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Michael Babson, Washington DC

 I’m Mike, from the Washington , D.C. area. I just returned last week from nearly 5 weeks overseas and Sveta asked me to give you some advice on travel to Ukraine . I will tell you that going to Ukraine is not bad at all. I also visited Belarus and Russia , and it was far more of an ordeal getting in and out of those countries! The first thing you have to do is to get your passport. I don’t know where you’re located, but you’ll need a copy of your birth certificate, passport photos (almost any photo service can do them for you), and the required paperwork for the passport, which can be obtained from the State Department’s official website (www.state.gov). Just type in “passports” in the search window (upper right) and it will give you all the links and forms needed. You can either submit the paperwork yourself, or go through an expeditor – a service that will walk you through the steps and charge a fee to help you with the paperwork and submission of the forms. I used “A Briggs passport and Visa Expiditors” in Washington , D.C. I wanted someone who is close to the State Department, and they turned out to be the least expensive I looked into. I think their “non-rush” service is $95, plus whatever postage you will need to go back and forth through the mail or FedEx.

Their web site can help you with everything: www.abriggs.com phone: 202.464.3000 You should probably take the driver Sveta and Oleg recommend. Yuriy is a really nice guy, be aware that he drives like someone from Nascar though! The roads and driving there are more like rural Wisconsin than our suburban roads.

The trains aren’t that bad, but very slow. What takes Yuriy about 6 and ? hours to drive takes the train a day. And by the way… you can trust him completely, with your life and your possessions. I slept most of the trip to and from Chernivtsy. Don’t even consider renting a car and driving to Chernivtsy alone! I’m in the distribution business and can read almost any map in the world, but I’d knew within an hour that I’d have been completely lost trying to find my way around Ukraine alone! Don’t worry about securing your bags on the airplane.

Nothing was taken from me at any point in my trip. I made sure to keep everything of value with me anyway, and got my bags as soon as they came off the carousel. If you’re taking gifts, make sure you take the price tags off of them and tell customs that you have nothing to declare totaling more than $100, otherwise you’ll get tagged for custom duties…something I learned the hard way! Many businesses take Visa and Mastercard, but you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the exchange rate and get Grivnas (Ukrainian money) when you get there.

You can exchange money at the Kiev airport. I will give you one word of caution: don’t take any cabs while you’re in Kiev …they are all scam artists, and will charge you WAY too much for any ride they give you! And you WILL be approached by several when you get through customs at the airport. “Mister…need a taxi?”) Just say “no thanks, I have a car coming”. You don’t need a visa to visit Ukraine . They passed a law a couple of years ago that got rid of the need for anyone carrying an American passport to acquire a visa. But you will have to fill out a small 2-part form for every country you enter and leave (even if you’re just passing through to change flights) It’s for their customs. They will take the “entry” half of the form and stamp the “exit” half. Keep it with your passport or somewhere else you won’t forget, or you could have some minor difficulties when you leave. Just remember not to put it in your checked baggage! As for the flight…the best place I found to get tickets was www.cheaptickets.com You can book your flight to Kiev (symbol: IEV) from your city and they will give you electronic tickets you can print and use to check in and get your boarding passes. I flew Air France . The pilots were great, the flight smooth, and they fed us until I thought I was going to burst! Delta also goes directly to Kiev from New York , but that flight was booked when I went. Otherwise you’ll change planes in Paris , Frankfurt, or Amsterdam , most likely…depending on the carrier. You’ll have to check the actual carrier site you will be using to see what the limit is on baggage, but usually it’s 2ea. 50lb./max that can be checked, and one carry-on bag. If you stay in the agency’s apartment your belongings will be safe. Just remember to lock the doors going in and out. (Yes, there are two) I found it quite safe walking around Chernivtsy. It feels more like Europe than the former Soviet Union , although everyone will know you’re American, so you will be something of a curiosity. But everyone I met was friendly, and I never felt unsafe or worried about anything. Sveta and Oleg will take American dollars, so you’ll want to carry that with you and pay them their fee, and for the apartment (if you’re planning on staying there) when you arrive. Oleg’s mother will come to the apartment at around 10am every day and cook you a very large breakfast, and leave you more food for lunch, so you won’t be very hungry while you’re there. But expect to take the girls out to eat and have a drink or two while you’re there, so take enough money to exchange for that. About half the good restaurants in Chernivtsy will take a credit card. Tipping is minimal in Ukraine . I found that 5% is normal, although I liked to tip more than that because they make so little in relation to our wages here. (Besides, you’re considered cheap in Washington , D.C. if you tip 20%!) The best restaurants there are about half to 3/4 as much as the best here in Washington . The service is great, and the food is actually quite good. Cabs there are very cheap compared to America , but Chernivtsy is one place I relied on Sveta and Oleg to negotiate price. Don’t forget to buy a voltage converter (240 to 120) in case you want to use your phone, or an electric razor, etc. while you’re there. If you need to e-mail anyone the internet cafe is very inexpensive (about $1/hour) and within four blocks. You can buy phone cards there that will enable you to call back to America if you need it. Sveta or Oleg can show you the process, since the instructions are in Russian.

Overall, I found the Ukrainian women to be very sweet, charming ladies. I truly believe they still have what American women have all but lost.  If you have any more questions please feel free to ask or write. I’m usually available to take a call, unless I’m in a meeting. I’ll return your call if you leave a message.

Mike Babson

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