As part os Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, are still developing when it comes to tourism, I thought I’d pass on some tips for fellow travellers that may be of use if you’re planning a similar trip to our recent one.
Initially we thought about picking up a hire car in Split and then driving it all the way to Belgrade, but the problem was that in going to another country, every company then whacked a relocation fee on top of the hire fee, making it too expensive to justify. Public transport it was then.
Travelling around Bosnia and Serbia is not the easiest, however, as the infrastructure just isn’t there yet, so it’s harder to be spontaneous about how to get to places. Trains are pretty much non-existent, but there are buses, and with some forward planning you should be fine.
It’s always a good idea to have your passport with you when moving between the Balkan countries and Hungary — the Schengen Agreement doesn’t come into effect until you get further west.
Split to Mostar
To get from Split to Mostar there are lots of coaches leaving from Split’s bus station. It takes about 3 and a half hours, cost about £12 each and the coach was air conditioned, and even had free wi-fi. Don’t be alarmed if you have to get off the bus and transfer to a second one once you’ve gone over the border. And do remember to keep your passport on you and not in the luggage hold as once you cross from Croatia to Bosnia, the driver takes everyone’s passports for border control. Having to get off the bus and explain to a stern-looking driver and border official that I needed to fish them out of the hold was not a fun experience. Again, handing over your passport to a complete stranger and watching it disappear from your sight is a little alarming, but it was all fine.
To get to Kravice from Mostar we hired a car, from the car hire place next to the train station. They spoke good English and while we got their last and most rubbish car, everything was fine. Pre-book if you can to make sure you get one and that it’s not as shit as ours was. It’s not as cheap as you think it’s going to be to do the actual hiring (I can’t remember the exact cost but I think it was around £50) but the petrol is cheap and it’s definitely worth it to experience the waterfalls. Bosnians take a somewhat random approach to driving (although it’s nothing compared with the Italians), so be prepared for people to turn off the road without warning.
Also, do not use the Google map directions as to where the car park is for the waterfalls. We did, and ended up going down this terrifyingly narrow bumpy single track, which ended in what I can only describe as an ‘unofficial’ car park that a few locals seemed to know about. I can only tip my hat to S for his calm head and calm driving, as I would have been having a panic attack at the thought of navigating a car over all the rocks. There’s another more official entrance which is the one to aim for – ask at the car hire place.
Mostar to Sarajevo
To get from Mostar to Sarajevo, there are two options: bus or train. They take about the same length of time, three hours, but the difference is that the buses are way more frequent – there are only two trains, around 7am and 7pm, whereas there are around 6-7 buses per day. They both follow the same route too, which is one of the most stunning I have ever travelled – think mountain passes and sparkling blue lakes. The train is around £4.50 and the bus about £6, which compared with British prices is an absolute steal.
Sarajevo to Belgrade
Sarajevo to Belgrade is a lot trickier. There are flights, although they’re quite expensive, and public buses take around 9 hours, so we originally opted for a private minibus transfer with http://www.gea.rs that would take around 5 hours, leave in the afternoon and cost 20 EUR each. I found this company really hard to communicate with, however, and on the day of our actual transfer, they were running three hours late due to a problem at the border, which meant we wouldn’t have arrived in Belgrade until midnight at the earliest. Add this to torrential rain and driving in the dark on mountain roads, and we decided to cancel the trip and hire a car, partly because they didn’t have any seats on the next morning’s minibus and partly because we didn’t feel the company was trustworthy. Ironically, we then ended up having to pay the relocation fee that we hadn’t wanted to pay in the first place, but it was a cheaper and more convenient option than flying and we really had limited options at this stage. The drive took around five hours and was very scenic, particularly the first part going through the mountains. Although after seeing the hairpin bends, I was very grateful we’d stayed another night in Sarajevo and not been on a minibus negotiating them in the dark and the rain.
If you take the hire car route, make sure you have the right paperwork for crossing the border – this should be standard with the bigger hire places but it doesn’t hurt to check. You’ll need to show this and your passports at the border between Bosnia and Serbia, and also be prepared for a bit of a wait here – it took us about 20 minutes to get through, but it can be more.
Belgrade to Budapest
Belgrade to Budapest has a good train service, and as it takes around eight hours we opted for an overnight one to make the most of our time there (and save on a night’s accommodation). The woman at the international ticket desk at Belgrade ticket office was hilariously unhelpful and with the deadest of deadpan expressions, but hey, I don’t speak Serbian so I guess I should be grateful we could order our tickets in English. Ask for the 15 EUR ticket, which gets you a bed in a four-berth cabin. There is also the ‘Russian carriage’ option, which is much fancier and I think is named because it then continues onto Russia after Hungary, but this was a lot more expensive — around £50 per person. Be aware that you will be woken up twice in the night by the border guards – first by Serbian guards and then by Hungarians, both of whom want to see your passport. The beds are the typical fold down ones found on trains (similar to those in Thailand and India), and you get a blanket, sheet and pillow. Also be aware that everyone smokes in Serbia, and your carriage will probably be full of smoke wafting in from people lighting up in the corridors. At over 6’2”, S also struggled to physically fit in this bed, so tall people take note! The train arrives into Budapest’s Keleti station, which is in the south of Buda and has excellent metro, tram and bus connections, as well as left luggage lockers.
Budapest to Vienna
Once you’re in Budapest, everything travel-wise becomes a lot simpler and a lot more modern (and also more expensive, obviously, but that’s the pay off). There’s a frequent train service from Budapest’s Keleti station to Vienna’s Hauptbanhof, which takes 2 hours. We pre-booked our seats and got one in second class for 19 EUR and one in first class for 29 EUR, which was much cheaper than buying on the day at the station. Check both the Hungarian railways website and the Austrian one as they have individual ticket allocations. I very kindly gave S the first class ticket, but ironically, I had a much nicer seat in an open carriage with a huge amount of leg room, whereas he was in an old-fashioned carriage with the individual compartments, sharing with three very grumpy people! Hungary and Austria are part of the Schengen Agreement so you won’t have to show your passport to go between the countries.
Split to Dubrovnik
I also thought I’d include an answer to a query about driving from Split to Dubrovnik that I struggled to find a definitive answer to on the internet when we went on our Croatian trip two years ago. On this route you cross into Bosnia for around 20km, going through what’s called the Neum Corridor (given to Bosnia when the countries were formed in the 90s so it had access to the sea). This is not considered by car hire places to be leaving the country, so you don’t need to worry about having the extra insurance and paperwork that you would if you’re going to Montenegro or Serbia. Do mention it, however, when you hire the car and make sure you have the car’s registration documents. There is a border at Neum and you’ll need to stop and show your passports, so have them with you.
I hope this helps if you’re planning a similar trip, and do let me know if you have any further questions as I’d be happy to give more info.