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Drew’s Guide To Eastern Europe with Miles and Points

mostarThis is a packed post for all the info you need on getting free/cheap flights, free/cheap hotels, and figuring out where to go in Eastern Europe.

In this post I’ll go over the miles and discount airline options, the points hotel and consistent hotel deals, and my favorite places to go. But then I’ll go over 6 route ideas, detailing where to go, where to stay, and how to get around… basically planning a trip for you.

Although, you can use some of what you’ll learn about finding cheap flights to combine different regions.

Flights To Eastern Europe

Most mileage programs can get you to most of the popular cities in Europe.

Check out our cheapest miles to Europe.

And most of the major mileage programs can search most of the partners.

In other words, if you have miles with an airline, run a search to see if they fly to the place you’d like to visit. If they do, watch out for fuel surcharges.

If they don’t show flight options, check out the alliance “route map” (which I’ll link to below). There’s a small chance that the right partner airline doesn’t show up in the results and it requires calling to book.

 

However, there are many places where AA miles, for example, might not be able to get you. In which case, you have a few options. You can choose to use a different set of miles (like United), you can get close and then use land transit, or you can book a flight to a discount airline hub – like Budapest – and tack on a day or two in your positioning city.

 

Overview of best flight options to Eastern Europe:

  • Discount flights via SkyScanner.com.
    • Lots of flights from Italy or Budapest. In order to combine cities or regions, you can search from one city to another, or that country, or even “everywhere. You can also search for a date, month, or the cheapest month.
  • United / SA is fantastic!
  • Air France/KLM flights hit more touristy places – like Croatia, the coast, even Kotor (Tivat)! Then the more obvious places like Budapest and the Baltic countries. However, not a lot of options, like Cluj or Macedonia. And Tirana is only available via Alitalia, which then gives you a good $200+ in fuel surcharges each way!
    • The big appeal is the lowest prices, promo awards, award space (if you don’t need a Delta connection), and they transfer from Citi TY, Amex MR, Chase UR, and SPG!
    • See my post on Best Use Of FlyingBlue Promo Awards.
    • Air France Route Map here – (click “Destinations” and uncheck “Include connections”).
  • AA Miles via Air Berlin, Iberia, Finnair is limited.
    • You can definitely get to major hubs though, like Budapest, but just make sure it’s not via BA or you’ll pay huge fuel surcharges.
    • Remember that Iberia flights don’t show up on AA.com. But most likely, AirBerlin is going to be your best option anyways.
    • OneWorld Route Map here – (click “Destinations” and uncheck “Include connections”).

 

Where to go?

It’s rare I don’t have an opinion, but I have a problem ranking something so subjective, as if my opinion is universal.

 

What I love about eastern Europe is how parts of it are relatively new to tourism. From Estonia to Macedonia, the thing in common is having a soviet history.

My favorites (right now) are the Balkans. An area with beautiful mountains, beaches, culture, and relatively few tourists (except in Croatia).

We only traveled in 16 of the 20 countries (although I hope to add a few more soon).

Here are some places I’ve been, and enjoyed (and the places I’d see next time I return):

  • Ukraine: Kiev and Odessa
  • Bulgaria: Sofia, Plovdiv, and Veliko Tarnova
    • (I’ve yet to visit the beaches in Bulgaria, but I hear good things)
  • Bosnia & Herzegovina: Trebinje, Mostar and the surrounding area
    • I’d love to go back and see more: Sarajevo, and random towns
  • Montenegro: Bay of Kotor, and the mountains and lakes to the north and east
  • Slovenia: Bled, and Ljubljana is worth a short visit.
  • Budapest, Hungary
  • Krakow, Poland

Places I’ve yet to go, but would like to see:

I recognize I have a strong bias for Ukraine, as we’ve spent a lot of time there. With Caroline’s sister’s adoption we spent weeks in a town where I’d guess the population or the area (not counting the orphanages) was less than 1,000.

 

And again, I have a strong leaning for the Balkans, but perhaps you’d prefer the Baltic states. It’s all subjective.

 

Great Hotel Deals

1) Hotels Are Already Cheap. Earn Points.

Today I spotted a deal for the Sheraton in the center of Sofia, Bulgaria $49 (only via Starwoodhotels.com). This is incredible (I’ve never been inside but it’s an amazing location), but not totally unusual.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 7.58.48 PM

Check for promotions! One good site for checking hotel promotions is frequentflyerbonuses.com.

If there’s an IHG promotion to earn 50,000 points, then that’s pretty temping to pay for it, if you need the points.

 

2) Club Carlson 2-for-1 & 4-for-2 rates

Club Carlson has a rate valid for Gold members (which comes with the credit card) these incredible weekend rates for Europe, Middle East, and Africa. However, they don’t always work in peak seasons like summer… but most of the hotels in Eastern Europe do have these awesome rates

Click here to book (or for details).

Here’s an example from Sofia:

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The Radisson for $54 and Park Inn for $28. I’ve stayed at both and it’s a great deal (Radisson is super central, and Park Inn is not).

Or, two central hotels in Bucharest for $50 & $63:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 8.13.48 PM

And half of the nights (and the full rate) count towards promotions.

Here is a map of Club Carlson hotels in Eastern Europe:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 8.26.44 PM

 

3) Cheap Points Deals:

Highlights:

  • Hampton by Hilton Cluj-Napoca, Romania = 10,000 Hilton points (+ 5th night free)
  • Holiday Inn Kiev = 15,000 IHG Points
  • Category 2 SPG hotels = 3,000 – 4,000 SPG points:
    • Sheraton Sofia
    • Westin and Sheraton Zagreb
    • Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera?!
  • Holiday Inn Skopje = 10,000 IHG Points
  • Courtyard Sarajevo = 20,000 Marriott Points
  • Radisson Blu Beke Budapest = 15,000 Club Carlson points
  • Holiday Inn Krakow = 15,000 IHG Points

Obviously a good redemption is subjective. I never have a lot of Marriott points, and maybe you wouldn’t like Odessa as much as I. Or on the other hand, the Radisson in Budapest is really dated, but I usually have a lot of Club Carlson points.

Although, my main focus is on centrally located hotels in destinations I would want to spend time in.

 

4) Airbnb is cheap and everywhere

Where there are no hotels, there are still Airbnb listings!

Airbnb referal bonus is now up to $30.  Click here to get $30 toward your first stay.

Again, in areas with no chain hotels, or few/no hotels in general, there will be tons of airbnb bookings. Plus, the prices in those areas tend to be amazingly low.

Here’s an example of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, searching for 3+ Bedroom houses and the first results are $44 and $27 a night!

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 3.07.10 PM

Great for groups!

 

Route Suggestions:

0) Budapest to anywhere

I love Budapest and since it’s a hub to the discount airliner WizzAir, there seem to be super cheap flights to all over Europe. You can add on a trip to many places including the following – Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, and Kiev.

In fact, it might be reasonable to make a stop in Budapest given that some of the miles you might choose to use might not go to some other places in Eastern Europe (at least not without fuel surcharges).

 

1) The Best Route Ever

Trebinje

Kotor Montenegro

  • Fly into Dubrovnik
    • Lots of flights with all three major alliances! Easy.
  • Rent a car
    • Car rentals are super cheap except in a few peak weeks. Like $90 a week cheap.
    • Tip: Oneways are often the same price, so you may be able to fly out of Sarajevo or Split for no extra cost – if you can find a flight.
    • Rule: Cars rented from here can’t go into Macedonia or Albania. :'(
  • Sheraton Dubrovnik = 4,000 SPG points
    • There is a Hilton and Radisson for very high rates, cash or points.
  • Kotor, Montenegro
  • Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
    • Pro tip: Drive slow. Some areas seem like the middle of nowhere but drop to 40 kph and cops want to hold your passport. $20 “fine”.
  • Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

2) Bulgaria

Sofia 2

See our post Bulgaria and Turkey for more pictures.

  • Fly into Sofia
    • Hotels:
      • Sheraton Sofia = 3,000 – 4,000 SPG points
      • Radisson Blu = 38,000 Club Carlson points, but check the 2-4-1 weekend rates (details discussed above)
  • Plovdiv
    • Sofia – Plovdiv bus is under 2 hours.
  • Veliko Tarnovo
    • Plovdiv – Veliko Tarnovo bus was really 4+ hours.
  • Varna
    • Veliko Tarnovo – Varna bus is 3 hours

 

3) Romania

Romania

  • Fly into Cluj Napoca
    • Stay at the Hampton Inn = 10,000 Hilton points
  • Sibiu
    • Cluj Napoca – Sibiu is a 4 hour bus or train ride.
    • Hilton Sibiu = 10,000 Hilton points
      • Outside of downtown, but cheap short taxi or bus ride.
  • Brasov
    • Sibiu – Brasov is a 3 hour bus or train ride.
  • Bucharest
    • Brasov – Bucharest is a 3 hour train or bus ride.
    • Hotels:
      • Park Inn = 15,000 Club Carlson points
      • We once got the DoubleTree for free with a Hilton Best Rate Guarantee.
      • JW Marriott = 15,000 Marriott points
      • Check the Radisson Blu with Club Carlson’s 2-for-1 rates (detailed above).
      • We also once got the InterContinental on PointBreaks for 5,000 IHG points, instead of 25,000.
  • Fly on a discount airline to another cool place, like Budapest.
    • Check SkyScanner.com to find flights to/from Bucharest to “everywhere” and you’ll see tons of cheap options.

 

4) Tour of Ukraine

Kiev 2

 

Ukraine

Ukraine is a big diverse country, and this route takes you into very different parts. Start in Lviv which has been in many European kingdoms, including Poland and Germany. Enjoy Kiev, my favorite city in Eastern Europe. Then Odessa, which was the most important Soviet port city.

  • Fly into Lviv
    • Only Star Alliance goes to Lviv.
  • Kiev
    • Train from Lviv to Kiev is 5 hours.
      • Or find a flight for $40+
    • Hotels:
      • ClubCarlson 2-4-1 weekend rate
      • Holiday Inn = 15,000 points
        • Very nice hotel, but a few subway stops away from downtown ($0.15 rides).
      • Renaissance Hotel = 20,000 Marriott points
      • Also is a Hilton, Hyatt, and InterCon if you want to pay the points. But there are tons of cheap 3 star hotels.
  • Odessa
    • Kiev – Odessa train is 7 hours.
      • Train was very nice, although a little long, but I think it was $12.
      • Fly for $40+
    • Hotels:
      • Courtyard Hotel = 15,000 Marriott points
    • Flights:
      • Similarly, only Star Alliance seems to go to Odessa.

 

5) Baltic Capital Tour

Riga

The Baltic’s recent history is a lot more normal than most of the rest of Eastern Europe. And somehow Riga and Tallinn are tourist hotspots for Fins to come down and drink for cheap, and for “stag” parties. In Riga and Tallinn there were medieval themed restaurants with knights outside, robin hood looking people, and ample pizza places. For this reason I much preferred Vilnius… or Bulgaria.

Buses run between these cities quite regularly, and I found our tickets either via Google or Rome2Rio. It was quite easy, although I always hate transit.

  • Vilnius, Lithuania
    • Hotels:
      • The Best option is probably the Radisson Blu for 28,000 Club Carlson points. But again, check the 2-for-1 rate.
  • Riga, Latvia
    • Vilnius – Riga is a 4 hour bus ride.
    • Hotels:
      • All the points hotels are Club Carlson hotels. Same same as above.
  • Tallinn, Estonia
    • Riga – Tallinn is a 4 hour bus ride.
    • Hotels:
      • Same as Riga, except there seems to be a new Park Inn for 15,000 points.

 

6) My next trip? Hopefully… Macedonia & Albania

I haven’t fully researched this yet, and believe it or not, I probably won’t wing it.

  • Fly into Skopje
    • I’ve noticed cheap flights from Bratislava and some cities in Italy.
    • Miles:
      • Again, Star Alliance is the only miles option without fuel surcharges.
      • However, there is an Alitalia flight there from Italy, with high fuel surcharges.
  • Skopje
  • Lake Ohrid
    • Skopje – Ohrid is a 3 hour bus ride.
  • Touring Albania?
    • I’ve written down a few places that might be interesting… Vlore, Berat, Elbasan, Gjirokastra, Shkoder, Korce.
    • Rome2Rio doesn’t give me hope for the public transit options.
    • Not sure how to go about this. Car rentals can’t cheaply go between the two countries. Suggestions?
  • Leaving Albania
    • Seems like there is a ferry from Bari, Italy to Durres, Albania. Not my favorite option.
    • Discount airline flights to Tirana from Verona, Italy for whatever reason (already been to Verona, and would rather my next trip to Italy be in southern Italy.
    • Miles flights:
      • Star Alliance is great, as always.
      • Air France does have a flight! So an option for SkyTeam – FlyingBlue or Delta.
      • There is a British Airways flight, but if you hop the pond on AA, and take the BA flight from London to Tirana, the fuel surcharges are only $30 – $50 extra.

 

7) Wherever you want to go!

If a place strikes your fancy, figure out the closest airport, and figure out how to get there. There are tons of other people who have been and have discussed it in a forum, there are likely transit options searchable on Google, and likely routes available on Rome2Rio.

There are tons and tons of beautiful towns and sites, no reason to do a route just because I did it and outlined it.

 

General Tips & Conclusion

  • Rome2Rio.com is great for ideas of how long it will take to get around via land transit. However, it may leave options out, that you can likely find via Google.
  • Land transit over the mountains in the Balkans can be a lot longer than it should be. The under developed infrastructure has pros & cons as a traveler; transit is a con.
  • SkyScanner.com, again, is the best for cheap flights. Given that land transit can be rough, I’d rather fly.
  • Eastern Europe can be really gloomy in the cold half of the year. As I’ve said, my first time in Kiev was dreadful, as it was grey every day. In the summer the parks are happening and green. Totally different experience. But I’m bias, because I hate the cold in general.
    • Of course, skiing in places like Bulgaria is way cheaper than the alps.

 

It’s a great area to travel in, and lots of small towns to stumble upon. There’s no wrong way to do it, and there’s no right way to do it. There are really interesting aspects of every country.

And in many cities, they are bound to change. Every decade I go back, I bet I’ll marvel at how much things have changed. If you look at photos of Asia, you have to be in awe how small fishing villages are now examples of modern skylines. My guess is that Eastern Europe will experience the same growth as they recover, they’re basically starting from nothing.

 

In other words, now is the time to go! The area is beautiful, filled with unique culture that’s relatively new to tourism, and it’s still stupid cheap. In many of these areas you can eat out for $1 – Asia prices, a unique culture, but many aspects of Europe.

Related Posts:

26 Comments

  1. Excellent post. I’d love to duplicate this.

    Reply
    • Thanks.

      Reply
    • Dear Drew,
      I remember many months ago you said you were locking yourself up in a hotel and working on something really special. I haven’t seen your site in a long time and was wondering what that project was. I remember you saying it was going to be a big deal. If you could respond to my directly that would be great.

      Best wishes,
      Matt

      Reply
  2. Albania and Greece are linked with an extensive bus schedule, you may want to check into that. I remember every time I go to the Thessaloniki bus station I see many Albanians lining up to buy tickets to their home country! Aegean (Star Alliance) has many flights from the Thessaloniki airport SKG.

    Reply
    • Great suggestion. Rome2Rio shows a nice route Tirana – Korce – Thessaloniki. Could be interesting.

      Reply
  3. Last summer I rented a car in Split and drove through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo before returning the car in Dubrovnik. I had no problems doing border-crossings, and I paid the extra $50 for a “cross-border” card which nobody ever asked me for. I had no problems with it except that driving in Albania is a crazy experience — A wedding party on the only highway between Shkoder (awesome castle, cute town, and very very cheap: https://www.instagram.com/p/7SNRxCNF5W/ ) and Tirana meant driving 20km/h and dodging goats.

    The biggest thing to remember in Albania is that if you see a truck or slow vehicle coming toward you, slow down! There is a 95% chance that a car is coming in the wrong direction in your lane trying to pass.

    I loved Albania though, and I even ate at the restaurant that Yomadic suggested in Tushemisht on the shore of Ohrid: https://www.instagram.com/p/7XYU-FNF_R/

    I had no problems taking the car into Macedonia either, and Macedonia is stunning — I’d recommend going down to Bitola, and then driving up to Skopje. The ruins in Bitola are awesome: https://www.instagram.com/p/7clsJstF4M/

    Skopje is a crazy city, especially given the controversy over the massive building project of Skopje 2014. Stay at the Holiday Inn and ask for a room on a high floor… This was my view for 10k IHG points: https://www.instagram.com/p/7dkInxtF9I/

    Finally, don’t pass up Prizren in Kosovo — It’s a beautiful town to spend a night in, and watching the sunset from the fortress overlooking the town is a sight to behold: https://www.instagram.com/p/7ihmOeNF8R/

    Anyhow, feel free to reach out with more questions. I rented from Fleet Rent-a-Car, and for the two weeks in an automatic car plus underage driver fees, the car came to about $900 — Not perfectly cheap, but for an automatic one-way rental that I could cross borders with, I was quite happy.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing! Great comment, and great photos.
      Hopefully I can follow a similar path soon.

      So I should clarify, you’re right it is possible, you just have to pay for it. Hence you paid $900 for two weeks and ours was $120 for two weeks, but we couldn’t go to Macedonia/Albania.
      Most of the time it’s a no, but if you do as you did and book a oneway, it won’t be bookable unless allowed. It restricts most agencies, so you might have to search out a rental company that can do it and is in both destinations.

      Reply
  4. There’s nothing like Albania in the entire Balkans. We’ve traveled through the area twice in the last 5 years and greatly enjoy our experience. Thank you for your post.

    Reply
    • Thanks! Yeah, I really hope we go this summer.

      Reply
  5. I just came back from Minsk and would highly recommend adding it to your list, especially if you really liked Kiev. Only issue is that you will need a visa with a US passport, so it’s not that easy to just go to on a whim.

    Reply
    • Thanks, yeah, I tend to shy away from Visas and planning, but I’m going to have to in order to get to Belarus. Glad to hear it’s worth visiting.

      Reply
  6. Another great post. Out of the above countries, which ones have you found it easiest to understand and be understood, whether reading a street sign, English being fairly widely spoken, or other major languages being understood? For instance, Budapest had a huge number of English speaking people, and while I would have mangled the pronunciations there terribly, reading signs was a breeze.

    Reply
    • I mean, this isn’t something I pay attention to, so take my answer with a grain of salt. In fact, my guess is that my favorite places have less english.
      But my assumption is any big city will be more international friendly.

      Estonia and Latvia are WAY more like western Europe than the rest of eastern Europe. Their ex-soviet history is longer…
      My assumption is the Czech, like Prague… or places on the borders, internationalized first.

      Bulgaria surprised me in that way though. Maybe lots of online workers.
      But as these 18 year olds told me on a train through Romania “everyone learns english in School”. So I tend to find it everywhere. Unless you’re heading to the middle of nowhere Ukraine (which I doubt) or China, you should be able to get around, and find people to ask something in English.

      Reply
  7. the other places i found interesting were belgrade and the mountain region in southern serbia, great flight redemptions in the region for etihad miles on air serbia for those with time limitations in going overland.

    Reply
    • Yeah, I didn’t see much of Belgrade but I enjoyed what I saw! I heard Novi Sad was nice too.
      Yeah, I should check out some Etihad options – good tip to add! – because driving through southern Serbia… rough.

      Reply
  8. If going to Macidonia visit Lake Orhid wonderful small town on a lake and reasonable rooms overlooking it, off season like $25 a night. Plenty of Historic sights.
    In Albania,visit Triana, but I like Berati better.
    Of Course Transylvania and stay in Brasov to explore. I spent Halloween at Dracula’s Castle at a party. Romania is great.
    I liked Bucharest as well as Belgrade.
    Lviv is an amazing city and a great party place. Very reasonable.
    If anyone needs information on Easter Europe and guidebook info let me know can email you the chapters from LP and lots of notes I took on places to stay, cafes, eating.

    Reply
    • John, if you have particular off-beat recommendations, I – and I’m sure others – would appreciate sharing! Especially if you’ve been west of Kiev, in Ukraine. Or Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.
      It just gets talked about so little.

      Reply
  9. You emphasize Budapest as key transit point. I haven’t been there for nearly 20 years but, as a teenager, really adored Eger, which is less than two hours from Budapest and very charming. It’s Hungary’s most prominent red-wine-producing region and famed for its Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) wine in the Valley of Beautiful Women. The town is entirely walkable, including to the wine-tasting caves in the VoBW and train station. No points hotels as far as I know, but whatever. I planned to stay two nights but remained for six nights, and this post made me start thinking of returning.

    Reply
    • I looked up Eger, thanks for the recommendation, it looks great, and not a far bus ride from Budapest.

      Reply
  10. I love how you say that Ukraine is diverse. the US/Canada/Western Europe are diverse. Ukraine is going to war with Russians over ethnicity. There are very little diaspora of expats in Ukraine, and even less so today. If you are found to be LGBT or god forbit the skin heads found you, you might end up dead, so definitely not diverse.

    Reply
    • Hah, yeah, in many ways Ukraine is not diverse… I know this. But in terms of geography, it’s a big country with mountains and beaches.

      Reply
  11. Traveled through Albania a couple years ago without a car – they have a bus system that’s really informal and inconsistent… but it is possible to get from Sarande all the way up to Budva in Montenegro. Take the buses along the coast through the optimistically named “Albanian Riviera” – which was actually delightful. Dhermi is a bunch of fun and so is Vlore. Tirana is worth a stop.

    Reply
    • Right. Yeah, the in consistent bus thing always stresses me out, but might be the best option. And Dhermi looks great. Seems like the south beaches are incredible.

      Reply
  12. Hello can you post the link and details to the $90 per week car rentals I checked sixt for Dubrovnik and it comes out to $300 usd per week. Thanks.

    Reply
  13. good post: I am curious to know your exact route from Montenegro to Bosnia. I am assuming that you went from Podgorica (the capital) to Trebinje via Niksic? I am asking as we are planning on doing this in a couple of months.

    And FYI, we just got back from a Latvia/Lithuania trip that we booked before the last night free credit card deal with Carlson expired last year. Two nights in Riga, Klaipeda, and Kaunas (we did a booking.com for Vilnius though the park inn was definitely cheap on points); each night 2 business class rooms including breakfast. That was a little over 40000 points for a room for six nights. Latvia and Lithuania have a lot to offer, probably especially in the summer (Ventspils, Palanga and the Spit, Kaunas, Jelgava etc).

    Reply
  14. Drew, you never mentioned Slovakia is this post. After spending ten days there, I found it to be an amazing place. Bratislava gets American tourists, but I encountered few Americans elsewhere in the country.

    I think Slovakia will become a hot tourist destination over the next couple of years.

    Reply

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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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