Travelling Light: Tips For Getting Around Eastern Europe

Rosalea’s modus travelloni…..
by Rosalea Barker

You will quickly see that I wasn’t a particularly high-tech tourist on my two-week train trip through Eastern Europe, and you will no doubt have your own favorite websites and travel apps that you like to use. However, for what it’s worth, here’s how I planned my trip, plus a few recommendations.

Train Travel: Because my trip took place at the end of March, which is prior to the high season for tourism in Europe, I didn’t need to make any advance reservations—but I did anyway. Bahn.com is the go-to website for European train timetables. Having chosen where and when I wanted to travel, I then used Rail Europe, which has an office here in the States, to make and pay for my reservations and also pay for the two City Passes that I used in Budapest and Prague. They mailed me the physical tickets, which meant I didn’t have to do anything at the railway station except get on board the right carriage and find my seat. The exception to this was the trip from Chisinau to Bucharest, which has to be ticketed in person.

Accommodation: I made all my hotel and hostel reservations online using booking.com. Easy. They have a “Book now, pay when you stay, with free cancellation on most rooms” policy. When you read other travelers’ reviews on their website, bear in mind what is important to you. For me, it was proximity to railway stations. When reading negative reviews, try to assess whether that person was likely the Guest from Hell, or if they had particular needs that weren’t met (such as having a really, really quiet environment). If a property interested me, I also checked out the reviews about it on other travel brokerage sites like TripAdvisor. All my choices turned out well.

Plane travel: I flew Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Chisinau, and Norwegian from Prague to Copenhagen. Both are excellent airlines with frequent regional schedules. I made the reservations directly with the airlines before I left for my trip, after scouting them on Kayak online. Travel tip if you fly into Istanbul and stay in the city: allow a HUGE margin of time to get back out to the airport, as that road is always crowded and traffic is often at a standstill.

Visas: If your stay is less than 90 days, none of the countries I visited require you to get a visa beforehand, with the exception of Moldova if you’re traveling on a NZ passport. But you should check each country’s requirements, because I’m no expert!

Currency: The only country I visited that has adopted the Euro is Slovakia, but Euros are usually accepted as a form of payment anywhere in Europe (as shown in this menu in both Hungarian forints and Euros). Although Europe uses card chip technology for its ATM and EFTPOS systems, I had no problem paying my hotel bills or withdrawing cash using my magnetic stripe card. If possible, get a card that doesn’t ding you with foreign transaction fees for every purchase and cash withdrawal you make, or one with separate “wallets” for different currencies, which you pre-load.

Some travel writers advise not bothering with physical money at all and using your credit or debit card to pay for everything. I wouldn’t recommend planning on that. In Chisinau, for example, I had to use local cash for travel on the city buses. They have an actual bus conductor who takes the cash from you and issues you a paper ticket. And the only decent coffee I could find half the time was—believe it or not—from coin-operated machines in service stations and the like.

Toilet paper: Another thing you’ll need cash for is going to see a man about a dog at public conveniences. The facilities are always immaculately clean because they’re kept up by ladies (can’t speak for the Mens, of course) who take a small amount of money from you and, in South-Eastern Europe, give you an even smaller piece of toilet paper in exchange. You might want to carry your own TP, but you’ll still have to pay the entrance fee.

Supermarkets: You’d be daft if you didn’t go to a local supermarket and buy the makings of a picnic for a visit to any of the many, many splendid public parks that Europe does so well. Be aware though, that you’re expected to weigh your fruit and veg yourself and use the scale to print out a sticky label showing the value of what you’re buying. It’s not done by the checkout operator.

Travel guides: After I’d already planned my trip, I bought Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door, which only confirmed what common sense had already told me. Steves is a tiresome one-man travel industry here in the States, and aims his travel guides at an audience that is new to non-package-tour traveling. However, Europe Through the Back Door isn’t a guide to particular countries, but a good overview of how to best plan and prepare for independent travel in Europe, including Eastern Europe. I recommend it.

Truth be told, I’m not big on buying or downloading guides, though I will check them out of the library while I’m planning a trip. I prefer instead to go to the local tourism office and pick through the free brochures and events calendars they have there. Any hostel or hotel is going to have a selection of the same at their reception desk, too. And actual local people you can ask to recommend things that aren’t on the usual tourist track.

Language: As the saying goes: Someone who speaks three languages is trilingual; two languages, bilingual; one language—an American. On my travels, I did not have any problem communicating with the people I interacted with as most seemed to have some knowledge of English. But, for basic courtesy’s sake, I recommend consulting the Omniglot website here for common phrases you can use to show you’re at least making an attempt to be a respectful guest. (Besides, what other translator has “My hovercraft is full of eels” as a common phrase?)

Enjoy your travels, wherever they may lead you!

–ENDS–