Overview of the Balkans :: Frequently Asked Questions
OK, so the title of this page is a bit of a fraud. This site hasn't actually been around long enough to generate any frequent questions. These are mostly questions about the Balkans that I've noticed recurring on various discussion forums, especially the Thorntree. Questions about specific countries, and about border crossings, are covered in the individual country sections. Two particularly common questions, about travel from Croatia to Greece and Turkey, are in the Croatia FAQ.
- You're going to the Balkans again? What do you see in those funny little countries anyway?
- Is it safe?
- Is there a ferry from Croatia to Greece?
- Should I buy a rail pass?
- Is there an website where I can check rail fares?
- Do I need a visa?
- Do they have cash machines?
You're going to the Balkans again? What do you see in those funny little countries anyway?
I get asked this a lot. I suppose this entire site is an attempt to answer that question. If you've had a look round and are still asking this, I guess it hasn't worked...
Is it safe?
Yes, it is. Of course I don't mean that nothing bad ever happens to tourists in the Balkans. But I am confident that the region as a whole is at least as safe as any other part of Europe. In the course of a cumulative 6 months of (mostly solo) travel in the region, I have never been robbed, pickpocketed, drugged, mugged, kidnapped, defrauded, approached by fake policemen, or asked for a bribe by real policemen. I was once criminally overcharged to stay in a mediocre hotel in Skopje, but that's about it. Obviously you shouldn't throw caution to the wind, but there is no need to treat a trip to the Balkans as a journey into the heart of darkness. A few specific points to bear in mind:
- The area has been relatively unaffected by terrorism in recent years, with the exception of Istanbul, where foreigners have been targeted in terrorist incidents. Even there I doubt that the risk is greater than in many Western capitals.
- Many people worry that there may be continuing security issues in the aftermath of the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. In most cases I believe these fears are unnecessary. Although relationships between local groups remain tense in some areas, it is very unlikely that these tensions would affect foreign tourists. There have been very few violent incidents in the last few years, and those that have occurred have generally been in places well off the tourist routes. Just to be on the safe side, keep up to date with the news if travelling to Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia or Macedonia. It's probably wise to take special care if you plan on visiting Kosovo.
- Theft on overnight trains in the Balkans is not reported as consistently as on certain Central European routes, but it probably does happen, and you are obviously more vulnerable when you are asleep. Many people feel that couchettes and sleepers are much safer (as well as more comfortable) than seated compartments, as it usually possible to lock the door.
- As in many parts of the world, a certain percentage of taxi drivers see foreigners as an opportunity to pocket a day's earnings in a few minutes. Be extremely wary of anyone who approaches you inside a station or airport building offering a taxi ride.
- Corruption is sadly still a fact of life for many people in the Balkans, but in general it is no longer a problem for foreign tourists. I personally have never come across it. It seems that travelling by car is the one situation in which foreigners may still be asked for bribes in certain countries.
- Local people in the Balkans, and more widely in Eastern Europe, sometimes have very strange ideas about their neighbouring countries. Romanians, for example, may hint darkly at the likelihood that you will get your throat slit minutes after crossing the Bulgarian border. Although well-intended, these warnings should be taken with several very large pinches of salt. Exaggerated claims about the dangers posed by gypsies should also be treated with scepticism.
- Road safety in a number of Balkan countries leaves a lot to be desired - the combination of reckless driving and badly maintained roads can be lethal. For some reason this never seems to be what people have in mind when they ask about safety. Yet personally I feel it is a greater risk than all forms of criminality combined. There is not a lot you can do about it, other than opting to travel by train where it is possible.
- Various governments produce travel advice for their citizens. It's worth reading to get an idea of the relative risks of various countries, while bearing in mind that they tend to be rather cautious. As at November 2007 the UK Foreign Office advises against travel to northeast Albania (near the Kosovo border) - this is the only part of the Balkans covered by such a warning.
Is there a ferry from Croatia to Greece?
This is an amazingly popular question. The answer is simple: there is no direct ferry from Croatia to Greece. If you don't want to go overland or fly, you will have to cross the Adriatic to Italy and get a second ferry from Italy to Greece. See How to travel from Croatia to Greece for more details of ferry connections, as well as alternative overland routes.
Should I buy a rail pass?
This depends very much on your individual circumstances. I have always bought point-to-point tickets rather than using a pass. Many travellers in the Balkans take the same approach, for the following reasons:
- Domestic train fares in the region are generally low, for example in November 2007 a typical fare from Sofia to Varna (a journey which crosses most of Bulgaria) was about 11 euro.
- International fares are more expensive but not excessive, e.g. in February 2007 Greek Railways had an advertised price of 65 euro for a one-way ticket from Thessaloniki to Ljubljana. In some cases savings can be made by breaking the journey near the border - this is likely to be more important travelling between Central Europe and the Balkans than within the Balkans. Return international fares often cost much less than two single trips
- The Balkan rail network is much less dense than in Central Europe. It is possible to see much of Romania by train, but for the other countries it is usually necessary to combine buses and trains. I have met travellers who ended up following absurdly contorted itineraries because they had bought rail passes and wanted to avoid paying for bus journeys.
- Eurail Passes (for non-residents of Europe) are only valid in Romania and Greece of the Balkan countries.
- Interrail Passes (for European residents) cover all Balkan countries except Albania. The Global pass has a fixed price regardless of which countries you use it in. As tickets are generally much cheaper in Eastern Europe than Western Europe, it is relatively poor value for travel within the East. Single-country passes are priced in bands, reflecting to some extent the differences in local ticket prices.
- Although having a pass saves a certain amount of queuing, couchettes and sleepers require reservations even with a pass. In Romania, where train travel is most useful, almost all useful trains require reservations, so a pass won't save you any time at all.
However, the following points might make a pass work for you:
- If you are under 26 many passes are much cheaper for you, you lucky so-and-so.
- A pass is more likely to be good value if you will be making several long international journeys and don't want to break them along the way.
- A Global Interrail pass might be good value if your trip to the Balkans is part of a longer journey, e.g. if you intend travelling from London to Istanbul by train.
- The Balkan Flexipass potentially provides good value - some travellers have reported buying this pass for a very reasonable price at train stations within the Balkans. Unfortunately, the prices I have seen advertised on the Internet are always substantially higher, only available in first class, and unlikely to be good value for anyone older than 26. I have also seen reports that the pass is not very well known and sometimes difficult to use in practice.
The Man in Seat 61 gives details of some of the passes available.
Is there an website where I can check rail fares?
Almost all rail operators provided details of domestic fares on their websites - these sites are all listed in the relevant country guides.
It can be difficult to find details of international fares on the Internet, but the Slovenian and Turkish rail operators usually have some sample fares on their websites. The Man in Seat 61 gives sample fares for many European rail journeys.
Do I need a visa?
European Union passport holders can wander freely around the Balkans. Turkey and Albania are the only countries that require visas (in the latter case it is technically an entry tax rather than a visa), and this is just a matter of routine, normally obtained as you enter. All other countries allow tourists from the EU to enter for periods of at least 30 days, usually longer.
I have not attempted to keep track of the entry requirements for citizens of other countries. In the individual country sections I have tried to list the websites of ministries or embassies providing this information.
Do they have cash machines?
There has been huge growth in the numbers of cash machines (ATMs) in the region over the least few years. If you don't believe me, look at the ATM locators. Throughout most of the Balkans you can rely on finding ATMs that take international cards in cities and towns. Naturally you should make sure you have enough cash to cover any stay in rural areas. Many Balkan currencies are difficult to exchange in other countries, so try not to end up with lots of leftover Albanian lek or Bosnian marks. Of course this doesn't apply to those countries that use the Euro.