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.