I know what you might be thinking. It doesn’t matter how cheap Ukraine is if there’s a war going on and you are risking your life for that cheap exchange rate. While that sentiment is an understandable one, it is not based at all in reality for the vast majority of the country right now. Ukraine is one of the best kept secrets in international travel. In fact I would take a step further and say it is one of the best bargains on the planet right now for travelers that make their money in Dollars or Euros.
I have spent close to 10 days in Lviv and Kiev, two of the largest cities in the western part of the country, and I feel safer here than I do in most major American metropolitan areas. In the western part of the country, you don’t even feel the effects of war. To me it was eerily similar to when the US was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unless you knew someone that was over there or that had come home, you would never have known there was anything going on. The distance between the major western Ukrainian cities and the Eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk where the conflict is taking place is very large. It would be like if you lived in Dallas but there were clashes in Washington DC.
To let you in on the secret travel bargain of Ukraine and why it is such an incredible value, let’s look at the different areas of spending you might have on vacation and see how they compare to what you’re used to in the good ole USA.
The picture on the left is of craft beer at one of the nicest Ukrainian breweries. It set me back about 60 cents. In a lot of cases beer costs less than water. I haven’t taken advantage of it as much as I could have because I don’t usually drink too much, but for the serious beer connoisseur, Ukraine is a little piece of paradise. On top of the great beers, the random brewery I found also has a band that plays jazz music on the weekends. This establishment also happened to be right in the middle of one of the main squares in town so it’s in the high rent district. If I just went to a grocery store to buy it I would have spent between 20-40 cents. Absolutely incredible quality and prices. I think this category is about 10x the cost in the US.
Pictured above is the Chernobyl Museum located in Kiev, the capital city. I don’t know if they passed an act of Parliament that museum admission fees must be dirt cheap, but the vast majority of museums are around 40 cents. You often have to pay more if you want an audio tour for the spots that don’t have English subtitles next to the exhibits, but that is only around $2.
While not at a Smithsonian level, the quality of the museums is still really good. The artifacts they have are extremely well presented. In the Chernobyl museum above they had a model that would explode like the real nuclear plant to show you how it happened. I also checked out the Arsenal museum in Lviv and plan on going to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev. Your addicting museum habit goes from being $5 each visit to less than 50 cents a visit here in Ukraine.
If you travel to the Ukraine, your dentist will hate you. The concentration of unbelievably delectable sweets is the highest I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the world. From candy shops that are decked out like the Candyland game, to crepe factories, ice cream shops, and cake bakeries, Ukraine has it all. The problem is dealing with the temptation because if you want the equivalent of ten Cheesecake Factory slices a day, you can have it. This chocolate cake above was about $1, and the average cost is more like 50-75 cents if you don’t go to a really nice restaurant.
The only trick street vendors will play on you is charging by the gram for ice cream, similar to what frozen yogurt shops do in the US. If you want to avoid paying $2-$3 for your ice cream cone (totally reasonable absolute price but terrifyingly expensive by Ukrainian standards), you need to go to the shops. One of my favorite places I found was in Rynok Square in Lviv. It was a strudel store that baked all kinds of strudels right in front of you. You could get a giant helping of apple strudel with chocolate syrup for about $1.50, so I indulged.
You should probably try to limit yourself to one nice dessert a day because otherwise you might literally have to go to the hospital from a sugar coma. There are some less dangerous desserts, like the berry sorbet I got at a restaurant for about $2. I felt like it had a low enough sugar content, so I had two desserts that day. That’s how it works right?
If you can believe it, the above pic of my lunch from a local cafeteria set me back about $2.75. I had a salad, local soup called Borsch, some barley oats that are similar to cous cous, and fish for that price. I had even cheaper lunches but that one really stood out to me because of the variety for the price. The cafeteria has TVs, wifi, solid wood tables, and AC. The local Ukrainian restaurants are higher quality and cheaper than anything you could imagine.
It’s almost criminal to eat at one of the American chain spots because for less than the price of a Big Mac you can get a four star meal.
Another example of the affordability of the food here in Ukraine is this herring with potatoes on the left. It was substantial enough for a solid healthy lunch, and cost about $2. The quality of food cannot be overstated. I’ve had a lot of seafood in my life growing up on the Gulf Coast and this swam with the best of them. I have tried meals at maybe a dozen different restaurants and the price after tip is typically between $2 and $5. The highest prices I have found in the entire country were around $15-$20 for Filet Mignon inside a gold plated building just to give you perspective.
The picture above is of Art Hostel in Lviv. The really high quality hostels, aka the ones that get 90% ratings and above on HostelWorld, will set you back about $5-$10. I decided to randomly walk in and check with the front desk of Art Hostel, which is located in the middle of the main square in Lviv, Ukraine, and I inquired about their cheapest room. It was about $4.75. For another 75 cents, I got a semi-private room with air conditioning, unlimited free coffee, tea, and filtered water.
In Kiev, you will pay a few dollars more than other cities around the Ukraine, but there is more culture and sites to see so it might be worth it for you. A really nice hotel will cost you about $20-$30 and for that you will live like a King or Queen. These hotels are no chains either. We are taking four or five stars for that price.
Transportation Around Ukraine is cheap and easy
The picture above is the bus I took from Krakow, Poland to Lviv, Ukraine. I found this amazing website called Blablacar that will allow you to get anywhere in the country. What’s more, it usually costs less than $10. You go on the site and can choose from any number of different drivers. Most of them have ratings and Facebook friends listed next to their names. You can also see what kind of car they are driving and what others have said about them. I usually always pay more to get a driver with reliable ratings. I like to see 4.8 of 5 stars or above. Additionally, I tend to prefer riding in nice sized vehicles with plenty of legroom.
If you want to try out a train, there is a pretty nice line going from Lviv to Kiev that you can book here. It will be a little more, but I heard of people booking a sleeper train with teas included for around $15.
Transportation within Ukraine is even cheaper and easier
In the cities, you will generally pay about 10 to 25 cents to take a bus, tram, or metro. The metro system in Kiev on the left is unique. It is the world’s deepest underground train system. The extremely fast escalator system takes you down to the train platform in no time flat. It it as least three times as fast as any mall escalator I’ve seen back in the US.
The metro in Kiev is really straightforward. There are only three lines so it isn’t mass chaos figuring out where to go. You can find train stops all over the place. The trains travel linearly for the most part, so you can take one to see where it takes you without too much risk of ending up in the boonies. Better still, the 20 cent cost makes taking the train around the city virtually free.
If you have to take a taxi within a Ukrainian city, it should cost you about $3. One time I took a 3am taxi with a random Russian driver, and we agreed on a $2.50 cost. Once we got to the location, he said he said he quoted the wrong cost and it was actually going to be $2. It remains the only time in my life where the driver gave me an estimate for the taxi ride that was higher than the price at the end of the trip.
Will Ukraine Continue Being This Cheap or is This a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity?
There is no doubt the currency is a big reason the country is so cheap right now. The Russian conflict caused the local money to plummet in value. Moreover, the wealthy Ukrainians now demand foreign currency to protect their wealth in a time of uncertainty. For a short term traveler, long term currency stability is irrelevant. When you convert some dollars or euros to Ukrainian Hryvnia, you therefore obtain an incredible exchange rate. You support local currency stability by feeding the demand for foreign currency. Additionally, you make out like a bandit.
In essence, you provide liquidity to locals as a foreigner traveling here. The current exchange rate as I write this is about 22 : 1 USD. In the very recent past it has been around 15:1. At the height of the crisis, it was around 35:1. The currency recovered quite a bit, but still represents a steal for visitors.
Live Like an Oligarch on $50 a Day
Even if the war with Russia ended tomorrow, the country would still be dirt cheap. The average wage here is something like $2500-$3000 USD a year (!!!) A majority of the cost for something like a sandwich, drink, or museum visit is in the labor. A foreigner essentially only feels the cost of materials when they spend money. A US citizen is about 25 times richer on average than a Ukrainian one. This extreme disparity makes you the 1% er’s of Ukraine even on a school teacher’s income. Because of the low wages in Ukraine, the labor cost of goods is virtually 0 in comparison to US standards.
The Ukraine travel opportunity is a once in a lifetime bargain. Extremely low labor costs and their currency crisis will make you feel like a multimillionaire. Your dollars or euros go 50% farther than they used to. Indeed, the country’s wages are close to third world levels now because of the economic problems. If you have a budget of $50 a day, expect to live a life of luxury. In the US, you would qualify for the poverty line.
Some Parting Thoughts
By visiting Ukraine, you are helping people out in their time of need. People here desperately need foreigners to visit and spend their money. You might feel guilty for the vastly better living standard you have. However, consider that by visiting you support local jobs and businesses. The economy took a brutal hit when Russia moved into Crimea and the Eastern regions of the country. Spending money in the hostels, restaurants, bars, and museums. You can support Ukraine in a peace loving way and promote the new pro-Western regime. After all, it is the only thing standing in the way of a Russian satellite state.
You can take Ukrainian Airlines from any big city in Europe to Kiev. Once you are in Europe, you can probably buy a ticket for less than $100. There are so many beautiful sites to see, you will be glad you did. Thanks for reading, I’m thinking about going wild tonight and spending $3 on dinner with a nice stout. I’m typing this from the $8 high rise hostel I’m staying at. Unfortunately, I need something to fill up my budget.
If you like five star living on a one star budget, come to Ukraine. You will live like a King and spend like a peasant, all while supporting democracy. 50 cent cake never tasted so good.