Reflections on my Balkan’s Discovery Tour

Over the holidays, my wife and I did a fast-paced trip across 7 countries over 12 days.  Starting in Sofia, Bulgaria moving counterclockwise through Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Algeria, and North Macedonia, ending back in Bulgaria.  My passion is international travel and I have been fortunate to tie that into my consulting.  Just like with business, it is essential to be prepared for the unexpected and keep an open mind to various options to experience new things.  The following are a few of my takeaways from the trip. 

Cultural Differences – This goes without saying that people are different around the world. and this is why I love traveling to experience and learn many new things.  It was an exciting time to be in the region.  With the blend of different religions coupled with Christmas and New Year’s based on two different calendars, we were in a perpetual state of Christmas cheer.  On December 25th in Sofia most things were closed except for the Turkish and Muslim areas, where it was just another day allowing us to enjoy a nice kebab meal followed up with baklava.  Even after December 25th as we went to predominately Orthodox Christian cities, they were still playing holiday songs and adding more lights and full-blown Christmas markets as they would celebrate on January 7th.

Product Differences – I loved visiting markets in each country and taking pictures of potato chips and breakfast cereal.  I am always curious about the flavors and if they have rebranded the product.  Pringles are everywhere, and there is always a variety of flavors.  In Bulgaria, there was a “passport series” that had Texas BBQ, Mexican Chili Taco and there were Lay’s chips with Heinz ketchup flavor. 

Border Crossings – Most Americans and those in the EU do not have to deal with border crossings but moving through multiple countries, this proved interesting.  Each was different, even coming in and out of the same country.  Some we had to leave the bus and stand in front of the border police as they stamped the passport and in other cases, they just collected everyone’s passport was 50/50 if they stamped them or not.  It was interesting to see the power of different passports.  The US and Canadian were never questioned but those from India, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines were often given more scrutiny and had to show departing flight tickets.   

Credit Cards and Local Currency – For the first time ever we were able to use credit cards for nearly every transaction and never needed to exchange for local currency.  This meant that my foreign currency box won’t have any new additions but also meant we would not have the fun of trying to figure out which combination of coins was necessary for a coffee.  There were a few in Euro markets where we did use the Euro we brought with us but everywhere we went took cards.  All had the portable reader that used contactless, so we just tapped and went.  No entering a pin or swiping and signing anything.  We only had one problem with a 0.75 Euro subway ride.  Our main travel card was declined and had to go to the backup card.  We could use it for dinner, so it was not completely blocked. 

Pro Tip – if you can get an additional travel-only card that does not have any recurring payments on it in case it gets stolen or misused, you are not adding a new number to all of them.  Also, make sure it is a contact-less feature as that is needed for transportation and many restaurants. 

Google Fi Rocks – we had converted to Google’s mobile phone network several years ago, and it worked perfectly in every market.  While others on tour needed to wait for wifi, we had connectivity the entire trip except for a few dead spots in the mountains. 

Whatsapp – Most of the guides, shops and hotels use Whatsapp for communication.  Our leading guide set up a WhatsApp group to pin the location for the bus and give updates as well as restaurant recommendations at each location.  We used it to notify our airport pickup driver that our flight was delayed and ultimately diverted and to get updates on our lost luggage with the airlines.  Suggest setting up the account before you go as it needs to ping your phone number to be activated.  We had a few in our group that did not have a data plan so they were not able to get the updates and relied on their new friends to pass on the information. 

Meeting People – One of my guides was a University Professor teaching tourism marketing. We were able to have a great conversation about unique opportunities in Macedonia as well as SCUBA diving helping me identify a number of articles I need to write related to promoting experiential tourism.  At dinner one night I learned primary guide also conducts wine tours so was a great resource for selecting the best wines in each country.

Electricity – This was one of the more interesting observations.  As most know, energy costs are very high in Europe and especially so the Balkans.  I was impressed with how many buildings, especially museums, were using motion sensors to turn on and off lights.  It makes sense to not have the lights on in areas without people in them.  It was even more interesting when a few hotels had turned off lights in elevators where you needed your phone to find the buttons to select your floor.  In a few of the hotels, we had to call down to have them enable the heat in the room. 

Promote on Social Media – this was a first where every guide and some restaurants wanted us to mention we were in the country on social media.  Except for Dubrovnik, they wanted us to tell our friends we were there and suggest they visit in the future.  All of the people in tourism understood the financial impact of foreign visitors on the local economy and were actively promoting more to come. 

Clothing Size Charts – this is interesting how the same item can be 3 different sizes. Having worked in global ecommerce for 20+ years, I am aware of the sizing charts, but some were interesting.  I thought I had kept some of the multi-country size tags I cannot find them.  It was interesting that a Serbian XXXL was a US XL and UK XXL.  I ended up with some high-quality casual shorts and exercise pants that I have not seen in the US.

While this trip was pretty fast-paced with a lot of bus time and walking, it did energize me.  The stimuli of languages, customs, and sights were fantastic and helped me realize that working hard allows me to visit different places and have unique experiences that broaden my mind and make me a better consultant.