Saturday, April 02, 2016

Travel to Serbia: My Road Trip Route, Rental Car, GPS Issues, Parking Tips and More

I am now back in the Netherlands after a short 4-day trip to the Balkans in Serbia. In the 4 days I was in the country, I visited Novi Sad and Belgrade, both of which are very doable to combine. If I stayed longer, I probably would have visited other cities and towns, but I am saving up my vacation days for other trips planned this year. I have to make some choices you know.

Amsterdam, Netherlands to Belgrade, Serbia

Due to the fact that I do not have a lot of vacation days to spend on holidays and trips (read: I work fulltime), I do my best to maximise my travel journey, including taking the fastest route to the travel destination itself. Therefore as a rule, I always book direct flights. There is only 1 carrier flying direct from Amsterdam to Belgrade and this is Air Serbia. KLM though is a codeshare partner.

The flight times were also excellent, flying after 10 in the morning and arriving around lunch time. The flight back was just before 6 in the evening which offered me the full 4-day trip for this short holiday. Perfect.

For some reason, the plane during the flight was very hot. I am somewhat like a cold blooded mammal, rather someone with a low body temperature, in the sense that I tend to get sick when caught in a sudden transition from a cold temperature to a hot one. Also when the temperatures I am in are not natural based and there is a 10 degree difference against my body's. When this happens I get attacks of all sorts; from flushing to rashes and headaches and more. So I was nauseated for the entire duration of the flight and with a throbbing headache to add. The paracetamol was not helping much at all. Shit can happen you know and it did for me during this flight.

As for the food? Let us just say that I have eaten better at other airlines. But for a 2+-hour flight Air Serbia offers real meals. The stewards and stewardesses were also very nice.

Amsterdam to Belgrade is a 2 hour and 15 minutes  flight.

Nikola Tesla Belgrade International Airport.

Air Serbia fleet. That is my plane to Amsterdam connected to the airport tube.

Serbian Dinar (RSD) 

The acronym of Serbia is RS which stands for Republic of Serbia. Serbian money is called Serbian Dinar or RSD. The exchange rate when I was there was RSD 123 = € 1.

Withdrawing Serbian money from the ATM in the airport was the first thing I did after landing and collecting my luggage.

Money changers seem to be everywhere in the cities as well. You can find them literally in every corner. I have the feeling that many locals receive foreign money support from abroad. Perhaps many Serbians work abroad in western developed European countries and send money/remittances back home regularly. Interestingly, the Swiss Franc (CHF) was quite popular as well.

The main currencies for exchaning money in Serbia are EUR, CHF and USD.

Rental Car

I booked my rental car at Budget Rent a Car ahead of time making use of the discount offered by Booking. com which I used to book my hotel rooms in Novi Sad and Belgrade. I have a Genius account at Booking. com so I get Genius discounts on certain hotels when they have a special offer. I also get additional special perks such as early check-in and late check-out.

For 4 days I paid roughly about € 107 for an entry model car (I got a Fiat Panda) which comes with a standard contract. I did not buy any extra service or insurance. I also brought my own GPS.

I have this Nokia Phone with GPS for years already.... although I think I will need to buy a new portable GPS soon because the software of this one is not anymore supported and the battery is falling out. Like literally falling out of the case.

My Fiat Panda little car which did its job well.

Road Trip Route

So this is my road trip route for my short Serbian holiday:

From Nikola Tesla Belgrade International Airport, I drove to Novi Sad up north to Petovaradin Fortress where my hotel is located. The drive took approximately an hour. I stayed in Novi Sad for a night and afterwhich I drove back to Belgrade passing by Stari Slankamen first. On my last day in the country I made a quick visit to Zemun (Kej Oslobodenja) before proceeding back to the airport.

The 4 days in Novi Sad and Belgrade were just enough based on my experience.

GPS challenge (Nokia & iPhone) especially in Belgrade

I still use my old Nokia phone as my GPS on the go when I am travelling. Unfortunately, my Nokia GPS could not pick the map on street level in Serbia. It can only pick up directions to the town and city which will bring you to a random address in the core centre. This is the first time that this has ever happened to this GPS, and I have to wonder if it has something to do with Nokia OVI maps not anymore being supported. For those who do not know, the once phone giant has been bought by Microsoft but it didn’t survived the acquisition to integration process, and just last year Microsoft wrote off the whole deal from its books.

Nevertheless, I had to crack my brains and use ingenuity since I do not have internet on my phone.

Getting to my hotel in Novi Sad was an easy peasy task though. The city is small and the hotel sits on top of the fortress itself which is located along the Danube River. I reckon getting lost would be inconceivable.

On the road here from Belgrade Airport to Novi Sad.

My hotel in Novi Sad was very easy to find. Hotel Leopold sits inside (on top!) of the Petrovaradin Fortress. Check here the warm reception I received on my arrival: Hello from Novi Sad!

Belgrade however was a different ball game. It is a big city with neighbourhoods, suburbs and dizzying streets. My GPS picked up Belgrade but I have no idea where it is going to send me in the city centre, to Stari Grad. With no GPS working, I had to lean on manually searching for my hotel and navigating through the streets once I have arrived in the city. It was surely a daunting task that I was not looking forward to at all.

But before driving to Belgrade I did some due diligence work and double checked on Google Maps the location of the hotel, taking special note of the landmarks. The hotel sits on a popular main street, the Terazije, very near to Knez Mihailova pedestrian shopping street and the Kalemegdan Fortress.

This interestingly designed building from the Zepter company (which is the owner of the hotel I stayed as well) is one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Belgrade. It is located in New Belgrade (Novi Beograd) area, just before reaching the bridge (Most Gazela) and the city centre (Stari Grad).

Approaching Belgrade city centre from the E-75 and Most Gazela bridge.

Arriving in Belgrade and now I am at a lost where to find my hotel's street! A daunting task but not totally quite hopeless.

So when I arrived in the city I drove around looking for the main streets. Whilst doing this I came to a big avenue with impressive old buildings and I stopped at a red light. Across the street I could see the street sign so I quickly grabbed my camera and took a picture of it. Aha, I am on Ulica Kralja Milana.

I plan to stop somewhere further down the road and try to locate Kralja Milana on the map. I had my offline Google Maps on my laptop which I can use to check my actual location against the hotel’s.

As I drove further down the road looking for a place to temporarily park for a few minutes, I saw taxis lining up on the other side of the street. I quickly turned around the corner and joined the taxi line, got out of the car and spoke to one of the chauffeurs. He was not much of a help as he understands very little English.

So I went back in the car and decided to just call the hotel. An enthusiastic young man answered the phone and I explained to him my dilemma. I told him I am at Kralja Milana and he said that the street is very near to the hotel, so I looked outside the window hoping to give him some landmark, so that perhaps he can describe to me the directions to the hotel parking. When I did this I saw a sign called Zepter Hotel right across where I was temporarily parked.

“Wait, I am in front of the hotel!” I exclaimed jubilantly. Haha!

“I’m going out to help you. Give me 2 minutes.” Said the young man from the hotel and he hung up.

Zepter Hotel is actually a luxury apartments slash hotel.

A quick peek to my hotel room. I will blog about the hotel on a separate post later.

Oh wow, I found the hotel by accident!? In fact I parked my car right in front of the hotel! What a coincidence. LOL

You see the Malja Strana is connected to Terazije where my hotel is located. It practically is on the same street length. Quite lucky that I decided to stop here to speak to the taxi chauffeurs.

Nonetheless, together with the hotel guy we drove to the hotel’s parking which then I realised would be impossible to find without a working GPS. If you have a rental car and planning to stay in Belgrade? Book a hotel with a parking space. This will save you the headache. More on parking information below.

I chose this hotel for 3 reasons: 1) location 2) comfort 3) free parking.

Moi in the mirrored hallway of Zepter Hotel.

This is the Ulica Kralja Milana in Belgrade. If you drive further (left direction on the picture) you will reach Terazije and the direction to the Kalemegdan Fortress.

As for my way back to the airport on my last day in the country, I first passed by Zemun area for lunch and did a little stroll on the boulevard along the river. What I did was to use my Nokia GPS to bring me to Zemun, at least it will bring me to the town centre. From there I used my iPhone. I activated my GPS Maps on my iPhone making use of the internet in my hotel in Belgrade. Naturally as I drove away I lost internet connection, but, and this is the clincher, the route is still saved on my iPhone's Map.

In Zemun, I also did the same, I connected to the internet at the bar where I had my last coffee. Then I activated the route from where I was to Nikola Tesla Belgrade Airport. Same thing, I lost my internet connection the minute I left the bar, but I can still see the route saved on my iPhone.

Cool huh? This is what I meant:

The big blue dot is me and the car, it is moving and I am very near to my destination in Zemun =)

And here is my route to Belgrade Airport. I placed the iPhone on the seat between my legs =)

A colleague told me that Google Maps has now a GPS offline version. I am going to download it soon, just before I go for my next road trip.

Toll, Highways, Speed Limit & Petrol

There is very little car traffic outside the cities. The 2-lane highways that connects Belgrade and Novi Sad are usually empty and car traffic build up only happens within the city perimeters, or shall I say only in Belgrade area. The highways are good and well maintained but the roads in the countryside and even in the cities need some loving and attention.

The speed limit is 120 km/h on the highways, 80 hm/h on the provincial roads and 50 km/h in the built-up city areas. I haven’t seen any camera though but the guy at the Budget Rent a Car swears that there are cameras so I was quite careful to stick to the required speed limits. Police officers patrol every now and then. I saw a police car flagged down a car on the highway, perhaps for overspeeding.

The highway between Belgrade and Novi Sad has a toll but the fees are quite cheap. Leading credit cards including, well surprisingly Amex, are accepted.

Petrol is very affordable compared to Netherlands standard. Tip: there is a small gas station across Belgrade International Airport if you need to tank your rental car full before returning.

Highway tolls in Serbia.

Parking Zones and Parking Police

Both Novi Sad and Belgrade adopt a zoning parking rule where you can only park for a maximum amount of (short) time on the streets in the city centre. Payment is a little bit difficult to decipher, and to make matters worse, many locals pay parking via telephone SMS.

I read somewhere that you have to arrange parking in advance if you are not paying by SMS? I did not saw any parking metre or machine on the street where you can pay? I guess for visitors, it it best to park at public parking garages then. This is the reason why I strictly chose my hotels to be located in the city centre and with a free parking facility. You do not want this inconvenience at all.

Moreover, the parking police are everywhere and are very alert. They comb every street in the city issuing parking tickets to offenders. I managed to take a photo of 1 parking police in Belgrade, haha.

This is on the embassy row street and you can see the parking sign allocating the street as Zone II. Zone I is obviously the core centre.

A typical street in Belgrade which is always full of cars parked on both sides. You really would need to go to a parking garage for easy parking and less hassles.

The parking police in action. They are many and they are everywhere.

Local Transport: Taxi, Bus, Tram

In Belgrade I haven’t really had the chance to take a bus or a tram because the core centre is very compact; the attractions are nearby and reachable on foot. I did however take the taxi one time to go to a restaurant located in a different neighbourhood. It was approximately 8 minutes ride, which is about half an hour walk. It was in the evening so I didn’t fancy getting lost in the streets with a map on hand and having to ask the locals for directions.

The guys at the hotel in Belgrade told me its best that they call a cab for me or I flag down a running cab, than taking for example a cab parked outside the hotel that will charge me perhaps 20% extra. Flag down in Belgrade starts at 170 RSD (€ 1.35).

In Novi Sad I took the taxi several times as it was faster for me to get to the fortress where my hotel is located from the core centre, especially in the evenings. Flag down here starts at 70 RSD (€ 0.55) and I usually pay between 110-120 RSD from city centre to the fortress. Not bad and Novi Sad is definitely cheaper than Belgrado.

They have some old trams here. Nostalgic.

One of the local buses. As you can see, the destination is in Serbian language, which is Cyrillic alphabet.

Serbian Language and Internet

Serbian language is Cyrillic alphabet based (just like Russian) so for us who are used to the Roman alphabet, it is not going to be that very easy to read and understand things here in Serbia. It is however not impossible though to decode the language, but it definitely will take some time, and time is precious when you are only here for 4 days.

Many Serbians also speak English. Additionally, all the highways and most of the street road signs have a Roman alphabet translation. So yes, we all can and will survive when travelling in Serbia =)

Below is an example of a window display on the famous pedestrian shopping street where everything is in Serbian Cyrillic alphabet:

And for those who cannot live without internet, I have good news! There are a number of free WIFI hotspots available in the cities, both in Novi Sad and Belgrade. Some would require a pre-registration and if it is a challenge to do so because of the Cyrillic alphabet then one can always revert to a plethora of free internet options. Such as internet from the restaurants and cafes (they abound!). Just have a cup of coffee for a few dinars and voila, you can surf as much as you can. The bandwiths are also quite good.

Serbia's internet is .rs or so this is like or

So that said, I will be posting everything I saw, ate, did and experienced in Serbia in the next coming days, weeks and months =)

Travel Period: March 2016
Destination: Novi Sad (Vojvodina) & Belgrade, Serbia

Keep in touch and follow me on Facebook: Travel & Lifestyle Diaries by Dutched Pinay Travels
Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

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