As I write this, it’s been almost four years since we returned to the United States after living in Poland for five years. When we left, we told friends that perhaps we would spend our summers in Poland in the future. Everyone leaves Arizona in the summer if they can! We’re both still working, so summers away aren’t an option yet.
We did, however, start saving for a return trip as soon as we’d both found jobs. $75 a week straight into the savings account. Now, some years and a few dollars later, we’ve made a return trip to Poland.
Planning the trip was enjoyable, but complicated. We ended up making a calendar of our two weeks to keep track of everything we were trying to do, and I’m pleased to say the actual trip lived up to expectations. I think this is due in part to the fact that we’ve made this trip frequently enough that we have some confidence in the arrangements that we made.
I’m sure some of you have made the journey to visit family even more times that we have and will have your own tips to share. But if that’s not the case, if you’d like to visit Poland but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few things to consider to help you become a confident traveler too.
Planning your flight to Poland
A little flexibility in your travel dates can yield big costs savings. We shifted this two week trip forward by two weeks once we started checking airfares. It reduced the price of our tickets by almost 50%. The same was true when I was planning to visit Ed in Poland on his birthday years ago. High summer fares were still in effect. Waiting a week or two to make the trip, made the flight much cheaper and gave us more money to do things with while I was there.
When selecting a flight, we like to have a two hour layover at every stop. It gives you time to change terminals if you need to and allow for a little cushion if you’re delayed. It can be done with a shorter layover if you’re lucky. I once had a ticket that only gave me 45 minutes to change planes in Frankfurt. It meant jogging through the airport (or at least moving as speedily as a woman in need of knee replacement surgery could move) and added some stress to my day, but I made the connection.
I consider two hours an absolute minimum for the first stop when returning to the US. You’ll have to go through passport control and collect your luggage to go through customs before rechecking your bags, and this can take a while. Sometimes, two hours isn’t enough, three hours might be more comfortable.
At the other end of the spectrum, watch for long layovers. A very long layover, if you know someone in the city, can have a plus side. More than once, I’ve spend the day visiting our daughter who lives in the Bay Area when I had a 12-hour layover at SFO as I was returning to Poland. The airline was taking care of my luggage and I had time to do a little sight seeing and grab a meal with her before going through security again.
I have also avoided some long layovers because the last thing I want after 18+ hours of flying is to have a 6 hour layover in the Denver airport before I can catch my final flight to Tucson.
This is why we often fly out of Phoenix rather than Tucson. It’s a larger airport with more flights in and out. The flights tend to be cheaper, offer more alternatives, with better connections. So consider larger airports that might be a bit further away, but have much more to offer.
As for the actual purchase of the flight, we search everything to get the best price with optimal layovers. Ed is a big fan of Kayak because he can compare so many options at once. I like to check Hotwire for a bargain. Sometimes we’ll see an airline flying our route, but something about the flights isn’t quit right, I’ll check the airline’s website and often find even better options at similar prices.
Some tickets on Kayak are actually being sold by travel agencies rather than the airlines. Be mindful of these, if you want to make a change you have to go through the travel agency. I ran into this on our trip. I had a very long layover and noticed that my carrier had two flights leaving for my destination, but when I asked about moving to one of the earlier flights, I was told that I would have to check with the travel agent, and I hadn’t kept their contact info handy.
Traveling from Arizona, on the western side of the US, to Poznan, it always took us three flights. Flying east, the first takeoff to last landing was usually 18 – 21 hours. Flying west, against the Jet Stream, we could plan on 21 – 24 hours. There are a lot of things to consider.
If I was traveling with our dog, that added a whole new level of complication. It might make sense to cut the number of flights to two by traveling to Chicago and the Warsaw on LOT, the Polish national airline. Knowing that traveling the last leg in our car would be much more comfortable for all of us.
Speaking of comfortable, when I made my first trip to Poland, I found the flight across the Atlantic to be unbearable. It’s long, you’re tired, the seats are too cramped to get comfortable and sleep. The claustrophobia of being in such close quarters for so long was an enormous source of anxiety for me.
I have no qualms about the flying, it’s the lack of personal space for such a long time. I asked my dentist who travels a lot what he did to cope with this. He said that he always got the the airport early and had three beers. My physician helped me find a solution that suited me better by prescribing something to help with the anxiety on long flights.
Finding a place to stay in Poland
Whenever possible, we like to stay close to the sites we want to see in a city. It just gives you more hours in the day. Again, we search all kinds of websites. For lodging, Ed likes Booking.com because you can key in whatever criteria you have, need on-site parking (not always a given), pet friendly, etc. It’s often possible to reserve a room and still have the ability to cancel. He also enjoys the map feature because map study comes highly recommended as you’ll read below.
I suggest that you check Hotwire again for bargains although cancellations are not possible. On one night as we were passing through Berlin, we stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, a few steps above our usual hotels. It seems to be a bargain on the weekends. The same room on a weekday, $440, definitely out of our price range. The one night was a fun treat.
Have you used AirBnb? I’ve used it multiple times in the states and have always had great results by considering the comments from previous guests. I booked AirBnB for both Polish cities on this trip. The result, very nice flats in exactly the part of town we wanted to be in, at half the cost of a 3 – 4 star hotel, and we had a washing machine in Poznan and could therefore pack fewer clothes. We also get the feel of a neighborhood rather than just the touristy or commercial spots surrounding major hotels. Both locations were places that I’d stay again.
There are other options for non-hotel stays. Just do a google search for vacation apartment rental in the locations you’re considering. I know people on short term work assignments who are renting furnished apartments for $40 per day.
I know many young people who find travel affordable by staying in hostels. Just a word of warning, in some situations, they only thing you’re being guaranteed is access to a bed. The room will most likely be shared with others. You may or may not have a way to secure your belongings, and the toilet may likely be down the hall.
Using your smart phone in Poland
We used to have two sets of phones, one American and one Polish. Our carrier, Verizon, now has a plan that can be added to your phone and made them usable in Europe, and I suspect that others do too. For $10 a day, only on days that you use it, we had our normal calls, text, and .5 gig of data. The $10 a day quickly adds up, but it does add a great deal of convenience.
Public Transportation in Polish Cities
The most common way to order a taxi in Poland is by way of text message (SMS). Send the address and time of pickup. The taxi company will respond when they have a driver, sending you the make, model, and color of the taxi that will be picking you up. Taxis are very affordable in Poland, and a great way to get around. Remember the legal blood alcohol limt is .02. So if you plan to have even one cocktail or beer, don’t drive!
As for taking the bus or tram, you’ll want to use the website or phone app jakdojade. It works in multiple cities and can help you plan a trip from one address to another, even giving you a map of the routes and showing the portions that you’ll need to walk. You can also buy and validate your ticket with the app, as I did when I hopped on a bus leaing my Warsaw AirBnB and heading to the Central train station.
Uber has come to Poland! We used it multiple times. In Poznan, most rides will cost you 10 zl or about $2.50. There were often predetermined meeting points for rider and driver. The map in the app will show you where to go to be at the nearby meeting place. This was something I hadn’t experienced before in Tucson, a very car friendly city. But I can see the need because a car can’t always get to or stop for a person on foot.
Traveling between cities in Poland
When thinking about travel from one city to another, most Americans think of a car, as in “we’ll have to rent a car or we’ll have to hire a taxi.” Remember the train! Rail service is excellent in Poland. Do look for express trains when possible. You can buy tickets at the train station (try to do this in advance if possible) or even purchase online (approximate a month in advance). We used trainline.eu and liked that they offered the ticket delivery by email rather than snailmail.
We have never used Eurail passes, but I will pass along a few tidbits. They must be purchased while you’re still at home. They can’t be purchased in Europe. You need to validate (time/date stamp) your Eurail pass when you begin using it, and be sure to make a reservation for the trains you intend to take.
Consider a bus, one of my Polish friends often takes holiday trips via motor coach. They’re very clean and comfortable. This same friends had a rude awakening when she decided to travel via Greyhound bus on a trip to the US. Her overnight trip from Las Vegas to Tucson was not the experience she had expected.
If you do decided to drive, we found that an international driver’s license was unnecessary. Rental car companies and the police if you were stopped wanted to see your American driver’s license. We had Polish car insurnace when we lived there, so now, I would probably buy the coverage offered with the car. I don’t know that my stateside insurance will cover me overseas.
All things money related in Poland
While Poland is part of the European Union, they are not part of the euro zone. Polish currency is the złoty, and it is divided into 100 groszy (cents); the exchange rate with the US dollar is about 3 to 4 złoty to one dollar.
In Poland, one exchanges currencies at a kantor. You’ll spot them because they always have a sign in front of their doorway advertising their rates for various currencies. Rates vary and will be less favorable at airports, train stations, etc.
We always found it more economical and convenient to find an ATM (bankomat) and simply get some złoty. We also used our debit and credit cards to make purchases almost everywhere. When given the choice, I make my charge in złoty becuase I think my bank gives a pretty good exchange rate.
I’ll warn you that there is a national obscession in Poland with people paying with the correct change. It’s not that they can’t make change for you, they just prefer not to. I think it goes back to the Communist days, when maybe there was a shortage of coins (and everything else). Clerks will grab coins from your hand if they see you have enough rather than breaking a bill.
Don’t let them take all of your coins because you will often encounter pay toilets in many locations (train stations and some gas stations come to mind) and will need about 3 złoty to get through the turnstile.
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My husband, Ed, a former fighter pilot is very big on map study. The first thing he checks is how to get from where he arrives to where he’s staying, and the same thing in reverse when its time to leave.
Google maps also points out attractions. You might find points of interest or historical significance near you by studying the map. You’ll also find nearby coffee shops and restaurants.
Check out other places you want to visit. Evaluate the distance from where you’re staying, is it a good walk? Will you need transportation?
Knowing the map, and watching our travel on it also helped us point out to a taxi driver that he’d taken us to the wrong location, same hotel name, wrong address, even though we had shown him the address on my phone.
Plan your visit to Poland!
If you’ve been thinking about visiting Poland, I hope you’ll go for it. The countryside is green and bountiful, the architecture is beautiful, and the people have a strength and history of which they should be very proud. I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to know some of it.