When I wrote up my then-upcoming trip to the Balkans, I was still a bit vague about how I planned to get around once we were there. I had previously traveled between Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade by train, so my hope was that we’d be able to do as much travel as possible that way. Ultimately, that’s not how it worked out, and the result was two pretty expensive mistakes (and one cheap one).
In the interest of making sure nobody else makes the same mistakes I did, here’s my guide to how I’d suggest putting together our trip the right way.
Sofia airport transfer
The right way to do it: Sofia’s international airport has a subway station just steps from the arrival hall. Simply follow the blue line marked with a capital “M” to either of the two exits it leads to (you’ll see what I mean when you get there). Tickets cost 1.60 leva each, and there’s a vending machine that accepts credit cards in the station so there’s no need to change money at extortionate airport rates.
What we did: remembering that Robert Dwyer at Milenomics had recently written about using Ultimate Rewards points for airport transfers, I thought it would be a nice treat to have a guy waiting in the arrival hall for us, given our late night arrival and unfamiliarity with the city. As Robert explains, the Ultimate Rewards booking process is a bit complicated, and I think I ultimately had to disable some security settings to complete the reservation, but I was ultimately able to pay about 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a $25 transfer. When we arrived around 9:00 pm, we dutifully followed the instructions to find the meeting point. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Then we took the subway. I have a request in with Ultimate Rewards to refund the points, so hopefully this mistake will end up being free, but overall it was a silly experience and waste of time.
The right way to do it: there are three ways to get between Sofia, Bulgaria, and Belgrade, Serbia.
There is a train once per day, departing Sofia at 9:30 am (and departing Belgrade at 6:10 in the off-season and 9:12 during the summer). Tickets can only be bought with cash, and are about 40 leva each. In the summer (between roughly mid-June and mid-September), there is a direct train, while the rest of the year requires two transfers. The transfers are at the tiny stations of Dimitrovgrad and Nis and are very simple, since everyone is going to the same destination as you — just follow the most confident-looking person. The direct train takes about ten hours (there’s a one-hour time change), and the off-season trip takes about 11 and a half due to the added wait time. Unfortunately, the direct train terminates at the less-convenient Topcider train station in Belgrade, so while we were able to walk to our hotel from the Beograd-Centar station, you will probably need to take a cab from Topcider (unless you’re staying in that neighborhood).
There is a bus company called Florentia Bus that operates one, non-stop bus per day between Sofia and Belgrade (continuing on to Zagreb, Ljubljana, and ultimately Italy). It departs Sofia at 2:30 pm and arrives in Belgrade around 10:00 pm local time (remember the time zone change). Tickets cost between 20 and 30 euros. However, and I cannot stress this enough, you must book these tickets in advance. If you do not book your ticket in advance, you will not be able to buy a ticket, and you will not be taking this bus from Sofia to Belgrade. Every bus is sold out, every day, so if you think you might want to take this bus, book your ticket at least a week ahead of time. If you’re not sure which day you will want to travel, book tickets for multiple days. Just don’t try to buy tickets in person, because an extremely impatient woman who speaks exclusively Bulgarian is not going to sell you tickets in person. Trust me on this.
The right way to get to Belgrade, however, is to book a door-to-door minivan shuttle. There are a ton of “companies” that offer this service, but your best bet is simply to ask the concierge at your hotel in Sofia to arrange it for you. The cost shouldn’t be higher than 50 euro per person, so if it’s higher than that, ask at somebody else’s hotel.
What we did: as you may have gathered by now, we took the train. We arrived in Sofia Saturday night and planned to go down to the bus station Sunday morning to buy bus tickets for that afternoon. When we got there around 10:00 am (after the morning train to Belgrade had already departed, unfortunately), the woman at the Florentia Bus desk said that while the bus was full, we could come back at 2:00 pm to see if everyone with reserved seats had checked in. This, and I cannot stress this enough, was a lie, and you should not believe her if she says this to you. This fiasco meant that we had to spend an extra night in Sofia (fine), no-show the first night of our Belgrade reservation (expensive, although the Hilton Honors points I redeemed for the reservation were eventually automatically refunded), and take the indirect train the next morning (long, hot, and boring, although cheap).
The right way to do it: in the recent past, minivan operators offered door-to-door transportation from Belgrade to Sarajevo as they do between Sofia and Belgrade, but apparently Bosnia and Herzegovina has now banned those transfers, so the best way is the once-a-day bus. It leaves Belgrade’s central bus station at 4:00 pm and arrives at a poorly-lit parking lot in Sarajevo around 10:45 pm. Tickets cost 2,630 Serbian dinar each, about $25. The bus ride is fairly unpleasant, especially in October when you’re taking narrow mountain roads in the dark, so the truly ambitious might consider renting a car and driving themselves.
What we did: fortunately, we got this one right. The morning after we (finally) got to Belgrade, we sauntered down to the central bus station and were able to easily buy tickets for the next day. For some reason in order to reach the busses themselves, you need to go through a turnstile, so when you buy your ticket the cashier will give you one turnstile token for each ticket. I have no idea if this is supposed to be security theatre of some kind, or simply a way to keep the loading and unloading area from getting too crowded with friends and family, but that’s what the token she gives you is for.
The right way to do it: there are two daily trains from Sarajevo to Mostar, leaving at 7:15 am and 4:49 pm and arriving about two hours later in each case. Tickets cost 11.90 Bosnia and Herzegovina convertible marks, or a bit less than $7. You can book tickets in person, or make a reservation online and pick up your tickets at the station, from the window with an “online tickets” sign barely taped to it. There, an elderly gentleman will go through dozens of loose-leaf sheets of paper looking for your reservation until he eventually asks for help and finds it and hands you your ticket. Then you’re good to go!
What we did: we got this one right. The train between Sarajevo and Mostar was easily the most modern and comfortable piece of transportation we used during this entire trip. The train even supposedly had wifi on board, although I was never able to get it to work. I have no idea whether Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entire train network has been retrofitted with these trains or if only the Mostar route got them, but the whole region would be well-served if they followed this example.
The right way to do it: unfortunately, Mostar is the end of the train line, so if you’re traveling onward as we were, you need to take to the roads. There are several busses a day departing Mostar’s main bus station for Dubrovnik, with the latest departing at 12:30 pm during the off-season (there’s also a mid-afternoon bus during the summer). Due to the political geography of the Balkans, the bus crosses the Croatian border twice, and makes a stop in Neum, so a lot of the trip is spent waiting at international borders. Busses are apparently forbidden from taking the more direct route that crosses the Croatian border only once at Orahov Do. If you want to take the more direct route, you’ll need to rent or hire a car.
What we did: we got this one right as well. There was plenty of space on the bus and I booked our tickets the morning of our departure. Importantly, the Mostar-Dubrovnik bus does not stop at the location labeled in Google Maps when you search for “Dubrovnik bus station.” Instead, it stops at the “Autobusni Kolodvor” shown here. This is walking distance (we walked it) from central Dubrovnik, but it’s a pretty intense walk so if you’re staying near the Old City and have any mobility or health issues I’d strongly consider taking a bus or taxi instead.
The right way to do it: at the most basic level, the right way to do it is to not do it at all. The only reason we needed to get back to Sofia is that due to procrastination I’d waited too long to book award tickets and was stuck booking a paid (albeit cheap) round-trip itinerary: since we flew into Sofia, we needed to fly out of Sofia as well. What you want to do is plan far enough in advance that you can book award tickets into Sofia (or Dubrovnik) and out of the other. That would let you follow the same trail through the Balkans we took, without having to double back in order to catch your return flight. Alternatively, this is an itinerary tailor-made for United’s “Excursionist” routing rules: if you are already booking an award itinerary between the US and Belgrade, it doesn’t cost any more Mileage Plus miles (although there will be some additional taxes and fees) to add an additional award leg between Dubrovnik and Sofia. If you are on a paid reservation like we were, then your only option may be a paid flight, but that can also be fairly cheap if you’re able to book it far enough in advance.
What we did: this was easily my most expensive mistake of the trip. I did end up booking a paid one-way back to Sofia, where we ended our trip, but I booked it so close in that it ended up costing an embarrassing amount of money. Don’t be like me.
I’m going to squeeze this trip for some more content next week, but I want this post to stand alone as a beginner’s guide to the logistics of Balkans travel. It is cheap to travel around the Balkans, which is great, but it is not fast and it is not particularly comfortable. You can pay more to get somewhat more comfort, and somewhat more speed, but it’s not a place you should try to visit in a rush.
And obviously, the fewer dumb mistakes you make, the cheaper and more comfortable your trip will be.