Browsing Posts tagged Cheap Europe Travel

Bulgaria travel

I’ve had two conversations in two weeks about how great Bulgaria is, with other people who have visited. One was a fellow travel writer who has had serious trouble getting editors to take a story about the place. It’s not trendy, not a hotspot, not a place where luxury hotel chains are scampering to open new properties. But that makes it a great place for budget travelers who appreciate a great value.

I wrote some blogs posts and this article on Bulgaria that won me a few awards after I was there a few years ago. The country is in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book and it’s also featured in the new one, A Better Life for Half the Price. I’m obviously a fan and it’s a place I definitely want to get back to for a longer period. It’s not the bleak, ex-communist wasteland people probably expect to see, if they expect anything at all.

traveling Bulgaria

Last time I was traveling as a guest of Odysseia-in adventure tour company and I would use them again on my own dime when I go back with the wife or whole family. They have great connections and knowledge for the full country and can enable you to get around that whole language barrier thing, which can be serious in the countryside.

Plovdiv street

Because you really do need to get into the countryside to see what makes Bulgaria so great. Sure, Sofia is pleasant enough, but most backpackers go there by default, even though it’s not that great of a city. You’re better off spending the city time in Plovdiv (pictured above) or the great Veliko Tarnovo (pictured below). The latter is one of those places that should be mobbed with tourists, but thankfully isn’t. It’s right on the main train line between Istanbul and Bucharest, so it’s a great place to start or end.

Veliko Tarnovo

You can do hut to hut hikes here like you would in Switzerland, but for 1/5 the cost. The green mountains are surprisingly well preserved and you get stunning scenery along the way. Round a bend and you may end up an a monastery a few hundred years old, then a small village where you’re sure to get a great meal.

hiking bulgaria

That Perceptive Travel story I linked to earlier was as much about the food as it was about the countryside because one of the greatest draws here is what you sit down and eat each meal. The meals are often organic, slow food, made from scratch. That’s not because they’re being trendy though. It’s just the way they cook. If something is in season, it will be on your plate. If you’re there in winter, you’ll be getting stews, pickled vegetables, and aged cheese. And always great bread, great beer, and great wine. I’m salivating just thinking about it.

If you go an love it so much you’re thinking of putting down some roots, it’s not going to cost you much. Check out these home auction prices.

cost of living in Hungary

Hungary is not super cheap in every way, but the destination is a good value for people who want to live a good life for less in Europe. Anyone moving to Budapest from a similarly sized city in Europe, North America, or Australia can easily cut their expenses in half. And the rest of the country costs less.

Estimates of how many expatriates live here range from 30,000 to 50,000 and there are enough in Budapest to support a business newspaper in English. So you won’t be all alone if you choose to move here.

Gary Lukatch was earning around $60,000 gross in New Mexico working in the financial industry, after having lived in a lot of other states before that. “When I moved to Budapest and began teaching English, my monthly net earnings after one year were around $600 per month, increasing to around $1,500 per month after, say, five years,” he says. “In short, I took a huge pay cut, but was 1000% happier.”

After teaching English in Budapest for eight years, he is retired, living a much better life than he could elsewhere on what he has to spend. “The cost of monthly house payments or rental, plus car costs alone, would be more than my monthly income, which is around $2,100 net,” he explains. “Here in Budapest, my monthly flat rental, plus utilities, averages around $400, right in the middle of town.” He says public transportation is excellent, so he doesn’t need a car. “I eat out several times a week and I still have enough money to travel wherever and whenever I want; I have now been to 53 countries, with at least five more trips scheduled this year.”

Australians Karen and Neil D. came to Budapest because her husband got a job offer in his industry and they thought it would be a great adventure. They had already lived in Poland and the Czech Republic though, so they and the four kids didn’t have to make a huge adjustment going to Hungary. “Hungary has been the cheapest of the three,” Karen says. They’ve watched the city get easier and easier as the years have gone by, partly through them adjusting but also because the level of English fluency locally has gotten steadily better.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but the country still uses the forint, which is a volatile currency. Prices quoted here are based on 220 to the dollar, but I’ve seen it as low as 198 and as high as 250. So check the current rate before cursing my name when you read this because prices have changed.

Eger

Eger, Hungary

The countryside of Hungary is very cheap, but few expats live in the rural areas unless they’re in the wine industry. Most choose to live in Budapest, around Lake Balaton, or in one of the smaller cities like Eger or Pecs.

Hungary got hit hard in the European economic crisis like many other nations on the continent, but has recovered faster. The official unemployment rate was 8% in mid-2014, which looks downright glorious compared to Italy, Spain, Greece, or Portugal. In many ways, this feels like a nation on the rise and the young are displaying something not seen much in the past couple hundred years of Hungary’s history: optimism.

Housing Costs in Hungary

housing costs BudapestThe residents of Hungary give their rent costs in hundreds, not thousands, and you won’t find many single people or couples paying more than $500 a month, even in the capital. When you get into smaller towns, you can get a large house for that. When I was last in Budapest, I asked several locals I talked to what they were paying per month for an apartment and the answers came in between $150 and $300. In the southern wine region I visited on my first trip a few years earlier, there were houses with a nice garden going for the same. I met an expat from New Zealand working for a winery by Lake Balaton. He was paying $210 a month for his two-bedroom apartment with a lake-view balcony.

The site Numbeo.com uses New York City for a price basis and compares costs of living around the world to that, using 100 as the NYC average. For rent prices, Hungary comes up a 10 and Budapest is 12. This will vary greatly by location, of course, but on average you can expect to pay 1/8 to 1/10 of what you would in your current situation if you’re living in New York.

Gary pays a shade under $300 for his apartment in District 5, one of the most desirable and central areas of the city. (If you’ve come to Hungary as a tourist, you’ve been there to see the sites.)

If you decide to buy something eventually, which you can do freely as a foreigner, “a typical apartment in Budapest will cost between 90,000 and 130,000 euros for 100 square meters.” Karen says. It’s a buyers market right now for a very bad reason: a lot of Hungarians took out loans to buy property in the pre-EU days and did it in Swiss Francs because that was a stable currency. Now they owe far more than what the property is worth because of the Swiss Franc’s rise. “So there’s a mass selling of properties because of exchange rate changes,” Karen says. Combined with the high unemployment so prevalent in much of Europe now, there are far more sellers than buyers.

Health Care Costs

In this country the medical care is good, the dental care is great. With the rise of cross-border medical treatment happening in many places in the world, Hungary has jumped on the trend with both feet. Many Europeans come here to have dental work done or to receive good medical care at a discount. I was actually having some dental problems while in this part of the world two years ago and started asking around for prices to get a new crown. I ended up not getting it done because of timing, but prices I was quoted ranged from $250 to $350 all-in. (In the United States, this can easily top $1,000.)

Getting a cleaning and check-up at the dentist is around $30, getting a set of x-rays about that much again.

The one time Gary had to have serious medical work done, the total bill was about 1/10 the price of what it would have been in the USA.

Budapest market

Food & Drink

you can normally have a very fine cloth-napkin dinner with wine for $15. If you eat at more humble places, a soup will be a dollar or two and main dishes range from $3 to $7.

When you shop in the market, prices are at the low end for Europe. You can get rolls for 10-25 cents each or a huge baguette for a dollar or less. Get 100 grams (around 1/5 of a pound) of good cheese for a dollar, 100 grams of good local sausage for $2, and a jar of pickled veggies for another dollar or so.

For a buck or less, you can generally buy 100 grams of any of these things in the market: raisins, peanuts, sunflower seeds, banana chips, or dried apricots. Or you can get a kilo of seasonal fruit or peppers, cabbage, potatoes, radishes, or carrots. I saw a big bunch of white asparagus for about a dollar when I was there. How much do you pay for that in your local Whole Foods?

“We probably spend $80-$100 a week on groceries, not including wine,” says Karen. “In Australia we could spend $300 or $400 a week easily.”

Hungarian wineHungarian wine should be known around the world, but the Soviet occupation days seriously hurt its reputation and the recovery will be a long one. So for now it’s one of the best quality-to-price values in the world. In many countries, expats complain about the difficulty of getting decent wine for a decent price, so if that’s a big priority, put Hungary on your list. (Along with Argentina and tropical duty-free Panama). You can find a decent table wine bottle in a store for $2, something quite good for $4 to $8. If you spend over $10 you might end up with something from a “winemaker of the year” who has adorned Hungarian magazine covers.

This once being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, you can get a killer coffee and pastry here just as you can in Vienna—but for literally 1/4 the price. After you do a double-take at your low bill in a wine bar, finish with a coffee and dessert for another nice surprise.

Transportation Costs

Getting around Hungary is relatively cheap by bus or train when you want to get out of town. Figure on $10-$12 for a trip of two hours, or $30 to go as far as you can possibly go within Hungary. Seniors and young children travel free. The longest ride on the suburban railway out of Budapest (30 kms) is just $2.50.

Hungary travel by train

Budapest has a metro and while it’s no real bargain on a ride-by-ride basis (around $1.55), a monthly pass that also works for the trams and buses is a good value at less than $50. If you’re of retirement age, you might squeak by for free.

Apart from the ride from the airport, taxis in Hungary are a bargain. In general you can get around the center of Budapest in a cab for $3 to $7. It’s around $2 to start and $1.25 for each kilometer, so it’s hard to spend $10 anywhere unless it’s a long haul. Like much of Europe, this country is set up well for those on a bicycle and some expatriates use a bike as their main means of transport. In Budapest there are lots of dedicated bike lanes and in the countryside there’s not nearly such an abundance of cars as you see in the capital.

Frequent promotions on the train system and Eurolines bus make international travel from here a bargain. If you plan ahead you can get to Vietnna for less than $20 or to beach locations of Greece, Bulgaria, or Croatia for around $60.

Other Costs

If you pay your own utilities they can vary greatly by the season. His utilities vary widely, from $30 to $200 a month. “My place is not the best insulated in town, so I pay more in the winter for heat. In the summer, it’s very low.” Internet is $15 to $30 depending on speed and if you want a great connection, you can usually get it in the cities. The lowest-priced speed is generally 5 mbps, which is fine for a lot of people.

The land of Liszt and Bartok has an abundance of cultural performances going on at all times, from high-brow opera in the capital to an annual festival of wine songs in the south each year. Performances that aren’t free are very cheap by European standards. “The theater is amazing here,” says Karen. “The cost of going to a ballet or opera can nearly bankrupt you in Australia. Here it’s for everyone. Tickets usually start at $5. If you buy really great seats on a weekend for a popular show it might cost you all of $25.”

Budapest coffee pastry

Visas in Hungary

Hungary is part of the Schengen Agreement covering much of the European Union, which means you can’t just stick around here on a tourist visa. You get three months upon entering the zone, but after that you have to leave the whole Schengen area for three months before returning. No problem if you’re only coming for the summer. Terrible if you want to settle down for longer.

To get residency without being tied to a specific employer, you generally have to show you’re doing work a local can’t do, like teaching English, or you have to show that you’re self-supported by income from abroad. You can see a sample of costs and documents needed at this site, which also warns you that requirements may change at any time: http://washington.kormany.hu/entry-for-long-stay

A work visa is good for a year and renewable. Expect to endure a lot of bureaucracy and if you don’t have a college diploma, it’s going to be even tougher. You will have to apply in your own country and will then have 30 days after entering Hungary to get the local paperwork sorted out.

Most people who want to stick around either get a work permit connected to a specific job and company, or a residence permit that’s not tied to one employer. “Americans can only get residency for two years,” says Gary, “then they have to renew.” He’s now looking into permanent residency though, which you can apply for after being in the country for three years. This costs money for a lawyer and requires a lot of additional paperwork. Most of the items need to be translated into Hungarian as well, plus you have to show proof of health insurance or buy into the Hungarian health care plan..

Do you have Hungarian blood? If so, you could be on the fast track to residency. If you have ancestral roots in the country, you can get real citizenship without giving up your original one, making you one of those enviable people with two passports. You have to speak Hungarian, but you can take intensive language courses while you’re living there and collecting paperwork. This is a back door into the EU, which would give you the ability to live elsewhere too.

Hungarian

I wouldn’t count on it…

Downsides

The political winds are blowing strongly to the right as I put this book together, with overt racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against minorities all rearing their ugly heads on a regular basis.

Hungarian is an especially tough language to crack, but you’ll often need at least some basics when you get outside the capital.

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book A Better Life for Half the Price, about cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. Sign up here for updates on cheap living abroad.

Travel in Romania

I write fairly often on here about how even seasoned travelers sometimes have very warped perceptions of potential travel destinations. The other day I saw someone spewing out all kinds of vile, derogatory comments on Romania on someone’s travel story, which I’m sure the person writing had never visited. It was one of those “I’ll never set foot in that sh&thole” rants from an ignoramus.

Living in a foreign country that has its share of bashers, I hear this from my own seldom-traveled friends and relatives in the states sometimes. I’m always surprised though when it comes from people who should know better. So let me go on record to say Romania can be a really lovely place.

Brasov Romania

That shot at the very top is from the countryside, which is quite beautiful, with high mountains and a lot of historic towns. The second one is from Brasov, which I wouldn’t mind living in for at least a few months. There’s good skiing nearby too. Yes, you can ski in Romania, and for about 1/3 of what you would spend a country or two over.

Romanian wineYou can also drink good wine here. This was an Iron Curtain country for a few decades, so as in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, great wine makers were forced to go into quantity over quality mode for a depressing period. Freed from the shackles of communism, they now have an incentive to return to quality again and have come roaring back. This Rhein Cellars winery I visited in Azuga, Romania makes sparkling wine with the labor intensive Champagne method. Since labor is pretty cheap here though, a really good bottle will set you back $15 or so.

Borders in this part of the world have been very fluid over the past couple centuries, so people are often surprised that Romania contains a lot of gorgeous medieval towns like they would expect to see in Germany. This one below is Sighisoara, which has changed hands multiple times after various wars. It’s a great place to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, especially if you can hang out a couple days and take a stroll after all the tour buses are gone. You can get here on an overnight train from Budapest, so it’s a good place to start your Romanian journey.

Sighisoara Transylvania

The shot below is from Sibiu, which would be a relaxing place to hang out for a few days, doing nothing but strolling the plazas, dining on hearty food at outdoor cafes, and drinking good wine for cheap at night.

Sibiu Transylvania

And this photo below, is it from one of those super-popular European capitals that are mobbed with hundreds of thousands of tourists in the summer? No, it’s much-maligned Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Yes, the famous last dictator ripped down much of the historic center to build his giant ugly “Palace of the People,” but there are still some nice neighborhoods with some interesting walks and good cafes.

bucharest-romania

If you like intricately carved wooden doors that are a few hundred years old, here are some great photos of interesting doors I saw in Romania. Next time I go back, I want to check out some of these cool castles in the countryside.

 

cheapest places to travel americas  cheapest travel destinations in Asia  cheap travel Europe

Are you going on a long trip that’s just to Central and South America?

Traveling to Asia only for a few months?

Want to know details just on the cheapest places to travel in Europe?

No, you’re not seeing triple at the top. In a couple days you’ll see shorter e-book versions on Amazon excerpted from the full edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, priced at $3.98 (or the in other currencies). So if you were hesitating on buying the full book because you weren’t taking some epic round-the-world journey, you can lay out less than a spruced-up Starbucks drink in a paper cup and get the scoop on where your money will stretch the most.

Sure, the Asia and Americas ones are longer than the Europe one, but I like to keep things simple, so they’re all under four bucks. But in the places featured in all of these, four bucks will really get you something—far more than a cup of coffee.

Amazon took less than a day to get these posted, so here are the links (also in the book covers above):

Americas edition

Europe Edition

Asia Edition

This a Kindle-only release, but you can use the Kindle app to read them on your iPad, phone (Apple or Android), and many other devices.

Oh, and here’s what some other people have to say about what’s in the full edition:

“Want to know where it’s cheap to travel and how do it for less than $100 a day? Then The World’s Cheapest Destinations is the book for you! Tim Leffel makes me want to pack up my bags because in most of these places it’s cheaper than staying home.”
– Johnny Jet DiScala, editor of Johnnyjet.com

“There are two ways to travel overseas: You can visit overpriced countries, or you can go to equally exciting destinations on the cheap. Tim Leffel is a master storyteller who graciously informs us on how to maximize our travel experience the inexpensive way. This latest edition updates the best locations worldwide where you can stretch your travel budget to the fullest!”
– Brad Olsen, author of World Stompers and Future Esoteric

“In Tim’s 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, he scoured the world again to help travelers make the most of their travel dollars. Even though I’ve been studying travel writing and guides for 15+ years, I always learn something new with each edition of Tim’s book.
– Sean Keener, CEO of Bootsnall.com

“Tim Leffel has long been a guru of balancing the practicalities of cheap travel with a keen sense of judgment about the aesthetic value offered by varied countries around the world. In this newly researched and expanded edition, Tim’s easy conversational style turns the book into a page-turner, leaving you hungry to set off on the many paths he opens up to the traveler’s imagination.”
– Gregory Hubbs, editor-in-chief, TransitionsAbroad.com

“As dollars get ever tighter, this book becomes all the more precious. But what’s most brilliant about it is that Leffel really doesn’t just think ‘cheap’-he thinks ‘smart.’ As valuable a travel book as you’ll find today, in ways too numerous to even count, no matter what your budget.”
– Chris Epting, author of Led Zeppelin Crashed Here and Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here

“Tim manages to use his considerable knowledge of travel to put to rest the myth that travel has to be expensive by highlighting 21 destinations in the world where your money goes far. His tips and suggestions will prove invaluable for someone who desires to travel but has a limited budget.”
– Nomadic Matthew Kepnes, author of How to Travel the World on $50 Per Day

“Take it from a travel editor who has spent many years reading about destinations and talking to writers who have traveled everywhere. This book is full of great advice and steers you with practical and useful tips to the cheapest places on earth. So many travel books are full of generalizations; this one stands out for specific tips, specific places, and the kinds of details that can help you make a vacation even if you’re close to broke.”
– Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNOMAD.com

Lisbon travel

It’s hard to get around the fact that Europe is more expensive than the U.S. and can be even pricier than Canada is these days. However, the exchange rate of dollars to euros seems to have settled around 128 to 135 in this European crisis period, so at least that’s not as volatile as it has been in years before.

I’ve taken a few trips to Europe in the past couple years and you can see my recent article on a bike tour in Portugal in the latest issue of Perceptive Travel. I get quoted a lot in the media as a budget travel expert on how to travel in Europe more cheaply (always a popular topic with editors) so I thought it would be a good idea to pack a collection of these tips in one place. Use a few of these next time you’re trying to ease the budget pain.

Pick a Cheap(er) Destination
This tip is first because it has the most impact. No matter where you stay and how frugally you watch your funds, a week in Hungary is going to cost you far less than a week in Norway. Eastern Europe is less than west, especially the four countries and the honorable mention one I have in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Portugal was a seriously good value when I was there in May though and tough times mean better deals in some parts of Greece, Ireland, and Spain right now.

Slow Down and Stay Awhile
Transportation costs are a big expense in Europe, whether you’re flying with actual luggage, taking a train, or hopping buses. In Western Europe fuel costs are high, taxes are high, labor costs are high. The more you move around trying to check things off your list, the more your budget is going to rise. Exploring one area on a short trip or one country/region over several weeks is going to cost you less and also allow you to absorb more instead of it all flashing before your eyes outside a window.

green travel Bulgaria

Get Out of the Capitals (and Venice)
Cities cost more than rural areas. Popular capital cities cost more than normal ones. Sure, go spend some time in Paris and London. Catch a few museums, see the sites. Then head out. Don’t spend your whole vacation or backpacking trip in capital cities unless you’re willing to spend like the rich tourists in a big hurry do. Besides, Kosice is more interesting than Bratislava. Veiliko Turnovo (pictured above) is a more interesting place to hang out than Sofia—and easier to get to by train from many other countries. is Madrid really where you want to spend most of your time in Spain?

Make the Most of Freebies
If you are in a big city, figure out what’s free and take advantage of it. Some museums are free all the time, some have specific days, and nearly any city is going to have festivals and music performances going on constantly, especially in warm months. Check the official tourism site, any good non-official city site, and a guidebook for recurring ones.

Get a Transportation Pass
In most European cities, if there’s a viable public transportation system, you can buy a pass for one or more days that will give you unlimited rides. Get one and pack all your city travel into that time. Note that if you have one of these, it opens up your lodging options too—you can be on the branch of a subway or bus line instead of paying a premium to be right in the center of the tourist zone. Sometimes the full-on city passes are a good deal too. See this post: Are those city cards really worth the money?

Look Deeper for Hotel Deals
In most of Europe outside Scandinavia and Switzerland, two or three of you traveling together can stay in a real hotel for less than you would spend in a hostel. Unless you’re just looking for partying mates to blow more money with, independent small hotels and value chains like Ibis and NH Hotels can give you more comfort at a good price. Go beyond the U.S. booking sites though as they’ll have more inventory elsewhere. Use a metasearch engine like HotelsCombined or Trivago but then also search TripAdvisor (beyond the first page), a good guidebook, or an authoritative local resource guide online.

local market Europe

Live Like a Local
If you rent an apartment or home for a couple weeks in one place, you can live a local life instead of a tourist life and spend far less in the process. When you’re in a real neighborhood instead of a tourist one, you pay what the locals—who probably aren’t rich—pay for groceries, pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants. You’ll also meet people who don’t get paid to serve you and experience more of the local culture.

Get on a Bike
You can take a real tour with a company like Bike Tours Direct and spend the same or less as you would on a vacation you booked yourself, while seeing more of the countryside. Or you can just hop on a bike to explore a city. Many have public bike share systems. Some hotels rent out bikes to guests for free or cheap (as mine in Budapest did). Otherwise, look around for a rental kiosk like I found in Sofia—where it came with a free guided city tour. If you’re in a smaller bike-friendly area, you can probably rent one for a whole week and get a big discount.

Splurge for Lunch, Not Dinner
If you’re going to go out for a nice meal now and then, you’re better off doing it during the daytime. Sure, it’s not quite as romantic as dining by candlelight, but many restaurants offer a prix fixe option, a set meal, or a “meal of the day” that makes even the gourmet hotspots less of a strain on the wallet.

Party Where It’s Cheap, Not Where It’s Not
It makes sense to drink up and have a blast if you’re in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, or Hungary. Or in an Italian village where they sell wine by the jug. Not when you’re in Oslo and alcohol is taxed worse than cigarettes. Dry out for a bit or switch to narcotics—which are cheaper than the legal stuff.

Don’t Go in the Summer
Why do people go to Europe in the summer? Because school is out. Honestly, that’s the main reason airfares go up, hotels are full, and the attractions are packed. If you don’t have to go between June and August because of your school schedule or that of your kids, then don’t. It’s less pleasant and more expensive.

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cheap living abroad