Tuesday Column - Croatia Tourism 1: How to Get There
Croatia is much more accessible by air than it was two years ago. It comes as a surprise to many that it’s only a two hour flight from London, despite indications to the contrary in some airline schedules which seem designed to make sure they are never late! Four years ago your choice of carriers was limited to Croatia Airlines all year round or a charter flight in the season. Now, for London, it’s Croatia Airlines, British Airways and Wizzair (Luton), plus a myriad of charter operators in the summer. You can also travel, relatively easily, to most major international destinations from Croatia, with an ever increasing number of direct international flights being scheduled from Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik, especially in the summer.
Zagreb is the hub for Croatia Airlines with most London flights heading for Heathrow airport. There’s at least one flight a day, throughout the year, between Zagreb and London, and daily connecting flights between Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik, Pula and Zadar. The connecting flights into Zagreb tend to leave early in the morning with the international flights leaving soon after. It’s the evening return to the local airports which is less easy to schedule with a limited number of planes, so the local flights all seem to leave around 9 pm, after the last international arrival of the day. In light traffic, the airport is about half an hour’s drive from the city centre, with regular coach services into Zagreb. It’s a four to five hour drive from Zagreb to Split and a further three to four hours from Split to Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar and Pula
Dubrovnik airport is about 45 minutes away from the city and near to the lovely Cavtat. It’s Croatia’s second busiest airport, closely followed by Split, which is half way (20 minutes by car) between Split and Trogir. Zadar and Pula airports are less regularly served by direct flights. Rijeka is a refuelling strip and a stop off for some flights.
Croatia Airlines, (http://www.croatiaairlines.hr/), operate regular direct flights in the summer, from both Heathrow and Gatwick, to Dubrovnik and Split. In the winter, the direct flights to Split and Dubrovnik are less frequent and you’ll probably find yourself having to fly via Zagreb. That can be a problem on some days of the week with long waits on the journey from Zagreb to Split and Dubrovnik. There are periodic special offers but the prices are still surprisingly high given the ever increasing competition and the spare capacity still available. My flight from Zagreb to Heatrow today can't have been more than 20% full.The best return fare I’ve had this year, in the winter, is £150 and it can be £260. That being said, general standards are high but you’ll probably get fed up with cottage cheese, and cold turkey and carrots. One final note of caution – although the pricing part of the website has recently been considerably improved, don’t take the prices on the website as gospel. To date I’ve always managed to get a better price, either via a travel agent, or at the Croatia Airlines desk at Split Airport. Be prepared to query the first price you get and ask if there’s a cheaper class.
British Airways (http://www.britishairways.com/) have been flying direct to Dubrovnik for a couple of years and extended the service to an all year round one at least a year ago. They only started flying direct to Split last summer and initiated the service with three flights a week from Gatwick, starting in late March and ending in late September. This year they’re flying 6 times a week from March to September and 3 times a week in the winter. That’s a good indication of how they see the market developing. If you book far enough in advance, you can get a basic return to Split for around £120, the only problem being that some of the flights now get back to Gatwick quite late.
Ryan Air (http://www.ryanair.com/) are the best bet for a reasonably priced single ticket but, at the moment, you’ll have to get an overnight ferry from Split to Ancona in Italy, and fly from Ancona to Stansted. The ferries operate daily in the summer, but not in the winter, so check the timetables first before booking your ticket. There have been rumours that one of the budget airlines will be flying to Split or Zadar soon and we’ll keep you posted.
Wizzair (http://www.wizzair.com/) have just started flying between Luton and Zagreb in the summer. If you want to travel onto Split or Dubrovnik (or Pula or Zadar) you’ll need to get a connection from Croatia Airways.
There are plenty of other permutations for getting between, say, Split and London without going through Zagreb. Try Malev Hungarian Airlines (http://www.malev.hu/) or Czech Airlines (http://www.csa.cz/) but expect a few hours wait between connections.
Needless to say, if you leave it late to book for a trip in the height of the season, you can expect to pay for the privilege. Both BA and CA quoted around £700 for an August flight to Split, at one week’s notice. Fair enough, in many ways, as they are both normally fully booked in July and August.
The main international ferry ports of Pula, Rovinja, Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, connect Croatia with Italy. Almost every island of any size has at least one ferry port to limk it with the mainland or neighbouring islands, and the state owned Jadrolinija ferry company (http://www.jadrolinija.hr/) is more of a traditional public service than a commercial operation. In this respect it has many similarities with the Croatian Post Office – see Inaugural Links posting. The other main ferry company is Blue Line, (http://www.bli-ferry.com/). Amazingly its schedule is synchronised with Jadrolinija, for winter trips to Ancona, so you get two ferries on some days of the week and none on others. Most of the international trips are overnight and the local ferry services tend to be geared to islanders working on the mainland rather than tourists.
Train is probably the slowest and most difficult way of getting around the mainland. High speed trains are being introduced but the rest of the infrastructure will need some attention and modernisation. For more information look at the official website of Croatian Trains, http://www.hznet.hr/.
Coaches and Buses
This is the cheapest and favourite mode of travel for most of the population. There are regular, comfortable, long distance coaches connecting the major cities. The downside is that the roads are not great (see previous posting “The Living is Easy?”) so the journey will take longer than you expect with several comfort breaks. Frequent, but less modern, buses operate the local routes on the mainland and islands. On the islands, timetables are geared to ferry arrivals and departures. A number of different companies operate the routes and many of their web sites do not have an English version but have a look at http://www.ak-split.hr/ for an idea of services from Split. Even the smallest village has a bus time table displayed somewhere, normally near the public telephone, so you won’t find it hard to get the information you need. Dogs do not seem to be allowed on buses or coaches.
We spent five days travelling by car, from London to Trogir, when we first came over in November 2002. Our dog was with us and we wanted to make a bit of a holiday out of it so didn’t push it, averaging 500 kilometres a day. We know people who have done it in two days but not with a lot of sleep. The worst part was the coast road, south from Trieste in Italy, all the way to Split. Croatia’s first motorway along the coast, and to Zagreb, is now complete and makes life much easier unless you happen to hit it on one of the “influx or exodus” summer weekends. However, apart from the motorway, Croatian roads aren’t for the feint hearted!
Car hire is a little cheaper than western Europe and fly drives are a great way of seeing the real Croatia without having to spend too much time on the single carriageway and hair pin bends of the main coast road!
We’ll be keeping a general eye on travel news and examining the various options in more detail in future postings. However, at £100 return, and with the Croatian skies finally opening up, how can you resist the opportunity to explore the best of what Croatia has to offer. For a glimpse, see yesterday’s posting – Which Destination and When?