Wandering Cheapo Croatia: Four tips for budget travelers

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Croatia's Dalmatian Coast; photo by taf
Croatia's Dalmatian Coast; photo by taf

Croatia may not be as expensive as the French Riviera or Italy’s Cinque Terre coast, but it’s certainly getting there. An undiscovered oasis years back, it’s now packed with plenty of tourists.

When I decided to head to Croatia, albeit during high season, I was surprised to find prices higher than I expected: A midrange hotel (as spare as spare can get) runs about €60 to €100, while an entrée at a restaurant will cost €10 to €25.

The good news? There are definitely ways to save, as I’ve discovered this week on the road, and along the Dalmatian Coast.

Here are four tips for keeping your budget in check:

1. Rent a car in Slovenia

One of the first questions I had about Croatia was whether I needed a car. This seemed like an obvious place to save some cash, and if there were adequate buses and trains between the main cities on the coast and ferries to all of the islands, would I really need wheels? The answer is most resoundingly yes, if only for the ability to delve further into the countryside and get away from the tourist hot spots at the ferry docks.

Cars are insanely expensive to rent in Croatia, however. My boyfriend and I decided instead to fly into Ljubljana, Slovenia, and rent a car there—the difference was literally hundreds of dollars over the course of a week. And Ljubljana is a mere hour and a half drive from Istria in northwestern Croatia, giving us a reason to stop by the region famed for its truffles and risottos on the way to the beach.

Which leads me to my next point…

2. Fly into a neighboring country, too.

If you can’t find a decently priced flight to Split, Dubrovnik, or Zadar, Croatia on the Dalmatian coast, try pricing the flights to Ljubljana, Slovenia or Trieste, Italy, from London–the gateway to Europe and home to a number of low-cost airlines.

This worked for us because we are living in London (the roundtrip flight to Ljubljana on Easyjet was $200 each), but the savings can also be big from the U.S., provided you’re willing to do the work to get to an Easyjet, Ryanair or Wizzair hub outside London (at Stansted, Luton or Gatwick airports). Wizzair has the cheapest flights of the three to Split, the most central town on the coast.

Alas, I didn’t know about these flights (or the airline, if I’m honest) until I was already here! Hence the detour to Ljubljana….

3. Avoid hotels at all costs.

I’m simply amazed by how much hotels cost in Croatia during the high season—any halfway-decent hotel will easily cost more than €150, and if you’re heading to resort islands like Hvar, better prepare to pay €250-€300!

A far cheaper alternative—and not really that much more uncomfortable—is to camp or stay in a private accommodation (i.e. a local’s spare bedroom).

Campgrounds are found all along the coast and they are shockingly clean, quiet, and very kid-friendly. (In fact, based on how many kids I heard chattering away in German on the beach, this seems to be the cheap family vacation for Germans and Austrians during the recession this year). Expect to pay about €25 to €30 per person to use the grounds, which include facilities like hot showers, toilets, and sinks.

The other affordable option is a private accommodation. Head for the local tourist offices, as they’ll have lists of residents who are willing to put tourists up for a night at a fraction of the cost of a hotel.

I had my first experience in a pension last night. My boyfriend and I disembarked from the ferry in Zadar at nearly 11 PM and wandered into the Aquarius Travel Agency half-dead, looking for a room. Ten minutes later, we were following a map across a footbridge to an early 1900’s mansion on the water. Our host for the night, a woman named Natalia, showed us to our room.

The room had a very comfortable double bed and loads of character (at least half a dozen religious portraits and crucifixes adorning the walls, along with Natalia’s wedding photo–I gather it was at least 60 years ago). She spoke to us at length in Italian and we nodded, pretending to understand. The cost, dear Cheapos? A mere €20 a night per person.

4. Find a cheap meal.

Actually, I’m still looking for one! Street food (i.e. pizza) is about the best option, though most restaurants have decent plates of tagliatelle and risotto topped with fresh squid and shrimp for around €8-€10.

One of the best values is Mondo, a little spot we found in the Istrian hilltop town of Motovun, thanks to a raving New York Times review. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, make the effort to get to Mondo. For about $40 per person, we had one of our best travel meals in ages: an unbelievably fragrant truffle and eggplant risotto for me, squid stuffed with Istrian prosciutto and local cheese for him, as well as starters of a plate of prosciutto drizzled with olive oil and beef carpaccio with more truffles, and a bottle of a very drinkable Istrian white wine.

About the author

About the author: Justin Bergman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Monocle magazine. He’s also previously worked for Budget Travel magazine and the Associated Press.

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5 thoughts on “Wandering Cheapo Croatia: Four tips for budget travelers”

  1. I’ve been to Dubrovnik, Zadar and Novalja (Zrce). I loved all places. But if you’re young and love night life, Novalja is definitely the way to go.

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  2. Hvar is nice, but now too overcrowded with tourists. It’s the only island that gets constant press, when others are just as beautiful. I live on one of them for half the year, and am perfectly happy that we don’t get so many tourists.

    My advice: skip Hvar and head out to Komiža on the island of Vis, or go further south to Mljet. I also recommend traveling to Mostar and Sarajevo, in Bosnia Hercegovina.

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  3. Pingback: Croatia Budget Travel Tips

  4. Hvar’s a nice enough place, I enjoyed a week there about 4 years ago. The Croatians are keen on keeping it low key, apparently.
    A good idea is to hire a tiny car (narrow roads) or a scooter and head off to the less touristic parts of the island.
    I remember heading off through a long tunnel (http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogomozilla/69642437/in/set-1762994/), walking through huge rosemary bushes and finding great little coves away from the bustle. Pack a lunch from a Hvar bakery and a few bottles and you’re set. They sell a long salty bread there, I’ve forgotten what it’s called (Celce ?), but it’s cheap and delicious.
    The pubs outside of Hvar town are also a great place to find moderately expensive seafood (well worth it).

    Pag is also a nice island, further north towards Slovenia, that sees less tourist trade.

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  5. It’s painful to think that Hvar is now so pricey. I hate to grouse, but my fond recollections of visits to Hvar as a kid in the 1980s (and even as recently as 1999) were of a very different place. I recall staying with my father in a spare room in someone’s home for next to nothing on one glorious visit.

    I was psyched to see the inclusion of information about private room accommodation. Also keep in mind that there are still relative bargains to be found elsewhere along the coast. I found some great deals a few years ago on Korcula and in Split, and there are many places that don’t get quite as much tourist traffic. Mljet is apparently a gorgeous and affordable little island.

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