Got accepted to a confrence in Kraków, add some vacation...now what?
March 31, 2015 8:51 PM   Subscribe

I've been accepted to a conference in Kraków, Poland in the first week of July. I've decided to add some vacation on the end. However, I've never travelled outside North America before, and am not really sure how to go about getting started. Plane tickets, insurance, route planning, picking where to go, eep!

My conference is from July 5th to 9th, and I've decided to take 5 days to a week after that to see some of Europe, and Kraków is apparently a great lunching off point for that. I'm really excited, but have no idea what to do now, and I know I should have bought plane tickets already when I don't even have a travel plan. In good news, Canadian's don't need visas for the EU, so that is one thing off my list, but as to the rest, I'm floundering. I've got a budget of ~$3,000 CDN, but I have no idea if that is sane for what I want to do. Bonus challenge: Unlike most Canadians, I don't even speak French.

My current to do list is:
-Pick where I'm going. A friend recommended that I take the route Kraków -> Vienna -> Budapest, so I've pencilled this in, however apparently I could be in Arras, France (near Vimy Ridge) in less then a day, so going and seeing some WWI and WWII sites in German and France where my relatives fought instead is tempting).

-Get plane tickets. (Getting these inside Canada is easy; there are only two airlines. How on earth do I find ones to Europe? I've been advised to talk to a travel agent and they can save you a lot. Good idea? Suggestions on a good one in Vancouver?)

-Figure out how I'm getting from place to place. I've been told there is some sort of European student rail pass, but I don't know how to get it, or if there is enough time left. (I've been told it takes a while). Is it to late? Does this even exist? If not, how do I find rail routes and book my tickets? I don't have a drivers license, so transit it is.

-Figure out where I'm sleeping: I'd rather avoid hostels, as I've had friends with bad experiences in them. What sort of options are open to me? Is staying in traditional hotel/motels going to make me go broke? I'll need somewhere to leave my suitcase during the day. (I'll have to be wearing nice cloths at the conference each day, plus my giant poster.)

-Get some Euros. Lab members have advice on this, I was just planning on going down to my bank. Advice on how to carry money would be useful though. Can I just get a credit card for in Europe so I don't get digned on the exchange rate each time, or will I have to carry a lot of cash?

-Travel insurance: I'll just phone the company that I have insurance with through the university and purchase some, right?

-Get maps or something? If I touch my phone at all in Europe I'll go broke from roaming charges, I assume. Is open wifi abundant enough to use Google Maps there, or will I have to get a sim card for each country? Would it be cheaper to buy non-phone GPS? Or should I just get a bunch of paper maps?

I'm so intimidated by travelling alone and in Europe I haven't even started googling things yet. Is there anything missing from this list I'll need to take care of ahead of time?
Sorry this is so scattered, I really don't know where to start. I know a bunch of people who have been to Europe, but most of the one who have done it recently were there to party and whatnot, whereas I'd be much more interested in historical things (Once I figure out where I'm going I'll get some history books to read ahead of time), local food, stuff like that. Anything from stuff not on my todo list, to general advice to advice on where to go would be very, very much appreciated, thank you.
posted by Canageek to Travel & Transportation around Kraków, Poland (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Krakow is an amazing city in and of itself. Don't forget to check it out in the free time you have there.

I think most of your worries shouldn't even be there. Krakow > Vienna > Budapest would be a good route, although I did Prague > Krakow > Budapest last year as I didn't have any interest in Vienna. Plane tickets are easy, I'd start at Google.com/flights and just type in your origin/destination along with dates and go from there.

There is a European rail pass, but not in the areas of Europe you'll be in. This is Central Europe. That rail pass is typically for Western Europe. I took a night train from Krakow to Budapest, which is pretty much your only option. It'd be the same for getting to Vienna. Or you could fly from Krakow to Vienna, and then Budapest is only 3 hours away by train.

I do hostels and hostels only, so I can't advise you on accommodation. But you could check out AirBnB. I would stay away from buying currency before your trip. For one thing, you'll always get the best exchange rate by withdrawing from ATMs. Secondly, Poland and Hungary are not on the Euro. So it'd only be useful to you in Vienna.

Travel insurance is an individual thing. I don't think it is worth it for short trips like that, but if it would make you feel safer than go for it. Assuming you have an unlocked smartphone, you can set it so your phone doesn't use any cellular data while you are abroad. You could also pop in a local SIM card if you really need data on the go. Otherwise, you can use WiFi. Those countries have pretty fast internet.

Don't be intimidated. It sounds like you are inexperienced with traveling, but it's pretty easy to pick up. I had the best time of my life in Central Europe.

Also, one other thing to keep in mind is that the prices of things in these countries are super cheap compared to someone on a North America salary. You would struggle to spend $3,000 CDN.
posted by signondiego at 9:40 PM on March 31, 2015


I just returned from a trip alone in Europe.

First, relax. You don't need to prepare as much as you think you do. Just take care of the flights and the hotels, and all the other details - like transit, Euros, what to do, etc. you can figure out up to a month before. Or even not figure that out until you are there like I did. It was fine, and I had a blast. Europe is a relatively developed country so there are always options for backup plans.

First things first -itinerary. Europe is super easy to get around. So really any European country or city is game. Are there particular cities you want to see? For five days, I would choose up to two or three max. I just finished four cities in one week and I was fine (I tend to get bored of a city after two or three days).

Have heard great things about Vienna and Budapest. I would definitely do the France thing instead of Vienna, though but that is just my personal interest in something to do with family.

Flights: Expedia is the best bet. Travel agents are kind of a rip off, in my opinion.

Hotels: Expedia also can help here. Yelp is great for also figuring out good places. Most hotel take online reservations.

Transit: European Rail is a scenic way to get around. But I don't know if it's as big as in Eastern Europe. Public transit varies city by city but walk around! Its cheap, and a great way to explore a city. There should be taxis too. Most taxis accept credit card. The one time I had a problem was when only half of them did.

Currency: Go to a local bank and they should have currency. However, I tend to withdraw more cash than I need, so I am in the camp of just using my credit card which happens to have no international fees. I wouldn't get a new one just for Europe though - are your fees that bad? One tip: call your credit card company and let them know which cities you are visiting!! Sometimes they think there is fraud when there is an international transaction and make your card unusable which is very inconvenient when abroad. But I called the card company via Skype on internet and it was fine.

Cell: When it's just one week and multiple countries, I just use wifi. Up to you if you want to do SIM card, that's super easy. Just go to a local convenience store.

Insurance: I don't get it. So can't help you here.

Maps: Buy a guide book for each city! Read up on the plane over there or a week or two before. Super fun to plan. And all the maps you need are in there. Plus, with google maps and internet, and hotels, you should be fine.

Language: This is something you didn't ask but should research on. In France, French is only really spoken.
posted by pando11 at 9:45 PM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


I lived in Krakow ages ago and am super jealous--you're going to have a great time!

Currency: Poland isn't on the Euro but I'm sure most of the touristy places will accept them. get some zloty just to be on the safe side. I wouldn't count on taxis accepting credit cards. It's been a while since I've been there but my spidey senses tell me that kind of service is going to be really limited and cost a fortune where it's available. Public transport is easy and comprehensive. Buy the little tickets at the kiosks and get them punched in the box when you get on the tram or bus. Basically, do what everyone else is doing. But walking is absolutely the best way to get around.

How old are you? Not to be nosy, but many of the student deals cut off at age 26 regardless of whether you're actually enrolled anywhere.

You're going to be visiting during the very height of tourist season so be prepared for massive crowds, not just Krakow but really anyplace you end up visiting.

Also, I've done the Krakow-Vienna-Budapest-Ljubljana by train and really really enjoyed it. It takes a little while but the scenery is just stupendous. One of my professors once described Slovenia as a little jewelry box and I think that sums it up perfectly.
posted by orrnyereg at 10:05 PM on March 31, 2015


Travel insurance: seriously, it's foolish not to get it, especially as a first time traveller. Like seriously. It won't cost more than a $150 bucks and covers you for all sorts of unexpected mishaps and losses. Buy it as soon as you buy your flights so you are covered for cancellations. The people telling you not to buy insurance can guarantee nothing. I guarantee that if you buy insurance, and need it, you will be very happy to have it.
posted by Thella at 11:02 PM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


I loved Kraków. We were there for a film festival in 2006 and it was wonderful. My partner and I stayed in a student residence at a local university--I think it was this one, but if not, it was very similar. Anyway, it was cheap, clean, safe, and in a great location. We ate in the cafeteria every morning for breakfast, where the cafeteria ladies gave us generous helpings. Transportation was easy and people were so lovely and helpful.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:42 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Found the price list. The prices are in Polish zloty, so with today's conversion rate, the single room with bathroom will cost you CAD $30 per night. If you're willing to use a communal bathroom (studio), it's $20.

It was pretty delightful to be somewhere so lovely and have our Canadian dollars go so far!

Check out the milk bars when you're there. The food is inexpensive and excellent, and many are a slice of old communist Kraków, ambience wise.

And try a cellar bar. We ate at Chimera and it was great.

I found the actual hotel residence we stayed at: Academickie Centrum Hotelowe. Looks like they've updated it a bit! But it's still inexpensive, only $33 for a single room with bathroom. The regular breakfast costs $3 and the special breakfast is $4.

I'm envious! This is making me want to go back. I think you will love Kraków.

(Hmm, impressive. My autocorrect automatically adds a nice little accent to "Kraków" every time.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:07 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was in Krakow September 2013. Lovely city. Very touristy.

We stayed the Ibis Budget Hotel. it was near the train station and a easy walk to the main square. Cost us 139 zloty for the room plus 21/each for a basic breakfast. (So for one person that would be about $50CAD - maybe less if you could get a single room). Staff spoke English and were very helpful. You could try booking.com or TripAdvisor, look for apartments or cheap hotels - but Krakow and Budapest aren't expensive.

Krakow gets a lot of tourists, so plenty of the Polish people that you will encounter will speak English. Just be polite and you'll be fine (e.g. 'excuse me, do you speak English?' rather than walk up and just start speaking English. Even better if you can learn a few words of Polish).

Trains: don't get a rail pass unless you're making several trips. For all the information you could possibly need, use The Man in Seat 61. I took the overnight train from Krakow to Budapest, which was kinda pricey but fun (about 100 euro each, I think, but we had a private cabin). Book early if you're doing that. (I seem to remember I had to do a complicated ticket pickup at the post office because I left it until the last few days).

Travel insurance: get it. Your bank probably offers it, or just Google.

Itinerary: I would lean towards Krakow, Vienna, Budapest, or even just two of them. Don't spend a whole day travelling to France, come back and do France properly, later. I could easily spend a week in any one of those three cities, but splitting them 4 and 3 would work too.

In Krakow, I highly recommend the tour of Schindler's Factory (now a war memorial museum - get the tram from central, don't pay for an organised tour); a day trip to Auschwitz (yeah it's horrible but....); we did the salt mines as well which were OK but took a while to get there and then we had to queue for quite a while too. (Consider an organised tour to Auschwitz or the salt mines). The castle is fun to wander around, so is the old town/Jewish quarter, there's a reasonably interesting archaeological exhibition under the main square (which itself is fun). And totally random, but get a burger at Moa Burger, Krakow's New Zealand-themed burger joint. Amazing. Trust me.

Budapest is also great - lots of cool bars (Google "ruin bars"), some reasonably good art galleries, castle/churches on the hill, the Terror Museum (covers Nazi/Soviet occupation), decent food, etc. Vienna I haven't been to but is of course wonderful by all accounts.

Guides: Lonely Planet is fine. City guides are good if you can get them, otherwise get a country guide (you can buy individual chapters on their website, this is what I did. That way you could put them on your phone and have the maps). If there's a Time Out guide for the city, I recommend that. For maps, otherwise, I just used the hotel wifi and planned/wrote out my route before I left.

Cash: when I've done short trips, I've just used my card in an ATM (and accepted I'd take a small hit). For a long trip, I got a credit card with no overseas fees. Either way works. I never went to a bank or used traveller's cheques.
posted by Pink Frost at 1:05 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ok, take a deep breath. You're going to be okay. Europe is full of interesting places and lots of old amazing things, but it's still just a place full of people who are not so incredibly different from yourself. If you're in a big city, a fair number of people will speak English, so if you get lost and confused, you will be able to ask for help.

As a first step, I would suggest going down to your nearest big bookstore and going to the Travel Section. Lonely Planet makes really good travel guides and so does TimeOut. They often make ones for regions as well as individual countries. I think Lonely Planet makes one for Central Europe, so you could start looking at that. In my experience, having a physical book as a travel guide is really helpful: they usually have local maps, and if you're hungry and tired and looking for a good coffee shop and a piece of cake, they can help you find one. Lots of places will have Wi-fi, but not everywhere, so having a book is good insurance.

Look for flights in www.expedia.com or www.kayak.com or www.skyscanner.com. You can talk to a travel agent if you want, but I don't think it's necessary. In terms of planning where to go: 5 days isn't that long. I think you probably should budget at least half a day to get anywhere, if you fly, and longer if you take the train. So if you want to fly to France to see Arras, do that, but then plan on staying in Western Europe, instead of trying to bop back to Prague or something. For example, if you're in Northern France, Normandy, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brugge are all really nearby, so you could spend 2 days in Arras and 2 days in one of those other places.

Talking to your bank about money is a good idea. They can help you exchange money, tell you if they have agreements with any European banks (so you can exchange more money there without any extra fees), and so they know that you're going to be in Europe and won't freeze your card. I think it's a good idea to make sure you always have some cash on you when you're traveling, because there are parts of Europe (Germany, for example) where credit cards are not accepted in all places. Also, European credit cards tend to have a chip (maybe your Canadian ones do too) but if not, that means that even if a restaurant takes credit cards, they might not take your credit card.
posted by colfax at 2:52 AM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, it's a bit overwhelming and where to start?

- Get a passport if you don't already have one and photocopy the picture page, store it securely.

- Decide the length of your stay. Flying mid-week is usually cheaper; some air fare sites will show you the price for nearby days or the entire month so you can make adjustments. Sometimes staying a few days longer results in a cheaper fare. Consider an open-jaw fare: flying into one city and flying out of another. This will be the most challenging part, researching fares. Just take your time and write down all the options so you can compare them.

- Once you've decided on your itinerary, look for budget hotels. TripAdvisor and Agoda are two of the biggest booking sites. If all the cheap rooms are "not available", don't panic. These days it's too easy to book online and cancel later so many of those are phantom bookings. Also, not every hotel is listed and the main tourist office in each city should have a hotel booking service if you arrive without a reservation. However your trip is short so you should be able to sort out hotels before you leave.

- If you are leaving Europe from the same city in which you arrived, ask your original hotel if they can store a bag for you (even if you don't plan to stay there again before your departure). Then you can offload some unnecessary clothes/items. Otherwise, train stations usually have left luggage.

- Before buying a tourist guide, check your local library for guidebooks. Even if they are not the latest edition, they will help you narrow down your list of interests. Double-check any critical information online re opening hours, closing dates, admission fees. The tourist offices will also have brochures for all that.

- Plan to use an ATM card/ATM machines to change money. Bring a back up card from another account just in case. Also bring some US dollars, $20 bills. Write down the 24-hr phone number for your bank.

- You will see more from a train but your time is limited and flying is probably cheaper anyway. Use Rome2Rio to check your transport options. Check the baggage allowance/fees for budget flights; look up public transport options to get from airport to town. Take a photo of your checked bag in case it ever gets mislaid by the airlines.

- Each city will have a well-equipped tourist office, make that your first stop. Before you go, you can download scalable google maps for each destination and use them off line if you have a smart phone/iPad/iPod Touch (the maps are accessible for two weeks (?), download them just before you leave home) but the tourist office maps will be free, easier to read, and a great souvenir.

- Small electronics just need an adapter (cheap) for the plug to charge.

- Bring very comfortable shoes and flip flops if your bathroom is down the hall.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:55 AM on April 1, 2015


Travel guides! Just wanted to put in a quick word recommending that you grab some from your local library. Rick Steves has some decent travel-guide videos, if you'd rather sit back and watch for a bit.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:07 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have had experience in hostels; they are horrible. It's a good choice not to do it.

As for plane tickets, I use Kayak, which is probably available in Canada too.

Are you a CAA member? From experience, AAA will give you as a member foreign currency packs, which contain the equivalent of $100US each, minus a small fee that is smaller than what most currency exchanges and banks charge. I do not know if CAA provides the same service. Credit cards are also very useful in this manner; they charge a small exchange fee (1-2%) on purchases made in foreign currency and they will charge you that day's exchange rate. I *think* debit cards are the same; not sure about Interact as I am not Canadian.

I had a week-long unlimited BritRail pass which I bought online -- it was a steal and very useful for travel around England when I was there; I imagine EuroRail has something similar.

Get a passport ASAP if you do not already have one. I don't know the Canadian procedure for this; here in the US you can do this by appointment at any Post Office.
posted by tckma at 6:54 AM on April 1, 2015


TWinbrook8: Get a passport if you don't already have one and photocopy the picture page, store it securely.

Store your passport (preferably in your hotel/room safe) and not the photocopied page!

If you're new to traveling abroad and are nervous about it, there's absolutely no harm in chatting with a reputable travel agent. You're under no obligation to purchase from them, and they can advise you on the particulars of your plan. tckma's recommendation to chat with your local CAA office is also a good one, especially since they also offer travel advice to members.

Check out the recent thread on traveling in Europe for tips and ideas as well.
posted by evoque at 7:12 AM on April 1, 2015


Came here to recommend Prague. Affordable and enchanting. I studied abroad there in college. Here is an edited version of what I sent my friend who traveled to Prague this year:

The Jewish Quarter (Josefov) is really amazing (and heartbreaking, but it’s really important history to know). The Jewish Museum houses priceless religious items hoarded by the Nazis so they could have a museum for the extinct Jewish race. Gross. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe (built in the 1200s) and is said to house the clay remains of the Golem in its attic. The cemetery is chock full of old gravestones dating back to the 1400s—really fascinating to see the individual stones. Take a walking tour if you can.

Nearby is Old Town (Staré Město) which is a great place to wander. The Astronomical clock is SO COOL. Recommend. We used to go to U Vejvodů because the beer they brew in-house is very good, but be careful not to eat the pretzels/bread/peanuts on the table because they will charge you. If you want to splurge on one BIG delicious traditional Czech meal, this is the place to go.

Vyšehrad is the old castle grounds/fort. Hrad means castle. I’d recommend wandering around and checking out the cemetery. There’s also a park with sculptures and the oldest building in Prague (a rotunda built in the 1000s—not a typo, the 11th century!). There’s lots of old buildings, castle walls, gates, and cobblestones to check out. Also this is where many outdoor scenes of Amadeus were filmed.

Walk across the Charles Bridge/Karlův most for sure! Lots of street vendors, nice views, and places to wander on both sides of the bridge.

If you are looking for a coffee shop to hang out in, we really loved Ouky Douky. The signature drink the Ouky Douky is basically a latte with honey. So good. They also had computers you could pay to use that had Skype installed (or did, when I was there in 2006, ha). I also hung out at Café Louvre. If you want a snack and coffee with a biscuit, this is the place. Kind of fancy with big windows.

The Sedlec Ossuary just outside of Prague is off the chain. BONES!

In general, Prague is pretty safe. Just don't do stupid things like fall asleep on the train with your bag open and your iPod hanging out like this one student in my program. If I remember correctly, you should try to avoid Wenceslas Square/ Václavské náměstí and the main train station/hlavní nádraží late at night. Wenceslas Square has lots of stores if you need anything during the day—H&M, phone stores, cheap shoe stores, street food stalls, etc. Smažený sýr = deep fried cheese, in case you encounter it on menus.

We traveled to Krakow from Prague by train one weekend and wandered around. I got served two heaping scoops of cabbage with my enchiladas at a Tex-Mex restaurant there, ha. We also took a side trip to Auschwitz. It's emotionally exhausting but really important to visit.

There are good hostels around. If you do your research beforehand, you should be fine. If you're traveling alone, hostels are a good way to meet people. Again, just don't be stupid. Some hostels have lockers where you can place your bags during the day. But if you'll have a lot of stuff and/or expensive electronics you're leaving, a hotel might be a better bet.

Traveling can be stressful but try not to over-plan. Unexpected adventures and picnics in the park are the best!
posted by stompadour at 9:35 AM on April 1, 2015


Wow, this is a ton of stuff; Thank you all so much, this has calmed me a lot and given me things to think about. I already have a passport (I don't drive, so I need it to get on planes even within Canada), and I'm already signed up to see a bunch of the stuff in Krakow that you've all mentioned (The conference has excursions, which is a cool idea). Sedlec Ossuary IS something I've always wanted to see in person, I didn't realize it was so close to Prague.

Thank you all: I didn't realize travel guides were a) still around and b) so useful. I'll go order some from my library right away.
posted by Canageek at 6:43 PM on April 1, 2015


5 days to a week after that to see some of Europe

My main caution would be to not try and do too much given the time you have. Krakow/Budapest/Prague would be a brilliant choice, but trying to do more than that will be rushed.

I'm so intimidated by travelling alone and in Europe

Relax, things will be fine. You can get by with English easily enough. Also, don't over-pack. Light luggage will make life easier, and if you forget something, you can buy it there.

Slovakia is quite scenic, so if you get the chance to travel through there in the daytime, take it.
The food in Hungary is excellent & cheap - hit some restaurants.
If you find yourself in the vicinity of Cesky Krumlov, it's well worth a visit.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:28 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Read Simon Winder's Danubia for preparation!
posted by orrnyereg at 10:49 PM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


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