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Please critique my itinerary for Croatia/Slovenia and a bit of Montenegro

Hello Fellow Travelers,
We will be visiting our daughter and her family in southern France for 2 weeks in April. Then we plan to fly to Croatia for 2 weeks. We will be in France from April 5 to April 23. These dates are not flexible. We have not made any airline reservations yet.

First a little bit about ourselves. By the time we take this trip, I will be 69 and my husband will be 72. We love just about everything: beautiful scenic drives, especially coastal scenery and mountain scenery; big cities, little cities, and small villages; art museums and history museums; churches and cathedrals; ethnic food and wine; and we try to find time for just wandering around neighborhoods, taking photos, relaxing at cafes. We aren’t in shape to do any strenuous hikes.

So please let me know about the following itinerary. Should I add days or decrease days from certain destinations? Does it make sense logistically? Plitvice Lakes NP and Dubrovnik are must-sees. And Ljubljana and the drive over the Julian Alps to Lake Bled are close to being must-sees. My husband doesn’t mind driving in foreign countries, so we plan to rent a car instead of rely on public transportation.

Brief itinerary: Zadar (2 nights), Plitvice NP (1 night), Split (4 nights), Dubrovnik (3 nights), and Ljubljana (3 nights).

April 24 – fly from Marseille to Zadar via Ryan Air. This is the only non-stop flight I could find from Marseille to Croatia. Otherwise, we have to change planes if we want to go to Dubrovnik first, and that would take up a whole day. Depart Marseille at 3:50pm and arrive in Zadar at 5:25pm. Overnight in Zadar. Question: Does anyone know when Ryan Air will post their schedules for April 2019? Right now their schedule to Zadar ends in October. I assume they will have the same flight schedule in April???
April 25 – sightseeing in Zadar. Overnight in Zadar
April 26 – Pick up rental car. Drive 2 hours to Plitvice Lakes NP. Depending on when we arrive, we might visit park in late afternoon. I assume the park won’t be too crowded in late April? Overnight in Plitvice Lakes NP.
April 27 – Visit Plitvice early in the morning. Spend about 4 hours in the park, depending on if we had time on the 26th to visit the park. Drive from Plitvice to Split. About a 3 or 4 hour drive. Overnight in Split.
April 28 – Sightsee in Split. Overnight in Split.
April 29 – Day trip to an island. I can’t decide between Brac or Hvar. Overnight in Split.
April 30 – Day trip to Trogir and Sibenik. Do we have time to see both places in one day? Overnight in Split.
May 1 – Drive from Split to Dubrovnik – about a 3 hour drive. Overnight in Dubrovnik.
May 2 – Sightsee in Dubrovnik – Definitely want to “walk the walls” and visit the Buza Bar. Overnight in Dubrovnik.
May 3 – Drive to Bay of Kotor in Montenegro for the day. We would do the Rick Steves Bay of Kotor Driving Tour. Overnight in Dubrovnik.
May 4 – Return rental car in Dubrovnik. Fly from Dubrovnik to Ljubljana, Slovenia, via Adria Airways. Depart Dubrovnik at 3:05PM and arrive in Ljubljana at 4:20PM. Overnight in Ljubljana.
May 5 – Sightsee in Ljubljana. Overnight in Ljubljana. Perhaps pick up rental car tonight so that we can leave early the next morning.
May 6 – Drive to Lake Bled via the Julian Alps for a day trip. Stop in Skofja Loka. Overnight in Ljubljana.
May 7 – Fly home from Ljubljana to Boston.

Right now we have 13 nights. Not sure if I should add an extra day. If so, where? A day trip along the Peljesac Peninsula sounds like it would be beautiful. The Rough Guide describes it as an exceptionally beautiful place! And we love red wines and oysters! Or an extra night in Split so we can take a daytrip to Krka National Park?

I apologize for such a long post! I appreciate any comments/advice/feedback. Thank you very much!

Posted by Judy
Saskatchewan
177 posts

I can’t add anything, but it sounds wonderful. We did the Eastern Europe tour with RS and stopped at a few places you mentioned. Brought back memories, so good. Plitvice and Lake Bled were lovely, don’t miss and we also went to Rovinj, so beautiful. Enjoy and safe travels.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3218 posts

I wouldn't bet on the Ryan Air schedule being the same next April. I'd probably still do the change of planes and start in Ljubljana and end in Dubrovnik, if you can get a decent flight home to Boston from there. I see that there are early flights leaving Marseille that connect in Paris or Brussels and take under five hours. While this may make your first day a bit more complicated, it would avoid both the backtrack from Zadar to/from Plitvice. And it avoids the flight in the middle from Dubrovnik to Ljubljana - another half day right in the middle disrupted by a flight.

(You also wouldn't be forced to spend a night in Zadar, unless that was a desired place to visit. )

If you have an extra night, you might take it in Montenegro instead of doing a long day trip. If you follow my approach, you'd start in Ljubljana, train probably to Zagreb and rent the car there and head for Plitvice all the way to Dubrovnik. Just bypass it for Kotor (say from Split, probably 5 hr drive. Have a leisurely day there and drive back to Dubrovnik, drop the car there, and just take a shuttle or taxi to the airport. You probably won't want a car in Dubrovnik, anyway. Easier to stay within walking distance of the old town and not worry about a car. In fact, if you overnight in Montenegro, you can probably do just two nights in Dubrovnik, which should be plenty if you won't be day tripping anywhere. Dubrovnik is lovely but very touristy especially during the day. Nights are much nicer.

Or, another night could be spent either on an island (Korcula or Hvar say) or inland in say Mostar, heading south from Split toward Dubrovnik/Kotor.

Posted by James E.
USA
8168 posts

3 nights in Dubrovnik would drive me batty..... Otherwise ...............

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Andrew, why do you say I can't count on Ryan Air's schedule being the same in April? If they don't fly to Zadar in April, would it make more sense, then, to start our Croatia trip in Dubrovnik because it's in the south, and end in Ljubljana in the north? This way I hope we would have nicer weather in Ljubljana and the Julian Alps if we are there around May 5 or 6 instead of April 25. I know it will be difficult finding parking for our rental car, but we prefer to drive ourselves instead of using public transportation. While I like the idea of an overnight in Montenegro, I am trying to minimize the number of one-night stays. My husband doesn't like them. Right now we will have at least one 1-night stay in Plitvice Lakes NP.
Thank you!

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Also, I forgot to add that I didn't include Mostar or Sarajevo in this trip because ideally I would like to spend one night in Mostar and 2 or 3 nights in Sarajevo. We just don't have the time to do everything in this trip. That's why I have also left out Istria.

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

James, I included 3 nights in Dubrovnik so we could do a day trip as well, and then come back at night and enjoy Dubrovnik in the evening after the cruise passengers have left. And we are trying to minimize one-night stays. So, otherwise, what do you think?
Thanks.

Posted by James E.
USA
8168 posts

No, its fine. the only difference i noticed between Dubrovnik during the day and the night was worse or just bad as far as crowds go. I will say this too. Dubrovnik was stunning, but so renovated that it lost a lot of its charm. When you look at aerial photos of the city you will see most roofs are bright orange and a few are brownish orange. The bright ones are rebuild buildings after the damage of the war.

Just for grins look at Perast on the Kotor Bay. In particular the Conte Hotel.

Our first trip to the region was Dubrovnik, Kotor bay after a night in Perast, then on to Podgorica for a flight on to Budapest (all trips must end in Budapest). I was impressed. Then we went back a second time. This time just Montenegro along the coast and in the mountains; and I was blown away. We will return. Not as spectacular as Dubrovnik, but not too many tourists and still beautiful fortified towns with fewer tourists. Ill send you a pm with some photos.

BUT, your plan looks like fun too.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3218 posts

I don't know whether Ryan Air's schedule will be the same next April or not. I'm merely speculating. In any event, doesn't matter what I think - either it will or won't be the same in April. If it's not, then you may not have the option to fly into Zadar at all. But I would definitely make a "plan B" that doesn't assume you will start in Zadar, once they open up flights for April and you can find out for sure.

As someone else said recently (here or on another forum) Slovenia and Croatia are just not places that lend themselves well to long stops with a lot of day trips. There are no huge cities like Paris and Amsterdam where a long stay makes sense. They are mostly smaller towns that don't need a lot of time to see, and doing a lot of day trips just eats up more time. As much as you both may dislike one night stays, they may be easier than hours of extra driving.

If you have a car in Dubrovnik, that either means paying to park it in a garage near the old town (expensive) or staying away from the old town and taking a bus in (or just driving in for a few hours - but you still have to park the car). Dumping the car and staying in or just outside the old town is just simpler. If you don't stay in/near the old town due to the expensive garage parking, then you'll likely miss the best times in Dubrovnik (evening when there are fewer tourists, maybe morning). I've done it both ways - greatly prefer staying in/near the old town.

There's nothing logically wrong with flying from Dubrovnik to Ljubljana in the middle of your trip. I'm not afraid to fly, but I do find flying adds more anxiety with worrying about getting to the airport on time, etc. Just a personal preference: if I can avoid an extra day that involves flying, which would seem like a disruption for me, I'd do it, but this may not be an issue for you.

FYI, trying to do Skofja Loka, Bled, and the Julian Alps drive in a single day while staying in Ljubljana is probably too much. You'll be moving too fast to enjoy it, in my opinion.

Yes, I suppose you increase the chances of the Vrsic Pass being open if you drive the Julian Alps Loop in early May vs. a few weeks earlier. I would expect some rain no matter when you go, though. I've had rain on all four of my visits to Ljubljana (also some beautiful sunny days - not rain entirely). Last year it rained in early May when I visited Bled. If I knew the Vrsic Pass would be open by late April I think I'd prefer to be down on the Dalmatian Coast a few weeks later, personally, just because the season will be more in swing by then - more options for excursions, better hours for things, etc. Ljubljana isn't a tourist town, so it doesn't much matter whether you are there in April or May. I always assume I have a better chance of less rain the later I go into the spring, and I'd rather have sunny weather on the seaside than in Slovenia. But you're always playing the odds with the weather - impossible to know of course.

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Andrew, thank you very much for your very detailed and very helpful response. I have read one of your trip reports on another travel forum, and your report, along with reports from a few other travelers, made me very interested in Slovenia. I think a few people drove over the Julian Alps, via Skofja Loka, to Bled for a day, but perhaps they didn't spend any time in Bled. And I think there is a shorter route back to Ljubljana. Ljubljana sounds like a beautiful city that we would enjoy coming back to at night. I guess I could look into hiring a private driver, depending on the cost, so my husband wouldn't have to do that drive, and we wouldn't need a car in Ljubljana.

And I understand what you are saying about having a car in Dubrovnik, too. We definitely prefer to rent a car so we have more flexibility, but I know we would also prefer staying in old town Dubrovnik so we can enjoy it at night. I think this is one of the most difficult trips I have planned.

I will definitely create a Plan B Itinerary in case Ryan Air doesn't fly to Zadar in April 2019. Thanks for the tip!

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

James, Thanks! I'd love to see your photos. Everything sounds wonderful and exciting to me. We just have to narrow down what we can see and do on this trip, and perhaps return to the area another time. And we have not been to Budapest yet, so perhaps we could combine Budapest some day with Bosnia and more of Montenegro.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3218 posts

kmkwoo, the route through the Julian Alps you are probably thinking of - the "Julian Alps loop," over the Vrsic Pass - is north of Skofja Loka and Bled. People probably do a day trip from Ljubljana that starts in Bled for a few hours the includes the drive (counter-clockwise) up the Vrsic Pass and then down into the Soca Valley (the "loop."). But the detour via Skofja Loka that I usually recommend - from Skofja Loka via Jamnik and Kropa - takes a lot of extra time, though it's a beautiful drive. I think it would be hard to do that drive, and spend a sufficient time at Bled, and then do the Vrsic Pass drive also. It would be a very long day.

The Rick Steves Croatia/Slovenia book describes the Julian Alps Drive fairly well.

Driving in Slovenia is easy. I guess you could hire a driver, but you could at worst rent a car just for the day, to avoid having to park it in pedestrianized Ljubljana. In fact, that's what I did last year in Ljubljana: rented a car for only a day drive to see some spots I hadn't yet seen.

If you saw my 2015 trip report (which had only a brief stop in Ljubljana), you would have seen the pics of Montenegro that would give you some idea about the Bay of Kotor and the drive, etc. I concur with James - Perast is a lovely town and worth at least a stop.

Posted by James E.
USA
8168 posts

There is so much world, its tough to decide. But there is no right or wrong or best or better.

Some years back with so many places i wanted to see and so many places i never imagined (Montenegro for instance), I just started wandering a bit. With a little research i am able to find a new place, almost any new place, to fly into out of the US, then a few days of ground time, but always limiting drives or train or buses to no more than 3 hours; then a discount airline on to Budapest. Back Door traveling? I've found Attic Windows, that led to amazing places i would have never found any other way; and at no time do i spend more than a couple of hours from one wonder to the next.

I also needed a theme to help tie it together. So i bought a six piece fly rod that packs very nice...

Posted by Paul-of-the-Frozen-North
Sioux Falls, SD, USA
1069 posts

I would fly from France to Dubrovnik, stay there 3 days, use the catamaran ferry to go to Split, stay there 4 days, take the bus to Zadar, stay there 2 nights, take the bus to Plitvice lakes, stay there 1 night and tour the next day, take the bus to Zagreb, stay one night, and take the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana. I really wonder if you need a car. Croatia is fine for driving, but your trip is all cities, and it's much easier on the bus. Plus at your age, it's more fun to be on the bus/train (we are 66 and 69). We have taken Flixbus a number of times in Croatia and Germany. It's very reasonable (Zagreb-Zadar was about $13). Buses are clean. They leave on time. There is a break for the driver to smoke a cigarette every 2 hours.

I make this suggestion for the itinerary because it is more geographically sensible. Your original approach was OK, but didn't make sense with the map. Look at a map, and you will see that my approach is far more appropriate in terms of travel times, etc.

As to adding days, I would certainly spend 2 days in Zagreb, which is a very nice, small capital city, with a nice art museum (the Museum of Croatian Naive Art - think Grandma Moses in rural Croatia on glass panels), a nice cathedral, great restaurants, an opera house, etc.

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Paul, thank you so much for your suggestions. I will ask my husband how he feels about taking a bus instead of renting a car. I know having a rental car limits us to the hotels we can stay in. But it would be nice to have a rental car so that we can take some scenic drives, such as the drive around the Bay of Kotor and through the Julian Alps.

Are you suggesting flying to Dubrovnik first so that we would end up in Slovenia during the first week of May, when hopefully the weather would be nicer? The flight schedules and fares from Marseille to Ljubljana are better than the flight schedules and fares to Dubrovnik from Marseille. The fares to Dubrovnik are about $110 per person more. This is one of the more difficult trips regarding planning.!

I will check out the ferry schedules from Dubrovnik to Split. I have noticed there are fewer ferries/catamarans running during the time of year we will be there.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3218 posts

We all have our preferences for mode of transportation. My first preference is trains. My last preference is buses (I get motion sick on buses but, for some reason, not on trains). Croatia and Slovenia both have decent bus systems but not much of a train network. But, driving is also easy and affordable, and I've always found driving easy in both countries. I would want a car for Montenegro, for Split to Plitvice to Zagreb, and in Slovenia (at least for a day) for sure - unless I were planning to hire a driver (usually more than I am willing to spend). The car between Split, Plitvice, and Dubrovnik is mostly for convenience - scenery is negligible. I would want the car for the scenic options in Montenegro and Slovenia.

But I wouldn't want one in Dubrovnik as I said above due to the difficultly in parking one there.

I definitely think it best too to have Ljubljana and Dubrovnik as your start and end points, no matter what direction you go, even though my preference would be north to south, assuming the Vrsic Pass might be open by the time I get to Slovenia. Maybe I'm wrong; I would check the history of the last few years to see when it has opened each year. But maybe late April is too risky so you might be better off doing Slovenia last.

Posted by Paul-of-the-Frozen-North
Sioux Falls, SD, USA
1069 posts

When we went to Split, I made the mistake of driving into the old town. Yikes. Not only double-parking but triple parking. Dubrovnik is a small town, and I wouldn't drive there period. As to the Bay of Kotor, you get the same view from a bus, except you can look at the view instead of the other cars. We have been to Croatia on a number of occasions in recent years, and have found the public transport to be fine. You can also hire a driver for trips.

We also drove there, and, again, outside of the old cities, driving is fine. It's really difficult to get lost in Croatia. There are often few roads going from Point A to B, and so you don't need to make many decisions. The big superhighway from the coast to the interior is as good a road as you will find in the USA or Germany. Many fine roadside stops too.

Posted by James E.
USA
8168 posts

Just an aside. On our last trip to Montenegro we rented a car; 75 euro a day. Well, that included the driver. Best yet, we only paid for the days we needed him and never paid a toll or a parking fee.

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Andrew, my husband usually drives a rental car because we like the independence, and he doesn't mind driving in foreign countries. I would never do the driving! I do all the trip planning. But last year we did use public transportation when we were in Andalucia. We traveled solely by train and bus and loved it. For Croatia, our preference is to have a rental car, but I know that we wouldn't be able to park it in the old town centers, such as in Dubrovnik, but we would prefer to stay in the old town centers. I'm beginning to think we might do a combination of different modes of transportation.

Paul, thank you for your description of driving in Croatia. It's good to know we won't get lost!

JamesE, do you have the name and contact info of the driver you used in Montenegro? I'd like to explore possibly hiring a driver for one or 2 days.

Thank you!!

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3218 posts

And if you make Dubrovnik a start or end point for the whole trip, you won't need a car there - drop when you get there or pick it up as you leave. Otherwise, other than the cities, driving in Croatia is easy. (Zagreb isn't so bad. I didn't drive in Split.) Another option for Split is to stay in nearby Trogir, where parking would be a tad easier (was for me, anyway). Trogir is tourist-oriented (more than Split), more charming than Split (in my opinion) but less interesting and much smaller than Split.

Posted by Paul-of-the-Frozen-North
Sioux Falls, SD, USA
1069 posts

When we were in the FRY in 2014, we hired drivers on 2 occasions. First, we were going to the Vojvodinja (northern Serbia formerly part of Austria-Hungary before WWI), and I was pretty sure that English would be hard to come by, and that German would also be uncommon. Both expectations were correct. We hired a guide from Beograd TI, and he was about 100€ for a day. We hired him again to drive us from Beograd to Sarajevo. Cost here was higher, but less than the cost of 2 persons flying, and we got curbside-to-curbside service. We then hired a driver in Sarajevo to go to Mostar. We expected to take the bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik, but it was off for the season (this was Oct 29). So, the same driver took us to Dubrovnik, but through Kotor, due to the needs of a second pair of passengers who were unable to go through Croatia for visa reasons.

Hiring drivers in FRY can be quite cost-effective.

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Thank you to Andrew and Paul for your latest helpful replies. I started researching hotels in Split, and I have found a few that are either inside Diocletians Palace or a 5-minute walk from the center, and they have parking available. They look very nice and are in our price range, even with the parking fees, probably because it's shoulder season. I feel good about hotel choices in Split!

Paul, thanks for letting me know the cost of the private drivers. That is something we have never done, but it might make sense on this trip. And especially since, as you point out, the private driver could be less expensive than airfares for 2 people, and you do get
curbside to curbside service, which is very convenient. Thanks for the tip.

Posted by Emily
Vienna, Austria
2966 posts

We have been to Croatia numerous times with a rental car. Driving is easy and straightforward with excellent signage and road conditions. I cannot imagine the need for a driver - that seems excessive to me especially if your husband has no issues with driving.

Posted by Digbydog
Cincinnati
71 posts

If you are looking for a place to stay in Ljubljana, we loved our stay at Apartment Emmi. It is in a perfect location, right on the river, but very quiet. It is a modern apartment remodeled by an architecture student. http://www.emmihome.si

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Emily, thanks for your words of encouragement! It's not that we are afraid of driving but that I am concerned about finding hotels with parking in every place we are going to that is either in the city center, or within the walls, or a 5-minute walk from the center. We don't want to be far away. Do you remember where you stayed when you were in Croatia? Did the hotels have parking? Thank you.

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Digbydog, thank you for the recommendation. I will check it out!

Posted by kmkwoo OP
Massachusetts, USA
62 posts

Andrew, I had more time today to read Rick Steves' section on the Julian Alps Driving Tour and look at his map, and I re-read your post, and I now realize I was confused about the Vrsic Pass Drive and the detour you recommend through Skofja Loka. I feel foolish because I thought they were one and the same drive! Obviously, they are not, and they can certainly be done separately. I remember reading another person's trip report on another forum, and he did the Skofja Loka detour from Ljubljana in one day. He had lunch in Kropa, and he stopped in Bled, but then returned directly to Ljubljana. So I was confused why you said it couldn't be done in one day. Now I know why. So my plan is to drive from Ljubljana, take the detour through Skofja Loka, go to Bled, and then return to Ljubljana on a faster road. We will not go to the Vrsic Pass.

I have ordered maps for Croatia and Slovenia; they should arrive soon, and will be very helpful, I'm sure. Thank you!