Written by Karen, who blogs at Big Adventures for Little Feet.
Every avid traveler fondly reminisces their first overseas travel as a backpacker. Back to a time when you packed a backpack with the bare essentials, a vague idea of where you were going and what you might see, and a bank account lovingly nurtured to buy you several weeks or months of freedom from everyday life.
A few years on, I still crave the adventure and excitement of arriving and simply over-landing my way through a country, visiting its highlights and surprising gems that await. The difference is I now do this with a husband and two kids in tow, which only adds to the experience…. usually in a positive way!
Our recent trip to Croatia was the perfect place to test our ability to go backpacking with kids, and despite requiring a little more planning than pre-kids, we found it to be just as fun. Rather than turning up and booking into a resort and making the odd day trip here and there, we really wanted to experience Croatia by staying in private holiday rentals, chatting with the locals, and exploring all the little places along the way.
Croatia became the perfect destination for this type of travel with kids as it was friendly and safe, had excellent public transport, a plethora of private holiday rentals, and a thriving food scene.
Backpacking in Croatia – Public Transport in Croatia
Buses in Croatia
Backpacking in Croatia on the public transport network was easy and enjoyable, and inexpensive to get from point to point. Unlike the rest of Europe, Croatia trains are infrequent and indirect, so the best way to travel overland in Croatia is on the extensive coach network.
Admittedly I was a little hesitant as I thought it would be difficult getting the kids to sit still, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about. The really great part about busing through Croatia is that travel time between all the major stops is short (usually no more than a couple of hours), and the view along the way is varied and exciting.
The kids loved traveling on the buses, and we found it comfortable and relaxing as the stops dropped you right in the center of each town or city without the hassle of traffic and parking had we opted for a car. Many of the buses also had wi-fi, so if you are traveling with a tablet, you can always pop a show on to entertain the kids on the slightly longer trips.
Over the summer, I recommend pre-booking seats as some of the popular routes were very busy such as Plitvice Lakes back to Zadar. Pre-booking also gives you the option to select the bus company, with some offering a little more premium service for only an extra couple of euro and quicker, more direct services with free wi-fi. There are several online companies to pre-book your tickets.
NOTE: Importantly, in Croatia, many of the bus companies required you to present your printed tickets. If you have booked online rather than with the ticket companies at the stations, you will need to print your tickets before your trip.
Ferries in Croatia
Of course, many travelers flock to Croatia to visit the Dalmatian Islands and bask in the sunshine of the Mediterranean. Instead of the many tours or cruises operating in the area, we opted to jump aboard the local ferries to island-hop all the interesting islands along the way.
Jadrolinija is the Croatian ferry line operating the major routes; however, other private ferry operators are also busy, particularly along the busy routes between Dubrovnik and Split. For our trip, we dotted from Dubrovnik to Korcula, onward to Bol Brac, and then eventually Split.
The only downside of the ferry was that the boats we traveled on didn’t have an outdoor deck, so you don’t get to cruise along with the feel of the sea, which is a little disappointing. However, the condition and comfort of the ferries are excellent, and we were fortunate to meet other travelers along the way who were happy to strike up a conversation and keep you entertained as well.
As with the buses, I recommend pre-booking your ferry tickets either a couple of days before from the ferry port ticket office or the Jadrolinija website as some of the boats we traveled on even in the shoulder season were very full.
Local taxis and bus services
Once you arrive at your destination the access in Croatia to public transport is very good. There are regular and reliable local buses that are cheap and easy to catch in most places, and for the spots a little further away from the tourist network, the local taxi drivers are safe, friendly, and well-priced.
We enjoyed chatting with the local taxi drivers who were always keen to talk and often suggested some great places to visit that we probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Another way to get about is with a private transfer with Octopus Transfers Croatia, surprisingly not as expensive as you might think!
Accommodation in Croatia
When looking for family-friendly accommodation in Croatia, I really wanted to find places that were spacious, central to public transport, and within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to visit – the number one key to easy backpacking in Croatia with kids was to select the accommodation that was right in the heart of each town or city.
Croatia is no different from the rest of the world when it comes to the explosion of private holiday rentals, making it so easy to book sprawling apartments to accommodate a family of four.
Booking.com provided us with so many options. We stayed in immaculate, comfortable, and spacious apartments for almost our entire trip, often with two or three bedrooms, full kitchens, a laundry, and picturesque balconies, which meant we always felt at home.
The owners we met along the way were all amiable and polite and helped us with tips and advice on how best to enjoy our stay, which is a nice added bonus of staying with locals.
We decided to give the revamped Zaton Holiday Resort a go-to experience at a traditional European campground for something a little different in Zadar. While the cabin we were in was very compact and required getting changed on the bed as there was no floor space to actually stand and get dressed – it was spotless, and the beds were comfortable.
However, what you pay for when you come to these holiday resorts is access to the ‘village’ and facilities. At Zaton HR, the real drawcard is the new pools, which were fantastic. We barely left the pools for about three days with multiple levels of pools as well as an excellent splash park and water slides section.
Our kids definitely had a fantastic time, and we got to kick back and unwind while the kids splashed about endlessly.
The resort includes a little main promenade with plenty of restaurants, a bakery, a pharmacy, and numerous other small shops and gelaterias. There is also a really substantial supermarket on-site to allow families to cater in their cabins if desired.
We enjoyed the time at Zaton and found it to be a fun and low-key place to rest and recuperate for a couple of days.
Croatia Packing Tips
Depending on the season, you can backpack in Croatia with kids with the minimal amount of gear. In the warm season, which is when we were there, you simply need your backpack, some casual summer clothes, casual shoes, and your beach gear making it an excellent place for minimalist packing. I don’t think there was any time in June that we needed to put a jumper on, so one jumper or layer of warm clothes is plenty, just in case.
Don’t forget your sun cream and hats as well as a pair of water shoes if you don’t like the rocks when swimming at European beaches. Of course, all of these little extras are also easily found once you arrive in Croatia as well!
Plus, a marvelous way to let kids burn off extra steam, and let you kick back, is to pack a scooter – you can find folding kids travel scooters that don’t take up much space but will surely entertain the little guys.
Food in Croatia
The exciting part about traveling in Croatia is that food and dining out are relatively inexpensive, especially with other European destinations. While you can expect to pay a lot more in the hot spots like Lapad or Dubrovnik, you can generally find excellent quality affordable restaurants in Croatia, particularly if you wander the laneways tucked away from the public promenades. Even better is that families are always welcomed happily.
Due to the explosion of tourism in Croatia, there are loads of cafes and eateries, so finding food for the kids is easy and tasty. Bakeries are a good source for a cheap snack, and there are lots of fresh fruit stalls run by locals, which are high quality and delicious.
Self-catering is also very easy in Croatia and can keep your budget down. With many of the holiday rentals providing kitchens and supermarkets within walking distance, this is an excellent option for families.
Our attempt to re-live our younger traveling days, albeit with two young kids, was a very successful trip overall, thanks largely to the ease and fun of travel in Croatia.
While we can all agree that traveling with kids will always be a little more expensive and a bit more complicated, there is no reason to succumb to the idea that you can no longer explore and seek adventure when traveling with your family.
Interesting people, places, and scenery will always be there waiting for you no matter how large your traveling party is and Croatia, in my opinion, is the perfect place to head off on independent adventures.
So, will you give backpacking in Croatia with kids a go?