Since there aren’t many options for budget flights between Balkan countries, if you decide to go backpacking in the Balkans you’ll more than likely find yourself needing to take a bus between Balkan cities. While Balkan bus trips can be economical, they are typically far from hassle-free. In order to ensure your trip will be as pleasant as possible, make sure you follow these Balkan bus tips!
How to Find the Best Bus Routes
Websites like Rome2Rio and GetByBus offer some information about how to get around the Balkans, but most of these aren’t complete. Because Balkan bus companies don’t have great websites in English, it’s hard for aggregators to pull the correct information into their search engines. Take this Balkan bus rider’s experience:
When trying to go from Dubrovnik (Croatia) to Trebinje (Bosnia), R2R is telling me the only way is a 7-hour, 2-bus odyssey via Montenegro. I know for a fact there’s a 45-minute daily direct bus.
So when looking for the best bus routes, check the aggregators. If their information seems circuitous or complicated, then do the following:
- Google the specific route you are looking for. If there is information available online, it will probably come via a blog post or forum discussion about the specific route. This will give you the names of the companies you’re looking for, and then you can check them out individually.
- Ask locals for the best routes, especially people working at your accommodations. They are more likely to know the common bus routes available and how (and where) to buy tickets for them. They can also call the bus station to confirm for you. The smaller the town you’re in or traveling to, the less organized things will be.
- If this fails, go directly to the bus station. They will usually have the times posted.
Research Other Riders’ Experiences
Want to know if your bus will have charging ports, is likely to leave on time, or has a reputation of showing up late? Find other rider’s accounts of their trips. We are in the process of documenting the routes we take to help future passengers, but we aren’t the only blog with posted bus ride accounts. Check around.
If you can’t find a blog post that’s relatively recent, then check Facebook groups for people’s accounts. Some of the best Facebook groups for this are Travel to Eastern Europe, the Balkans and former USSR and Travel in the Balkans.
Always Pack Bus Snacks
Sometimes your bus will stop somewhere where you can buy snacks in route. Sometimes you’ll have time for a full, sit-down meal. But sometimes you’ll go eight hours without stopping for more than five minutes, or your only stop will be after you’ve crossed the border to a new country where you don’t have any local currency. So snacks and drinks are critical.
Some bus companies don’t let you bring food on board. One time on a Crete beach vacation, we rode a bus from Chania to Heraklion where the driver tried to not let us board the bus because we had a soda and a coffee with us. Luckily he didn’t find the giant thing of Oreos in my purse.
So whenever you get on a Balkan bus, have snacks and drinks. But have them tucked away in case some snack vigilante starts trying to confiscate them or worse, forcing you onto the next bus.
Even if you don’t need the snacks during your ride, you never want to be stuck on a bus in the Balkans without food since there’s always the potential that you’ll get stranded or delayed.
What to Wear on the Bus
Dress in comfortable layers. I can’t stress this enough. In a world where the printed timetable may be off by an hour or four, you don’t know how long your bus ride will actually be. So don’t wear anything that would be uncomfortable to sleep in.
Additionally, the temperature on the bus may be uncomfortable. In the summer, the air conditioning may barely work. In winter, the heater may be blasting at a level that means you’re practically boiling.
You need to be able to dress up and down for temperature, no matter what the temperature is outside.
Always go to the bathroom before you leave. Your bus may or may not have a bathroom on it. While many routes do have bathroom stops, yours may not.
If you do have a bathroom break, expect to pay to use the bathroom. Rates are different across the region, but a good rule of thumb is to have the equivalent of half a Euro in local currency at a minimum. Some bathrooms will have attendants, while at others you will pay at the machine.
Regardless of whether you use a bathroom on the bus or at a station, you’ll want to have toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you. Many (but not all) bus station and bus bathrooms will be missing toilet paper and soap.
Bring Spare Cash
If you need to buy anything on your journey, it is likely you will need to pay cash. This will come in handy when you need bathroom access, find out there’s an unexpected platform ticket charge at the station, or the roadside stand you stop for doesn’t take credit cards. If you want to know which currencies are used in which countries, check out our Balkan Currency Guide.
Get to the Station Early
Bakan bus stations can be sprawling places, or they can just be a parking lot at a hotel. Whatever the circumstances, arrive early and check in with either your bus company or the bartender who also lets people know when the bus comes. Basically, you never know what to expect until you’re physically leaving town on the bus.
We suggest getting there forty-five minutes early. Earlier if you need to buy something at the station (like bus snacks).
Don’t Expect Timetables to Be Accurate
I’ve been on buses that left hours late, and I’ve been on buses that left the minute they were supposed to. I’ve gotten places an hour early, and I’ve also arrived three hours late.
The best guideline here is the experience of other customer’s going on that exact route with that exact company, but even those can’t account for a major traffic jam on a mountain road. I’ve been stuck behind cows in Albania, sheep in Romania, and we pulled over for a passenger’s health emergency in Greece.
Follow Border Crossing Instructions
You’ll cross a lot of borders traveling the Balkans, and each border crossing is unique to the relationship between those two specific countries. Crossing from Greece to Bulgaria, we stayed on the bus while they took our passports at both countries’ booths. Going between Serbia and Bulgaria, we had to get out and line up for both.
If you get pulled out of line and questioned for any issues, like overstaying your visa, politely follow all of the border police’s instructions.
Getting to Your Accommodations Safely
Once you’ve arrived (whether early or late) and grabbed your luggage, you’ll need to get to your accommodations. If there’s an official taxi stand, like the one at the Sofia bus station, then you’ll need to use it. Don’t get in a taxi ride that’s unregistered.
Your best bet is to research the ways to avoid taxi scams at your destination. For example, we have a whole taxi guide to Sofia to help people who arrive here avoid getting scammed, and whenever we write up a bus route we always include information about how to safely leave the bus station.
If you can’t get the information ahead of time and show up, make sure you have local currency in small bills. We prefer to ask a hotel or other business to call a taxi for us. If this is not possible and you have to get in a taxi, make sure they start the meter.
5 Things to Pack for Every Balkan Bus Trip
Never get on a bus without snacks. You never know when you’ll get stranded for hours without access to food.
Noise Canceling Headphones
Balkan bus trips can be noisy! You’ll run across all kinds of people, including crying babies and chatting groups of backpackers. Bring noise canceling headphones so you can escape the chaos and get some sleep.
Hand Sanitizer & Toilet Paper
Whether you use the bathroom in the bus station or get lucky and have a bathroom on the bus, you’ll find you will probably need your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Any purchases you need to make on your trip will likely only take cash, with the exceptions of major bus stops and gas stations.
Bring your passport, printed bus ticket (unless your company says an electronic copy is okay), and your travel insurance information.
Don’t Leave For the Balkans without Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to the Balkans with a valid travel insurance policy. The region is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Have you been on a Balkan bus trip? Are you researching bus tips as part of an upcoming trip? Lave your best Balkan bus tips and any questions you have below!
Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.