Budget travel in the South Caucasus

By Kathy Wilhelm
This item appears on page 47 of the February 2016 issue.

I read the subscriber’s letter “South Caucasus Comparisons” (July ’15, pg. 15) with interest, as I visited Georgia and Armenia in 2009. I, too, enjoyed my visit, although my opinion of the museums there was not as high as the writer’s.

I was stunned at the cost of the tours the subscriber took, however. I found both countries to be excellent budget destinations, where it was possible to travel very cheaply, if not always very comfortably. Also, I did not find it necessary to travel with a US tour company.

I traveled independently in both Georgia and northern Armenia. Although Georgia and Armenia each have their own language and alphabet, and I don’t speak or read either language, I didn’t find this to be a problem.

I used buses and marshrutkas (shared minivans) between towns. In Georgia I hired a car and driver for sightseeing when local buses didn’t work. I usually paid the taxi driver a fixed rate. On a couple of occasions I shared a taxi with fellow travelers. In Armenia, the taxi drivers insisted on using their meters, which made day tours a better value.

Once I reached Yerevan, Armenia, I took day tours of the area as well as a 2-night tour to the Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia-based Hyur Service (www.hyurservice.com/eng).

Since my trip there, the Georgian currency has lost about a third of its value. In September 2009 the exchange rate was GEL1.68 to $1, and as of November 2015 the rate is GEL2.40 to $1. The Armenian currency has lost about a quarter of its value, going from AMD377 = $1 to AMD481 = $1. Prices in local currency seem to be much the same as before, making the countries even less expensive to visit.

My transportation costs for traveling from one side of Georgia to the other totaled $18. A car for a full day’s sightseeing around Telavi cost GEL60 (then, $36). A car for the ride from Borjomi to Vardzia and back, two hours each way over bad roads (with snow!), cost GEL90, but I might have been able to bargain that price down. 

The 2-night tour from Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh cost AMD80,000 (near $212) in 2009. For April 2016 it’s listed as AMD77,000 ($160).

Some of my accommodations were quite basic, and in some areas there wasn’t a lot of choice, but they were always clean and well located. I stayed 14 nights in Georgia and 12 nights in Armenia.

My “splurge” hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia, Hotel Villa Mtiebi (10 Chakhrukhadze St.; phone +995 322 92 03 40), cost 75 for a single in 2009; on Booking.com now, it’s still 75 for a single. A double room at my budget hotel in Tbilisi, Hotel Kartli (32 Vasil Barnov St.; phone +995 322 99 54 29, http://s414282258.online.de/HotelKartliWP/?lang=en), cost GEL91 and is now GEL100.

My comfortable B&B in Yerevan, the Villa Delenda (Yeznik Koghbatsi 22; phone +374 10 253141, http://villaayghedzor.com/lodging_delenda_en.asp), booked through Hyur Service, cost AMD22,000 ($58) in 2009 and is now AMD24,000 ($50).

Food was amazingly cheap, except for one meal in the Marriott Courtyard Tbilisi, where I encountered the DCC “scam” for the first time. (This is where the merchant puts the credit card charge through in US dollars instead of in the local currency. Not only will you get a bad exchange rate, you may still be charged a foreign transaction fee by your own bank. The merchant is supposed to give you a choice, but not all merchants do. The Marriott did not and claimed to be unable to void the charge and reprocess it in US dollars.)

I traveled to Georgia on Turkish Airlines, New York-Istanbul-Batumi, which saved me from backtracking. I left on a Syrian Air/Armavia code-share from Yerevan to Aleppo, which, alas, is no longer a viable option.


Cary, NC