Renting a car is the best way to explore the Balkans in terms of price and convenience. Other modes of transport are inexpensive (buses, taxis, hitchhiking, biking, walking) or easy (by plane), but rarely both. I spent the past weekend traveling through Bosnia and Montenegro by car, and although the trip itself was beautiful and relaxing, the act of getting a car during peak tourist season proved to be the true adventure. If you keep your cool and take these bits of advice to heart, the whole process can be nema problema (no problem).
Tip #1: Rent from an actual rent-a-car business IN town
The first step I took on rental cars was going online to compare prices. With great access to wifi at hostels, hotels, and cafes, this is the easiest option for travelers who may be wary of the language barrier. And this is a great option. But. But, make sure that you are renting through an actual company/business in the area, and not a middle-man provider. “Booking” sites serve as the secretary for rent-a-car’s but work internationally, with no real knowledge of the car availability. They show super low prices, but the car may not exist by the time your rental request gets into the business.
Go straight to the business itself. Either online, by phone, or in person. For Sarajevo, use the internet to search rental car businesses at the airport or town center and look for the familiar rental car names of Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, Alamo.
Tip #2: Use Local Resources
The best resource I have had while traveling in Bosnia (outside of GV staff), has been the owners of our hostel at Residence Rooms. Utilize the local knowledge by asking Bosnians at your hotel or hostel about where to rent cars and find the best prices. Green Visions can help you out with this part of your Balkan adventure as well.
Tip #3: Manual or Automatic?
While looking for cars in Sarajevo, I never came across offers for automatic cars. I know they exist (although more expensive), but it may be best to assume that your only means of road tripping is if you or a travel buddy can drive stick. So maybe this is the time to bring along your friend Karen on the trip. Yes she’s annoying, but she can drive manual and she loves paying for drinks late night at the bar, so there are trade-offs.
Tip #4: Book in Advance
In the peak summer travel season, it is possible for an entire city to run out of rental cars. No, I am not clear on exactly how this works, and yes, expensive cars are still available, but who wants to drive a Mercedes through the Balkans for 100 euros a day? Regardless, book your car two-weeks in advance just to be safe, and make sure you are clear on the pick up and drop off location.
Tip #5: Search for Rentals in Surrounding Towns
If you have waited until the day before to finally book your car (I’m guilty), and you have found everything sold out, you do still have options. If you’re coming out of Sarajevo, search and call rental places in Tuzla and Mostar. Both towns are a few hours away by bus, and buses leave several times from Sarajevo every day of the week.
Tip #6: Go for the GPS
If you are given the option, spend a little extra for the GPS. Google Maps overall works well in the Balkans, but it can lead you down some shady side streets and abandoned gravel roads that may be too narrow or difficult to traverse. Save a map offline on your Google Maps for backup, and use the GPS as you go. Before you leave the rent-a-car, be sure that the GPS turns on, you know how to use it, and the car charger works as well. Extra note: If the GPS tells you it will take 3-hours to get somewhere, tack on another 2-hours for your driving “cushion”.
Tip #7: Enjoy the Ride
The Balkans are stunning. They offer mountains, vineyards and wine country, the coast, and secluded highlands all within a few-hours drive of Sarajevo. Take your time with the journey, signal for the speed demons to pass, and stop frequently for coffee and fresh fruit. The road trip may be the highlight of your summer travel adventure.