Trains are my favorite way of getting around Europe and every time I go, I look forward to the hours spent looking out the windows as the ever-changing scenery passes me by without any effort on my part.
But alas Croatia’s train system isn’t all that extensive, so when it came to getting around Croatia it made more sense to take everything but the train.
We arrived in Croatia by bus (or coach, as they call them) from Bosnia & Herzegovina. And while this was one of the few times we could’ve opted to take the train instead of the bus, I deliberately chose the bus because it was a more attractive option – it was cheaper, there were more departure times and smoking wasn’t allowed (while apparently smoking is allowed on some train cars and I wasn’t excited about steeping in smoke for hours).
The bus was actually very nice and far better than I remember the Greyhound buses being here in the US. The tickets were cheap (about $32 USD for 6 hours of travel from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik), the seats reclined and the windows were large and clean – perfect for admiring the countryside.
The bus was used by both tourists and locals alike and there were frequent but quick stops to drop people off and pick people up in places that looked anything but official. And because there was no toilet on the bus, we also made a couple of stops so anyone who wanted to could deboard and use the toilet, grab some food or just get a little fresh air (or cigarette smoke if that was your preference, which it seemed to be the case for a few).
At the border crossing we pulled into a large parking lot, joining a number of other buses already waiting to be checked. Perhaps 45 minutes passed before anyone seemed to acknowledge our arrival, and then it was another 10 or so minutes before an official-looking person checked out everyone’s passports in turn. It didn’t seem to be a particularly large or popular checkpoint so I have no idea why it took so long, but after about an hour we were finally on our way again.
As we approached the coast, the best views of the sea were on the right side of our bus and I was stuck on the left. Part of me wanted to go plop down in some stranger’s lap (a stranger who wasn’t making a point of appreciating the view), but I restrained myself as I figured that would be considered rude in Bosnia as it would here in the US. Besides, we would soon be arriving in Dubrovnik and I figured there would be plenty of time to not only get glimpses of the sea but be right next to the sea.
Until I researched our trip to Croatia, I had no idea the country has such a long border on the Adriatic Sea. When I looked at a map, it seemed to me they managed to score some of the most ideal real estate in the region.
And not only does Croatia have their incredibly picturesque coastline, but also more than a thousand islands sprinkled throughout the sea. There would be no way I could see even a tiny fraction of these islands, but I was excited to at least see a couple.
Since we were traveling during the shoulder season (mid-May), I knew figuring out our itinerary would require a bit of creative maneuvering, but it was trickier than I had anticipated. Korčula was our main island destination, and while it’s not an unpopular place to visit, ferries were still very infrequent during this time so it took a bit of date juggling to get the timing just right.
Another hurdle we encountered traveling during the shoulder season was there were also fewer boat companies to choose from. Not that there are a ton of options to begin with (I want to say there were only two), but when you’re limited to just one (which we were) and you have a tightly planned schedule (which we did) you better make sure you have your shit locked down. Because if you miss the boat, you could potentially be stranded on the island for another week. Korčula wouldn’t have been a bad place to be stuck, but then I would have ultimately missed out on the divine cream cake in Slovenia which I would later (over)indulge in. And that would’ve been a real travesty (I know, first-world problems. But oh, that cake!).
So you better believe I was on time to catch those ferries when they sailed. That is, if they sailed.
When we were slotted to leave Korčula at some ridiculous morning hour, we were informed the conditions might be too rough for safe travels. And in a sense, that would’ve been fine with me because who likes to sail when the seas – and thus the passengers – are heaving violently? But we were told to show up even earlier than the normal check-in time just in case everything was still on.
That morning we were the first people to arrive at the office and the attendant spent about fifteen minutes minding the continually ringing phones before letting us know we were indeed still set to go. So we purchased our tickets and headed to the dock.
It was certainly a bumpy ride but not the worst I’ve ever been on (my ride out to the Great Barrier Reef has this one beat). After a brief stop in Hvar and about three hours later we arrived safely in Split, our ferry rides all now successfully completed.
After exploring Split for a couple of days, we took an express bus to the airport where we picked up a little sedan that we would be driving for the next week or so around Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, up to Slovenia and then back down to Croatia to explore the capital city of Zagreb, where we would be dropping it off.
We rented from Sixt partly because their rates were competitive, but mostly because they offered a drop-off location in the middle of Zagreb (as opposed to the airport) which suited us nicely as we wanted to spend a few days exploring the city before heading back home.
Since I knew my phone wouldn’t be connected to the Internet in Europe, I knew I couldn’t rely on my normal map applications to get us to our destinations. So before leaving the US, I printed out detailed maps of where we were staying and also installed maps.me which gives you offline access to specific maps you download ahead of time.
I did all the navigating and T was our designated driver. In Croatia there were no major surprises driving and getting around felt much the same as it would in any US state. Slovenia was another matter.
(Note: So obviously this part is not about driving in Croatia, but if you happen to rent a car in Croatia and then take it elsewhere – like Slovenia – then this information will be good to know.)
After we had entered the country from Croatia and went through a few tolls without paying, we started to get suspicious that something was amiss. So when we arrived at Lake Bled I went online and realized we had failed to pay for a “vignette” a pass that would have allowed us to go through the tolls legally. Whoops.
We did end up buying one for the rest of the trip, but I later read in online forums that we might still be hit with a big fine in the mail – about $300USD. So for a couple of months after returning home, we nervously watched for a notice in the mail. Luckily nothing came.
Had we rented the car in Slovenia, this whole vignette problem might not have been an issue as I’m guessing the car rental place would’ve told us about it. But since we had rented the car in Croatia, where their tolls you can just pay for by cash or credit card, we weren’t informed of the need for a vignette in Slovenia.
Having a car was incredibly useful when visiting both Plitvice and Istria because these areas (at least during the time of our visit) were poorly served by public transportation. With a car, we were able to arrive at Plitvice before most of the crowds did (highly recommended because it gets crazy busy) and drive to more remote towns in Istria that are otherwise pretty inaccessible (or take too long to reach by bus).
While there are more train options in the northern part of Croatia than in the southern, when I compared the prices with our car rental, it was actually a fair amount cheaper to rent a car and obviously more convenient. So for us it was an easy choice.
I think choosing a mix between public transportation and rental cars was an ideal way of getting around Croatia because with the buses you typically get the cheapest option available; with ferries, well, it was the only viable option to see the islands; and then with cars you have the maximum amount of freedom and flexibility of any mode of transportation.