Ukraine Travelogue - Travel Agent Issues to watch forI don't want it to seem that I'm nit-picking every thing that went "wrong" on our trip. Trips by their nature are going to have flaky issues, and the more that you can roll with the punches, the better. However, many of these issues were asked about several times before we left on our trip. If you're planning a trip to Ukraine, this will help you know what to watch out for when you take your own trip, and to address beforehand.
Travel from the US to Ukraine
We asked our travel agent several times to confirm the exact seats on the plane, so that we were all together as a group. The agent told us to just rearrange our seats at the counter when we got there. Of course, when we got there, the plane was full and there was no way to rearrange. Her claim was that the airline wouldn't let you reserve seats - but it *had* our reservations, in the "poorly planned" seats she put us into. She also said we should have gotten there early, but we were there 3+ hrs early and the line behind us was *huge*. It was definitely not an issue of us getting there late and only a few seats being open.
Travel Within Ukraine
After talking with the adults on the trip, I explicitly asked our agent if we would have an air conditioned bus with bathrooms on our trips. Several of the bus trips were 3 hours one way. I was told it would always be air conditioned and sometimes have bathrooms. We packed appropriately.
Instead, the vehicle that everyone had to take for 6 hours on the first trip (which luckily I didn't go on) was not air conditioned at all and was a mini-van without a bathroom! That caused huge issues for those who went on it. I immediately mailed in and told them we needed air conditioning going forward if we were to survive, especially for days where we were on that mini-van for 6 hours total.
Despite my message, when we then took the mini-van to Ivano (3+ hrs one way), it again didn't have air conditioning and the ceiling vents didn't even work well. It had to be propped open. The guys were dripping sweat after 15 minutes. In addition, the driver "didn't know we'd have luggage with us" (on a 10-day trip??) so it was all jammed in the back with us. We again made clear that this was not what we had prepared for.
Going forward they did do better with the mini-vans, although when we were picked up in Kiev the luggage was so tight that it was falling over on Kris and me, and we couldn't see anything on their driving tour of the city. In general, we were greatly misled on how to dress and prepare for the multi-hour drives.
In general, the schedule was very poorly communicated as to what we were doing on a given day. For example, one day was a 3+ hr trip from Lviv to Ivano, then a meal at a restaurant there and a trip to the market to buy things. People were *starving* and dying of thirst by the time we got to the restaurant (no AC on the bus) - only to be told that we couldn't eat for another hour and that we'd have to go walk around the marketplace until then. They did get us to eat a little earlier, which then segues into the next issue.
When we're told we're going to eat a restaurant, we're assuming that we can choose what we will eat. Several of us have various dietary issues - one person needs protein regularly, another person is a diabetic and can't have a lot of sugar. However, we showed up at several restaurants and not only would they not let us choose what to eat but they wouldn't even tell us what they were serving, just "You'll like it". That can literally be dangerous, health-wise. To illustrate, at one restaurant we told them one of our group members needed meat. Their response was "Your soup has one small meat chunk per bowl. Everyone can dig out the meat chunk in their soup and pass them down to him".
We all love Ukrainian food, but we don't like being forced to eat things that perhaps will make us ill. If a restaurant is going to include only 3 specific course items in their provided meal, then that should be communicated beforehand and alternate arrangements made if necessary.
When we asked for directions in Ivano-Frankivsk to a good restaurant, we were told it was a 10 minute walk. After 1/2 hr of walking we were worried we were lost, and since we didn't have a functional cell phone, we would have been doomed (we were starving at this point too). Luckily, we found it shortly after that. I'm not sure if they walk quickly or we walk slowly, but that seems to be quite a variance!
When we were told we were spending a day at monasteries, we imagined casual walking. When we got there, there was a walk across a bridge. Then a steeper walk up a dirt road. Then an even steeper walk up a trail. Then we reached a church - and was told this was only the base camp. Then we began a serious hike including hand rails and long stretches of steep slippery gulleys without any handholds at all. Every time we asked how much further it was, we were told "just a short distance" - which eventually changed to "hurry up or we'll miss the train". If she had begun this day with a full layout of the hike, so we could wear proper clothing and shoes, and then told us along the way the actual distance and difficulty ahead, it would have made a *huge* difference.
Trip Detail Issues
A key reason we went to the monasteries in Kiev was to see the caves. However, when we were there, the guide walked right by them. We said that was why we were here. It ended up being a long discussion before she'd take us - including complaints that some women had pants on and others had shorts on. I had worn a long dress and brought a head scarf for this very reason - but that's because I did the research on my own. If we had asked for the caves, then the tour guides should have prepared to take us there - and also made it clear to everyone *beforehand* (i.e. both in the tour material and also that morning when they picked us up) exactly what the requirements were.
It was critical for my work that I have full in-room internet connectivity at each hotel. I could see from the hotel websites that each hotel claimed "connection to the internet" but none listed how that connection was done nor the pricing. I asked our agent for those details and never received it. I in fact did have a server meltdown while in Lviv and had to be online for almost 2 days straight fixing it. Very luckily, the Hotel Opera provided in-room connections at a cheap rate. UNfortunately, Hotel Nadia in Ivano had an awful connection in a cafe - using only their machines - for about $5/hr. The Hotel Rus in Kiev had a super-hot cafe which did let you use your own laptop, but which charged an outrageous $9/hr!! These would have slain me if I had to use those for 10 hrs straight each day to do my work.
Bus Driver Tips
For some reason we were giving the mini-van driver a $10 US tip every day as a "bonus". In addition to his normal salary. This really upset me a lot, as my relatives in Ukraine were getting $75 as their monthly pension to live on. This mini-van driver as his "extra bonus" for a 7 day driving job would earn an entire full month's pension in addition to his normal salary. He wasn't even loading the bags on either - the two guys with us were doing the majority of the bag loading work. It seemed morally wrong to me. Especially since, when we got back from the boat tour and got our bags from the mini-van, I found my laptop out of its zipped pocket of my backpack and stuffed into the central area of it.
Travel from Ukraine to the US
We had the same seat issues on the way back - even though I emailed our travel agent FROM Ukraine and asked her to make sure this was all set. People were wildly scattered all over.
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