Road to Nowhere

How To Travel Long Distances For Little Money

Derek Montenegro, Travel Tips & Advice 35 Comments

Road to Nowhere
When I first began researching how I was going to get from Bucharest to Ulcinj, Montenegro, the first destination of my upcoming trip to the Balkans, I started off by checking airfares. I figured that flying there would just be the easiest method and considering that the distance is a lengthy, but reasonable, 850 kms / 470 miles between the two places, how expensive could the airfare be?

Well, the answer turned out to be ‘very expensive’. My initial airfare searches gave me fares of around $500 USD one way. And all I needed was a one-way ticket because my return route would be overland, with stops in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria along the way.

And not only were the flight options $500 or more, they all involved one or two stops and total durations ranging from 10 to 23 hours.

It was time to look for a Plan B.

Plan B – Alternative Airports

After a quick look at a map of the region, I discovered that there were several other airports I could fly into that would leave me somewhat close to my final destination along the coast of Montenengro. And so I searched for airfares from Bucharest to Tivat, Montenegro, from Bucharest to Tirana, Albania and from Bucharest to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

No luck. The lowest fare was $454 to Tirana but involved an 11-hour layover in Istanbul.

Bear with me. You’ll soon see where this is headed.

Plan C – Round-trip Tickets

Knowing that sometimes a round-trip ticket can actually be cheaper than a one-way ticket, I then searched for such tickets on all the routes above. But I couldn’t find anything cheaper in this particular case.

Plan D – Bus/Train Combination

Thinking that it was perhaps time to abandon my hope of flying to Montenegro, I began looking at the bus and train options available to me. There seemed to be two that were somewhat reasonable.

The first option was to take a train from Bucharest to Belgrade, Serbia followed by an overnight, 13-hour bus or train ride to the capital of Montenegro. The total cost would be about $125 USD and take a total of 33 hours.

Unfortunately, however, I soon learned that the train from Bucharest to Belgrade is no longer in operation, the route having been canceled just two weeks ago.

The second option was to take a bus from Bucharest across the Bulgarian border to the Bulgarian town of Rousse. From there, buses depart somewhat regularly for Sofia, making the trip in about 5.5 hours. Once in Sofia, there is an afternoon minibus to the town of Nis, Serbia, a journey of about 3 hours, allowing you to connect to another minibus that covers the journey from Nis to Podgorica, Montenegro in about 13 hours. The total cost for this option would be about $120 USD and take a total of approximately 25 hours as long as you have smooth connections.

This second option actually looked quite good to me but that excitement quickly disappeared upon learning that there would be no smooth connections as the bus schedules for each segment did not match up too well. In the end, it would take closer to 38 hours to complete the journey.

At this point, I had no idea what to do and so I stopped doing research altogether for a couple of days. If I had looked at one more online flight search engine, Bulgarian bus website or Romanian train timetable, I was going to throw my rubber duck out the window.

But once I calmed down a bit, and those two days without research passed, I suddenly realized that I had less than a week to figure this stuff out.

Plan E – Get Lucky!

Just for the fun of it, I decided to search for airfare one last time, hoping that some random airline would be offering some ridiculously low fare for the exact route, date and time I was looking for. However, for some reason, I accidentally entered “Belgrade” into the search engine as my “From” airport and not Bucharest. It was just a mistake and I didn’t notice it until the airfares started popping up.

And as they did pop up, I quickly realized that this silly little typing error was about to be the best silly little typing error I’ve made in a long time.

Right there before me on my laptop screen was a flight from Belgrade to Podgorica, Montenegro on Montenegro Airlines for a mere $75 USD. Instead of a 13-hour bus ride, I could enjoy a 40-minute flight for just $35 more than the bus ticket. Interesting.

After another few minutes of research I then discovered that a private company offers daily minibus shuttle service between Timisoara, Romania and Belgrade, Serbia, picking you up and dropping you offer wherever you want in each location.

And then I found an overnight train from Bucharest to Timisoara that would arrive in Timisoara in time to catch that shuttle bus to Belgrade. Perfect.

The only downside of this plan is that I would arrive in Belgrade at around 12pm on July 5th and my flight wouldn’t be until the morning of the 6th. But if spending almost a full day and a full night in Belgrade is a downside, count me in!


View Bucharest, Romania to Ulcinj, Montenegro in a larger map

So, in the end, my journey will be as follows…

  • Overnight train from Bucharest to Timisoara, Romania (9 hours, $35 USD)
  • Minibus from Timisoara to Belgrade, Serbia (2.5 hours, $25 USD)
  • Overnight in Belgrade – hooray! (hostel, $15 USD)
  • Morning flight from Belgrade to Podgorica, Montenegro (40 minutes, $75 USD)
  • 1.5 hour bus from Podgorica to Ulcinj (1.5 hours, $7 USD)

And while this journey will take me around 35 hours to complete, it involves the comfort of a sleeper car on an overnight train, almost one full day plus one night in a hostel in Belgrade, and then a short, inexpensive hop of a flight to Montenegro.

Also, I’ll only end up spending around $180 USD for this trip, which is far less than the the 15-hour, $500 flights I originally found and just a little more money than the other bus options that would have taken me even longer.

Done deal.

Get Creative!

So what’s the point of this post? Get creative when planning your travels! This is how you can save a great deal of money while finding the best options for your journey.

Look for flights to alternative airports, look for round-trip tickets even if you only need a one-way. Break up your trip into segments and search for two separate one-way tickets (in my case, Bucharest to Belgrade and Belgrade to Podgorica). Look for bus/train/plane/shuttle bus combinations. Find out which budget or regional airlines fly the routes you’re looking for. Search their websites directly. Change your dates around. Don’t be afraid to spend the night somewhere mid-journey as it gives you a chance to rest and visit another destination.

I’m often asked how I can afford to travel all over the place so much. Flights must be expensive, right? The above description of how I planned my upcoming Balkan trip is my answer. It doesn’t have to be expensive at all if you are willing to get creative!


Any other travel planning tips to share that have worked for you? Any questions about travel planning? Leave your comments below!

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Comments 35

  1. dean

    hey earl love the balkans and i know this is late coming…but you can fly to belgrade from bucharest for around 45 euros and take the most amazing train ride to bar montenegro for 11 euros. hitchhiking in montenegro is fast and fun too! hope you enjoyed Ulcinj and the rest of your trip!!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dean – Thanks for the info! I’ve been to Belgrade a few times and to Montenegro as well. Lots of great destinations in that region!

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  3. Vivienne

    Thanks for the post! I actually came on here to look up the post where you mentioned using Kayak.com to search for airfare. I recently found round-trip airfare from Toronto to Brussels over MARCH BREAK for only $982.46 by using this site, so thank you! To me, this was a great deal because of the fact that I booked relatively late for flights during high season, and my mom was expecting no less than a $1300 deal. I’m paying less than $200 more for airfare than my friends who are flying from Toronto to Cancun, a great distance shorter, and they booked months ago! Plus I only have one short (less than 5 hours) layover each way.

    It’s definitely worth it to allow for flexibility with departure/return dates and settle for a layover here and there. What I like about Kayak.com is that it automatically compares its fares to three other travel sites.

    Once again, thanks for the money-saving tips. Got any creative experience in what to do during layovers at adjoining aiports? 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Also, during layovers, it all depends on the airport. But I usually get some work done in a corner, which is quite boring I guess 🙂

  4. Chris@Hotelopia.com

    I always spend forever researching flight/ferry prices and it always pays off, that extra hour spent in front of the computer screen can easily save £100 or £200!

    You mentioned round-trip tickets as an idea though and whilst it’s true you can often find a ‘return’ ticket cheaper than a single (how does that work??) I was under the impression that if you didn’t show for the return leg of the journey they’d charge your card the extra amount as though you’d paid for the expensive single all along. Or does it not work like that where you are? (I’m in the UK and most airlines/ferries here will do that)

    1. Earl

      Hey Chris – I’ve never heard of that happening and have never run across such an issue at all in my years of traveling. As far as I know airlines don’t care if you show up as they have your money anyway.

  5. Ali

    I’m such a geek about this stuff! I love the logistics and planning involved with travel, and I’m always looking for cheaper/quicker/better options with alternate cities or other modes of transportation. I’m glad you were able to find something that worked for you!

  6. Sarah Somewhere

    Hey Earl, I love that this post highlights finding a journey that meets both budget and comfort, i.e breaking up the journey with a rest stop. At least you will be able to enjoy your journey, as well as know you have saved a few bucks. Enjoy!

  7. Jarron

    Wow what a steal! But I was wondering, how much do you typically pay to get back to the US from overseas? There is no train or bus that can get over the ocean! Also what would you do if you need to get back to the US, but can’t afford a plane ticket back?

    1. Earl

      Hey Jarron – I normally find quite good deals flying over the Atlantic. The last time I did it about two months ago, I paid just over $400 USD for a round-trip, direct flight to/from NYC out of Istanbul. That’s quite inexpensive for such a flight. And I make sure I’m never in a situation where I can’t afford a plane ticket home as I work online and always make sure I have enough money!

  8. Osvaldo

    Hey Earl! Does hitchhiking worked for you before? I would like to travel doing that, but I’m kinda newbie when it comes to thumb for a ride.

    1. Earl

      Hey Osvaldo – I’ve done some hitchhiking, mostly in Asia around India, Nepal and even Pakistan. I don’t do it often but in some countries, it’s actually a very common method of getting around!

  9. Wends

    This is an impressively written post on how best to travel across these places. Funny thing is that I only knew about Montenegro from the horrors of war as I saw on CNN.

    Thanks for this Earl! This gives me the chance to also seek when I can get lucky!

  10. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Great post Earl! And sounds oh so familiar as I recently went through pretty much the same exhaustive process looking for the best (read: cheapest yet not insanely long/uncomfortable) route to Mongolia (from here in Ho Chi Minh City) with a 5 day side trip to Chiang Mai (a swift recon for possible resettlement).

    Furthermore, to make the process even more convoluted, I even researched the possibility of jumping on the Trans-Mongolian train to get me back to HCMC via Beijing.

    But suffice I ended up with a couple of flights on Air Asia for the Thai segments plus a round trip on Air China via Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. (for a total of a little over a grand – down from more than a 1,200+ for the SGN-UB segment alone!)

    But I must say… LOL:

    “If I had looked at one more online flight search engine, Bulgarian bus website or Romanian train timetable, I was going to throw my rubber duck out the window.”

    I can soooo relate! It truly does help to “Step away from the keyboard…” for a spell to maintain your sanity (and not – in your bleary-eyed, addled state – perchance accidentally book yourself a flight to Angola or some such, by mistake!) 😉

    1. Earl

      Hey Dyanne – Playing around with the options does lead to good results much of the time. And yes, it is important to step away when it starts to become too much. We often think we’ll plan a trip in a short period of time and as soon as it becomes clear that it’s going to be a headache, it’s always a good idea to take that break before getting deeper into frustration! Enjoy Chiang Mai and Mongolia!

  11. Andrew

    Here’s an eerily coincidental thing that happened yesterday:

    Hopped off a plane to spot another foreign couple and asked if we could split a cab. We’d both got up at the crack of dawn, to get to the airport. I’d caught a motorbike to the bus station for 5,000 rupee (50 cents) then hopped in a local minivan 20,000 rupee (2 dollars). Sure the minivan ended up seating 17 people but I had enough room for the 3 hour journey.

    The foreign couple I’d met had booked a private taxi for the entire 3 hour journey. Just them, they’d guaranteed their arrival at the airport on time but for what price? Drum roll please.. 400,000 rupee (40 dollars).

    Ouch! Local travel will always come up trumps, may take a little longer and be a little more squished, but as you mentioned, getting creative is the way to go.

    1. Earl

      Hey Andrew – That’s quite a difference there…and I think that many people avoid local travel because they assume that it must be difficult to figure out. But that’s usually not the case and even if it takes 30 minutes of asking around to find out how to get from point A to point B, it’s naturally well worth it when you save such amounts of money.

  12. jRo

    Great post Earl! Another tip for flights out of Mexico. I have to go back to the States in September. I first looked at flights from Guatemala City to San Diego or LAX as I’m currently in Antigua, Guatemala. I found some flights but I wanted to see if I could find cheaper alternatives. I also began researching all the airports in Mexico. I ended up finding a 1 way flight for $125 USD from Toluca, which is very close to Mexico City, to Tijuana. From Tijuana, Volaris Airlines offers a shuttle service from the airport to downtown San Diego almost hourly for $20. So I’ve substantially lowered my flight cost and I get to spend another 10 days in Mexico like I wanted. It does pay to get creative!
    jRo
    p.s. Volaris also offers unlimited changes to your flight for only $12. For me this is great as sometimes I end up wanting more or less time where I am at.

    1. Earl

      @jRo – That is a great find! And I did hear about that Volaris shuttle when I was living in Mexico. I never used it but that’s a great service for sure. Enjoy those 10 days in Mexico!

  13. 10kJuan

    Great post. While long-term travelers may already know this, I think it’s important to get the message out. World travel doesn’t have to cost the world. It reminds me of a time I got around the insane one-way fares from Dubrovnik to Paris in ’06 while trying to catch Lance win Tour #7, the DAY of the final leg. I ended up finding a flight-train combo through Cologne for a fraction of a price that got in earlier than the direct flights and fed me a first-class breakfast on the high-speed train. Safe travels in Romania!

    1. Earl

      @10kJuan – Those combo transportation deals are always great when you suddenly discover them out of nowhere, especially when they include such a nice breakfast 🙂

  14. niknokviquiera

    This is a great post! It’s true that luck plays an important role in ones travels. You can research and prepare all you want, but there will always be unexpected things, people, events that come your way. And for me, this is one of the best things about traveling – the many surprises that await you at every turn! 🙂

    1. Earl

      @niknokviquiera – The surprises are great, especially when you keep a positive attitude. When you can do this, it seems that even more surprises appear and they all seem to help us out!

  15. Masha (2away)

    It’s actually one of my favourite things to do when planning a trip – trying to figure out how all plain / train / bus connections work together and what’s the smartest way to get to the next destinations 🙂 For some people it might be annoying, but I just love planning and organizing things. On the other hand, one can do it only if there is enough time for getting from A to B and actually enjoying the journey itself. Well done on your planning 🙂

  16. TravelingFirefighter

    Just reading what you go through to get to destinations makes me tired! In the end, it’s certainly worth the time and effort but I sure wish there was a better way!

    1. Earl

      @TravelingFirefighter – Me too! But this is usually how it goes when I head off to a region I’ve never been to before. Luckily, now that I’ve planned it, the next time I need to visit or travel around this area it will be much easier…I hope.

  17. T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries

    Research is always key, as is searching outside-the-box.

    Another thing that some people don’t think about is contacting the airports directly and seeing which airlines are offering flights to X destination. Another is going with local travel agents rather than trying to find things on your own, as sometimes they have deals. For example, my last overseas flight in 2010 out of Bulgaria to Colorado was going to cost me upwards of $2,000 at almost all of the online places where I was researching…so one day when I was out for a stroll down Vitosha Boulevard in downtown Sofia I popped into a travel agent and just asked…and low and behold they found me a ticket for a mere $1,000…half the cost of anything else I was able to scrounge up online.

    Here in Mexico there’s another classic example of that….most people don’t know about the charter airlines so when they look for flights out of Cancun, for example, to somewhere like Guadalajara or Mexico City they go online and just look at what Google pops up…but if you know the local charter companies you can get tickets for $100 to Mexico City, for example….which is several hundred cheaper than what most of the “official” airlines price quote you.

    Good overview…solid info. Spot on.

    1. Earl

      Hey T.W. – Glad I don’t need to fly from Bulgaria back to the US any time soon with those prices! But you’re right, thinking outside the box is the way to go and it never hurts to try any and all options as you just never know who might have the best deal at the time.

  18. Pav

    Hi, I saw you are planning to visit Macedonia. Definitely go to Ohrid. It is the best place in the whole country. The lake and the surroundings are beautiful.

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