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How to best connect the Baltic countries?

Doing some early (speculative) planning for a possible two-week trip to Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania in summer 2018 (probably early July, which I assume is a good time to go), and of course I'm finding that there's limited info available in the form of familiar travel guidebooks (which is both a challenge and exciting - I'm not a fan of crowds).

In terms of "coming and going" to/from the USA, I'm guessing that Helsinki, Stockholm or Warsaw would make good access points for our long-range flights (from/to the US west coast). I assume that flights from these regional gateways would be pretty easy/pretty inexpensive to connect to the Baltic capitols (or I suppose the ferry from Helsinki is another obvious choice).

What are the best ways to get around in these countries? I'm guessing that renting a car is not a viable option if one hopes to start in one country and drop off in another (due to big fees). OTOH, if one wants to get out from the major cities and explore the coastal areas or countryside, a car is helpful...a common dilemma. Suggestions for transport?

Finally, Kaliningrad also looks intriguing - in addition to being a geographical oddity (disconnected from Russia but part of it) its certainly got quite a history (/understatement), I can only imagine it must have some interesting sights, no?...

Any recommendations? Thanks!

Posted by
1347 posts

The Batics are small. I rented a car, flew in and out of Riga and did a circle 8 kind of thing. There are a ton of things that are more difficult to see and do without a car, for example the Curonian Spit.

I think the pain of getting a Russian visa is not worth it just to go to Kaliningrad.

Posted by
2092 posts

I have been to Tallinn, flew from SFO on Lufthansa with just a stop in Frankfurt. I had the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Tallinn guidebook and spent a week--I have Estonian heritage--using the excellent EstAdventures for guided day trips to surrounding areas, and also took the ferry to Helsinki, very simple. I have been researching off and on a return to Tallinn, then by bus to Riga then Vilnius., fly home from there. The bus seems to be a good option, haven't researched flights. Trip Advisor has plenty of info on this area.

Posted by
5019 posts

Thanks, both. Driving and border crossings fairly straightforward? Maybe we just fly in to Tallinn, spend a couple days, rent a car, drive around down into Latvia and Lithuania...down the coastal roads to Riga, Klaipeda, Nida...then head inland to Vilnius and work our way back up to Tallinn. Hmmm.

I note that Vilnius is quite close to Minsk...hmmm. It sounds like getting a Russian visa is a bit of a PITA, maybe more trouble than it's worth for Kaliningrad (I'm still tempted, I figure that city's old town must be amazing). Minsk & Belarus...easy or another major hassle?

Thanks again for the input...I'm getting more amped up to do this trip, I bet it's amazing.

Posted by
1347 posts

I don't remember there being any border crossings, they are all EU countries. Belarus visas are also a PITA, although I've heard a lot less than previously. You definitely won't be able to take a rental car in there.

Glad you are excited, its an interesting region at an interesting time.

Posted by
323 posts

If obtaining Belarus visa is a PITA - well, there must be something wrong with that A :-) If you fly into Minsk and stay for up to 5 says, you should be able to go visa-free (http://usa.mfa.gov.by/en/embassy/news/dbec02e99fa6c45b.html).

Frankly, I think PITA-levels involved in obtaining a Russian Visa has been somewhat exaggerated as well; not to mention that all ticketed spectators traveling to World Cup venues (including Kaliningrad) in July 2018 will also be able to enter visa-free.

That said, the three Baltic states have more than enough to offer to keep you busy for two weeks. Personally, I think adding anything on top would be a bit too much (disclaimer: I've only been to Estonia).

Posted by
1 posts

My husband and I spent two weeks in the Baltics in May of 2016. We had an easy flight from North Carolina, connecting in Frankfurt and then on to Tallin. We rented a car which was easy but not inexpensive. The rental rate was low but check all the fees so no surprises. One important side note - they enforce speed limits by radar on road signs. You will not see a police officer anywhere but they will ticket you electronically. When I turned in my rental car I had tickets to pay!

Driving was easy and parking plentiful if you reserved it in advance. We rented a GPS and it made the journey effortless and worked everywhere. I would NOT recommend trying to do multiple countries by bus as some of the places are quite rural. There is one major highway with one lane going in each direction. If you want to pass (you are frequently stuck behind a tractor trailer) you need to time it with the trucks coming at you the other way! It's long straight road, but not for the faint of heart. It's worth the white knuckles though because the fields of rapeseed and forest are stunningly beautiful and not to be missed.

We travelled to Tallinn, Sigulda, Jurmala, Riga, the Curionian Spit and Vilnius. Since he had a conference in Tallinn, we were able to begin and end there.

I found this was a very busy schedule for a two week trip and although we considered St. Petersburg, the cost and hassle of the visa were just too much for me to consider. It's a serious pain.

Vilnius was a great surprise for me and after getting there I wished I'd left time to see Poland. In fact, if you have time, and you like history, Poland would be fascinating after Lithuania. Much more so than Minsk.

Hope this helps! It's been one of my most favorite and surprising trips to date.

Posted by
5019 posts

Very helpful replies so far, thank you and please keep it coming.

One question I have is: in what order to do these countries?

That is, I'm assuming that we can fly in to, or out of, Tallin, Riga, or Vilnius (or Helsinki, for that matter), and the cost diffference is likely to be small/negligible (I'm sure we will connect in Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Warsaw, etc.).

IF we can rent a car in one country and drop it off in another without a big fee (I know this is a big "if" and that's often not the case), then would it make sense to fly into Vilnius, pick up the car and drive generally northward, ending in Tallin and depart from there (or ferry to Helsinki and depart from there)? Or do the opposite: start in the north and depart from the south?

And if there's a drop-off fee for car rental that makes that prohibitive (often true), would it then make sense to fly into "the middle" (eg Riga), rent the car there, then drive south to Lithuania, then north to Estonia, finally back to Riga to drop the car and then depart from there? If starting and ending the trip in one place, is Riga (more or less central to the three countries) the most logical begin/end point? Or would Tallin or Vilnius be just as reasonable for a starting/ending point?

Bottom line, if doing these three countries by rental car, where would be best to begin and end?

As an analogy, Rick has often claimed that on a "grand tour" (blitz) covering much of Europe, it's best to start in London, and finish in Rome. The theory being that London is both "easier" (no language barrier, less chaotic) and culturally less of a leap for Americans; Rome is "harder" (language barrier, more chaotic) but also arguably culturally richer - if you go the other way, if after starting a trip in Italy you end up in England, it may feel like a bit of a wet noodle (culturally). Extending this analogy to the Baltics, is there any reason to start or end in one or another of these three countries? From afar, they appear somewhat similar, but I'm sure they each have their own unique feels. Which first, which last?

Thanks!

Posted by
1347 posts

I've already given you the answer. It is never cost-effective to pick up a car in one country and return to another. Fly to the middle. Loop south. Loop north. Done.

Posted by
5019 posts

It is never cost-effective to pick up a car in one country and return to another.

Understood. I'm currently investigating drop-off fees to confirm if they're prohibitive. I suspect that will probably be the case - it usually is - but I don't think that's always a 100% certainty (occasionally you get lucky). I'm looking in to that now.

But assuming that turns out to be the case (that is, I will need to pick-up the car and return it in the same city), the rest of my question still stands: is there any order/sequence that makes more sense than another from a cultural/experiential standpoint (not necessarily from a driving efficiency standpoint - which is obviously also an important consideration, but is a separate question).

For example, if your goal was to drive coast-to-coast across the USA (for the first time, maybe your only epic US road trip), would you recommend going east-to-west, or west-to-east? Personally, I'd recommend east-to-west, since I'd say the landscapes become more dramatic and scenic as you go west, and (for many people) the "west" is more enjoyable and impressive (I know this is a gross generalization, just making an analogy here....for a "Europe trip"" Rick advocates a north-to-south sequence as I noted above). So my "sequence" question remains on the three countries: in which order would one enjoy them most? Absent some other reason, I'd typically start with the moderately interesting/enjoyable first places and progress to the most interesting/enjoyable last (sense of drama, big finish, etc.).

So, put another way: if there were no practical/logistical reasons (drop-off fees, route efficiencies, etc.), and you could do the three countries in any sequence, which order would yield the most enjoyable experience?

Thanks.

Posted by
2779 posts

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland not only are €uro-zone countries but also are Schengen-countries. In addition Sweden is also a Schengen country and there are overnight ferries between Stockhom and Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki that make for a very nice and fun first and/or last night.

Posted by
5019 posts

To follow up on this...
I am told by my go-to rental car guy that the drop-off fee for renting a car in Lithuania and dropping it off in Estonia will only be about $200 - that was a surprise to me (and to the rental car guy) - I expected it to be much higher (so did he - conventional wisdom....).

So my plan is to fly in to Vilnius, Lithuania, pick up a car there, head out to the coast (Klaipeda), turn right and follow the coast up into Latvia (Liepaja, Ventspils, Sliteres national park), down to Riga, then follow the coast north again into Estonia (Parnu, Matsalu national park, maybe out to the two large islands in the Baltic Sea, Saaremaa and/or Hiiumaa,) then continue along the Estonian coast to Tallinn, returning the car there. We would fly out from Tallinn.

I'm OK with eating a $200 one-way car rental drop-off fee, considering it would probably cost a lot more than that just for gas to drive back to Vilnius. I figure this is a more interesting itinerary than trying to make a roughly circular/figure-8 loop, and makes more efficient use of our time.

I'm planning about 2 weeks for this trip (early July 2018, if all goes well). Initial plan is to allocate maybe 3-4 days for Lithuania, 3-4 days for Latvia, and the balance (6-9 days) for Estonia. I figure Estonia is bigger, has more coastline, and some major islands that look intriguing. I'm hoping this plan would give us enough time to comfortably check out all the capitals and nearly all of the coast of all three countries (except Estonia east of Tallinn).

Am I missing anything important here? Am I crazy? Input welcomed - thanks!

Posted by
2779 posts

Well, keep in mind Estonia is also beautiful around Tartu and Peipus lake (stay clear of the Russian border there though).

Posted by
2092 posts

Your itinerary sounds great, and keep in mind that if you have spare time in Tallinn you can always do a day trip to Helsinki by ferry.

Posted by
172 posts

We flew into Tallinn and when we were departing picked a car up at the AP and drove to Riga then Vilnius. We flew out of Kaunas.
Easy and no drop off fee. If you want to see some of the stops we made go to my personal blog at www.gadtravel.com

Posted by
2 posts

I flew in to Tallin from FRA, toured the city and took a bus to Riga. Subsequently took another bus to Vilnius. The buses were comfortable , inexpensive and easy. Not sure what the attraction of driving is. Get out and mingle with the locals and other travelers.

Posted by
123 posts

There is no direct connection from Seattle to Baltic countries, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland nor Russia, but you can try to find good one through Germany or UK, or reach any closer airport from cities in US that have flights to these places, e.g. Warsaw from Los Angeles International Airport, O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Newark Liberty International Airport or John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Warsaw Chopin Airport has flights to airports in Baltic countries (Kaunas, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn) and the rest of countries lying on the Baltic Sea (Helsinki, Malmö, Göteborg, Oslo, Copenhagen, Berlin–Tegel, Frankfurt am Main, Düsseldorf and Gdańsk and Szczecin). So you can see Baltic See from many sides :)

Posted by
2 posts

I second the previous poster who suggested using Luxexpress. Their buses were some of the most luxurious intercity buses I've encountered, and they only cost 5 euros if you book in advance!

Regarding the number of days, I would suggest spending more days in Vilnius followed by Riga and finally, Tallinn. This is because the sights in Vilnius are relatively spread out (it has the largest old town in Europe) while Tallinn, although very pretty, is highly compact. For nuances between the 3 capitals, there's this helpful article I encountered: Comparison between Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn