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Itinerary Hungary/Croatia, driving from Budapest to Croatia, time of year to go to Croatia

My friend and I will be traveling to Hungary and Croatia in late April and early May. I am just beginning the research stage and plan to get the appropriate RS books (I promise!) but for now had a couple of questions. I will also post my Hungary-specific questions on the Hungary board.

The plan is roughly as follows:

4/23 - arrive in Budapest, stay at least 3 nights, maybe 4. We're traveling from the US West Coast so it's about a 17 hour trip.
4/23-4/26 - 3 full days in Budapest
4/27 - we want to go to Croatia. However, we know that train service is very limited and there are no non-stop flights from Budapest to either Split or Zagreb (we don't plan to go as far south as Dubrovnik). I am thinking of renting a car, either in Budapest or taking the train to Pecs and renting from there if that would be easier and driving to Croatia. We would need a car when we got to Croatia anyway as we want to go to Plitvice as well as Split and explore around both areas. I know we could take a train or bus from Budapest to Zagreb, then rent a car there and just do all our driving in Croatia, but it seems like it would be more efficient to go straight from Hungary to Plitvice. Does this make sense? Is it difficult to find a company which will rent a car in 1 country and allow me to drive it to another? Is it difficult to cross the border from Hungary to Croatia?

We've taken the train almost exclusively in several prior Europe trips though I did drive from Florence to the Bolzano area once (white-knuckling the mountainous area on the freeway) so I feel I can drive when necessary.

4/27-5/02 - 6 nights in Croatia. How to divide them? If we leave Budapest the morning of 4/27 and it's about a 5 hour drive to Plitvice (the minimum time it should take), I don't know that we'd get to Plitvice in time to get into the park in late afternoon as recommended on these boards and then go back the following morning. The spring hours for the park are 8-5 so I assume we'd need to be out of the park by 5. So we might just stay the night nearby, go to Plitvice first thing in the morning on 4/28, and stay for 3-4 hours before leaving. Or we could get to Plitvice area the night of 4/27, explore other areas nearby the morning of 4/28, go to Plitvice the afternoon of 4/28, stay a second night, go to Plitvice the morning of 4/29, and then leave for Split. So we'd do 1-2 nights near Plitvice, no more than 2.

Then - either 2 nights in Split and 2 nights somewhere else, or 4 nights in Split and day trip via ferry to an island or two (I've read great things on here about Vis). I'm leaning towards 4 nights in Split as we've found we like to do a minimum of 3 nights in most destinations. It also seems like Split is a good location to explore that city, day-trip to an island, and explore other towns near Split.

Leave Croatia to return to Hungary on 5/03.

I wonder about late April/early May being a little too "off-season" in Split for housing, restaurants and attractions, as well as the weather being colder than we'd like for spending time at the beach/on the islands. Any thoughts on our timing? We can probably push it 2-3 weeks later, but probably no later than that (so our latest time in Croatia would be around 5/19-5/24). Of course I know there's no guarantee on weather, it could be unseasonably cool or warm no matter what time we go.

Thanks for any suggestions.

Posted by
1652 posts

I will try to answer some of your questions. Regarding driving from Hungary to Croatia, generally car rental companies charge a HUGE drop-off fee if you pick up the car in one country and drop it off in another country. So you need to look into that. It might make more sense to take the train from Budapest to Zagreb and then rent the car in Zagreb, when you are ready to leave Zagreb. You don't need or want a car while in Zagreb.

Are you planning on spending a few nights in Zagreb? It's not clear from your post. if you are, I think it makes the most sense to go from Budapest to Zagreb, then Zagreb to Plitvice, and end in Split. An itinerary could be 1 night in Zagreb, 1 night in Plitvice, and 4 nights in Split. We spent 4 nights in Split and loved it. It's a beautiful city with lots to do. I recommend hiring Maya Benzon, recommended by Rick Steves, for a private guided tour of Diocletian's Palace. We took the ferry from Split to Hvar for a day trip. We also visited Trogir for about 3/4 of a day. There are other places nearby if you have the time, such as Sibenik.

We visited Croatia in September of 2019. Friends of ours were there the same year in late April/early May. They had a mixed bag of weather: sun, warmth, rainy and chilly weather. It was rainier & chillier in Ljubljana. Not sure what it was like in Croatia for them. They started in Dubrovnik, which is what we did. I think one advantage to going in the spring is that there will probably be more water at Plitvice lakes, so therefore the waterfalls will be even more impressive. Late April/early May would not be off-season for housing, restaurants and attractions. Our friends did the same things we did. In fact, we were supposed to travel with them in the spring but I had to postpone our trip because of surgery. We did have better weather in September, but late April/early May is fine.

Regarding which island to visit from Split, I think Vis is difficult to get to, based on what I've read. We didn't go there so I don't know for sure. Hvar is very easy to reach via ferry from Split; it was either a one-hour or two-hour ferry ride.

Posted by
27352 posts

I haven't driven in Europe, so others will have better insights than mine about the border-crossing issue. Since you would be picking up and returning the car in the same country, you would avoid the usual very-high international drop charge. I'd suggest contacting at least one of AutoEurope, Kemwel or Gemut (all rental-car consolidators) to check on availability of cars in Budapest to be driven into Croatia; there may be some limitations.

In terms of timing, I wish you could extend your trip a bit, because Budapest is a large city with very attractive architecture and many interesting sights. It is definitely not a destination where you want to be limited to three nights, jetlagged, at the beginning of a trip. I would want at least five nights in that situation, but I admit to being an in-depth traveler with a strong interest in the WWII and Cold War periods.

Pecs, incidentally, is also very nice.

You could conceivably run into some wet weather in Hungary in late April or early May; I had heavy rain and hail one day. However, Budapest isn't, statistically, an especially rainy city--though May and April are its rainiest months. You'll find a climate-summary chart in the Wikipedia entry for Budapest. It's at Plitvice that precipitation would be disruptive of your plans. I haven't found a precipitation chart from Plitvice, but I suspect your odds of good weather are pretty high.

May 1 is a major holiday in many European countries. It can affect availability of local transportation (nothing was running in the city of Nice, France, when I arrived on May 1, 2017). The holiday might also affect the opening hours of car-rental agencies, though I suppose major-airport locations might be OK.

Posted by
1652 posts

After reading acraven's reply, I realize that you plan to return home from Budapest. So if you rent a car in Budapest and return it to Budapest, then you don't have to worry about the high drop-off fee.

Have you actually made your airline reservations? If not, I recommend booking open-jaw or multi-city. You would fly into Budapest and return home from Split. This means you do not have to backtrack to Budapest so you would have more time in Croatia. But this would then necessitate the huge drop-off fee if you rent the car in Budapest and return it in Split. Just something to think about.

We use Kemwel all the time and have never had any problems with them. I think they are now part of Auto Europe.

Posted by
29 posts

Thanks to both of you for all this helpful information. We haven't booked our flight yet. As far as our time in Budapest - we planned to spend some time there at the end of our trip too, so I think we'll have about 5-6 nights there, and about 5 days. I can't take more than 2 weeks off of work so this seemed like a good compromise to see 2 places I've always wanted to see (Budapest and Plitvice). It sounds like as long as I pick up and return the car in the same country I shouldn't have any big issues, but of course I will check in with rental car companies once we book our flight.

And thanks also for the weather info, and for info about the ferries and which islands are easier to get to. Once I order my RS books I will look at those things a lot more carefully. Sounds like Hvar is easier to reach and especially if we just are doing a day trip, I want to minimize the amount of time I'm on the ferry vs. exploring the island.

We're not 100% sure we're going, there are a few things which might get in the way including COVID, so we're holding off a bit before buying a plane ticket and committing to it. I'm really hoping we're able to go; I got so excited reading all the posts about both Croatia and Hungary.

Thanks again for your very detailed and specific answers.

Posted by
1652 posts

Janet, I want to add that we took the ferry from Split to Hvar Town on Hvar. You can also take the ferry to Stari Grad on Hvar but that is a much longer ferry ride because it's on the other side of the island. Stari Grad is also smaller than Hvar Town. You might read that Hvar Town is party-central but that is only true during the summer months. It was quiet in September and our friends said it was quiet in late April/early May. Hvar Town is beautiful! You can take a nice hike up to the fortress with beautiful views along the way. We also took a nice walk along the coastal path with gorgeous views of the Adriatic and past a cactus garden. There are lots of pine trees so there's lots of greenery contrasting with the blue skies and blue water.

I checked my notes, and the ferry from Split to Hvar Town takes 65 minutes. Perfect for a day trip!

I understand your worries about Covid. We booked airline reservations to Greece for this May just one day before Omicron made the news. Purchased travel insurance that covers Covid, but hopefully by the spring Omicron won't be the problem it is now.

For guidebooks, I also recommend Rough Guides and Fodors.

Posted by
18522 posts

If you want to do all that driving, then its a plan. Personally I would fly Budapest to Podgorica and hire transfer services up the coast to Zagreb; then the train. Would probably cost about the same. In July that is what I did, but Zagreb south (I can give you names if that interests you). The one thing I learned was I didn't enjoy Split at all; and a day at Plitvice was all the walking and climbing my legs were up to. Loved Zagreb.

For Budapest, I think 4 nights is a minimum and even then depends on the days of the week. Then 2 more nights on the way back.

Which begs the question, why not an open jaw ticket. That would open up so many options for good use of time. I am in that region once or twice a year Budapest more often, and its worth the effort. Consider Turkish Air; Istanbul, Sarajevo ... transfer service to Plitvice, Zagreb, ... train to Budapest, Turkish Air home.

Dates are fine for the region, but if you are concerned google whether data and decide if it works for you.

Posted by
247 posts

Ryanair flies direct to Zadar from Budapest on Sundays and Thursdays. If you book open jaw flying into Budapest and out of Zagreb or Split, and fly from Budapest to Zadar, it would eliminate the need for backtracking. Zadar is about 2 hour by bus from both Split and Plitvice and is a lovely city in and of itself. To me it was similar to Split but far less crowded and had the best views for sunset. You could fly into Zadar and drive directly to Split, then spend a night at Plitvice on your way to Zagreb to fly home, or do the reverse and drive to Plitvice from Zadar then to Split and fly home from there (depending on flight availability in each destination). I think one full day at Plitvice is enough. I got up super early and drove from Zadar and got to Plitvice about an hour after it opened at 8am and stayed until 1pm. I would have liked to stay longer but I needed to return the car. You can either arrive in the evening and stay close to the park, spend the whole morning there, then continue on to your next destination, or drive to Plitvice early, stay all day until close, and spend the evening then venture on to your next destination in the morning. Either way, I don't think more than one night is needed (you could also just do a super long day trip like I did. Its very tiring but very doable and also completely possible by bus from Zadar or Zagreb if you don't want to drive).

If you end up with a car in Split, I would suggest checking out Omis if you're into any type of adventure sports. You can go zip lining, kayaking, STP, canyoning, paragliding, etc, and it was one of the sandiest beaches I was on in Croatia. I also loved Makarska, its such a dramatic landscape with the jetting mountain right behind the coastline. I went parasailing here and it was a fantastic experience. Hvar Town and Korcula were both nice old towns that were beautiful and fun to walk around. Neither really need more than half a day to explore. I think Split was one of my least favorite destinations, but it is centrally located and a good jumping off point to visit other islands and locations in Croatia. Make sure to hike up to the vrh telegrin lookout for the best 360 views over Split

Posted by
3060 posts

In 2019, we were in Budapest, and needed to get to Zagreb. It looked like the connections were bad. This is false information.

We actually went to Pecs for a couple days (highly recommend). Then we took a train to Osijek, Croatia, which did necessitate a change in trains. In Osijek, we took a straight shot to Zagreb. Very easy. Not expensive.

Posted by
18522 posts

Last year, before the airport opened to US citizens, you could cross the border from Croatia with no COVID documents. So I booked a flight to Zagreb and had plans to have a transfer service pick me up at the airport. Okay, sort of expensive but my time on the ground is valuable. The cost I believe was to be $300. Then the airport opened and I changed my plans. But if anyone is interested, the transfer service is a company I have used for maybe 10 years now. Good folks.

Posted by
1 posts

My daughter and I went from Budapest to Croatia on the bus. It was the least expensive way. But we were so tired traveling from US to Germany, Prague and Budapest that it was a nice little rest . I think our bus trip was 6 hours.

Posted by
3060 posts

I'd consider go from Budapest -> Pecs -> Osijek -> Zagreb by train. The Pecs -> Osijek is not on rome2rio, but we did that in 2019. Just requires a switch of trains in some small town. You can pick up the car there, or use buses to go to Split via Plitivice.

In 2011, we drove Budapest (left at 8 AM) to Balaton (breakfast) to Zagreb (lunch) to Plitvice (dinner) easily in 1 day.

Posted by
1679 posts

Sorry to piggyback on this, but James E., I would be interested in those names. We will be booking some transfers in Croatia. Thanks.