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Macedonia - Travel and visas
Nationals from neighbouring countries, Australia, the EU, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the US, among others, do not need visas at present for stays of less than 90 days within a six-month period starting from the day you first enter the country. Nationals of Japan, Montenegro and Turkey can enter visa-free for up to 60 days in a six-month period. For an up-to-date check on which nationals do require visas, visit http://macedonia.visahq.co.uk. Visa requirements tend to change with a change of government, so keep this in mind. Your passport will need to be valid for at least three months beyond the end of your visa. If you wish to change your status in the country from one of short business trip or holiday to one of temporary residence, this can only be done back in your home country through your country’s Macedonian embassy. The US Embassy in Macedonia has a good webpage on the requirements of foreign stay in Macedonia.
Low-cost airlines are starting to serve Skopje, but mostly during the summer and only on certain days of the week. Most regional public transport users travel by the frequent and cheap buses to Macedonia as the train is slow and decrepit. Aside from the car option, and if you are thinking of walking in, make sure you enter at a designated border crossing.
For daily flight times in and out of Macedonia see www.airports.com.mk. At the time of writing, Wizzair is the only airline offering direct flights to Skopje from the UK (London Luton). Wizzair and Pegasus (via Istanbul) are the only budget operators flying to Skopje, the latter from London Stansted, as well as from Istanbul. A Wizzair flight from London can cost as little as £20 one-way (though the return portion is often significantly higher and, as with all so-called budget airlines, checked-in luggage brings the price of a ticket up steeply).
Various other airlines which also operate flights to the UK fly direct to Skopje from continental Europe (for example Croatia Airlines from London via Zagreb, Swiss from London via Zurich, Alitalia via Rome), and with Skopje’s Alexander the Great Airport having opened a new international terminal building in 2011, new operators will doubtless increase using Skopje as a regional hub. In the summer a few airlines also fly direct to Ohrid’s St Paul the Apostle Airport , including from Tel Aviv and Moscow.
There are only four international trains entering Macedonia. The daily service from Belgrade takes nine hours, which is ludicrously slow and you would be much better taking the four-hour bus service. The daily service from Priština leaves Skopje mid-afternoon and departs Priština early in the morning. The 2½-hour journey spends 40 minutes at the border changing engines. The train is well used on the Kosovo side, but few use it on the 35-minute Macedonian passage. If you get stuck at Blace border on the way to Skopje, then it is only a 20-minute walk to the road crossing where you can pick up a taxi to Skopje for 900MKD. There’s also a daily service to Thessaloniki (Solun).
Due to the lack of cheap flights and frequent comfortable trains, Macedonia is well served by international-standard coaches, especially to and from Germany and Switzerland. See www.sas.com.mk for complete bus listings. International coaches also serve other locations in Macedonia, especially between Germany and the northwestern towns of Gostivar and Tetovo. Timetables and price information from some countries to Macedonian are available at www.eurolines.com. At the time of writing Macedonia had yet to put its international coach services on the Eurolines website. There is a left luggage service at Skopje Bus Station.
The easiest and most convenient way to get around Macedonia is still by car (a 4x4 if you plan to go anywhere off the beaten track). But driving to Macedonia from the further reaches of Europe, especially places like Britain and Finland, is an extremely long journey – at least three days.
If you do intend to drive from Britain, for instance, a recommended route would be to cross at Calais for a cheap, short ferry journey, drive along the roads of France, which are usually fairly empty although there are road tolls to pay (German roads are toll-free, but packed, and speed restrictions are becoming more widespread), cross the Alps at the Simplon Pass and head for Venice. From here take the overnight car ferry to Durres in Albania, or Igoumenitsa in Greece. Either journey from these ports to Skopje is arduous mountain driving (six hours from Durres via Ohrid, or ten hours via Bitola from Igoumenitsa), but the scenery is fantastic. The drive down through Italy, whilst making the ferry journey shorter, is packed with other drivers, often resulting in traffic jams in motorway scenery. For times and prices of ferries between Italy and the Balkans see www.cemar.it.
In the summer, some Jat Airways flights connect Ohrid and Skopje. Check with a travel agent for times. Most people travel around by bus or car, although train, bicycle and walking are also options. Macedonians do hitchhike, but usually only locally, so you can get a ride.
There are fairly limited options available for travel by train. There is a line from Skopje to Kičevo through the northwest of the country, which will take you to Tetovo and Gostivar, but not to Mavrovo and Debar. The line to Bitola via Veles and Prilep is a pretty ride, and certainly a recommended route to Prilep. The line to Gevgelija is also pretty, and it’s worth a stop at Demir Kapija for some hiking and lunch at Popova Kula. The lines to Kumanovo and Kočani don’t hold much attraction and you would be better off taking buses direct to places further afield like Kriva Palanka or Berovo. The maximum one could pay for a train ride anywhere in Macedonia at the time of writing would still be under 500MKD for a Skopje–Bitola single ticket.
Buses are the preferred mode of transport for Macedonians because they’re frequent and cheap. Buses are not air conditioned and do sometimes break down; few of them have on-board toilet facilities either, so you may have to wait for the toilet break along the road.
Macedonia’s roads are currently undergoing a face-lift and driving around the country is now a joy, and in fact highly recommended. If you love driving and yearn for the open road with uncluttered vistas and little in your way except for the odd turtle/tortoise or a few goats, then Macedonia is the place to drive. See the section on Driving and road safety for tips on driving in Macedonia, especially if you are not used to driving on the right-hand side of the road.
All taxis now have a minimum fare of 40MKD (50MKD in Ohrid) with a 30MKD/km and 5MKD/minute tariff (40MKD/km and 5MKD/minute in Skopje). It is difficult to take even a short taxi ride in Skopje now for less than 100MKD. Outside Skopje, taxis are still a quick and cheap way to get around town and to places further afield. All official taxis should be metered and carry a taxi sign on the roof of the car. When phoning for a taxi from a mobile phone always add the local prefix before the four- or five-digit taxi number.