Europe Travel Planner
10 Tips for Visiting The Other
Its 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
theres 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 wouldnt 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 its
rationed according to a per-square price. I consider traveling
with emergency reserve tissue an absolute necessity.
Planning ahead online is now so convenient
that its 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 theyre
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 individualschanging
from bus to subway to tram can cost considerable time and money.
When alone, a hostel cant
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.
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
youll be asked to pay in cash. If its absolutely necessary
for you to pay by card, its 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 dont 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 atheme 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 isnt 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.
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 Hoffmans
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, dont
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
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 whats going on in town
to meeting people, nothing beats the convenience of on-line access
The Dreaded Languages
Unfortunately most of us didnt 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
If youre staying for more than a few
days, its worth the effort to learn some of the language.
Its not easy, but youll be rewarded with mountains
of praise from the locals. Theres 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 wont
win you a popularity contest. The few locals who remember their
required Russian dont usually care to speak it and would
rather try their hand at charades or even very broken English.
Although its 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,
cant 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, dont pay any more attention
to the service than they pay to you. That way when its good
youre pleasantly surprised and when its not you hardly
notice. This attitude has taken a bit of training, but its
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. Its easy
to find out whats 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.
More so than in Western Europe, social life
takes place in peoples homes. Just a bit of preplanning is
a sure-fire way to meet people even before you arrive. More than
once Ive started correspondences with people on-line and
had the time of my life when they invited me over once I arrived
in town. Its important to be cautious, of course, but an
invitation to a locals home opens otherwise tightly closed
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 someones 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 theyve
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,
its well worth it to take advantage of this part of the world
and appreciate what is undoubtedly a fleeting moment in time.