Croatia’s indented coastline and mountainous topography conspire to make travel a scenic but sometimes time-consuming experience, although a growing network of toll motorways has sped up journey times for drivers. Croatia’s train system covers the north and east pretty well, but is little use on the coast, where the country’s extensive and reliable bus network comes into its own. As well as providing the only route to the islands, ferries offer a leisurely way of getting up and down the coast, and island-hopping by boat offers some of the most memorable journeys Croatia has to offer.
Croatian Railways (Hrvatske željeznice; w hznet.hr) run a reasonably efficient service, and it is slightly cheaper than using buses in those areas where routes overlap, though trains are usually both slower and less frequent than buses. A single Zagreb–Split ticket will cost around 180Kn. Around Zagreb and in the north the network is pretty dense, and you can use trains to visit most places of interest in inland Croatia. Trains also run from Zagreb to Rijeka and Split on the Adriatic, though there are no rail lines running up and down the coast. Both Inter-Rail and Eurail passes are valid for Croatia.
There are two types of train (vlak, plural vlakovi): putnički, slow ones which stop at every halt, and IC, inter-city trains which are faster and more expensive. Tickets (karte) are bought from the ticket counter at the station (kolodvor) before boarding; those bought from the conductor on the train are subject to a surcharge unless you’ve joined the train at an insignificant halt that doesn’t have a ticket counter. On some inter-city routes, buying a return ticket (povratna karta) is cheaper than buying two singles (karta u jednom pravcu), although it often makes no difference. Seat reservations (rezervacije) are obligatory on some inter-city services. The only journey on which sleeping car (spalnica) or couchette (kušet) accommodation is available is the overnight service between Zagreb and Split.
Timetables (vozni red or red vožnje) are usually displayed on boards in station departure halls – polasci or odlasci are departures, dolasci are arrivals. Timetable information on the German w bahn.com website is far clearer than that on Croatian Railways’ own site.
Croatia’s bus network is run by an array of different companies, but services are well integrated and bus stations are generally well organized, with clearly listed departure times and efficient booking facilities. Buses (autobusi) operating inter-city services are usually modern air-conditioned coaches, and travelling long distances is rarely uncomfortable; stops of ten minutes or more are made every ninety minutes or so. The buses operating shorter routes on the islands or in the provinces are more likely to be ageing and uncomfortable vehicles which can get unbearably stuffy in summer – but you’re unlikely to be spending a long time in them.
There are few places in the country that you can’t get to by bus, and departures on the principal routes (Zagreb to the coast, and routes up and down the coast) are usually hourly. Rural areas, however, may only be served by one or two buses a day, and maybe none at all at weekends. Out in the sticks, the bus timetable is much more likely to correspond to the needs of the locals: there’ll be a flurry of departures in the early morning to get people to work, school or market, and a flurry of departures in mid-afternoon to bring them back again, but nothing in between.
Tickets and fares
If you’re at a big city bus station, tickets must be obtained from ticket windows before boarding the bus, and will bear the departure time (vrijeme polaska), platform number (peron) and a seat number (sjedalo). Your ticket will also carry the name of the bus company you’re travelling with: two different companies might be running services to the same place at around the same time. If you’re not getting on at the start of the route, tickets might not go on sale until the bus actually arrives. If there’s nowhere to buy a ticket, sit on the bus and wait for the conductor to sell you one. It’s a good idea to buy tickets a day or two in advance in summer if you can, especially for any services between Zagreb and the coast – though bear in mind that buying advance tickets from a station midway along the bus’s route may not guarantee you a seat.
Fares are a little cheaper than in Western Europe, although costs differ slightly according to which company you’re riding with and what part of the country you’re in. Long inter-city trips like Rijeka–Zadar or Split–Dubrovnik weigh in at around 180Kn one way; Split–Zagreb will cost around 210Kn. Return tickets are sporadically offered by some companies on a selection of their inter-city routes – they’ll work out slightly cheaper than buying two one-way fares. On bus journeys that involve a ferry crossing (such as Rijeka–Lošinj or Rijeka–Rab), the cost of the ferry will be included in the price. You’ll be charged extra for rucksacks and suitcases (7–10Kn per item).
Tickets for municipal buses in towns and cities should usually be bought in advance from newspaper kiosks and then cancelled by punching them in the machine on board. You can buy tickets from the driver, as well, in most cases, although this might be slightly more expensive and you may have to provide the correct change.
A multitude of ferry services link the Croatian mainland with the Adriatic islands. Most of them are run by Jadrolinija, the main state ferry firm, although private operators are beginning to offer competition.
All ferries, apart from simple shuttle services, will have a buffet where you can buy a full range of drinks, although food may consist of crisps and unappetizing sandwiches, so it’s best to bring your own. The main coastal ferry has a restaurant with a full range of reasonably priced food; breakfast is included if you book a cabin.
Short hops to islands close to the mainland – such as Brestova to Porozina on Cres, Stinica to Mišnjak on Rab, or Orebić to Dominće on Korčula – are handled by simple roll-on-roll-off ferries, which either operate a shuttle service or run fairly frequently – every hour or so. Prices for foot passengers on such routes rarely exceed 20Kn (this will usually be incorporated into your fare if you’re crossing by bus). A car will cost about 100Kn extra, a motorbike 40Kn.
Departures to destinations slightly farther offshore run to a more precise timetable. The ports offering access to the most important groups of islands are Zadar (Silba, Dugi otok), Split (Šolta, Brač, Hvar, Vis and Lastovo) and Dubrovnik (Koločep, Lopud, Šipan and Mljet). Fares for foot passengers are reasonable; approximate prices are: Zadar–Silba 30Kn, Split–Stari Grad 50Kn, Split–Vis 55Kn, Split–Supetar (Brač) 30Kn, Dubrovnik–Mljet 50Kn. Island-hopping with a vehicle involves much more of an outlay: travelling from Split to Stari Grad costs (on top of the passenger fare) 45Kn for a bicycle, 80Kn for a motorbike, 320Kn for a regular car, 600Kn for a large saloon car, jeep or SUV. If you’re travelling without a vehicle, look out for catamarans linking Zadar with smaller islands like Silba and Olib, and Split with destinations on Šolta, Brač, Hvar, Korčula and Vis. Although slightly more expensive than ferries, they’ll be twice as fast. Beware however that tickets for catamarans are only sold on the day of departure and can’t be booked any earlier – so if you’re travelling on a summer weekend go to the ticket office as early as possible.
Jadrolinija operates a coastal service from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, calling at Split, Stari Grad (Hvar) and Korčula on the way. This only runs twice a week in summer (June–Sept). Travelling from Rijeka to Dubrovnik takes twenty hours and always involves one night on the boat. Prices (often quoted in euros but payable in kuna) vary greatly according to the level of comfort you require. The cheapest Rijeka–Dubrovnik fare (which involves spending the journey either on the open deck or in smoky bar areas) is 230Kn; you’ll pay double that for a couchette-style bunk bed and three times as much for a bed in a well-appointed cabin. Taking a car on the same journey will cost an extra 620Kn, a motorbike or bicycle 200Kn. Return tickets are twenty percent cheaper than the price of two singles, and prices fall by up to twenty percent in winter. Tickets are sold at offices or kiosks near the departure dock. For longer journeys, book in advance wherever possible; Jadrolinija addresses and phone numbers are given in the text where relevant.
The obvious attraction of flying is the time it saves: the plane journey from Zagreb to Dubrovnik takes an hour, compared to a whole day to get there overland. Croatia Airlines (w croatiaairlines.com) operates domestic services between Zagreb and Pula (1 daily), Split (summer 4 daily; winter 3 daily), Zadar (summer 2 daily; winter 1 daily) and Dubrovnik (summer 3 daily; winter 2 daily). Between May and October there are flights (weekends only) to Bol on the island of Brač. The price of flights vary enormously according to time of year and how far in advance you are booking – Zagreb–Dubrovnik can cost as little as 350Kn if booking online, months ahead of travel; otherwise expect to pay three times this amount.
Croatia’s road system is comprehensive, but not always of good quality once you get beyond the main highways. Major additions to the motorway – autocesta – network in recent years ensure that it’s now much easier to get across country from east to west. The main stretches run from Zagreb to Županja on the Serbian border, Zagreb to Goričan on the Hungarian border, Zagreb to Macelj on the Slovenian border, Zagreb to Rijeka, and Zagreb to Ploče (passing Zadar, Šibenik and Split on the way). Parts of the Istrian “Ipsilon”, a Y-shaped network of high-speed roads, are dual carriageway, parts are single lane. The Zagreb–Ploče motorway is an exhilarating ride through karst terrain, and is due to be extended southwards to Dubrovnik in the future. All the above are subject to tolls – take a ticket as you come on and pay as you exit. The toll for a car from Zagreb to the Split exit is currently 181Kn. Elsewhere, the main routes (especially the coast-hugging Magistrala) are single carriageway and tend to be clogged with traffic – especially in summer, when movement up and down the coast can be time-consuming. Note that everywhere in Croatia, roads in off-the-beaten-track areas can be badly maintained.
To drive in Croatia, you’ll need a driving licence, and registration documents if taking your own car. A Green Card is not required for Croatia itself but is needed for the short coastal stretch of Bosnia-Hercegovina at Neum, between Split and Dubrovnik. Speed limits are 50kph in built-up areas, 80kph on minor roads, 100kph on main roads, 130kph on motorways. It is illegal to drive with more than 0.5 percent alcohol in your bloodstream. Headlights should be switched on at all times between October and March. Petrol stations (benzinska stanica) are usually open daily 7am–7pm, although there are 24-hour stations in larger towns and along major international routes. If there’s anything wrong with your vehicle, petrol stations are probably the best places to ask where you can find a mechanic (automehaničar or majstor) or a shop selling spare parts (rezervni dijelovi). A tyre repair shop is a vulkanizer. If you break down, contact the Croatian Automobile Club (HAK; w hak.hr), which has a 24-hour emergency service (t 987); their website is also a good source of traffic news.
Finding parking spaces in big cities can be a nightmare, and illegally parked vehicles will be swiftly removed by tow truck (known locally as the pauk, or “spider”) and impounded until payment of a fine. Most cities have garages where you can leave your car for a small fee. Hotels usually have designated parking areas for their guests – some offer free parking, others charge a daily rate. Private apartments usually come with a parking space, unless they are located in the middle of a historic town, in which case available parking may be quite a walk away.
Car rental in Croatia works out cheaply if you rent the vehicle for a reasonable period of time – costing around 820Kn per day to 1600Kn a week for a small hatchback with unlimited mileage, depending on the season. The major rental chains have offices in all the larger cities and at Zagreb airport; addresses are detailed in the Guide. Most travel agents in Croatia will organize car rental through one of the big international firms or a local operator. It’s usually cheaper if you arrange rental in advance, either through one of the agents listed below or with some of the specialist tour operators listed.