We’re Heading To the Balkans

balkansOur last trip of the summer starts tonight with a late flight to Europe. We’ll be visiting a region that neither Kim nor I have ever been to. This should make for a very interesting trip.

When looking into trip ideas I like to fill in parts of the world that are missing from my travel map. In my opinion, I feel that I’m a pretty well- rounded traveler but there are still some big holes on my travel resume like mainland China, India & Antarctica, just to name a few.

With this trip Kim and I will get to experience and learn about an area that we’ve both wanted to visit for quite some time. Well be visiting the Balkans!

The Balkans are made up of around ten countries, many being a part of the former Yugoslavia. 

We’ll be visiting four of these countries, although one is a disputed territory and only recognized by 95 UN member states. 

Countries We’ll Be Visiting:

  • Serbia
  • Macedonia
  • Kosovo (disputed territory)
  • Albania

Trip Planning:

The Flights: Finding flights to this regions wasn’t a simple task. I was open to which countries we flew in/out of as long as Albania and Macedonia were included in our itinerary. I pulled up a map to get an idea of possible cities with airports nearby. To my surprise there was excellent award availability flying into Belgrade, Serbia and home from Tirana, Albania. However, it wasn’t as simple as hitting the purchase button to book.

I selected my flights but then got an itinerary not available message. I went ahead and called United. The rep saw availability for us and offered to book our flights and waive the phone service charge. This sounded great! The rep booked our tickets and gave me a confirmation #. We were then placed on hold so she could get the price to add Lucas as a lap baby. After holding for around 10 minutes, she said there was a problem- Lufthansa would not release the seats!

Feeling a bit defeated but not ready to give up, I played around with the dates. The rep had said nothing was available but I still searched. Again I found quite a bit of availability and went to book a new itinerary. To my surprise and joy, I was able to book the flight!

I had the rep still on the phone with me so I confirmed that my booking was valid. She let me know that we were already ticketed. So, we were literally in business and the trip was a go!

We will be flying in Business Class from:

  • New York (JFK) to Belgrade, Serbia (BEG) with 2 connections
  • Tirana, Albania (TIA) to New York (JFK) with 2 connections including an 8.5 hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany. (Some time to do a quick visit to another city!)

The cost of this itinerary for Kim and I is 200,000 United miles + $386 tax. We also got hit with a service fee of $75 each for booking an award within 21 days of travel.

Traveling with a lap baby isn’t free when it comes to international travel. It can actually be quite expensive if you choose to fly in a premium cabin. While we didn’t need to spend any more of our precious miles on Lucas, we did pay some hefty taxes. For Lucas to fly with us as a lap baby it costs $928.40 (about 10% of the cost of our ticket).

Lodging/ Hotels: We will be staying in a mixture of hostels, guesthouses and local hotels. Since they are not brand name hotels, there is no need for me to mention their names. The cost per night ranges from $40- $60 US (give or take).

Getting Around: There isn’t a lot of options for traveling through this part of the world. We’ll be taking buses around Serbia and then on to Macedonia. Once in Macedonia, we’ll backtrack to Kosovo for a day trip. After spending a few days in Macedonia we will be picked up by a private driver to cross the border into Albania and for the bulk of our visit to the country. Albania seems to be the toughest country to travel through in the Balkans. If Lucas wasn’t coming on the trip, Kim and I would’ve just taken buses around. From our research, it seems like the bus schedules throughout Albania can be pretty erratic. Add to that a 19 month old, very mobile baby and this sounds like a recipe for disaster. So we’ve decided to hire a private driver to get to see the country and not waste a good chunk of our time waiting around and sitting on buses.

We’ll that’s all for now. Make sure to keep checking back for posts about our trip around the Balkans!

17 thoughts on “We’re Heading To the Balkans

  1. Kudos on going to the off-the-beaten track with your toddler. I’ll admit travelling with a young child will be tougher and hence why I would have probably left the toddler with his grandparents but to each his own. If you don’t mind, please do blog on any issues you encounter travelling with a toddler in those areas. Good luck and be safe!

  2. I was in Macedonia and Serbia last month. You will enjoy them both. Belgrade is a nice city, lots to see and do, great architecture. They do have a Hyatt and Holiday Inn in town. If you enjoy eating grilled meat, you will be in Heaven! Try visiting Nis, Kragujevac, and Leskovac if you have time. Skopje is a bit smaller. I think you will like both Ohrid and Bitola in Macedonia. Lots of old churches in Ohrid. Try the lake trout there, it’s very good. Hope you have a great time!

  3. Having worked in Albania for two years and traveled to most of the Balkans during that time, I also question the wisdom of doing this particular itinerary with a toddler. The security concerns in some of the comments above are overblown – these areas are largely very, very safe for foreigners. But the infrastructure in many parts of the Balkans is problematic – e.g. I drove in 2006 from Podgorica to Sarajevo, and part of that road was unpaved! For the adventurous traveler who’s prepared to deal with some hassles and crazy driving, the experience is definitely worth it. The Balkans has some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. But with a toddler? Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and maybe Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. But not Albania and Kosovo.

    The blog post didn’t go into a lot of detail on the itinerary, but I also suspect you’re missing a lot in the Balkans that’s really worth seeing. Stay away from capital cities, except for Ljubljana and (less interesting) Zagreb. Haven’t been to Belgrade but have heard it’s ok to decent; but Tirana, Prishtina, Podgorica, and Skopje are not what I’d recommend if you make just one (or even more than one) trip to this region. The architecture tends to be ugly, and other than decent nightlife there’s just not much in any of them to captivate most travelers.

    The smaller towns tend to be more interesting – Kotor in Montenegro; Ohrid and Bitola in Macedonia; and too many to name on the Adriatic coast in Croatia. And get away into nature, and the Balkans really shine. The Bay of Kotor is breathtaking – even more so when you drive up the countless hairpin bends. The archaeological park of Butrint in southern Albania is fascinating. The Ionian coast in Albania is very beautiful (think Greece with much poorer infrastructure – but also much, much fewer tourists). The Adriatic coast in Croatia feels a bit different but is no less spectacular – for views take the Magistrala, and not the freeway inland. And pretty much every bit of Slovenia and Montenegro (outside of Podgorica) is gorgeous. But for all this, you need your own transport. Buses and trains are just not a feasible option for most travelers in this region (and DEFINITELY not if you’re the type that spends the extra miles for business class!)

    Look forward to hearing about this trip.

    1. Thanks for your comments. We will be going all around Albania & not just to Tirana. We will also be visiting Ohrid. I have read that roads throughout the region have greatly improved. If you were last there in 2006 then it might seem very different now. As for danger, I’ve also read that the countries are safe to travel in and most of the people can be friendly & welcoming.

      BTW- we don’t usually fly in business class but until my son turns 2 it is a nice luxury for us at times. I’m not sure exactly what “the type” is that you are referring to.

      Keep in mind, if there is somewhere that you’d like to fly with miles, it isn’t always available in coach.

  4. Make sure you call to confirm with each of the partner airlines that your son’s ticket is ticketed properly with them. I have had great pains with united due to their inability to properly ticket with the various operating carriers (for lap children). Too bad you won’t be nearer to the other Macedonia (Northern Greece). I am here now and would love to host you! Have fun!

    1. We’ve also had some problems with the lap baby ticket. I called United last night and they said it should be fine so I’ll take their word. I’ll check again when we get to the airport! That would’ve been very cool to meet up. Do you have a place in Greece?

      1. Yes, just outside of Thessaloniki. E-mail me if you think you will be anywhere around. I will be traveling a bit this fall around Europe so chances are we may be close anyway.
        We ended up having to take care of the lap child issues at the airport for each airline. Took about an hour at each airport! For what it’s worth, Lufthansa says they only ever have that problem with United issued award tickets. As long as you have the infant ticket number with you, you should be okay. Otherwise, they will try to have you pay again.

  5. I truly hope this works well for you and your family, but frankly, I would strongly advise against it. I went to much of this area long ago, and I absolutely do think it is worth visiting, but husband works in foreign policy, and he has been to Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro 18 times in the last three years. Kosovo and Albania have significant amounts of ethnic tensions, poverty and crime., including drug and human trafficking. My husband especially strongly advises against travel to north Kosovo, which has territory that is disputed with Serbia, the site of occasional violence and is a bit “wild West”, tending toward lawless. You sound fairly young, and I went places in my early twenties that I can now see were quite dangerous, but I was with a large male companion. Your agility with a baby will be compromised. Montenegro along the coast is gorgeous, and Kotor there should be fine. Probably other places also. But please, I urge you to stop and think, especially with the toddler. At least get lots of information!

    1. Thanks for the info. We will be careful and only plan to visit Pristina and possibly an area close to the border of Macedonia. As for Albania, mainly due to slow bus travel and traveling with a baby, we hired a van with driver to take us around. We’d love to go to Montenegro but that will have to be some other time.

  6. I second the Croatian coast and Sarajevo. From ZAG head west to Istria and work your way down the coast and islands to Dubrovnik. I have to say that Serbia isn’t high on my list and would not go to Kosovo voluntarily. I’ll be interested in your take on FYROM and Albania, but I think I would still pick the coast of Montenegro or if inland, Bulgaria over Albania.

    There are also convenient flights to ZAG and SJJ. We have flown from WAS to ZAG with only one stop in coach for 30k United miles at least once a year for the past five years. Last time I left from Sarajevo (SJJ) and the airport has really improved from six years ago when I did it last.

    1. Sounds like a great trip you put together but it’s just not the one we’re doing right now! We considered quite a few options but wanted to visit countries that were still a bit newer to travelers.

  7. just a word of caution , watch your belongings very, very carefully in the places you are visiting –and especially when in Albania — many pickpockets and petty crimes and no fun when on vacation –have a great trip

  8. You are missing the interesting part of Balkans: Croatian coast, probably one of the most beautiful in Europe and Sarajevo, Bosnia, where west meets east, with historic Old Town,
    The places you’ve picked are least interesting of the whole region.

    1. Thanks for your comments & opinion. We will visit Croatia and Sarajevo at some point, on a future trip.

      The places we picked do sound very interesting. You can’t do everything in one trip. I purposely avoided Croatia this time due to it having higher prices than the countries we selected.

    2. Have you actually been to Serbia or Macedonia? There is plenty of beauty to see and explore. Congrats Michael on going off the beaten track.

    3. I just returned from the Balkans – Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro. We loved the trip with one exception – Croatia. When we crossed the border, it was like someone flipped a switch – Dubrovnik in particular was hell on Earth (well, relatively speaking, anyways). The Croatians ranged from unfriendly to downright nasty (huge contrast to the othe Balkan countries), everywhere was crowded with tourists of the worst sort, everything was outrageously/extortionately priced ($20 to climb a wall – no thank you!!) and the food was not that good. In short, skip Croatia and go to Montenegro – the coast still has some of Croatia’s bad points, but not to the same extent. The inland part of Montenegro was wonderful.

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