Olya and Jim, happy Ukrainian-American family
Before you go to Ukraine, better to ask an impression of someone who already visited this amazing country. Ron from Canada, Bill from England and Jim from USA had visited Ukraine many times as a husbands of their Ukrainian wives. So they can tell you LOTS of personal impressions about this biggest European country and to give you some important advices in your journey to Ukraine.
Jim did a great job writing some travel tips to his family before their visit to Ukraine and I grateful him very much for the permission to share some his advices, thoughts and impressions here. Thank you again, Jimmy! I am sure, that your experience will be useful for many people, who already have a ticket to Ukraine and who still planning to visit this country. So, here is Jim's letter
I hope you are all well. I wanted to send a letter to you all and give you some tips about Ukraine. I am hoping this will provide a little enthusiasm for you, while lessening the cultural shock. For me it wasn't much of a cultural shock, I enjoyed it! Not a lot of Americans go to Ukraine, but we are very well received. They are generally very flattered that an American would visit, and these people would share their last piece of bread with you.
Customs, immigrations, insurance, airfares
It might be necessary for you to buy Health Insurance when you arrive. DO NOT buy the insurance through the Hotel! Buy it at the airport if it is required. For me it was $20. But they did not make me buy any when I arrived in Kyiv. Also when you arrive, you will have a small form to fill out. It is for customs/immigration. Just write your arrival and departure info on it. They will keep the arrival half when you come. Keep the departure half in your passport for when you leave. It is important. All they really need is the departure flight number, but they will insist on having the form. Please remember.
Also about your passports, some Hotels have deposit boxes. It is your call. It is also a good idea to have your passport number written down separately from your passport, just in case you need it, or if you lose it.
And, when you fly into Lviv, you will be issued paper tickets. If you take LOT airlines, you also might need to "reconfirm" your flight for the trip home. And it is always a good idea to "confirm" your flight about 3 days prior too. When you do, ask them if "reconfirmation" is needed. And tell them you have paper tickets. It might also require different procedures.
About money. I wouldn't worry about changing your money in Ukraine. There are lots of ATMs, and once you put your card in, it will ask if you want an English menu. It will not give you a balance though. And it will ask if you want a receipt. Also, VERY important, cover your hand when you put in your PIN!!!!! And make sure nobody is watching. If you do want to exchange some money, the rate is lower with large bills. The exchange rate is also 10%, which is ridiculous. With the ATMs usually it is only a couple of dollars, charged by your bank.
Also some credit cards (Visa and Master Card) are acceptable in hotels, good restaurants and big supermarkets. But not American Express (yet). American Express you can use when you are renting a car from AVIS in airports of biggest Ukrainian cities Lviv, Kyiv, Odesa, Simferopil, Kharkiv.
Many of the roads in Ukraine are pot-holed and very old. I think it is kind of charming to travel on streets hundreds of years old, but on a bus, it can be a challenge. Especially to the men or others that stand! Hold on :) And the drivers, whether you are in a bus or taxi (taksi) will be an adventure. I think they all watch Nascar! The bus fares just went up, they are now 25 cents. And usually even a long taxi ride will cost about $3 in small cities, but not in Kyiv, a capital of Ukraine. Taxi ride from airport Borispol to Kyiv downtown cost $30. Most of taxi drivers in Ukraine don't speak English, but if they hear English language of their passenger the price for ride “automatically” going up to 50% or more :)
Culturally, the Ukrainians generally eat with the fork in the left hand, but no one really cares. Once I was eating breakfast by myself, and I tried to fit in. I accidentally ordered sunny-side-up eggs and tried to eat them with my left hand. It took me 20 minutes! :) Also, their bread is usually sliced very thin. Don't be afraid to order more.
They eat LOTS of veggies. And they prepare them a thousand different ways. They also have a thousand sauces. They use many different spices, and they use eggs a lot too. Soup is usually served, and it is usually VERY good. Even if it looks strange, for your opinion :) I even tried some very pink soup once, at first I was embarrassed, but I wanted more when I finished. But, being a "cholovik" (man) I went to the bathroom to be sure my lips and tongue were not pink! :)
This soup Ukrainians call “borshch”, it is national dish, made from beet, potatoes, carrot, onion and cabbage.
Important fact about the toilets :) Most are unisex, except in busy public places. Then, it will probably cost you one hryvnya, which is 20 cents. The general toilets (when you can find them) are old-fashioned. The drainage hole is to the front, not the back. So, often everything will not flush the first time. Olya's is modern though. Some of the other toilets are only a hole in the ground. Sorry girls. But, luckily, these are very few. It might be a good idea for you girls to bring a little something in your purses for these occasions. Also, many of the toilets have rather rough paper, almost like a small roll of paper towels. So, don't put a bunch of paper in the toilets!
One more thing about the toilets, most are labeled "WC" which I assume means "Water closet". The other symbols to designate the toilets I cannot demonstrate using roman letters, but I will try to explain. The women's is like a curly "X" with a vertical line through it. For the men it is a "ch".
There are many castles to see in Ukraine. Though, sadly, most are nearing ruins. It could be a fantastic vacation place, but they simply don't have the money to keep them up. None of the places are "touristy." I promise you. Even the most popular castle sites you can walk and drive right up to. And any church you can walk right in to, any time of day or night. Regardless of religion. I even walked into a Catholic baptism once. It was a Tuesday morning :) They let me take pictures too.
Also, it is customary to make the sign of the cross three times when you enter and when you leave. Most people walk backwards when they leave. And the third sign of the cross is usually accompanied by a small bow. Also, as I have told you before, they make their signs of the cross "backwards." You can always buy candles inside too. They are 20 cents each. They are long, skinny candles you can set in sand or in little metal holes. Just use a candle that is already lit, heat the bottom of your candle, and set it in :)
Some supermarkets also have lockers. You can walk up, put your purses, etc in them and take the key. Just carry with you the money or whatever you need in your pockets. There are few security cameras anywhere, but they have henchmen with radios instead.
Having said that, it was a little strange for me during the wedding last summer, everyone danced with everyone. Married or not. That was a little different. I would describe the music as almost Mexican type, but with a twist. They use violins, flutes with it. But also the accordion or lap harp. It is usually fast, and forget about understanding the words. But, it is happy music.
Generally, the sense of humor is a little dry, so they get excited quite easily. Our translations should be interesting for both parties. Feel free to speak your mind, it is interesting to them, and they appreciate it.
Sorry this is so long, but I feel its important, and I hope you all got something out of this. I know you will all enjoy your stay. I have not seen other parts of Europe, but there is a special charm in Ukraine. They are new free Nation, and that comes with a special, fresh feeling itself. Even the sparrows have a grey-green breast. For many, many years, religion, color, language and music have been discouraged. Unlike other European Nations. So, Ukraine has gone crazy with these things. It is wonderful, you will see!
With love and humility,
To know more about Ukraine and Ukrainian people, read also
Incredible Ukrainian Hospitality,
Wedding in Ukraine,
How 15-years-old Boy from Western Ukraine Rescued His Family