unpleasant surprises, other than the fact that you often have to pay for public toilets. Squat toilets are rare but not unheard of. When you can't find a toilet, your salvation lies in the nearest restaurant, hotel, cafe, mosque, library or other public building.
Keep some toilet paper on you in the event that none is available at the crucial moment.
There has been a general improvement in the last few years with many countries upping efforts to attract and cater for foreign visitors. Countries that have realised their potential as holiday destinations have developed a network of tourist information centres (TICs). Slovenia and Croatia are among them, and have tourist offices abroad as well. Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo are actively trying to encourage tourism, though campaigns remain obscure for the time being.
Ultimately, the usefulness of tourist information offices depends on their staff; some will bend over backwards to help, while others will do little more than shoo you away with a faded pamphlet for the local cement museum.
Travel with Children
Children are beloved in these parts, so having kids in tow can make for wonderful encounters with locals that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
- The range of baby food, formulas, soy and cows’ milk, disposable nappies and the like is almost as extensive as in supermarkets as at home, though you may pay more than you would expect.
- Strollers can be hindrance to mobility in towns and cities with cobble stones or just messy pavements.
- If you need children’s safety seats for rented cars, book them in advance.
- More restaurants provide high chairs, but don't expect cots in hotels.
- In Albania, praise won’t be lavished on your child – and nor should you lavish praise on Albanian kids – as there are concerns about the all-observant ‘evil eye’.
Ensuring that public transport is accessible to people with disabilities hasn’t been a high priority in the region. As a generalisation, wheelchair accessible rooms are only available at top-end hotels and are limited in number, so be sure to book in advance. Many museums and sites have disabled access, but many don’t.
Get in touch with the travel officer (if there is one) at national support organisations and ask about countries you plan to visit. Some organisations often have libraries devoted to travel, including access guides, and staff can put you in touch with travel agencies who specialise in tours for the disabled.
Weights & Measures
The metric system is used for weights and measures.
Generally, women travellers will find that the Balkans is a safe and welcoming place to travel, whether you’re in a group, with a mate, or on your own.
That is not to say that sexual harassment does not exist, however. It is not unusual for women to be propositioned by strangers on the street, which can be annoying and even feel threatening, but rarely anything more. As a rule, foreigners are still a little exotic and therefore attract more attention, but this attention is rarely dangerous and is easily deflected with a shake of the head and a firm ‘no’. Do remember that in much of the Balkans a nod of the head means no, not yes, though! Use the local language if you can, but English usually works fine too.
In Muslim areas, women travelling solo will certainly be of interest or curiosity to both local men and women. In Albania, BiH, parts of Macedonia and southern Serbia, women may feel self-conscious in bars and cafes outside larger cities, which are usually populated only by men. Unmarried men rarely have contact with women outside their family unit and so may shower travelling women with too much attention. (In such areas, women travelling with a male companion will often experience the opposite and may need to pinch themselves as a reminder that yes, they actually exist.)
Unfortunately machismo still thrives in parts of the Mediterranean, where lewdness and harassment, though rarely dangerous, can become unsettling. If ignoring harassers, followed by progressively more forthright requests for them to bugger off, and truth or lies about your husband’s imminent arrival don’t work, then inform the police.
Whatever you do, don’t let these sad realities of an imperfect world deter you from getting out into it. On the whole, this is a welcoming region populated by salt-of-the earth, decent people.