Most visitors to Croatia end up sailing at some point. With over 1,000 islands, Croatia is a sailor’s dream. But we decided to be different and drive through Croatia instead. This is easily one of the best countries in the world for a road trip, with excellent roads and short distances between major tourist cities. In the countryside, you’ll pass through beautiful little villages with practically every curve of the highway. I never tire of all these little villages with their faded fishing boats anchored in the bay, their stone promenades lining a rocky grey coastline, the one or two ancient ruins mixed in with modern homes. This is a drive for everyone’s bucket list.
Below are useful tips for American citizens taking a road trip through this magnificent country.
Your US Driver’s License will work just fine in Croatia. If you’re interested in driving into neighboring Italy, Slovenia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, get an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). You may not be asked for it (nobody asked us for one in Bosnia) but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You can get your IDP at any AAA office for a $20 fee. Bring along a couple of passport-size photos and they’ll issue your IDP on the spot. The only other company in the US to issue IDPs is AATA (American Automobile Touring Alliance), but you’ll have to mail in all of your materials and wait for the IDP to be mailed back. Do not obtain an IDP from anywhere else. Anyone besides AAA and AATA claiming to provide IDPs is running a scam.
The Rental Car
We rented with Sixt, but only because their location in Zadar was within a couple of blocks from our hotel. If you don’t have a preferred rental car company, either choose a company with an airport location so you can pick the car up when you land, or choose a company with a location close to your accommodation. This will save you some time and transport money.
In most of Europe, stick shift is king. You’ll want to book as far in advance as possible if you want a car with automatic transmission. It will most likely cost a bit more. If you arrive in summer at the height of the tourist season, the agency that promised you an automatic car may no longer have one available. Be prepared to drive stick.
Do try to book the smallest car that will fit you and your companions. European streets are narrow, parking spots are few, and gas is expensive. You don’t want to waste all of your gas trying to find a parking space big enough to accomodate an SUV.
Not all Croatian hotels offer parking, especially inside the city centers. You may find that if a hotel does offer parking, the parking lot will be a few blocks away from the actual hotel and there will be a fee to use it – usually around $25USD per day. If there is no mention of parking on the hotel website, email the hotel directly and ask.
In some of the coastal cities, you will find parking lots close to the historic center where you can park and go exploring. Check your GPS for parking lots – they’re usually marked with a P.
Croatia’s A1 Motorway is a toll road spanning 296 miles from Zagreb in the north, all the way down to the Nova Sela border crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina in the south. The motorway has a toll booth at each of its 33 exits. When entering the highway, you receive a ticket stamped with your entry point. When exiting, you hand over your ticket at the toll booth and are charged based on the distance you rode on the highway.
The A1 is a quick, efficient way to make your way up and down the interior of this long, narrow country. It’s quite scenic, with plenty of small towns nestled into the mountains and lots of smooth curves to keep the drive entertaining. But at some point, you’ll want to leave the A1 and drive along the coast. Some of the country’s most spectacular cities are on the coast, including Split and Sibenek. No matter if you’re driving in the interior or along the coast of Croatia, the roads are smooth and likely much, much better than what you’re used to driving on in the US.
Do inquire if your rental car requires petrol or diesel fuel. Gas stations are easy to find, and some of them even have an attendant to pump your gas for you. Along the A1, gas stations come up often and may be somewhat large with an area inside to sit and enjoy a coffee and plenty of outdoor space to take in the views.
We love a road trip. We love watching the scenery pass, the small towns, the quirky rest stops. Driving in the cities can be a bit harrowing, but out in the Croatian countryside you can loosen your grip on the steering wheel and just enjoy the view.
In the midst of a stunning, mountainous landscape, I have to pee. We pull over and I follow a barely worn path through tall grasses, far from the road under wide open skies. I squat down along an abandoned stone wall, relieving myself in the most magnificent of makeshift outdoor bathrooms. This is what road-tripping is all about. These unexpected moments and the absolute freedom to roam where you want.