The Balkans – Is This As Cheap As European Tourism Gets? Update: Yes
As a tourist, $1000 US might get you a week in Norway or Switzerland, or maybe a couple of weeks in Paris or London. Maybe. In the Balkans, it will get you a solid month of dream travel. For a grand, you could stay for a month in well located fully equipped accommodation, eat and drink until your hearts content, and explore four, five, or six distinctly different countries. Cities, beaches, lakes, food, culture, and mountains. For a week or a month, the Balkan nations of Southeast Europe make for compelling holiday value. It’s Europe, on sale.
We both understand that travel expenditure is very personal. Some won’t settle for anything less than fluffy white robes and five star accommodation, others are happy in a sixteen bed dorm room at a hostel. From fine dining to street food, the costs of travel can vary widely. In the cost break downs below you will figure out what sort of traveller I am – so adjust your budget accordingly.
From one end of the Balkans, almost to the other, I have so far traveled through Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. I’ve been in this area more than two months. What I have found is similar prices in all three countries for accommodation, food, and travel expenses. Reliably, I have been told that prices are similar in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro.
Although there are other nations in “the Balkans” it’s the non-Euro dollar area that is the focus of this article. So, lets break it down.
Costs of Accommodation in the Balkans – Hotels vs Apartments
Apartments represent the best value in Balkans accommodation, especially for two or more people travelling together. For solo travellers, hostels will be cheaper and Hotels are generally more expensive – although they’re cheap by European standards.
Every apartment I have booked has been equipped with cable TV, great WiFi, and a central location. They were all clean, comfortable, nicely decorated, had kitchens and usually a laundry. Here’s the details…
Belgrade, Serbia : I rented two different one bedroom apartments. The first was $190 US per week. The second was $230 US per week. Both apartments were within a few minutes walk of the center of the city.
Ohrid, Macedonia: my current digs, it’s so good I may never leave. Right on the oldest lake in Europe centrally located to the old part of the city, a large sized studio apartment is $170US per week. There’s a private balcony with a great view, LCD cable TV, kitchen, washing machine, good sized bathroom, and WiFi.
Nis, Serbia: a large studio apartment style Hotel room (I guess you could call it a Suite), central location, probably a upper 3 star level Hotel was $38 US a night.
Zagreb, Croatia: a loft style apartment that was reasonably spacious and absolutely perfectly located was $186 US per week. A little “bohemian”, but I liked it.
Weekly rates tend to be cheaper than nightly rates, and prices will change dependent on season and availability. Keep in mind the exchange rate can also change these prices.
Did you notice the links above? That’s exactly where I stayed, and I personally recommend all of these places. If you have questions on any of them, feel free to ask in the comments below the article.
Travel in The Balkans – Public City Transport, And Between Countries
Public transport is usually cheap, and often free. Ranging from 50 cents US in Macedonia, up to what seemed obscenely expensive – $2.50 for a city bus ride in Croatia.
For transport between cities and countries, examples include about $15 US for a scenic train journey from Zagreb to Belgrade, $10 US for an intercity bus across half of Serbia, $10 US for a bus from Serbia to Macedonia, and $5US for a bus from Skopje to Ohrid. These were direct express buses, with comfortable reclining seats and a fair amount of room. The train journeys through the Balkans have been great – although in many cases they are much slower than a bus ride.
Taxis are also inexpensive. I haven’t caught a lot of cabs, but the short rides I have used taxi’s for have cost between about $2US and $4US for about a 10 or 15 minute ride. In Zagreb, any more than two people and taxi becomes competitive with public transport. In Macedonia, short rides are usually not much more than $2. In Belgrade, I paid about $4US for a cross-town late night journey.
Food in The Balkans – Deliciously Inexpensive
Restaurant meal prices can vary widely, but around $5 US seems to be the starting rate for a decent meal. Typical examples – in Zagreb, Croatia, this would covered an amazing bowl of Truffle laden Pasta at a nice restaurant. In Serbia, a home-style local specialty of grilled meats and vegetables. A Skopje meal including “Shopska Salad” (a bit like Greek salad), grilled meats, vegetables, and a hot pot of local specialty “baked beans” (they’re amazing), was about $3US. Add a beer or a glass of wine and you can be happy for less than $4 US. Macedonia does seem to be slightly cheaper for restaurant meals.
In all countries of the Balkans, cheap food options abound. Meat, cheese, or spinach filled pastries – “Burek” – can be had for as cheap as 40 US cents. They’re huge, fresh, and tasty. In Belgrade, they make great Pizza slices, normally less than a dollar US. Absolutely delicious freshly made crepes known as “Palacinke” come in sweet or savory and are as cheap as 50 cents US. There’s plenty of sandwiches available for as little as $1US, such as a classic “Chevup” sandwich – five freshly grilled skinless-sausages, placed in a fresh pocket-styled roll with salad and maybe a pickled chilli. Less than $1.50 in Ohrid. And of course, fresh fruit is available everywhere.
Other national cuisines are also available – a large Mexican burrito in Skopje for about $2 US, a great authentic Israeli style Hummus with salad in Belgrade about $3 US, a hearty bowl of hot Roman soup with fresh bread in Zagreb, less than $2.
Cheap fast food options including hamburgers, kebabs, and similar greasy meals abound. Each country has a slightly different take on these items. There is no need to scrape the bottom of the food barrel by heading in to McDonalds or other franchises, the locals do it better and cheaper. Although, you can get a Beer with your McHappy Meal at McDonalds in Macedonia, should you choose to.
If you spend $10 US, or even $15 US, you could be looking at a truly large and wonderful meal with a few drinks at a nice restaurant anywhere in the Balkans. A hefty multi-course meal in a very touristy part of Ohrid, Macedonia, cost $10 US for two, including a drink each. Fine dining options are present in the larger Balkan cities, with prices substantially cheaper than what you would pay in most other parts of the world.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
Drinking in The Balkans – Stop at Five. Or Maybe Six…
For alcohol – a beer, glass of wine, maybe an Aperol Spritz or a strong cocktail, will range in price from $1US, to about $3US, at a typical bar or cafe. At night clubs, you will usually pay more. On average, I have paid between $10 US and 12 US for 5 or 6 drinks. After six drinks, I wouldn’t rely upon my recollection.
Coffee ranges from about $0.60 US to $1.50 US. After a night out in the Balkans, you may need one. I have paid just 20 cents for small cup of hot tea at a cafe in Macedonia, the cheapest hot drink I have ever had in Europe.
Tourist Attractions in The Balkans – Cheap
Belgrade has the enormous Kalemegdan Fortress and informative walking tours, both free. Zagreb has museums, many are free, or maybe a few dollars. Skopje has an incredible variety of architecture and cultural neighbourhoods to explore, and an ancient aqueduct, all free. Nature is free, and there’s plenty of that all over the Balkans. Ohrid has hundreds of historical sites, you may pay up to $2US for entry, but many are free. The enormous Samuel’s Castle overlooking Ohrid is worth the US 55 cents entry price for the view alone.
You won’t spend a lot on tourist attractions in the Balkans – although some of the heavily touristed areas can be more expensive for boat tours and similar activities. By “more expensive”, I mean maybe 10 US dollars for a private boat cruise.
Supermarket Prices in The Balkans
Again, I haven’t noticed a large variation between one country and the next. One tip is to go for the locally branded option for products – they will be substantially cheaper than imports. It’s hard for me to give you a useful summary here – I can say supermarket shopping is the one area that isn’t significantly any cheaper than Western Europe. In some cases, it is more expensive. All the more reason to get out and hit-up the local cafe, bar or restaurant instead of cooking at home.
Summary (tl;dr) – You Want to Know How Much Will The Balkans Cost?
Travelling with a partner, we have spent on average anywhere from $35 US – $75 US a day. That’s all expenses, all inclusive, for two people ($17 – $37 per person). Now that I think about it, a $75 day is very, very rare. For my style of travelling, about $50 a day on average, for two people, has covered it. This figure has stayed constant over nine or ten weeks.
Apart from breakfast we rarely prepare meals at the apartment or hotel, but that would definitely save a little more. Most of the time we eat at “local” cafes or restaurants. Several times a week, we have a meal at a better restaurant. Every few days, I may have one or two more beers than I possibly should. We do a little shopping at food markets or supermarkets, almost every day.
We’re out and about daily, checking out attractions, and generally exploring. The average daily figure includes all expenses we have had over the last two months, travelling from one end of the Balkans to the other.
Again, that’s just my budget.
Spend a bit more than me, and you could be putting on weight like it was going out of style. Or, pick up some pretty substantial hangovers. However, I can see how people could get by on much less. For double my budget, you would be staying in fairly luxurious accommodation, and eating Elvis-like quantities of food.
When you can have a great European holiday for $25 US dollars a day per person, the Balkans makes for incredible value. It’s Europe, without the European price tag. The cities are truly beautiful, on the level of many of the more visited European cities. The scenic countryside, often mountainous and covered in snow, will leave an impression on you forever. And the beaches along the Adriatic sea, well, I’m saving them for warmer weather. But by all accounts, the coast is one of the most stunning of anywhere on Earth.
Of the 25 counties I have visited in Europe, the Balkan nations represent the best value so far.
I can only see this area becoming ever more popular.
I’m afraid that if I do finally see the coast in summer, I may never leave.
Visit, and you’ll see why.
PS, compared to many parts of South East Asia (which I have spent a lot of time in), I would say that overall the Balkans is cheaper. You heard it here first.
PPS, I’m still in Ohrid, Macedonia.