Getting Around the Balkans

One of the first things we researched when we started our planning for the Balkans was how we were going to get from one place to the next.  We had the options of renting a car, taking the train or taking the bus.

Renting a car was a possibility except that, like most European countries, the reasonably-priced cars are manual.  I do not yet know how to drive manual and the cost of an automatic car was a bit ridiculous.  So we quickly crossed that off our list.

Then we looked into the train.  Trains are a great option for most of Europe so this was our logical next choice.  The trains in Germany are pristine and on time and ubiquitous.  And travel throughout the European Union is practically seamless.  (Well, it was.)  But when we started to look up trains in the Balkans, we noticed that no trains went to Bosnia.  There was no point in paying money for a train pass if we could only use it in two of the three countries.  Here’s what the Eurail map looks like:

Eurail Select Pass: One rail pass for up to 4 countries
The orange countries are Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The white hole in the middle? Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo from Eurail.com)

(We later found out that the reason the trains don’t go through BiH, is because they never found a reason for the railroads to be repaired after the war. With loads of foreign investment going into the other former Yugoslavian states, they were able to rebuild their railroad lines.  But it never happened in BiH so those lovely Croatian railroads basically just stop at the border.)

Then, one of our Airbnb hosts told us that everyone travels by bus and if we just show up at the bus station the day of to get tickets, it wouldn’t be a problem.

So, that’s what we decided to do and she was right.  We never had a problem buying a bus ticket to anywhere.  Not only that, the tickets to anywhere in the Balkans are really inexpensive so it’s well worth it.

The buses are coach buses so quite comfortable and there are numerous different bus companies.  But you don’t have to worry about looking up a bus company to get a ticket.  Just go to the ticket office and tell them where you are going and they will give you all the options for any day, or just the next one.  Plus, the buses go everywhere.  Now, they don’t go everywhere all the time, nor are they always direct routes, but if you are going to a major city, you will not have a problem finding a bus.  Or if you are a bit more adventurous and hoping to get to a small town, there will also be a bus to get you there.

As I said, the prices are really cheap.  Here’s what we paid for our travels, with the duration of the ride so you get an idea of the distance.  These are one-way tickets for one person. (Dollar amounts are in Canadian dollars.)

Zagreb to Split:  95 HRK ($19.52), 5-6 hours

Split to Dubrovnik: (can’t find the receipt but it was approximately the same as Zagreb-Split), 5-6 hours.

Dubrovnik to Kotor:  145.30 HRK ($29.86), 2 hours with three border crossings (into BiH, out of BiH and back into Croatia, then out of Croatia and into Montenegro).

Mostar to Sarajevo:  19 KM ($15.29), 2.5-3 hours.

Sarajevo to Zagreb:  29.72 KM ($23.92), 8-9 hours (with one border crossing).

Sounds wonderful!  And it is for the most part.  The busses are comfortable and the bus stations are usually fairly centrally-located so it’s either a short walk or a short taxi ride to wherever you are going.  And it’s a great way of seeing the landscape of the country.

But there are a few things you might want to know about busses in the Balkans before you get on one.

  1. There are no bathrooms on the bus.  And they only stop every 2.5 – 3 hours for a rest break.  So if you feel like you even slightly need to go, then pay the 3 HRK or 1 KM to go to the bathroom at the station.
  2. Always have small change and toilet paper (or tissues) when using the bus station toilet.
  3. Bus stations have storage lockers for a minimal fee if you want to make a stop in a place for just a few hours (like we did in Mostar) before moving on.
  4. There is no food on the bus.  So bring your own.
  5. Smokers, just because the driver steps off the bus and lights up, doesn’t mean you can.  
  6. The seats are assigned but not everybody pays attention to it.
  7. The busses are always late.  Always.  Both leaving and arriving.  That’s why I gave a time range above.
  8. If you are at all prone to motion sickness, don’t forget your Gravol.  The roads in the Balkans are narrow and winding so travel is rather slow (which is fine because you really don’t want to take some of those turns any faster than 60km/h anyway) but you will spend a great deal of time swaying from one side to the other.  And if you are travelling along the coast, they are perilously close to the edge.  It can really do a number on your stomach. I went through an entire bottle of Gravol in less than two weeks.
  9. Be prepared for a noisy journey.  Our travels had a soundtrack of mechanical noises, like a staticy radio that the driver doesn’t shut off or the seat belt alert (because seat belts don’t seem to be a priority in the Balkans).  And of course, with any public transit, there are the people who think that talking on their phone is the best way to pass five hours.  I just plugged into my music to block it all out.
  10. The bus might break down.  While I’d like to think that this was just a fluke that left the lot of us standing on the side of a very busy highway, after an hour inside a broken-down, very hot bus, trying to transfer our luggage out of one bus and into another, without getting flattened by traffic, just keep it in mind.  It is the Balkans, shit happens and you can complain all you want but nobody’s going to listen and they sure as hell aren’t going to reimburse you for anything.
  11. You pay for your “checked” luggage (the bags that go under the bus).  In Croatia, it was 8 HRK ($1.64) and in Bosnia it was 3 KM ($2.40) per bag.  They get tags and you get the other side of it, with the matching number.
  12. People don’t line up.  It’s more like a free-for-all to put luggage on and to get onto the bus.
  13. There is very little carry-on space. In fact, almost none. If it doesn’t fit under the seat, be prepared to have it on your lap for the entire trip.
  14. Busses pick-up and drop-off everywhere.  If there is someone at a bus stop, they will pull over to pick them up.  If a person wants to get dropped off somewhere en route, they will let them.  While these coach busses look and feel like our long-distance busses, they make frequent stops like local busses.
  15. In Albania there is no bus station.  (We didn’t go to Albania but this is what a fellow traveller told us).  Busses just pick you up at stops.  So you buy your ticket at the bus station and you have to go to a stop (hopefully someone shows you where it is) and wait.  Show up early because when the bus arrives, it loads whoever is there and then continues on its way.  Apparently, this is because there is a fee to use the actual bus station so to avoid paying the fee, the busses just don’t stop there.
  16. Follow the crowd at border crossings.  The driver will ask for your passport at the border crossing and may not return them until you are in the final destination country.  Don’t panic.  It’s just easier for passport control this way, especially when there are frequent border crossings.  Sometimes the border guard will come onto the bus to check passports.  Sometimes you will be asked to get off the bus and go into the station, one at a time.
  17. One thing we noticed in Bosnia, that we didn’t notice in the other countries was the driver and co-driver addressed the busload of people and everyone on the bus responded.  I can speak a smattering of Russian and because Serbo-Croatian is also a Slavic language, sometimes it sounds very familiar.  I’m pretty sure they were introducing themselves.  They wished us a happy new year and the whole bus wished the bus drivers a happy new year back.  When he was finished speaking, the whole bus thanked him.  It was unusual.  But lovely and warm and so very human.  They will also tell you when you arrive at a stop if you are stopping for a break and for how long (so brush up on your Serbo-Croatian numbers) as well as if you need to get your documents and passports out for an upcoming border crossing. (Again, this won’t be in English.)

Overall, other than the hiccups mentioned in this post, we had absolutely no problems with any bus ride.  It was easy to figure out with minimal language skills.  People are very helpful if you have questions.  Many of the ticket sellers spoke enough English for us to get by (there’s less English in Bosnia but still very helpful).  The buses were just as comfortable as any coach bus in North America.  And the scenery that you see along the way is absolutely stunning.   When travelling in the Balkans, bus travel is the way to go.

Here are some photos I took from the bus window.  (Our journey to Split when we arrived and our journey to Sarajevo were in the dark so there wasn’t much to see.)

 

 

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