If there's a bright side to the dollar's decline in western Europe, it's that travelers have extra incentive to lay off Paris and Rome for a while and explore historic gems like Kraków and Warsaw's painstakingly restored Old Town, in Poland. Founded in the 7th century, Kraków was the only large city in Poland to withstand World War II with its architecture intact. With Europe's largest medieval town square, the extraordinary Wawel Castle, and the 14-century Wawel Cathedral, it's no wonder Kraków's Old Town made UNESCO's very first list of World Heritage sites, in 1978 -- an honor shared by only eleven other places on earth. A few miles southeast of the city centre, the Wieliczka salt mines -- the eerily beautiful underground labyrinth of passageways, chambers, and cathedrals hewn entirely from salt -- was another site to make that list. And Warsaw's Old Town -- which was meticulously restored in the years immediately following WWII, which decimated 85% of the city's buildings -- was also inscribed, in 1980, as an "example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century."
As a new member of the European Union, Poland is still cheaper on the ground than European cities farther west. A number of air-hotel package deals are further lowering the cost of travel to Kraków, Warsaw, and Gdansk, during the spring shoulder season. Overall, Affordable Poland (no phone; www.affordablepoland.com), is offering the lowest prices to a variety of city combinations. And they've done a great job in scoring the very best three-star hotels in each city; every one of their selections receives excellent user reviews, which is unusual for three-star establishments. They also offer land-only rates, which make travel to Warsaw even cheaper.
Affordable Poland's week in Kraków, including six nights accommodations and roundtrip air, is $929 from JFK, for travel from now through May 31. From Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C., it's only $30 more. You'll stay in the Hotel Regent, a beautifully restored former tenement building in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, which housed all of Kraków's 65,000 Jews before World War II (compared to the 100 who now reside in the city), and served as a refuge for persecuted Jews throughout Europe before the war. It's a three-star establishment, but it receives unanimous praise from former guests.
Without air, the land-only package in Kraków is $305. Given the comparatively high cost of flying into Kraków, it makes more sense to book the airfare and hotel together.
All Affordable Poland trips include transfers and full daily breakfast. Air taxes of $150 to $275 are not included.
The Warsaw package is similar, though ever so slightly more expensive, as is the city itself: For travel from April 1 to April 26, airfare and six nights at the four-star Hotel Grand are $979 from Boston, JFK, Newark, and Washington, D.C. (See Web site for additional departure cities.) In the heart of the Old Town, the Hotel Grand lives up to its name and also seems to please every guest who stays there, if the reviews are to be believed. Warsaw is much larger, more modern, and cosmopolitan, though it dates back to the Middle Ages. No eastern European city sustained worse destruction during World War II, but the 17th and 18th-century buildings around the Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) were meticulously replicated; the 13th century Royal Castle, in the center of the square, was also rebuilt, during the 1970s, and is now open to the public. Warsaw has gorgeous Gothic churches, several history museums, and Europe's largest Jewish cemetery.
Without air, this package is $371. (From April 27 to May 31, the rates rise to $1,009 from JFK and $1,019 from Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C. See the Web site for additional departure cities.) Once you calculate the overall package price with taxes, you'll see it's cheaper to arrange your own flight and book the Warsaw land-only package. Through One Travel (tel. 866/567-3594; www.onetravel.com), roundtrip fare to Warsaw from Newark is $719 from SAS. This price includes all taxes and fees. From Chicago it's $688 on Northwest. And from Los Angeles, it's $791 on United.
You can also combine the two cities; surprisingly, the air-hotel price is comparable, though it includes first-class rail transport between cities. From April 1 until May 31, six nights in Kraków and Warsaw are only $959. The price includes roundtrip air, three nights accommodations in each city, transfers, first-class rail transport between cities, hotel taxes, and a full daily breakfast. The Kraków hotel is the same; in Warsaw, you'll lodge in the Warsaw Europejski, the city's oldest hotel, built in 1856, which also receives excellent user reviews. Additional departure cities are available (Chicago is $999, and Los Angeles is $1,159; see the Web site for additional cities). For this and all other Affordable Poland packages, air taxes of $150-$275 are not included.
This package is also available without air for $364, but it's cheaper to buy the package, when you figure in the cost of transportation between cities.
For about $200 more, you get an extra three nights in Gdansk, Poland's historic port on the Baltic Sea. You'll stay three nights in each city, with first-class rail transport among them. The Warsaw and Kraków hotels are the same; in Gdansk, you'll stay in the three-star Novotel, which is adequate, though not as remarkable as the others. From now until April 23, nine nights are $1,189 from JFK; $1,205 from Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C.; $1,225 from Chicago; and $1,375 from Los Angeles. Without air, this package is $557.
Paul Laifer Tours (tel. 800/346-6314; www.laifertours.com) and Tatra Travel (tel. 212-486-0533; www.tatratravel.com) are selling similar packages, but with the addition of cities like Vienna or Prague to the itinerary, making them more expensive -- sometimes by several hundred dollars. But both outfits are as reliable as Affordable Poland and One Travel and definitely worth a look when shopping for the vacation that suits your needs.
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