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First Draft: Croatia, BiH, and Slovenia

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I’m in the early planning phase of a trip to Croatia, BiH, and Slovenia and would really appreciate some guidance.

My husband and I will have three weeks to explore this area. Our travel pace is slow-ish...we like to savor places and take the time to chat with local people. We like an even mix of larger cities, small villages, and nature, and we prefer public transportation, but are not opposed to renting a car for a small portion of our trip if it makes sense for the area we want to see.

In our past trips to Europe we have visited just one country per trip, so this itinerary is quite a bit different for us.

Here is my first draft:

Fly US to Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik (3 nights)
Bus to Mostar (1 night)
Bus to Sarajevo (3 nights)
Fly to Zagreb (4 nights)
• ½ day + 2 days in Zagreb
• On the fourth day join a group tour to go to Plitvice Lakes and return to Zagreb to spend the night
Train to Ljubljana, pick up rental car, drive to Piran (2 nights)
Leave Piran, stop at Skocjan Caves and Predjama Castle, then head to..
Lake Bled (area) (4 nights)
Drive to Ljubljana (return car) (3 nights)
Fly Ljubljana to US

The portion of the trip that I feel the least confident about is from the Plitvice Lakes day trip thru driving to Piran. Even though we are going to explore the Skocjan Caves and do quite a bit of hiking in/near the Lake Bled area it just feels wrong to leave out Plitvice Lakes, but I’m having a hard time figuring out when/where to put it on our itinerary.

The time in Piran is (sort of) intentional. I know from past trips that my husband and I both need “a vacation from our vacation” about 10-12 days in, and it is best accomplished in a small, laid back place.

Comments? Concerns? Ideas?

Thanks so much :)

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    Piran is wonderful - a beautiful little town in which to relax. Note that you'll have to park the car in a lot at the edge of town, because Piran is mostly "car-free" (except for dropping off luggage and taxis) but it's only a short walk in to the center. (I didn't have a car when I stayed in Piran but wound up staying at a place close to the car park, anyway. The walk into town was easy and pleasant.)

    Although you don't like to drive much, I'd encourage you to re-think not having a car most of your trip. Consider renting one when you leave Dubrovnik. This will give you a chance to stop more places. (E.g. Blagaj near Mostar to see the Tekke (Dervish House), which you can do by bus or taxi but it's just easier if you have a car.

    Last year I drove almost two weeks through Croatia and Bosnia. Driving was very easy in all countries - though that was in May. The roads in Bosnia are pretty good nowadays, even if not yet quite as good as Croatia's. The drive from Mostar to Sarajevo is very beautiful; it's still beautiful from the bus or train, but you can stop more if you like when driving (I stopped in Konjic for example.).

    (Click on my name to read my trip reports for Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia and also to see lots of pictures.)

    On the drive from Sarajevo to Zagreb, you could stop in towns like Jajce and Travnik, places of historic interest in Bosnia (Jajce, with a pretty waterfall below the town, was also the old kingdom of Bosnia centuries ago; Travnik was the Turkish capital of Bosnia, and the wrecked castles of both are at the top of each town.) These are places few tourists visit compared to most that visit only Mostar and/or Sarajevo.

    But you would want to drop the car back in Croatia to a avoid a one-way drop fee, so you'd need to re-arrange the end of your trip, most likely: drive from Sarajevo to Plitvice (which I did, with a stop in Jajce), then up to Piran, Bled, Ljubljana, and then Zagreb where you can drop the car. That would mean spending a night at Plitvice and one fewer in Zagreb, though. It would also mean parking the car in Ljubljana, which has large pedestrian areas but with many hotels not offering free parking - but there are lots like in Piran.

    You may find flying out of Zagreb is easier/cheaper than flying out of Ljubljana as well, though it depends. Croatia Airlines is a Star Alliance member, so they tend to have decent connections from Zagreb to other European cities with United Airlines, etc.

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    Should be a great trip!

    If you are not opposed to renting a car, you might be able to renti a car in Zagreb for just 24 hours. The drive to the Plitvice Lakes National Park should be on the order of 2.5 hours, so although you would need to take the sunset time into consideration, you might be able to drive there before dark, spend a night, and have a nice long visit in the park (6 or 7 hours) before returning to Zagreb. BUT…

    You might want to consider this possible tweak to your itineary: Fly into Sarajevo (3 nights), train to Mostar (1 night), bus to Dubrovnik (2 nights), ferry to Split (or bus, if the times for the ferry don’t work), with 1 or 2 nights there to see a bit of Split and Trogir), rent car when leaving Split and drive to Plitvice Lakes (1 night), drive to Zagreb and return the car (3 nights in Zagreb), train to Ljubljana (3 nights), rent a car for Piran for 2 nights (with stops to or from at the Skocjan Caves and Predjama Castle), ending in Lake Bled (3 nights), returning the car at the Ljubljana airport, which is half way between Bled and Ljubljana.

    FWIW, I think 4 nights extremely generous for Bled – depending on your interests, 2 nights could easily be sufficient. And if you re-order your itinerary as I suggest, you might also be able to cut a night in Dubrovnik, while still adding time for Split / Trogir. I suggested some times that I think reasonable, trusing that you would shift nights among destinations in ways that best suit your interests.

    I really like your plan, and I love that you are relying on public transportation so you can really take advantage of every possible moment to enjoy the glorious scenery! Of course, with a car you could stop at all sorts of places – but your timing is, IMO, excellent for the places you have identified, so even with a car, you might have time for stops only if you give up some of the things you’ve identifed as your targets.

    Hope that helps!

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    We loved the train ride from Sarajevo to Mostar. Also consider going by train from Sarejevo to Zagreb - go thru small towns with locals getting on and off train - seeing local life .

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    I have been to Dubrovnik twice and I would definitely spend 3 nights there as that will give you 2 full days to explore. One day for the old town and then maybe a day trip to the Elaphite islands. The bus trip from Dubrovmi to Split is superb as it goes mostly along the coast. Have not been to Trogir but Split only needs a day to explore. Enjoy whatever you do.

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    Thanks for all of the suggestions!

    ---kja I thought about starting in Sarajevo, but decided against it because the first 36 hours or so of every (overseas) trip I feel like I'm only at about 75% brain power and I really want to bring my "A Game" to Sarajevo. I felt like partial brain power would be better in Dubrovnik. Split was a consideration too, but it didn't make the first draft cut because it just felt like one place too many.

    ---Andrew and kja After your replies I did some more research on the car rental ideas. I was worried that picking up the car in one country and dropping off in another country was going to be really expensive, but it isn't nearly as bad as I thought (at least according to the sixt.com website).

    I think we are still going to fly from Sarajevo to Zagreb (50 min. flight for $98 via CroatiaAirlines is hard to beat), but I'm going to revise the middle of the trip.

    Zagreb (3 nights, instead of 4)
    Leave Zagreb in rental car and drive(2.5 hr) to Plitvice (1 night).
    Drive(3.75 hr) from Plitvice to Piran (2 nights)

    In my first draft my costs (car rental+gas+train to LJU+tour)=$525(approx) and involves 8 hrs. of travel time. With the revised itinerary my costs are approximately $340 with 6 hrs. of travel time.

    ---Question I've never driven a car that has been rented from one country into another country. When you cross the border, is this an issue or a non-issue?

    ---Opinions please Which option is better for touring Plitvice?

    (1) 8AM pick up car in Zagreb, drive to Plitvice, tour park from noon (?) until 4PM? 6PM?. Sleep Plitvice. Next day, drive 3.75 hr. to Piran.

    (2) 2PM pick up car in Zagreb, drive to Plitvice. Sleep Plitvice. Next day, tour park from 7 or 8AM until noon? 1PM? Drive 3.75 hr. to Piran arriving in the evening.

    Thanks again for your help!

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    I favor Option #2 for Plitvice. On both of my visits (one in October, one in May), the trails got pretty crowded after 10am but it was pretty empty at 7AM when it opens. To be fair, I'm a photographer and hate having people in my shots (most of the time), and I found it extremely frustrating trying to take shots with people and sometimes groups in every shot, and shooting with a tripod was difficult with people walking past me on the boardwalks shaking it. I much preferred early morning when the park was nearly empty.

    If you stay at one of the park hotels (overpriced but expensive - I stayed in one on one visit) you can walk right into the park. In fact, you can explore the park both the first afternoon and the second morning on the same entry ticket - the hotel will stamp your ticket for you for multiple-entry. Many people recommend a soba (B&B) near the park instead - there are many sobe near Plitvice, but they won't stamp your ticket like the hotels can. (And it's harder to walk right into the park from a soba.)

    If you drive a car on the Slovenian highways, you need to buy a vignette sticker - a pass to drive on the highways. (Croatia uses tolls on their highways; Slovenia uses the vignette pass.) Otherwise you risk a steep fine. (Don't do it!) You can buy a vignette at a gas station at the border or just after. If you rent the car in Slovenia it would have the vignette already, most likely. There is a border between Slovenia and Croatia even though Croatia is in the EU now - at least, there still was last year - not sure when that might change. I've driven in both Slovenia and Croatia but on separate trips - never driven through that border. Crossing the border into Montenegro and Bosnia was easy; I can't imagine it's harder driving through from Croatia to Slovenia.

    Any car you rent in Croatia is likely to be manual transmission unless you pay extra for an automatic. That's normal in Europe.

    I rented twice from Sixt years ago. They were OK. How did you verify the cross-border price? What quote did they offer? Last year, I paid about $13 USD/day to rent a car in Croatia for two weeks (not with Sixt) so if it's a much higher rate than that, the extra cost for cross border is probably built into the rate - unless they are finally relaxing their cross border policy with rentals. Every time I've checked in the past, it's always been expensive to return the car in a different country.

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    You might want a bit more time than you are planning for the Plitvice Lakes: Not only are the lakes connected by travertine waterfall formations, each lake has unique microbiota, and as a result, the lakes are different colors. The best way to see that is to make a single, long loop through the park -- something on the order of 6 hours or more (including time for the boat that connects the lower and upper lakes), and by all means, start at the lowest part of the park so you are facing the falls as you proceed. So I'd go with whichever schedule ensures that you have a minimum of 6 hours of daylight (and maybe more!) for the park.

    I completely understand that you want to bring your "A-game" to Sarajevo. I recovered from jet lag while there, and it did mean that my first day was less full than my normal travel days. On the other hand, I found it a delightful place for recovering from jet-lag: Lots of great cafes with wonderful (and very different) views; lots of nice walking routes.

    And I can also understand that you need to limit your destinations, although I admit that Split is one of my favorite cities in Croatia. JMO.

    It'll be a great trip no matter what you decide!

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    ---Andrew Hmm...you got a much better deal than found. I searched Sixt, Europcar, and Auto Europe. Sixt had the best deal for pick up in Zagreb and return in Ljubljana - about $25/day + $88 one way fee. Auto Europe was the worst - about $59/day + $275 one way fee.

    ---Questions Where did you get your rental? What is the cost of the Slovenia vignette sticker?

    ---kja It sounds like you also favor Option 2. If we are at the park when it opens at 7AM we could spend 6 hours there, beat the crowds and still have time to get to Piran. Hopefully Mr. Javachip will be okay with this as it makes a long day for him as he is the driver. And leaving Split off the itinerary is killing me...not seeing Diocletian's Palace :( There is still a small (extremely small) chance that Mr. Javachip's employer will allow him more time off. If this happens I would definitely add Split.

    ---Question On the Plitvice Park website I see that tours are offered. Have either one of you taken a tour here? Do they explain the why and how of the unique microbiota in the different lakes?

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Printed words can't convey how much I appreciate this.

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    I didn't take a tour of the Plitvice Lakes -- I went on my own, armed with lots of reading I had done in advance, so I have no idea what the guides would say. As I understand it -- and I'm no biologist! -- relevant factors include water temperature and depth, sunlight, specific features of the plants (like sea grass) in the lakes, water flow, etc. I think it is easy to walk by those lakes and marvel at the different colors and assume it has to do with just sunlight, shade, and depth -- until you look closely enough to see that some of the differences simply can't be explained by those things. I find it fascinating, and at least skim every article I see about it, even if I don't understand them all!

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    javachip, I'd say $25/day + $88 drop-fee isn't bad at all. If that saves you a lot of hassle, it's well worth that.

    I did a self-tour both times I visited. My primary interest as noted above was photography, though, not in the make-up of the lakes or anything. I was worried more about when to shoot what and from where than in understanding the make-up of the park elements.

    Unless you have unique interests, Plitvice is very easy to explore on your own. It's a highly structured park with marked trails and boardwalks, not open wilderness. Maybe one of the tours would cover things like that. Believe it or not, the best way to answer questions like that might be to contact the official park folks:

    http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/basic-facts/contacts/

    I'd put your query in English.

    You might also find some sort of smart phone app that works as a semi-guided tour.

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    Before committing to sixt -- or any other car rental agency -- make sure you know your insurance requirements. I have no idea what the circumstances were in the incident reported in the string I'm attaching here, but am linking it in just in case...
    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/car-rental-in-slovenia-credit-card-cdw-gps.cfm

    One of the reasons I prefer to work with gemut.com, which works with AutoEurope, is that I have confidence in their rates and their willingness and ability to support me if necessary. JME.

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