To everyone looking for a comfortable, fast train in Ukraine, I’m happy to say a great option exists. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get on it myself. Here’s what happened to me, and how you can have better luck getting the right train.
My adventure began in Odessa, Ukraine where I spent three days exploring the vibrant town, walking along the beach and gorging myself on the cheapest good-quality sushi in the world. I had plans to visit Kiev, although my scheduled tour there fell through following an email malfunction.
Trying to find my own way up to Kiev was a bit of a challenge due to a language barrier in Ukraine. Very few signs are translated into English. While the Ukrainian president has said he wants English as a secondary language in his country, not many people speak it. The younger generation and those in the service industry are an exception to this, yet there were times when I just couldn’t find any English speakers who could help me.
Perhaps where I felt this the most was at the train station. I had seen horror stories online about awful train rides around Ukraine, and from Ukraine to other countries. These were confirmed by locals describing the sleeping cars as a dozen Russians cooking spicy food and getting drunk all night on Vodka, preferring to spend the night in raucous revelry rather than attempting to sleep on the small, metal beds in cramped boxcars.
The NEBO Hotel where I was staying told me about a new, comfortable train I could take to Kiev and directed me to the train station a couple streets away to get my tickets.
I walked into the station and was immediately lost trying to find where to purchase my tickets. There were dozens of ticket windows, each with a different Russian word stenciled above. After walking around the station for several minutes, I couldn’t find any sign that would indicate trains for Kiev.
I asked a security guard for help but she didn’t speak any English. I tried several commuters. None spoke English. I did have one lady seem to understand me, but she said “no train to Kiev,” which I just couldn’t believe was true. Finally, I found a young girl who pointed at one of the windows. There was hope.
Buying the Wrong Train Ticket
I went to wait in line. After 15 minutes, I reached the window and simply said “Kiev,” hoping that would communicate where I wanted to go. The lady shook her head and pointed down the hallway, saying “43” with a strong accent, suggesting I should go to that window.
Another 15 minutes in line. When it was my turn, I asked for a ticket to Kiev, and the lady said “da” and asked me what time. Success! There were several options to choose from, all roughly the same price. I asked for which was the modern train. She looked puzzled. I mimed sleeping and listed several words like “good,” “comfortable” and “new.”
The lady didn’t seem to keen to help and urged me to pick a time. I picked the last one of the night, which would get me into Kiev around 6 a.m. I then had a full form to fill out. Thankfully it was translated into English, although someone must have used Google Translate as the description of many fields didn’t make sense. I did my best and handed the form back. My ticket was printed and I went back to the hotel.
Showing my ticket to the receptionist, she said it was the correct train. A couple hours later, I showed the ticket to a friend I met up with for dinner. She said no, it was the old, uncomfortable train. I started to get a little worried.
Confusion at the Train Station
My train was scheduled to depart just after midnight. I arrived at the train station by 10 p.m., wanting some leeway in case I needed to make changes to my ticket.
I spent some time walking around looking for someone who could tell me which train my ticket was for, but no one seemed to know. Shortly before midnight, a modern train pulled up to the station, with “Kiev” on its digital display. The only problem – it wasn’t on the track printed on my ticket.
By that time, there were hundreds of people waiting on the platform for their train to arrive. Many had several plastic bags full of food or other items, while others pushed carts loaded high with produce. There were even a couple other backpackers, but they didn’t speak English either.
Midnight came and went. No train arrived on my designated track. I got even more worried. I didn’t mind spending another night in Odessa, but I didn’t want to miss Kiev and had things planned the next day.
Finally around 12:30 a.m. the train arrived. Confusion ensued as a mad rush was made by all waiting passengers. The train was absolutely massive with at least two dozen cars. As it turned out, I had the caboose, which I assume would have become the foremost car when the train reversed direction.
As I ran down the platform, I peered into the windows. What I saw perfectly matched the description I had been given of the less favorable trains. I entered my car and found a group of gypsies (no offense to my Romanian friends) already preparing their food for the night. It also looked like all the beds in the car were already claimed. I didn’t think I would be getting any sleep that night.
Riding the Bus
In a split-second decision, I chose to test my luck and find a bus instead. Doing some fast research, I found that there were three potential bus stations in Odessa. I picked the closest one to me (about half a mile away) and ran over. It was closed. Maybe that was a really bad idea. I turned around hoping I could still catch my train.
On the way back, I passed a bus on the street that was boarding to Kiev! Success! I asked the bus driver if there were seats available, and he said I had to book at the office. Hey, he understood and spoke English. Even better! He pointed to the office across the street and I ran in to get my ticket. I was told the bus that was boarding was full, but another bus in an hour still had seats available. I bought mine, and then rain back to the train station to see if I could refund my ticket. Surprisingly, they gave me a 75% refund!
I went to wait for the bus, picking up some water and a snack at the open stall next to the bus. When it was time to board, I was overjoyed at seeing the comfortable, modern seats and amenities available. I settled in for a good sleep and woke up just as we were pulling into the station in Kiev.
Following my success, I booked another bus back to Odessa two days later, and then a bus all the way to Bucharest where I caught a flight to London (flying to and from Romania is significantly cheaper than Ukraine). The former of those buses was just as comfortable as my initial ride to Kiev, but the latter was something else entirely. While the bus itself was comfortable, the highway it took has probably been used for every post-apocalyptic movie filming location.
The road snakes along the Black Sea where Ukraine stretches down to meet Romania, blocking Moldova from having any port cities on the sea. It would be hard to accurately describe it as a highway. There were roughly 1.38 lanes for both directions of traffic. Every time we had to pass an oncoming truck (every minute or so), our bus would slew onto the gravel shoulder without a hair of deceleration, and then back on the road behind the truck. When we weren’t playing chicken, we were dodging (or not) the infinite potholes. I can only imagine the entire length of the road was used for artillery practice within the past couple decades.
I don’t know how, but I did manage to fall asleep and was glad to arrive alive in Bucharest the following morning. I can report that comfortable buses do exist in Ukraine, but the roads are a lot more questionable. I’ve also seen the modern trains, even if I didn’t get to ride one myself.
How to Get the Right Train in Ukraine
Since my adventure, a new website has launched for trains in Ukraine. Go to gd.tickets.ua/en to book your tickets, and make sure you select the “Intercity” option. The old trains are as cheap as $1.50 per ride and the modern train is closer to $10 ($20 for first class). This should get you onto the right train, although my ticket also said “intercity” for the wrong train.
Another option is to bring a local guide or friend with you to the train station to purchase the tickets with you. The risk of this is whether or not they know of the modern option. It is a new train after all, and many locals have yet to hear of it, let alone ride the train.
If you want to ensure you get a comfortable journey within Ukraine, I would personally recommend choosing the bus. They are cheaper than the modern train and will get you to your destination in the same amount of time. I know I mentioned the road out of the country was horrendous, but my journeys between Odessa and Kiev were smooth. Maybe not railway track smooth…but for that, you’ll just have to succeed where I failed and get that modern train. Good luck!
Here’s some further reading on activities to enjoy in Odessa and Kiev.
- What It’s Like to Eat With the Mafia in Odessa, Ukraine
- What to Do and See in Odessa, Ukraine
- 10 Places I Enjoyed Visiting in Kiev, Ukraine
And here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.