Driving In Croatia - What You MUST Know
Don't cross the lanes to turn left, where is my green insurance card, can my car fit in this parking spot, what the hell is that sign, do we have enough cash for this toll road, and WHERE IS THE ROAD?!?!? These are all thoughts I had when driving on my 1500 mile road trip through the Balkans, there were several points along this trip I genuinely thought our car was either going to bottom out or disappear off the side of a mountain. While the infrastructure has significantly improved in MOST of the Balkans, there are still some quirks you definitely need to know before renting a car here, and driving along the roads.
Choosing The Car Rental Company
Discover Cars Search engine is a great way to find the best prices on all rental cars, and Autowill-Rentacar.hr as well.
Prestigio might be the cheapest car rental place in Dubrovnik, but has really bad reviews for both customer service, up charging when you return the car, and on the road service.
Green Motion and Autowill have both have good reviews and are easy to get to. These rental companies are close to the airport, but you will find them in a gravel parking lot across from the airport.
Sometimes booking with the rental company directly can also save you a few hundred dollars. Just make sure you have a credit card with an additional $900 available on it just in case they want to charge extra, or for those pesky safety deposits you always end up getting back if you don't really screw up the car.
Most of the time the car rental company won't be in their booths, they come when they are called via the phone number on the window. So make sure if you have a driver or a local you can ask to call, or have the ability to make international phone calls or via a sim card for the area.
Get The Appropriate Paperwork!
USA/UK drivers license ok but getting an international drivers license is a good idea as well. Stop by any AAA in the USA and grab one there.
Have the GREEN CARD FOR CAR INSURANCE if you plan on crossing any borders. Keep in mind if you plan on visiting ALL of Croatia you will need to cross into Bosnia & Herzegovina in order to get to the most southern portion of Croatia. In order to do this, you will need a Green Card, that basically says you are allowed to cross borders, the car rental company is aware, and you have insurance.
You will also need your passport (not all Balkan countries are part of the EU and/or in Schengen Zone). You will also need your home country passport and/or your international driving license card.
Also make sure you know where the car registration is. I wouldn't leave my green card for car insurance in the car, just in case someone breaks in to the car and trys to take it.
Insurance vs Personal Insurance
You don't want your own insurance to then bill, this is according to my friend who is an insurance underwriter in the USA. The car rental company charges an extra fee per day, of course, but it will be far cheaper to pay for that than what you would be charged on your personal insurance the next seven years if something happens to the car. We decided to get the car insurance the rental company offered because there were three of us splitting the bill.
Small Car vs 4x4
If you are ONLY driving in Croatia, then I would opt for the smaller car. The corners are TIGHT, the roads are much more narrow then in the states. I'm from Utah, so all the roads are huge and lots of space to turn and park - so this was an.....adjustment for me (takes a swig of my asthma inhaler). Keep in mind a lot of the older towns don't allow vehicles (ya know, the whole preserving history thing) - and then it can get really crowded in the parking lots outside of the town.
If you are going to be traipsing around the Balkans though, I would most certainly get a 4x4 vehicle if you can. You will be dodging pot holes, going through roads that aren't well kept and often unpaved. I would also ask about roadside assistance should you get a flat tire, thank the pot holes and lack of infrastructure upkeep by the governments. Luckily we didn't experience that but I have friends who have and it took about 2 hours out of their trip and about $40 for one tire while in Serbia. The problem is, if it's a 4x4 vehicle.....well....you will likely need to replace all four tires so you don't screw up the suspension and end up paying for the whole car.
BOOK IN ADVANCE!!!
DO NOT leave your rental car until the last minute, they will price gouge you, and then don't forget they tack on the daily insurance fees. ESPECIALLY if you are going to be crossing borders, you are going to need permission to cross the border (again another fee) and some of the rental companies don't play well with other countries (ie/ Kosovo).
If you leave it to the last minute and try to book a car at the airport, often you will find the cars are all rented out and you are out of luck. No amount of bribery will suddenly conjure up a vehicle for you, so please book in advance.
Manual vs Automatic Transmission
MOST Europeans drive Manual Transmission (Stickshift). If you aren't use to driving Manual, the Automatic is the way to go - however, the pickings will be slim because it isn't the preferred transmission in Europe. Learning to drive a manual transmission in a different country with busy streets, crazy speeds, and different rules is NOT ideal nor is it safe - save those driving lessons for home in an empty parking lot please.
Don't always count on good signs and warnings about exit points on the road. I read a story of someone driving in Albania, where having a car is new thing for most people, where a big truck missed its exit, blocked all lanes of traffic, drove back the WRONG WAY so he could get to his exit. While I don't think this would happen in Croatia, it is something to keep in mind. Navigating the roads with different ways of labeling and marking streets can be disorienting, especially when driving a car.
I download google maps for the area to my phone that I can use offline (you may need to clear out data for this to be possible). As a backup, if you are traveling with friends, also have them download the maps as well in case there is a broken phone, or dead battery/screen.
If all else fails, go old school and bring a paper map of the roads with you. Please don't rely on the paper maps from 1970, try to get one that is a bit more fresh and up to date with current road conditions. Keep in mind Croatia and the Balkans are fairly new countries (comparatively).
Do Traffic Research
KNOW THE RULES! They do differ in Croatia and the Balkans. You need to know the different types of signs in Croatia for driving (click on link to view) so you don't enter into a prohibited space or fall off the side of a road.
If you are from the USA something I want to point out in particular is the rules on turning right on a red light....DON'T DO IT! You will end up with major fines.
Also crossing from one side of the road to the other is prohibited. For example if you are looking at a four lane highway, with 2 lanes going East and 2 lanes going West - and your car is on the south side. You cannot cross the three lanes of traffic to be on the northern lanes going west. You need to take a right, go east until you find a place that allows you to do a U-turn and then turn around. If you try to cross lanes of traffic, you can get in MAJOR trouble and have HUGE fines as well - so don't do it.
Gas Stations / Petrol Stations
While larger towns do have an abundance of gas stations, it may be worthwhile to grab a gas can while you are there - IF you are planning on going into the smaller towns and backcountry. Again, the countries are a bit young, and so too is their infrastructure.
I have a rule for myself when taking trips in the States, that if I reach a 1/2 a tank of gas, then I start looking for a gas station. If you plan on driving in the night, know that most gas stations also close around 8 pm so plan your trip accordingly.
Many gas stations won't have a regular toilet, about 1/2 have a squat and drop (aka hole in the ground) kind of toilet. I would definitely make sure you have some toilet paper to take into the bathrooms, and hand sanitizer to use when you come out. Also bring a headlamp just in case, in the Balkans you tend to have power cycling so the lights could go out while you are relieving yourself.
Lack Of Safety Features
Croatia is generally safe for driving, and the Balkans in general. While some of the major cities, people can get a little angry (think road rage fist fights) - if you follow the rules, and drive defensively you should be fine. Always give the person behind, next to you the right of way when possible - it will save you a lot of headache. REMEMBER if you feel uncomfortable in a driving situation, turn your hazard lights on, so that it signals to people around you that they can go around.
Some roads don't have guard rails and can have steep drop offs into the ocean. Other roads have no lights that line the streets (power conservation). So be prepared with your own safety plan should something happen on the road.
Make sure you STICK with the speed limits posted, in general these are the speeds you need to follow:
- City: 37 mph (100 kph), Backcountry 62 mph (100 kph), Highways 81 mph (130 kph)
Most of the time people will be going over the speed limit, but just let them. The limits are there for a reason, let them go around, pull over if there is a big line behind you and let them pass. You don't want to get in an accident with the rented vehicle, have a witness say you were speeding, and then end up paying for any damages from the accident because you ignored your insurance rules.
Again, the Balkans are newer countries, so they are still trying to build their infrastructure. The way to upkeep the roads often comes from having Toll roads. They don't quite have the automatic sticker that charges you for tolls when you drive through, so expect to pay cash (in local currency) at each of the toll stations. Yes it is annoying to carry cash in so many different currencies (if driving to several countries in the Balkans).
Save your coins, and use those to get through the toll roads. While Croatia is still working out its Croatian Kuna to Euros situation, I would try to have both on hand in case the credit card machine isn't working or they flat out don't accept the Euro. All of the Toll Roads that we took accepted our Euros, and many didn't end up accepting cards.
My Takeaway For Driving In Croatia
At the end of the trip, we had no flat tires (despite the many pot holes and speed bumps), there were no major scrapes or dents (besides the wood pile we backed into, and the off-roading we did), and we made it back to Dubrovnik safe and sound with no major mishaps. All in all it was a great experience, and by the end of the trip I felt like a real pro driving in Europe.
While there are still some signs that were in the Balkans even my friend from France couldn't decipher, we made it through and didn't get pulled over for anything. I think some of the countries we visited the men were a bit shocked to see three women road-tripping, let alone driving on some of the more dangerous roads.
Driving in Croatia though, no one looked twice at us, everyone (for the most part) was pretty patient. If all else fails and you get overwhelmed, just put your hazard lights on til the anxiety goes away and then proceed as you are comfortable. If the parking spots are a little too tight for you to feel comfortable parking in, you can always ask the host of your accommodation to help you park. They don't want you hitting other customers cars as much as you don't want to - so they are more than happy to help.
Let me know in the comments below if you found this article helpful, or if there is anything you would add. I hope you have a grand and safe adventure while in Croatia.
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My name is Janiel, I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.