The grandeur of the Czars, the brutality of Soviet regime, the literary masterpieces baring the Russian soul, and the onion domes of the cathedrals all have captivated the imagination of generations of travellers. Now Russia is shedding its Soviet past and creating itself anew. The palaces, cathedrals, and statues are all still there. But today’s Russia is cynical and hip and full of contrasts. Trendy art galleries replaced the Soviet factories in many cities and fierce capitalism has created the wildly rich. More billionaires live in Moscow today than anywhere else, where restaurants, nightclubs and shops have taken luxury to a new level. In the new Russia, it seems anything is possible.
Major U.S. and European carriers have a number of nonstop flights to Russia, making flying here a lot more convenient than it used to be. Two Russian airlines, Aeroflot and Transaero, also make nonstop flights from North America and Europe. Flying time to Moscow is 9½ hours from New York, 10 hours from Washington, D.C., 11–13 hours from Chicago, 10½ hours from Atlanta, 12½ hours from Los Angeles, and 11 hours from Miami. From Europe, it’s 4 hours from London and 3 hours from Frankfurt. Moscow is 24–30 hours from Sydney, depending on which airline you choose.
Nonstop flights from the United States to Moscow originate in New York; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Miami; and Los Angeles. To St. Petersburg from the U.S., your options are either a direct flight, which requires at least one stop (usually in Moscow), or a connecting flight, which requires a change of airplanes in Moscow or another European city. Some flights, especially those that are nonstop, may be scheduled only on certain days of the week and at certain times of the year.
Two airlines may operate a connecting flight jointly, so ask whether your airline operates every segment of the trip; you may find that the carrier you prefer flies you only part of the way. To find more booking tips and to check prices and make online flight reservations, visit www.fodors.com.
If you’re flying as an independent traveler within the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, a quasi-confederation of states that includes most of the former Soviet Union), it’s best to purchase your ticket with a credit card via an agent in your home country or a reputable one in Russia. This will allow you the best chance for refunds if your flight is canceled. Russian airlines have a habit of permitting refunds only at the office where the ticket was purchased. If you book from abroad, you should reconfirm your reservation in person as soon as you arrive in the country.
Note that in Russia, check-in officially ends 40 minutes before departure, and if you arrive late you may need to do some serious begging to be allowed on to the plane.
Smoking is prohibited on all international flights, but some of the smaller Russian carriers may have designated smoking areas partitioned off by a curtain on some of their domestic flights. Ask your carrier about its policy.
Within Russia, you don’t normally need to reconfirm your outbound flight or intra-destination flights.
The major international airports are Sheremetyevo II Airport (airport code SVO), which also handles some domestic flights, and Domodedovo (DME) in Moscow. Pulkovo Airport (LED) is the international airport in St. Petersburg.
For domestic travel, Moscow has three airports in addition to Sheremetyevo II: Sheremetyevo I (for flights to the north and west), Domodedovo (for eastern destinations and for the carriers British Airways, United Airlines, and Transaero), and Vnukovo (VKO) (for southern destinations). Even though the departing or arriving airport may be printed on your ticket, double-check this information with your local travel agent.
When flying internationally, you must usually choose among a domestic carrier, the national flag carrier of the country you’re visiting (Aeroflot-Russian International Airlines), and a foreign carrier from a third country. National flag carriers have the greatest number of nonstop flights. Domestic carriers may have better connections to your hometown and serve a greater number of gateway cities. Third-party carriers may have a price advantage.
Within Russia, in addition to Aeroflot, there are several smaller, regional airlines (sometimes called “babyflots”). Aeroflot offers good international service between Russia and some 200 destinations, and it also flies several domestic routes. Babyflots are slowly bringing their service up to international standards, with especially good service between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Two airlines that stand head and shoulders above the rest are Transaero, which flies to several destinations in Europe and the CIS, and has internal flights to major Russian cities; and Rossiya (formerly known as Pulkovo), which also has a number of international flights as well as good domestic service. Both have established partnerships with international airlines in order to increase their reach—Transaero has links to the United States with Continental, Virgin, and Lufthansa, for example.
Delays and cancellations are more frequent in winter, particularly in those places where the climate is severe.
BOAT AND FERRY TRAVEL
In summer, you can enjoy a lovely one- or two-hour boat trip along the city’s Neva River, seeing all the major sights from the water. Boats leave from piers in front of the Hermitage Museum, the Medny Vsadnik (Bronze Horseman) monument, and Peter and Paul Fortress. The pier at the Hermitage also docks hydrofoils that go to Peterhof, one of St. Petersburg’s most attractive suburbs, which is famous for its fountains. A hydrofoil, which leaves every 15–30 minutes, takes you there in half an hour. You can take a hydrofoil to Kronshtadt, a suburb famous for its navel history, as well as Lomonosov. Both trips depart from Finland Station. Tours to the latter are rare, so expect a long wait in line. To take the ferry Princess Maria, which travels between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, make arrangements at the Sea Passenger Port Marine Facade terminal, which is on Vasilievsky Island. The trips takes a day to reach Helsinki and gives you a day to explore before returning. Inland trips to places such as Valaam Island, Kizhi Island, and Moscow depart from Neva River piers at 195 Obukhovskoi Oborony prospekt and 31 naberezhnaya Oktyabrskaya. One of many companies organizing these trips is Vodohod, with offices at the Obukhovskoi Oborony pier. Passenger cruise ships arrive at the new Port Marine Facade, where four terminals have facilities that include a tourist information center and currency exchange office.
BUS, TRAM, AND TROLLEY TRAVEL
Traveling by bus can be daunting in Russia if you don’t speak the language. When you can, you should travel by train or suburban train (elektrichka). But for some smaller towns and suburban destinations, this may be the only way to travel, and bus is an especially easy and convenient way to make day trips from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Ticket offices tend to have long hours of operation, and you can typically purchase your bus ticket ahead of time at the city avtovokzal, or bus station. Payment is accepted only in rubles.
If you have any contact who will help negotiate the purchase for you, avail yourself of him or her. Handwritten seating charts and tickets are the norm, but tickets are sold even when there are no seats left (even for longer rides). This leads to some very crowded conditions (and, on hot days, quite stuffy situations, as these buses, although reasonably comfortable, don’t have air-conditioning and only sometimes do their windows open). It’s recommended that you buy advance tickets for peak long-distance travel days—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Long-distance international buses operate from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the Baltic States, several CIS countries, and some points in Europe including Helsinki, Berlin, and Warsaw. The trips are long and often require extensive waiting times at the border.
Several firms operate bus routes between St. Petersburg and central Europe. A bus trip can be a reasonably comfortable way to connect with the Baltic states, Scandinavia, and Germany, although as with train travel in and out of the country, it entails a bit of waiting at the border for everyone to clear customs. The Gorodskoi Avtobusny Vokzal (City Bus Station), open from 6:30 am until 11:30 pm, sells tickets for international and domestic routes. It takes about 5–7 minutes to walk to the station from Obvodny Kanal metro station, but you might find it more convenient to go through a travel agent.
Lux Express runs coaches to Tallinn and Riga (and from these cities to destinations all over Europe). The Finnish company Finnord runs coaches between Helsinki and St. Petersburg via the border town of Vyborg. The service runs twice daily, leaving from Finnord’s offices at 37 ulitsa Italyanskaya, and then stopping at half a dozen Finnish towns before reaching Helsinki.
When traveling by bus, tram, or trolley within the city, you must purchase a ticket from the conductor. A ticket valid for one ride costs 25R, regardless of the distance you intend to travel; if you change buses, you must pay another fare. You can also buy a smart card called “Podorozhnik;” costs vary, but some sample prices are 265R for a maximum of 10 rides over 7 days and 485R for 20 rides over 15 days. Buses, trams, and trolleys operate from 5:30 am to midnight, although service in the late evening hours and on Sunday tends to be unreliable.
Note that all public transportation vehicles tend to be extremely overcrowded during rush hours. It’s very much the Russian philosophy that there’s always room for one more passenger. Make sure you position yourself near the exits well before the point at which you want to disembark, or risk missing your stop. Buses tend to be new and reasonably comfortable. Trolleys and trams, on the other hand, sometimes give the impression that they’re held together with Scotch tape and effort of will, and can be extremely drafty.
You can reach St. Petersburg from Finland via the Helsinki–St. Petersburg Highway through the border town of Vyborg; the main street into and out of town for Finland is Kamennoostrovsky prospekt. To reach Moscow, take Moskovsky prospekt; at the Hotel Pulkovskaya roundabout, take shosse Mosvoskoye (M–10/E–95), slightly to the left of the road to the airport. Bear in mind that it may sometimes take more than an hour to clear customs and immigration at the border, and at busy times (e.g., Friday night and weekends) it may take much longer.
St. Petersburg’s metro is straightforward, efficient, and inexpensive, but its stops tend to be far apart. Stations are deep underground—the city’s metro is the deepest in the world—necessitating long escalator rides. All central stations are infamous for theft and rank high in the city’s list of pickpocket hot spots. Although the city police regularly trumpet successes and report arrests of more gangs, it doesn’t seem to get any safer. The metro operates from 5:30 am to 12:30 am, but is best avoided during rush hours. You can pick up a metro map printed in English at most hotels.
Fares and Schedules
To use the metro, you must purchase a token or a magnetic card (available at stations). The fare (28R) is the same regardless of distance. Alternatively, you may purchase a pass valid for unlimited travel for two weeks (1020R) and good for all modes of city public transportation. Or you can buy a smart card (“Podorozhnik”) for 265R for a maximum of 10 rides over 7 days or 485R for 20 rides over 15 days. Other variations are available.
Although taxis roam the city quite frequently, it’s far easier—and certainly safer—to order a cab through your hotel (if you call on your own, keep in mind that getting an English-speaking operator is hit or miss). Most taxi companies will give you a price in advance. There’s sometimes a delay, but usually the cab arrives within 15 to 20 minutes unless it’s late at night or rush hour; the company will phone you back when the driver is nearby. If you order a cab this way, you pay the official state fare, which is quite reasonable by U.S. standards. No tip is expected beyond rounding up the amount on the meter.
If you flag down a taxi in the street, fares vary according to the driver’s whim; you’re expected to negotiate. Foreigners can often be charged much more than Russians, and oblivious tourists tend to be gouged. Make sure that you agree on a price before getting into the car, and try to have the correct money handy.
In Russia trains are reliable, convenient, and comfortable. Remarkably, most trains leave exactly on time; there’s a broadcast warning five minutes before departure, but no whistle or “all aboard!” call, so be careful not to be left behind.
There are numerous day and overnight trains between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The new Sapsan express train makes the trip in just over four hours and has several departures a day from each city. The Siemens-built trains travel at speeds of 150 mph. Other fast day trains include the Avrora and Nevsky Express, which take around four hours, 30 minutes, and also have comfortable compartments. The Grand Express, which runs overnight, has showers in the compartments of the higher classes, and hand basins in lower classes, as well as satellite television and other amenities.
Train travel in Russia offers an unrivaled opportunity to glimpse the Russian countryside, which is dotted in places with colorful wooden cottages and fog-covered lakes, dubbed “mirror lakes,” for their stillness. If you’re traveling by overnight train, set your alarm and get up an hour or so before arrival so that you can watch at close hand the workers going about their morning rounds in the rural areas just outside the cities.
To make your train trip more comfortable, be sure to carry bottled water. Vendors run up and down train cars at and between stops, selling drinks and sandwiches. You may, however, want to bring a packed meal; most Russians do so, and your compartment mates may offer to share (beware of offers of vodka, however; poison bootleg vodka is a big problem in Russia). The communal bathrooms at both ends of each car can be dirty, so bring premoistened cleansing tissues for washing up. You may want to pack toilet paper just to be on the safe side, although it’s rare now for train bathrooms to be without it. Also be sure to pack a heavy sweater in winter. The cars are often overheated and toasty warm, but sometimes they’re not heated at all. (Note: smoking in the cars isn’t acceptable, but smokers will find plenty of company in between cars.)
You should stick to the usual security precautions. To be on the safe side when sharing a compartment on overnight trips you should sleep with your money, passport, and other important items.
On the more expensive trains (the lower the train number, the faster and more expensive the journey), you’re likely to share compartments with businessmen or families. Many travelers to Russia say their trips on overnight trains have proven to be some of their most memorable experiences. For many, it’s a chance to get to know real Russians, despite language barriers.
Trains are divided into four classes. The deluxe class offers two-berth compartments with soft seats and private washrooms; the other classes have washrooms at the end of the cars. First-class service—the highest class for domestic routes—is called “soft-seat,” with spring-cushion berths (two berths to a compartment). When buying your ticket, ask for “SV.”
There’s rarely segregation of the sexes (although this has been introduced as an experiment on a few train services), and no matter what class of service you choose, you could end up sharing a compartment with someone of the opposite sex. Never fear. There’s an unspoken system on Russian trains that allows each passenger to change into comfortable train clothes in privacy. Your traveling partner will most likely signal this by exiting the compartment for you to change. When he or she returns 15 minutes later, consider that your signal to do the same.
Second-class service, or “hard-seat” service—ask for coupé—has a cushion on wooden berths, with four berths to a compartment. The third class—wooden berths without compartments—is not the most comfortable choice but sometimes necessary. Known in Russian as platskart, this class entails an almost complete surrender of privacy in an open compartment. If you have to travel in this class, be sure to keep your valuables on you at all times.
Most compartments have a small table, limited room for baggage (including under the seats), and a radio that can be turned down, but not off. In soft-seat compartments there are also table lamps. The price of the ticket may or may not include use of bedding; sometimes this fee (which will not be much more than 150R) is collected by the conductor.
All of the cars are also equipped with samovars. It’s not uncommon in soft-seat class to be offered tea in the evening and morning, plus a small boxed meal. For second- or third-class travel, you may want to bring some tea bags or instant coffee and a mug, since you can take hot water from the samovar at any time.
Russian Railways is experimenting with online ticket purchases. At this writing, this can only be done easily if you have Russian language skills; the English version of the Russian Railways website shows timetables of trains, but doesn’t allow the purchase of tickets. Also, foreign credit card holders may experience problems with purchases on Russian websites. In the meantime, there are several online services, such as Way To Russia, Visit Russia, and Russian Passport, who will buy the tickets for you for a nominal service fee. Tickets go on sale 45 days prior to departure, and for popular routes during peak travel times (summer and winter holidays), it’s advisable to buy them as far in advance as possible. Note that you must show your passport or a photocopy when purchasing train tickets. Your best bet is to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg’s central booking office, although you can buy tickets for any destination at any mainline train station. Telephone inquiries for train services usually involve poor lines and clerks who speak only Russian. Try to get your hotel, a Russian acquaintance, or an independent travel agency to help you book tickets. A one-way ticket between Moscow and St. Petersburg on the Sapsan express train start at 2,300R. The Grand Express overnight train starts at 6,000R for the luxury class.
Checking your email or surfing the web can often be done in the business centers of major hotels, which usually charge an hourly rate; most hotels now also provide Wi-Fi, at least in public areas. Web access is also available at many fax and copy centers, many of which are open 24 hours and on weekends. The easiest way to get online in Moscow and St. Petersburg is to visit one of the plentiful cafés, many of which offer free Wi-Fi. Some require you to pay an hourly rate, which can run from about 60R, or $2, per hour and up. Some parks and metro stations in Moscow offer free Wi-Fi access, as well.
The country code for Russia is 7. Moscow has two city codes, 495 and 499; St. Petersburg’s is 812. When dialing a Russian number from abroad, drop the initial 0 from the local area code.
The country code is 1 for the United States and Canada, 61 for Australia, 64 for New Zealand, and 44 for the United Kingdom.
Calling Within Russia
Direct dialing is the only way to go. Russian phone numbers have 10 digits (including the area code). To use your North American cell phone in Russia, it must be tri or quad band. If it’s an unlocked GSM cell phone, purchase and install a SIM card so that you’ll be charged Russian rates for usage while there.
Throughout the country, you can dial 09 for directory assistance. However, because directory workers and operators are underpaid, overworked, and speak only Russian, you probably have a better chance of getting telephone information from your hotel concierge or a friendly assistant at a business center.
Public phones, which are similar to those found in most other European countries, can be harder to find these days, as most Russians have mobile phones. The modern public phones are all card-operated, and the line tends to be atrocious. You can buy cards at kiosks.
City centers have telephone centers handy for making all sorts of calls: in Moscow, try the Central Telegraph office at 7 ulitsa Tverskaya, and St. Petersburg has one located at 2 ulitsa Bolshaya Morskaya.
For long-distance calls within Russia, simply dial 8, wait for another dial tone, and then dial the rest of the number as listed.
Calling Outside Russia
The country code for the United States is 1.
Most hotels have satellite telephone booths where, for several dollars a minute, you can make an international call in a matter of seconds. If you want to economize, you can visit the main post or telegraph office and order a call for rubles (but you’ll still pay about a dollar or two a minute). From your hotel room or from a private residence, you can dial direct. To place your call, dial 8, wait for the dial tone, then dial 10, then the country code (1 for the United States) followed by the number you’re trying to reach. In the Western-managed hotels, rooms are usually equipped with international, direct-dial (via satellite) telephones, but beware that the rates are hefty.
If you want to save money, computer and smartphone applications such as Skype and the voice and video chat services offered by Facebook and Google are good ways to stay in contact with people back home. If you didn’t bring your computer with you, such services are also frequently available in Internet cafés. Another option is to set up an international call-back account in the United States before you go. This service can often save you as much as half off the rates of the big carriers. To use the call-back account, you must dial a pre-established number in the United States from any phone in Moscow or St. Petersburg, let the call ring a few times, then hang up. In a few minutes, a computer calls you back and makes a connection, giving you a U.S. dial tone, from which you dial any number in the United States.
Phone cards can be bought at street kiosks that also sell cards for dial-up Internet access. You stick the card in the payphone (there’s a picture showing you the right way) and wait for the dial tone. Then press 8 and wait for another dial tone, then dial the number. A number will flash on the screen showing you how many units you have left; as you speak, units are subtracted from your total.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies from those used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however. When overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, since text messages have a very low set fee (often 15¢).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
To get around the problem of unlocking a U.S. cell phone, you could buy a cell phone in Russia. The country has embraced cell phones with enthusiasm, and you can buy them in stores on every corner. Basic models can be found for less than $50. Handsets aren’t usually sold as a package with a service provider, so you simply choose which network you want to join. Offices for the main providers, Beeline, MTS, and Megafon, are ubiquitous. They may ask to see your registration card and passport before signing you up. The country uses GSM.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
You’re always allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. But there’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can bring back duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of so-called duty-free goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.
Upon arrival in Russia, you first pass through passport control, where a border guard will carefully examine your passport and visa.
It’s very important that you fill out a migration card and get it stamped while passing though passport control. These white cards are automatically issued on some flights, but not all. It’s possible to enter the country without one, but lack of a card can cause all manner of headaches, from hotel registration problems to document checks by police. If you’re not given a card, ask for one (migratsionnaya karta for one, migratsionnye karty for several) or look for them on stands in the arrivals hall.
If you haven’t been given a customs form on the plane, look for the forms on a table or stand at customs after retrieving your luggage. You must keep it until your departure, when you’ll be asked to present it again (along with a second, identical form noting any changes). You may import free of duty and without special license any articles intended for personal use, including clothing, food, tobacco, up to 200 cigarettes, two liters of alcoholic drinks, perfume, sports equipment, and camera equipment. One video camera and one laptop computer per person are allowed. Importing weapons and ammunition, as well as opium, hashish, and pipes for smoking them, is prohibited. The punishment for carrying illegal substances is severe. You’re allowed to bring up to $10,000 in cash without declaring it. It’s important to include any valuable items, such as musical instruments, and the like, on the customs form to ensure that you’ll be allowed to take them back with you out of Russia (note that you’re expected to take them with you, so you cannot leave them behind as gifts). If an item included on your customs form is stolen, you should obtain a police report to avoid being questioned upon departure. Technically you’re allowed to bring into the country only up to $3,000 of consumer items for personal use and gifts. But customs agents at the airport have been enforcing this rule sporadically at best, and won’t likely challenge you on this front unless you have an excessive amount of luggage. For information about bringing domestic animals in and out of Russia, seewww.moscowanimals.org.
Anything that’s likely to be considered valuable art or an antique (this could include coins, manuscripts, or icons) by customs officials requires a receipt from the Committee for Culture showing that you’ve paid a special tax on it. Art and antique dealers usually have updated information about this.
Meals and Mealtimes
At traditional Russian restaurants, the main meal of the day is served in midafternoon and consists of a starter, soup, and a main course. Russian soups, which are excellent, include borscht, shchi (cabbage soup), and solyanka, a spicy, thick stew made with vegetables and meat or fish. Delicious and filling main courses include Siberian pelmeni (tender dumplings, usually filled with minced pork and beef, and sometimes also lamb) or beef Stroganoff. If you’re looking for Russian delicacies, try the excellent smoked salmon, blini with caviar, or the famous kotlety po-Kievski (chicken Kiev), a garlic-and-butter-filled chicken breast encased in a crispy crust. Consider ordering a shot of vodka or a glass of local beer to accompany your meal.
Restaurants are typically open from noon until midnight, and late at night many nightclubs serve good food. There are also several 24-hour restaurants in both cities. During the week, many restaurants are nearly empty, but there’s no hard and fast rule about this—an ordinary Wednesday can find even an off-the-beaten-path eatery packed, because more and more Russians eat out regularly.
Restaurants are now required by law to list their prices in rubles. There are some restaurants that cater to tourists that still list their prices in “conditional units” (YE in Cyrillic), which are pegged to an exchange rate of their own devising (usually the dollar or euro). They’re required to also list the ruble equivalent, as payment can only be accepted in rubles. Many restaurants accept credit cards, though you should always double-check with the staff, even if the restaurant has a sign indicating that it accepts cards.
Reservations and Dress
For the trendiest restaurants, it’s a good idea to book in advance, particularly for groups of four or more. Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places, it’s expected. In general, reservations are a good idea in popular restaurants.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Drinks are normally ordered by milliliters (50, 100, or 200) or by the bottle. In upscale establishments you’ll often find an impressive wine list with imported wine and foreign liquors. Most hotel restaurants and smaller restaurants have some imported wines, as well as cheaper wines from Moldova and Eastern Europe. Even the less-expensive restaurants can serve a bewildering array of vodkas and other spirits. Make any non-restaurant alcohol purchases from a proper shop, as wine and spirits counterfeiting is a problem. In Moscow, you won’t be able to buy any alcohol after 10 pm, so it’s best to make your purchases in advance. In the past few years, sales of beer have really taken off. Perhaps the most famous national brand is Baltika, which produces numbered beers—0 being the lightest, and 9 being difficult to distinguish from rocket fuel. But there are dozens of other companies producing ales, lagers, porters, and flavored and unfiltered beers, making it a drink that’s become almost as ubiquitous as vodka.
Note that public intoxication is strictly punished. It’s okay to become inebriated within an establishment as long as you don’t fall over or become aggressive. However, if you walk along the streets in a drunken state, you’ll be a target for police document checks and could possibly be arrested for public drunkenness. It’s also technically illegal to drink alcoholic beverages on the street or in the metro. Although many people do this, you risk being fined by police.
The electrical current in Russia is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take Continental-type plugs, with two round prongs.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so they require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
In case of emergency, the U.S. and U.K. consulates have consular officers on call at all times. This can be useful if a shakedown on the part of the local police goes too far, and—heaven forbid—if you land in jail. Insist on your right to call your consulate. There’s a Canadian consulate in St. Petersburg; Australians and New Zealanders should check with the U.K. consulate first and the Canadian one if that doesn’t work. A word of warning: phone lines to the U.S. consulate are constantly busy. It may take hours of persistent dialing to get through. In Moscow, unless you have official business or are met by embassy personnel or a compound resident, the U.S. embassy is off-limits, even to Americans.
General Emergency Contacts
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. Drink only bottled, boiled, or purified water and drinks; don’t drink from public fountains or use ice. You should even consider using bottled water to brush your teeth. Make sure food has been thoroughly cooked and is served to you fresh and hot; avoid vegetables and fruits that you haven’t washed (in bottled or purified water) or peeled yourself.
Specific Issues in Moscow and St. Petersburg
A visit to Russia poses no special health risk, but the country’s medical system is far below world standards, a fact you should consider if you have chronic medical conditions that may require treatment during your visit. There are, however, Western-style clinics in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Bear in mind that treatment at these clinics will be expensive unless you have traveler’s health insurance. You should also purchase insurance that covers medical evacuation. Sometimes even minor conditions can’t be treated adequately because of the severe and chronic shortage of basic medicines and medical equipment. Tuberculosis is a serious problem in Russian prisons, but the short-term visitor to Russia needn’t worry about infection.
You should drink only boiled or bottled water. The water supply in St. Petersburg contains giardia, an intestinal parasite that can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. The gestation period is two to three weeks, so symptoms usually develop after an infected traveler has already returned home. The condition is easily treatable, but be sure to let your doctor know that you may have been exposed to this parasite. Avoid ice cubes and use bottled water to brush your teeth, particularly in St. Petersburg. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, imported and domestic bottled water is widely available in shops. It’s a good idea to buy a liter of this water whenever you can. Hotel floor attendants always have a samovar in their offices and will provide boiled water if asked. Many top-end hotels filter their water, but it’s best to double-check with reception. Mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol, both of which can be purchased over the counter. Drink plenty of purified water or tea—chamomile is a good folk remedy. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution—½ teaspoon salt and 4 tablespoons sugar per quart of water.
Fruits and vegetables served in restaurants are generally washed with purified water and are thus safe to eat. However, food poisoning is common in Russia, so be wary of dairy products and ice cream that may not be fresh. The pierogi (meat- or cabbage-filled pies) sold everywhere on the streets are cheap and tasty, but they can give you a nasty stomachache.
Shots and Medication
Foreigners traveling to Russia are often advised to get vaccinated against diphtheria—in the early 1990s, both Moscow and St. Petersburg had outbreaks of this disease, and cholera isn’t unknown either. These outbreaks are now rare, but in particular, children should be immunized against diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio, as well as hepatitis A and typhus. A flu shot is also recommended for winter travel for people of all ages.
If you travel a lot internationally—particularly to developing nations—refer to the CDC’s Health Information for International Travel (aka Traveler’s Health Yellow Book).
Just about everything is available in pharmacies without a prescription, and many pharmacies stock Western painkillers and cold medicines, which mostly come from Germany and France. If you can’t find your favorite brand, just ask for either aspirin or Panadol, which is another brand name for acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. However, there’s a good chance of buying a counterfeit medicine as well. According to official statistics, up to 30% of the most popular drugs in Russian pharmacies are fake or made illegally with inadequate technology. Large chains—including 36.6, PetroFarm, Natur Produkt, Pharmacy Doctor, and Pervaya Pomoshch—as well as the pharmacies of international clinics are believed to be free of such fakes. The chains are also more likely to stock Western brands.
HOURS OF OPERATION
General hours for most businesses and banks are from 10 am to 6 pm. They’re usually closed on weekends, and many take an hour off for lunch. In Moscow, there are many 24-hour shops, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Consulates, government offices, ticket agencies, and exchange offices tend to close for an hour in the afternoon for lunch. Nothing stands between Russian businesses and public holidays, and the major holidays often involve a break of at least two days—three if they coincide with a weekend.
Most gas stations are open 24 hours.
Museum hours vary, but many are closed on Monday. Many museums close for one extra day (on which they’d normally be open) at the end of the month.
In general, pharmacies are open from 9 am or 10 am until 9 pm. There are, however, some 24-hour pharmacies in the major cities—check with the staff at your hotel to find those that are closest. Most shops and department stores are open from 10 am until 7 pm or even as late as 9 pm seven days a week. Fewer and fewer break for lunch for an hour in the afternoon. Restaurants and shopping arcades and malls are rarely closed at that time.
Here’s a list of Russia’s major holidays, most of which entail closures of many businesses; note that religious holidays like Christmas and Easter are celebrated according to the Russian Orthodox calendar. In addition, from May 1 through May 9 and from December 31 through January 13, the entire country shuts down. These are major holiday periods when absolutely nobody does anything: even medical clinics close. These weeks can pose a real problem for visitors, so try not to travel to Russia during these special holiday periods. Be aware, too, that on the day before a public holiday, everything tends to close early:
January 1–5 (New Year’s), January 7 (Russian Orthodox Christmas), February 23 (Defenders of the Fatherland Day), March 8 (International Women’s Day), May 1 (Day of Spring and Labor), May 9 (Victory Day), June 12 (Russia Day), November 4 (Day of Reconciliation and Agreement).
Today the ruble is reasonably stable at around 30R to the dollar. Talk of a growing middle class aside, the majority of Russians can only dream of buying Western-made cars and clothes, dining out, and traveling abroad for their holidays.
Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Goods and services aimed at foreigners are as expensive as anywhere in Western Europe. Public transport is cheap; a ride on the metro costs 28R one-way, less if you buy many trips. Taxi rates are generally low, but as soon as the driver realizes that you’re a foreigner, the rate goes up. Some museums and theaters, such as the Armory Palace in the Moscow Kremlin and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, have instituted special, higher fees for foreign tourists. For example, a “foreign ticket” for an opera or ballet at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre costs from 4000R to 6000R for some performances, whereas a Russian price ranges from 1500R to 4000R.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week for them to get it. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PIN codes with more than four digits aren’t recognized at ATMs in Russia. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
Bankomaty (bank machines) have cropped up all over the place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in the city centers they’re not difficult to find: hotels and banks are the most obvious (and safest) places to look, but there are some on the streets as well. In addition, many metro stations now have them—but have a partner watch your back when you take money out, and remember that pickpockets often hang around such places.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit card company before you travel. Otherwise, the credit card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Many shops, restaurants, and hotels within Moscow and St. Petersburg accept credit cards, though you should always double-check with the staff, despite any signs you may see. Establishments outside the cities are less likely to accept credit cards.
To report lost or stolen credit cards, the U.S. Embassy in Russia advises that you call your credit-card company collect through AT&T Direct. From Moscow, dial 363–2400; from St. Petersburg, it’s the same number, with the St. Petersburg area code 812.
When you use your credit card to make travel purchases you may get free travel accident insurance, collision-damage insurance, and medical or legal assistance, depending on the card and the bank that issued it. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa provide one or more of these services, so get a copy of your credit card’s travel benefits policy. If you’re a member of an auto club, always ask hotel and car-rental reservations agents about auto-club discounts. Some clubs offer additional discounts on tours, cruises, and admission to attractions.
Currency and Exchange
The national currency in Russia is the ruble (R). There are paper notes of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, and 5,000, and there are 1-, 2-, 5-, and 10-ruble coins. There are 100 kopeks in a ruble and there are coins for 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopeks.
Russians and resident expats have gotten used to thinking in both rubles and dollars—that is, talking in rubles but mentally pegging prices to the dollar. This can create a certain amount of confusion for the tourist, so bear the following in mind. First, remember that payment, by law, can only be made in rubles or by credit card. Nonetheless, some stores, restaurants, travel agencies, and retailers list prices in dollars, or “conditional units” (uslovnye yedinitsy,often marked on menus and price lists as YE), a euphemism for the dollar (or in some cases the euro). This practice is thankfully diminishing and you’ll most often see prices in rubles. In this book prices are listed in rubles for everything, including sights, attractions, hotels, and restaurants. Bear in mind that the sum in rubles will be high for hotels especially, so it may be helpful to carry around a small pocket calculator for conversions that are difficult to do in your head.
Rubles can rarely be obtained at banks outside Russia, but if you somehow acquire them (through friends or acquaintances) it’s legal to import or export them. There’s no limit on the amount of foreign currency you may bring in with you, but you have to declare more than $10,000. ATMs are the way to go, but traveler’s checks are a better option than bringing lots of currency. You should have at least $100 in cash (in 10s and 20s). If you don’t mind the risk of theft or loss, bring more; you’re bound to need it. For the most favorable rates, change money through banks. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are excellent because they’re based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. You can also exchange foreign currency for rubles (and vice versa) at state-run exchange offices—where you’ll get the worst rate—or at any of the numerous currency-exchange booths (obmen valyuty). Try to bring newer bills with you to Russia, as older versions (as well as worn or torn foreign bills) are frequently rejected by exchange offices. On your way out of Russia you can change excess rubles back into dollars at any bank or at the airport. For this you’ll need your passport.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh … that’s right. The sign didn’t say no fee.) And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
Google does currency conversion. Just type in the amount you want to convert and an explanation of how you want it converted (e.g., “14 Swiss francs in dollars”), and then voilà. Oanda.com also allows you to print out a handy table with the current day’s conversion rates. XE.com is another good currency conversion website.
Some consider this the currency of the caveman, and it’s true that fewer establishments accept traveler’s checks these days. Using an ATM is preferable, but traveler’s checks remain a cheap and secure way to carry extra money, particularly on trips to urban areas. Both Citibank (under the Visa brand) and American Express issue traveler’s checks in the United States, but Amex is better known and more widely accepted; you can also avoid hefty surcharges by cashing Amex checks at Amex offices. Whatever you do, keep track of all the serial numbers in case the checks are lost or stolen.
Traveler’s checks can be cashed at the state-run offices, at private banks, and at most major hotels within the cities (note that some exchange counters and many stores won’t accept traveler’s checks). If you’re going to rural areas and small towns, convert your traveler’s checks to rubles before you go. Lost or stolen checks can usually be replaced within 24 hours. To ensure a speedy refund, buy your own traveler’s checks—don’t let someone else pay for them: irregularities like this can cause delays. The person who bought the checks should make request the refund.
No matter what time of year you visit, bring a sweater. St. Petersburg especially can be unexpectedly cold in summer. A raincoat and fold-up umbrella are also musts. You’ll probably be doing a lot of walking outdoors, so bring warm, comfortable clothing, and be sure to pack a pair of sturdy walking shoes.
Russians favor fashion over variety in their wardrobes, and it’s perfectly acceptable to wear the same outfit several days in a row. Be sure to pack one outfit for dress-up occasions, such as the theater. The layer system works well in the unpredictable weather of fall and spring; wear a light coat with a sweater that you can put on and take off as the weather changes. In winter, bring heavy sweaters, warm boots, a wool hat, a scarf and mittens, and a heavy coat. Woolen tights or long underwear are essential during the coldest months. Russian central heating can be overly efficient, so again, use the layer system to avoid sweltering in an overheated building or train.
Russian pharmacies, supermarkets, and hotels all have reasonable stocks of the essential toiletries and personal hygiene products, but bring your own supplies of medicines and prescription drugs you take regularly. Although some well-known Western brands are easily available, you may not recognize the Russian equivalent of certain medicines. Consider whether you might want to bring any items that can be difficult to find in Russia, such as insect repellent (in summer and fall mosquitoes can be a serious problem), camera batteries, laxatives, anti-diarrhea pills, travel-sickness medicine, and the like.
Toilet paper is plentiful in hotels but less so in public buildings, so bring small packages of tissues to carry around with you. Premoistened cleansing tissues will also come in handy, especially if you’re traveling by train. A small flashlight may also prove useful, particularly if visiting someone’s apartment—stairwells are often dimly lit.
Within Russia, the rules regulating carry-on luggage are strict disregarded. Checked luggage is frequently lost and/or pilfered, so pack as much as you can in your carry-on, including all of your valuables, for internal flights.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
You must have a valid passport and visa to enter Russia. Within Russia you should carry your passport, visa, migration card, and registration card at all times. Make two photocopies of the data page of your passport (one for someone at home and another for you, carried separately from your passport). If you lose your passport, promptly call the nearest embassy or consulate and the local police.
U.S. citizens, even infants, need a valid passport to enter Russia for stays of any length, plus a visa. The passport should be valid for at least six months after the date you apply for the visa and must have at least two clear pages. U.S. passports are valid for 10 years. You must apply in person if you’re getting a passport for the first time; if your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged; or if your previous passport has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago or when you were under 16. All children under 18 must appear in person to apply for or renew a passport. Both parents must accompany any child under 14 (or send a notarized statement with their permission) and provide proof of their relationship to the child.
There are 13 regional passport offices, as well as 7,000 passport acceptance facilities in post offices, public libraries, and other governmental offices. If you’re renewing a passport, you can do so by mail. Forms are available at passport acceptance facilities and online.
The cost to apply for a new passport is $110 for adults, $80 for children under 16, plus a $25 execution fee; renewals for adults are $110. Allow six weeks for processing, both for first-time passports and renewals. For an expediting fee of $60 you can reduce this time to about two weeks. If your trip is less than two weeks away, you can get a passport even more rapidly by going to a passport office with the necessary documentation. Private expediters can get things done in as little as 48 hours, but charge hefty fees for their services.
You must have a valid visa to enter Russia for any length of time. Visa application procedures change frequently, so check the Russian Consulate’s website for the latest information. At this writing, visa applicants must submit the following items to the Russian Consulate at least 21 days before departure: a printout of the visa application, your passport, two passport photos, confirmation letters and official itineraries from a Russian travel agency, hotel, or cruise line you’ll be using (to prove that you have confirmed reservations) or a properly endorsed business invitation from a host organization, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and the application fee (between $140 and $450 for U.S. citizens, depending on what kind of visa—tourist, business, or multi-entry). The fee is higher if you need a faster turnaround time. Requirements vary slightly if you’ll be staying as a guest in a private home or if you’re traveling on business. Travel agencies have ways of getting around the advance hotel reservations requirement, but usually you must pay for at least one night’s accommodation. Go To Russia (www.gotorussia.net) is a useful resource for obtaining a visa.
Once in Russia, you’ll need to register your visa within 72 hours (three days) of your arrival (excluding weekends and official holidays). If you’re staying at a hotel, they can register your visa for a small fee, usually around 300R, but they may charge up to 1,000R. If you’re staying in an apartment, your visa must be registered by your landlord. The landlord will need to fill out a notification form indicating your passport and migration card details and present his or her passport registered at the same apartment to the local police precinct (in Moscow) or FMS office (commonly known as OVIR) in other cities. If you don’t register your visa, you may be detained by police, fined on departure, and possibly even prevented from boarding your plane. Citizens of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom must also obtain a visa to enter Russia. The procedures are similar to those for American citizens.
Airport departure taxes are almost always included in the price of the airline ticket. Hotels charge an 18% value-added tax if you pay in cash or by credit card upon arrival; if you pay in advance, then you don’t get charged these taxes (at least that’s the general rule). Moscow hotels add an extra 1% tax to your bill.
Russia’s 18% value-added tax (V.A.T.) is charged on most everything and refundable on almost nothing (interestingly, the V.A.T. law specifically says the V.A.T. doesn’t apply to exported goods, but there’s no mechanism worked out for handling refunds at the airport, nor do stores have V.A.T. refund forms). Goods bought at duty-free shops in the airport are free of V.A.T.
Tipping is the norm in Russia. Waiters and porters will all expect a tip, and cloakroom and restroom attendants will appreciate them. A tour guide may be given a tip by the group as a whole after an excursion, although depending on the situation, it may be more appropriate to give a small souvenir. Whether you should tip the bartender depends on the establishment, but it’s not the norm. Add an extra 10% to 15% to a restaurant bill. If you have negotiated a taxi fare ahead of time, there’s no need to tip on top of that payment. Some restaurants add a service charge to the bill automatically, so double-check before you leave a big tip. If you’re paying by credit card, leave the tip in cash—the waiter is less likely to see it if you add it to the credit-card charge. Moreover, some restaurants actively refuse to allow tips being added on to the bill by credit card. The only places with bellhops who carry your bags are Moscow and St. Petersburg’s five-star hotels; in such establishments, a 100R tip—more if you have many heavy bags—is a decent thank-you.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.
WHEN TO GO
Far and away the best time to visit Moscow is in the late spring or summer. During the months of May to September, the weather is usually balmy, with averages in the 70s. It should be said that in recent years, it has also become uncomfortably and even dangerously hot at stretches. Even so, the warm temperatures and long days are ideal for enjoying outdoor terraces at restaurants, music festivals at countryside estates, and lounging in the city’s parks. From October to April, the weather is unpredictable, usually with a lot of rain and snow, making it inconvenient for touring the city on foot.