Eastern Europe is final frontier of budget travel

Leave it to an upstart airline sowing its post-Soviet-era oats to redefine the word "discount."

With the weak dollar and strong euro I'd been thinking a lot about Eastern Europe when a notice popped up in my in-box from Slovakia-based SkyEurope.

The airline offered to whisk travelers from London, Paris, Rome and Amsterdam to Budapest, Bratislava, Krakow and Prague. The deal: tickets for 7 cents.

I punched in some dates, and hit the jackpot -- two seats on a flight from Amsterdam to Budapest.

With taxes and a $6.50 "transaction fee," the total came to $52.19 per ticket. British Airways was quoting $146 and the train takes 20 hours.

For adventure-seekers looking for an escape from $5 cups of coffee and hordes of tourists, these and the other ex-communist countries are the final frontier for European budget travel.

Most of these countries haven't adopted the euro as their currency (Slovenia is the exception). So things still cost less than they do in Western Europe, and the dollar still buys more.

I used the Internet to book a flight on Romania's Air Tarom and rooms. Postings on VirtualTourist.com and TripAdvisor.com yielded lots of lodging suggestions that I didn't see in guidebooks. Getting around is fast and cheap with new flights from London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. (see www.flylc.com for a list).

It's true that the secret is out on many destinations. Croatia is on everyone's radar.

So I'm happy to be getting to Romania while Adam Marius still rents rooms for $25 in the old walled city of Sighisoara in Transylvania. He built a Web site showing rooms he built next to the family home in the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Romanian prince known as Dracula.

Entrepreneurs such as Nicolae Prisacaru, in the farming village of Vadu Izei near the Ukraine border, offer inexpensive travelers' services. I hired Nicolae as my guide for two days at $30 a day plus gas money. He has arranged to pick me up at a train station, and booked rooms for me.

Of course, low prices alone don't make a destination worthwhile.

I'm happy with my $50 room in a hotel in Eger, Hungary. But I'm going there to soak in the thermal baths and sip the Bulls Blood wine.

The journalist in me is looking forward to a visit to Sliven, Bulgaria. There I hope to meet traveling sock saleswoman Diana Beleva to whom I loaned $25 through Kiva ( www.kiva.org), a San Francisco nonprofit that pairs individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere with entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Kiva has linked hundreds of people with Roma, or Gypsies, trying to make a living. There's Idriz Akiof, 64. He owns his own barbershop.I'll be touring socks stalls and barbershops, and looking forward to my stay in a $40-a-night Bulgarian guesthouse with built-in wooden wardrobes, woven carpets and a tavern that serves roasted lamb and rabbit.

By the numbers

Eastern Europe can be affordable -- here are some sample costs for a particular trip.

$52.19: Price per ticket to fly from Amsterdam to Budapest on SkyEurope

$146: Same flight, British Airways

$25: Cost per night for a room in near Dracula's birthplace.

$25-$30: Cost per day, including meals, to stay in a guesthouse in Transylvania

$1.30: Cost for a haircut by a Gypsy in Bulgaria

Please, read my other article about the best way to visit Europe this summer

By the The Seattle Times

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