Ten budget-friendly destinations in Europe

For Americans, Europe can be very expensive. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge this fact. Tourist costs are high, and currently the euro is doing well against the dollar, even if the pound is down somewhat from its stratospheric performance a few years ago. So yes, Europe is expensive. But its high costs are merely a marker, not a prisonhouse. There are always ways to cut costs and forge an alternative path.

One way visitors can cut costs is by forsaking traditional tourist hotels for alternative types of accommodation. There is a new wave of very stylish hostels in many cities in Europe at odds with the traditional reputation of hostels as dirty, packed dormitories. (Look, for example at Paris’ Oops! Hostel, with doubles starting at €60 [$81] to see the new hostel wave in action.) And there’s also a newish recession-appropriate embrace of owner-occupied accommodations that are often quite inexpensive. Airbnb is the latest splashy arrival on the owner-occupied scene, but there are plenty of other local options, including the Italian agriturismo network, French gîtes, and couchsurfing.

Here are ten destinations, cities, regions, and countries where traveling on a budget won’t be a struggle in the least. Budget-friendly Europe begins here.

1. Bulgaria. Gadling writer Meg Nesterov visited Bulgaria this fall and raved about the local price index. Bulgaria, a member of the EU since 2007, is cheap in just about every possible way. Nesterov hones in on the tried-and-true tourist stop of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s Medieval capital, as particularly inexpensive.

2. Bratislava, Slovakia. About an hour from Vienna by train, Bratislava boasts a cute Old Town and many astoundingly cheap restaurants serving hearty Slovak fare. At Prašná Bašta, dinner can be as cheap as €6 ($8). Hotels are more expensive than they should be, though there are a few basic properties like Old City Hotel that cater to the budget set. Old City Hotel’s rates start at €53 ($72).

3. South Tyrol, Italy. This one is a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around, as this German-speaking region is one of Italy’s most prosperous corners. The landscapes are stunning up here, and simple, glamorous inns like Gasthof Bad Dreikirchen sell rooms on a seasonal basis starting at €57 ($77) including half-board (that is, breakfast and dinner). Bad Dreikirchen is open from the end of April through the close of October.

4. Berlin, Germany. The German capital remains impressively affordable and amazingly cool. Before you arrive, peruse some of the very good English-language blogs on life in Berlin; when you touch down, get yourself a copy of Zitty and get caught up to speed on what’s going on. You’ll be ready to sink into some of Europe’s hippest and cheapest corners in no time. Budget pick: Die Fabrik, a funky renovated factory, with doubles from €52, or $71.5. Brno, Czech Republic. Unlike Prague, which has become quite expensive, Brno is full of bargains. In June, Tim Bryan wrote about very affordable Brno for the Guardian. He withdrew 2000 krona ($110) from a cash machine at the start of his weekend in the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city. That outlay lasted Bryan through a program of gluttony and dedicated drinking. Think of how little you could spend with a more modest approach to dining and entertainment.

6. Chisinau, Moldova. Truthfully, Chisinau isn’t yet ready for a mass tourism moment. The prices are right for more courageous travelers, however, and Chisinau is a very attractive city of grand parks, underfunded museums, public markets, inexpensive places to grab a meal, and incredibly inexpensive public transportation. Once the government (a) deals with that annoying tendency on the part of the police to extort cash from tourists and (b) approves budget airline links into the country, Moldova will begin to develop as a destination.

7. Macedonia. Bulgaria’s neighbor Macedonia is a delightfully cheap place with a fantastic mix of cultures. Macedonia can claim an impressively complex capital city (Skopje), its very own Riviera (Lake Ohrid), and many exquisite monasteries. Skopje is divided between a modern Macedonian side full of Eastern Bloc apartment buildings and the warren-like streets and shops of its mostly Albanian Old Town. Lake Ohrid is ringed with churches and monasteries and sees some serious nightlife during the summer season.

8. Lisbon, Portugal. Located on the western periphery of continental Europe, Lisbon is a somewhat underappreciated city. This unfortunate fact translates into great values for hotels and restaurants. Lisbon remains relatively warm if soggy in winter, and is jammed full of museums, cafes, crowded alleyways, bars, monuments, and exciting nightlife.

9. Calabria, Italy. The south of Italy is full of good values, Calabria particularly so. Unlike the southern regions of Puglia and, to a lesser extent, Basilicata, Calabria has managed to remain under the radar altogether. Check out towns like Pizzo, Vibo Valentia, and Reggio di Calabria and experience a side of Italy that most guidebooks barely cover.

10. Greece. The Greek government just announced its 2011 budget, which is full of deep spending cuts. Despite this orientation towards austerity, the government plans to reduce its value-added tax on the tourism industry from 11 to 6.5 percent. Tourism is huge business in Greece. Add to that the melancholy fact that a country’s financial crisis generally means savings for visitors, and this is a great time to visit Greece.

[Image of Veliko Tarnovo by Alex Robertson Textor]

Traveling through Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution”

Editor’s note: This dispatch comes from Robert Reid (www.reidontravel.com) co-author of Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Romania & Moldova.

“Communists take ur dirty hands our of our country!’
“They can’t control Twitter! They can’t control Youth!”

Sounds like a riot? It is, and it isn’t. The protests in Moldova’s capital (which erupted after Sunday’s election results gave the communist party 60 of the 101 parliament seats) have fizzled down from up to 15,000 on Tuesday to – per Twitter reports this morning – “about 200.” That doesn’t mean the chants are done. A steady stream of 140-character Twitter posts, like the ones above, are still streaming at a rate of 2000 or more per hour.

I’ve been following the posts — at Twitter’s hashtag #pman (referring to Chisinau’s central square Piata Marii Adunari Nationale) — the past 24 hours. And I still don’t know whether the media rush to call it the “Twitter revolution” is really accurate or not.

Tweets — in Moldovan (Romanian), Russian and English — tend to dwell on a handful of day-old links, eg YouTube and JurnalTV videos, reports of election observers questioning the results. I tried contacting several local posters to find out what was happening on the ground yesterday via Twitter and was thrilled to finally get a response: “atm there r ppl at #pman certainly I don’t know how much.” New journalism!? (Meanwhile The New York Times – one of very few media outlets to follow the story today – reported that 1000 turned out to protest yesterday, perhaps a bit more dependable.)

Beyond the big Twitter buzz rests Europe’s poorest country (monthly average salary is about US$240), a communist-run sliver of rolling farmland between Romania and Ukraine. About one million have left for jobs (a major drain considering the population barely breaks four million), and those who remain are being tugged in different directions. Rural and older folks tend to look east (towards Russia and the communist past), while urban and youth look west, towards the EU. Chisinau mayor Dorin Chirtoaca called Sunday’s election results “fraudulent,” while the communist president Vladimir Voronin blamed Romania for influencing “fascist” protesters.

Tourism doesn’t help economic matters much, attracting only 20,000 visitors a year, about a thousandth of the visitors as Ukraine. The trickle of adventurers who found themselves amidst a protest, it appears, are mostly content to stick it out now that the situation has calmed. Marisha Vozian, who runs a homestay network in the country, emailed me yesterday from the UK that she was “surprised and shocked” by the protests, but said visitors at her guesthouse are staying. Also, Radu Sargu, head of Moldova Travel accommodation service, emailed to say his visitors — from the USA, UK and Finland — are also staying. “They are interested to see what’s going on.”

IF YOU GO, it’s generally easier and cheaper to go by overnight train from Bucharest (about 35 euro one way) than fly in. Most visitors stay three or four days, enough time to take in Chisinau and make day trips to the country’s excellent wineries within 20 miles outside of the capital. Some agencies offer day trips (about 70 euro per person) to the Transdneistr, a time-warp Soviet-style district of Moldova that’s still occupied by Russian troops and operates as a separate nation. No visa is required for US, Canadian and EU citizens to visit Moldova; Australians and New Zealand must arrange invitation letters in advance through Chisinau agencies.

Indie travel guides – pipe dream or way of the future?

With all due respect to my generous client Lonely Planet, without whom I’d still be an obscure, broke, moonshine junkie in a forlorn corner of Romania, guidebook authors wallowing below the Sushi Line are increasingly probing new “Screw the Man” applications for their hard-won expertise – namely their very own online travel guides.

There’s certainly something to be said for a trusted brand name guidebook, but equally independently produced, digital travel guides allow authors to toss in all kinds of wacky content in addition to the usual sights/eating/sleeping content, uncorrupted by editors, guidelines, house styles and meddling lawyers.

A 2,000 word, absurdly detailed walking guide to Tijuana? Why not? A sidebar entitled “Top Ten Curse Words You Should Know Before Attending an Italian Football (Soccer) Match”? Bring it on! Why [insert your least favorite German city] sucks? I’m all ears.

This developing genre was recently augmented by the completion of Robert Reid’s online guide to Vietnam. As Reid rightly points out, the advantages of an independent online travel guide are numerous:

• It’s free – Guidebooks cost $25. Why pay?
• It’s fresher. Unlike a guidebook, turn-around time is immediate.
• You can customize it. The most common complaint guidebook users have is having to tote around 400 pages they’ll never use.
• It’s more direct, personalized. With my site I can ‘tell it like it is’.
• Anyone can talk with the author. [Just] hit ‘contact’.

In addition to this excellent resource, other free sites serving the online travel community include Croatia Traveller, Kabul Caravan, Turkey Travel Planner, Broke-Ass Stewart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco, and (cough), the Romania and Moldova Travel Guide (now with extra moonshine).

For the time being, these independent travel guides are usually not money-making ventures (and boy do they take a lot of time to put together!), thus the current scarcity. However, as print media gasps to its inevitable conclusion – one decade, mark my words – the online stage is set for authors to leverage their expertise and provide autonomous, interactive, up-to-the-minute travel information for anyone with an internet connection.

My Bloody Romania: Hero gloriously returns to zero fanfare

Dateline: Cruising altitude, en route from Minneapolis to JFK

I hold in my hands a just-out-of-the-box, mint condition copy of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. This is significant for two reasons: One, I plan to do a fair bit of travel in Romania’s Moldavia and Transylvania regions over the course of the next month. Two, it just so happens that I wrote/updated half this staggering work of brilliance and I’m more than a little pleased to finally be flipping through the final product.

Is there anything as sweet as traveling in a country carrying a guidebook that has your name printed in blue 16 point font on page one? No really, I’m asking. I have no idea. This is my first time. Will celebrity spotters identify me? Will the paparazzi chase me down the street? Will girls shriek with primal lust and tear at my clothes when I rush from my hostel into my waiting Dacia 1310?

Hmmm, perhaps a test run here on the plane. I’ll prop the book open on the tray table exposing my bio page, fetching black and white picture and all, angle it so my neighbor can see it and wait for the slobbering reverence to ensue.

She doesn’t see it. I’ll tap the book on the table.

Nothing. I’ll rhythmically tap-point at my picture.

Emphatically circle it with my finger.


Man, she is really out of it. Is that rum I smell? OK , switching to other neighbor.

Drat. She’s asleep already. How is that possible? We’ve been in the air 12 effing minutes. I hate those people.

Well, until Romania then, where I’ll probably be less worshiped for my fame and literary genius and more chastised and mercilessly critiqued about content balance, misplaced map icons and how the bus from Brasov to Sighisoara actually costs 45 cents more than it says in the book and how could I have screwed up so badly?

Everyone’s a critic, especially me. I lived in Romania for a cumulative 16 months between 2004-06 (in the northeast city of Iasi, the country’s second largest city, 20 kilometers from the Moldovan border) and I complained like I was getting paid US$0.08 a word. Meaning I was compelled to complain at great length or not make rent. The startlingly narrow choice of cuisine, the kamikaze drivers, the alarming state of corruption and bureaucracy perpetrated by those who are in charge of processing used car title changes, the complete lack of desire by the entire population to satisfy the bare minimum of their assigned job duties without some kind of extra incentive and the demoralizing number of achingly beautiful women who were, for lack of any other option, dating horribly unattractive, style-starved, drunken, lecherous men while much more attractive American, travel writing, David Beckham look-alikes with asses that have to been seen to be believed were roundly ignored.

Apart from a 10 day visit over the previous New Years that saw Romania narrowly gain European Union membership, an interval that was spent largely drunk and prone (I was exceedingly happy on their behalf), I have not spent significant time in Romania for over a year. I’m told that EU membership has sparked some fast and occasionally mirthfully executed changes in that time and I can’t wait to criticize/mock it to a quivering pulp. Oh there’ll probably be moments of amazement and veneration too, but that’s hardly funny is it?

But before any of that can happen, there’s the small matter of getting to Iasi, which has never been easy, and has been enlivened on this occasion by the fact that my Minneapolis/JFK flight on Northwest Airlines has been delayed repeatedly and we are currently due to touch down exactly seven minutes before my connecting flight to Madrid departs. Will I get to Iasi or will I blog about John F. Kennedy Airport for the next four weeks? The mind swirls.

POSTSCRIPT: My plane to Madrid departed while my plane from Minneapolis circled JFK for reasons that were never shared.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for further musings about Romanian food, Italian internet and the exquisite contours of his booty.

More Independence Days to Celebrate

August is another Independence Day bonanza. The shifts of power didn’t happen all at once, but 1960 was a big year. If you’re in any of these countries expect a holiday. Maybe there will be fireworks or a parade or a speech or two.

  • August 1 – Benin gained independence from France
  • August 3– Niger gained its independence from France
  • August 5 –Burkina Faso also gained independence from France.
  • August 11–Guess which country Chad gained independence from? That’s right, France.
  • August 13–Central African Republic also gained independence from–you guessed it–France.
  • August 14- Pakistan from the U.K. in 1947.
  • August 15- India from the U.K. in 1947.
  • August 17- Gabon. Can you guess the country and year? If you said France and 1960, ***ding ding ding ! [Did you hear the you win bells?]
  • August 19- Afganistan from the U.K. in 1919. Wow, that’s early.
  • August 24- Ukraine in 1991.
  • August 25- Uruguay from Brazil in 1825.
  • August 27- Moldova from U.S.S.R. in 1991
  • August 31- Kyrgystan from the U.S.S.R in 1991 and Trinidad and Tobago from the U.K. in 1962.

*The information is from the International Calendar published by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Madison, Wisconsin. They put this calendar together every year and other Peace Corps groups sell it as a fundraiser.