In recent years, Russia has been hard at work shaking off the gray vestiges of communism. After a 10-year, multi-million dollar renovation, Moscow’s world renowned “Bolshoi theatre” reopened in October, 2011. St. Petersburg now sparkles as in the days of the czars, duly deserving its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Traveling independently offers the flexibility to experience these wonders far from the madding crowd. But Russian rules can become Kafkaesque nightmares for unwary travelers.
Here are some tips to take care while traveling in Russia:
President Putin promised a “Visa-free” regime for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. If 2018 is too far away and you are an American or EU citizen, you will need a visa. Arriving in Russia without one is grounds for denial of entry and return home at your own expense. Check with your local Russian consulate about what kind you need. A Russian tourist visa lasts up to thirty days. Other types last longer.
For more info about visa see here…
2) Migration Cards
You will need to fill out a migration card on arrival. Russian authorities do not always point this out, expecting you to learn the rules by osmosis. The cards are distributed by flight attendants before landing. They are also on racks at arrival points.
Migration cards have two parts. The first part goes to immigration authorities on arrival. Keep the second part for your entire stay. Hotels need it to register your visa, and you will return it when leaving the country. A lost migration card is difficult to replace, but does not bar you from leaving Russia.
In winter, bring some good shoes with good traction. Sweeping of ice and snow from walks is spotty in Moscow and Kazan and it is easy to slip. The Russians seem just to truck through it all. Also, steps in buildings can be uneven and there are unexpected changes in level in the floors in some buildings. Watch your step.
The quality of the water in Russia varies from place to place. It is recommended to drink and brush your teeth with bottled water. Also, try to avoid ice, raw foods and vegetables.
Watch your Rubles cash. All prices are generally quoted in Russian rubles. You may exchange currency at hotels, banks, and currency exchange kiosks. Traveler’s checks are hard to cash. Credit cards are accepted in most places that work with foreign tourists. Some may turn down American Express. Visa and MasterCard are known, hence — more widely honored. ATM machines are widely available in major cities, but note: they do not have letters on the key pad, so if your PIN includes letters, do remember them as digits! Do not exchange currency in the streets if a native Russian offers to sell you rubles. Always carry some currency with you because many shops do not accept credit cards. Remember to change your rubles to dollars before you leave Russia. Most exchange office outside Russia will not change rubles.
In Russia, foreigners pay twice the entrance fee as Russian citizens at museums and cultural sites, but due to actual inflation the prices are more than reasonable. Tickets to the opera and ballet are also priced higher for foreigners, so budget accordingly.
Tipping is increasingly expected at restaurants. Tips should be between 10 and 15%.
Travelling in Russia can be challenging for non-Russian speakers. At train stations, most signs are in Cyrillic and ticket sellers usually do not speak English. Moscow metro signs use an inconsistent alphabet. Some signs are in Cyrillic, others are in the Latin alphabet. Nowadays the maps of Moscow Metro stations are officially translated in 6 main languages.
St. Petersburg is more tourist friendly. Subway signs are generally in the Latin alphabet. Some are even in English.
In provincial areas it depends of luck, will or not find a english speaker. And keep in mind: All Russian trip is great adventure!
If you’re coming for more than a couple of days, do yourself a favor and get acquainted with the Russian alphabet. It’s really not that hard. Besides being practical, it’s fun to sound out the names of dishes on menus – you’ll be surprised at how many you recognize.
7) Within City Travel
Subways are inexpensive, easy to use, and efficient. One caveat, the Moscow metro has several deep subway stations designed to withstand nuclear attacks. Not all of these stations are handicapped accessible.
Tickets are sold at booths in each station. Standing on line is a Russian way of life, so be prepared for long, disorganized lines during rush hour. Subway tickets come in paper or coin varieties. Scan the paper or insert the coin at the turnstile and you are off.
Taxi fares are negotiated before you begin traveling to your destination. Avoid taking unlicensed cabs, as these drivers generally wait for taking advantage of foreigners. Also note that driving from (or to) airport is quite expensive even for American standards. It is safer and cheaper to order airport and train station transfers in the travel agency where you book your staying.
8) Between City Travel
In major cities you can book flights in advance. In other areas, tickets can be bought for cash at the airport. Departure gates are subject to change, and signs are sometime in Cyrillic only. Some domestic airports are still soviet-style.
For moderate distances, trains are a good option. Express trains run between Moscow and St. Petersburg and take four hours. Be forewarned that chain smoking is popular in Russia. If you look unhappy, many Russians will courteously leave the compartment and smoke just outside the door.
Buses are another option. Government buses depart from designated stations, while private buses may depart from the train station. Make sure you know the type of bus and its departure point.
Renting a car in Russia is not quite advisable unless you speak good Russian and have strong nerves. Road conditions can be poor to nonexistent in some areas, and roadside checkpoints are common. Tourists can drive in Russia for up to 60 days with a valid US driver’s license and a notarised Russian translation. An International Driving Permit from the American Automobile Association or the American Automobile Touring Alliance is also acceptable. Insurance valid in Russia is required.
9) Electricity, GSM & WiFi
The electrical current in Russia is 220V AC. The European standard 2-prong plug is used. Be sure to bring a converter with you, as it is difficult to purchase in Russia.
If you bring an unlocked GSM phone with you may be able to get a SIM card (with the help of a Russian associate) that allows reasonably priced calls to the USA. This card was reloadable at various ATMs and terminals, using cash or a credit card. There are many phone plans and they tend to be complicated. Phone plans tend to be regional, so get one for the region you will be staying in. Roaming can be very expensive. A Russian helper in the phone store may be essential.
Most big hotels offer its guests Internet access for a fee. There are also quite cheap internet cafes in big cities.
We advise that you should order your excursions, theater tickets and tours in your travel company before you come to Russia. The hotel rates for these services depend on the category of the hotel and they are often higher than travel companies’ prices for the same services.
11) Crime and Safety
Since the collapse of Communism, crime has increased in Russia. However, it is still safer than many American cities. As a precaution, it is best not to flaunt valuable items. Also, avoid walking alone at night through parks and in outer city streets. Finally, carry currency in a travel money holder. Pick pocketing is not uncommon in crowded markets and in tourist areas.
The US State department warns against travel to Chechnya and the North Caucasus, where terrorism, bombings, and kidnappings have occurred. Since Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, lies in the Northern Caucasus, scaling this peak—even if you are in stellar shape—should be very careful and at least have a trusted local guide.
Unfortunately, Russia is not immune to racist sentiment. There have been reports of violent attacks against US citizens who are members of minority groups.
Russia is shopping heaven for those who like the finer (or cheaper) things in life. However, while some things are absolutely worth buying in Russia, there are others that should be avoided because it’s simply not worth it to lug them from Russia to your home country. Here’s your to-buy guide for Russia shopping:
Art: You will find a lot of vendors selling art on the street in Russia, and a lot of it will be absolutely beautiful. And of course, if you’re an art collector, Russia is a great place to go as well.
Fur: Russians probably wear more fur than any other nation in the world. You will find the highest quality, the best selection and the latest fashion if you shop for fur in Russia.
Cigarettes: Russian cigarettes are no different from cigarettes anywhere else, but they are about ten times cheaper than anywhere in the West, so if you’re a smoker, I recommend stocking up (to the legal allowed limit, of course).
Vodka: Russia is naturally the place to buy vodka – any supermarket will deliver a higher quality and a better selection than practically anywhere else in the world.
If you like vodka, make sure to bring some back with you!
Porcelain: You will find a lot of beautiful and decently-priced porcelain in Russian shops and markets. Unfortunately it’s a pain to bring back with you because it’s so fragile, so I would recommend not buying too much!
Matryoshka (Nesting Dolls): Of course Russia is a good place to buy Matryoshka dolls. Depending on how serious you are about wanting some, you can buy collector’s item-type-dolls in upscale souvenir shops right down to cheap Chinese knockoffs from street vendors. For medium prices and medium quality, look in regular souvenir shops.
Chocolate: Russian chocolate, and chocolate candy, is delicious, and all Russian people find it irresistible. A particularly famous brand is Красный Октябрь (Krasny Oktyabr’ – Red October), with its famous Soviet-girl-adorned “Alyonka” candy. You can even visit the Krasny Oktyabr’ factory (and shop) in central Moscow. Another good brand of chocolate is Бабаевский (Babayevsky) – it’s been around since the early 1800s!
Caviar: Russians love caviar and produce some of the best in the world. Watch out, however – buy only from vendors that seem reputable, because illegally- (very cruelly- and unsustainably-) produced caviar is very common in Russia. As well, be forewarned that customs officials will only let you take in a sealed (glass) jar no larger than 250 ml back home with you.
13) Medical Care
If you take any prescription medication, be sure to bring enough of it for the entire duration of your trip, as some medications are unavailable in Russia. It is also advisable to bring some usual over-the-counter medications with you. These medicines are usually sold in pharmacies, however the labels are in Russian and most store clerks do not speak English.
Contact your health insurance company beforehand to find out what your insurance plan offers in case of emergency. Many insurance providers offer specialized riders which can cover emergency evacuation. We do recommend buying a travel insurance.
Traveling in Russia can be unforgettable, especially for lovers of the arts. There are the St. Petersburg White Nights Festival, magnificent opera and dance at the Maryiinsky and Bolshoi, not to mention the Moscow club scene. As in other countries, knowing the rules of engagement maximizes the fun. Though Russians do not smile quickly for foreigners, when they do, it is usually with sincere welcome. ?
And remember: a trip to Russia it is always adventure, it’s like a kvest – You’ll never know what will happened next, but thai is the Point!
You are welcome!
P.S.: If there are any questions about the trips or tips mentioned in my blog, I am very happy to receive messages and I will give information as much as I can about travel to Russia.