Driving in the Balkans seems to have received a lot of notoriety and before booking my solo trip to Serbia, I was not sure if renting a car was a good idea. I am a confident driver in general but some of the stories I have heard (narrow roads, undisciplined drivers, etc) made me apprehensive about planning a road trip in Serbia. I have driven solo in Croatia & Slovenia before without any issues, and with a friend in Romania who was a local, and my experience so far has not been bad. So, I decided to take the plunge and drive in Serbia as well.
Serbia was not at the top of my bucket list, but with visa-free travel for Indians and a direct flight from Dubai (less than 6-hour journey), it was one of the few countries allowing quarantine travel in Spring of 2021, and the weather seemed perfect for a 1-week trip. Serbia is well-connected by public transport (buses, taxis, etc) but I prefer getting out of the busy cities and exploring the countryside, which in my opinion, is always best when you can drive around yourself. The flexibility it allows you to stop whenever and wherever you want, take in the views, soak up the sun or simply enjoy a drink by the lake, is so important for me that I prefer driving around rather than replying on the public transport. Also, we were not yet totally out of the woods with the pandemic yet, so I didn’t’ quite want to expose myself to crowded areas; having my own personal space was definitely a more attractive deal!
Should you drive in Serbia? Absolutely – I loved the experience and was very happy with my decision. A road trip in Serbia is a fantastic idea; but there are some things you need to keep in mind to make sure you have a smooth, enjoyable, and economical trip. Firstly, I found Discover Cars as one of the cheapest platforms to rent a car in Balkans. They’re a third-party company that not only provides you rental options from different suppliers but also offers cheaper insurance coverage than the rental companies. However, beware of the rental company that you book your car through and their rules – Budget Rent-a-car insisted on charging me €35 upon return, just to clean the floor mat of the driver’s seat which had a muddy shoe mark on it. This was AFTER I had cleaned the car thoroughly from the exterior, thrown out all the trash, and dusted the car properly from the inside, before returning the car to them. After a big scene, and the threat to write them a bad review, they finally agreed to let it go. And their explanation – “you booked your car through a cheap rental third-party company, so the extras are expensive”. Sometimes, people leave me speechless!
Having said that, the overall experience was still good, and I managed to get a Fiat 500 for a pretty decent price, which turned out to be a great car (cruise control on the highways, phone connectivity to the car screen to display the GPS route, great performance on unpaved roads, etc); so, I highly recommend you get this car if you have the option.
Of course it is much cheaper to rent a manual car rather than an automatic one, however, if you're not used to driving stick shift, do not risk it on a foreign country! I paid about €80 for 5 days for the Fiat 500 and compared to most other countries where I've rented cars, this was quite cheap.
Book your stay in Belgrade here.
#1 Do not drive in Belgrade City
When you plan your road trip in Serbia, you're likely to begin from Belgrade. As a rule, when I plan a road trip, I usually start my car rental on the day I leave the busy city area. Belgrade is no exception – although the roads are generally quite good, the traffic is not; during peak hours, it is so chaotic that you will feel lost! You do not see much driving discipline in the city center, a lot of roads are one-way so it is hard to figure out some paths, and parking can be a nightmare. Most of the touristy places & attractions are either walkable or reachable by the local tram/ bus network so while you are in Belgrade city, I highly recommend to not drive around and rely on their excellent transport network instead. Even taxis are not expensive- use the Car.Go app (like Uber) to get one.
#2 Toll Roads are expensive but worth it
Inter-city travel is really smooth and pleasurable when you're driving, especially if you take the highways. The maximum speed is usually around 130 kmph (though you'll see many locals crossing that limit with ease & callousness) but the roads are broad, well-paved and easy to drive on. However, these roads also have high tolls (€5 per 200/ 300 kms) which you must account for. You will always find the slower alternatives, which avoid tolls but my experience on these roads was not great. The quality of the roads is fine; the speed is much slower and the roads are slightly narrower (mostly single lanes) which means you're highly likely to get stuck behind a large trucks for miles before you're able to overtake and drive normally.
A toll-free road on gps might show only a slightly longer journey vs a toll road but the gps doesn't account for circumstances where you will are unlikely to be unable to overtake slower moving vehicles in front of you. A 1.5 hour journey from Belgrade to Novi Sad through the highway A1, turned into a 3-hour journey on the way back because I decided to check out the toll-free alternative via Route 100. In hindsight, I would have gladly paid the €5 to save the excruciating extra 1.5 hours of the journey!
#3 There are no speed cameras but there are cops!
My usual thumb rule for driving in a foreign country is to do what the locals do, but also be always vigilant. You cannot have the confidence and the knowledge of a place that a local can. There were no road cameras in Serbia, and it is a little hard to track the regularly changing speed limits, especially when you are not on the highway. Speed limits on the interior roads can change from 40 kmph to 100 kmph and sometimes in a matter of a few kilometers only. And while there are no cameras to track when you are over-speeding, you might bump into a cop’s car unexpectedly on the road and attract a hefty fine so be careful and follow the speed limit as much as possible.
#4 Serbian drivers are MOSTLY safe
On my road trip in Serbia, although I did find a lot of drivers speeding on the highways as well as the interior roads, I did not feel they were rash or dangerous in any way. Do be careful on the winding roads though, specifically when you are in the mountains, and while overtaking on the single lane roads where some drivers tend to overspeed only to overtake slower and larger vehicles ahead of them and end up on the wrong side of the road for far too long, facing the oncoming traffic. This happened far too many times for my comfort and can be a little unnerving.
This is why it is extremely important that you follow speed limits and overtake only when you deem it safe, and when the road signs allow for you to. Also, you could wait for the 2+1 road which you will find at regular intervals. Do not let the vehicles behind you, who might be tailgating, unnerve you or stress you out. Keep your calm, follow the rules, and you will be just fine!
#5 Most roads are great but not all
On a road trip in Serbia, you're likely to come across some rough, unpaved roads too. Although the inter-city roads are wide, well-paved and smooth to drive on, and the roads within the cities aren't too bad either, there are specific destinations you will come across that'll take you through not-so-great roads. Two such experiences were - the road to the Vista Point in Uvac Nature Reserve (a gorgeous place to visit but quite hard to reach by road), and Banjska Stena in Tara National Park. My FIAT 500 performed fairly well on these roads but only because it was a dry day, the rains would have made it impossible to get to the destinations. The gravel roads were also narrow, which is a little scary because you don't know if you will have enough space (and confidence) to allow a vehicle to pass if they come from the opposite direction!
On both these roads, at some stage, I got a little nervous and abandoned my car a few miles before the final destination, and decided to walk it instead of risking it. There are no safety issues in Serbia, thankfully, so leaving a car locked in the middle of wilderness wasn't going to be as much of stress to me as continuing to drive on those uneven, inclined, tapering roads.
#6 Car rentals are cheap but not the gas
Although I felt that €80 for 5 days, for an automatic transmission Fiat 500, was quite a reasonable rental cost, the price of petrol made up for it. At €1.5 per liter of gas, I ended up needing to fill my tank at least 3 times in 5 days, which came to almost double the car rental cost! While I understand many European countries probably match up in terms of the gas prices, compared to other Balkan countries, this felt a little high. Also, living in the UAE has made me accustomed to paying really low prices for petrol so this came as quite a shock!
#7 Parking can be a little difficult to manage
Now this is where I struggled a little. When it comes to parking in a city, there are usually two options: park on the street or a designated parking spot. Street parking is, needless to say, much cheaper however, these must be paid for by SMS only! This means, firstly, that it becomes imperative to buy a local SIM if you're planning a road trip in Serbia. A local SIM can also help in other ways - finding your way around, GPS, internet connectivity on the go, etc. However, if you are getting a tourist SIM (which has excellent offers on data & local calling minutes), make sure to ask them to top up with extra dinars which you can use to pay for parking.
Most street parking is paid, so even if you don't see a parking sign nearby, check or ask a local, instead of assuming that it's free because you might end up paying a parking fine!
The designated paid parking spots, which are usually gated & secured, are slightly expensive but easier to pay for in cash/ credit cards. These can be found by typing 'parking' into your gps and are around €1 or 2 for about 2-3 hours of parking, which is still quite reasonable. If you do not have a local SIM card, this is your best option.
#8 Cars are the most convenient way to get around
Although it can be a little difficult to navigate your way in certain areas, I still maintain, cars are the best way to get around in Serbia. When I am in a busy city, I usually find a parking spot and leave my car there, and explore the city on foot or in trams/ buses. However, to go from one city to another, or simply to explore the stunning mountains, national parks and nature reserves, there isn't a better way to get around than in a car. If you are not very confident and comfortable driving yourself, I recommend you rent a car with a driver, which will come at an extra cost of course but will not only give you the flexibility of following your own itinerary but also the peace of having someone who knows the roads, rules, routes and the country well!
Victor Tours is a local operator that you can rent a car + driver through, for the duration of your trip.