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It's no secret that I've wanted to visit Eastern Europe for quite a while. But, as much as I dreamed about it, the region also kind of freaked me out. It was so… different. So un-commercialized and un-traveled.
Eastern Europe is one of those regions that's been stigmatized and largely ignored by the travel community. It's not a region that you're going to find hundreds of blog posts about, or lots of postcard-perfect photos from. In fact, you may not even know anyone who's been there.
That was of course the reason why I wanted to visit this part of the world in the first place, though — to discover it for myself and share it with others.
Originally, I had considered tackling Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria on my own. It would take a lot of research and a good amount of planning for this detail-oriented traveler, but I was willing to tackle it.
But then an opportunity came along to travel through the region with Intrepid Travel.
Intrepid's 18-day “Explore Eastern Europe” tour seemed almost too good to be true when I first read the description and itinerary — it encompassed all of the places I wanted to go and more besides, it would fit nicely into my dates, and it would even open up the possibility to see other parts of Europe while I was there.
Plus, it would save me from having to figure out all the little details for myself.
(This tour is now the 17-day Eastern Europe Explorer tour.)
I went into my first tour with Intrepid Travel completely unsure of what to expect. Would this tour be everything I hoped it would be? What kind of people would I be traveling with? Would this be a good tour for a solo female traveler like myself? Would I kick myself for going with a small group instead of on my own?
Since I had so many questions, I'm sure you do, too.
So here are answers to some of those questions (and more) regarding this trip with Intrepid:
First of all, why did I chose to work with Intrepid over the other small-group travel companies out there? Well, besides the fact that Intrepid's Eastern Europe itinerary was exactly what I was looking for, I also fell in love with the company's mission and focus on responsible, sustainable tourism, and its promise to deliver a “real,” “local” experience. It was a brand that I knew I could stand behind with confidence.
Who will you travel with?
Most of Intrepid's trips allow for a maximum of 12 passengers — meaning you won't be packed into a 50-seater tour bus or need nametags to recognize everyone you're traveling with. My group was even smaller than usual — there were only 4 of us, plus our guide. Ages ranged from early 20s to mid-40s, and the majority were Australians. This, I assume, is fairly typical, since Intrepid is based in Australia, and markets to both young and more mature travelers. But this is definitely no Contiki tour.
Who is the guide?
Intrepid uses local guides when possible, or at least someone very familiar with the region you are traveling through. You have the same guide for the whole trip, and their main job is to get you safely from Point A to Point B — not to be your babysitter or party coordinator. Our guide was a young, laid-back Polish woman named Marta who was perfect for our small, low-key group.
How will you travel?
Intrepid is quite unique in that its tour guides endeavor to use public, local transportation whenever possible. While we did use mini buses and taxis when there were no other options, most days we were traveling on local trains and buses and walking to our accommodation. This does mean that the “travel” process can be a bit more challenging/exciting. We had plenty of adventures finding seats on packed trains, navigating stations with signs written only in Cyrillic, and border crossings where no one spoke English. But it's all part of the adventure.
Where will you stay?
It depends on the “style” of trip. This trip was an Intrepid “Original,” which means 2/3-star tourist class accommodation — no camping in the bush, but also nothing super fancy. Unless you pay for a single supplement, you'll be sharing a room with at least one other person. And, even if you do pay for a single room, there are some places where it's not possible to get a room to yourself (in Bulgaria, for example, the single supplement for this specific trip doesn't apply).
The type/quality of lodging can also depend a lot on what country you're in, of course, but for the most part we stayed in nice budget hotels and guesthouses. The guesthouses were the highlights of this trip, and embody Intrepid's mission of responsible tourism — they are owned by locals, allowing you to have a very authentic experience while at the same time giving back to the community.
What will you eat?
Unlike some other tours I've been on, there was no pressure on this Intrepid trip to partake in large group dinners at subpar restaurants. Our guide, Marta, would ask around about traditional restaurants when we would arrive in a new place, and then would give us an option of a group dinner or doing our own thing. Most nights, we ate together, but there was certainly no pressure to do so. And if you are staying in a guesthouse and your guide mentions that your host can cook you dinner for an additional fee? NEVER turn it down. Some of our best meals were home-cooked ones.
On this particular trip, we ate a lot of meat, and a lot of tomato/cucumber salads.
What will you do?
Intrepid's target market is the adventurous, somewhat independent traveler; not your average package tourist. Therefore, tours are usually a nice mix of pre-planned activities and flexible free time. The included activities are usually things like walking tours or visits to famous sites/monuments (included things on this tour included wine tasting in Hungary, visiting Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, and walking tours in multiple cities). Some extras that I signed up for on this tour included a day trip to “Dracula's” castle in Romania and a visit to the dancing bear sanctuary in Bulgaria.
We also did extra things as a group, such as visiting fortresses, having picnics, and seeking out swimming pools. But there was usually at least one opportunity each day to explore on your own if you wanted to. The main goal of an Intrepid tour is to allow you to truly experience a destination, and the itinerary does its best to help facilitate this.
The only real downsides are the same ones that accompany any sort of organized group travel — you do sacrifice a bit of independence. If you fall in love with a place, you really can't choose to stay any longer without leaving the tour. If you hate your tourmates or guide, you are stuck with them for the whole trip. And, unless you pay extra for it, you aren't going to have your own space in which to decompress at the end of the day (something I often struggle with during group travel).
Would I recommend it?
Absolutely, without a doubt.
I loved traveling with Intrepid, and this particular tour made exploring Eastern Europe easy and fun, and also gave my parents peace of mind back home knowing that I wasn't trying to navigate this under-traveled part of the world on my own. At the end of the day, I feel like I could have done most of the trip on my own (except for maybe Bulgaria, which was more challenging), but I'm glad I did it this way instead.
What do you think? Would you ever travel with Intrepid?
If you're interested in doing the same tour I did, you can check it out here.
And, if you'd like to read all my coverage of this specific Intrepid trip, check out these posts:
Budapest, You Are Beautiful
Eger and the Valley of the Beautiful Women
Merry Cemetery: A Different Way to Look at Death
Village Scenes: Life in Rural Romania
5 Things to Love About Sighisoara, Romania
When the Cows Come Home
City Spotlight: Brasov, Romania
Traveling in Romania (and Why You Should Go Right Now)
A Tale of Two Capitals: Bucharest and Sofia
This is Bulgaria?!?
Rila Monastery, In Photos
My Bulgarian Babas
Serendipity Saves the Day in Bulgaria
*Note: I went on this 17-day tour through Eastern Europe as a guest of Intrepid Travel. But all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.