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Eastern Europe Travel Planner

10 Tips for Visiting “The Other Europe”

It’s true that the majority of Eastern European destinations are not for every traveler. Those who seek comfort and luxury should probably not venture far beyond capital cities like Prague, Budapest, Berlin, Tallinn, and Warsaw. But for those wishing to travel beyond the tourist zone and seek real off-the-beaten path places, people and experiences, Eastern Europe has countless options.


Musicians add ambiance to a stroll on the famous St. Charles Bridge in Prague
(Photo by Kent St. John)

Guidebooks and locals have different definitions of what exactly constitutes “Eastern” and “Central” and “Southern” Europe. Including Albania and Romania with the same traveling advice given for the Czech Republic and former East Germany poses loads of obvious problems. Still, some general tips apply to many countries and can help alleviate minor discomforts.

Bring Some Necessities

I laughed the first time I left for Eastern Europe in 1990 and my grandfather told me to bring toilet paper. Thinking surely since his visit to communist Russia in the 70s there’s been some improvement, I dismissed the idea. Little did I know that after a couple of weeks I would be begging my family to send me even a 4-pack of bargain brand.

Although I wouldn’t dream of loading myself down with such things as kleenex, plastic zipper bags, feminine products, or anti-perspirant, outside the main capitals such things are still difficult to come by. Even in a decent restaurant in a major capital the toilet paper resembles something close to a thin brown-paper lunch bag, and in public facilities it’s rationed according to a per-square price. I consider traveling with emergency reserve tissue an absolute necessity.

Choosing Accommodations

Planning ahead online is now so convenient that it’s a waste of time not to make reservations when traveling to the major cities in summer. In general, however, even where accommodations are plentiful there can be lack of mid-priced choices. The convenient and popular chains that have sprung up all over the West have not yet filtered deeply into Eastern Europe.

• When considering where to stay, a good up-to-date guidebook with phone numbers of accommodations in your price range provides quick and easy piece of mind. Some countries also have extensive hotel and pension listings online that offer discounted reservations, but a follow-up call or fax is still a good idea.

• In smaller towns, hotels are reasonably priced and can be found right in the town center. Remember, however, that public transportation stops early in the small towns and a lack of taxis could find you stranded. Even in a heavily touristed spa town like Karlovy Vary during the International Film Festival, a stay in the pedestrian center with breakfast in a well-run 2-star hotel costs about $40.

• Pensions are a good budget choice in larger cities and are usually friendlier than a crowded hotel. Still, pensions are only a good option when they’re close to public transport, because a late night taxi ride when public transportation is sparse can quickly offset the savings in room cost. The same goes for private rooms offered by individuals—changing from bus to subway to tram can cost considerable time and money.

• When alone, a hostel can’t be beat for meeting other travelers. “Junior” hotels are a similar option in many Eastern European countries and they often rent bikes and other sports equipment. And hostels are not just for students, they offer an affordable alternative for families and other budget-minded travelers.

• Camping is a great way to meet lots of locals, but, of course, packing gear is inconvenient when traveling around a city. As in Western Europe, the bungalows fill up quickly in summer, so hauling around a tent may be unavoidable. Unfortunately, in a few countries the camping facilities might be the best accommodations available.

Money

In major cities credit cards are an easy and safe bet, but not some pensions and campgrounds or smaller bars and restaurants. When paying with a credit card outside the capitals, be warned, sometimes the machine is (mysteriously) broken, and you’ll be asked to pay in cash. If it’s absolutely necessary for you to pay by card, it’s best to make sure in advance.

Cash machines are easy to come by in cities, but rare in villages. Carrying cash to smaller destinations is unavoidable, but costs are still relatively low outside the popular spots, so a little goes a long way. The foreigner pricing system still exists but is becoming less common because merchants realize travelers don’t appreciate spending two times the normal price for the same services.

Not everything is a bargain in Eastern Europe and doing a bit of research can help you avoid mistaken assumptions or false claims. For example, skiing in some Eastern European destinations is just not worth the meager reduction in cost when you consider the T-lifts, crowds and quality of rental equipment.

Beyond the Capitals

Traveling as an English-speaker to small towns and villages may get you some longer-than-average looks, but it will also get you warm hospitality, a more authentic perception of local life and some great cross-cultural experiences.

Choosing a destination depends on your interests. For first-time travelers, it can be less isolating and still very rewarding to visit vacation destinations that are popular with Eastern Europeans but fairly untouched by native English-speakers. Places like the Great Masurian Lakes near the border between Poland and Lithuania, the coast of Croatia, the Giant Mountains of Slovakia, or the spa towns in many countries are good choices. UNESCO world heritage sites, such as Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, the medieval town of Torun in Poland, or the famous caves of Slovakia and Slovenia are also interesting destinations. It can be fun to plan a“theme trip,” focusing on historical sites and castles, wine regions, or tracing your roots.

To Drive or Not to Drive

When renting or buying a car for exploring Eastern Europe you have to consider all the hidden expenses. Many countries have toll roads that require you to have a sticker or else dish out a hefty fine on the spot. Sometimes extra insurance is required for cars originating from the West, and gas prices are very high. City-to-city travel by car usually isn’t worth it for groups of less than four. On the other hand, driving can be beneficial if you have limited time and want to see as many places as possible, including all the quaint country villages and castles along the way.

Getting Educated

For many of us, even the biggest culture hounds, Eastern Europe has remained largely a mystery. Misinformation during communist times has been followed by a general lack of information since. Still, there are numerous books, including Eva Hoffman’s Exit into History, that poignantly describe the culture, politics and history of the region in an entertaining style. There are also some very informative websites on Eastern Europe.

When researching the culture, don’t exclude fiction, especially books written by communist dissidents. A much truer picture of the people, their dreams and their difficulties will emerge than if you limit yourself to non-fiction. Another good cultural education option is to see popular locally produced films, which you can often view with English subtitles at cinemas in the capital cities.

Opportunities for work and study are continually expanding, although most economies are still in heavy transition. Those countries hoping for EU entry are adopting stricter visa regulations, so it pays to keep up-to-date at the various embassy websites.

In the major cities, there are many news sources that will keep you up-to-date, and internet cafes have changed the face of traveling altogether. From keeping in touch with family and friends, to knowing what’s going on in town to meeting people, nothing beats the convenience of on-line access when abroad.

The Dreaded Languages

Unfortunately most of us didn’t have a couple of years of college Ukrainian and Polish along with our French and Spanish. In Western Europe, most travelers can usually manage, but in off-the-beaten-path Poland the choice is to either to improve your gesturing skills or grow very attached to your phrasebook.

If you’re staying for more than a few days, it’s worth the effort to learn some of the language. It’s not easy, but you’ll be rewarded with mountains of praise from the locals. There’s no need to take formal lessons unless you plan to work or go to school. Instead, just try offering an exchange of English for Czech, Hungarian, or whatever, and chances are you can work out a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Speaking Russian in most countries won’t win you a popularity contest. The few locals who remember their required Russian don’t usually care to speak it and would rather try their hand at charades or even very broken English.

Services

Although it’s true the atmosphere has changed considerably in the last ten years, that change has stayed primarily in the capital centers.

But even in the capitals, old habits die hard. Service varies widely between downright “tippable” to completely aggravating. However, many of us are spoiled. I, personally, can’t recall ever getting better service anywhere in Europe (with the exception of London) than I get regularly in the States. The rule I try to stand by is, don’t pay any more attention to the service than they pay to you. That way when it’s good you’re pleasantly surprised and when it’s not you hardly notice. This attitude has taken a bit of training, but it’s been worth it in the long run.

Meeting the Locals

Visiting the local festivals is a great way to meet people in a milieu that is not necessarily language-dependent. Medieval reenactments, world championship sporting events, or traveling Romany festivals attract more locals than tourists. It’s easy to find out what’s going on by simply asking around, checking information centers, or reading the monthly cultural guides available in cities and on-line.

Not only have many of the natives changed in the past ten years, the ex-pats have as well. The number of ex-pats living in the most popular Eastern European capitals has actually gone down since its height not long after “the fall.” Hanging out at one of the typical ex-pat bars for the true cross-culture seeker used to mean selling out and choosing cultural “isolation,” but now many of the foreigners living here are in intercultural marriages and actually speak the language or heartily try. Moreover, the locals have found the ex-pat hangouts a great place to meet young travelers and practice their English. Shunning the ex-pat scene today could mean missing out on where the jobs are or the chance to meet locals who are looking to get to know you.

The Invitation

More so than in Western Europe, social life takes place in people’s homes. Just a bit of preplanning is a sure-fire way to meet people even before you arrive. More than once I’ve started correspondences with people on-line and had the time of my life when they invited me over once I arrived in town. It’s important to be cautious, of course, but an invitation to a local’s home opens otherwise tightly closed doors.

Rustic weekend cottages and garden plots play a big role in local life in many countries and are a great way to really get to know people. What began as a practical and economical alternative to traveling remains a favorite escape from the city and a special treat for the honored guest.

The East in general has retained a sense of formality and hierarchy that has become foreign to most of the West. At the same time, Eastern Europeans seem to expect the traveler to break the rules. The same faux pas that would probably get you a repressed sneer in France will be noticed with only a subdued snicker in Poland. Reading up on the local customs will remind you that taking off your shoes in someone’s home, bringing a small bouquet to the host, avoiding probing questions over dinner, sitting with strangers at a restaurant and other common courtesies are not typically shared by westerners.

Perhaps undeservedly, Americans (and other native English speakers) are, for the most part, still adored in most of Eastern Europe. Of course, there has been quite a bit of “demystification” on both sides in the last ten years, but now even among the older generations apprehension has been replaced by full-fledged curiosity. That means the typical tourist misses out on great opportunities for a real cross-cultural experience while their eyes are glued to the cathedrals and their ears are pinned to the city guide.

Many first-timers from the West are surprised how far the major cities have come compared to what they’ve read or seen in the past. Other travelers notice how little has really changed in some of the more remote villages. One thing is certain, though; while prices are still low and locals still curious, it’s well worth it to take advantage of this part of the world and appreciate what is undoubtedly a fleeting moment in time.  

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