It's cheap in Ukraine... but not that cheap... some pointers...
After decades of controlled movement when travel was only for the social elite, and today when movement is controlled by visa restrictions on Ukrainian passport holders, the concept of ‘Budget Travel’ or, even more, ‘Independent Budget Travel’, is an alien concept to most Ukrainians. If you can travel, you’re rich; if you’re rich, you have money for private taxis, guides, flights, and expensive hotels where everyone speaks your language… As such, facilities for budget travel in Ukraine are sparse and the only way you’ll be able to get round is with a Russian speaking friend, a good guide book (Bradt is the best; Lonely Planet really not very good - but with some useful maps) learn some Russian yourself, or, at the very minimum, learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
Cities in Ukraine are not very cheap places (unless you know where to go) – and nor are the Carpathians in winter or Crimea in the summer. Everywhere, inflation is soaring so costs of consumer products and food are more expensive than a year or two ago: coffee and a meal in a ‘normal’, clean café is comparable in price to anywhere else in Europe (2 GBP for a latte or mokka…). Alcohol remains reasonably cheap (if it’s a local brew 0.7-1.1 GBP for half a litre of beer). Accommodation is universally expensive and (at budget level) not very good value for money.
Intercity travel is by overnight train. This saves on accommodation. The cheapest tickets (about 80uah one way Odessa to Kiev) are in ‘Platz-Kart’, carriages with beds in tiers on the sides. Trying to buy a ticket at a station is often a confusing process (even for locals… information is ridiculously hard to find and signposting also confusing). You must buy in advance . On popular routes (Kiev-Odessa in the summer) this is best done several days before. Keep your ticket with you and show to conductress. They will ask if you want bedding, and provide it for you.
Buses (AutoLuks) also go between cities. They’re more expensive than trains, but take less time (115uah Odessa to Kiev).
Local trains for short journeys are paid for on board, are very cheap, but incredibly incredibly slow… as are local buses (usually wartime museum pieces…)
Within Kiev, use the metro: 50 kopecks for as far as you want to go. Signposts are all in cyrillic and often not conveniently situated...
In other cities use minibuses (‘Marshrutka’). They are all numbered with various destinations written on signs plastered to their windows (in summer they will highlight the most popular destinations that travellers may be interested in visiting). Stop them by sticking a hand out. Sometimes you have to pay when you get on (the amount: currently 1.50 uah or 2 uah for the entire journey) so just give to the driver or pass to someone else to pass to the driver (sometimes driver’s assistant), or when you leave (give the money to the driver).
Slightly more expensive option is to write the name of the address you want to get to on a paper (in cyrillic) with the amount you’re happy to pay, flag down a car, show them the paper then hop in if they agree. (If you speak Russian, just say destination, then price, then see what the driver agrees…). Expect to pay at least 10 uah for short journeys; 40 for further in the city; outside cities or between towns can be 100uah plus…. Cheaper than a taxi, door to door, but much more expensive than a local bus.
Taxis: agree price before you get in. You don’t need to tip.
Check accommodation pages on travellerspoint.
Youth hostels are a rarity here: 3 in Kiev, 1 in Crimea, 1 elsewhere….
Apartments are a better quality alternative to cheap hotels, but may be far from the centre, so get an exact address (and be sure you can trust the owners…).
‘Cheap’ hotels in Ukraine usually cost over 100 USD for a double/night and that will probably not include breakfast, friendly service, perhaps no hot water, and threadbare rooms with cockroaches. Quality differs massively and price is no guide. ‘Star ratings’ mean nothing in Ukraine – hotels just give themselves the number of stars they feel like.
Recommended hotel in Kiev (summer price) 466 UAH/night for a double (with breakfast) Turist, on the East bank. Get off metro at Livoberezhna, walk to the exit nearest the centre of the city; the big tower block to your right is hotel Turist. If that sounds expensive then remember that is the cheapest hotel near the city centre that you’ll find (at the moment of writing).
In the country, there will be a multitude of cheap places to eat: usually just a bar beside the road with plastic tables and chairs. Main tourist centres are more expensive. Your best bet is to find one of Ukraine’s chain buffet restaurants: Jaru-Paru or Poozata Huta (obviously these are usually written in Cyrillic). These are both non-smoking and found in all major cities, somewhere near the centre. They are cafeteria-style places, serving traditional Ukrainian food, in clean surroundings. If you need a large meal and don’t have so much money, this is the place to come.
(Excellent!) Museum of Folk Culture, Kiev. Instead of expensive taxi and guided tour, go to Metro Libidska. Go up escalator, exit metro at the furthest exit to your right (follow tunnel). Cross the street outside to the line of minibuses. Wait for bus 156 or 172 and stay on it to the end of the line – that is the outdoor museum (tickets sold until 17.00; open – supposedly – until 18.00). Takes about 30-40 minutes to get there from Libidska. Should not be missed if you’re not going to get an opportunity to see rural Ukraine! Buy a map and wander around. There are cafes and snack sheds there (not so cheap), or take a picnic. Costs 15 uah entrance; 60 uah with guide. [Note: this information is different from that published in the Bradt guide, which is now wrong].