Travelling Safely in Eastern Europe

Benedict By Benedict, 29th Nov 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/36l2pbsg/
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Other

Truth be told, Eastern Europe is far from the criminal and trickster haven it's often made out to be. Twenty years since the fall of communism has certainly opened up these amazing societies in more ways than one. But some tips are certainly needed and the ones I'm about to give will help you have a safe, happy and exciting journey through fantastic Eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe as a Whole

We're all used to people lumping Eastern European countries in the same category. But in reality there is a broad schism between the region. The Czech Republic and Hungary especially but also Slovakia and Poland are much more Westernised, wealthy, tourist-oriented and, to a large degree, safer than the others. Because of no visas being required for many people visiting these countries, they are also far more accessible than, say, Belarus and Moldova, where visas are typically essential.

To get a feel for the East, I suggest you visit some or all of the more Western nations first. Eastern Europe is certainly still opening up, but once you have these recommended destinations under your belt, you can move further eastwards in time.

Accommodation and Transport

Try as best you can to secure a hotel that's part of a reputable chain. Ibis, Best Western and other well-recognised brands are more common than you might think, most noticeable in places such as Prague and Budapest. They're usually well-located in a city centre, which avoids any problems with a Eastern European city's transportation system, and provide greater peace of mind than more 'locally-owned' places.

Prices are about equivalent to what you would pay in the 'West', despite the poorer standards of most Eastern economies, even 'high-flyers' like the Czech Republic. But don't worry, you don't need something so luxurious you'll break the bank. 2.5 or 3 star rooms are available - if you've been smart and booked far enough ahead of time.

I advise being as close to the city centre as you can, avoiding any over-reliance on trains, trams or buses. Inspectors are notoriously anal so make sure you have a ticket or face a roughly 40 Euro fine, or a trip to the police if you can't afford to pay!

Taxi Drivers

For the love of God, avoid them if you can! As it stands, they're not known for their honesty in many quarters. If you need to use one, go in a group (I mean a group), make sure you try and negotiate EVERYTHING before departing (I'm speaking from experience here!), and use your judgment in estimating whether the price being offered to you is just plain ludicrous given the distance or time between you and your destination.

Nighttime fares are more likely to get you ripped off, which means it's even more essential you travel in groups if you've had a night out and want to return to your hotel.

The rules in these places are improving and are much better than before, but be aware that your heart-wrenching story of a cab driver fleecing you are not likely to attract the sympathy of the authorities, many of whom are still paid in one month what you probably make in 3-4 days or less.

Money

Prior to leaving home, look into obtaining an ATM card with limited withdrawal fees for foreign countries. It's probably not all countries will be covered, so you need to inquire. This card should also have easy and inexpensive currency conversion procedures. Always be careful of which ATM's you use as well. Western ones such as ING are almost always the best. Just be wary of any fees displayed when you seek to withdraw.

Officially, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary still use their own individual currencies, as do places such as Bulgaria and Romania. Slovakia does use the Euro, but it's one of the least populated and small nations in the area.

Because of the myriad of currencies in use, you will probably need to rely on currency exchange booths. Here's where I bring out my WARNING!!! signals. Even more than taxi drivers, some of these exchange joints will rip you off more than a Great White Shark tearing at your limbs in the South Pacific. For them to make money, you won't get the official kind of exchange rate you see on TV, so don't be too alarmed.

I'll give you an example. When I was last in the Czech Republic, the average exchange rate was 25 Crowns to a Euro (my travel bank cards I loaded with heaps of Euro prior to my travels). Some of the worst exchange facilities offered 16 or 17 Crowns for a Euro, which is appalling. Others would offer 22. In general, the more seedy and cheap the place looks, the more you want to avoid bringing your business there. BUT Western-style hotels are often the worst offenders because they prey on your desire for convenience.

DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT, accept offers of better rates from folks who roam around the streets. They often give you currencies which use higher unit values (for instance, 25 CZ Crowns equals 250 Hungarian Forint, and most people can't pick the difference as Western tourists unless they've been exposed to both a lot before).

You're going to lose some money in these transactions - after all, they're giving you a service to make their business viable. Aim to keep 85-90%+ of the value of what you exchange compared to the official exchange rate economists use (check the internet before, I recommend).

ALSO: you wouldn't carry $1,000 in Brooklyn most of the time, so don't have bucketloads of cash on you in Eastern Europe, either. Thieves are in all places across the world.

Carrying your wallet and other things around openly is also a no-no. A lawyer in these places can earn substantially less than half what a Walmart employee in the States does. So to criminals, you are a bonanza.

Tags

Eastern Europe, Travel Safety, Travel Tips

Meet the author

author avatar Benedict
I'm an unconventional young man with a predilection for saying and doing what I feel.

I seek adventure and abhor most forms of political correctness.

I crave travel, debate politics and love life.

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