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.
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!
- Star Alliance Route Map here
- Star Alliance by far has the best options to get to everywhere in Eastern Europe.
- 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:
- Mountains of Romania and Transylvania
- Albania: check out this Yomadic post.
- Macedonia: check out this Yomadic post too.
- Czech Republic: Brno and Cesky Krumlov
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.
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:
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:
And half of the nights (and the full rate) count towards promotions.
Here is a map of Club Carlson hotels in Eastern Europe:
3) Cheap Points Deals:
- 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!
Great for groups!
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
- 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
See our post Bulgaria and Turkey for more pictures.
- Fly into Sofia
- 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)
- Sofia – Plovdiv bus is under 2 hours.
- Veliko Tarnovo
- Plovdiv – Veliko Tarnovo bus was really 4+ hours.
- Veliko Tarnovo – Varna bus is 3 hours
- Fly into Cluj Napoca
- Stay at the Hampton Inn = 10,000 Hilton points
- 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.
- Sibiu – Brasov is a 3 hour bus or train ride.
- Brasov – Bucharest is a 3 hour train or bus ride.
- 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
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.
- Train from Lviv to Kiev is 5 hours.
- Or find a flight for $40+
- 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.
- Train from Lviv to Kiev is 5 hours.
- Kiev – Odessa train is 7 hours.
- Train was very nice, although a little long, but I think it was $12.
- Fly for $40+
- Courtyard Hotel = 15,000 Marriott points
- Similarly, only Star Alliance seems to go to Odessa.
- Kiev – Odessa train is 7 hours.
5) Baltic Capital Tour
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
- 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.
- All the points hotels are Club Carlson hotels. Same same as above.
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Riga – Tallinn is a 4 hour bus ride.
- 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.
- Again, Star Alliance is the only miles option without fuel surcharges.
- However, there is an Alitalia flight there from Italy, with high fuel surcharges.
- Holiday Inn = 10,000 IHG points
- Marriott = 15,000 Marriott points
- Also, day trip to “Canyon Matka” (which I found with Google Maps’ Sphere photos, which I talk about here).
- 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.