Business Travel: Eastern promise quickly fulfilled

Ten years to the day after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Neil Taylor looks at how business travel to the former Soviet satellites has changed

In 1985, I had to make a last-minute business trip to Budapest. On my arrival, I joined a short queue to buy a visa, walked through the green gate at customs and then changed money at the bank at a perfectly respectable rate of exchange. I was in my hotel an hour after the plane touched down. This was, I stress, Budapest, which westernised itself well before the Wall came down.

Had I chosen, say, Moscow, Warsaw or Prague, it would have been very different. Visas had to be obtained in London several days before departure, airport paperwork lasted well over an hour and obtaining local currency was always the delicate balancing act between getting a good rate on the black market and exchanging enough officially to satisfy the airport inspectors on departure. British Airways had a cosy duopoly with the local airlines. BA carried anyone who wasn't paying for their own ticket, happy to leave the backpackers and the politically dedicated to travel with the "babyflots". These were the Eastern European airlines, carbon copies of Aeroflot that were obliged to buy Russian aircraft, Russian catering and to employ equally savage staff. The best one could say about the hotels was that they functioned.

It was soon easy to pick out the countries eager to put their past behind them. The unification of Germany forced Western ways on the travel industry in the former East of the country. By 1991 phrases such as "corporate rates" and "seasonal discounts" were as common in Leipzig as in Hamburg.

More surprising was the speed with which such terms - and the infrastructure they represent - reached Poland and the Baltic States. In the summer of 1992 I travelled not only to their capital cities, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn but also to the forests and the beaches. There were no banned areas, the currencies were stable, and adequate three-star hotels were easy to find. Western hotel chains, modernised airlines and Mars bars quickly followed so by 1994 it was only the architecture that revealed the Soviet past.

The Czech Republic soon followed suit, relieved of what it saw as the Slovakian burden. British Airways now has such confidence in Eastern European airlines that it has taken a shareholding in LOT, the Polish airline. BA's commitment to the area is also shown by choosing Prague as a destination for Go, its no-frills subsidiary.

In Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine the story is sadly different. Visas are even tougher and more expensive to get than in the old USSR. Public transport and reliable taxis are hard to find at any airport - only a foolish business traveller arrives at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow without a pre-arranged pick-up. Hotels, whether empty or full, two or five star, still overcharge. Service on their airlines has greatly improved but the vast ground-floor Aeroflot office on Piccadilly must be central London's most wasted marketing opportunity. If 70 years of communism failed to liven up the inert Russian bureaucracy, it is not surprising that 10 years of exposure to the free market has still failed to do so.

Moscow

Visas are required for all visitors. Although passports are not stamped, they have to be submitted to the Consulate with proof of sponsorship by a business or tourist company, a visa form, three photos and a fee of pounds 20-pounds 100, depending on how quickly it is required. First-timers should use a specialist travel agent or visa service so that the paperwork is handled correctly. Always pre-book a transfer into town from the airport to ensure safe arrival. You can thank the current economic crisis for sensible prices in restaurants and shops. The glut of luxury hotels built in the late Eighties still charge ambitious rates, but a few three-star hotels have rooms for around pounds 40 a night. Learn the Cyrillic alphabet to take advantage of the buses and the metro; the savings are well worth a bit of study.

Prague

Proximity to Western Europe and competition from cars, trains and coaches has forced airlines to offer excellent prices all year round. It should rarely be necessary to pay more than pounds 130 return including taxes. BA and CSA operate from Heathrow, CSA also from Stansted and Manchester. Recent entrants to the market are British Midland from Heathrow and Go from Stansted.

Hotels and restaurants in Prague enjoy good takings from tourists and business visitors. There is wide choice in all categories, but prices are high in the town centre. Savings of pounds 40 a night can be made by staying in the suburbs, where meal costs are also lower. Public transport is good, but taxis are lethal, particularly at the airport.

Budapest

BA and Malev fly direct daily from Heathrow and Gatwick. British Midland recently joined the fray, and KLM offers good connections from all UK regional airports. Buzz, the new low-cost airline, starts flying from Stansted to Vienna in January; a bus runs direct from the Austrian capital to Budapest, while the hydrofoil service from Vienna in summer is a pleasant alternative.

Well-regulated buses and taxis operate from Budapest airport into the centre, and the underground can be recommended for journeys within the town. Traffic is so heavy that walking or a short trip on the underground are the only sure ways of keeping an appointment. Four- and five-star hotels abound, but there is a shortage of smaller, more intimate ones.

Warsaw

British Midland has recently joined BA and LOT in offering services from Heathrow. BA and LOT have joint operations from Gatwick and Manchester. SAS Scandinavian Airlines has good regional links from the UK via Copenhagen, and also serves other Polish cities.

Do not judge Polish hotels from their bland exteriors: tower blocks abound. Inside, they have been revamped so are well furnished and congenially designed. To stress the switch to capitalism: after renovation, Hotel Bristol was reopened by Baroness Thatcher. Regular trade fairs keep prices high, but other expenses such as restaurants are lower than elsewhere in Eastern Europe; taxis are good value.

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