Motivation – Croatia Travel Planning
The Balkans are a part of the continent that must be explored by anyone wanting to see a good representation of European history, geography, and culture. There is so much more to Europe than France and Italy, with all due respect to the charm and allure of this magical duo. Let’s face it, we won’t see the rest of Europe, not to mention the world, if we don’t stop visiting these two wonderful countries. It took me years to move on from the France/Italy habit, and I still go back occasionally – just not exclusively.
Croatia has so many wonderful things going for it, starting with its mild, sunny Adriatic climate. The Croatians are a friendly, even-keeled lot – easy going, English speaking, and customer focused since so much of their GDP comes from tourism.
Modern day Croatia has a history going back to Roman times, then through periods of Hungarian, Venetian, Ottoman, Napoleonic, and Austrian rule – all before World War II. It is steeped in history. Croatian food has a focus on the bounty of the sea, the Adriatic to be specific. Lovers of seafood will have a heyday, and others will enjoy the great variety of meats, sausages, and cheeses that have made Croatia famous. They have traditional restaurants called Konobas that specialize in a variety of meat dishes. Vegetarians be warned.
Croatia has thousands of islands comprising its sunny Dalmatian coast. The geography is perfect for lovers of the beach, sunshine, and island hopping. And the very best part – it is amazingly affordable. Compared to the dynamic duo of France and Italy, it is even dirt cheap.
Plan a trip, and pack your bags.
Itinerary – Croatia Travel Planning
The calendar allowed for 12 nights on this trip, starting at the beginning of June 2016. I wanted to establish reasonable lengths of stay at each destination to explore them at my leisure, and to have the best chance for an immersive travel experience. Three nights in Zagreb is necessary, not only to get over the jet lag, but explore the city thoroughly, and to do a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. I apportioned five nights for Dubrovnik because I wanted to do day trips to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzigovina, Kotor, Montenegro, and do some island hopping in the area. And lastly, I set aside four nights for Split because I expected to do at least one day trip there as well to Hvar and Zadar.
Zagreb – 3 Nights
Dubrovnik – 5 nights
Split – 4 nights
Logistics – Croatia Travel Planning
There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to Croatia from the US at the time of this writing. So the best we can plan for is a one-stop of reasonable duration in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich airports. Other airports – most notably Istanbul, take us out of our way with lengthier flight times. From my Atlanta home base, I can book flights on Delta and their SkyTeam partners conveniently to Amsterdam and Paris using frequent flyer miles. This greatly reduces transportation costs for the longest and most expensive leg of the flight. I selected Paris Charles DeGaul as the layover because it had the most convenient connecting flights to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. The Air France connecting flight to Zagreb was very reasonably priced due to the intense competition in Europe from all of its startup carriers, like EasyJet and RyanAir. So my airfare requirements to get to Zagreb were complete – frequent flier miles sponsored round-trip to Paris, and round-trip Paris to Zagreb on Air France – a major carrier without the silly bag restrictions that some of the smaller carriers impose.
There were other destinations in Croatia to be visited beyond Zagreb. I briefly considered driving to them, but such an itinerary would have only made sense with more days than I had because the driving times were so long. Flying was more pragmatic, convenient, and relatively cheap as well.
I planned to fly to Dubrovnik, the Southernmost point in Croatia for this trip. Dubrovnik would be a perfect hub to use for exploration by car. The car would be used to work my way North on the Dalmatian coast to Split, our last destination on this trip. And finally, Split had many scheduled flights to Zagreb to conveniently connect back to Paris. Air Croatia had a near monopoly on these flights, but didn’t gouge its customers because of it. I found the service to be very good, and the prices competitive, much to my surprise. I think the Croatians understand the gold mine that tourism is to their economy, contributing nearly 20% to GDP. I think Air Croatia is a key factor to that gold mine.
Take a look at Croatia on Google Maps. It begs to have some exploration by car. Driving on this trip is a must – definitely for aesthetic reasons, aside the pragmatic need to get between points A and B. I booked a car for a day trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park – a single day booking, which I had not done previously. I also booked a car for a week, to be picked up in Dubrovnik and dropped off in Split. This would provide ample opportunity to day trip from both locations, as well as the basic transportation to get between them. Sixt is my go-to car rental company in Europe, having booked many times previously with them, and always having had a good experience – even the one time I damaged the car during the rental. The customer service is very good, and the execution is German-efficient.
I have a strong preference for apartments over hotels for several reasons. In general, apartments are a better value as compared to hotel rooms because they have much more space, can come with a washing machine so that both excess luggage and laundry services can be avoided, and are typically less expensive than hotel rooms – sometimes much less expensive for a much better experience. And the most important reason for apartments over hotel rooms is that it leads to a much more immersive travel experience for me.
I can find apartments in the center of the old part of town in most of the destinations of interest, which leads to more exploration time because I’m already located where I usually need to be for my style of travel, and I avoid transit time to the center of town. An apartment feels more like being a resident as compared to a hotel room. I found excellent apartments for each of the three destinations on this trip using a combination of Homeaway.com, and Airbnb.com.
Resources – Croatia Travel Planning
Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers. I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Zagreb. Once I have my flight schedule selected, I add my flights to the alert list for price changes, and patiently wait for a good price to come my way.
I rely on several sites for apartment rentals. In the order of preference: HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb. Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. On this particular trip, I did end up using Airbnb for Zagreb as they had some good apartment selections, and I was able to circumvent the Airbnb location ambiguity (mostly) before booking it. The other two apartments were booked through HomeAway, as they had quality listings in both Dubrovnik, and Split. Ironically, I booked nothing through Booking.com.
Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of purposes. On this trip, it served as my GPS while navigating through Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. It’s also very useful for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on a discovery trek.
TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot. When I use it for this purpose, I select “near me now/restaurants” and filter on “open now”. Then I sort by distance – not highest rated. When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best. To be fair, Google maps is also good for this purpose, although the restaurant ratings are less sophisticated.
With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. But every place I went to in Croatia was English friendly, and I only had some minor issues with language in Mostar, Bosnia.
Epilogue – Croatia Travel Planning
Reflections on Croatia. The trip was a wonderful extended vacation, with immersive travel experiences in Zagreb, and Split. Dubrovnik was very touristy, and as a cruise ship port of call, it received tourists in great volumes on certain days. Still, it was an exceptional travel experience, which I would both recommend, and personally return to in the future. The trip was relatively inexpensive – I rarely comment on this because my focus is on immersion, but it is noteworthy. The people were lovely, accommodating to travelers, and were sharply focused on providing a good experience for visitors. English was spoken well everywhere I visited in Croatia. The food was excellent, and a great value – although vegans might have a tough time finding accommodating fare. I find myself at a loss in recalling any negative reflections on this trip.
Related Destinations – Croatia Travel Planning