This is the final blog for our epic adventure through the Balkans, and I wanted to focus it on lessons learned on the road during the Balkans road-trip. Starting in Ljubljana and ending in Zagreb, we probably drove over 1,500 miles, crossed six countries (five new countries for Brendan and four for me), had two separate cars due to a flat tire, dealt with parking, livestock, crazy drivers with death wishes, police stops and speed traps – pretty much everything you can think of.
Here is a recap of lessons and #travelhacks for others planning a Balkans road-trip adventure.
- Driving in middle of road expected on smaller roads. One of the characteristics of drivers in this region is a a relaxed interpretation of road rules. On highways, lanes are adhered to, but not on country and mountain roads. You will definitely see oncoming traffic driving in the middle of a small 2 lane road, and they will eventually get over as you pass them. This can become dangerous when taking sharp turns on some of the mountainous roads, so honking as you go around a tight turn isn’t the worst idea on your Balkan road-trip.
- Spare bill handy in Bosnia for bribes. Upon crossing the border from Croatia to Bosnia, we were stopped by the Bosnian side, not to issue our entry stamp, but to collect a 5 Euro crossing fee. We checked with one of our Bosnian guides about this and he said it’s not a real thing – it’s a bribe. He explained that police and border officials get paid nothing – and survive in part off of these “5 Euros here 5 Euros there” payments, mostly from tourists. The border guard specifically told us “paper, no metal” – so keep a few 5 Euro notes tucked away in various areas. This also limits the amount you would have to give at any one time (because they won’t see the other money you have), which is a good general best practice to follow when travelling in slightly less developed countries.
- Expect roundabouts. Just like in the UK, roundabouts are everywhere. Google Maps will help you navigate them by stating “take your second right”. We found the roundabouts to be be fairly efficient and good a way to keep traffic moving on our Balkans road-trip.
- This confusing road sign leaves you scratching your head. If you see this sign, don’t stop and turnaround – in fact, keep going, because it’s telling you specifically NOT to stop. We had an instance where we saw it, thought we were going the wrong way on a one-way street in Lake Bled, and ended up stopping to look up with the road sign meant. We disobeyed the road sign unintentionally by our confusion.
- Spare tire in trunk from rental car company is a must. We wished we had followed our own advice here and checked the rental car we were given for the spare tire accoutrements. We ended up with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere Croatia, and at that point learned that we only had an air patch kit and no spare tire. The outcome is that we wasted a day waiting for our rental car company, Sixt, to solve our problem for us using a method that was least favorable to us (tow-truck and lots of time lost). If you can’t arrange for a spare tire, arrange for a proper patch kit that can take you 50-100 miles. While the risk of needing the spare is low, a little bit of preparation will save you a huge headache on your Balkans road-trip.
- Flash lights if you’ve seen a cop to help others. We found this etiquette to be quite universal – everybody helping everybody else out to avoid traffic violations. Nobody likes police anywhere! Do you part to contribute to society while on the road and help out a fellow driver.
- Day time running lights must be on always. We found this to be a law in many of the countries we visited, and luckily the automatic mode on your car should have it covered. But, double check to be safe so that you remove the risk of getting pulled over and facing a fine.
- International drivers licence not needed but still recommended. This is something we completely forgot about getting in advance of our Balkans road-trip. Technically you need one, but the rental car companies don’t care and will still rent to you if you don’t. Only if you get pulled over could it be a problem (and luckily we avoided this situation). It was also never a problem at the borders – passports and the car insurance/registration is what they cared about.
- Car insurance/registration. As mentioned above, make sure this is handy at all border crossings. We were asked for it 60% of the time, but never had a problem with what Sixt had provided for us.
- Passing on left on two lane roads common even in mountain passes. If you are going 10 kmph or slower over the speed limit, people will certainly pass you. Locals are more used to driving the roads and are fairly aggressive in their driving. Even though it’s dangerous, they may even pass you while going around curves on two lane roads. Be aware.
- Research parking in advance in cities and make reservations with hotels. We found that, even though we chose certain hotels due to their claims of free parking or parking in general (paid), it wasn’t guaranteed. You need to contact the hotel in advance and make a reservation, because they may have limited spaces. In Kotor, we waited too long and when we finally did contact them a few days in advance, their parking was already booked, so we had to park at a higher cost lost until their lot opened up. Additionally, our parking experience in Split was complicated and we weren’t even sure how to pay once we got into a lot – worth checking on in advance, specifically with your AirBnB or hotel. It will save you time and money later.
- Gas station bathrooms are clean. Don’t hesitate to stop at gas stations to use the restrooms. We found them consistently clean and well-maintained. We do recommend, like anywhere else, to try to spend some money while doing so – whether it’s a cup of coffee or gas.
- Hide luggage in trunk. While we had no problems with theft or security on our Balkans road-trip, it’s still common sense to not be a target of opportunity. Hide your belongings out of sight if possible. Once we got the slightly larger Fiat, we were able to keep all of our suitcases in the trunk (e.g. in Mostar), with only a small amount encroaching on to the back seat. We were able to cover the bag that forced the smaller side of the backseat to not close all the way with a jacket to keep it totally hidden.
- Tep wireless is great to have. Cheap and reliable wi-fi when you’re driving is very helpful for directions but also for looking things up along the way, researching things to do later, making reservations, and passing the time. We ended up purchasing a Tep for this trip after our great experience with it on the cruise. Wi-fi access cost us $7.99 a day, and Tep threw in some discounts and free passes for us when we purchased the unit. We had coverage everywhere except for Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- Don’t trust Google, trust signs. Google led us astray multiple times due to preferencing distance as the crow flies over road conditions and speed limits. We can only assume that Google has not built up enough crowd-sourced information in the Balkans, which is why the algorithm only factored in shortest path. If you are trying to get to Sarajevo, and you see a sign that says “Sarajevo – this way” – follow the sign and do not listen to Google. Google will take you on crazy ass tiny, slow, windy, and even dirt roads that appear to be faster distance wise but in fact are not. The only thing listening to Google will do in these situations is cause you stress driving through sub-par road conditions, cause you to incur a time penalty in the end, and provoke arguments with your driving mates.
- Fewer numbers in highway names mean larger, better roads. Similar to the advice above, you may be able to trust Google if it is putting you on seemingly major roads. Like M1, M2, M3 as opposed to M1234. M1234 will likely be a two lane country road. M1 will likely be a major artery or highway.
- Take animal crossings seriously, especially in rural areas. Animal crossings (cows, sheep, wild board, deer), especially in Bosnia, was not just a curiosity – we often saw herds of animals near the roadside where the signs were. Proceed with caution through animal crossings on your Balkans road-trip. To our chagrin, we never did spot any wild boar on the sides in Croatia.
- Ad hoc lights for construction zones. We really like how the Balkans handled construction zones that created one-way roads. Rather than having to post humans at every work-zone to direct the flow of traffic, we saw makeshift lights put up that would function as normal stoplights. Red one-way and green the other. We found this to be very efficient, and they always worked.
- Thank you when you hit the speed limit. We loved the speed limit signs that dynamically sensed your speed and gave you positive reinforcement when you were going under the speed limit or slowing down. When you hit the speed target, you were rewarded with a “Hvala!” (thank you) or a smiley face. We mostly saw these signs in Slovenia, but there were a smattering of them everywhere. US city planners take note – this is a great way to engage your audience and reinforce good behavior and safe driving – especially with millennials!
- News always at the top of the hour across all radio stations. You will generally not have a problem finding radio stations with music you’d recognize from the west, and we found radio to be a neat way to further understand the culture and interests of the countries we were driving through. However, at the top of the hour, every hour, wherever you are in the progress of a song you were enjoying – the song will cut-off and you will be subjected to 10 minutes of news. Every radio station will do this at the same time, making it impossible to avoid. We wondered whether this was a legacy of the Communist era and propaganda broadcasts.
All in all, we had an epic Balkans road-trip adventure and it was a good contrast to the cruise or the guided tour we took on our previous two vacations. Our conclusion is that we like to cycle the type of trips we take – between turnkey trips like cruises or guided tours and trips like these, where we have to do all of the work. There are definitely advantages to driving yourself over taking buses, cruises, or guided tours – you have more flexibility, get to experience more interactions with regular people, get more of a sense of how people live, and have opportunities for more spontaneity. The downside is a little more stress and having to pay attention, as the buck stops with you. We like the challenges that come with it, as it keeps us on our toes, and reminds us that we still know how to travel. Would we travel like this every time? Absolutely not. But, it’s important for us to do every third trip or so – if for no other reason than to remind us that we CAN!