The Balkans Guide. What to know before you go + car rental vs public transport

In Autumn 2019, I spent four weeks backpacking the Balkans! During this period, I concentrated my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Travel days also took me briefly through Serbia, Albania and Croatia.

Before we begin…

What’s in this blog post?s

  • Practical tips for once you’ve arrived in the Western Balkans and things to look out for.
  • Budget travel tips and an idea of what things might cost
  • Comparing bus versus car travel in the Balkans
  • A quick note on planning your itinerary

I’m also not giving background or geographical info on this post, just personal insights from my experience here! The Western Balkans is an incredibly diverse region with mountains of history – it would take hundreds of pages to write a deserving introduction. With that in mind, let’s get on with it.

BE PREPARED FOR SMOKING INSIDE HOSTEL COMMON AREAS, RESTAURANTS AND CAFES

This is particularly true of places which cater mostly to locals.

You’ll find many accommodation reviews have complaints about smokers in the common area or dorm rooms smelling of smoke. Thankfully in low season, this proved to not be an issue.

It is a bit strange sitting down for lunch and having ten people smoking around you if you’re not used it though.

CAFES DON’T SERVE BREAKFAST – HEAD TO A BAKERY

You get up and brace the outdoors, searching for the sweet smell of coffee and breakfast goodies to satisfy both your hunger and caffeine addiction. I know this feeling well.

But in the Balkans? Don’t expect to kill two birds with one stone. There’s a HUGE cafe culture, but these places don’t serve food. (Or if they do, it’s usually just cake and certainly nothing vegan-friendly.)

Find the local bakery and gorge on bread, burek or sweet treats. And then head to a cafe to find coffee. Personally, I just carried cereal bars with me.

DIETARY REQUIREMENTS ARE NOT WELL CATERED FOR OUTSIDE OF CAPITAL CITIES

Okay, you’ll find veggie pizza and pasta practically everywhere, along with plates of grilled vegetables and potatoes (although once I was literally just served tomatoes and onions on a plate haha).

If you’re used to a protein-heavy diet like me and don’t eat eggs and cheese, you’ll be fine if on a week holiday but if backpacking for a month? Let’s just say it started to drain me.

Or else, FIND A PLACE WITH A STOVE and look for hummus, soy flakes, rice pasta and other similar alternatives in supermarkets. Check in the health food section of supermarkets (or in health food shops) and stock up on nuts etc.

You might also like: The Best (and Worst!) Travel Destinations for Vegan Travellers

If you don’t fancy cooking, make sure you eat well in capital cities where vegan and vegetarians are well catered for!! Everywhere from Pristina, Skopje, Tirana, Sarajevo and Podgorica had great vegan options. Find them by downloading the HAPPYCOW app on your phone, which is THE ultimate vegan food app for travellers.

When you finally find vegan food in the Balkans… 😀

The Best Vegan and Vegetarian Food in Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

IS SOLO TRAVEL SAFE IN THE BALKANS?

Yes, I felt very safe as a solo female traveller in the Balkans! Though admittedly, as a white European I didn’t stand out much.

The locals are incredibly friendly and there were no issues with cat-calling like I have experienced in some countries. It was easy to get around and I felt very safe using the buses where no one paid me any unwanted attention.

If you’re concerned stick to the main tourist trails, such as capital cities and famous historical sites. For example, Skopje and Ohrid in North Montenegro or Mostar in Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. You could also safely organised a tour with GetYourGuide or a high-rated local tour agency for day trips, though most bus routes are super safe. If you’re hiking in off-the-beaten-track locations, book with a local guide or go with people you meet at your hostel if you’re not an experienced hiker.

SIM CARDS

Unlike other European travel, you can’t pick up a multi-country sim card because most countries are not yet in the European Union. In fact, Kosovo still isn’t even recognised as a country by 5 countries in the EU!

I only bought a sim card in Bosnia & Herzegovina where they have a 7-day tourist sim card available (ask your accommodation for the nearest store). Otherwise, I travelled Wi-fi only to avoid the hassle.

BORDER CROSSINGS

Make sure you check visa requirements for each country!
As a British traveller, border crossings were very easy for me. For almost all of them, I just sat on a bus and didn’t even have to move – the border police just walked down the bus aisle and checked our passports.

Drivers should allow time for border traffic if travelling in high season when these routes can get congested.

All travellers to the Balkans should make sure there are six months left on their passport and pages left for stamps.

YOU’LL LEARN A LOT

The recent history of this region and the breakup of Yugoslavia is sadly as harrowing as it is interesting. If you’re heading to Bosnia & Herzegovina, a visit to one of their museums is must-do to learn about the horrific genocide that took place in the nineties. If you look up when walking the streets, you can still see bullet holes in the walls.

Each country has its own individual story and I highly recommend reading a little online before visiting so you have some background information. Locals are also often happy to talk to you about their part, such as the young man in Kosovo who gave me the down-low on why there are statues and images of Bill Clinton everywhere. Just be sensitive and don’t ask questions unless they’ve made clear it’s appropriate.

You will find yourself feeling huge compassion for these people and what they’ve been through. If you’re European in particular, and mid-20s or over, you’ll find yourself wondering how you didn’t learn more about this in school.

Watching a sunset over Sarajevo after a day spent visiting museums

How I spent one day in Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

WATCH OUT FOR PLASTIC STRAWS

Plastic straws are still prevalent around the Balkans. Before ordering a soft or alcoholic beverage that may come with a straw, be sure to ask for no straw.
As you can see in the photos below, whether you’re in a small city in Kosovo (Peja) or a touristic city in Croatia (Dubrovnik), you can’t avoid it.

WATER IS (USUALLY) SAFE TO DRINK

On that note, there’s no need to buy bottled water. Just bring a normal reusable water bottle and drink from the tap. If you don’t have one, I would recommend WaterToGo for their dedication to the environment. There is definitely a plastic problem within The Balkans and reducing our plastic consumption is a great way to combat it.

TRAVELLING THE BALKANS IN OFF-SEASON?

Offseason has its challenges but definite perks as well! With worse weather comes fewer crowds. Read my dedicated post on the subject here:

Backpacking the Balkans in Off Season – What to expect

You will love the natural beauty in the Balkans (Durmitor National Park in Montenegro and Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia)

HOW TO DO THE BALKANS ON A TIGHT BUDGET:

A successful budget trip to the Balkans is all about where you go. As you can imagine, the ever-expanding tourism industry in Croatia comes with ever-increasing prices. However, up-and-coming Albania and its eleven-year-old neighbour Kosovo – Europe’s newest country – promise costs that rival Southeast Asia.

KOSOVO WAS MY CHEAPEST TRIP IN EUROPE. EVER.

Personally, I found Kosovo cheapest. I had hostels here for as little as 3 euro a night. Taxis cost 3 or 4 euro and cross-country buses (such as, from Prizren to Peja) also cost as little as 3 or 4 euros. Meals out ALSO stuck to that 4 euro price point. Burek from the bakery can cost as little as 1 euro.

MONTENEGRO, NORTH MACEDONIA, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

Albania was very cheap but I wasn’t there long enough to have a full impression. My 6-bed dorm cost 10 euro though I’ve heard you can find them cheaper. In North Macedonia, I was paying 7 euro for a hostel dorm and in Bosnia & Herzegovina, I paid 8 euro. In Montenegro, I shared twin rooms with a friend for which worked out about 7/8 euros per night, though for 10 euros each we managed to find our favourite apartment of the trip. My hostel in Podgorica cost 8 euros.

In all those countries it was possible to find cheap food, particularly if visiting bakeries and buying burek for example. A meal out in a restaurant was usually 4-8 euros. I was spending around 2 euros per meal when cooking for myself. A nice meal out with a drink is usually possible to get for around 6 euros, especially if you avoid restaurants in key tourist areas.

CROATIA IS ONE FOR BUDGET TRAVELLERS TO SKIP

Croatia is a whole different board game… Food in a restaurant there is more likely to cost 8 – 15 euro, a hostel bed is hard to find for under 15 euro and a taxi to the airport cost me (yikes) 20 quid.

Thankfully I was only there for one afternoon! I found out that BOTH the activities I’d been recommended in Dubrovnik cost around 20 euros… eek! So I just walked the Old Town for free.

That said, off-beat cities and underrated natural attractions are going to be more affordable. Checking out the best things to do in Split will of course be cheaper than Dubrovnik.

FURTHER BALKANS ON A BUDGET ADVICE:

  • go to the supermarket and cook at your apartment or hostel
  • travel between countries and cities by bus or train (flights in the region are more expensive and unnecessary)
  • stay in hostel dorms for the cheapest deals or share a room with your partner/friend in a hostel or guesthouse
  • travel to big tourist cities in offseason
  • walk between key tourist attractions or go hiking

Slow travel is great for budgeteers! I spent 4 nights by Lake Ohrid, cooking one meal each day and only visiting free attractions accessible by foot

SHOULD YOU RENT A CAR OR TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN THE BALKANS?

I spent three weeks backpacking the Balkans by BUS and one week travelling by CAR.

When I asked people what they most wanted to know about my trip to the Balkans, the most common questions asked were how easy it was to travel by both travel by both bus and car, and which of the two I preferred. So much information online emphatically advises the readers to rent a car… but it’s worth noting these writers were not travelling solo. This would double the price of car travel. I couldn’t help wondering, is it even worth me visiting the Balkans if I can’t drive?

Due to these concerns – along with people worrying about the ease of renting a car – below is a list of the pros of both renting a car and travelling a bus. For more specific tips about travelling the Balkans by car, you can read more about my Montenegro road trip or driving in Bulgaria.

EASE OF GETTING INTO NATURE:

It’s so much easier to get into nature by car! You can kinda head wherever you want that has a road attached to it which is a wonderful sense of freedom. No wearily looking at the view out a bus window and wishing you could step outside. I saw so much more natural scenery in Montenegro when I had a car.

Public buses do something run to amazing locations but the information is limited. Often my hosts didn’t seem to know or else the bus schedule wasn’t convenient. For example, I wanted to hike the Rugova Valley from Peja in Kosovo. But I found out the bus only left at 7am and the return bus was at 4pm. I was getting over a bad cold at the time and didn’t fancy a four-hour wait for a bus so I didn’t go.

And potentially cheaper to get into nature too by car too. Where local buses don’t run (or run at convenient times) the only other option to get to off-the-beaten-track locations is tours. The above hike would have cost me 100USD if I’d have done it with a transfer from my hostel and guide. Of course, there may well be cheaper local companies, but none that seemed to be running in off-season. And rarely they’ll beat the cost of splitting a car.

WINNER: CAR

Views from a car versus a steamy bus window… The best part of car travel is we found that mountain on the left and could get out and take photos!

MOST LIKELY TO LEARN SOMETHING:

This is really going to depend on where you stay and what activities you choose. A car could allow you to stay a night in a local community in the middle of nowhere! However, for most people, a car is an incentive to travel ‘faster’ to make the most of the rental costs.

The upside of bus travel is because you can’t ‘see everything’ as easily, you’re more likely to travel slow. And take everything in. Travelling by bus probably means you spend more time in cities but in fairness, that’s where most of the locals live. I definitely learned far more about wars and history while travelling by bus. I was also less isolated from locals.

Honestly, the car gave me freedom but felt more like a holiday and not a backpacking adventure and I didn’t learn much about a new culture.

WINNER: BUS (but depends on the traveller)

BEST BORDER CROSSINGS?

I highly recommend booking a bus to take you over the border if possible. Renting cars for multiple countries can massively hike up prices. When searching for quotes for Albania and Montenegro, the cheapest was a mightly 50 USD! When I changed the search criteria to just Montenegro, it dropped to 15 USD. So we chose to do border crossings by bus and spent the majority of the week in Montenegro.

WINNER: BUS

MOST FLEXIBLE?

As for itinerary planning, cars make it easiest to set your own pace and get between places quickly. You can stop wherever you want and change your itinerary at the last-minute. I mean, it’s not like you have to always book buses in advance, but you can’t exactly head off-road in a bus just because you spot a camera symbol on google maps. Which is how I ended up at the place below.

WINNER: CAR

MOST COMFORTABLE?

The buses across the Balkans are modern and comfortable…. but nothing beats having your own space in the car. Setting your own temperature and blasting a Spotify playlist gives road tripping the Balkans a clear edge.

WINNER: CAR

BEST FOR SOLO TRAVELLERS:

I wouldn’t have spent the euros on a rental car in Montenegro is my mate hadn’t flown out to meet me. Worst of all, hours in a car sounds super lonely. Not to mention the thought of doing those crazy mountain roads alone.
Most of all, it sounds super lonely. Other solo backpackers are more likely to take the bus routes!

If you love driving and don’t mind the price, consider renting a car. For everyone else…

WINNER: BUS

CHEAPEST:

Car rental usually requires a daily cost, which also incentives you to drive more and spending more on petrol. Buses travel is simply a one-off cost on the day you travel. So although car rental cost me 15 euros per day and bus travel probably averaged out at around 10 euros per trip (between 3 and 20-something euro per trip), the transport savings per week were much great. Because of course, I wasn’t paying for the bus most days.
Public transport may require taking an occasional taxi but cars mean paying parking fees, so I’d say that probably evens out if you’re clever about booking accommodation with free parking,

WINNER: BUS

IF YOU’RE A NERVOUS DRIVER:

You might not appreciate the cliff-edge drops and hairpin turns that were a key feature of my Montenegro road trip. The roads in some places were being rebuilt and a terrible condition. Plus driving is widely regarded as being a bit crazy by non-locals. It’s up to you and my mate Pete didn’t have any issues with driving here… actually, he enjoyed it.

Be sure to pay for the daily insurance – it was about 12 euro a day between two of us. This will put your mind at rest.

WINNER: BUS – don’t pressure yourself to drive anywhere you’re not comfortable (but I can only speak for Montenegro)

Not all roads are born equal.

EASIEST TO PLAN:

Bus travel is super easy! In the summer you may need to plan in advance but in off-season I just rocked up to the relevant bus station 15-minutes before departure. Mostly you can buy tickets online, on the station or on the bus.

Bus schedules are fairly accurate online between key cities… but otherwise it is a headache to find accurate times. You don’t have to worry about that in a car!

Picking up a car was also easy. We booked it in advance, first using kayak.com to compare prices and then booking directly on the cheapest companies website. We also used local recommendations to use a well-known, international company which is a safer bet. In the end, we used SIXT. The whole thing was incredibly smooth.

WINNER: BOTH – buses are easy for city hopping but cars win for all-round exploration

CONCLUSION:

The Balkans is a fascinating region of Europe and in my opinion, whether you choose a car or public transport, you’re still visiting and that’s what matters!

I found travelling by bus to be super smooth and, as weird as this sounds, it felt more like backpacking. Which I mean in a positive way!

However, travelling by car gives you far easier access to the most beautiful regions and is more flexible.

Decided to travel the Balkans by bus? Perhaps these posts will help:

How to get from Sarajevo to Belgrade by bus

A scenic journey between Mostar and Sarajevo

Kotor to Dubrovnik by bus – What to expect

Getting from Prizren to Skopje by bus

Getting from Belgrade to Pristina by bus

PLANNING A BALKANS ITINERARY…

This post designed to help you plan an itinerary and doesn’t give advice on particular locAtions. However, I would recommend anyone planning a trip to the Balkans to not ‘overpack‘ your itinerary by trying to visit every country.

My own plan ended up feeling incredibly rushed, and by the time I got sick in my first week, which delayed the rest of my plans, I felt like I was on the move all the time. Perhaps you would concentrate each week on one country, with other countries visited en route considered more of transition days? This is particularly the case when travelling by bus – you don’t want to feel like you spent half the time sitting on public transport.

My Balkans itinerary:

Asides from the below itinerary, you could also begin in the Northern Balkans and visit European gems such as the thermal baths in Budapest (Hungary), Bratislava (Slovakia) or Lake Bled (Slovenia).

I have also previously spent one week in Romania – which was my favourite holiday in Europe.

If I’d have had more time, I’d have spent more time in those four key countries (and not added more to the itinerary). That’s not to say the rest of the Balkans isn’t high on my list – particularly Albania and Slovenia. However, there’s SO much to see in these regions, that visiting more countries doesn’t mean you miss out on fewer locations.

And of course, check the map while planning your trip. 😉 Bosnia & Herzegovnia is much bigger than Kosovo, as an example, and thorough exploration would take far longer.

For a weekend break, my preferred locations would be Ohrid or Sarajevo. For a full week, I’d definitely do my 1 week Montenegro roadtrip all over again!

Read more Balkans itinerary inspiration here:

Off-the-beaten-track Balkans itinerary

Let me know if you have any more questions about the Balkans! Safe travels x