Once shrouded behind the elusive Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe is now emerging as a popular and cost-effective alternative to the Western European mainstays, such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany. The weakening Euro likely means more savings for Americans on travel extras, dining and hotel accommodations, but Travelocity's expert cautions that consumers will still need to shop smart in order to truly keep costs down.

With the European Travel Commission predicting an estimated 12.7 million American tourists this year, approaching pre-Sept. 11 levels, travel pro Amy Ziff has some helpful destination pointers to steer travelers in the right direction for a bargain. From beautiful Mediterranean beaches to urban architecture untouched by the Second World War, Eastern Europe offers all the old-world charm of Western Europe without the crowds and the high cost.

Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for Travelocity, says this is a great time to visit Eastern Europe. "While countries such as Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have joined the European Union, their currencies have not fully converted to the Euro," said Ziff. "Armed with a stronger American dollar, U.S. travelers can truly take advantage of everything these countries have to offer, whether buying in the Euro or not." Using ATMs, eating at cafes over fancy restaurants, and paying for hotels in US dollars in advance also are good ways to save while abroad.

So be it a side trip while visiting Western Europe or a Euro-free getaway, Ziff recommends the following countries as a way of experiencing the best of post-communism Eastern Europe:


This pint-size nation is perhaps better known for its endearing quirks than its stunning beauty, but that's all about to change. Now on savvy travelers' radars, the former Soviet country of Estonia is becoming a more popular alternative. Estonia has always stood out as a Nordic-influenced gem with tiled rooftops, painted fishing boats, and coastal cliffs.


Latvia is one of those beguiling places that seem to have been forgotten by time. This newly independent nation is keen on reinvigoration, so now's the time to explore its Brothers Grimm-like castles, river valleys, and "old-Europe" ways. Riga, Latvia's picturesque capital, is quickly regaining the nickname it was affectionately given at the end of the 19th century: the Paris of the Baltics.


While many of its neighbors were embroiled in warfare, Slovenia managed a somewhat more peacefully adopted independence, allowing it to become one of the most prosperous nations in Eastern Europe in the last 10 years. Its cities bear the mark of the Venetian Republic, its mountains evoke the Bavarian Alps, and almost half of this tiny country is covered in dense forests. Regarded as one of Europe's best-kept secrets, the capital city of Ljubljana (pronounced "lyoob-lyah-na") remains an untapped wonderland.


Though savvy travelers have been flocking to Croatia as an affordable alternative to pricier Mediterranean countries for the past few years, this coastal nation is far from overrun with discotheques and sunning beachgoers. Still a considerable savings when compared with Greece or Italy, Croatia offers infinite yachting possibilities along its Adriatic coast, where some of Europe's most complete Roman ruins and fairytale medieval cities are located. The capital city of Zagreb is visually stunning, and Dubrovnik offers visitors a medieval storybook experience in its old town of Stari Grad.

Czech Republic

Like many of its neighbors, the Czech Republic offers curious travelers a gamut of experiences--from Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, to timeless villages, winding rivers, and a famous local beverage (in this case, Pilsner). Though not the bargain it was a few years ago (and certainly not when compared with other Eastern European capitals), the capital of Prague can still be an affordable place to travel this summer. Prague's labyrinth of medieval buildings, cobblestone streets, romantic passages, and ancient churches were left largely untouched by WWII and make for mesmerizing walks (free!).


Despite its recent popularity and increase in visitors, Hungary remains ones of the best bargains in Europe. Its fast-paced adoption of Western food, trends, and luxuries in the capital city of Budapest is reason enough to get there soon--though the melding of these concepts with the traditions and beauty of this country serve as an interesting study in post-Communist Europe.