When people think about traveling to Europe they often think of Italy, France and Spain in Western Europe. All of these countries are amazing (or so I’ve heard) and well worth a visit. In fact, our first European vacation was a month-long trip to Italy. Eastern Europe should not be overlooked, though.
For some reason, many Americans consider Eastern Europe to be a little more “exotic.” As we started preparing for our 2015 trip to Eastern Europe, a lot of folks asked us why we chose Eastern Europe and wondered if it was safe.
To be honest, Eastern Europe was not on any type of “list” of places we wanted to visit. I mean, we have always wanted to travel just about anywhere, but this was not a trip that was long-awaited or held a special desire for us.
So, how did we end up spending four weeks in Eastern Europe if it wasn’t on our list of places to visit? It’s a bit of an interesting story…
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Updated April 2018
In October 2014, we flew to St. Petersburg, FL for a wedding. When Delta asked for passengers to be bumped from the flight down to Florida, we gladly volunteered, since there was another flight later that night.
Spend a couple of extra hours at Hartsfield-Jackson for two $400 vouchers? Not a problem at all! We still arrived in St. Pete that night and got plenty of sleep before the Saturday afternoon wedding.
Guess what happened on the return trip? Same thing! This time, though, it was an even better deal. We did have to transfer to the Tampa airport for our new return flight, but we got a free limo ride for that. And our new seats were in First Class. And we each got a $500 voucher. Seriously, who can complain about that?
So here we were, with $900 in Delta vouchers EACH with no plans to fly anywhere. We, of course, spent the entire return flight brainstorming and daydreaming every possible option.
Pro Tip: Schedule flights so that you have a bit of flexibility, if possible. Airlines often over-book and offer vouchers for anyone willing to give up their seat.
Why Eastern Europe?
Our first goal in deciding where to go was to use the entire $900, but not too much more. Since we only had about six months to plan and save for this trip, we knew we couldn’t go too big. It took us about two years to save up enough money for our month-long Italy trip, so we had to be creative with this trip.
First step…work summer school to make some extra cash. Of course, that takes about 3-4 weeks out of our travel time. But, with a limited budget, we couldn’t afford to be gone too long, anyway.
Our first thought, based on plane tickets alone, was to visit Hawaii. I have been before (with my sister), but Grant had never been. I’ve been itching to go back, especially with Grant. With tickets from Atlanta costing running about $1,000, that was a good use of the vouchers.
At first, this seemed like a great idea and we were both pumped… Until we started doing the math on what we wanted to see and how much it would cost us.
We quickly realized that summer school just wasn’t going to foot that bill.
So, I started researching inexpensive destinations. Some would be super-cheap once we arrived, but had a significantly more expensive flight. Others just weren’t safe to travel to.
Ultimately, Eastern Europe was the best balance between a reasonable flight cost and low prices once we arrived. With countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Croatia, it was easy to get excited about this destination.
Setting an Itinerary
Once we decided on Eastern Europe, it was time to figure out exactly where to go. I used Rick Steves’ Eastern Europe Itinerary for inspiration and adjusted it to fit our interests. We also used Rick Steves’ Eastern Europe Guidebook to plan the details.
The best flight we could find was in and out of Prague. As much as we wanted an open-jaw ticket (meaning we fly into one city and out of another), it just wasn’t cost-effective. Oddly, it was cheaper to get a separate flight from Dubrovnik, Croatia back to Prague than an open-jaw ticket with Delta. Gotta love those small European airlines!
Our itinerary included five countries: Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. We also spent two nights on a night train: Prague to Krakow and Krakow to Krakow to Budapest. Of course, we also built in time for several smaller cities and a visit to Auschwitz.
The best part about this trip? Every single place we went to was the first visit for both of us!
Packing for Eastern Europe
We both packed in the LL Bean Continental Rucksack, which are 2,000 cubic inches or 33 liters. Be sure to use packing cubes to make best use of the space. We each packed enough clothes for four days plus a fifth day on our bodies. Additionally, Grant carried the camera and electronics, while I carried the toiletries.
Traveling with a backpack is one of our top travel tips. Our itinerary had us in a new city roughly every 2-3 days. When you are moving around that much, especially with train and bus travel, having your hands free is a life-saver. And, believe me, you do not want to be dragging a rolling suitcase over cobblestone streets in Europe!
Our goal was for each pack to weigh about 20 pounds. Grant’s was a little over at 22 pounds. Bonnie’s was just at 20 pounds. We love this luggage scale for weighing our packs. Keep in mind, what feels “ok” at first won’t feel so great after even 30-45 minutes. Keep your pack as light as possible!
Moisture-wicking synthetics are the way to go for us. Not only does it mean we don’t get sweat-soaked on a hot day of walking around or hiking but it also means the clothes can be washed in one load and will dry quickly.
Some of our favorite clothing pieces for travel are:
Grant: Button Up Shirt, T-Shirt, Convertible Pants. You can read more about Grant’s new backpack and favorite travel items here.
As tacky as they look, zip-off pants are handy and versatile. And don’t forget a light jacket and raincoat.
Most importantly, remember that you can wash clothes, even if it’s just in the hotel sink. You do not need to pack three weeks worth of outfits! While doing laundry on vacation is no fun, neither is carrying around extra pounds worth of dirty laundry.
Electronics and Other Items
We each have a daypack with a CamelBak water bladder so we don’t need to buy water during the day. We also have a very versatile camera (Canon PowerShot SX40… I have linked to the most recent version, the SX60) which has great zoom (35X optical) but only weighs about a pound.
For electronics, we carried iPhones and iPad Minis. The iPad Mini form factor is great for reading books, which we each had quite a few of. The best part is the iPad Mini easily fits in the front pouches of our rucksacks.
For internet, we carried a new WiFi hotspot with T-mobile service (apparently T-Mobile is “the” phone/data provider in Europe). We had fairly consistent service and were able to handle most of our Wifi needs.
Should You Visit Eastern Europe?
If you are wondering if you should visit Eastern Europe, the short answer is YES! At no point in our trip did we feel that we were in an unsafe location or situation. While there are plenty of places in the world that we will not currently travel to for safety reasons, Eastern Europe is not a concern.
Seriously, there is probably no more risk in traveling to Europe than there is to the grocery store. Truly, anything can happen anywhere these days. You can’t live in fear!
We absolutely loved every bit of our trip and are eager to return to many places. Slovenia was an especially nice surprise for us. If we could figure out a way to live there, we just might!
Not only were the cities and attractions amazing, we got what we were looking for in an inexpensive destination. Our average daily spend was $212, which includes hotels, food, transportation and souvenirs. We were NOT doing anything outrageous to try to save money. For comparison, we spent about $260/day in Italy just a couple of years earlier.
Eastern Europe may not be the hottest travel destination, but it does hold a certain charm. The cold war image of a stark and uninviting Eastern Europe is completely unfounded. Eastern Europe is vibrant with tremendous culture, history and some of the down-right prettiest places we’ve ever been to.
We highly recommend a trip to Eastern Europe!
We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
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We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
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We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.