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