Croatia on a budget: how to save on accommodation, attractions, and just about everything else

August 28, 2015: people dining at a restaurant on the harbor during a sunny afternoon.
Navigating Croatia on a tight budget is possible with these tips © PATSTOCK / Getty Images

As more travelers discover the delights of Croatia, prices have been creeping upwards in keeping with the country’s steadily growing popularity. You’ll find more luxury hotels than ever springing up at a rapid pace, particularly in some of the upmarket resorts along the Adriatic coast and on a few of the islands. At the same time, however, there’s been a surge in private apartments and family-run guesthouses, which makes it more affordable to visit Croatia if you’re on a budget.

One of the biggest expenses will be your flights to Croatia, which can rise to mind-boggling levels as soon as the summer season approaches. But once you arrive, it’ll be surprisingly easy to travel around. Here’s how to get the most out of Croatia when money is tight.

A man walking on a boardwalk over a stream with a waterfall visible through the trees in Plitvice Lakes National Park
Visit Plitvice Lakes National Park in the winter and you'll save money on accommodations and entrance fees © Sorin Rechitan / Getty Images

 When booking flights, plan ahead and be flexible

From June onwards, flights to Split start to soar. No wonder, as it’s the gateway to some of Croatia’s most desirable islands, including Hvar, Brač and Vis. As prices rise to meet demand, you might want to try different airports, such as Zagreb, Zadar or Rijeka (which is actually on the island of Krk). 

Buses with Arriva from Zagreb to Zadar cost as little as 95 kuna (US$14), and with Croatia Bus you can pay 180 kuna ($27) for a single from Zagreb to Split. There’s also the option to fly into neighboring countries – Ljubljana in Slovenia, Budapest in Hungary or Trieste in Italy – and rent a car.

Look beyond the summer months

High season in Croatia – July and August, and sometimes the second half of June – means high prices. Accommodation will be more expensive, and many attractions raise their prices. Compare entrance fees to Plitvice Lakes National Park from June to September – at 300 kuna ($44) – to those in April, May or October, at 180 kuna ($26). Better yet, come in the winter when Plitvice becomes a snowy magical place, and it costs only 80 kuna ($12).

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A view of the Onofrio fountain from the city walls of Dubrovnik
Consider staying right outside of the city walls of Dubrovnik to save money © Vesna Celebic / Lonely Planet

Widen the net to save on accommodation

While it’s tempting to stay in the center of town, it can often come at a premium. You might have to walk 15 or 20 minutes from the center to find cheaper accommodation, but it can be worth the money saved. Dubrovnik is a good example: Rather than stay in the Old Town or just outside the city walls, look further out towards Gruž or Babin Kuk, both of which are easily reached by bus from the Old Town. 

Think about swapping a hotel room for an apartment

In recent years, there’s been a mushrooming of private apartments in Croatia to cater for growing demand. You’ll certainly save on the cost of food if you can do self-catering, and some apartments offer the use of a shared barbecue. Others have other useful free services such as bikes you can borrow. 

Discover Croatia’s rail network

It does have its limitations, but Croatia’s national railway company, HŽPP, is an affordable way to get around parts of the country. The main snag is that the network could be more extensive. Trains run from Zagreb to Split, but not further south towards Dubrovnik, although the regions around Zagreb and the north are better serviced. Fares are reasonably priced: for example, a return from Zagreb to Split costs 199 kuna (US$28). 

Get to know the national bus networks

If Croatia’s rail network is limited, the same can’t be said for the buses – particularly along the Adriatic coast. The only problem is trying to find the service you need among all the different companies providing everything from long-distance travel to tourist coaches. Arriva is a good place to start, as it also includes international routes. Check the websites of the main railway stations, including Split and Zagreb, to get timetables and tickets. 

Use the city buses

Croatia’s urban buses can be astonishingly cheap, even in the capital Zagreb, where a ticket can cost as little as 4 kuna (US$0.60). Generally, tickets are a few kuna cheaper if you buy them from kiosks rather than the driver, who will take only cash. If you plan multiple journeys in the course of a day, a daily ticket can be – but not always – cheaper. 

The Jadrolinija ferry entering Drvenik from Hvar Island
Croatia's national ferry can take you between the country's beautiful islands © Marsan / Shutterstock

Make the most of island ferries

With a bit of planning, you can travel to Croatia’s inhabited islands easily and affordably, both from the mainland and between islands. The national ferry operator, Jadrolinija, runs car ferries as well as passenger-only catamarans. Catamarans are faster, but sometimes can be marginally more expensive, particularly in July and August. A ferry from Split to Hvar costs 47 kuna (US$6.80), yet a catamaran would be 55 kuna (US$8). 

Look out for unexpected restaurant expenses

Croatia’s seafood is superb, and in many places, you pay for that high quality. But if you’re on a budget, you might want to pass on the grilled fish that many restaurants sell by the kilo. You won’t know the exact price until the bill comes, and it can be an unpleasant surprise. There will be other fish and seafood options on the menu that have a set price, so at least you’ll know what you’re paying. 

Also bear in mind that many restaurants automatically charge a couvert – rather like a cover charge – per person, and it usually includes a basket of bread. It shouldn’t be more than about 30 kuna (US$4.30) a head. You could try to wave away the bread and insist not to be charged for it, but this doesn’t always work. 

Get into the marenda habit

Marenda is like a Dalmatian version of brunch, a hearty meal eaten before noon that harks back to the days when people would have been working since very early morning and needed a filling break. Nowadays, you’ll see marenda menus that are served only at lunch and offer some of the cheapest places to eat in Dubrovnik. 

Burek is a filo pastry that is affordable and hearty
Burek is a filo pastry that is affordable and hearty © heinstirred / Getty Images

Fill up at breakfast with burek

Picked up from a bakery (pekarnica), these filo pastries pies are a cheap and delicious way to kick off the day and keep you going till lunch. Burek can be filled with cheese, spinach (sometimes both) or meat, and taste good cold as a picnic snack. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for tap water

Tap water in Croatia is perfectly drinkable, and you can save money as well as the environment by not ordering bottled water. Ask for a glass of obična voda.

Save on attractions by avoiding high season

Many of Croatia’s attractions, including its national parks, have seasonal prices. Krka National Park charges adults 200 kuna (US$29) for July and August, but only 110 kuna (US$16) from April to June and September to October. 

Check for student discounts

If you have an up-to-date International Student Card (ISIC), the savings can be huge. Rather than spend 200 kuna (US$29) to walk Dubrovnik’s city walls, you’ll be charged only 50 kuna (US$7.20).

Do your sums before you buy a city pass

While a city pass that offers free entry to certain attractions, free public transport and discounts in shops and restaurants can look good on paper, sometimes you’ll need to spend your entire trip visiting all of the listed attractions before you save any money. The Zagreb Card is an exception, as after three museum visits, you’ve already saved cash – and that’s before you factor in the free transport.

How expensive is Croatia?

Here are a few average daily costs to keep in mind:

  • Hostel dorm bed: 250 kuna ($36)
  • Basic room for two: 550 kuna ($80)
  • Self-catering apartment for two: 700 kuna ($100)
  • Public transport ticket: city buses can range from 4 kuna (60¢) to 21 kuna ($3)
  • Coffee: 12 kuna ($1.75)
  • Sandwich: 30 kuna ($4.30)
  • Dinner for two: 500 kuna ($72) for two courses
  • Beer at the bar: 30 kuna ($4.30) for a half-liter of Croatian draft beer
  • Breakfast slice of burek: 25 kuna ($3.60)

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