This summer, I summoned up all of my travel courage and joined a two-day tour to Chernobyl.
Although I’ve traveled all around the world, I’d never met someone else who had taken a tour to Chernobyl. Without anyone to guide me through the booking process, I resorted to reading TripAdvisor reviews and the websites from different tour operators to plan my tour to the world’s most famous nuclear disaster site.
Fortunately, the hours I spent searching online paid off and I ended up having a great two days inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. However, I wished that it was easier to find all the unbiased Chernobyl pre-travel information in one place: when to go, what company to use, how to pay, what to bring, etc. So, I prepared this complete guide to preparing for a tour to Chernobyl. Rather than focus on what you’ll get to see and do when you arrive, it covers all the stuff you need to take care of before you arrive at the meeting point on the morning of your Chernobyl tour.
Want to know what you’ll see on a two-day tour to Chernobyl? Read my full trip report (with almost fifty photos!) in My Chernobyl Tour – Safe But Scary.
Want to know how to plan for an overnight tour to Chernobyl? Just keep reading!
When to Visit Chernobyl
If, like me, you’re coming to Ukraine from outside of Europe, the best time to visit Chernobyl is when you’re already going to be in Ukraine. Traveling to Ukraine from anywhere outside of Europe typically involves changing planes at another airport in Europe, and although Chernobyl is an amazing place to visit, I wouldn’t say it’s worth a twelve hour flight on its own.
However, if you are coming from within Europe, or if you have lots of flexibility in your travel schedule, there are a few different schools of thought about the best time to visit Chernobyl. My guide told us that he thinks the best time to visit Chernobyl is in early March, late October or early November, when there probably won’t be snow and the foliage won’t be in bloom. Apparently this is the season where it looks most like a desolate disaster zone. However, I would argue that there is also something special about visiting Chernobyl in the summer, when the trees are green, the grass is long and there are flowers blooming throughout the Exclusion Zone. In my opinion, a summer visit shows the true triumph of nature over human intervention, as nature has seemingly reclaimed the entire zone.
Ladies, listen up! I visited Chernobyl when I had my period, and it was one of my least-comfortable “travel periods” ever. Bathroom stops are extremely limited, and it’s not easy to step off the path and use nature’s facilities due to highly radioactive hot spots. Try to plan your visit for a time when you know you won’t have your period.
Choosing a Chernobyl Tour Operator
There are three major tour operators who lead multi-day tours into the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone: Chernobyl Welcome, SoloEast and Chernobyl-Tour. Additionally, there are smaller operators who tend to accommodate last-minute bookings and local bookings made in Kiev.
I booked with Chernobyl Welcome because they had a lot of positive reviews online, a professional website and guarantees that the groups would be limited to twelve people. Unfortunately, after I made my reservation they changed their website to show a maximum group size of fifteen, and my group was that large. However, I still think that I made a good choice: our guide was excellent, there was evidence that the company had good relationships with the local people within the zone, and I didn’t see any evidence that the other companies were any better (although Chernobyl-Tour has some flashy cars and they operate the souvenir stall at the entrance to the Exclusion Zone, and SoloEast is still advertising maximum group sizes of twelve).
Prices for a tour to Chernobyl are all quite similar – at publication time, Chernobyl Welcome charges €279 for a standard two-day group tour, SoloEast charges €259 and Chernobyl-Tour charges €265 excluding lunches and dinners.
Choosing a Chernobyl Tour Itinerary
One of the biggest questions facing travelers planning a tour to Chernobyl is whether to do a one-day trip to the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, or whether it’s better to choose a two-day tour to Chernobyl. There is a significant difference in price (for example, the company I used charges €279 for two days but only €99 for one day).
A common complaint that I heard from other travelers was that they could stay in a nice hostel in Kiev (like Dream House Hostel), travel around the city by Uber, eat at nice restaurants and go out at night for way less than the €180 difference between the two tours. And while that may be true, my post about my own experiences in Chernobyl shows just how much you get to see on a two-day trip to Chernobyl (like the Duga radar control rooms, shown above), compared to a one-day trip that rushes through the main tourist attractions. For an in-depth experience, you need to spend at least one night in Chernobyl.
Similarly, choosing a two-day trip means you’ll have a lot more flexibility to avoid the crowds in the Exclusion Zone. The first checkpoint opens at 10:00 am daily, which means that between the hours of 7:00 am and 10:00 am the site is only accessible to travelers who slept there overnight. My tour group was able to visit many of Pripyat’s most famous attractions, like the amusement park and the sports center, before anyone else arrived on-site that day. It truly felt like we had the whole town to ourselves.
Paying for Your Tour to Chernobyl
Recently, the Ukrainian government has made some changes to how they charge tour operators for tours to Chernobyl. So, if you’re reading about tour operators that don’t require payment in advance, chances are good that you’re reading outdated information. Instead, you can expect to pay approximately 25% of the tour fee in advance. This is the money that goes directly to the government to secure your entrance permits. Don’t expect to be able to pay with your credit card, as tours to Chernobyl are mainly booked with cash or PayPal.
The rest of the money is typically paid either online (which may incur a processing fee) or in cash at the departure point in Kiev. My tour operator did not accept Ukrainian currency as payment – you had to have USD, GBP or EUR on hand to make the payment. This was communicated very clearly, multiple times, during the booking process and in the days leading up to our departure. Still, some travelers were confused and arrived at our departure point with no money. To be able to join our tour to Chernobyl they had to visit an ATM at the train station, which gave them Ukrainian currency, and they then had to exchange that money into EUR at one of the exchange offices that was open that early. They definitely lost money due to their unpreparedness… don’t let this happen to you!
Packing for An Overnight Tour to Chernobyl
When you pack for a two-day trip to Chernobyl, there are a few important things to keep in mind.
First, remember that Chernobyl has a strict dress code. You need to wear long pants and long sleeves in almost every part of the Exclusion Zone (excluding the hotel). Closed-toed shoes are essential.
Some of the guards were willing to overlook t-shirts, but there was zero tolerance for even the widest straps on tank tops. I would know, as I accidentally forgot my long-sleeve top when I went into the supermarket in the town of Chernobyl. Inside the supermarket there were three members of the Ukrainian military, who didn’t say anything… until fifteen minutes later, when our van tried to pass through the secondary checkpoint and the officer in charge tried to keep me from entering due to my earlier dress code violation (which I had rectified immediately back at the supermarket!). He was so angry that I was prepared to sit out Day 2 of the tour and let my group go through without me, but my guide managed to diffuse the situation and we were all allowed to enter.
Second, pack light. It is absolutely forbidden to place your bag on the ground at any time, and by doing so you run the risk of having your entire bag confiscated when you return to Kiev. If any radiated materials can’t be brushed or washed off your bag, you’ll have to leave it behind. Packing light means that you can always hold onto your bag as you reach inside to grab bug spray, sunscreen, a water bottle or any other gear that you might need throughout your visit.
Finally, consider leaving your favorite possessions back in Kiev. As I mentioned, anything that comes into contact with radioactive materials and that can’t be cleaned will be left behind. Our guide shared stories about travelers who had to leave their pants and shoes behind when they weren’t able to brush off the radioactive materials – one girl apparently had to return to Kiev wearing plastic shopping bags on her feet. Following the rules (no sitting or putting possessions on the ground) goes a long way to reduce your risk in this area, but it can’t hurt to pack your oldest clothes and to bring a back-up pair of flip-flops.
Are Chernobyl Tours Safe?
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer: Yes, a tour to Chernobyl is completely safe.
We are surrounded by radiation. As you’ll learn within the first hour of your Chernobyl tour, the human body emits radiation. So do bananas. In fact, the total amount of radiation that you’ll be exposed to during your two-day tour to Chernobyl is about the same as the amount of radiation you receive during a trans-Atlantic flight. And when was the last time you cancelled a flight because you were afraid of radiation poisoning?
Of course, there are still hot spots around the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. They are easy to avoid as long as you follow your guide’s instructions, stay on the clearly-marked paths, avoid wandering into the forest and resist touching all those funky machines that were used to clear the radioactive debris in the months following the meltdown. It is also recommended that you avoid touching any animals during your tour to Chernobyl. Although the dogs and foxes seem friendly, their fur can be radioactive thanks to their proclivity for rolling around on the ground.
You’ll pass through radiation scanners several times during your tour, and if they pick up on unusually high levels of radiation then your guide will help you to address the problem (for example, by rinsing off the soles of your shoes). To play it safe, most tour operators also recommend that you take a shower and wash your clothes as soon as possible upon your return to Kiev (Dream House Hostel has laundry facilities for their guests in the basement).
It’s been two months since I returned from Chernobyl and I am obviously completely healthy (despite having accidentally touched a wall in the cooling towers, as you may have read in my full trip report). In my opinion, the biggest risk in Chernobyl is actually stepping on broken glass or another sharp object. Reduce your risk of injury by staying on the designated paths (seriously, this is so important!), wearing study shoes and watching where you’re walking. I also mentioned that I got stung by a huge bee in the center of Pripyat – fortunately I am not allergic to bee stings, but if I was, it could have killed me. Keep your necessary medication, including Epipens and asthma inhalers, with you at all times.
Are you prepared for an overnight tour to Chernobyl? Now it’s time to get inspired by my photos (and very thorough thoughts!) about my own two-day excursion to Chernobyl!
Have you been to Chernobyl? What tips do you have for someone planning an overnight tour to Chernobyl?