Money & costs
Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the dual-pricing system that used to be in force – whereby foreigners were often charged considerably more for hotel rooms and museum admission fees than locals – has been abolished. Inevitably, prices have risen, but travelling around the country remains relatively cheap. All food, drink and forms of transport are surprisingly inexpensive compared with Western European countries, but imported luxury goods, such as international-brand fashion and cosmetics, cost much the same as anywhere else.
A camping site costs about 10 lv per person and a room in a private home can cost anywhere between 12 lv and 30 lv, depending on the location. In a budget hotel (outside Sofia) a single room costs from 20 lv, 40 lv for a double. In a midrange hotel a single room is roughly 40 lv, a double 60 lv. You can get a simple meal at a cheap café from as little as 3 lv, and you’re unlikely to spend more than about 15 lv for a main course, even in more upmarket restaurants.
Many museums and galleries offer free entry on one day of the week, a bonus if you’re travelling with a family. Also, if you fancy staying at a top-class hotel but don’t fancy paying the top-class tariff, remember that most offer discounted weekend rates (which usually means Friday to Sunday night). Some top-end hotels in Sofia offer discounts during August, when most tourists have gone to the coast.
If you stay at budget hotels or in private rooms, eat cheap Bulgarian food and catch public buses and 2nd-class trains, allow at least 50 lv per person per day. If you want to stay in midrange hotels, eat at higher-quality restaurants, charter occasional taxis, take 1st-class trains and buy souvenirs, allow about 80 lv per person per day. If you’re staying in Sofia, you can basically double this cost.
Midrange and top-end hotels, as well as car hire firms and tour agencies often quote prices in euros, and it’s possible to pay in this currency, or in leva. Bulgaria is unlikely to formally join the single European currency for some years yet.
Bulgaria’s transition to a free-market economy after the fall of communism was a painful period in the country’s history, characterised by hyperinflation and high unemployment. Things stabilised after the lev was pegged to the Deutschmark in 1997 and subsequently to the Euro in 2002, and the country has experienced an economic upturn since joining the EU in January 2007. Foreign investment and tourism are at all-time highs, fuelling a major construction boom, especially on the Black Sea coast. In fact, the demand has been so great that workers have had to be brought in from as far away as Ukraine to complete building projects.
However, despite the healthy economy and Bulgaria’s top-10 ranking in the World Bank’s list of best reforming economies in the world, serious problems remain. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU, and average wages hover around €200 a month, among the lowest on the continent. In 2007 there were a succession of strikes by nurses, medical staff, miners, public transport drivers and teachers demanding wage increases of up to 100%. With record consumer price inflation reaching 12%, this is unlikely to happen, but now that Bulgaria is a fully fledged EU member, people are far less content with low pay.
It has been estimated, too, that the so-called ‘grey economy’ – undeclared incomes, ‘contract-free’ workers and fiddled tax returns – makes up as much as 35% of the economy as a whole, prompting calls for tax cuts and a reduction in VAT (Value Added Tax).
The local currency is the lev (plural: leva), comprised of 100 stotinki. It is almost always abbreviated to lv. The lev is a stable currency. For major purchases such as organised tours, airfares, car rental and midrange and top-end hotels, prices are almost always quoted by staff in euros, although payment is possible in leva too. (Bulgaria has no immediate plans to adopt the Euro as its national currency.) While some budget hotels and private rooms may quote their rates in euros, payments should be made in leva. Normally the leva price will simply be twice the given euro price (eg €10 = 20 lv), though some places may work out the precise exchange rate.
ATMs that accept major credit cards (ie Cirrus, Maestro, JCB, Visa, MasterCard and American Express) are an increasingly common sight and can now be found in all sizable towns and cities. It’s best to use credit cards as a backup for cash in case an ATM swallows your card (more likely if the card is issued outside Europe). Otherwise, bring two or three different cards. Also, before you leave home check with your bank about exchange rates (which, of course, usually work out in their favour) and commissions (which can be about 2%). The total amount you can withdraw depends on how much your bank will allow and on how much is in your account; the maximum allowed per day by most Bulgarian banks is usually 200 lv.
Bulgarian banknotes come in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 leva. Coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 stotinki and 1 lev. Prices for smaller items are always quoted in leva or a fraction of a lev, eg on a bus ticket the fare will be listed as ‘0.50 lv’ rather than ‘50 stotinki’.
When changing money, make sure that the foreign banknotes you have are not torn, marked or grubby, otherwise they may be refused or you may even be given a lower rate (without being told so in advance). Always make absolutely sure of the precise sum in leva you will receive before handing over any of your cash. Similarly, make sure that any leva given to you are not torn or marked. Foreigners may export and import up to 8000 lv (in any currency) without restrictions.
Credit cards are still not as common or reliable in Bulgaria as in Western Europe, and their acceptance is decidedly uneven: you may be able to use your card for a 20 lv restaurant meal but have to hand over a wad of banknotes for a 200 lv hotel bill. However, American Express, Visa and MasterCard are gaining ground and can often be used at up-market restaurants, souvenir shops, top-end hotels, car rental firms and travel agencies, but rarely anywhere else – despite signs indicating acceptance of credit cards. You cannot rely on using a credit card exclusively in Bulgaria; use it to get cash from banks and for major purchases only. Some places, particularly the more expensive hotels, will add a 5% surcharge to your bill if you use a credit card.
If no ATM is available, or you’re worried about using one (in case it swallows your card), some larger branches of major banks will provide cash advances in leva over the counter; this service is also sometimes offered by foreign exchange offices. The fee is usually about 4% and you’ll probably also be charged fees and commissions by your bank. The maximum withdrawal allowed for cash advances depends on what is determined by your bank.
Telegraphic transfers are not that expensive but they can be quite slow through a bank. Having money wired through American Express, MoneyGram or Western Union is fairly straightforward and faster than a bank (funds are sometimes available in less than one day). You should have the sender’s full name, the exact amount and reference number and your passport; the money can be collected in euros or leva. The sender pays the fee, which can range from 5% to 15%.
The currencies listed inside the front cover can be changed at any of the plethora of foreign exchange offices in every city and town and at major attractions. Most don’t charge commission or fees, but some do – despite signs to the contrary on notice boards outside – so always check the final amount that you will be offered before handing over your cash.
The best currencies to take are euros, pounds sterling and US dollars. You may have trouble changing less familiar currencies, such as Australian or Canadian dollars, but you should be able to find somewhere in a city such as Sofia, Plovdiv or Varna that will accept most major international currencies.
Foreign exchange offices can generally be recognised by the huge ‘exchange’ signs, almost always written in English. Current rates are always displayed prominently, often on notice boards outside. These offices are normally open between about 9am and 6pm, Monday to Saturday, but offices in the centre of cities and larger towns are often open every day.
It’s also easy to change cash at most of the larger banks found in cities and major towns; these include the United Bulgarian Bank, Unicredit Bulbank, Bulgarian Post Bank, Raffeisen Bank and Biochim Commercial Bank. The exchange rates listed on the electronic boards in bank windows may offer slightly higher rates than foreign exchange offices, but many banks charge commission. The other disadvantages with banks are that they’re only open between 9am and 4pm from Monday to Friday, and queues can be long.
The lev is freely convertible, so there should be no problems changing excess leva back into sterling, dollars or other major foreign currencies. However, some readers have reported difficulties trying to change leva for local currency in other Eastern European countries.
The value-added tax (VAT) of 20% is included in all prices quoted in Bulgaria. Some restaurants add service charges of 10%, and some top-end hotels list pre-VAT prices.
Travellers cheques are not as easily convertible as cash, nor as convenient as credit cards, but they are a safe way of carrying money. The downside is that not all foreign exchange offices and banks will change travellers cheques, and those that do sometimes accept only American Express and Thomas Cook, with commission rates of 3% to 5%, so if you need to change travellers cheques, always look around for the best exchange rates. Some larger banks, such as the Unicredit Bulbank in Sofia, will change travellers cheques in US dollars into cash for a fee of about 2% to 3%.
Guaranteed personal cheques are another way of carrying money or obtaining cash. Eurocheques, available to European bank account holders, are guaranteed up to a certain limit. When cashing them, you’ll be asked to show your Eurocheque card bearing your signature and registration number, and perhaps a passport or ID card. Many hotels and merchants in Bulgaria refuse to accept Eurocheques, however, because of the relatively large commissions involved.