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Les Dec 31st, 2013 03:08 PM

Planning a trip to Eastern Europe, could use your help.
 
Hi.

You guys were very helpful while planning, and during, our last trip (7 weeks to Turkey and Greece last spring), so I'd like your thoughts and suggestions while planning our next trip.

We're planning a trip to Eastern Europe next fall (leave beginning or mid September), for as long as it takes to complete our itinerary (hopefully, not longer than 6 weeks). We've just started to plan the trip, and there is so much (actually, everything) that we need to firm up, and your help would be greatly appreciated.

We've cobbled together a preliminary itinerary that looks like it would work geographically (although maybe not logistically?). Here it is (remember, everything's fluid at this stage, question marks where I could use your suggestions):

Fly from Denver to Helsinki (3 days in H. ?);
Ferry (or train?) to St. Petersburg (5 days in S.P.?);
Ferry (or train?) to Tallinn (2 - 3 days in T.?);
Train to Riga (2 - 3 days in R.?);
Train to Vilnius (2 - 3 days in V.?);
Train to Warsaw (is it practical to get a car in Vilnius - we'll probably want to drive for most of the rest of the trip? If not, we'll pick up a car in Warsaw). (3 days in W?);
Drive to Krakow (3 days in K.?);
Drive to Prague (4 days in P.?);
Drive to Budapest (4 days in Budapest?);
Drive to Ljubljana (2 days in L.?);
Drive to Dubrovnik (or is it better to catch a boat, maybe from Trieste?). (2 - 3 days in D.?)
Boat to Montenegro (haven't chosen a city here, Podgorica looks like it's inland; any suggestions?)
Boat to Corfu. (2 - 3 days in C.?)

At this point, we'll have seen what we wanted to, but haven't yet chosen an exit strategy (i.e., how do we get back to Denver?).

It's pretty clear that the estimated number of days in each place puts us at 6 weeks (not counting travel days), so we'll need to trim some time from the trip, either by cutting back the time in some of the cities (your suggestions will help a lot here), or cutting back on the number of places (perhaps breaking this into 2 trips?). We're not pressed for time (I'm retired), but we've found that 6 weeks makes for a comfortable trip.

Logistically, is it practical to rent a car to travel between countries, and drop it off at a different location? Also, best way to get from Helsinki to St. Petersburg to Tallinn?

What visas are required in advance?

Etc.

There's a lot to decide and we're just beginning. I'm looking forward to your suggestions.

michelhuebeli Dec 31st, 2013 03:29 PM

Just two items: 1. There is a completely new train running between Helsinki and St. P., faster than the previous and - what matters most I think - the Russian border checks are now done on the rolling train. See www.vr.fi/en/index/ulkomaat/venaja/allegro.html

2. For a visa to enter Russia you need to plan ahead a bit, and familiarize yourselves with the "invitation" - a document issued by a hotel or such, saying that you have booked accommodation etc.. There are specialist agencies who can help with that, they are your best bet. This is just one of them:

http://www.passportsandvisas.com/loc...saservices.asp

While you talk to them, tell them about your planned itinerary and have them advise you about other visas that may be required.

Aramis Dec 31st, 2013 04:15 PM

Looks pretty much like a ideal itinerary- well thought out and paced. You may be stretching a little at the end reaching for Corfu. How will you return from there?

For Montenegro have you considered Kotor?

kja Dec 31st, 2013 04:55 PM

Sounds like a great trip!

5 days is close to the minimum I would allocate to St. Petersburg. It might be perfect for your priorities, but you might want to be sure to think them through before committing to 5 rather than (say) 6 days.

For Warsaw & Krakow, you might want to adjust the balance just a bit so you have at least 4 full days in Krakow, although 3 days might be sufficient if you are not interested in Auschwitz/Birkenau. I had a pleasant time in Warsaw, but it is one of the few places where you might be able to trim a bit if necessary.

Depending on your interests, 2 days in Ljubljana could suit you well. It should be enough for that little city -- which BTW is absolutely charming. If you want to visit Lake Bled and/or Lake Bohinj and/or anywhere else in Slovenia, you will need more time -- at least 3 to 5 days depending on your choices.

IMO, 2 days is likely to be enough for Dubrovnik itself, but OMG, you are skipping SO MANY worthy sites between Ljubljana and Dubrovnik! I strongly encourage you to consider visiting the magnificent Plitvice Lakes National Park, which IMO deserves a night's stay and at least 6 hours on the ground. And what about Split or Istria or Zagreb or the islands (such as Korcula and Hvar)? or anywhere else in Croatia? (Not to mention Mostar or Sarajevo, which are SO close....)

I visited Montenegro -- more specifically, Kotor and its bay -- as a day trip from Dubrovnik.

I haven't yet visited Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, or Corfu.

Hope that helps!

nytraveler Dec 31st, 2013 05:27 PM

A couple of notes.

Be prepared for cold weather even in Sept - we were in St Pet in Sept twice and both times had temps in the 40s - and locals wearing winter clothing.

Also I wold leave more time for St Pet (cut Helsinki if necessary - we found the latter very bland/boring) - versus Stockholm, Copenhagen and St Pet.

Les Dec 31st, 2013 07:42 PM

Thank you all for the great advice. As expected, we modified our proposed itinerary to incorporate some of your comments.

Michel, thanks for the info on the train. We now plan to take the train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. We'll extend our stay in SP to 6 days (again, not counting travel days), which seems to be the consensus on the time needed to see the city properly. Also, thanks for your info on getting a visa.

We'll also plan on a train from SP to Tallinn (I heard that there is one, although it may not be a high speed train).

Aramis, based on your comments, and possible time constraints, we're scratching Corfu from the itinerary.
As for how we'll get home, one option might be cruising the Dalmation coast from Dubrovnik to Venice (my wife definitely wants to include a coastal cruise in the trip), and after 2 or 3 days in Venice, flying home from there. Or maybe we can find a day cruise from Dubrovnik north along the coast, and consider flying from Dubrovnik. Of course, I realize that flights from Dubrovnik or Venice will require intermediate stops, but there's no getting around that, is there?

kia, thanks for your advice. We'll leave Warsaw and Krakow at 3 days, and decide on how long to stay in Krakow when we get there.
Also, based on your comments, we will drive from Ljubljana to Dubrovnik (rather than by boat, as we were considering). This will allow us to see some of the places you suggested along the way.
We will also confine our Montenegro visit to a day trip to Kotor from Dubrovnik (as you and Michel suggested). I assume that this is a cruise, rather than overland? Accordingly, we'll extend our stay in Dubrovnik to 3 days to accommodate this (4 days if we can take a day cruise north along the coast).

nytraveler, thanks for the weather info. Actually, being from Denver, temps in the 40s don't sound particularly cold to us. It's travelling in hot weather that we find unpleasant - hence, we only travel in spring or fall when possible.

We have also decided to add Bratislava to the itinerary between Prague and Budapest (it was always our plan to stop there, I mistakenly omitted it from my original post.

Just a word about how we like to travel (those who followed our Turkey/Greece trip last spring already know this). Time is not critical for us - we prefer to extend the length of our trips to allow a leisurely pace, rather than squeeze things in. There are only a few hard reservations that we have to make: the outbound and return flights, of course (the date of the return flight chosen after we firm up our itinerary and build in contingency days); the hotels in Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Tallinn, any rail reservations, if they're required in advance, and the car rental pickup and return dates. For everything else, from the time we get the car (in Vilnius or Warsaw - see my question in the original post) until we drop it off in Dubrovnik, we will make our decisions on the fly. If we particularly like a place, we'll stay longer; if not, then we'll leave earlier. As on our last trip, we'll try to book hotels in real time when we're sure we're moving on, via the internet or phone, and, hopefully, your helpful suggestions at the time.

So, as of now, here's our updated itinerary:

Fly from Denver to Helsinki (3 days in H);
Train to St. Petersburg (6 days in S.P.);
Train to Tallinn (2 days in T.);
Train to Riga (2 days in R.);
Train to Vilnius (2 days in V.?);
Train or drive to Warsaw (is it practical to get a car in Vilnius? - we'll probably want to drive for most of the rest of the trip? If not, we'll pick up a car in Warsaw). (3 days in W.);
Drive to Krakow (3 - 4 days in K.);
Drive to Prague (4 days in P.);
Drive to Bratislava (2 days in B.);
Drive to Budapest (4 days in B.);
Drive to Ljubljana (2 days in L.);
Drive to Dubrovnik (4 days in D., to include day trip to Kotor, and day cruise north along the coast);

Exit strategy still in play: fly home from Dubrovnik or cruise to Venice and fly home from there? The Venice option would drop a day from Dubrovnik (replaces the day cruise north along the coast), and add 2 days in Venice (we've been there already) .

This brings the trip to 37 or 38 days. Adding travel and contingency days brings the trip to more than 7 weeks. We'll see whether we can cut some time off this, or just extend the trip as necessary.

Thanks again. Keep the good advice coming.

kja Dec 31st, 2013 07:59 PM

> we will drive from Ljubljana to Dubrovnik

You do realize that it's about 700 km if you take the fastest route? And that there are enough stops that many people find it hard to keep their time in Croatia down to just 2 weeks? I spent more than 3 weeks getting from Dubrovnik to Ljubljana -- weeks of VERY busy days during which I had to skip many things that sounded wonderful.

> a day trip to Kotor from Dubrovnik .... I assume that this is a cruise, rather than overland?

I'm not aware of any cruises that make this trip. That doesn't mean they don't exist, although I'm pretty sure they didn't when I visited in 2009. I rented a car for the day. You can also join a day-long tour from Dubrovnik.

> day cruise north along the coast

I wander what cruise you mean? As I recall, they run only rarely and wouldn't give you the chance to see anything, but maybe you know of an option of which I am unaware.

FWIW, I found The Rough Guide to Croatia very helpful.

Les Dec 31st, 2013 08:46 PM

kja (excuse my misspelling on my previous reply),
thank you for the info.

It isn't our intent to see Croatia as thoroughly as you've obviously done. Basically, this is a trip to see certain specific cities, and to "get the feel" of the various countries we'll be passing through. I should point out that we lived for 5 years on the German-Swiss border, and had our share of Medieval towns, castles, and beautiful countryside. I think we'll feel right at home during most of this trip, but there's no urgency to stop at every quaint town along the way.

We don't mind long drives (we've driven all over Greece and Western Turkey), and I expect we'll cover 700 km in just a day or two. We'll take great pleasure in just "soaking up the ambiance" as we drive between the cities we want to see. And we always enjoy the unique beauty of the national parks in each country.

I didn't have a particular cruise in mind when I mentioned a day cruise along the north coast. I just assumed that in a heavily touristed seaside city on a particularly scenic coast, there would be day cruises available. In Greece, we were able to approach a captain at the harbor and negotiate a short cruise. If that's not the case in Dubrovnik, I thank you for that information. Perhaps the longer cruise to Venice will have to suffice.

And thanks for the recommendation for the Rough Guide. We'll get a copy.

clausar Dec 31st, 2013 09:35 PM

It seems that you have planned to rent a car in Poland and return it in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I am not sure this is doable, have you checked with any car rental company for a quotation?

I am also not quite sure there is a ferry connection between Montenegro or Dubrovnik and Corfu.
There are only direct flights from Dubrovnik to Athens with Croatia Airlines at very salty prices.... doing a quick check gave me a price of 327 Euro, one way.....

thursdaysd Dec 31st, 2013 09:51 PM

Sadly, trains in the Baltics are pretty much a thing of the past. You'll need a bus from Tallinn to Riga, and while you can get to Vilnius by train it takes 13 hours. Ditto Vilnius to Warsaw, and that's via Minsk, which requires a visa.

Use bahn.de for schedules, and seat61.com for info on buying tickets.

Les Dec 31st, 2013 10:36 PM

Clausar,
I have not yet checked with the car rental companies (this is only the second day into planning this trip), but I certainly will in the near future. That was my biggest concern (being unable to take a rental car between countries) - it will certainly affect my plans. It may be that I have to get a different car in each country, and find other means of transportation between countries.

I also don't want to fly to Athens to get home, but as you've probably already read, my exit plans are fluid. My wife thinks that we should plan to leave from Paris, and hope we miss the flight!

thursdaysd,
Thanks for the info. I thought I remembered reading in the Wall Street Journal recently that there was a rail line connecting the three cities - is that wrong?
I suspected that the logistics of this trip might be more difficult than my previous trips, but I'm prepared to work around any issues that might come up. My immediate task is to identify those issues. This thread is helping.

thursdaysd Jan 1st, 2014 06:15 AM

Just because there are rails, it doesn't mean there are trains... Actually, seat61 says you can still go by train from Tallinn to Riga, but bahn.de disagrees. In any case, unless you want to stop off on the way you'd be better off taking the bus, the train leaves at 6:30 and doesn't arrive until 15:09, with a change at Valga. I'm a big train fan, and it was still running when I was there in 2011, but I took the bus. (Click on my name for my 2011 Baltics-Balkans TRs.)

If you try to take the train from Riga to Vilnius you have to overnight in Daugavpils. There used to be a direct night train between Warsaw and Vilnius, I took it in 2004, but it hasn't run in a while. Personally, I would not chose to go via Minsk because of the need for a visa, but you might opt to stop off there.

At the other end of your trip, Dubrovnik isn't a great end point. (BTW, do check http://www.portdubrovnik.hr/girica1.php to try to avoid the worst deluge of cruise ship passengers.) If you have the time, you could go overland to Athens via Montenegro and Albania. Or you could head for Budapest via Mostar, Sarajevo and southern Hungary - if you go that way do stop in Pecs and/or Szeged for the gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture - see http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/pecs/ - links at the top of the page.

I used Lonely Planet for my trip, supplemented by Bradt.

Les Jan 1st, 2014 09:17 AM

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

thursdaysd, thanks for the additional information. I'll continue to look at my options, and contact the appropriate organizations, starting tomorrow (after the holidays).

Thanks for all your inputs - this kind of help is why I frequent this forum.

Aramis Jan 1st, 2014 09:44 AM

>>>My wife thinks that we should plan to leave from Paris, and hope we miss the flight!

That's my kind of traveler!

Les Jan 9th, 2014 09:28 PM

Hi, I'm back. I've done a lot of homework, and I've come up with what I hope is a near final itinerary. It factors in driving times (extra overnight stops for longer drives) and my exit strategy (backtrack to Warsaw by a slightly different route for my return flight, based on airfares and auto drop-off charges).
Here's my latest itinerary:

Fly from Denver to Helsinki
(3 nights in Helsinki);
Train to St. Petersburg
(7 nights in St.Petersburg);
Train or to Tallinn or train to Helsinki and ferry to Tallinn
(2 nights in Tallinn);
Train or bus to Riga
(2 nights in Riga);
Train or bus to Vilnius
2 nights in Vilnius);
Train to Warsaw
(4 nights in Warsaw);
Drive to Wroclaw
(1 night in Wroclaw);
Drive to Prague
(4 nights in Prague);
Drive to Linz
(1 night in Linz);
Drive to Ljubljana
(2 nights in Ljubljana);
Drive to Split
(1 night in Split);
Drive to Dubrovnik
(3 nights in Dubrovnik - includes day trip to Kotor);
Drive to Split
(2 nights in Split);
Drive to Ljubljana
(1 night in Ljubljana);
Drive to Budapest
(4 nights in Budapest);
Drive to Bratislava
(2 nights in Bratislava);
Drive to Krakow
(3 nights in Krakow)
Drive to Warsaw
(1 night in Warsaw)
Fly from Warsaw to Denver

I've been in contact with a travel agent in Latvia for help in arranging the transportation and visa arrangements for the Helsinki-Warsaw part of the trip (particularly the visa requirements for St. Petersburg). The travel agency is Baltic Travel Group (http://www.baltic.travel). We found them during our research on the web, but I'd appreciate any information about them from personal experience.

From Warsaw, the rest of the trip will be a flexible driving itinerary (similar to what we did on our Turkey/Greece trip), with no advance reservations until we decide where our next stop will be.

What I would appreciate is your assessment of the amount of time we've allocated for the cities we want to see (ignoring Wroclaw and Linz, which were added to break up long drives).
The trip is about a week longer than we'd like, but unless I'm allocating more time than necessary in some of the cities (I'm counting on you to tell me that), I can't see what we can cut out to shorten the trip. I would have preferred to not retrace my steps to Warsaw for the flight home, but that would have added significant expense, factoring in the rental car drop-off charge and much higher airfare, and would have saved only 2 or 3 days.

Also, the start/end dates are flexible, and could be modified if seasonal conditions and crowds dictate. Your advice on that would also be appreciated.

Looking forward to your responses. Thanks.

kja Jan 9th, 2014 10:10 PM

MUCH better! :-)

As for returning to Warsaw, have you checked options for separate within-country rentals (e.g., by returning a car before you cross a border, using a train or bus to enter the next country, and then picking up a new rental)?

Looks like you have 5 nights in Warsaw, which is more than I would recommend unless you have a very specific interest there. I would think that 2 days (so 2 or 3 nights) would suit most people, even leaving time to recover from jet lag.

Looks like 3 nights in Ljubljana, 2 on the way south and one on the way north. You might want to stay in Lake Bled rather than Ljubljana itself for the 1-nighter. I'm not sure how much time that actually gives you in the area -- FWIW, I would recommend at least 1 full day for Ljubljana itself and at least 1 full day for Lake Bled; an extra full day would let you see the Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bohinj, one or more of the spectacular caves in the region, etc.

Looks like 3 nights in Split, 1 on the way south and 2 on the way north. You might consider staying in Trogir for the 1-nighter.

I strongly encourage you to find a way to fit in a night for the magnificent, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is between Split and Ljubljana. This park is unlike any other that I have ever visited (and I have seen other travertine formations). it is a magnificent gem that is decidedly deserving of its UNESCO status and all the raves it gets. You can easily fit it in by cutting your time in Warsaw.

I will admit that this is NOT a trip I would take -- not because of the pace or the places you will visit, but because of all the places you are skipping. And I'm not just talking about "every quaint town along the way" -- I'm talking about substantial communities (like Sarajevo and Mostar and Zagreb). But it is your trip, and if these are the places that capture your interest, go for it!

kja Jan 9th, 2014 10:49 PM

Re-readng your plan, I realize that I under-estimated how much time you were giving each destination by thinking "days" when you clearly wrote "nights" -- and obviously, you MEANT nights! So let me add that I think this plan is very rushed and not well suited to an extended trip. Just my opinion.

Les Jan 10th, 2014 11:03 AM

kja,

I chose to plan the itinerary using nights, rather than days, because some days are travel days, and in my experience, very little touring time is the available in the cities on those days. Also, travel days by car are a welcome part of our vacations. It gives us the option to wander and explore on the way to our next destination.

However, given your comment that the trip seems rushed, keep in mind that the times allotted are just our best (semi-educated) guess. That's why I requested that you consider this, and provide advice as to how much time we'd need in each city. As I said, this itinerary is flexible. We could expand the time as required, or we could drop some cities (to be picked up on a later trip) if the time becomes excessive. While we've taken trips of almost 2 months, experience has shown that we're most comfortable with 6 weeks, unless the itinerary is particularly interesting (as it was with Turkey and Greece). Because of our familiarity with Europe (having lived and worked in Germany for almost 5 years), I question whether this trip would hold our interest beyond 6 weeks.

I appreciate your reply, and I'm looking forward to your suggestions.

thursdaysd Jan 10th, 2014 11:54 AM

I am unconvinced about the car, since it splits up your time in several cities and requires a loop rather than open jaw. It's going to be useless or worse in all the cities, and I'm not sure you have time for wandering on this itinerary.

I second the vote for Plitvice, and would rate Sarajevo above Dubrovnik. But, if you're going to the trouble and expense of getting a visa for Russia, why not see more than St Petersburg? Take the train to Novgorod and Moscow, and tour the Golden Ring. If you only have six weeks I would concentrate on the Baltics, Russia and Eastern Europe, and leave the Balkans for another trip.

BigRuss Jan 10th, 2014 12:06 PM

Most of this itinerary is Central Europe.

Four nights in Warsaw? Yeesh, that's a lot.

Why would you have to come home from Warsaw? You could do it from Krakow to O'Hare to Denver. Or Krakow to Paris to Denver.

You really need to delve into the car issue. First, can you take the car to Czech Republic? It's a theft-a-thon. Second, where will you be parking said car in Prague/Budapest/Krakow, etc.? Third, where will you need vignettes?

Thursdaysd has a good idea: if you're set on going through the trouble to enter Russia, see more of it.


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