1. Best Rental Car Company for a Balkans Road Trip
2. How to Cross Borders in the Balkans with a Rental Car
3. What is a Vignette?
4. Toll Roads in the Balkans
5. Winter Driving in the Balkans
6. Where to Park in Balkans Cities
7. What is the Cost of Petrol/Gas in the Balkans?
8. How Much Does it Cost to Rent a Car in the Balkans?
What an adventure. My recent road trip around the Balkans for 39 days in a hire car was one of my best yet! Lots of things to see and do, reasonable roads and not a single hassle when it came to crossing borders or the reliability of the car itself. Here’s how it went down.
I picked up the car in Sofia, Bulgaria and drove through Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Romania and returned the car back to Sofia.There were reasons for where I picked the car up from, where I dropped it off and the route I took which I’ll explain later on. Some of the things I want to talk about are the vignette, border crossings, driving on snow and ice, insurance, tolls, where to park in cities and much much more. Needless to say, it was a totally new experience for me and there was lots to learn.
Best Rental Car Company for a Balkans Road Trip
The main issue when choosing a rental company is making sure that you are allowed to take the car to all the countries you want to visit. Most rental car companies don’t allow this and many others don’t allow you to visit some specific countries. You can check all the major rental car companies yourself or you can take it from me — Val & Kar in Sofia are the best company to use based on them allowing you take the car anywhere, the quality of the cars they hire and the customer service.Even though you might be allowed to take your rental car into a particular country, you also need to make sure that your rental car company takes care of all the appropriate documents such as insurance. Val & Kar do take care of these documents and I cannot talk highly enough of them.
Better still, they are able to offer special deals to you if you contact them directly by email.
How to Cross Borders in the Balkans with a Rental Car
Crossing borders is the thing that most people get worried about when they’re hiring a car. But it’s something that you really don’t need to worry about if you have a rental car company who has sorted everything out in advance. Val & Kar gave me a little booklet with all the car’s papers in it before departing and at every border crossing, I simply handed this booklet to the border officer with my passport and it was processed within about 5 minutes.There was an exception to this — when entering Kosovo, you need to pay additional insurance which from memory was €15 for a week. The way to do this is to arrive at the Kosovo border, present your documents and the officer will tell you to walk back about 100m to the small hut where you can buy insurance. Return to the window, show the officer and you will be on your way.
What is a Vignette?
I had no idea what a vignette was until I was already in the 8th country of my trip even though I’d seen signs with the word “VIGNETTE” before in Bulgaria. In short, a vignette is a method of paying for toll roads. In many countries outside of the balkans you can buy little tags which attach to your windscreen which beep when you pass a toll barrier. In the Balkans, they either use a vignette or you pay cash.With Val & Kar, the vignette for Bulgaria is already attached to the car so you don’t need to buy one separately. But when you enter Slovenia, you do need to a vignette. And because when you enter Slovenia you might be on a motorway, you’re going to need to stop soon after entering to buy a vignette. A word of warning though… IT IS NOT CLEAR FROM THE SIGNS THAT YOU NEED A VIGNETTE.
When I reached the first toll barrier, there was no place to pay cash but it was definitely a toll barrier. It was at this point that I knew I needed to figure out how to pay. So I had my wife google it and the results all started talking about the vignette. And then it became clear that you need to pull off at the nearest petrol station/rest area and purchase the vignette. The process is very easy and you just attach it to your windscreen. These vignettes are available for different periods of time and cost different amounts. Just tell the person serving you the length of time you will be in Slovenia and they will sell you the appropriate vignette.
I also had to purchase something like this when I entered Romania from memory. Or was that insurance? I don’t know. But I wasn’t allowed to enter the country without paying!Whatever the case, if there is a sign saying something like Vignette, make sure you google the rules for the particular country you’re in or you could be in for a rude shock when you try to exit the country (ie they will issue you a fine).
Toll Roads in the Balkans
There aren’t a lot of toll roads in the Balkans, but there are enough that you’re going to need to figure out how to operate them. Each country has a different system — some charging you one fee based on the distance you travelled, some charging you a flat fee every 10km or so at a physical booth and then there’s the vignette system described above.Payment is always in the local currency, but some countries allow you to pay in Euros at a poor exchange rate. Some also allow you to pay via credit card which is the easiest method.
The most expensive toll road was in Croatia — €25 from memory for one of my trips! It’s expensive, but the alternative is a slow road.
The more modern the country, the more likely you are to encounter a toll road, so you’ll see plenty in Croatia and very few in Albania. This impacts dramatically how fast you will travel from place to place — Albania extremely slow, Croatia really fast.
Winter Driving in the Balkans
Winter in the Balkans can be brutally cold. We travelled between mid-November and late December, so we didn’t get the coldest part of the winter. But it was still very cold in some places and this needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a car hire company. Cars require winter tyres in winter with the dates of the this requirement taking effect differing between countries. Make sure you specify that you need to have your car winterised if you think you’ll be driving in cold conditions.The coldest I experienced driving in the Balkans was -11ºC on the ice in the mountains of Montenegro. The car handled the road beautifully and it was only slippery in a few locations. Most of the time I was doing around 60km/h. Not being experienced with driving in snow and ice, I feared the snow. But as it turned out, I drove through a lot of snow during this trip including uphill sections where you had to spin the wheels all the way up the hill to get to the top.The worst snow we encountered was about 30-40cm which fell in about 24 hours in Belgrade. Needless to say, it took a good half an hour to clear the roof and dig the car out without a shovel. So if I can drive in the snow and ice, so can you. Don’t be scared if you’re an inexperienced snow driver — just make sure you have that car winterised before departure, keep an eye on the weather forecasts and take it slow.
Where to Park in Balkans Cities
This was one of my main worries prior to embarking on this road trip. Where an earth was I going to park in a big city like Belgrade or a tourist town like Dubrovnik? And it’s a valid question because parking regulations in this part of the world can be quite strict.
The first point to note is that I did this trip in winter which is also the low season. There was almost no tourist traffic. Your luck will vary depending on the season you travel in.Still, parking was a pain in some cities and this is how I handled it. I used booking.com for almost all of my accommodation in the Balkans and I selected the accommodation based on location and whether they had free parking or not. This was more difficult than it should be because there is no “free parking” filter on booking.com — just a “parking” filter.
So first of all I would make sure there was parking available and then I would check each individual listing to see if the word “free” was specified anywhere. I would also search for the word “parking” in the comments to see what other guests had said about the parking situation. I never paid for overnight parking, but it did mean I stayed maybe a kilometre or 2 from the centre of the cities. No problem, I like walking.
Here are all the cities where I think it’s absolutely necessary to worry about parking and where I ended up staying — maybe you can stay there too because you now know it has a good parking situation!
Plovdiv – $43/night
Veliko Tarnovo – €31/night
Skopje – €23/night (awesome apartment + great parking situation!)
Lake Ohrid – €16/night
Girokaster – €15/night
Schkoder – €22/night
Kotor – $32/night (central, great apartment)
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sarajevo – €21/night
Mostar – €20/night
Dubrovnik – €55/night (amazing!)
Zadar – €30/night
Zagreb – €32/night
Ljubljana – $64/night
Subotica – €15/night
Belgrade – €24/night
Brasov – $37/night
Bucharest – €25/night (parking in a no parking zone, no problem)
What is the Cost of Petrol/Gas in the Balkans?
While the cost of petrol varies from country to country, I paid between $1.15 and $1.45 per litre or about $4.60 to $5.80 per gallon. I was also told I needed to use 95 RON fuel. Usually this was paid for with credit card, but some petrol stations accepted cash only! Best to have some spare cash when you’re ready to fuel up.
How Much Does it Cost to Rent a Car in the Balkans?
The company you use is really going to determine how much you pay for you rental car, but a number of other factors are important as well. How old are the cars the company uses, what season are you renting the car in and what insurances are included.
I don’t usually get the added insurance that is sold with rental cars because I don’t think it’s worth it, but I got a good deal with Val & Kar where they added the insurance into the rental price for free.For 39 days of hire, I paid €939 which included Winter Services Fees, Roadside Assistance, out of hours drop off at Sofia Airport and Super Cover Insurance + Theft Coverage. I thought it was a good deal for the sort of trip I was going on. I did find a cheaper company than this, but the cars seemed old and I heard some bad stories. So I went with Val & Kar and I am glad I did. Everything was perfect.
What are you Waiting For?
As you can see, while there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed before renting a car for a Balkans road trip, these issues aren’t too difficult to resolve. What’s more, you’ll be one of very few people who get around the region this way meaning you’ll have a much less touristy experience and have the flexibility to go where you want, when you want.
We highly recommend hiring a car in the Balkans! So what are you waiting for?