Breakdowns and Blunders: How to survive Europe's border crossings

Breakdowns and Blunders: How to survive Europe's border crossings

    After spending a whole week traversing the entirety of Europe, it turns out that travelling overland, all the way across the continent, requires a (really) good backpack, lots of patience, and a whole load of preparation.

    Who'd have guessed? The JFC team learned the hard way...

    With plenty of tangled travel plans, sleepless nights, and missed connections, it soon became clear that we were very unprepared for Europe’s surprisingly tricky border crossings.

    So that you can be more prepared, we've put together a few tips and tricks for an effortless European escapade—no tears necessary.

    Let’s get started with some basics…

    Always keep your passport on hand

    Yes, this may sound like a pretty obvious tip but, trust us, even the most seasoned among us suffer from passport panic.


    Look again.

    See? Told you it was there! 

    Not every border-crossing in Europe will be passport-free (praise the Schengen zone!), especially when you cross into Eastern Europe.

    A little lesson in geopolitics! There are twenty-seven Schengen countries, of which twenty-three are EU Member States. The four Schengen countries that aren’t EU member states are: 

    • Iceland
    • Norway
    • Switzerland
    • Liechtenstein

    Although these are not part of the European Union, you can still cross their border without a passport, if you’re coming from another Schengen country.

    Still with me? Good! There are also five members of the European Union that aren’t part of the Schengen zone:

    • Ireland
    • Bulgaria
    • Cyprus
    • Romania
    • Croatia: the newest member, that joined in 2023. 

    We know, we know, this is a confusing mess…

    That’s all to say that when you’re actually crossing from a Schengen country to a non-Schengen one by land, the bus/train will stop at the crossing and your passport will be checked (and for the lucky ones, stamped). Here’s a handy map to explain: 

    Schengen Area Rules -

    Why am I getting so deep into European maps and borders? Don’t worry, we’re getting to that.

    Personally, I had a (metaphorical) heart attack when I arrived at the border of Bulgaria and didn’t find my passport in any of the 4 bags I had rifled through, emptied and re-packed again on my bus seat.

    Of course, all of this could have been avoided if I’d kept my passport as close as my phone when travelling. Plenty of passengers make this mistake and leave their passports packed safely away under the bus in their hold luggage (as you may have read in our daily recaps…), but that slows down the whole process. And it really annoys the bus driver.

    Another important tip that might slip your mind, but we were glad to have: make sure to print your tickets. Even though it was never mentioned on websites, most drivers in Eastern Europe wanted to check tickets physically in the station. Your hotel/hostel will do the deed for you, if you ask nicely :-)

    You'll probably want to arrive at least 15 minutes before your departure, too. In Eastern Europe, staff are much more meticulous when it comes to border crossings, usually checking the names of each passenger before making tracks. On the bus, don’t be surprised if your passport gets seized by the bus hostesses. I got mine taken on the bus to from Plovdiv to Istanbul and—as you’d expect—a cold shiver went down my spine. I'm not sure what they did with them, but I luckily got it back unscathed 30 minutes later.

    With passports and tickets being checked, lost, and retrieved at the border, bus rides tend to become longer than expected, and this brings us to our next point…

    You are not immune to delays or cancellations

    Delays are already extremely common when travelling overland. Why? Well, traffic. And things get even trickier when you add border patrol to your route, considering that each border crossing (leaving the EU and then entering a new country, or the opposite) takes at least 45 minutes.

    A stark contrast to UK/Western Europe, Eastern European bus companies tend to add up to 2 hours extra to the trip duration. Allowing for any delays and queues, and technically arriving at your destination at the listed time. For instance, if the driving time from Budapest to Belgrade is usually 4 hours, your bus trip will show up as 6-6.5 hrs long.

    However, this is not always the case. While one of the race teams—the Loose Units—who always picked buses in the early afternoon, were always early/on time to their destinations, teams LARK and DAT did not have the same experience.
    Between team LARK getting stuck for nearly 3.5 hrs at the Bulgarian/Turkish border, and team DAT having to breach the race rules by hopping on a flight, a few things became clear.

    Book your bus to depart early in the day if you can. Those leaving in the late afternoon/evening tend to experience more delays.

    We’d also recommend that you don’t over-plan—you never know what’s going to happen during your trip—and never book transportation with short connections, if you're planning to move in quick succession like the JFC team did.

    Long story short, with delays come a whole lot of hassle aaaaand needs. Which brings us to…

    Take any perks with a grain of salt

    When we read that our Serbian/Bulgarian buses would have Wi-Fi, sockets and even snacks, we were positively surprised.

    Well, it turns out it wasn’t quite the truth…

    Out of all the buses the team travelled on, just the one between Zagreb and Belgrade had sockets. On this particular bus, the driver practically laughed in our faces when we asked about Wi-Fi. And a working toilet? Forget it!

    You'd guess that bathroom breaks would be planned for, right? Wrong.

    Some buses did make a stop at service stations along the way, which allowed us to stock up on snacks and drinks (great to survive those 3+ hours delays), but others went straight to the border.

    This was the case for our Serbia-Bulgaria connection. Inducing a very public breakdown when I realized I had no more coins to access the last bathroom before Bulgaria.

    I knew it was going to take a long time to cross both borders, and immediately regretted not taking my opportunity in the previous service station.

    Learn from my mistakes—visit the loo at every chance you get! You never know when you’ll get a chance next. It’s also a good idea to keep some coins in the local currency in case the only toilet available requires payment.

    Oh, and you can kiss the chance of finding toilet paper and a working tap goodbye! Good thing I stocked up on tissues, soap sheets (yes, you’re reading that right), and hand sanitizer to share with everyone.

    Richard's mystical power bank

    Could it get any worse? Yes, the Turkish border’s toilets weren’t quite what we were used to. Let's just say, you might want to practice your quick squats.

    Tech wise, having no Wi-Fi/sockets was tricky, since we were supposed to be Instagramming, Tiktoking and posting up a storm on the JFC accounts. Luckily, our tech wizard Richard had a huge power bank, which allowed us all to recharge our laptops and bring you those daily updates.

    No internet at all? No problem. Richard also thought about buying an eSIM so that our socials could be up and running even from the deep Serbian countryside.

    There was one bus company that pleasantly surprised us with goodies: shoutout to our Metro bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul, which supplied us with plenty of kek(s) and tiny water boxes. Yes, boxes…

    …allowing team LARK to survive the super long queues at the Turkish border!

    Check your visa requirements

    Remember the lesson in geopolitics you had earlier? Well, by now you should know that travelling far and wide across Europe would not be possible without crossing some Schengen & non-Schengen borders.

    Border crossing rules tend to change quickly, and they depend on your nationality and transportation method. So, don’t be left stranded: check your visa requirements before embarking on your trip around Europe. Probably safe to say you'd rather not spend your entire day playing charades with Turkish border police.

    Note: from 2025, the new ETIAS e-visa will be necessary for travelling in Europe for some specific travellers, while the UK will implement its ETA from November 2023.

    A Cuban-American, an Italian and a Brit are crossing the Hungarian-Serbian border… No, this is not the beginning of a joke. This was my experience…

    If that sounded odd to you, imagine how strange it might have been for the Serbian border agent checking the triad’s passports.

    And yes, he had questions. This mostly held up our non-European travellers—an American and an Australian—who probably stand out a bit from the usual Western European backpacking crowd (and also needed visas, differently from the rest of the group). The questions were mostly related to their final destination, the previous countries and cities visited, and if they were travelling alone.

    So, if you’re a non-EU citizen, just be ready to answer questions politely. 

    In case you were curious, our motley crew was probably the most varied collection of nationalities that had come through that border in a while: Italian, English, Scottish, Portuguese, American, and Australian.

    Let's keep that weirdness going, shall we...

    Expect the unexpected and roll with it

    When at Belgrade bus station, we were asked to pay a ‘station tax*’ of 220 RSD (£1.50/€1.90) just to access the platforms for a bus we had already bought tickets for… Yeah, that was definitely unexpected.

    The weirdness ramped up when Allan and I spotted someone hidden in the bag storage of our bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul, or when team LARK’s bus randomly stopped in the middle of the highway to pick up another dude.

    Yep, we then realised that the small station tax really wasn’t that weird, after all…

    And there you have it! A comprehensive guide to border hopping around Europe—as painlessly as possible. 

    TLDR: Always keep your stuff close by and never over-plan your schedule or underestimate what you’ll experience—the beautifully bizarre is never too far away :-)