UIA offers cheap flights that can be booked on-line and can be a time-saving alternative. For example, the flight Odessa-Kiev (one way) is USD180 (including tax and fees) and takes 1.5 hours. However, be sure to book early for the cheapest fares.
Trains are operated by state-owned Ukrainian Railways. Train classes, coaches and ticket system are very similar to Russia and other CIS countries, see Russian train article.
Ukrainian trains are quite old and slow by West European standards, and not very frequent, but they are punctual, reliable and very cheap. For example Kiev to Odessa only has 3 direct services per day, 7 hr & 550 грн by the fastest “Inter-city”, 9-10 hr & 400 грн by the slower “express”. So for a 500-km journey with some half a dozen stops, the trains are averaging about 50 km/h on straight level terrain – the Bullet Train, it is not.
Generally, in Ukraine, for long distance the train is preferred over the bus because of their comfort and because often they are even cheaper. The “Lux” sleeping cars have a two-berth cabin. Second class are cabins with four berths. Third class have six berths through which the aisle passes.
Advance online booking is highly recommended, firstly because some trains are popular and will sell out, secondly because it avoids having to negotiate your journey at a frenetic foreign railway station. For timetables, prices and bookings visit Ukraine Railways or Ukrainian Railways e-shop (these websites are in English, Russian and Ukrainian). Tickets with a little QR code icon should be printed off at home and are good to go. Other e-tickets are just a voucher which must be exchanged in advance for a ticket, at any mainline station in Ukraine. (So don’t buy such a ticket for a journey that starts outside Ukraine.) Do this preferably an hour before departure, because close to departure of a long-distance express, the ticket area will become a frantic maul. Large train stations may have dedicated counters for e-vouchers; eg Kiev does, while in Odessa any window will do. Either way, before queuing look out for the “technical break” times posted on each window.
If you have to buy on the day, write your destination and train number on a piece of paper; desk clerks have little English or German. Large stations have big screens that show tickets available for the upcoming trains.
There are two major bus companies that run buses from all of the major cities to and from Kiev: they are Avtolux, and Gunsel. Prices run about 100-120 грн for service to Dnipro and Kharkiv.
The major advantage of the bus service is that it leaves from Boryspil and stops in Kiev, so if your destination is not Kiev, its easier than taking a bus to the Main Passenger Railway Station in Kiev. The buses are standard coach buses, serve cold drinks and tea, show movies, and make a stop about every 3-4 hr. They run every few hours.
Avtolux has a VIP bus to and from Odessa that has nice leather seats and is more less non-stop. It departs once a day, takes four hours or so both to and from Kiev and costs about 160-170 грн.
In addition, just as in Russia, there are numerous of the marshrutka called minibuses. These run on fixed routes and may be licensed as either buses or taxis. You can board one at the start of the route or at fixed stops. Some of them will also stop at any point between designated stops, but this largely depends on the region and even on the driver’s mood. Officially, they are not supposed to drop passengers outside designated bus stops, but in reality they do it quite often. At the start of the route and at fixed routes, you may find a queue you will have to stand in. At other places, just wave your hand when you see one. if there are seats available, the minibus will stop for you. To get off, tell the driver when you reach your destination and he will stop. You need to pay the amount of your fare to the driver. You don’t get a ticket, unless you ask for it. Often it’s not easy to figure out which marshrutka will take you to your destination, as in any city there are literally hundreds of different routes.
Taxi is probably the most safe way to get around the city. You want to ask your hotel or restaurant to call you a taxi. Ukraine is largely a referral based economy, and this is how you get quality, safety and good service. Taxis are always busy. Locals will tell you to call in advance. Trying to hail a cab won’t be productive at best and get you in deep trouble at worst.
It might seem unreasonable to hire a taxi to take you 100km to the next city. If you use your hotels referral, you will get a decent rate. It might be twice as expensive as train, but convenient, less time consuming, and secure. Keep in mind, you need a taxi to take you to the bus or train station. Americans will find the buses for long distance travel crowded and uncomfortable.
It is possible to get around in Ukraine by car, but one must be aware of certain particulars:
The signs are all in Ukrainian (Cyrillic alphabet). Only a few signs (every 200km or so) are written in the Latin alphabet, and indicate main cities. It is recommended you have a good road map (those available are mainly in Ukrainian, but Latin alphabet maps are starting to appear), because place names aren’t well posted on road signs.
You are strongly advised to respect the signs, especially speed limits. Be aware that unlike in Western countries, where limits are repeated several times, in Ukraine, an obligation or a prohibition is often indicated on a single sign, which you must not miss. And even these signs are often far off the road, covered by branches, etc. The police are always there to remind you.
Speed in cities is limited to 50 km/h. However people do drive fast anyway.
Speed in “nationals” (single carriageway countryside roads) is limited to 90km/h (55mph). The poor average quality of the roads already acts as a speed checker.
Speed on highways (motorways) is limited to 110-120km/h (75mph).
Be aware that corruption is widespread among Ukrainian police, and tourists are an especially profitable target. When you are stopped for speeding or other offences, officers might aggressively try and extract ridiculous sums of money from you (€100 and up), offering “reductions” if you pay on the spot (the proposed alternative being some unpleasant and more expensive way, all made up). If you’re asked anything beyond that, demand a written ticket for you to pay later instead. Don’t let them intimidate you. It’s very useful to have an embassy phone number handy for these cases. If you mention that, they’ll let you off the hook quicker than you know it. At any rate, write down the officers’ badge numbers, rank, plate number of the police car, and notify the nearest embassy/consulate in detail, to help fight these corrupt practices.
Fuel is no longer a problem in Ukraine, especially for those who remember travelling to Ukraine during the early 1990s, when petrol was considered precious. Today, there are plenty service stations. There are varying types of fuel, such as diesel, unleaded 95 octane, and (more rarely) unleaded 98 octane; one finds also 80 and 76 octane. Note that if you choose to fill-up in a rural filling station, you will need to pay first, and in cash. Even there many stations do accept credit cards, however.
The state of the roads is a huge subject:
The main roads are OK for all cars, as long as you don’t go too fast. Numerous running repairs have created a patchwork road surface, and it will seriously test your suspension – even on the major dual carriageways.
Secondary roads are passable, but beware: certain zones can be full of potholes and you must treat them with extra care, or avoid them entirely. Roads between villages are often little more than dirt tracks and not metalled.
Road works have been ongoing, but the quality of the roads is shy of Western Europe (with the exception of Kiev).
Be careful when driving in towns or villages. Sometimes animals prefer to walk on the road, and they are a hazard for all drivers. You’re likely to see plenty of animals hit by cars, so be prepared…
Bicycle traffic is not very common, but you will sometimes see an aged man transporting a sack of grass on an old road-bike or a cycling enthusiast in bright clothes riding a semi-professional racing bike. Those are even more likely to be met on well-maintained roads where the pavement is smooth. Also cyclists will use both lanes of the road in both directions equally i.e. you are just as likely to meet a cyclist coming towards you, riding on the verge, as you will travelling in your direction. And almost invariably without lights or bright clothing so be extra careful when driving at night and dawn/dusk.
Also, don’t be surprised to see plenty of horse drawn carts – even on the dual carriageways.