Major Balkan cities are connected by regular flights to other cities in the region. Low cost airlines between some destinations compete with land options in terms of value, so consider all options. Many countries in the Balkans offer domestic flights, though there is rarely a need to fly internally unless you are in a rush.
Airports & Airlines
Key national air carriers and key airports for countries in the Balkans are below. Other airports may be more useful to reach specific sites; see individual countries for more information.
Country // National Airline // Major Airport
Albania // Belleair (www.belleair.eu) // Tirana International Airport (Nënë Tereza, TIA; www.tirana-airport.com.al)
Bosnia & Hercegovina // BH Airlines (www.bhairlines.ba) // Sarajevo International Airport (SJJ; www.sarajevo-airport.ba)
Croatia // Croatia Airlines (www.croatiaairlines.hr) // Zagreb Airport (Zračna Luka Airport, ZAG; www.zagreb-airport.hr)
Kosovo // Kosova Airlines (www.kosovaairlines.com) // Pristina International Airport (Adem Jashari, PRN; www.airportpristina.com)
Macedonia // MAT Airways (www.matairways.mk) // Skopje Alexander the Great Airport (SKP; skp.airports.com.mk)
Montenegro // Montenegro Airlines (www.montenegroairlines.com) // Tivat International Airport (TIV) and Podgorica International Airport (TGD; www.montenegroairports.com)
Serbia // Air Serbia (www.airserbia.com) // Nikola Tesla Beograd Airport (BEG; www.beg.aero)
Slovenia // Adria Airways (www.adria-airways.com) // Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport (LJU; www.lju-airport.si)
Some magnificent routes to ride, but long-distance cyclists are still a novelty in parts. Motorists aren't yet as cycle-cautious as they should be.
Some of the terrain in the Balkans makes for interesting cycling, with enough mountains to keep it challenging. However, there are some drawbacks including less than courteous drivers, and the exhaust fumes farted from crumbling cars, buses and trucks notably in Albania, Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH), Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Long-distance cycling certainly isn’t as common in these parts as it is in Western Europe, so don’t bank on meeting fellow cyclists en route. There’s a tiny risk of landmines and unexploded ordnance in Kosovo and BiH, so don’t be tempted to take back roads unless you’ve done your research first.
These issues aside, cycling around the more remote mountainous patches of the Balkans will offer insight into a whole other world.
Keep in mind the following:
- Bike hire outside of tourist towns and specialised parts are hard to come by, so come prepared.
- Invest in a sturdy bike lock and use it. Secure your saddlebags well.
- Be equipped with sufficiently detailed maps and keep your eye on the contours; you don’t want to unknowingly embark on a high-altitude pass as darkness descends.
- A seasoned cyclist can average about 80km a day, but this depends on the terrain and the weight they are carrying.
- For long tours, it’s probably worth having a bike you are familiar with rather than buying one on arrival.
Sometimes over-crowded people movers between islands, sometimes highlights in their own right. Be early and patient in high season. Book ahead on popular routes.
You will find that lakes and rivers are used more for pleasure than practicality in getting from A to B. But the hundreds of islands in Croatia are well served by an intricate network of ferries.
- Some ferry crossings charge per car regardless of the number of passengers, others charge additionally per person.
- Discounts are given to Eurail pass holders on some routes.
- Ferry schedules vary by season with significantly fewer in winter months.
Excellent online resources include www.ferrylines.com and www.ferrysavers.com.
In some parts of the Balkans, buses are far more useful than trains. In Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro for instance, buses are regular, reliable, affordable and relatively comfortable over small distances – if you can endure the turbo-folk music that may be blaring on board in the Balkans. Long distance buses throughout the whole region are often surprisingly well equipped, well kept and comfortable.
- Buses tend to be a better option than trains for shorter trips, and they are often the only option in mountainous regions.
- Across the region, bus stations are generally more efficient and functional than they may appear at first glance; master saying the name of wherever you want to go and you’ll eventually be pointed to the right counter or bus.
- As a general rule, the bigger the town the better the connections. This means that if you can’t get to where you want to go from wherever you are, get the journey started by heading to the closest larger town.
- Advance reservations are rarely necessary on all but long-distance buses.
Eurolines (www.eurolines.com) is a well-organised consortium of bus companies operating under the same name. It offers reliable services across a lot of the region and can get you very far for decent money. Eurolines is used by Europeans visiting family on weekends, as well as travellers of all sorts.
Car & Motorcycle
Having your own wheels is an enormous asset in terms of freeing you to spontaneously take a road and discover what’s off the beaten track. However, cars can also be a liability in cities that can have baffling one-ways systems, incomprehensible parking systems and narrow laneways that may be only fractionally wider than the curvature of your car. Theft from vehicles can also a problem; don’t leave things visibly lying around in your car. To the extent that you can choose the type of wheels you bring, pick something that blends in and isn’t worth the collective annual earnings of a small sized town. Having said that, if you are hitting the coast roads in summer you’d better love your car, because you may be spending many hours in it during traffic jams.
The motorcycle scene is alive and well in Europe; two wheels may be your ticket into a very warm social scene. It is easy to spot the popular motorcycle rest stops that often serve hearty local fare. Some smaller guesthouses throughout the region may even offer small discounts to motorcyclists, and be able to advise you on safe places to park. There are many precarious roads in the Balkans, but that, of course, is often their attraction. Be sure to know the rules that apply to you wherever you are going. In busy areas, particularly enjoy the moment where you wind your way to the front of the beach-bound queues of cars (and be careful of people opening doors to stretch their legs). If you don’t want to venture too far off the beaten track on your own, consider joining a motorcycle tour.
In deciding whether or not you want to drive around the region, also remember to factor in the escalated costs not only for petrol but also entry fees, ferry fees, road tolls and taxes, and secured parking at some hotels.
Whatever driving licence you have will likely be recognised in most countries of the region. However, it is wise to obtain an International Driving Permit from your local motoring organisation anyway. It doesn’t cost much and minimises the risk of hassle.
Always have vehicle registration documents and identification for yourself with you when you drive.
Every vehicle crossing an international border should display a sticker showing the country of registration.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Fuel costs vary enormously from country to country and are fairly relative to the cost of living. Think about petrol prices when you are crossing borders to decide whether you want to fill up before or after you cross a border.
Unleaded petrol of 95 or 98 octane is widely available. Unleaded petrol is usually slightly cheaper than super premium grade.
Spare parts generally won’t be a problem if you have time to track them down.
Car hire in the Balkans is as straightforward as anywhere else.
- The big international companies offer reliable service and well-maintained vehicles. A key advantage of international companies is that they often allow you to collect a car in one place and return it in another.
- Local companies will usually offer lower prices than the blue-chip biggies, but ask around so as only to use those with a good reputation – see the local agencies listed in each country chapter of this book or try asking at your hotel.
- Pre-booked rates are generally lower than walk-in rates, but don’t expect car hire to be cheaper than it is in Western Europe; it can actually cost 20% to 40% more.
- Always bear in mind that some companies won’t let you take rental cars to some countries; discuss your intended route thoroughly before you take the keys.
- It is definitely not recommended to drive rental cards from Serbia into Kosovo or vice versa.
- If you are flying into Europe from afar, think ahead. Your airline may have affiliations with rental companies that can lead to some decent savings and the convenience of tumbling out of the plane in to your own wheels.
Key international hire companies include:
Third-party motor insurance is compulsory in EU countries; check requirements for specific non-EU countries with your insurer.
In some countries you will need an International Insurance certificate, known as a Green Card. Get your insurer to issue you with one (which may cost extra). This is a certificate that confirms that your insurance policy meets the legal requirements of the countries in which it is required. Check whether it lists all the countries you plan to drive in. If it doesn’t cover everywhere you plan to go, you may need separate third-party cover at the border of the country in question.
Some insurers will need statements of accident. Do not sign an accident statement you cannot understand; insist on a translation and only sign it when you agree with it.
Significant stress will be alleviated if you takeout breakdown-assistance policy, such as that offered by the RAC (www.rac.co.uk). Non-Europeans should check with their national motoring organisation before they leave home to find out about reciprocal services offered by affiliated organisations around Europe.
Road Rules & Safety
Make sure you brush up on road rules that apply wherever you are going. For instance, some countries require reflective vests and warning triangles to be in the car at all times, which you must use when parking on a highway or in an emergency. Others require a fire hydrant and first aid kit, or spare bulb kits to be on board as well. Some countries prohibit the use of radar detectors and fine you with unbridled glee if that function on your GPS has not been deactivated. Motorcycle lights may be required to be on even during the day. In short, do your research before you start your engine. A recommended place to start is the AA website (http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas/countrybycountry.html), which provides useful country-specific information.
Standard international road rules apply, but you should also keep the following in mind:
- Traffic police generally issue fines on the spot. Always ask for a receipt.
- Drink-driving is a serious offence; most countries have a 0% limit which takes the guess work out of things.
- Children under 12 and drunk people aren’t allowed in the front seat in most countries.
- Driving at night can be particularly hazardous in rural areas where unlit roads can wind into the darkness off a cliff, and where horse-drawn carts and livestock can appear suddenly in front of you.
- In the event of an accident, you are supposed to notify the police and file an insurance claim.
- If you are bringing in a vehicle that already has significant body damage, point it out to customs on arrival in the country and have it noted down somewhere. Damaged vehicles may only be able to leave with police permission.
- Remember that some minor roads may be closed in winter months. Make sure you have necessary equipment for extreme weather conditions, including snow chains.
There are tolls on motorways in Croatia, Greece and Slovenia. Some road tolls will be obvious, requiring that you queue up and pay a person or a machine. Machines often ‘speak’ various languages and accept cards. Keep some cash (and cards) handy in the car, so you don't hold people up and aren't limited to choosing lanes that accept one type of payment only.
In other countries the system is a lot less obvious; you may be required to purchase a ‘vignette’ (road tax) sticker at the border or at service stations that grant you rights to use the roads for a period of time.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
Given the low price of public transport in many parts of the Balkans, hitching is more about the adventure than the practicality. That said, in very remote rural areas it is not uncommon for local drivers to pick up pedestrians en route. In Albania, riders are expected to pay the equivalent of a bus fare.
In some ways, local public transport in the Balkans makes the system in Western Europe look positively inefficient. Major cities offer lots of options – not only subways and buses, but also minibuses, which are cramped little vehicles that zip all over the place with an impressive lack of pomp. Some minibuses stick to inner city routes, but others will link to suburbs or even connect different towns. In some areas – like the mountain towns of Albania – this is the way you will likely travel.
Trolley buses are another phenomenon one doesn’t see in Western Europe. These are slower beasts of burden, but to be praised for their eco-friendliness (being powered by electricity rather than guzzling something else).
On Croatia’s coast the national Jadrolinija car ferries operate year-round on the Bari–Rijeka–Dubrovnik coastal route, stopping at Zadar, Split and several islands. The ferries are more comfortable than buses on the same route but also more expensive. Local ferries connect the bigger offshore islands with the mainland and with each other. Some of the ferries only operate a few times a day, and once they’re full the remaining motorists must sit and wait for the next service. There are no regional services to and from Montenegro, which is more commonly accessed from Italy. Albania’s ferry services generally go between Himara and Saranda on the Ionian coast during season. The ferry trip on Lake Koman is a joy.
The shared minibus or furgon is a quick but slightly cramped form of both intercity and city transport, particularly in Albania. They leave when full, and you pay when you’re on board. They will stop frequently to let passengers on and off. Furgons often have very limited space for luggage, which is when you’ll thank yourself for packing light.
Travelling overland by train is a rite of passage in these parts. Overnight trains are a fun way of avoiding a night’s accommodation and an interesting way of seeing the countryside and meeting the locals.
The audacious terrain that runs through much of the region has meant that while the networks aren’t as prolific as the bus network (and generally cost more), the lines that do exist often traverse some of the most scenic parts of the region. With the exception of Albania, they are a reliable way of getting around almost all countries of the Balkans.
Check individual countries for specific details. The following information is general:
- If travelling overnight, a bed reservation is included in the price of your ticket, though you may have to pay some extra euro on board for the actual bedding.
- Each carriage is administered by a steward, who punches your ticket and makes sure you get off where you want to. Particularly during the wee hours, make sure you get off at the correct stop.
- There are bathrooms with a toilet and washbasin at the end of each carriage; their cleanliness depends on who used it before you and the terrain they were passing through at the time.
- Be warned that toilets may be locked half an hour or so before arriving in big cities and while the train is at the platform.
- Check whether there is a dining car, snack bar or trolley on the train, and if not be sure to bring your own supply of food and drink. Consider doing so anyway, given inflated on-board prices.
- Be warned that some trains split en route to service two destinations, so make sure you are in the correct carriage.
If you plan to travel extensively by train, it might be worth checking out the following resources:
Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (www.thomascookpublishing.com) A listing of train schedules; it's updated monthly and can be ordered online.
Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) Provides information on fares and passes as well as schedules for the most popular routes in Europe.
Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/railpass.htm) Provides excellent independent information and advice.
Short trips or trips that don’t involve sleeping usually have benches on suburban trains and aeroplane-style seats on the inter-city services.
There are generally three classes of sleeping accommodation on trains – each country has a different name for them, but 3rd, 2nd and 1st is a relatively straight forward way of understanding them. The following information offers a general overview of them:
- Third class The cheapest option with six sleeping berths in a closed compartment. Not particularly private given close confines with five other people, and uncomfortable as all hell in summer if the air conditioning doesn’t work. Happily, this class is not widely available.
- Second class Four berths in a closed compartment. If there are two of you, you will share with two other people but if there are three of you, you will often have the compartment to yourselves.
- First class Two births in one cabin, perhaps with a washbasin and a bit of decoration, for approximately double the price of second class. If you really hit the jackpot, your compartment may even be adorned with plastic flowers.
It is always advisable to book tickets in advance. Seat reservations several days in advance are also recommended for busier routes and during peak summer periods, but this is only necessary if the timetable specifies that seat reservations are required.
You may be able to book tickets with travel agencies before you leave home, but at added cost. This is only worth considering if you are on a tight travel schedule that depends on a particular connection. Otherwise you can book most routes in the region from main train stations.
Rail passes can certainly be worthwhile if you are concentrating on a particular part of the region. Rail passes are available online and through most travel agents. Make sure you shop around for the best prices. Not all the countries covered in this book are covered by rail passes; Kosovo and Albania are notable exceptions.
Keep in mind that all passes offer discounted ‘youth’ prices for travellers who are under 26 years of age on the first day of travel. Kids aged four to 11 are eligible for a child rate. Discounted fares are also available if you are travelling in a group of two to five people (although you must always travel together).
Useful resources include Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) for general information and purchases in the USA, and Rail Plus (www.railplus.com.au) for information and purchases in Australia.
The InterRail Global pass is valid in 30 countries including BiH, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
- The pass is only available to European residents who have been living in Europe for the last six months. Non-European residents should use the Eurail pass. Residents of Turkey and parts of North Africa can also buy the pass; terms and conditions vary from country to country, but essentially it is not valid for travel within your country of residence.
- Ticket options include: five days travel over 10 days; 10 days within 22 days; every day within 15 days; every day within 22 days; or, every day for a month.
- 2nd class prices for five days of travel within 10 days start at €276/249/181/138 for adult/senior/youth/child. 1st class tickets can also be purchased.
- Check www.interrail.eu for more information.
The Balkan Flexipass includes BiH, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Turkey.
- You have a choice of five, 10 or 15 days of unlimited travel for one month in 1st class.
- The pass is not available to residents of BiH, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia or Turkey.
- Prices from the US are US$255/204/153/128 for adult/senior/youth/child.
- Check www.raileurope.com for the latest information.
The Eurail pass allows unlimited travel in 24 countries, including Croatia and Slovenia.
- The pass is available to non-European residents only.
- Prices start at €369, with a 35% discount for youth, 50% for children under 11, and 15% for groups of two to five people.
- Eurail passes also result in discounts for some ferry routes.
- Check www.eurail.com for the latest information and purchases.
The Eurail Select pass allows travel in three, four or five neighbouring countries, including Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Serbia.
- The chosen countries must be connected by rail or ferry.
- The pass is available to non-European residents only.
- Prices start at €234/262/288 for three/four/five countries.
- Montenegro and Serbia are classified as one country for the purposes of this pass, as are Croatia and Slovenia.
- Check www.eurail.com for the latest information and purchases.
One country pass
If you are intending to travel extensively within one country, you may consider purchasing a one country pass. One country passes are available for all countries in the Balkans other than Albania and Kosovo.
- Prices vary per country; you will have to travel extensively to make it financially worthwhile but will save time and hassle of purchasing tickets that don’t require reservations.
- See individual country chapters for information on national rail passes.
- European residents should purchase InterRail passes, non-European residents should purchase Eurail passes.
- Go to www.interrail.eu or www.eurail.com.
Trains are generally safe, but some petty crime does occur from time to time. Guarding against it requires the same common sense you apply normally.
- Keep your valuables on you at all times; sleep with your wallet and passport on your person and take them with you when you go to the bathroom. Keep bags closer to the window than the door.
- Some padlocks have a large enough loop to let you lock your bags to luggage racks.
- At night, make sure your door is locked from the inside.
- Most thieves strike when they can easily disembark from the train, so avoid leaving your compartment when the train is stationary.
- If you have a compartment to yourself, you can ask the steward to lock it while you go to the dining car or go for a wander outside when the train is stopped; however, be aware that most criminals strike when they can easily disembark the train, and on occasion the stewards are complicit.
- You will need to decide whether or not you trust the people who are sharing the compartment with you. If you feel particularly uncomfortable (notably if you are a woman), then arrange to move elsewhere.
With the advent of the EU, border crossing in the region has never been simpler. The only complication is crossing the Kosovo-Serbia border. Since Kosovo's independence is not recognised by Serbia, if you entered Kosovo via Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro, officials at the Serbian border will deem that you entered Serbia illegally and you will not be let in. You'll need to exit Kosovo to a third country and then enter Serbia from there. If you entered Kosovo from Serbia, there's no problem returning to Serbia.