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How will European expansion affect cost-conscious travelers?

SmarterTravel

On May 1, the European Union (EU) grew by 10 nations (the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) and more than 75 million people. This expansion opens up borders once blocked by the Iron Curtain, and presents many new economic opportunities. But if the past is any indication, the nations of the new EU are likely to experience rising prices. Since many of these countries have been favorites of backpackers and budget travelers for some time, it could also threaten their status as bargain destinations.

With these momentous changes in mind, we’ve analyzed the prospects for travelers, and found ways to help you save, both now and in the future. Read on to find out our top destination picks, and specific ways you can save on airfare, train travel, and vacations.

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At the time of publication, the euro was worth $1.19, meaning that U.S. visitors are likely to find prices in Europe quite high. However, the new EU nations won’t join the “Euro Zone” for some time, perhaps as many as five years into the future. That means that the next few years should be a good opportunity to get to know the wonders of Central and Eastern Europe before costs reach levels near those of today’s euro-using nations. However, as a result of continued European integration, and the prosperity likely to accompany this, prices in these countries may rise regardless of whether they have adopted the euro yet. The combination of these developments underscores the need for frugal travelers to take a serious look at these still-affordable destinations now, before they put more pressure on the wallet.

The Czech Republic’s capital, Prague, is frequently discussed when the subject of the world’s most beautiful cities arises. And no wonder, with its cobblestone streets, magnificent architecture, and great fortune at having survived World War II largely intact. Those looking for a more small-town experience should head south to Ceský Krumlov, with a historical center on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A visit to the Czech Republic is often spent in revelry, washed down with the country’s legendary beers. For a healthy alternative to party life, take the waters of Karlovy Vary, the oldest of Bohemia’s spas.

While Budapest, Hungary, is often compared to Prague, this wonderful city has its own feel, split as it is by the River Danube. From its rich tradition of café life to the bathhouses set up over the city’s warm thermal springs, there’s no shortage of culture here. But that’s not to say that the best of Budapest is indoorsÂ?the city averages 2,000 hours of sunshine annually, so you can avoid high-season prices and still see the city in pleasant weather conditions. While you’re in Hungary, don’t miss the country’s fine (and cheap) wines, especially the famous Egri Bikaver (Eger Bull’s Blood).

The tiny island of Malta is ideal for history buffs, particularly inside the walled city of Valletta. Built in the 16th century, this medieval settlement allows visitors to admire gardens and castles alike, and the museum has a rich collection. Surrounded by the Mediterranean, some of Malta’s finest attractions are underwater, so swimming and diving are popular activities. With its combination of low prices, moderate tourism, and English as one of Malta’s main languages, the island has many appeals for budget travelers from the U.S.

Though Slovenia was once a part of the failed state of Yugoslavia, it has been peacefully independent for more than a decade, and savvy visitors are starting to notice. Tucked in between Austria and Italy, this country is a haven for hikers and mountaineers, who come to ascend the Julian Alps, which boast elevations of up to 9,000 feet. Along the Adriatic Coast, vacationers relax along the beaches. Slovenia’s largest city is Ljubliana, and it’s yet another Central European city that is often likened to Prague. The only way to answer this debate is to visit and decide for yourself.

Think small

Just as Americans have embraced low-cost carriers such as JetBlue, Europeans are also leaving behind traditional airlines in favor of young upstarts. While you’ll still have to fly a major airline to get yourself to the Continent, the new kids on the block represent great ways to save on intra-European flights. See below for our top picks and some of their main destinations in the new EU countries.

  • bmibaby: Prague, Czech Republic

  • easyJet: Budapest, Hungary; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Prague, Czech Republic

  • SkyEurope: Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czech Republic; Warsaw, Poland

  • Wizz Air: Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; Prague, Czech Republic

If you can’t find a good deal or your desired destination with any of these low-cost carriers, check europebyair. Its FlightPass allows you to book travel on different carriers around Europe, all for as little as $99 one-way. Cities served by europebyair airlines include Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czech Republic; Tallinn, Estonia; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Warsaw, Poland.

Ride the rails

Another great way to see more of Europe is through the windows of a train car. And there are several ways to save on fares, including Rail Europe, which offers money-saving options like the European East Pass, giving you access to Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. It’s also possible to buy “Flexipasses” that cover several days of travel in individual countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and more.

Package it up

Continental Journeys is currently offering 55 vacations to eight of the 10 new EU member countries. Highlights of these trips include four-day packages to Prague, Budapest, and other cities, starting at $199. In addition, Continental Journeys runs guided tours, such as the six-day Â?Baltic CapitalsÂ? from $819. All of these trips are land-only.

For an exciting package that includes airfare, Gate1TravelÂ?s 12-night Central European Explorer will guide you through the heart of the region, with stays in Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. Prices start at $1,649. Gate 1 also has shorter, and lower-priced, trips to individual cities in Central Europe.

Go-today.com does not offer as many packages to destinations in the new EU countries as Gate 1 or Continental Journeys, but it frequently has the best prices overall. We found deals to Budapest, Prague, and Malta at excellent rates.

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