The New Eastern Europe
Now You have to Look for Travel Bargains
Eastern Europe, once a backwater area recovering from communism, has become, in many locations, the hottest of hotspots. For travelers on a budget who aren’t paying attention this could mean some bad surprises. For others it presents opportunities.
When I researched the revised edition of my book The World’s Cheapest Destinations, I found the picture in Eastern Europe to be far different than when I researched the first edition in 2002. Prague is getting as expensive as Western Europe, Budapest is coming on strong, and Romania’s tourism business is increasing by leaps and bounds.
Several macroeconomic factors are at play here. The euro is way up against foreign currencies, especially the dollar. As Eastern European countries have aligned with the EU, they have become much pricier in dollar terms. Also, the proliferation of budget flights within Europe has resulted in a huge influx of visitors from the western half of the continent.
What follows are a few of the most notable changes and how they could affect your travel plans.
Prague Is the New Paris—with Prices to Match
When the Velvet Revolution took hold in 1989 and Havel the poet became president the following year, Prague suddenly became the place to be. It was a wild city of opportunity then, a place shaking off the dust and leaping forward into the modern world. That transformation is complete—to the point, some would say, that the city has become a kind of gothic Disneyland. In the beginning Prague was being compared to Paris of old, a place where writers and creative types could flourish while living cheaply. Now Prague is being compared to Paris for other reasons: a deluge of summer tourists and lodging prices that keep climbing.
While in the early 1990s it would have been hard to find one hotel that could satisfy a picky upscale traveler, now there are close to 20 properties that routinely list rooms for $200 or more per night. Hostel beds in the city center go for as much as hostel beds in Dublin or Berlin. The historic center is full of pubs and restaurants geared to tourists, and in summer the Charles Bridge is now as crowded as the square in Venice.
It is still a magical place, of course, but travelers on a budget should quickly head out to the rest of the country. Since 90 percent of visitors to the Czech Republic reportedly never spend a night outside of Prague, becoming one of the minority ensures lower prices and smaller crowds. Become a real Bohemian and you will be richly rewarded. Or cross the border to Slovakia, where tourism is still finding its feet, and there’s a fraction of the competition for rooms.
Budapest and Krakow Are Close Behind
Prague is not the only city that has benefited from a huge influx of tourists and development. The Polish city of Krakow and the Hungarian city of Budapest are packed with visitors right now and lodging prices are again rushing to match those in Western Europe. Budapest now has a Four Seasons hotel (going for over $500 per night) and Krakow is pricier than most U.S. cities.
However, while the Polish countryside may not have a whole lot to occupy travelers, Hungary has a wealth of attractions outside the city. There are the wineries in the “Valley of the Beautiful Women,” interesting castles, lake retreats, and plenty of places to take in some great folk music performances. As in the Czech Republic, simply getting away from the tour bus routes will result in major price drops and a more authentic experience. This is not to discount Budapest, however. Many travelers rank it as one of their favorite cities, so it’s worth dodging the crowds and spending some time in the capital. Zip around on the cheap metro and trams for sightseeing, then soak for hours at one of the famous spas.
The Window is Still Open in Bulgaria and Romania
Two countries that are further behind in EU alignment, Bulgaria and Romania, offer the best value in Eastern Europe at this time. Romania’s tourism business is one of the fastest growing in the world, but from a very low base. In both these countries you can still find beers for under a dollar, $5 bottles of wine in restaurants, meals for a few bucks, and a private room for two for under $20.
Most people think of Count Dracula when they hear “Transylvania,” but this mountainous region in Romania is about more than vampire legends and Vlad the Impaler. For now, it’s still an uncrowded area of picturesque villages, medieval castles, pretty churches, and great hiking opportunities. You can get here from Bucharest for around $15.
Bucharest will probably never top the list of the world’s great cities, but it does have a lot going for it and prices are reasonable. Hostels compete hard for customers, often throwing in breakfast, Internet access, beer, or even cigarettes! There’s also a good reason to visit Romania in the winter: some of the cheapest skiing on the continent.
Apart from a recovering war zone in the Balkans, Bulgaria is probably the cheapest place to travel in Europe. Mid-range travelers can still find impressive hotel deals throughout the country and hostel beds are usually less than $15. You can traverse the entire country by train or bus for under $20. An all-day public transport pass in the capital costs about a dollar. Museums charge foreigners four times what the locals pay, but when a ticket costs you 50 cents it’s hard to complain.
Bulgaria offers a lot of country scenery and hiking trails, the Black Sea coast, and the historic capital Sofia. While it may not have the “wow” factor of Budapest or Prague, prices are a bargain and many travelers end up exploring the city for a week or more.
These aren’t the only options of course. Montenegro just declared independence and prices are noticeably lower than in the new uppercrust hotspot of neighboring Croatia. The Baltic states, such as Estonia, are still far from being flooded with tourists. Countries such as Albania, Belarus, and Macedonia are nowhere close to gracing the covers of major travel magazines—yet.
If you’re planning a trip to Europe anytime soon and are going to head east, do some research and find out which way the wind is blowing. Progress—for better and for worse—makes the region a moving target.
TIM LEFFEL, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and other fine books. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.