Two Weeks in Ex-Soviet Europe – Detailed Itinerary

Getting away from work for two weeks once a year is the max I can manage to keep marriage and job.

Readers ask how I do my trips. It is a mix of careful planning and constant movement. The mark of a successful trip for me is that I come back sick and exhausted. I am on my forth Polish Sudafed of the day as I fly back to NYC.

I list major costs since that is of interest to many. This was mostly a non-miles and points trip. Meals I won’t list because I can’t remember and many days I missed lunch and/or dinner, instead grabbing fruit and snacks. When I had meals I feasted on as many local dishes as I could, such as my last meal in Poland of zurek soup, chicken liver with onions, country-style bacon and pierogi.

I leave out rental car gas costs because I lost track. In Russia/Ukraine it was roughly $1/L, in Poland it was double that, and Baltics were in between. It added up.

Visas:

  • Russia 3-year multiple-entry tourist visa: $15 invitation letter + $160
  • Belarus private visit visa: $48 agent fee + $160

18 October:

  • Flight New York JFK – Moscow SVO (open jaw returning from Warsaw, $793, used $400 Delta bump voucher)

19 October:

  • Arrive Moscow SVO
  • Visit Red Square & Lenin’s Tomb
  • Depart Moscow DME for Sochi (Avios award on S7, 7,500 Avios)
  • Flight diverted to Mineralnye Vody
  • Arrive Sochi after midnight
  • Guest House Villa Déjà Vu ($25)

20 October:

21 October:

22 October:

  • All day walk of St Petersburg, from The Hermitage to Raskolnikov’s walk to the pawnbroker
  • Hotel Park Inn Pulkovskaya

23 October:

  • Flight to Kaliningrad
  • Hertz rental car (1 day, $85)
  • Drive to UNESCO-listed Curonian Spit
  • Walk around Kaliningrad city
  • Berlin Hotel ($36)

24 October:

25 October:

  • Rental car ($65)
  • Drive to ex-Soviet nuclear sub base Paldiski and Klooga Holocaust Memorial, total≈60 miles
  • Walk UNESCO-listed Tallinn Old Town
  • Flight to Kiev, Ukraine (Estonian Air, $152, flight canceled due to mechanical, rebooked on Air Baltic via Riga)
  • Hertz rental car (3 days, $141)
  • Drive to Uman, Ukraine, total≈147 miles
  • Hotel Fortetsya ($36)

26 October:

Strategic Missile Forces Museum, Ukraine

27 October:

28 October:

  • Walk Kiev
  • Flight to Vilnius, Lithuania (Ukraine International Airlines, $39)
  • Dollar rental car (1 day, $27)
  • Crowne Plaza Vilnius (Points Break, 5,000 points)

29 October:

30 October:

  • Walk Minsk
  • Original plan: Avis 1-day rental for $90, return to Minsk, 5-hour train to Brest
  • Revised plan: friend found driver for $200 including drop-off in Brest
  • Drive to Glory Mound, Khatyn, UNESCO-listed Mir, UNESCO-listed Nesvizh
  • Brest Varvara Apartments ($39)

31 October:

1 November:

2 November:

  • Still feeling sick, did not resuscitate original November 1 plan because would not reach Treblinka before dark
  • Walk UNESCO-listed Krakow Old Town
  • Visit tourist trap UNESCO-listed Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines, skipped the mandatory group tour
  • Drive back to Warsaw
  • Holiday Inn Express Warsaw Airport ($56)

3 November:

  • Flight Warsaw – Amsterdam – Newark

I am old-school, I keep track of the trip in a basic spreadsheet. As good as services like TripIt may be, for something this complicated I need to work it out by hand to make sure it all fits together.

Two Weeks in Ex-Soviet Europe Itinerary

Totting up the major expenses is $2,823. Let’s call it $3,200 for the trip plus 7,500 Avios, 15,000 Club Carlson points, and 5,000 IHG Rewards points.

This may seem eye-popping to some, certainly to me when I see the total, especially consider the budget accommodation. Two factors in the cost are some of destinations are unavoidably expensive, such as $160 each for Russia and Belarus visas. Also that I am alone and bearing the full cost.

My rationalizations are also two. First I live very frugally, don’t own a car, no Starbucks, no bars, etc. Travel is my disposable income priority. Second is that, though I am racking up flight and car expense, that allows me to see in two weeks what would otherwise take a month. Even if I could take a month off, I would not want to miss a paycheck. I price every day off at my salary rate, forcing myself to answer the question, “Would I pay my salary to spend the day this way?”

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  • Great itinerary stefan. I am planning a similar trip. Now that you are back, do you advise modifying the itinerary in any way.

  • I love your site and travels… But, it is entertaining how opposite we are. We just did a similar tour… in 3 months. :-p And we didn’t even plan our flights a head of time.

    And yet, I don’t think our style is so different. Anyways. We loved Warsaw, wish we got to Krawkow.

    Sorry, we just missed you… although I’m not sure you would have had time. 😉
    Cheers.

  • Mr. Cool

    1st- youre out of your mind
    2nd- very inspirational
    3rd- all the whiners, whining about UA devalue, take heed… business class is great, but its crass. so are fancy hotels. my humble opinion is that travel is about the places you see/experience not about avoiding leaving your comfort zone!
    4thly- i assume you have a good reason for all this proverbial zig-zagging between cities, rather than taking the more-or-less direct route between cities?
    5thly- what did you think of Uman? photos?
    6thly- youre out of your mind… i says this because im russian and would still actively avoid some of these locales

  • @Mr. Cool –
    1 & 6 – I don’t disagree
    4 – I had originally intended to go more or less direct but a few things complicated it. The start in Russia, end in Poland worked best for airfare. Kaliningrad was a must-see but a challenge for flights and the land borders I heard reports of frequent massive delays so decided to fly out rather than cross to Lithuania. Some things were serendipitous, such as the flight from Sochi to Kaliningrad had a free stop in St. Petersburg and the same for taking Air Baltic Kaliningrad – Tallinn via Riga. Ukraine it turns out is not well connected to its neighbors, but I found that $39 fare from Kiev-Vilnius. Final piece and most challenging for costs, limited flights (Minsk only, no Brest flights), and visa restrictions was Belarus, so eventually I decided to go by train and that tied in well with Lithuania and Poland. Budget airlines have changed the map. In an ideal world I would have taken a car from from Kalininrad through the Baltics but that wasn’t going to happen with legal and fee issues. Even a one-way car fee within the Baltics was more than flying to the next country.

  • @Mr. Cool –
    5 – Uman I did not see much of because my 5-hour delay to Kiev got me to Uman at 2 am. The town seemed like other Ukrainian ones, the park is huge. I then had to roll out, I did not have time to dig into the extensive Jewish history of Uman and other cities in the region.

  • @asar – most worked pretty well. I would not have driven in Poland if I knew how expensive and irritating it is. Roads are really slow, the speed limits change constantly and there are cameras everywhere. I originally had the car for my original route, but for what I ended up doing, just Krakow area, train and bus would be much better.

  • @Drew – hopefully we can meet up sometime, somewhere, I love all you ‘hopper’ flights.

  • RakSiam

    I’m tired just reading about it. 🙂 Do you speak Russian or any of the other local languages?

  • @RakSiam – nope and Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were really tough language-wise, Baltics and Poland a bit easier.

  • I’m looking forward to a few more posts on the latter half of your trip. My family is from Poland and yet I’ve never been there for either personal or tourist reasons, which I’m embarrassed to say. Will you be summarizing which countries/regions were your favorite?

    I appreciate your honesty in prices throughout the trip. I’m also happy to pay private transportation costs to use my time more efficiently, though I doubt I’ll ever travel at rapid speed like you do.

  • Shannon

    You are my hero! This post is so organized and inspirational. May I suggest you having one of this introduction post as the beginning of the series. It would be easier to read and follow up. Maybe you should invite Mr. Cool to have a guest post to write something about Russia trip in 120 hours, a rapid travel travel!
    And a very handsome men in the picture! You just look like Russian or Polish.

  • @Becky – I am determined to not let this trip slip by so will try it in detail and do some comparisons.

  • @Shannon – I was cautious about sharing publicly my detailed plans prior to the trip since other bloggers have run into issues, so I waited until I was back, hopefully this will be useful for the posts going forward.

    I am 1/4 Polish, 1/4 Russian, and since I smile a lot by their standards, all the old ladies on the street ask me for directions.

  • Sean M.

    I did a similar (but without Russia) Eastern/Northern Europe jaunt a few years ago with a budget of ~$2000 including airfare. Used a few points here and there and flew lots of Ryanair, but it was a very fun trip overall.

    The one caution I have is that this kind of trip is probably best not done by a non-Caucasian traveling alone. As a brown skinned person, I experienced a lot of open hostility and some direct threats in “off the beaten path” areas behind the former Iron Curtain. After one bad experience, I paid the premium for First Class on trains to avoid confrontation with most of the troublemakers. On the flip side though, seeing some places many others have never even heard of was worth most of the hassles to me.

  • john

    your number sounds right on the money for me. 2 week trips usually cost me about $3000.

    why was kaliningrad a must see? because it looks interesting on the map or something unique there?

  • Lively

    1. I organize my trips on a spreadsheet the same way (I’m a CPA and that’s how I roll)!
    2. We were in Russia in April and we paid Visa HQ $783.26 for 3 Russian Visas…so you got a much better deal on your Russian Visa.
    3. Loved this series.

  • @Sean M – that is a good point, in my research I came across people sharing similar hostile experiences, even in places that one might assume to be more cosmopolitan, such as St. Petersburg.

    @john – it was only a must-see because it exists, I suppose. The history of East Prussia being de-Germanized is another fascinating wrinkle in the tangle of WWII. As a destination there is little to see and the Curonian Spit is more easily visited on the Lithuanian side with less visa hassle. I read in the news yesterday that Lukashenko of Belarus offered to take it off Russia’s hands to help to develop it…like Belarus? Can’t make this stuff up.

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  • Jamie

    very good trip report. I also think the cost sounds reasonable. These things just add up, but it’s hard to imagine something better to spend the money on.
    Looks like you got some great deals on hotels. Were you happy with them? We used to stay at more independent hotels, but lately have been staying at chains more. With kids (or just being more picky myself) I like knowing what I’m getting, but I do feel like while avoiding the unpleasant surprises, we are missing out on the experience of a nice unique hotel. How do you pick a place? I see that there are reviews on booking.com, do you just use online reviews to help you decide?

  • @Jamie – I am not picky about hotels for myself, I look for something that looks family-run, has free wifi, breakfast and parking. Sometimes pleasantly surprised, sometimes the reverse. No sure-fire formula since reviews can be inconsistent, but for many mom and pops that is all to go on. I find booking.com reviews to be less hysterical than trip advisor. With wife for me it totally changes the game and pressure is on.

  • J

    @Sean M I am white and female. I lived in Russia 20 years ago. They are quite opposed to non-white. (shall we say) That is funny what Mr. Cool said. lol I was going to take my family to Russia last year, but then came across the ridiculously priced visas x 5 and told my friends just kidding I’m not coming after all. They shouted some obscenities about Putin and said: you don’t want to come here anyway there is nothing here now.

  • JB

    Can you give a summary of on-timeness of the various modes of travel?
    did you build in flexiblilty?

    maybe a summary of what you would do better?

  • @JB – in a few places I built in flexibility for stuff I really wanted to do like get to Abkhazia and Chernobyl, others, like my day layover in Latvia I took the chance that it could get all fouled up and have to be scrubbed. Weather was good and I did pretty well, one flight delayed by rain, one by mechanical, the airports in that region are not busy so it seemed most of the deaprtures and arrivals boards were pretty good across airlines. Driving is always hard to precisely judge so I built the longer trips for days when did not have a firm commitment in the nights.

    As for better, given the limited connections between some of the countries due to geopolitical issues I think it went pretty well. Right away I learned to get the GPS coordinates for all my destinations in advance on Google Maps since finding them by search on GPS is very hit or miss and my Lithuanina drive got messed up by me going to the village of Paneriai rather than the Vilnius suburb of the same name. As I go through the posts I will uncover more of what worked and didn’t. Also would not be excited to drive in Poland again, very slow and frustrating.

  • Man, this is nuts. This spring, I spent less than 24 hours in Berlin and Madrid each, and people called me crazy. You, it seems, survived the same tempo for 2 weeks, and across my old country, no less. Wow!

    I visited Neringa in 1986. Back then the USSR wasn’t FORMER yet. The place was magical. Laid back and quiet despite the political turmoil. One of the brightest memories of my travels that hasn’t faded in all these years (and I’ve been places since then). I had visited Abhazia two years prior after graduating college, and stayed in Novy Afon too.

    Thank you for the trip down the memory lane.

    I’m attending the meetup tomorrow, hoping to hear more about your adventures.

  • @Andy Shuman – I look forward to meeting you. I wish I had more time in Abkhazia, especially with the border closing costing me half a day. I spent a late night in Sukhum wandering around looking for a hotel in business and not willing to risk it with the tough looking taxi drivers.

  • Mr. Cool

    @Rapid Travel Chai

    spring break uman’ 2014..whos with me??

  • @Mr. Cool – the Ukrainian traffic police for sure!

  • gpks00

    Great Itinerary!

    It was nice to see the main highlights for this region and an example of how to compactly fit them together.

    Is there a place or two where you felt you would have preferred to have visited longer/shorter? Or was your research and planning pretty accurate with time spent at different locations?

    Looks like you added many UNESCO checks to your list too.

    Thanks for sharing. This is my first time seeing your blog. If you have other quick travels like this then I look forward in reading those as well.

  • @gpks00 – mostly I did well, top one I would add something is Lithuania, I would skip Grūto Parkas, too far and not interesting enough, and focus on others. Lithuania of the Baltics had the most variety of attractions for me. Each of the Baltics I effectively only had one day so I had to breeze through the old towns, for those who like that I would recommend more time in each, and Riga has the best natural setting of the 3 capitals. Ukraine someday I would like to see the Crimea however with the distance and time I could not fit it in.

    I have gotten behind on reporting trips however your reminder is good for me to go back and publish some more prior itineraries.

  • >>>>>>>>@Mr. Cool – the Ukrainian traffic police for sure!

    LOL. But at least they don’t discriminate against foreigners. They extort everybody.

  • Hi! i’m interested in about Belarus conditions. So you need a visa. OK. Can you go free where you want to go, or must stay on main roads? I’ ve heard if you travel by car, you have to got a way licence from start to the end, and you cannot leave this track. Is it true? Regards from Hungary.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Sweethome – once you have a visa you can move about freely. I went where I wanted and stayed where I wanted. I am not sure on the car part, I had looked at renting and could not find a reasonable option that allowed pick up in Minsk and drop in Brest. Avis is one of the few major agencies in Belarus, I would call their Minsk office to confirm if the restrictions you heard are true. I hired a driver through a friend, and the big tip from him, despite the empty roads, police do strictly enforce speed limits.