Brendan and I loved the Balkans so much from the May 2019 trip (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia & Herzegovina), that we decided to set out there again, but this time go farther East – flying to Belgrade, Serbia, While we were in Sarajevo on our past Balkans trip, we had also met a traveler who spoke so highly of Belgrade that we just had to go, and that’s where we started the journey. After flying to Belgrade, we would then fly to Bucharest, Romania and drive to Brasov, Romania, and then to Bucharest. Once in Bucharest, we would join a Gate 1 small group car tour taking us throughout Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania, ultimately departing from Tirana. This was our first big trip after our Caribbean island hopping escapade over Thanksgiving 2022 to help me reach 101 countries by the time I turned 40, finally achieving the goal I set for myself as a teenager (hooray!).
Our flight out from Denver Friday night with United was direct to Munich, with a tight connection from Munich and then onward, flying to Belgrade, Serbia. The tight connection flying to Belgrade started out being problematic because of a slightly late departure, but all ended well. We also flew United Polaris, which while always a treat, and it was an especially good experience this time because we finally chose the correct seating configuration that allowed us to site side by side and pull down the shade between the seats to talk to each other. This configuration may have been a recent addition by United post-COVID to be more “couple friendly”, versus the Polaris isolation chambers United advertised during COVID, and that we experienced during our Belgium / Luxembourg / Switzerland trip in Nov 2021. I found the seating configuration of being able to talk to your partner next to you as a feature, whereas Brendan might have seen it as a bug (he enjoys watching movies in complete silence, while I like to chat a little).
United’s in-flight service was exceptional, and we noted it had improved dramatically since Scott Kirby took over from Oscar Munoz in 2020 and made customer satisfaction the top KPI to chase. The cabin attendants were friendly and attentive, with a lot of attention to detail and comfort, and even the seat configurations and options evolved to offer a more technology based and tailored Polaris experience than we had seen in 2021. For instance, after the cabin attendant learned our drink selection (vodka soda with a splash of cranberry), a second one came automatically without us having to ask. I was also very pleased to see some offerings from Justin winery (where we had just visited on our California road trip) on the wine list, which was a nice taste of home.
The only minor hitch was the meal selection. While we had both pre-selected the udon noodles in advance, only Brendan received it, as the Asian vegetarian special meal I had set up previously when booking the trip somehow overrode my later selection made only a few days prior to flying to Belgrade. The Asian vegetarian meal was tasty, but it also appeared to maybe be vegan and partially gluten-free, with a weird cardboard tasting cold roll and yogurt instead of the regular accoutrements. They did oddly throw the “vegan kitchen sink” at me though and also furnished a Kind Bar, which was handily saved for later in the trip. Dessert was awesome as usual, with a sundae bar, fruit tart, and cheese plate option on offer from the trolley.
We also both slept the best and longest we ever had before on a long-haul overnighter – 5 solid hours – and as a result did not feel like a pile of poop while arriving in Munich. On top of that, the pilot was able to make up the 45 minute delay due to waiting for people to make a tight connection from New Mexico, and ultimately arrived in Munich on time. Luckily, flying to Belgrade from Munich did not require us to go through immigration, nor get our bags and recheck them as we were dreading, since we only had a 55 minute connection time. This was due to the fact that Serbia is a non-EU country, and we were coming from a non-EU country (USA), which allowed everything to easily transfer without immigration processing. Flying to Belgrade from Munich ended up being totally fine, as the flight itself was even 30 minutes delayed. This delay allowed us to take advantage of the Star Alliance to refresh ourselves and enjoy a Bavarian pretzel.
After being checked-in and bussed from our terminal to our plane, we departed Munich quickly and also made up some of the lost time flying to Belgrade. I mostly slept while Brendan read, and soon after we had arrived in Belgrade, Serbia. Immigration was really fast, although the line was long, and our bags also came quickly. That wonderful moment when the immigration officer stamped our passports marked 102 countries for me and 72 for Brendan. That passport stamp feeling is a unique emotion I never forget, even after having experienced it so many times.
The most cumbersome part of flying to Belgrade was actually getting the taxi in the Arrivals terminal – there was a very long line and too few taxis – so we had to wait about 45 minutes to grab one. People, being people starting to get impatient and either jump the line, or jump into the taxis from the back as they were coming in down the queue. We alerted some airport officials to this behavior and the people who jumped in the taxis were kicked out so that first in first out order could resume. We also apparently needed a slip, which was only available inside the Arrivals Terminal, which stated which zone in Belgrade, Serbia we were going to and our destination (Hotel Indigo). While I waited in the queue, Brendan went back inside the terminal to get it, giving us a vague feeling of officialness that was quickly dispelled once the taxi driver decided to charge us whatever he wanted anyways, and of course claim to not take credit card. To his credit, he did have to take a detour since the main road an bridge into the Belgrade Old Town area was closed due to demonstrations. What should have cost 35 Euros cost $50 USD, but at least everyone in Belgrade took dollars (we decided not to get any local currency yet since we would only be in Serbia for a few days).
We rolled in to our hotel late Saturday afternoon after walking a brief bit from the main road into the pedestrian zone, locating the vague Hotel Indigo signage ushering us into a courtyard, and going up the elevator to the main lobby which was on the first floor (second floor in US). Check-in was easy and we already started to chat to the front-desk attendant about tour options the following day and dinner options that evening. She suggested the hotel restaurant, which led to several internal eye rolls on our part. She was kind and efficient, and would get back to us later with information about tour options and costs for the following day.
The hotel room at Hotel Indigo was small, modern, and charming, offering local décor and touches that welcomed you into the Serbian culture, such as a Serbian woven design on both the run and bed pillows, and pictures of Belgrade throughout the bedroom and bathroom. The only thing off-putting about the room was the temperature in the room, which would not go below 21 Celsius on the register, and it actually felt much warmer than that, and made sleeping very difficult. The lobby and the hallways were cooler, which we didn’t quite understand. To be fair, there was a heat wave throughout Europe at the time, and most places, Belgrade included were not built for heat in the high 90s.
All in all though, we were quite satisfied, as we had finally arrived, and flying to Belgrade, Serbia was all in all very smooth!