I’ve visited lots of places in Eastern Europe. It is one of my favorite regions in the world to explore, but one that so many people deem “dangerous” and disregard completely. Which is why I’m here to tell you that it’s not that scary, and absolutely worth visiting!
A trip to Eastern Europe will require a bit more planning and preparation, compared with other “easier” destinations in Europe. I’ve got a wealth of knowledge about countries in the Baltics, the Balkans, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe (many of which are former Soviet satellite states). In the region, I’ve been to: Belarus, Bulgaria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
Are you planning on traveling to any of these countries? Here are 20 tried-and-tested tips for traveling in Eastern Europe!
1) Pay in exact change
For god’s sake, pay in as close as exact change as possible, every single time. If your total is 10.50, don’t try to break a 20. I will never forget the Polish woman at the pharmacy who literally yelled at me when I was buying razor blades and shaving cream for trying to break a 20 złoty bill on a purchase that was 13 złotys. It is imperative that you pay in as close to exact change as possible. If they’re annoyed that you’re making them give you excessive change, they’ll let you know—trust me. When in doubt, hold out all the coins in your hand and they’ll sift through for what they want.
2) Avoid big bills at all costs
Because of number one (paying in exact change), you should avoid getting big bills at all cost, because no one will take them. You will simply be refused. My first trip to Ukraine was Lviv, and when I first got cash out the ATM gave me a 200 hryvnia note. When I tried to pay for tram tickets (totaling 4 hryvnia), the driver just laughed and shook their head. I also struggled to buy anything in Montenegro, since the ATM gave me a 50€ bill. So don’t get big bills out whenever possible (for example, I would get out 90€ instead of 100€ so that I got a 50 and 2x 20 bills, as opposed to 2x 50 bills). And be strategic about breaking them—if you have a big bill and are making a larger purchase (paying for your hostel, a meal at a restaurant, a big shop for souvenirs, etc.), use it to get those smaller bills.
3) Lots of places don’t take cards so you will need cash
This has been one of my biggest mistakes traveling in Eastern Europe (and why in Moscow I spent an hour running around at midnight trying to get cash out of an ATM)—most places won’t take credit or debit cards. Cash is king in Eastern Europe—while you might be used to whipping your card out for ice cream or a museum ticket at home, generally it’s just not possible in many places in Eastern Europe. Most hostels require payment by cash (something you should be aware of when you arrive!!)—I was consistently unable to use my card to pay for any of the hostels I booked for my month-long trip last spring. Bigger restaurants or nice hotels will generally accept cards, but just don’t count on it. And while we’re at it, Visa is the best card to have, followed closely by Mastercard. I don’t know if anywhere in Eastern Europe would accept Discover or American Express.
4) Always convert into the local currency
Never opt for converting the price into dollars, pounds or Euros (unless you’re in a country where that is the official currency). Your bank will always give you the best exchange rate, and converting the currency is a rip-off! I lost something like £19 on an ATM cash withdrawal because I foolishly opted to convert it to Euros. Don’t make my mistake, and always convert and pay with the local currency! For more tips on handling money abroad, check out my post here.
5) Be vigilant with your belongings
This is true for everywhere in the world, including Eastern Europe. Petty theft is meant to be quite common (luckily I’ve never experienced it myself), and most thieves are opportunistic—if they see your computer lying around, they’ll take it. So don’t give them the opportunity: keep an eye or a physical hand on your belongings, keep your zippers zipped, don’t flash your cash or valuables, and be especially careful with your passport. When traveling with luggage, try to store it as close to your seat as possible. Always bring a lock to use lockers if staying in hostels. Don’t leave your stuff alone, ever.
6) Do extra research into transportation
If you’re used to traveling in Western Europe, you’ll most likely be inundated with information about public transportation: trains, buses, ferries, ride-sharing, and more. The truth? You will generally be much more limited in Eastern Europe, and so you should always do extra research into transportation in a region or between cities. Don’t assume that there will be transportation connecting two cities, and if there is a train or a bus, it might not run frequently or even daily. I generally scour the internet for as much information as possible when making my plans!
7) Don’t necessarily rely on trains
Depending on which part of Eastern Europe you’ll be visiting, you shouldn’t necessarily rely on trains for your transportation. In many places, like Poland, buses are cheaper and faster than trains. Trains in the Balkans are also few and far between—bus is the main way to transit between cities. Although in some places, like Russia, trains are by far the best mode of transportation. Again, this is where tip #5 comes into play and you should research as much as possible!
8) Accept that transportation will be a slower pace
Due to a variety of transportation options, and generally less infrastructure for tourism, getting from Point A to Point B might take longer. Your bus might stop on the side of the road to pick up random people, you might stop at a train station for an extra hour for some unknown reason, your train may be late and the announcement at the station is only made in Romanian (which you don’t understand), you may get stuck behind a horse-drawn wagon on the road…the list goes on. Accept that you’re not traveling on high-speed trains in France or Germany, and that transport will take a bit longer.
9) Hitchhiking is very common throughout much of Eastern Europe
I don’t condone hitchhiking, and I don’t suggest you use it as a form of transportation—especially for solo female travelers, the risk is just too great. However, hitchhiking is a very common way to get around many countries in Eastern Europe. I’ve seen people hitching all across the region, whether it’s just down the road or a long journey across borders. In most scenarios, it can be safe—but you’d also generally need to know a bit of the local language. I don’t advise hitchhiking, and would much rather pay a bit to take a BlaBlaCar if need be.
10) Driving can be literally crazy
I wouldn’t recommend driving a car (either renting or borrowing) in Eastern Europe. Driving is crazy at best, and I wouldn’t do it unless you’re extremely confident. People often pass on winding mountain roads, use their horn aggressively to communicate, never use blinkers, drive in the middle of the road, so on and so forth. Driving in Eastern Europe is nothing like driving in the West—so you’ve been warned…
11) Know the basics before visiting a new city
While much of Western Europe uses the Euro and English is widely spoken, traveling in Eastern Europe may be a bit of a shock. I strongly suggest learning the basics in a new city before you go: the currency and exchange rate, the time zone, and which language(s) are spoken. I also always try to learn at least 2 words in the local language before I show up: excuse me and thank you. These two phrases can go a long way!
12) Learn basic Russian (and the Cyrillic alphabet)
Perhaps one of the best travel tips I learned from my big trip this summer: learn basic Russian when traveling in Eastern Europe. Many people in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union speak Russian in addition to their official language. I was shocked to discover that I could communicate in Russian with most people in Moldova! You should also really learn the Cyrillic alphabet when traveling in Eastern Europe (particularly in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia). It can be daunting at first, but being able to read things and sound them out will really help you.
13) Be sensitive to the political/social history
Eastern Europe can be a bit of a quagmire. With so much history in the region, many divides are still apparent and can offend people. Be sensitive and try to learn from locals as much as possible. For example, many countries that were formerly members of the Soviet Union don’t like Russia (particularly the Baltic countries). Ukraine is currently at war, and dislikes Russia and especially Putin. Throughout the Balkans, you will discover ethnic/religious tensions between people and/or countries. Do your best to listen with understanding, and be as sensitive as possible.
14) Booze may have a higher alcohol content, so be cautious
Not all alcohol is created equally, and this is especially true in a region that is infamous for heavy drinking. For example, black balsam (a Latvian spirit) is 45%, compared to the more common 40% that you may be accustomed to with liquor. Be aware that certain alcohol might be stronger, and treat it with caution.
15) Always try to arrange a taxi in advance
If possible, you should always have your accommodation or a local call you a taxi if you need one. There’s less of a chance you’ll get ripped off and over-charged as a tourist if you have a local arranging a fair price for you in advance.
16) Haggling is appropriate and even expected in some places
In some places throughout Eastern Europe, haggling is simply the way of life. While shops and stores will have set prices, markets and street vendors might be expecting customers to haggle their prices down. Don’t be afraid to play the game and try to get a lower price. However, this can be difficult to impossible if you don’t speak the language!
17) Be careful about drinking tap water
There are some countries where you shouldn’t drink the tap water. I found that in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova it generally wasn’t safe to drink the tap water. Even when a hostel said they had filtered tap water, I stuck to bottled water. As a friend of mine said before I went to St. Petersburg: “Don’t drink the tap water, even if your hostel says it’s filtered. Giardia doesn’t give a shit if the hostel says it’s okay. But you will. Everywhere.” I drank tap water in most other countries. If you’re not sure, always ask at your accommodation if it’s okay to drink the tap water before filling up.
18) Ladies, bring a scarf
Probably my top tip for women traveling in Eastern Europe is to carry a scarf with you everywhere. In Orthodox churches and in mosques in the Balkans, it’s most appropriate for women to cover their head. You don’t want to miss out on visiting a religious site just because you don’t have the proper gear! So I always packed a scarf that I could whip out whenever I was visiting anywhere with a more conservative dress code. A scarf is also especially helpful in summer when ladies need to cover their shoulders or knees.
19) Check if you need a visa (or specific visa regulations) well in advance
This might sound basic, but some countries in Eastern Europe require visas, even for those of us privileged enough with Western passports. Everyone visiting Russia will need a visa, unless you’re visiting for 72 hours or less on a ferry to St. Petersburg. Everyone visiting Belarus will also need a visa, unless you’re visiting through the new specific visa-free regime for less than 5 days. Australian and Kiwi tourists will need a visa to visit Ukraine unless abiding by the specific visa-on-arrival scheme. These visa regulations may change frequently, so always check in advance.
20) The people can be truly wonderful
Eastern Europeans can be overwhelmingly kind, warm, and hospitable. While many Eastern Europeans generally have a reputation as being cold, blunt, and unfriendly, if you get the chance to meet locals and talk with them, you will most likely end up being offered food, drinks, stories, a place to stay, you name it. I’ll never forget taking the night train from Budapest to Belgrade, making friends with some Russians, and sharing their booze and snacks for most of the journey—then meeting up and partying with them later on in Belgrade. I have met so many incredibly wonderful people from all over Eastern Europe and I’m so grateful.
Overall, my number one travel tip to traveling in Eastern Europe is to be patient and HAVE FUN! This is an absolutely incredible region, with some of the most fascinating destinations in the world. While it might not be easy, and certain things may take longer, it is so rewarding.
Have you ever been to Eastern Europe? What was your experience like? What tips would you have for traveling in the region? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!