Rolling through the Ukrainian countryside


Need to get between cities in Ukraine? There are a few different ways to make it happen, but the most popular – by far – seems to be the trains. And with good reason. The trains aren’t particularly fast, but they are cheap and comfortable. The train network connects most major cities in Ukraine and the rides between the cities generally are 8-12 hours at the shorter end. Yes, that’s a long time to spend to travel a couple hundred miles, but their slowness can actually be a benefit on many rides. Many of the routes are served run as overnight trains, saving you a night of hotel expense and leaving you in the new city ready to see town. If the trains rolled faster there wouldn’t be enough time to sleep. The slow ride really is a good thing.

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The overnight trains generally run with three classes of service: the cabins have six, four or two bunks each. We took two trips on the train. The first was from from Kiev to Odessa and the second was from Odessa to Simferopol.

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Our Kiev – Odessa ride was in second class, a quad bunk room. Our cabin mates spoke roughly the same amount of English as we spoke Russian so that presented some interesting communications issues. But with assigned beds and linens provided it wasn’t all that bad. The cabins were actually pretty nice, particularly considering the rather inexpensive rates. Things like locker space to store bags under the lower beds add to the convenience of the ride; way better than the last time I was on overnight trains in Europe a decade ago.

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We settled in to the bunks, made our beds and enjoyed a quick snack – sourced from the grocery around the corner from the train station – before the train pulled out of the station.

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I wouldn’t call the bathroom facilities spectacular by any stretch, but they were functional enough.

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I slept well enough, despite the train making a number of stops throughout the night. Not the best night of sleep, to be certain, but reasonable enough. Despite the limited communications with our bunk mates (though we did actually manage a few "conversations") and the conductor we were able to make things work out reasonably and around 7am we pulled in to Odessa.

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The second ride, a few days later, was in a first class cabin. The first class rooms are only two bunks in the cabin meaning that we weren’t sharing with random strangers. It was also a bit longer at 11.5 hours, giving us more time to enjoy the greater luxury. Things like nicer sheets and both a radio and a TV in the cabin (though the YV didn’t actually have anything showing and the radio was mostly just annoying) were all part of the first class experience. So was another conductor with whom we couldn’t really interact in any useful manner.

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The longer ride and later departure time (midnight v 10pm) made the second trip a bit easier to sleep on. And I’m sure that being in first class didn’t hurt, either, though I don’t think it was all that significant a difference to the overall sleeping comfort. Then again, my needs when it comes to a bed aren’t that great. The bathrooms were basically the same as in the second class cabin but fewer passengers so they stayed a bit cleaner and no lines to get in.

One interesting thing about the trains and the various cabins is that the pricing structure places a decent premium on the first class cabin. If all you’re looking for is bunks without strangers it is generally cheaper to book out four bunks in the second class cabin than two in first class. The first class experience was a bit nicer, but I’m not so sure it is worth the up-charge. And since they don’t really care who is in the beds so long as the tickets are paid for that’s not a bad way to roll.

With the price, ease of booking and decent ride offered the trains are the best way to get between cities in Ukraine. And a lot of fun, too.

Booking is actually pretty easy these days, even from outside Ukraine. I wrote about that here just before the trip. Other than not knowing that I’d need to pick up the real tickets based on the receipts from the online booking it really was incredibly easy.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

11 Comments

  1. Just booked my trip to Ukraine for July 2013 – flying into Lviv and out of Kiev so will be taking a train between these two cities. Can’t wait!

    I find it interesting that they still don’t seem to have a lot of signs written in Latin characters: like your picture of Вокзал (the train station); how are you supposed to know what it is if you don’t know the Russian alphabet?

    Ukraine seems to have made it easier for foreigners to come (no visa requirements, no archaic rules about telling the government where you are staying, etc.), but I think having signs that non-Slavs can read would help tremendously 😉

  2. Umh… how many times have you seen signs in cyrillic scipt in addition to latin ones in western cities for slav visitors?

  3. Was just in Ukraine myself for a few weeks as well. You can get a glass of tea on the train still – cost us 4 UAH from the attendant in the car in second class, I assume that’s standard. There’s a hot water heater down near her cabin – I think you could maybe use the water itself for free if you brought your own tea and glass.

    From Lviv to Kiev, KateFromCA, you’ll unfortunately be faced with sort of a tough choice. There’s a quite fast ~4.5 hour train or a much slower (almost twice as long I think) one that runs overnight. The fast train is new – it’s not fast by general western european standards but it is standards. They bought the cars from Hyundai in preparation for the Euro 2012 tournament; they also have it on, I think, one other route. The faster train is more expensive (though still not very much so by interna

  4. …whoops, jumped the gun. the faster train is more expensive but not crazy relative to what trains cost in the rest of Europe – but it lacks the character of the slower trains. It is, however, more comfortable, and it runs during the day (in the evening, I think, though I took it in the other direction) so you get to see a lot of the countryside.

    We also rented a car in a few different spots in Ukraine – in Crimea and to get around the Carpathians. It was expensive and there was a lot of hassle (the cops are crooked and annoying, and the roads are full of pot holes) but it was a nice way to see some otherwise tough-to-reach scenery.

  5. @Mike from Berlin: the Slavs can all read Latin characters (even if they often aren’t able to communicate in a “western” language very well) – I am fluent in Russian and have lived in various Slavic countries for many years so I can attest to the level of “Latin” reading ability that Eastern Slavs have.

    However, it is much less likely that a person whose native script is Latin will be able to read Cyrillic. Same for Asian characters – thus English signs all over metropolitan areas in Asia.

  6. Thanks mg! I looked up train schedules on some site and did see a 4.5 hr one, which was much faster than the rest! Doesn’t look like you can book into July of 2013 yet, and it’s probably not necessary to book THAT far in advance anyway. 🙂

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