On my most recent trip to the Balkans, I spent a lot of time getting from one place to the next. There were surprises, random detours, many “I wish I had known!” moments—and all of it required a lot of patience. While undoubtedly some of this advice will apply to the other southeastern European countries in the Balkans, this is specifically for the countries I’ve been to: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. So to help out other travelers, here’s a guide for transportation in the western Balkans—planes, trains, automobiles, and everything in between!
There are lots of airports and flight connections in, out, and around the western Balkans. The Eastern European budget airline Wizz Air is king in these areas, and offers incredibly cheap flights if you can time it right (just double and triple check their carry-on baggage policy), although other budget airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet also have low fares. Perhaps because of historic links to the former Ottoman Empire in the area, many of the countries are connected to Istanbul (Turkey). The best airports for connections to the rest of Western Europe are probably those on coastal Croatia: Dubrovnik, Split, and tiny Zadar airport. Flights from Belgrade airport may not be the cheapest (many through the national carrier, Air Serbia), but offer connections with much of Western Europe.
In Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sarajevo’s airport has very limited flights, and the tiny Mostar airport operates more or less only to/from Italy, due to Mostar’s proximity to the pilgrimage site Medjugorje. In Montenegro, Tivat airport has flights only to Russia, Serbia, Ukraine and Manchester (United Kingdom), and the capital Podgorica again only has a few connections with Western Europe, Istanbul, Russia, and Serbia.
Bulgaria (specifically Sofia) has a plethora of flights all over Europe, particularly through Wizz Air. Romania’s many airports are serviced by several budget airlines throughout the region and Europe in general. Due to the fact that Greece is made up of many islands, there are many different options for flights again through budget airlines all across Europe. As always, check Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.com) for the best prices.
Trains are incredibly popular in Europe, and many people think the best way to see Europe is by train! Unfortunately, that logic more or less doesn’t apply to the Balkans. Trains may be good for getting to the region, or for capital-to-capital long haul journeys (I took the night train from Budapest to Belgrade as my entry point to the Balkans, which you can read about here). But besides that, trains will almost always be less frequent, more expensive, and take longer than buses. While places in Western Europe have frequent and fast trains, trains tend to be infrequent and just simply not the way to travel in the western Balkans.
If trains aren’t the way to travel in the Balkans, buses are the way to go in the Balkans. Coach buses tend to have frequent connections, from capital cities to small towns, and are typically very cheap. In general, you won’t need to book most buses in advance, and can simply turn up and buy a ticket before departure. Always check and ask how much the price for a return is, as it may be cheaper than your one-way ticket. You can buy tickets in advance through websites like Bus Croatia (www.buscroatia.com) linked to Get By Bus (www.getbybus.com), or through Autotrans (www.autotrans.hr) linked to Eurolines (www.eurolines.com). I wouldn’t necessarily advise this, as shared shuttles (see below) will often be a much better option if you have some flexibility.
Buses in the western Balkans can be quite different to more “normal” coaches in Europe and the West in general. Bus routes probably won’t go in a straight or logical route, instead swinging through large cities, small towns, and villages on the way to the destination. Coaches aren’t limited to stops only at bus stations—they will frequently stop to pick up random people on the side of the road. Because of these reasons, buses can sometimes take a REALLY LONG TIME to get to your destination. The route from Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina, to Kotor, Montenegro, is a 4-hour drive, and my bus was supposed to take 6 hours. Instead it took 9 hours. Let’s just say, it was a long day.
Other lovely quirks concerning buses in the Balkans are the extra fees. Many bus stations (particularly in Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Montenegro) will charge a fee to enter the station. Typically, it’s around 1€ per person or less. If you buy your ticket from the station, this usually isn’t a problem—but if you have bought your ticket online in advance, then you may have to pay. While this policy ensures that the only people in the bus station are those actually taking buses, it’s seriously annoying. Most bus drivers will also charge you for your luggage—any bags that go in the hold will typically cost 1-2€ each. Despite these fees, coach buses will usually offer the cheapest option for transport in the region.
If there was one thing I wish I had known about before I traveled in the Balkans, it would be the popularity and ease of minibuses or shared shuttles. These can vary from a large van, to four people squished into some random Serbian guy’s car. Private shuttles can save you lots of time if you can be flexible with your schedule—for instance, my hostel in Kotor (Montenegro) had shuttles every few days to cities in Albania, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, you just needed to have a minimum of 3 or 4 people to go. While they do cost more than a bus, they tend to be much faster. Some shuttles, like the one I took from Belgrade to Sarajevo, was door-to-door: I was picked up at my hostel in Belgrade, and dropped off at my hostel in Sarajevo. I was happy to pay a bit of a higher price for the convenience.
Typically, you make the reservation and the company will then match you with other passengers who are traveling the same route that day—you won’t necessarily get to choose the time. Remember that you will most likely pay the driver in cash, so make sure you ask what currency you should pay in, and that you have enough cash to pay if you’re crossing borders into a different currency.
If you’re looking for minibuses in northern Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and Austria, I used GoOpti (www.goopti.com) to get from Ljubljana to Venice. I used Gea Tours (www.geatours.rs) to get from Belgrade to Sarajevo. Both journeys had rest stops so we could get out, stretch our legs, get some snacks, smoke, or use the bathroom if we wanted. I’d recommend both of them, but there are plenty more shuttle operators out there though!
Of course ferries are most utilized in Greece. But ferries are also important in other coastal areas, such as Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia. Especially given the popularity of the Dalmatian coast, there are lots of ferry operators to the islands of coastal Croatia. I only took one ferry (on a daytrip to Lokrum from Dubrovnik), but popular places like Hvar and Korcula have ferries.
In general when it comes to cars in the Balkans, renting is easy and driving is crazy. Renting a car can be really cheap, but will usually only be the best option if you’re staying in one country—one-way fees can be astronomical (like $2000… yeah no) and companies either won’t offer a rental through multiple countries, or will have another high fee to drive in multiple countries. Gas does tend to be much cheaper in the Balkans than in Western Europe. And as always, a car gives you the freedom to see anything you feel like (which may be inaccessible with public transport), on your own time schedule.
The roads are not always in good condition: while the scenery of the mountains in Montenegro was incredible, we came to a large roadblock of rocks in the middle of the road. Getting out to investigate, it transpired that the road had fallen off the side of the mountain, so we were at the edge of a cliff on top of a mountain.
Through much of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia, there were only a few tunnels—which meant incredibly steep, narrow, winding, think-you’re-going-to-die-any-second kinds of roads to get around. People in the Balkans also tend to do what they like when driving, and that includes overtaking/passing even on sharp turns and driving well over the speed limit. There will also be some sort of traffic, either due to construction or to herds of animals.
Transportation in Europe varies greatly depending on which region you are in. The best and most efficient modes of transport, and the frequency they run, might be different across borders. Overall, my recommended transportation in the western Balkans is either by bus or minibus/shared shuttle. The Balkans are an incredible region that definitely deserve to be explored!
Have you ever been to the Balkans? What was your experience with transportation?! Any tips you recommend?