How to Stay Safe in Ukraine as a Solo Female Traveler
A guide to safety in Ukraine and local customs from a Ukrainian-American
Safety in Ukraine is a big concern for solo female travelers who decide to explore the country for the first time. The country is still in the midst of a military conflict, but skipping Ukraine would mean not seeing its beautiful landscapes, not eating some of the sweetest fruit in the world, and missing out on meeting people who only make friends for life.
“Is it safe to travel to Ukraine for a solo woman traveler?” people would ask with a furrowed brow. My Ukrainian parents weren’t crazy about the idea. We left the country as refugees in the mid 90’s. My mother had come back a few times by herself, but as a couple, my parents favored vacations to Italy or London over their homeland.
Eastern Europe as a whole doesn’t have a reputation for being progressive about gender relations. It is still traditional in many ways, but I do not believe that it’s anyone’s place to judge another culture, especially if you are a guest. I was excited to discover that the truth about solo female travel to Ukraine is more nuanced than I had ever imagined.
It had been almost ten years since I had visited and had come in contact with local customs and culture. I grew up in Odessa, the most relaxed and multicultural city in Ukraine. There is still a veneer of Soviet toughness in the older population. People can have a suspicious look in their eye, but the next second they are joking with you and smiling. The Generation X’s and Millennials tended to be more open and relaxed from the beginning, probably because they grew up in a more economically-secure country than their parents.
While the safety level here is comparable to my travel experiences in Vietnam or Thailand, there are a few local tips you can follow on how to stay safe while traveling in Ukraine.
4City Coworking Space and Restaurant in Odessa, Ukraine
Girls and Boys are Different
Although Ukraine borders central Europe, when it comes to gender roles, I compare it to a hybrid of Eastern European, Central Asian, and modern European dynamics. Men are expected to be aggressive and loud, while women are supposed to be sweet and emotional. Of course, not all Eastern European men are crass gopniks, and local women are far from delicate flowers.
When taking a taxi, Uber and Bond tend to be on the higher price range but boast nicer cars and more polite drivers. Local taxi services like 579 are cheaper but many of the cars don't have working seatbelts. The drivers are less likely to speak English and are a little rougher around the edges. That said, I've been taking the 579 taxis without a problem. The only time I was actually taken advantage of was in the airport and didn't have a choice. If you find yourself disagreeing with the driver, there are a few cultural nuances to consider.
Taxi Safety Tip
As a woman, you must be judicious about using your anger. When I am in the back of a taxi, and I’m being taken for a ride, I turn on my Maps and say, “Excuse me, are we taking the X road to X place?” with a slightly innocent tone in my voice. You can also do this in English and point at the map.
This lets the guy (or gal) know that you’re paying attention, and two, it allows him to save face – avoiding a potentially messy situation with a screaming stranger. It is safe to take taxis in Ukraine as a solo woman traveler, but knowing when to stay calm and when to get visibly upset can help you avoid some unpleasant situations.
Learn “Please” and ‘Thank You” in both Ukrainian and Russian
Ukraine is a country with two main languages, Ukrainian and Russian. Most people are bilingual and can speak and understand both. I've been told to be careful speaking Russian in Lviv and other Western Ukrainian cities. However, as a solo girl traveler that spoke in English and Russian, I never felt unsafe.
I ordered in English when it made sense and switched to Russian if I saw my waiter was having trouble. Smiles, politeness, and sometimes a brief explanation that I only speak English or Russian were all that were needed. Sounds tough, huh?
I fell in love with Lviv’s charming European streets and delicious bakeries. There was merriment in the air and some of the best restaurants in the city, like the molecular cuisine Baczewski Restaurant or the carnivore-friendly Meat and Justice, were shockingly cheap.
In Odessa, where most of the population speaks Russian, I hear people ordering in restaurants in Ukrainian every day. The two languages are closely related, similar to how close Spanish is to Portuguese. Learn how to say the courtesy words of hello, thank you and please in both, because they are not the same – locals will appreciate your effort.
Don’t Smile Right Away
For solo female travelers, safe travel to Ukraine means smiling a little less in certain situations. A woman who smiles too much can is perceived as easy or not very bright. This rule mostly applies to strangers on the street, cab drivers, and train conductors. Eastern European men tend to be aggressive, so if you want to get approached more, smile away.
This could be a leftover belief from the Soviet era when people who smiled too much came off as easy targets. I am a Perestroika baby, and I remember my parents telling me not to be overly friendly so as not to seem too trusting. This is not a very scientific explanation, but the smiling rule is still true today.
My advice on smiling is don’t grin at the waiter when you first place your order. Do smile at the same waiter if he cracks a joke as he delivers your cappuccino. After all, you’re practically friends now, right?
Play Dumb When You’re Being Played
The following is not very feminist advice, but it's effective. Play dumb when faced with potentially tricky situations. If you’re on a train and suddenly the border control agents demand money or a "tip", put on your most confused face. If you need to pay a fine, say you didn’t know anything about fines. Do not argue or get angry, merely act surprised and act as if you don’t know what is going on. This tactic won’t work all the time, but it can help in a jam. Obviously, if there is a legitimate reason, like visa documents, cooperate fully and be respectful.
It's common sense to know all of the emergency numbers in a new country and Ukraine is no different. I don't any have personal experience with police in Ukraine but I have heard from local friends that they've gotten much better at responding to emergency calls. The emergency number for police is 102 and fire is 101. It's also a good idea to research local hospitals or doctors offices just in case. There are many quality physicians in Ukraine but the cost or care in Kiev is significantly higher than in a smaller city like Odessa.
Making Friends: Join English Language Exchange Clubs
Ukrainian women come off as more reticent and making friends with them can seem intimidating at first. Okay, maybe just the women in Odessa because they are so beautiful and always dressed up! To make friends with Ukrainian women, I found that the English Language Cafe and Facebook groups are a goldmine.
Lawyers, college students, and engineers come to the meetings to improve their skills and talk to native speakers. I’ve had conversations about the oldest age to get married (my language partner thought it was 25, I thought she was crazy), and where to find the best Vietnamese soups.
Expat Facebook groups are a useful resource too, but I found those to be hit or miss. The people in these groups are nice but on a different wavelength. A friend who is a full-time digital nomad compared it to, “Thailand, but like, ten years ago.”
Eastern vs. Western Ukraine Safety
There is still an active military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It goes without saying that you should avoid that part of the country. Western Ukraine however, is safe and bouncing back with new restaurants and attractions for travelers. Lviv is where you will find old world charm. A Polish-ruled city at one point, it’s my second favorite place in the country.
Odessa is the first, but I am biased :). In Odessa, has beautiful beaches that I covered in a guest post for Travel on the Brain, French architecture, international cuisine, and charming little courtyards. Free art openings are almost a weekly occurrence if you check Facebook events or the Afisha (events page). It is a tourist-heavy city, so if you stay in the city center and follow common sense, you will be fine.
Odessa Beach Safety
I only heard of this happening once during my three months in Ukraine, but it’s still worth mentioning. Whether you are a male or female solo traveler in Ukraine, DO NOT under any circumstances take drinks from people you don’t know.
If a friendly stranger sees you on the beach alone, and offers you a drink, smile and politely say “no, thank you.” This is a scam. Same if you brought a bottle of wine and someone asks to share. Don’t feel bad about being rude, always follow your instincts. Ukrainians are very warm but only once they get to know you. If someone is being overly nice in the first five seconds of your meeting, I consider it a red flag.
Despite the occasional scams, Odessa is a city that's full of art and culture. The annual Odessa International Film Festival draws crowds of expats and cultured travelers from all over the world.
Safe Buses and Overnight Trains
Luxury or VIP transport in Ukraine is still very cheap by European and U.S. standards. A $12 Autolux bus will get you from Odessa to Kiev in 7 hours. Lean back in the cushy chair, and get lost in the Instagram feed thanks to the free onboard Wi-Fi.
A dirt cheap Soviet-era bus will probably get you an hours-long bus ride with no bathroom and bad shocks. If you’re so committed to an authentic Ukrainian experience that you want to take the cheaper bus, be my guest.
I found out the hard way that cheap train tickets in Ukraine might mean a less...private... accommodation. The GD Vokzal train website offers an affordable ticket option called platzkart. As a budget-conscious traveler, I bought platzkart tickets for a friend and me. They were 7 dollars each for an overnight trip to Lviv.
They were also in a completely open car with no walls, no doors, and no privacy. We gave the conductor a “tip” to ride in his private cabin, and it was money well spent. On the way back, our second class overnight car was lovely and clean. My cabin companions kept trying to feed me tangerines and cookies.
In many ways, visiting Ukraine is no different than going to any new country. Stay vigilant, do your research, follow your instincts, and you will be fine.