9 tips for exploring the Balkans by train
Exploring the Balkans by train is perhaps the final frontier for adventurous rail travel in Europe. By adventurous, I mean no frills but incredibly rich in raw travel experiences. Communism and conflict have been over in these parts for years now, what’s left is what has always been; one of the warmest, most diverse regions on the continent. Cultural sights and natural beauty that give Western Europe a real run for its money. And all of that at a much cheaper price and with far fewer tourists.
Though not fast nor always convenient, traveling by train is certainly one of the best ways to see and feel this region on the rise. A Eurail Select Pass or Eurail Global Pass make it easy visit some of its top destinations. Here are 9 tips for surviving and thriving in your travels around the Balkans.
Balkans travel tips
1. Know your names
Some good examples are: Belgrade/Beograd/Београд, Novi Sad/Нови Сад or Sarajevo/Сарајевоs. This is the case with many places in Europe. Local spellings of city and station names often differ from what you’re used to. Throw in a couple more alphabets (Cyrillic, Greek) and things can start getting ridiculously confusing. With that, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with how they look and sound in the native language.
2. Mind your money
Except for Greece, Montenegro, and Kosovo, which all use the euro, every country in the Balkans has their own currency which can leave your wallet feeling like a currency exchange booth. On top of that, it can be difficult exchanging some currencies in non-neighboring countries and even some neighboring countries (the Serbian dinar, for example). If you’re going to pull money out in bulk, it’s probably best to do it in euros. You can exchange excess money back into euros if the currency of the next country you plan to visit is unavailable. US dollars are also easily exchangeable in all of the countries.
3. Give yourself plenty of time
The Balkans are not a place you want to find yourself stressed and in a tizzy, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to the station and sort out reservations and find your train. Don’t worry if you find yourself with a bit of extra time, there are plenty of things to keep you occupied until your departure, such as people watching or maybe sorting through those currencies.
4. Stock up on essentials
Apparently restaurant cars exist in this part of the world, though I was yet to encounter a single one in an entire month of train travel until I got to Greece. It is strongly recommended to bring whatever food or beverages you’d like to have for your journey because you are more likely to find a unicorn than a tasty meal or something to quench your thirst. The same can be said for toilet paper and hand soap (though a little more common), so prepare accordingly.
5. Choose the season you travel wisely
While summer is one of the most popular seasons for travelling, keep in mind that some of these countries can get very hot in the summer. Most trains do not have air-conditioning. Conversely, winters can get extremely cold and while heating is more likely, it’s not always perfect. Autumn might be one of the best seasons to travel the Balkans not only for the more mild temperatures, but also for the beautiful fall foliage.
6. “No smoking”? You must be joking…
People smoke on trains (and everywhere, for that matter), though in most places it is officially banned. It’s a mixed bag varying from country to country, route to route, train to train, conductor to conductor, so be prepared if you are sensitive to cigarette smoke. It’s common to catch frequent whiffs even if there is a “no smoking” sign. If you want to complain about it to the authorities on board, good luck – chances are high it is probably coming from them. Welcome to the Balkans.
7. Track your whereabouts on your smartphone
It can be difficult at times to tell where exactly you are on your train journey, since there are no fancy screens displaying the next stop. Often there are no announcements made and frequent delays in the form of unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. Tracking your trip on your smartphone with an app like Google Maps can be useful. This way, at least you have an idea of how far you are from your final destination.
8. Use your travel days for the more expensive journeys
You’ll get the best value out of your pass if you use your travel days on the more expensive journeys. In the Balkans these are typically overnight trains and those in the more expensive countries (Greece, Croatia, Slovenia). Buses and regional trains are cheap for further exploring. With them it’s quite easy to get to countries not covered by a Eurail pass like Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo.
9. Patience is not a virtue in the Balkans, it is a necessity
Train travel in the Balkans is slower, technology much more dated, and international connections limited. However, the authentic travel experiences that you get in return and the incredible scenery are more than worth it. You’re essentially traveling in moving museums – Socialist and Soviet era trains that are surely going to be replaced with time – so better enjoy these remaining pieces of history while you can. Use these Balkans travel tips on your next Eurail trip!