After my Balkan trip last October, I wrote down the following lessons that I had learnt during those two weeks. Here you can read my original plan for Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. Unfortunately, in the end I didn’t have time for Albania, but more on that below. I just remembered these notes as I am preparing a trip to Israel in March 2015.
Everyone travels differently, so these are not universal lessons. I do not wish to “teach” anything except that the world is a big, beautiful and exciting place and that you should experience it and that any fears which you might have are probably unjustified. Instead, I am putting out these personal lessons to open up a debate.
- If there is a train or a bus, take the train. Always! Even if it takes twice as long or you have to change trains. The pleasure of train travel is worth it. On the bus, you can neither move your legs, nor do you have space to write. It’s no surprise that heads of state have trains for their travel and only overdrugged rock stars choose buses. – I went from Targu Mures to Timisoara by bus and it was hell. I came back by train (on the slowest train in Europe) and it took a bit longer, but at least I could enjoy the scenery, had several seats to myself, could open the window, could read and stretch out my legs. – And nothing beats the train journey through Montenegro, although in Montenegro, even the view from the buses is wonderful.
- One issue that I am still undecided on is “how much planning and how much spontaneity?” When I travel in summer and sleep outside, then I don’t need to plan anything of course. That’s freedom. But in winter and/or if I want to stay indoors, I find that hard. This time, I only planned the first four nights. On subsequent nights, I spent an hour every morning or evening to plan the next days, looking up hotels, Couchsurfing hosts, bus and train schedules and stops. On a small tablet computer or a phone, this is a nuisance. I should have done this at home and traveled with a free mind. Also, planning ahead is usually cheaper. On the other hand, I am always worried about losing the opportunity to make spur of the moment decisions.
- Therefore, you should leave free time at each stop to discover unplanned things and to hang out with people whom you meet.
- That’s why I like to spend 2 to 3 days in any city before moving on. Of course you can use that city as a base for day trips or excursions then, but it’s still less hassle than moving to a new hotel every night.
- This is the main lesson: Don’t try to squeeze too many places/countries into one trip. In the end, I ran out of time and had to choose between going to Shkoder in Albania (I had been to Albania in summer and wanted to see more of that fascinating country) or spending some time in the bay of Kotor. Because my flight back to Belgrade left from Tivat, going to Albania would have meant a lot of time on buses, at borders, researching timetables, changing money and learning a new language. I stayed in Tivat and Kotor instead and had a wonderfully relaxing time. – I still want to return to Albania, but I know I’ll have to devote an extra trip to that.
- I know you want to see a lot, but consider this: If you visit 10 places in 10 days, you will spend a lot of time getting tired on the road. If you see 5 places in these 10 days, you will have much more quality time.
- I also prefer the slow way of travelling because I like to read about a place before I go there. I want to learn something about the history, politics, geography, economy, literature of a country before I visit it. I don’t know how one could conceivably do this if one visits 15 countries in two weeks.
- I still haven’t been to a city where AirBnB is cheaper than a hotel room through Booking.com. I like the sharing economy, but if you make your apartments super expensive, why should I stay with you? When I want company, I’ll use Couchsurfing. I also like to use Booking.com when planning a trip because if I book a few weeks ahead, I usually find really cheap rooms. And then, if I do find Couchsurfing hosts, I can still cancel the rooms at no cost up to one or two days before.
- I wish there was a Couchsurfing for cars. Commercial car rental is too expensive for a poor/stingy guy like me, but I would be happy to rent someone’s car for 10-15 € per day.
- If you use Couchsurfing (which I recommend), alternate it with stays at hotels. You’ll need some private time (particularly in my case because I want to write down my travel stories and I would feel impolite doing so at a host’s house while he/she would prefer to show me the city, go on a canoe ride or just listen to my travel stories). When I had free time while I stayed at hotels, I still met up with Couchsurfers for a walk or for dinner. That provided the perfect mix.
- I personally don’t use hostels (unless I get a private room there, as I did in Belgrade this time) because I can’t get enough sleep in a room shared by 8, 16 or 40 people. And in the morning you lose 2 hours waiting for the bathroom to be available.
- Does anyone ever use all the clothes they take on holiday? I never do. Take as little as possible! If you do run out of clothes, there are cheap markets everywhere. Also, the smaller your backpack, the more success you will have when hitchhiking.
- Trust strangers! People who look suspicious are usually the most trustworthy ones.
- If people read (good) books, they are good people.
- It’s your holiday. You will encounter many people who will tell you “you have to go to X”, “you have to do Y” and “you have to visit Z”. You don’t have time for all of that and there is no need to feel bad about it. Whatever you see/do, it is more than you would have seen/done if you had sat at home or spent another week at the office.
- Generally, advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The advice of people who haven’t been anywhere is useless. “Albania is dangerous,” people say who have never been to Albania and who would be surprised to find the most hospitable country in Europe. When a girl warned me against going to Podgorica “because there are no cool parties,” I learnt more about her priorities than about Podgorica. I don’t like parties, so this was irrelevant. When people warned me against going to the mountains in fall because nobody goes there after the end of the season, I knew I would enjoy it. I did. – Advice from people who have different priorities, ideas, wishes is rather useless. When getting travel advice from someone, first find out if you click with that person. The same obviously applies to this summary. If you are into lazy beach holidays, then we’re not on the same page.
- Don’t rely on taxi drivers’ account of public transport options. According to them, there never is a bus or a train and their taxi is the only option. At Podgorica Airport in Montenegro, it’s so bad that there is no mentioning at all of the train stop. All signs and all information directs you to the taxi drivers waiting outside. I wasted 15 Euros that way. Generally, people who have cars or who never leave their city underestimate the options provided by public transport. All over the world I have traveled on buses and trains that locals said didn’t exist.
- People treat you suspiciously if you take out a notebook and start writing, I noticed.
- But people respect you more if you smoke cigars.
- Go for street food or small food stalls that don’t cater to tourists. They usually offer the best quality for the lowest prices.
- Be open to talk to strangers. On my trips to the Balkans, I have often experienced it that people came up to me to talk while I was sitting in a park and reading. They were just curious about who this visitor is, they wanted to practice their English, or they wanted to give good advice about what to visit and what to do. Some of the best experiences on my trip were when Milivoje picked me up when I was hitchhiking in Montenegro and then took me home to meet his family and drink raki, when Miro and Maia, two chemical engineers in their 60s, started telling me their life story while I was enjoying a sunny afternoon in Belgrade, when I met Tyler from Nashville and Rod from Skopje and suddenly had company for the train ride from Serbia to Romania, and when some guys from Serbia and the US joined me on the descent from Kotor Fortress.
- This will rarely happen if you travel with a group or with friends. You’ll stay with the same people that you already see at the office, at university or in your home town every day. For new experiences, travel alone!
- Treat anything unexpected as an adventure.
Now I am curious to read what you learnt on your last trips!