Hi, I am Ankur and I am a huge fan of my cousin’s travel blog! I am thrilled that Abhishek asked me to write a guest blog based on my recent two-week solo backpacking trip to Eastern Europe (May ‘19). My specific objective for this post is to share travel principles and hacks that I have found to be most useful while traveling on the cheap as a solo (or small group) traveler. I’ll cover some of my favorite cheap travel hacks including flights, lodging, entertainment, transport, and food.
Bisevo Islands Croatia
What “On a Cheap Trip” means to me?
After my parents moved from India to Holland for work in the 1980s, they got hit hard with the “travel bug” and visited most of Europe over the next few years. Their desire to travel far exceeded their tight budget, so they got very creative in how to make it all work… one time even convincing a Norwegian jail to let them stay there for a night (with 2-year old me!) to escape the outrageous hotel fees in the city. Throughout my childhood, my parents would fondly retell their European travel stories and how much fun they had travel hacking their way…on a cheap trip!
Kravice Falls Bosnia
To me, on a cheap trip means cheap in price and rich in the experience! Since graduating college 9 years ago, I have had the opportunity to follow in my parents’ footsteps and take a few cheap trips across 5 continents to countries as diverse as India, Morocco, Colombia, Ghana, Jordan, Nepal, Azores, Japan, and my home country (United States). From my experiences, I have found myself preferring a “cheap trip” to more luxurious style vacations because it affords me more savings, flexibility, and helps me recharge my batteries most effectively. For me, the primary joy of cheap trips is derived from escaping the bubble of comfort and instead, embracing and adapting to the unexpectedness of it all – the raw sights, the people, the culture, and even the plans gone wrong.
Why and where in Eastern Europe?
Although Western Europe has the iconic sites that come to mind when booking a trip, Eastern Europe is emerging as a hotspot destination because of its amazing travel experiences available at much discounted prices. For example, I was eating full meals in Kraków, Poland for $5 (₹340) and staying in a hostel for under $10/day (₹680). The equivalent food and accommodations in London would be easily 3-4x the price.
Eastern Europe is broadly defined as countries that make up the “Eastern Bloc”. There are so many amazing places to see in Eastern Europe, but for my trip I focused in on two specific sub regions over the two weeks:
- Week 1: Ex-Yugoslavia countries (3 of 6 visited)
- Croatia: Dubrovnik, Split, Islands (Hvar, Vis, Bisevo), Zagreb
- Bosnia & Herzegovina: Kravice Falls, Mostar
- Slovenia: Ljubljana, Lake Bled
- Week 2: Visegrád Four countries (3 of 4 visited)
- Hungary: Budapest
- Slovakia: Banská Bystrica (mostly drove through countryside)
- Poland: Kraków, Auschwitz
Travel Hack #1: The Flights
I used Google Flights to book the cheapest flights to and from Eastern Europe. I recommend booking two one-way flights from cities that are spread out to maximize geographical coverage for your trip. I found Berlin, Dubrovnik, Prague, and Kraków to be particularly good starting/ending locations for an Eastern Europe trip.
I recommend using this search as a starting point and adjust it for your specific needs:
Travel Hack #2: The Agile Traveler
By “agile traveler”, I recommend embracing the idea of NOT having a set plan to your Eastern Europe trip! I started with a start and end location and left almost everything else unplanned. Almost everything in Eastern Europe can be booked same-day or next-day including hostels, transport, food, and entertainment. Outside of long-distance trains (which I did not take), I found that prices are generally stable even as you book closer to the date in this region.
In each new city I visited, I recommend the following steps:
- Check the weather forecast for the next 3-4 days. You can maximize your travels around sunny weather by strategically timing your next move based on weather. I missed out on two storms during my trip by adapting my travel in both Croatia and Hungary.
- Go for a jog/walk near the city center on arrival. You can get a better lay of the land and it may provide inspiration on areas you want to research further and check out. An alternative to this step is to find a 1-2 hour free guided walking tours that are offered in every major European city.
- Talk to the hostel receptionist. These guys and gals are absolute gold in terms of recommending entertainment and food spots that are often cheaper and better than what you’ll find through self-research online. For example, my Dubrovnik hostel receptionist recommended that I buy a city pass and then catch an afternoon ferry to nearby Lokrum Island to escape the peak tourism hours in Dubrovnik. It ended up being my favorite experience that day!
- Crowd source inspiration from other travelers. I find that other hostel travelers and friendly locals are both great sources of inspiration for finding the hidden gems on your travels. They are like-minded in their traveling goals and can offer feedback on your proposed travel ideas based on their own experiences. So next time that hostel mate asks you if you’re interested in grabbing dinner or a drink, say yes!
Kravice Falls Bosnia
Travel Hack #3: The Hostels
In Eastern Europe, I found the hostels to have the absolute best locations in the city over traditional hotels.
I used Hostelworld mobile app to book and manage my hostel stays during my entire trip. I found their flexible cancellation policy and strong user-generated reviews to be superb among the other great features of the app. I optimized for a blend of ratings (>8.5), location (<1.0km from city center), and of course price (will vary based on your dates). Many of the hostels I stayed at also offered a free breakfast which comes in handy when you’re on the go.
Mobile App: Hostelworld (https://www.hostelworld.com/)
Here’s where I stayed on my trip:
- Dubrovnik – Hostel Angelina (9.3 rating, ₹2,190 or $32/night)
- Beautiful hostel inside the city walls of Dubrovnik. I highly recommend!
- Split – Als Place Hostel (9.4 rating, ₹1,160 or $17/night)
- First backpacker hostel in Split and in the center of “Backpacker’s Row”
- Zagreb – Chillout Hostel (8.6, ₹960 or $14/night)
- I booked this hostel because it offered early access to showers before check-in. I had come into Zagreb on an overnight bus and really wanted to shower before heading out for the day!
- Budapest – Pal’s Hostel (9.3 rating, ₹1,160 or $17/night)
- Best located hostel in Budapest hands down. I was staying steps away from the famous St. Stephen’s Basilica.
- Kraków – Woodpecker Hostel (9.4 rating, ₹1,020 or $15/night)
- Relaxing non-party hostel in the north part of City Center
Travel Hack #4: The Entertainment
Throughout Eastern Europe, I found there were numerous options for both paid and free entertainment for solo travelers.
I used the TripAdvisor mobile app extensively to research activities and also book excursions. In each city, I afforded myself 1-2 premium paid excursions because I do believe that paying for quality is worth it when it comes to entertainment.
In addition to free daily walking tours that are offered, I recommend using TripAdvisor’s “Things to Do” as a great starting point to find free and cheap entertainment options in each city.
- Dubrovnik – Sea Kayak Tour (5.0/5.0 stars, ₹2,100 or $31)
- Beautiful 3-hour sunset kayaking tour around Lokrum Island. Includes a quick visit to a beach for swimming and snorkeling.
- Dubrovnik – Game of Thrones Extended Tour (5.0 stars, ₹3,700 or $55)
- There are cheaper tours available (<$30), but I splurged because this guide helped film the series as a location scout and had amazing stories about the actors
- Dubrovnik – Bosnia’s Mostar and Kravice Waterfalls (5.0 stars, ₹3,700 or $55)
- Since there are 3 border crossings on the way to Bosnia, I decided to book a tour instead of self-travel for this day trip
- Split – Five Islands Speedboat Tour (5.0 stars, ₹7,800 or $115)
- Spend a full day across 5-islands including my favorites – Hvar and the Blue Caves.
- Budapest – Caving Adventure (5.0 stars, ₹3,400 or $50)
- Spend 3-4 hours exploring the massive cave system under the residential district of Budapest. There’s a lot of climbing and crawling into small openings, so if you’re claustrophobic I would not consider this excursion!
- Kraków – Auschwitz and Memorial Guided Tour (5.0 stars, ₹3,400 or $50)
- Enrich your knowledge of one of the darkest moments in history when this former Nazi concentration camp was in operation. It is a very heavy tour so I would plan to take it easy for the rest of the day.
- Couple tips: Book this tour a few days in advance as it is extremely popular for all tourists visiting Kraków. This tour includes transport to and from Auschwitz (1.5 hours away from Kraków)
Travel Hack #5: The Food
Eastern Europe is not necessarily known for its cuisine in the same way as Western Europe is (e.g. Italian, Spanish tapas), but I found the food to be satisfying and very reasonably priced. My favorite food places were the summer street food vendors that could be found in most of the city centers.
My favorite country for food was Croatia, where the Mediterranean coast strongly influences their cuisine across pastas, seafood dishes, and wines. On the rest of my trip, I found there to be a diverse set of food options often coupled with very good local beers (especially in Budapest).
Couple favorite food spots on the trip:
- Dubrovnik – Buffet Kamenice
- Great for seafood and reasonably priced.
- Lake Bled – Sava Cake Shop
- The original Bled Cream Cake was invented here in 1953. It’s an amazing puff pastry dessert that you can enjoy while taking in the views of Lake Bled.
- Budapest – Ruins Bars
- These bars have a really cool ambience with good bar food and drinks, all reasonably priced.
- Kraków – Przypiecek
- This place is the real deal! Cheap Polish-style pierogis with potato and cheese.
Lake Bled Slovenia
Travel Hack #6: The Transport
Almost every city I visited in Eastern Europe had a bus/train station in the city centre. I found that buses were cheaper (₹1,000 – ₹2,500) and more reliable than trains in Eastern Europe since their rail infrastructure is less developed than in Western Europe. Within each city, I found walking to be the best mode of transportation followed by public metro systems. Uber is always an option if you need it in a pinch or at night.
I used the FlixBus mobile app to book buses from city to city. On a couple of occasions, I decided to take an overnight bus (e.g. Split to Zagreb) in order to maximize my sightseeing time and save on a hostel night. In these cases, I ensured that I could shower at the hostel that morning before checking in.
In some cases, it may be worth exploring alternative options to bus and rail between cities in Europe. For example, I found that it was much faster (and more scenic) to catch a ferry from Dubrovnik to Split instead of taking the land route. Additionally, sometimes the discount airliners (e.g. Ryan Airlines) make it more effective to fly from city to city.
FlixBus Mobile App (https://www.flixbus.com/)
I hope that these travel hacks come in handy for you for your next cheap trip, whether it is to Eastern Europe or elsewhere. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or feedback and happy travels!