It’s been a few decades since the Iron Curtain lifted and travelling around Russia is now easier than ever, even more so since Russia hosted the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing though and there are quite a few hoops you’ll need to jump through to ensure you have the best time possible. If you’re planning the trip, take a quick look at our cheat sheet on how to travel Russia.
Top tips on how to travel Russia
1. Get your visas sorted out early
You’ll need to apply for your visa in advance to ensure a smooth arrival in Russia.* Most countries, including travellers from the United States and the United Kingdom, will need to apply in person at the Russian embassy. You can apply at the last minute, but if you would rather avoid spending a small fortune, it’s advisable to sort it out early.
Make sure you get your visa registered within seven days of arrival too. Most hotels and hostels offer the service.
*If you’re planning a trip to St. Petersburg for less than three days you may not need a visa.
2. Download Google Translate
While many people do speak English in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s rare to find English-speakers outside the big cities. It’s helpful to get to grips with the Cyriac alphabet before you head off, but even then navigating your way around the country can be a minefield.
While far from 100% accurate, Google Translate offers a free, multilingual machine translation service for text and spoken word. It’s come a long way in a few years too, and now you can practically have a conversation in two different languages.
3. Download Yandex
Misunderstandings are a common issue for travellers in Russia. Save yourself the hassle by booking taxis through a taxi app. It makes it easier to avoid ending up in the wrong location or trying to haggle a fee in broken Russian.
There are a handful of different taxi apps to choose from, but Yandex is probably one of the easiest to use. The company merged with Uber in 2017 and now offers a similar service. It also offers a map service that works much better than Google Maps in Russia.
4. Take the train
Russia’s rail system is one of the largest in the world, with trains serving almost every town and city in the country. It’s a safe, comfortable (for the most part) and affordable experience too. Use the Russian Railways website to find out up-to-date train times and prices
As well as making smaller journeys, it’s worth looking into the overnight services too. You can make the journey between Moscow and St. Petersburg in as little as 3 hours 55 minutes thanks to the high-speed Sapsan trains, but the overnight sleeper trains are unbeatable. The most historic train is the Red Arrow, but you can also opt for the luxury Grand Express.
5. You might need to take a plane
If you’re looking to travel beyond Russia’s blockbuster cities but don’t have an infinite stretch ahead of you, you’ll need to come around to the idea of taking a plane. Russia is a big country, and flights that take around 5–8 hours will take two or three days by train.
Russia’s main airlines are Aeroflot, S7 and UTair.
6. Book your accommodation in advance
In order to obtain a 30-day tourist visa, you’ll need to be ‘invited’ to Russia by a hotel. Most hotels are happy to provide this when you book in advance, but this becomes a little trickier if you’re looking at AirB&B and apartment rentals. If you don’t want to book a hotel or book your accommodation in advance, you can get hold of a letter of invitation through a visa agency for a fee. This will state that you’re staying at a randomly selected visa, but legally you have no obligation to actually stay there. You can find out more about this process – which is totally legal – over here.
7. Buy a cheap Russian sim card
It’s easy to find free WiFi in Russia, but you’ll often need a Russian phone number to get access to it. If you’re going to mostly be using your phone for directions, Trip Advisor and booking tickets to beat the queues, it’s probably worth switching temporarily. It will probably be cheaper than your home network too. MTS, Beeline and Megafon are three of the largest phone companies.
Alternatively, if you’re desperate for WiFi you can always hop on the metro, which usually offers it for free without the need for a Russian phone number.