A guide to driving in the Balkans

Imagine driving up a rocky mountain path, with very little road signs or markings. Then all of a sudden, the road comes to an end, and you are forced onto another unfinished road, with a digger actively digging up the road metres away from you.

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Welcome to driving in the Balkans

Of course it is not all that scary. There are serene bays, winding roads, majestic mountains and stunning lakes, to name but a few. Definately some reasons to self-drive in the Balkans, rather than use public transport.

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I love the Balkans. It is a region I have returned to multiple times. Last year I went snowboarding in the Mountains of Bulgaria, and spent my birthday in Croatia.

This year I travelled to Montenegro and Albania, with my partner.

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St John’s Fortress, Kotor, Montenegro

One piece of advice that kept coming up when researching the trip, was hiring a car. We deliberated about it for some time, but in the end decided that it would offer greater flexibility.

One factor that swayed us was that when travelling in Croatia the previous year, we found that public transport was slow, costly and infrequent at times.

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Larking about on the secluded mountain roads in Montenegro

Once booked, we set out on completing a crazy itinerary, which saw us plan to explore 2 countries within 7 days.
We did drive a number of miles, and our trip was certainly eye-opening.

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If you are travelling to the Balkans and considering car hire, here are some things you should know:

Additional costs: Insurance

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Initially we thought our car hire was fairly reasonable. From previous experiences with renting cars, we knew that paying to reduce the excess to zero was a good idea. However, on landing at Tivat airport, we were presented with a number of complicated options for adding Insurance to our rental.

We were also made to sign a document which stated that a police report would be required if any damage is caused to the car, no matter how small the damage.

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In all, we paid the additional €158 to pay to ensure that if we got a scratch or mark on the car, we would be covered.

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Crossing borders: Green card

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As we were hoping to cross to Albania, we were told that we needed to purchase a green card for the car. However, this is something that is licenced to the car on an annual basis, and so the car rental company charge you to have the document present. Researching this, we found out that it was possible to buy them at the border, but rates varied depending on who you got a border control.

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We decided to purchase this as a package deal with the excess insurance, but were told that if travelling into Croatia, or Kosovo the cost would be significantly higher.

Crossing borders by road didn’t seem too difficult. We had to wait for some time in a queue, and were asked our reasons for travel and destination.

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Crossing from Montenegro to Albania

Road conditions

Road conditions, as well as personal safety is a whole different ball game in the Balkans. During our trip, we travelled up into the Mountains to Drumitor National Park, and at one point the road through the Mountain came to a stop, as was unfinished.

We then encountered road works, and were driving 5 metres away from a huge digger which actively working on the road. There were no safety precautions or a traffic management system in place.

I feared for my life at times, but we managed to reach our destination unscathed.

Rural driving in the Mountains of Montenegro
Rural driving in the Mountains of Montenegro
Crazy hair pin turns on the mountain road
Crazy hair pin turns on the mountain road

Other drivers 

You may think that there are some dangerous drivers in your home country, but in the balkans, they’ll seem even more dangerous. Cars will come toward you on the wrong side of the road, park their car with hazzard lights on (which is considerate), or you’ll get cyclists that have no ability to indicate, and will swerve out in front of you. You’ll see animals crossing in the road, and it appears that no one can park properly.

Advice: stay out of the big cities, it was much scarier to drive. The rural areas were scary too with road conditions, but much less busy.

Refuelling your rental car

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An important note when hiring a rental car is to check the amount of fuel, when you pick it up. The general rule is that you will have to return the car with the same level of fuel in it. The car company can refuel for you, but their prices will be higher than local fuel stations.

We were almost done over by Avis at Tivat airport when we returned our car. We had refuelled about a mile out from the airport. We put in as much as the car allowed, but the fuel gauge did not reach the top indicator. We went to two other stations, and put in a few more euros, but no other fuel would fit in the tank.

On our return, Avis tried to bill us for missing fuel. We argued, and said we would drive them to the fuel station to show them that no more fuel would fit in the tank.

They were disgruntled, but decided to take our word for it.

Destinations for a Balkan Road Trip

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We spent 7 days in the region and covered 2 countries: Montenegro & Albania.

Kotor, Montengro

In that time we spent a large chunk of time exploring Kotor, as it was close to Tivat airport where we flew into.

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It has a vast port, with a charming old town, and lots of history.

Don’t miss the chance to get a view over the town from St John’s Fortress. It is quite a climb though, so make sure you pack enough water.

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Insider foodie tip:

If you are looking for somewhere delicious and romantic to have a meal, then try out the Galion restaurant. It is right on the waterfont, and has incredible food.

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Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

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If you are a fan of the mountains, then you need to head up into Durmitor National Park. It is a vast and simply stunning area.

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Hike your way through the park to discover the amazing Black Lake. The majestic Mountains as a backdrop amongst the snow, made this area a highlight of our trip.

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Shkodër, Albania 

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Catching the only bit of decent weather on our trip in Albania.

I won’t lie, Albania wasn’t my favourite country in the Balkans. The reason we went, was to take a trip to Lake Koman. However, the weather wasn’t on our side, so we camped up for a few days in a treehouse on Lake Shkoder.

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Tirana, Albania

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We took a long road trip down to Tirana, through end of the World Thunderstroms, and navigated crazy drivers, who cut you up at every opportunity. We saw a small chunk of the Captial city, but didn’t feel that there was a lot to write home about.

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Croatia

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We didn’t go to Croatia on this trip, but love it. If you have any extra time then cross the border to Dubrovnik and enjoy another Balkan delight.

I wrote about my crush on Croatia last year, which is worth a read.

If you are looking for a varied region to explore, the Balkans is it. Rent a car and explore to your hearts content.

 

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