First-time travelers to Europe tend to go for the big ones--Rome, London, Paris. Experienced travelers often go farther afield, in many cases to the capitals of Eastern Europe, the cities that used to appear in James Bond movies about the Cold War, the ones Americans couldn't visit without complications. Today they are tourist-friendly and sometimes uncomfortably crowded with visitors. My advice: See them quickly, before additional fast-food outlets spoil their charm.
Here are some cost-sensitive travel companies that will affordably take you there:
* Paul Laifer Tours has an array of packages for exploring the former citadels of the Iron Curtain. For departures starting in November (low season), you can book a six-night package--three nights in Prague, Czech Republic, three in Budapest, Hungary--including round-trip air fare from New York for as little as $699 per person, based on double occupancy. Another Laifer bargain is a 13-night package for Prague; Budapest; and Krakow and Warsaw, Poland, for $1,369 round trip from New York. That rate is good for departures from Nov. 1 to Dec. 10, and Jan. 2 to March 25; for departures with a better chance of mild weather, through Oct. 31, the price starts at $1,619. Laifer also offers air-and-hotel packages just to Prague or Budapest, as well as combination packages that include visits to Berlin and Croatia.