While most people know and love Greece, Croatia and Bulgaria, have you ever even heard of Kosovo or Macedonia? And there are so many more countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Hungary.
Each of them with a unique and oftentimes untouched landscape, inhabited by warm-hearted people of various cultures, religions and languages. With most of these countries still relatively unknown they allow for wonderful travel off the beaten track.
Especially if you are planning on discovering the hidden and poorly accessible (arguably the most interesting) parts of the Balkans, a 4x4 is the best way to get around. Throw in some camping equipment and you are ready for your epic road trip.
To ensure a hassle-free and adventuresome trip, read these tips about road conditions, border crossings, road tolls and much more.
The streets of the Balkans have a reputation and it isn’t a good one. Knowing this, we prepared for the worst. After a month of visiting almost every country there is on the Balkans, I can honestly say: there were streets that pleasantly surprised us and easily kept up with Western standards, and then there were those roads that were practically non-existent.
Within the Cities
As long as you just want to stay within the more densely populated areas, you should be fine with any regular car. Most Balkan countries have decent motorways. There were some rough parts every once in a while, but other than that, most motorways allowed for fast driving. The max speed is usually 130kmh, but you always find signs after border crossings to let you know the country’s limit. Most of the time the motorways have two lanes in each direction although one lane was oftentimes closed due to construction and speed reduced to 60kmh.
Within cities you will likely find a good infrastructure. Especially in countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union you will find wide boulevards with lots of rotaries in every bigger town that are easy to navigate.
Outside the populated areas
As soon as you are outside town limits or get off the big streets though you will see a different picture: streets with large potholes in their surfacing or no asphalt at all, debris and garbage on the roads and unsecured slopes with high risk of falling rocks. Oftentimes, roads will be simple gravel tracks or muddy trails and they might even lead you through (semi-) dried up river beds.
As adventurers with the right cars and equipment, these were obviously the roads we chose and if that’s what you are looking for then you will love the Balkans. If, however, you only mean to reach your destination in a safe manner with a standard car, then some roads will be impassable for you.
A word of warning: Do not be fooled by the locals’ way of driving. They might drive that gravel track up the hill during night with a 50-year-old station wagon that you can hear a mile before you see it. That doesn’t mean that you should, too. These people probably drive that road every week, they know all its turns, twists, holes and bumps. You don’t, however, so stay safe and only take those roads that you and your car are DEFINITELY capable of.
To know which roads are fine, you should check maps of the area and ask someone knowledgeable beforehand. That can either be a local or another traveler. We were oftentimes asked if this or that road was passable with a regular car and we had to honestly tell them no many times. In these cases, ask for an alternative route or check if there are any ways to get there without your car. Many areas with tourist potential offer 4x4 rides from nearby towns for decent rates so ask around if that exists for your destination.
Be aware that not all routes marked on maps or GPS devices are actually open or drivable. In mountain regions the melting of the snow during spring fills the vast riverbeds that are dry during the rest of the year with massive amounts of water and can flood roads, making them impassable. Same during the winter, only that at that time of the year the streets are covered in snow and ice, making them impassable all the same. Always ask a knowledgeable local before attempting to drive a road during these seasons.
Local drivers on the road often drive way too fast and careless. They tailgate everyone that dares to drive at the speed limit and initiate dangerous overtaking maneuvers, especially in front of bends. Most drivers don’t seem to have ever heard of the term ‘safety distance’ and happily nudge the backside of your car. Don’t let them push you into risky driving on your part, just keep calm and steady and stay alert.
Also, particularly Albanians, seem to live true to the motto ‘Every spot is a parking spot’. After two weeks in the country we didn’t even bat an eye at someone parking in the middle of a big junction anymore. Especially popular are busy crossings, sharp curves, actual parking sites in third and fourth row blocking everyone else and pretty much every other (in)convenient spot.
While you might have to be more concentrated and aware of your surroundings when driving in the Balkans because of their reckless driving habits, we still thought it was somewhat charming. They don’t really do signs, and traffic doesn’t seem to follow any obvious rules. Yet, it works perfectly fine and accidents are less common than in most western countries. A functioning chaos, at least to the inexperienced observer.
Most importantly to know: opposed to many other countries, honking is usually not a sign of rudeness or annoyance on the Balkans. Instead it serves as a way of communicating, to say thank you as much as give a thumbs up in appreciation of your car.
Most countries on the Balkans charge road tolls for their motorways. There are, however, two different types: country-wide road toll and road-specific toll.
Albania and Montenegro have tolls only for some newer bridges and tunnels. Kosovo doesn’t take road tolls at all.
Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia sell Vignettes, a road tax disc that you pay for once and which is then valid for all roads in that country for a specific amount of time (e.g. 5 days, 10 days, 1 month). However, there might still be special motorways or tunnels where you must pay an additional road-toll so check that when you plan your route.
Be aware that you will have to get a Vignette at a designated gas station or online in advance BEFORE you cross borders into these states. There will be no control stations on the motorways where you can buy them as you do with the road-specific tolls. Most of the time, the Vignettes will be controlled through video surveillance, so make sure you have a valid one stuck visibly to your windshield.
All other countries on the Balkans (Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Greece, Croatia) take road-specific toll. That means that you will need to bring coins. LOTS of coins.
Unless you stay longer in one country and will need to get local currency anyways, your best option is to pay in Euros. The prices range between 0.50€ and 3€ and they oftentimes can’t change into Euros, so make sure you always have enough 50 cents, 1€ and 2€ coins at hand.
If you are not in a hurry you might want to avoid the motorways altogether as the tolls can quickly add up. On our way through Macedonia we had to stop every 20 minutes for another road-toll station, I’m not even kidding. I think we paid about 40€ in total just to cross that country.
You can find the current regulations and road toll / Vignette prices on the following websites:
· The AA
· ADAC (only available in German)
As the Balkan is home to 13 countries, traveling to one of the southern ones means that you will cross through a lot of the others. Our recent trip to Albania for example led us through 12 different countries on our way. An experience only Europe can offer.
Being part of the EU is meant to allow for fast and unproblematic crossing. Lately, however, a problem has arisen with that. Due to political debates concerning refugees, lots of borders have been put back up or have tightened their controls. This can be particularly problematic for those traveling from the Balkans to Western Europe as that is the route most refugees take. Consequently, there are thorough inspections of cars that look like they could be smuggling refugees. While you might not be controlled if you don’t fit the search pattern you will still have to wait in line, sometimes for hours on end. Be prepared for miles long traffic holdups in front of the border crossings.
Note: I think this should be absolutely clear anyways but just to make sure: DO NOT, under no circumstances, allow a hitchhiker, or anyone you do not know personally, to ride in your car during border crossings unless you want to be arrested for smuggling of migrants.
We personally experienced the longest holdups on the northern route through Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. While we were told that the Southern route, especially the entry into Croatia, Austria and Italy was the most problematic, we experienced comparatively little stress there. That might be, however, because we were taking that route late in the year at the end of September, when there isn’t as much holiday traffic on the roads. In all cases, be prepared for long waiting times and make sure you have your passport and car documents ready at hand.
Kosovo & Serbia
Finally, I want to mention one particular border crossing that is very confusing and tricky to navigate.
The two states in question are Kosovo and Serbia. As you might have heard on the news, there is a difficult relationship between those two nations due to Serbia claiming Kosovo as part of their country, similar to the case of Russia and the Ukraine. This only affects you, however, if you want to do the following:
· travel to Kosovo by plane or through any neighboring country except Serbia
· enter Serbia from Kosovo
· try to leave Serbia
In that case Serbia will classify you as an illegal passenger. So, if you want to visit Kosovo (and you should, it’s beautiful) you need to make sure that you either enter AND leave through Serbia or leave out Serbia altogether.
When we told friends and family about our plans to travel to Albania, most of them had the same reaction: “But isn’t that dangerous?”
Especially in Western Europe, the Balkans have a bad reputation when it comes to safety. I’m not sure where these prejudices come from, but I can ensure you that they are mostly that: prejudices. Against all warnings of car theft, robbery, armed assaults and gang crime, what we actually found on the Balkans were some of the kindest and most generous people we had ever met.
A month of traveling through the big cities, the small towns and the rural areas and yet we didn’t encounter a single problem or ever felt unsafe. Not even that one time we got lost and accidentally entered a hidden military restricted zone did we feel threatened by the armed soldiers. They simply told us that we were strictly not allowed here and continued to point us in the right direction. We were even waved goodbye by them.
Certainly, you should still be careful on your travels, especially at night. But this applies to travel in any country. It’s always possible that something happens so you should use your common sense and gut feeling to avoid unsafe situations.
For the unlikely event that something does happen to you, make sure that you and your belongings are properly insured.
Before your departure check on the website of your country’s foreign office for any travel warnings or other safety instructions.
Have you traveled to the Balkans before? Share your experiences in the comments below!
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