Planning a backpacking trip in the Balkans and not quite sure about getting around? Read this guide to travelling Balkans by bus and train! We travelled most of Balkans from Athens to Serbia in 8 days by using only trains and buses (well and one short flight from Athens to Thessaloniki, but that doesn’t count). Read how you can do that too!
We spent in the Balkans just over a week. I know, I know, that’s nothing. I wish we could travel slowly, but the 25-day holiday allowance in the UK doesn’t make this an option, really. But you can read our guide to maximising the annual holiday allowance in the UK here!
How to travel the Balkans by bus and train? The Balkans transport guide
I wanted to go to Balkans for some time already, but visiting many Balkan countries in one trip looked impossible to me. One day, however, we just decided with Pepe, that we will go there and find out how to get around in Balkans. That’s the spirit!
Having returned from the trip, I would love to share with you all our experience travelling the Balkans by bus and train and all the insights about getting around in the Balkans. I actually wrote two posts about our trip. This part is dedicated to transport in the Balkans and the logistics of the Balkan trip. The second part is all about our itinerary for Balkans, sightseeing and our actual experience (as well as highlights and lowlights). You can access the second part here.
Trying to organise a road trip around the Balkans…*FAIL*
Initially, we wanted to do a road trip around the Balkans; hire a car and decide where to go. I love roads trip the most and we’ve done quite a few in Europe already. What I love about road trips is the freedom of movement. You can change your itinerary any time and you also get to explore the hidden gems you wouldn’t have uncovered otherwise.
After looking at the possibility of doing a road trip around the Balkans for quite a while, we realised that it would be extravagantly expensive. Only one car rental company allowed hiring a car in the EU (our starting point was Greece), visiting a few non-EU countries (like North Macedonia, Serbia, Albania etc) and return it to a different place (Serbia in our case).
To be able to do that, we had to pay a 500+ euro fee (on top of the car rental price for a road trip in the Balkans). As we were backpacking the Balkans, spending 500 euros for that wasn’t in our budget. At first, we were about to give up and spend our holiday elsewhere, but then we looked into other means of transport in the Balkans.
In the end, we were happy with travelling around Balkans by bus and trains, since some of the roads were really dangerous (you had to be a local to drive there).
The itinerary of our Balkan trip:
Day 1: Athens (Greece). Staying at the hotel Epidavros
Day 2: Athens, Greece, flying to Thessaloniki (Greece) in the afternoon. Staying at the Olympia Hotel
Day 3: Lake Ohrid (North Macedonia or FYROM). Staying at the Jovanovic guesthouse
Day 4: Tirana (Albania). Staying at the hotel Idea
Day 5: Kotor (Montenegro). Travelling to Dubrovnik in the evening. Night at the Hostel Angelina
Day 6: Dubrovnik (Croatia). Going to Mostar at night. Staying at the Elite Guesthouse.
Day 7: Mostar (Bosnia & Herzegovina) + Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina). Staying at the hostel Franz Ferdinand.
Day 8: Belgrade (Serbia). Staying at the hostel Home Sweet Home.
We tried to visit some of the most beautiful places in the Balkans in just one trip and well, we managed to visit some of the main highlights, which was amazing. Let’s start with transport in the Balkans.
The logistics of our Balkan trip: backpacking in the Balkans
Balkan trip starting point: Greece
We decided to start our trip in Athens because it’s the easiest destination to reach from Edinburgh and Saint Petersburg (at the time of this trip, we were in a long-distance relationship). We decided to go for a multi-city flight option to avoid another unnecessary flight and picked Belgrade, Serbia as a final destination. On Skyscanner, you can search for multi-city flights and sometimes there are really great deals (it’s way cheaper than buying 2 one-way tickets in many cases).
The rest of the trip we travelled by buses and trains with one exception. A bus / train from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece would simply take too long. A flight was very cheap and incredibly fast. We actually bought our flight with our credit card reward points and paid nothing at all.
Travelling from Greece to North Macedonia by train and taxi (Thessaloniki to Ohrid)
Another leg of our trip was getting from Greece to North Macedonia or from Thessaloniki to Ohrid, to be precise.
This leg of our Balkan trip was probably the most troublesome and difficult. The easiest option for us would have been buying a direct bus from Thessaloniki to Skopje and then another bus from Skopje to Ohrid, however, as we only had one week in the Balkans and we were tied to our bus to Albania (these were so rare and unreliable), that we had to come up with another option).
Instead, we decided to buy a train from Thessaloniki to Florina, Greece at 7 am (for around 15 euros) and then go to Bitola (Macedonia) by taxi (35 euros). That wasn’t the cheapest option, but it was the fastest. It was easy to catch the taxi in Florina (there was a line of taxis waiting for the passengers from the train). We knew it was 7 euros cheaper to hire a taxi in advance, but the drivers never replied to our email, and we couldn’t call the numbers they provided. So we went for the easier option.
From Bitola to Ohrid, there was a direct bus, but we arrived at 10:30 am and the next bus was only around 1 pm, so after taking a short walk around Bitola, we took a taxi again (which was just 15 euros for the 70km long ride). Finally, at 1:30 pm, we arrived in Ohrid.
Travelling from Ohrid to Tirana by bus (North Macedonia to Albania)
Another challenging leg of our Balkan trip was getting from Ohrid to Tirana by bus. From Ohrid to Tirana, you can take a direct bus (20 euros). You can buy the tickets at the travel agency in the city centre of Ohrid (you can’t miss it, as the city centre is tiny). The bus, however, was leaving a bit too early – at 5 am. Based on the hours of forum research, we found out that there was a public bus to Tirana from Struga (a town located 15 km away from Ohrid), so we got there by taxi (6 euros) and took a bus from Struga to Tirana at 9:30 am.
There are only a few buses from Struga to Tirana, in the low season, there are just two of them: one at 9:30 and one at 12. Both of them cost around 12-13 euros and take 4.5-5 hours. The bus also charges 2 euros per luggage item, even if it’s a backpack.
Tirana to Kotor by bus
From Tirana to Kotor, we also travelled by bus. This bus we bought online on this website. The price wasn’t very low, but it was justified for this 6-hour ride.
The ride was stunning, especially the Podgorica – Budva part. It was a serpentine road through the mountains and we were happy to see some breathtaking views. Although, if you are prone to getting sick from windy roads, make sure to buy some anti-dizziness pills in advance.
Kotor to Dubrovnik by bus
The next leg of our trip was getting from Kotor to Dubrovnik by bus. From Kotor to Dubrovnik, there are already way more buses. You can check the schedule at buscroatia.com (that’s where we got our tickets). The bus station in Kotor is really a rip off, because the tickets which were bought online had to be validated for 2 euros each (Was it a scam? We don’t know)
On top of that, they asked for 1 euro per luggage item and didn’t let us bring our relatively small backpacks, so it was additional 3 euros per person (added to a ticket costing 23 euros). However, Dubrovnik was definitely worth it.
Travelling from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus
Next bit of our trip was getting from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus or any other available mean of transport that would fit our budget. From Dubrovnik to Mostar, there is a regular bus, which goes 5-6 times a day, as there is a big demand for this journey. The ride takes 2.5-3 hours.
Travelling from Mostar to Sarajevo by bus or train
Once we spent a night in Mostar, it was time for us to get to Sarajevo. That was an internal ride, as both cities are located in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Hence, it was also easier to take this trip.
From Mostar to Sarajevo, there is a direct train (that goes, however, only in summer. As we were travelling the Balkans in October, that sadly wasn’t an option for us). There are also regular buses that go at least 6 times per day. The tickets for these buses can also be bought online on the same website (buscroatia.com) or in-person in the ticket office. We haven’t seen any tourists on these buses, as it was mainly locals returning home from a weekend trip.
Bosnia & Herzegovina to Serbia: Sarajevo to Belgrade by bus
Our final leg of the trip was getting from Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina to Belgrade in Serbia. Despite being a relatively small distance, that trip took us ages.
From Sarajevo to Belgrade, you can get by bus or train, but note, that there is only one bus per day which leaves at 6 am in the morning and takes very long 8 hours. The ticket for the bus from Sarajevo to Belgrade bus can be bought online, but it’s also easy to go to the main bus station and buy it there (especially if you arrive exactly at the main station when arriving from your previous destination).
The price of the ticket from Sarajevo to Belgrade is around 23 euros. However, once we bought our tickets, we discovered, that there was an option to take a shared mini-van taxi booked at our hostel for almost the same price (25 euros pp), so that would have been a better and faster option, but well, we learned about it too late.
Summary of our Balkan trip: getting around the Balkans by bus and train and Balkans transport guide
Overall, we were really happy with this Balkan trip. Despite the fact that we arrived home tired (by no means it was a holiday, as it was quite an intense itinerary), we loved the fact that we saw so many amazing places. The Balkans are amazing. People are friendly and most of the stereotypes are simply not true! We also felt always very safe in the Balkans (except for only one case in Tirana), and would return there again for sure. Getting around Balkans by bus and trains wasn’t so hard, although, I must admit, it was a bit stressful.
As we had prepaid all of our accommodation, we would have lost some money, if we didn’t make it to the buses on time. That, however, never happened and we were able to complete our Balkan trip without any issues or delays. I hope you found this Balkans transport guide useful.
Make sure to check the second part of this guide to travelling Balkans on a budget with the actual itinerary, landmarks and a lot of useful information.