Probably World’s Cheapest Public Transportation: Ukraine

Transportation and accommodations are the two biggest expenses while traveling… in most countries. For instance a city bus fare will set you back $1.50 in Warsaw, $3 in Montreal and almost $4 in Berlin… or $0.20 in Ukraine.  You will pay $140 for a 500-600km train ride between Berlin and Dusseldorf. Montreal – New York (similar distance) will cost you $80.

Ukraine train ticket

Ukrainian train ticket. Unfortunately nothing is written in English.

The same distance in Ukraine (Lviv – Kyiv) will cost you about $12, that’s including a set of fresh bed sheets, in a sleeping cabin.

As you might have guessed, this post is about the public transportation in Ukraine. In 2014 I managed to try out the trains, buses, private mini buses, trolleybuses, tramways, metro (subway) and even hitchhiking at one occasion.

Trains in Ukraine.

Trains remain the most popular way of traveling long distances in Ukraine. With over 23,000 of railway tracks Ukraine is the world’s 6th largest rail passenger transporter (thanks, wikipedia). Trains are relatively fast and incredibly cheap. I would suggest paying a few dollars extra to get a bed in a “coupé” (2nd class) – that’s a compartment with 4 beds, separated  by a door from the other compartments and the train hallway. However, you might consider trying a slightly cheaper but a lot more authentic “Platzkart” (3rd class).  There are 54 beds in the Platzkart, compartments are separated from one another, however there is no door separation you from the hallway. You will hear every single sneeze and you will see every single person passing through the wagon.

Here is the layout of Coupe (on top) and Platzkart (bottom):

Layout of train cars - Ukrainian Railways

Layout of train cars – Ukrainian Railways

I took a train from Lviv to Kyiv for $12. Then “electrified train” (електричка aka suburban train) Kyiv – Vinnytsya – Kyiv for $3 each way, then Rivne – Lviv and finally a night train from Lviv to Solotvyno ($9), a border town where I crossed to Romania by foot. Once again, highly recommended method of traveling in Ukraine.

Buses in Ukraine

Ukraine offers an enormous amount of private bus transport companies. There are buses that will take you everywhere and anywhere. Buses are usually more expensive than trains, take as long if not longer and they are a lot less comfortable. I had to take a bus from Kyiv to Rivne (since I couldn’t find a train for that trip). This 300+km trip cost $10 and took about 6 hours. Please note there are usually no restrooms in the bus. Not the best way to travel (in any country) but the vast availability and multiple daily departures make this method of traveling quite popular.

Transportation Inside The City

– Marshrutki

Most Ukrainian cities offer several means of public transportation: buses, trolleybuses, tramways, mini-buses and metro (in Kyiv). Buses seems to be dying out in the cities since they are being replaced by the private “marshrutki” – or mini buses. These big vans (or small buses) have very interesting routes and could take you from one part of the city to another for $0.30 within a very reasonable amount of time. They are often more convenient and even cheaper than public transport.

For instance, you might need to take a tram, then metro then trolleybus to reach your destination. Since tickets are not transferable in Ukraine you will have to buy 3 separate tickets at 2 hryvnya each for a total of 6 hryvnya ($0.60). Or you could use a “marshrutka” for only $0.30 and it will take exactly where you need to go without changing the line. The big problem with these mini-buses is that they don’t have a posted route (main stops of the route are written on the side of the bus). Yet, people somehow just know which mini-bus goes where. You will have to ask the locals if you are planning on using this method of transportation.

These mini-buses can also take you to near-by villages and some even do long distance trips. A lot of locals use this service to travel within 15-50km of the city since state-run bus service is almost non-existent.

– Tramways and Trolleybuses

These historical pieces of transport are still rather popular in Ukraine. Prices ranging from $0.15 to $0.20 per trip make trams and trolleys in Ukraine one of the cheapest public transport in the world. Tickets are usually sold by the conductor or the driver. Students pay half price and it’s free for most old people, war heroes, etc. There is something about tramways that I just can’t explain, especially about the old Soviet trams that still run strong, wandering the streets of Ukrainian cities, throwing you from one side to another. It’s wonderful.

$0.20 tramway ticket in Lviv

$0.20 tramway ticket in Lviv

Metro (Subway) in Ukraine

Kyiv’s underground metro system is the most popular way of getting around the city. You can always beat the traffic by using the subway. 3 lines (4th one under construction), 52 station and less than $0.20 ticket price aren’t the only great things. Arsenalna station is one of the world’s deepest metro stations (over 100 meters underground!). Ukrainian metro opened in 1960 – so it was built by the communists, for the communists. Most station offer impressive architecture and feel more like museums than metro stations. The trains arrive every 2 minutes or less, so the waiting time is incredibly short compared to many other cities/countries.

Kyiv Metro Entrance - photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Kyiv Metro Entrance – photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

I was surprised to find out that Kyiv subway is adding more and more English to its signs and announcements. There is still a lot of work to be done but most tourists will be able to make it around the metro without any issues. You can purchase the tickets (or should I say plastic coins) at orange ticket machines or at the cashier’s desk.

Taxi in Ukraine

This time around I took a cab only once, in Lviv. I mentioned it in Warsaw to Lviv post. A bus dropped me off on the outskirts of Lviv at 3 am. I took a cab to the central station (pretty long ride on the cobble-stoned streets while in an old beat up Lada). It cost $4, which is also very cheap for a cab. I would suggest calling official taxy companies, or even better asking a local to call a cab – this way you won’t overpay.

Hitchhiking

Last but not least: hitchhiking. A lot of locals use hitchhiking as a method of transportation inside and outside of the cities. However, you are normally expected to pay a small fee to the driver. The fee is usually agreed upon in advance. While in Lviv I met two people who constantly travel around Ukraine without paying. They simply tell the driver they don’t have the money (before getting in the car) and most people still take them. If you have a sign with your destination – people will assume you are not local and might take you out of curiosity. If you are a foreigner, you might also get free rides because people will be surprised (as Ukraine doesn’t get many foreign hitchhikers). Just like in any other country – be careful and listen to your “inside voice” when hitchhiking.

If you are planning to travel to or through Ukraine, I highly suggest checking out “Ukraine Travel Secrets” – very well detailed travel site where you could not only find lots of great info but can also book tickets!

 

Do you have any questions about traveling in Ukraine? Let me know in the comments!

– Alex

Photo of The Day – 2

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No… it’s a an abandoned monument. In the 1960’s and 1970’s ex-Yugoslavian president Tito decided to build 25 monuments to commemorates the sites of WWII battles. Millions of people visited these monuments, not only to remember their heroes but to also reassure themselves that communism is good, powerful and… big. After the fall of the Yugoslavian Republic these huge monuments were completely abandoned and forgotten.

While driving through the winding mountain roads of Bosnia and Herzegovina we stumbled upon one of these monuments in Tjentište, a village in the municipality of Foča. For a long time we couldn’t understand what this monument was and most importantly why it was in the middle of nowhere. But yeah, there it was. Cold. Abandoned. Communist.

Abandoned Monument Bosnia

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Feel free to visit the Balkans and find all 25 monuments :)

– Alex

2014 Hitchhiking Tour Through the Balkans

As I was planning the travels through the Balkans I got this “crazy” idea of hitchhiking all along. Most of my friends and family weren’t aware of my plans. I am sure that if I told people in advance, they would simply try to talk me out of it. “Oh it’s too dangerous”… It’s rather “Oh it’s too adventurous“.

Hitchhiking to Sarajevo

Hitchhiking to Sarajevo

I always wanted to try hitchhiking and as I am not getting any younger, I thought this could be my last opportunity to hitchhike great distances. Before starting this journey I have met quite a few people who had a hitchhiking experience and they all loved it and recommended it. Well, it was my turn to try the good-old-hippy way of traveling.

Why the Balkans?

For some years I’ve been intrigued with the whole ex-Yugoslavia and the Balkan region. I like ćevapi, I wanted to try real rakia and I was curious about turbo-folk. The Balkans are not limited to these three items, however the region is known for it. There are many more obvious reasons to travel the Balkans now. First of all, many of these countries are still underrated and aren’t extremely touristy. The prices are low for the most part, people are friendly, history is rich.

Schengen Area Issue

It’s worth mentioning that one of my main reasons for visiting the Balkans: most Balkan countries are not in the Schengen zone yet! Most European Union countries are part of the Schengen zone. Countries in this zone abolished the borders and passport control between themselves and strengthened the border control with countries excluded from Schengen. All the countries in these zone are now acting as one single country. This poses a problem for many travelers. As a Canadian I don’t need visas to visit most countries however there are some limitation. For example I am only allowed to stay in Schengen zone for a maximum of 90 days within a 180 days period. If you get caught overstaying the allowed period – you become a subject to a hefty fine and a ban from entering the EU for a year or two.

Alex Traveling

Well, I stayed in Poland for 83 days or so and decided to move on to Ukraine in order to leave the Schengen area. This is when I also decided to travel through the Balkans. Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are all in the European Union but they haven’t signed the Schengen agreement yet. Yey for me!

So, Let’s Travel!

While in Poland for almost 3 months, I got a chance to live in Warsaw, visit Krakow, Gdansk and Sopot. I also made sure to visit Berlin, Germany for a week or so since it’s so close to Poland. Eventually I decided to go to Ukraine. I was born in Ukraine and I still have many relatives there, including my father. On June 1st I traveled from Warsaw to Lviv and then on to Kyiv. I strayed in Ukraine for a few weeks, awaiting my girlfriend’s arrival while she was finishing up some studies at a university in Poland.

From Kyiv we made it back to Lviv and decided to stay in that amazing city for a week. We met Liliia, an awesome couchsurfer who hosted us and helped us explore the city. Lviv deserves its own blog post, which I will do later. From Lviv we took a train to Solotvyno which is located at the border with Romania. We crossed the Ukrainian/Romanian border by foot and started hitchhiking for the very first time in our lives.

Our Hitchhiking Map for Balkans 2014

Our Hitchhiking Map for Balkans 2014

It all started at Sighetu Marmației, Romania. Here is a list of some of the cities that we visited on this hitchhiking trip:

  • Bucharest, Romania
  • Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
  • Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Belgrade, Serbia
  • Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Podgorica, Montenegro
  • Budva, Montenegro
  • Shkoder, Albania
  • Tirana, Albania
  • Herceg Novi, Montenegro
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Zagreb, Croatia
  • Ljubljana, Slovenia

We were dropped off in many other cities however it was more of a transit, not really a visit. The cities I listed are actually the ones we got a chance to stay at. Unfortunately we didn’t stay enough in some of them and some other ones should have been crossed out of the list since they were not worth visiting.

Anyways, in the upcoming months I will be sharing details of the trip, sharing experiences from specific places and sharing tips on visiting the countries listed above.

If you have any questions about these countries, cities, traveling or hitchhiking – please DO comment below 😉

 

Alex

 

Traveling from Warsaw to Lviv, Ukraine

In the beginning of June I had to travel from Warsaw, Poland to Lviv, Ukraine. The same question came up once again: What’s the cheapest way to get there?

Traveling Warsaw Lviv

And as usual the choice consisted of flying, going by bus, train or car. First of all I checked out BlaBlaCar. A few rides were available, priced at around 60PLN ($20USD). However the dates didn’t work out for me and the single convenient ride was cancelled a few days before departure.

Flying was out of question because the plane tickets were at $300USD. The train seemed like a good option. I like trains because they are comfortable and often overnight. Get on, fall asleep, wake up at your destination. I found someone’s blog stating the train ride from Warsaw to Lviv was about 120 zloty ($40) which seemed somewhat reasonable. Unfortunately the tickets were not available online since this was an international train (yep, that’s an issue).

I headed down to the main train station in Warsaw, worked up my Polish skills since the cashiers at the ticket office didn’t speak English and tried to find that ticket. You can imagine my surprise when I was told the ticket costs around 250PLN ($80USD+). Only later I figured out the “120 zloty” price I found online was posted in 2009. Seems like the price doubled in 5 years.

My last option was taking the Warsaw Lviv bus. I bought a ticket for $29USD through BusEurope. When I got to the bus station (Warszawa Zachodnia PKS) I didn’t find the bus right away since the bus I had to take was labeled as Warsaw – Ivano-Frankowsk (and Lviv is simply a stop on the way). The bus left at 6pm and was supposed to arrive to Lviv at 5:30 am or so.

From Warsaw to viv by bus

On the way the bus broke down. The brave drivers fought the pouring rain and fixed the fuel issue within 30 minutes and we were on our way once again. It smelled like diesel for the first hour but I didn’t mind it too much since diesel smells better than the undigested garlic consumed by the person sitting infront of me. I am a very tolerant person and I adapt to things. I also love garlic but I would never eat it unless I am sure I won’t encounter another live being that day. Anyways…

At 10:30 pm we arrived at the Polish border. We waited for a while, eventually a border officer came into the bus and took our passports. 20-30 minutes later the bus driver gave the passports back to us. All in all it took 1 hour. The bus drove for 100 meters and we were now at the Ukrainian border. Another officer picked up our passports once again (while carefully studying our faces and making sure we look exactly like in that ugly passport photo). Ukrainian border took about 30 minutes. The crossing was surprisingly empty, that’s why it didn’t take long. The bus stopped once again, right after crossing the border – so people could exchange their hard-earned zloty to Ukrainian hryvna. Surprisingly the exchange rate at the border is as good as in the city and a lot better than at an airport or train station.

Poland Ukraine border

At 12:30 am we were in Ukraine, however there is a time difference and it was 1:30 am local time. In less then 2 hours the bus was in Lviv. So instead of 5:30am as expected, the bus dropped me off on the outskirts of the city at 2:45am. There was a closed gas station and nothing else. Two young ladies got off at that stop as well and I asked them to call a cab for me, since there was no other way of getting into the city at that hour. Three of us got in the cab and went to the center. I paid 40 hryvnas ($4USD) for quite a long ride, and the driver left towards the other passengers’ destination.

All in all the trip was fine. 7 hours in the bus isn’t that bad, especially when the bus is somewhat comfortable.There was also an empty seat next to me which helped a lot. It would have been faster, cheaper and more comfortable with ride share but as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t find anyone going my way.

Would I suggest this way of traveling from Warsaw to Ukraine? Definitely! And another quick tip: bring 2 or 4 zloty with you for this trip. There is no toilet in the bus and the toilets available at the rest stops are not free (2 zl), even at the Polish border.

Tips for Visiting Auschwitz Death Camp

Writing about Auschwitz-Birkenau is hard, visiting the death camp is even harder.

auschwitz barbed wire

Barbed wire fence in Auschwitz I

While in Warsaw I have decided to spend a week-end in Krakow. A beautiful city in Southern Poland. I have been to Krakow in December 2010, when the city was cold and full of snow. The warm days of late spring promised a lot more. So off we went. After getting in touch with Michał on BlaBlaCar and arranging a ride to Krakow I had to figure out some activities for the week-end… besides going to bars.

Most people who visit Krakow will do 2 things: Salt mines and the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be honest I didn’t care so much about the salt mines, since I’ve heard it wasn’t all that impressive. Auschwitz, however, was a must-see.

Getting to Auschwitz

visiting auschwitz I

The city of Oświęcim (renamed to Auschwitz by Germans) is located 67km away from Krakow. Nazis built 3 concentration camps there: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III–Monowitz. Most tourists will book a guided tour to Auschwitz directly in Krakow. Most tours cost 100-150zł ($35-50USD). This includes transportation from Krakow to Oświęcim and back. However, you can make that trip on your own, for a lot less.

One way train tickets from Krakow to Auschwitz costs 9zł ($3) and bus ticket is 12zł ($4). This website will help you find the schedule for the trains and buses. I recommend taking a bus since it’s faster (1h15-1h20) and the local train takes over 2 hours to reach the city of Oświęcim. Some buses from Krakow will drop you off at the train station, others will take you to the Auschwitz I gate. If you need to get to Auschwitz from the train station you can catch a cab for 10-15zł or take a local bus (numbers 1 and 24-29) for less than 3zł. There is a free shuttle that runs every 30 minutes (sometimes more often) between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Entrance to both sites is free, however they have “donation boxes”, so feel free to leave some money which will help maintaining the museum. Remember that access to Auschwitz I is only open to organized tours from 10am until 3pm. If you are coming alone, make sure you enter the museum grounds before 10 or after 3, You can also join a guided tour at the museum for 40zł. You can also buy a brochure for 10zł at the museum kiosk, this brochure will explain a few things about the site.

I should mention that buses back to Krakow are running until 5-6 pm or so, last train is departing around 7:30pm. I might be wrong but that was my experience (on a weekend). Before going there I suggest you check the schedule on the website I mentioned earlier and plan your return trip so you don’t get stuck in Oświęcim for the night… unless you really like very small towns.

The Auschwitz I

sign on the gates of auschwitz

“Arbeit macht frei” – “work makes (you) free”

When planning to visit the Auschwitz museum I was expecting it would be a sad experience. To be honest – it wasn’t sad. It was heart-breaking, it was disgusting, it was painful and very touching. Walking through that territory and imagining the suffering of Poles, Jews, Romas and many others is simply devastating. Then, I walked into the gas chamber. I can’t really explain what I felt. All I can say is that within minutes I had to walk out as I got dizzy, sick to my stomach and holding back tears.

Auschwitz I gas chamber

Auschwitz I gas chamber

After a relatively brief tour I walked out from the museum grounds since I planned to visit Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This second site is located about 3km away from Auschwitz I. You can walk if you feel like it but I suggest taking the free shuttle.

Another tip: look at the shuttle schedule before entering the museum. This way you will make it to the shuttle stop and wouldn’t have to wait for 25 minutes till the next shuttle. Just make sure you get to the shuttle stop a few minutes before the departure.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

As I was approaching the second site I couldn’t believe how huge it was. Barracks after barracks after barracks.

Visiting Auschwitz II - Birkenau

This second concentration camp had a capacity of 200,000 people at a time. Millions of people were sent to this site, most didn’t make it out of there alive.

Birkenau Railway

The railway tracks inside Birkenau split in different directions as camp was divided. Some parts were exclusive to men, some to women, some to Gypsies, some to Russians, etc. The rails that go to the right were probably the scariest, although most prisoners didn’t know about it.

Birkenau Road of death

Jews selected by SS for immediate death were headed along this road upon arrival to Birkenau. On the left and the right side of the road you can see ruins. Nazis tried to destroy the barracks and crematoriums to hide the evidence of their inhuman actions.

Birkenau memorial

 

I probably would not visit Auschwitz any time soon. It is a very difficult experience. Besides understanding how many people died there and how they were killed a lot of other things seem to be happening. Maybe my mind played tricks on me but I could swear I still smelt like something was burning near the destroyed crematorium. The air around the camp was heavy and the atmosphere was just… different.

If you ever get a chance – please do visit Auschwitz because no one will ever be able to explain what’s it really like.

I spent a lot of time deciding if I should publish this post since writing about it brings back the sadness and some other feelings. I hope this post will help you get prepared for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau.

 

– Alex