Extreme budget travel in Eastern Europe
April 25, 2006 5:59 AM   Subscribe

I need practical advice for extreme budget travelling in Eastern Europe this summer.

I am a young American female travelling by myself for three months this summer, mostly in Eastern Europe. I've gotten great advice from previous threads on general travel, euro travel, eastern europe, travel gear, budget travel, hitchhiking, inspirational travel literature, hospitality clubs, and guidebooks, but it's only left me wanting more. Now that I know Mefis are such intrepid travellers, I want your hardearned experience and advice.

I've travelled around the UK and Western Europe doing the hostel thing, but even that seems like a bit more expensive than it needs to be. I've been doing weekend camping trips while living in Scotland recently and plan to bring my gear with me. While I will definitely take trains and buses if necessary, I would prefer to catch rides. The longer I can make my money last, the longer I can stay. I'm planning on bussing through Western Europe on my way to Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Croatia, the Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, etc.

Any advice is welcome, but some of the specific questions I'm thinking of are: Is camping a viable option in Eastern Europe? How easy is it to find/create sites? Is it safe/easy enough to hitch over there? What's the one thing I shouldn't forget to bring if I'm planning to stay by myself at campings (right now my camp gear is my tent, bag, ground mat, led headlamp, and swiss army knife. that's it.)? Which hospitality club is best for this area? Are there any guidebooks that are good for this area, geared towards campers, or have a good bit to do outside of the cities (i.e. canoeing in Poland)? I've done a bit of research already, but I can't seem to find advice that specifically addresses my intentions (solo camping in Eastern Europe without a car) and I would really appreciate advice from people who have been there and done it.
posted by mosessis to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Servas is a nonprofit you might want to look into. Servas travellers stay in peoples' houses for 2 days. When you visit a new country, you get the book of hosts which has names and addresses. The idea is that you meet locals and find out local stuff, rather than just doing the tourist thing - and it's common for a guest to turn up with a token gift but not required in any way. I've never travelled with them but have hosted quite a few and it's a good way to meet new people. Membership is fairly cheap.
posted by handee at 6:08 AM on April 25, 2006

I don't have any personal experience to offer, but there are a few other forums out there dedicated to specifically what you're looking to do.

Most notably, the BootsnAll.com Europe Travel and Vagabonding/Budget forum.

I've found these forums perfect for researching your type of trip.
posted by nitsuj at 6:10 AM on April 25, 2006

This is tangential, but I would have found it useful before I went away --

Having travelled through France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, Slovakia was by far the countrythat I visited with the lowest english comprehension. I am not sure whether that would be an obstacle for hitching or not.
posted by Marquis at 7:01 AM on April 25, 2006

I saved some money by travelling overnight on the large European trains and sleeping there: the seats fold out. They often had other young travellers for company/security, but not always.
posted by alasdair at 8:47 AM on April 25, 2006

Best answer: I'll second the BootsnAll suggestion; I've posted there many times.

I've travelled in a similar style (solo male, camping/hosteling) in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Croatia (though I didn't camp in Poland). I haven't been to Ukraine, Turkey, or Greece, so I can't comment on those. Camping is possible, though as you have noticed a lot of the information is geared towards people to have cars. Even so, lots of sites are still accessible by public transportation. Let's Go and Lonely Planet tend to stick to the beaten path, but their summaries of budget places to stay, including campgrounds, are thorough (though not comprehensive).

Camping in Croatia is a bit more expensive than elsewhere in the region (around US$5-7 in most places, $12 in one resort place for one person and one tent), but the campgrounds are often on the beach. Campsites are pretty much everywhere on the coast and islands; I have the impression that they're less common farther inland. Finding a site usually isn't a problem; even in high season at dusk I was able to squeeze into mostly full places by pointing out that I had a small tent and no car. The town tourist offices were usually helpful in pointing me to nearby campgrounds. In Split and Dubrovnik the campgrounds are a few km away from the city, but in both cases there's fairly frequent buses. If you take intercity buses on the main road along the coast you'll pass numerous campgrounds, and you might be able to negotiate with the driver to be let off. If you're really obsessive you can try googling cities to make your own tour guide (I camped in Kraljevica, near Rijeka), but a lot of this information isn't available in English.

On the other hand, camping in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic tends to be very cheap. Czech paradise (Český ráj) has gorges and lots of cool hiking, and the campground I stayed in in Jičín cost about $3. The place I stayed in in Slovakia in the foothills of the Tatras, near the mountain tram, was also cheap and convenient to transport. These places were either in Let's Go or recommended by tourist offices. When you're not hitchhiking, you can find bus schedules for everywhere in the Czech Republic here (there's a link for English at the bottom). There should be a similar site for Slovakia but I can't remember it offhand.

If you have any more questions about specific places I'll be happy to follow up.
posted by komilnefopa at 8:49 AM on April 25, 2006

Regarding travel guides, I'll say it again: Lonely Planets seem almost worthless for me unless you're just looking for hostels or bars to drink with other 20-something tourist partiers. Rough Guides give a much more thorough, culturally-aware perspective, & don't feel the need to list every budget hotel & bar in the city on the assumption that if you're smart enough to travel, you're probably smart enough to explore on your own (& find your own tourist watering holes, if inclined), too.

I've rarely camped at campsites, and typically when hitchhiking I bring a very lightweight tent (I have a 4 pounder that cost about $100 & is muted colors) & sleep somewhere secluded on the outskirts of small towns--often in people's unplanted fields, or parks near rivers. Sometimes this lack of planning leads to uncomfortable conditions (having to sleep under a bridge because the rain was heavier than my tent could handle), but I've never felt physically unsafe. That said, I love Hospitality Club & Global Freeloaders, & have met wonderful people from those sites.

If you're planning on hitchhiking, be absolutely sure you're bringing the bare minimum--carrying heavy things, and finding space for heavy things in other people's cramped cars will tax your patience & deminish the fun of your trip. In my opinion the essentials are a warm sleeping bag, a light tent, several pairs of versatile clothes (down vest doubles as pillow at night, etc), a headlamp or light hands-free flashlight, a multitool + silverwear + tupperwear for saving food. A good book or two & detailed maps will help, too. Most wilderness backpackers weigh all their gear, & I've found doing that is really helpful for me, too.

I think the most important thing about any trip of this kind is keeping an open mind. Since you'll be alone, you'll be absorbing a whole different world in a completely different way than if you were traveling with a partner. Don't be afraid to go to little towns just to wander around, talk to strangers, ask for small favors, take offers to stay with families who give you rides, or just take risks. Of course if you have any gut instinct to bail out on a situation, follow it! But use that same instinct to stumble upon wonderful experiences.
posted by soviet sleepover at 12:11 PM on April 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, all, very much for your advice. I'm glad to hear that other people have successfully travelled this way over there; it's that little reassurance I think I needed. I'm loving bootsnall; don't know why I didn't find that earlier. komilnefopa, I don't have a set itinerary yet and I would love to know what your favourite places are. Did you have any campsites, small towns, hiking trails, mountains, etc. that shouldn't be missed? If you'd like, my e-mail is in my profile. Thanks again for all your advice (I'm especially stoked to have attracted soviet sleepover's attention; I loved your comments in earlier travel threads!).
posted by mosessis at 2:01 AM on April 27, 2006

Best answer: I've taken dozens of low-budget holidays in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and almost as many in other countries in Europe.

Backpacker hostels are indeed often pricey, especially in the big tourist destinations. However, there are sometimes hostels aimed at local young people (e.g. ubytovanie in Slovakia or converted University accomodation) which can be much cheaper than the hostels in Lonely Planet or even some campsites. Since these options are so cheap, I've rarely felt the need to camp. Campsites do exist, even if they're sometimes aimed at drivers and thus inconveniently located for users of public transport, as komilnefopa points out. Your equipment list sounds fine, but a stove will allow you to cook for yourself, which is not only cheaper, but at some campsites the only way of eating.

I second Alasdair's suggestion of sleeping on trains; this saves time as well as money, since your transport time essentially becomes zero. Should you want to go to greater lengths, I've slept rough a few times and never felt in danger, but as a lone woman, this may not appeal to you.

Local public transport, like staying in local accomodation is likewise so cheap that I very rarely hitched. When I did, it was fairly easy, although the language barrier was sometimes awkward. I get the impression you've hitchhiked before, so I won't go over the basics.

Since you want your money to last as long as possible, plan your route accordingly. For example, Prague is much more expensive than the rest of the country and so skipping it will save money. (In my opinion, it's also not that much of a loss, since you can spend the time in less crowded Czech towns and cities with just as much to offer.) The same applies to countries, so if you reduce the time you spend in Croatia and Greece and increase your stay in Slovakia and the Ukraine, you will also be able to remain longer. (Additionally, don't underestimate the distances involved in the route you're suggesting. I know Americans are more relaxed about long journeys than Europeans, but experiment with exploring a small region thoroughly, rather than 'tunnelling' between countries as distant as Poland and Greece.)

Learning as much of the language as possible is another way to reduce costs, since you'll be able to ask local people for advice on cheap options. This feeds back into planning your route, as more time in one country (or 2/3 with similar languages) will make language learning easier.

I use LP/RG guidebooks for planning routes and finding sights. They can also be useful for finding accomodation when I don't have the time or knowledge to track places down on my own.

Have a fantastic trip.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 10:37 PM on April 29, 2006

mosessis asked me a couple of follow-up questions over email which I'll answer here:

How do you find these hostels aimed at local young people? This sounds like a great option but I've never heard of these before and wouldn't know how to go about finding one.

I was never an expert at this and I don't want to give the impression that there's a super-sekrit network of local-priced accommodation waiting for anyone who knows the right combination of knocks. There are cheaper places that can be worth the hunt, but they can take an hour or two to find. (Another reason to explore an area in depth.) However, they're not a seperate category; I'm really just describing them in opposition to the generic LP backpacker hostels which I usually find noisy and expensive.

The sort of places I've stayed in include University dorms empty over the holiday, lodging rooms for young people who've left home, old soviet-style workers' hostels, guesthouses run by retirees, delapidated hotels thrown up with more enthusiasm than business sense etc.

Would the local TI have info or are there non-English websites that list them? You also mentioned that you are able to track down places on your own without guidebooks. I would love to hear more about how you do this, as I have only been successful with prearranging stays at large hostels and hotels (my strategy as of late has been to rock up to a town and find something for the night then or prebook a bed at a backpacker hostel).

Prearranging & prebooking won't always work with the cheaper places. Sometimes you're going to have to wander the streets late at night (sometimes because the hostel that you stayed in a few months before has closed), hoping that somewhere will turn up. It's worth having emergency funds to allow you to find somewhere pricier quickly if it's raining or you're being followed.

Tourist Info offices are usually the best place to start looking, especially outside the bigger centres. Just ask for the cheapest place they know. Don't assume hostels will automatically be cheaper than pensions / guesthouses. You might also find somewhere via In Your Pocket, although I think they're not quite as good as they used to be and their best suggestions are probably in their print editions.

Asking in local 'advice centres' can yield good results, as can chatting to bar staff or town hall officials. All of this requires some grasp of the local language. You also might get somewhere with Googling. Use the site: operator to get only sites based in the country you're in and try to figure out the word for 'cheap hostel' in the local language. A cunning technique is to start with the cheapest places you've already found via other methods and Google their phone numbers or addresses. That often led me to a list of cheap places to stay.

Invest in a street map and a phone card. You're probably going to spend some time calling places asking if they have a bed for the night and trying to track down where these obscure little streets twenty minutes by bus from the town centre are.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 9:45 PM on May 5, 2006

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