The Best Ways To Travel From Bulgaria to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Romania
In this short and hopefully useful guide we'll share the best ways to travel between Bulgaria and its neighbor countries. It covers mostly public transportation options but of course you could travel by car, by bike, or even by foot. See some ideas about that at the end of the page.
What's The Idea?
Obvious. If you have come to this unpopular side of Europe, why limit yourself with visiting just one small country? It makes no sense especially if you are flying from another mainland. This is one of the rules of the reasonable travel - if you are visiting a small country for tourism, try to visit also some of its neighbors. You will save a lot of costs on international flights. Imagine being in Canada and visiting Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece at once, for let's say a couple of weeks.
And now compare the same with flying three times from Canada to each of these countries. The advantage is obvious. And not just for these countries.
So, let's see how you can do it here:
From Bulgaria to Turkey
Regardless of the not that small distance between Sofia and Istanbul there are no affordable flights between both cities. Unless you think $250 is a good price of course. A company called Pegasus used to fly on the route for about 40% of this price but it no longer does it.
So, here are the options you have:
By train: There is a night train leaving Sofia around 19:30 and arriving Istanbul around 8-9 in the morning. The return journey starts at about 22:30 from Istanbul and arrives Sofia at lunch time. The cost is about €75 for return-trip, 1st class sleeper. It's cheaper if you go second class or travel with regular seat. The journey is long and exhausting so taking sleeper tickets is a good idea.
You'll be bothered twice for passport control, just in the middle of the night. On the Turkish border you'll have to go out, cross a subway and visit the desk. Make sure you have warm clothes as it can be quite cold in the night.
At this time you can't book train tickets online unless you use travel agency.
Important update: According to this info the train travel in the upcoming two years might be even less comfortable than it was.
By bus: There are many buses going to Istanbul starting at Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, and Varna. The price from Sofia is ~€50 for return trip. It's approximately 10 hours journey. You can reserve tickets online from this site but I can't find English version.
The price from Burgas and Varna will be nearly the same but the journey from Burgas will be a couple of hours shorter.
Again, it's a challenge to book tickets online, but you are unlikely to meet any troubles booking in place just a day before the trip.
If you are traveling to Ankara or other big city in Turkey purchasing a plane ticket makes more sense. Traveling that far by land will be too exhausting, and the price of the plane ($300 for return trip Sofia-Ankara) becomes a bit more acceptable.
Turkey is huge, but if you want to continue your trip even further you could go to Georgia, Iran or Syria. Istanbul is also a huge airplane hub for most of the Eastern world.
From Bulgaria to Greece
Now this is easier trip especially if you go from/to Sofia. A short and popular trip is to go from Sofia to Thessaloniki. Then you can reach Athens or Greek cities on the sea with local buses or trains. So here are the options in more details:
By plane: If you have to visit Athens and do it quick, plane tickets are about $200 which is acceptable. There are no good flights to other Greek cities or connection to Bulgarian cities other than Sofia.
By train: Sofia - Thessaloniki is a nice journey taking just around six hours. There is a day and night train running every day, unless there are again strikes in Greece. (This is important, you'll have to check in place if there is strike because this happens pretty often.) The trains are comfortable and the price is between € 15 and € 30 for return trip depending on time of purchase. If you can reserve your ticket 20 days before the trip you'll get the low price.
Unfortunately I'm not that sure these trains run at all at this time.
By bus: If trains are suspended buses remain the only reasonable public travel option. There are many of them heading from Sofia or from the towns near the border. See here for detailed info on bus schedules and prices. Again there is no option to purchase tickets online at this time (year 2012).
From Greece you can relatively easy reach Macedonia, Albania and Turkey by land.
From Bulgaria to Macedonia
The distance between the capitals of both countries - Sofia and Skopje - is just about 170km. Obviously this is the easiest to reach neighbor country. But it's very similar, even the language is almost the same, so don't expect the same level of difference that is there between Bulgaria and Greece or Bulgaria and Turkey.
By plane: Are you keen on paying $220 and staying 20 hours in Istanbul to reach Skopje? I'm not :) Plane connections suck here, so just forget them. It's just 170km after all.
By train: Funny (and sad), but true - there is still no railway connection between Sofia and Skopje. You could travel by train to somewhere, cross the border, and then continue. But it does not make much sense.
By bus As you can see, the only reasonable way to reach Macedonia by public transportation means to get the bus. Fortunately there are 3-4 buses every day and the journey takes less than five hours including the border control. The price for return trip is about € 30.
From Skopje you can easily reach Ochrid or continue by land to Albania or Serbia. Unlike with Bulgaria, Macedonia has train connection with Serbia.
From Bulgaria to Serbia
Serbia is a good destination to visit - both similar and different to Bulgaria. The capital - Belgrade - is around 500km away of Sofia and reachable within a day (or night). If you look for a shorter trip you can go to Nish which is a city very close to the border.
By plane: As I told you, forget about flying to Bulgarian neighbors. Unless you travel on business it doesn't make sense. The plane price starts from $280 for return trip. Compare this to train or bus prices which are €50 - €60 for the same.
By train: There are two trains every day - one night train and a daily one. The journey takes between 8 and 10 hours and there are sleeping compartments available in the night train (I recommend this option). The trains are relatively comfortable. Expect your baggage to be checked at the border.
By bus: Buses are slightly faster and several of them are available daily. The price is about the same. I have not traveled this route by bus so can't share personal experience.
From Serbia you can continue overland to Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, Hungary, or Romania. Most of these destinations are reachable by train.
From Bulgaria to Romania
We made the journey to Bucharest last year on our way to Ireland and Ulster. Bucharest looks quite similar to Sofia, but Romania itself is an interesting country with lots of historical places and things to see.
By plane: Sofia-Bucharest is maybe the only route that worths considering taking the plane. Currently I can find tickets for $180 with Tarom so if your time is limited, maybe you can fly.
By train: There is both night and day train. The journey from Sofia takes 8-9 hours, sleepers are available. Most of the route is inside Bulgaria so you can as well take a train to Ruse and from then bus, taxi or anything like it. That makes Bucharest easy to reach from Varna as well. The trains cost €40 - €60 for return trip.
By bus: There are many buses from Varna and Sofia going to Bucharest. The return trip costs just about €40. Buses go also from Dobrich to Constanta, from Ruse, from Vidin to Calafat, and there are maybe more that I don't know about.
From Romania you can continue to Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, and Moldova.
Biking, Walking, or Using Boats or Taxis
Bulgaria is a small country so if you have plenty of time reaching its neighbors is possible by a bicycle. There are not many beaten routes but you can probably cycle from Petrich or Gotse Delchev to the Greek border. At Svilengrad there is BCP so you can legally cycle or walk to Edrine in Turkey. Blagoevgrad is just 30km away of the Macedonian border so it's reachable by bike, taxi or even by foot. If you stay Dragoman you can easily cycle to Dimitrovgrad in Serbia. Vidin and Ruse are at walking distance from the Romanian cities on the other side of the border.
Ferry connections are available between Svishtov in Bulgaria and Zimnicea in Romania taking just 15 minutes. The fee for a passenger or bicycle is just €2. Another ferry connects Nikopol with the Romanian Turnu Magurele.
As you see there are options to spend at least six months traveling just around Bulgaria :) And from then on you can continue to Europe or Asia all by land.
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