Russia has only recently established itself as a destination worth traveling to from India. It’s a short 7 hour flight away, a lot cheaper in terms of the food, cabs and accommodation. This country is mix of culture, history, cafe-culture and nightlife. Travel companies have finally started creating holiday packages to Russia and they’re selling like hot cakes.
While there’s so much to see, Moscow and St. Petersburg remain the most sought-after destinations so far with Sochi coming up as a third option to be launched by certain travel companies in the coming year. While Russia seems like a promising destination to travel to in 2016 and 2017, here are a few pieces of information you should consider before and while planning a trip; though a full guide for everything you need to know before traveling to Russia is available here.
There’s only one carrier that flies directly to Moscow at the moment. Aeroflot is a 5.5- 7 hour flight from Delhi to Moscow, landing at the Sheremetyevo Airport which is exclusively used by the airline at the moment. While the flight timings suit Indian timings perfectly and Aeroflot is one of the better Russian carriers, the airline is a nightmare. The staff is rude and unhelpful, there is no entertainment system, the food borders on terrible, there are no snacks and no alcohol served on the flight and there’s hardly any leg space. If you want to save transit time, it’s best to upgrade to the emergency exit tickets that come at an approximate cost of INR 3,400 per person. Even when the flight is flying empty, the staff will never let anyone sit in the emergency exit seats if they haven’t been paid for, so it’s recommended you book those in advance.
Obtaining a visa to Russia has been considered quite a task for a long time. While the embassy doesn’t ask for any records of your financials, they do ask for your hotel confirmations, flight tickets and an “invitation letter” from the hotels you’re staying at. This means that even if you book your hotel online through a travel company, you will need to write to the hotel asking for an invitation letter. The process usually takes 24 hours where you’re required to fill in a form and the hotel staff sends you a soft copy of the letter. This letter is to be printed and submitted with your visa application for each hotel you’re staying at during your trip. While it’s best to apply through an agency (Salvia, Udaan or Visit Russia), you could also apply directly at the VFS if you’re confident about the documents. At the moment the Russian Embassy does not consider Airbnb as a valid accommodation option and invitation letters from hosts are not accepted. There isn’t anything to worry about though, since hotels are not very expensive and it’s easy to find numerous options within different budgets.
Horror stories of immigration troubles keep coming up on and off but it isn’t really so. While it is strongly recommended you carry a print of all your documents including a copy of your return tickets, hotel vouchers and invitation letters, the immigration officials will rarely stop you- unless you’re traveling in a large group full of suspicious men with no prior travel history to show on your passport. They will scan through your passport and since there’s a language barrier anyway, most times won’t bother questioning you about your whereabouts. When traveling with a large group it’s important to ensure your travel company has submitted the required documents to the embassy already, else they might detain you a while and ask to speak to the person who’s picking you up from the airport.
Local currency and cost:
The Russian economy has taken a hit recently, which affects the middle class more than it’s bourgeoisie I’m afraid. This unfortunate situation is an advantage for travellers, given that the rouble (local Russian currency) has been fluctuating for a while. Today 1 rouble yields 1.03 Indian rupees. Capiche? It’s the perfect destination to travel to, since you’re spending in the equivalent of rupees. Budget travel from India never takes us too far away from South East Asia, and Russia is a breath of fresh air in that aspect. Russian roubles aren’t easy to find in India though, and often it’s best to change currency to US dollars in India and change the dollars to roubles at the airport once you land in Russia. The only drawback is the money you would lose in converting twice. Given that travel to Russia is becoming all the more frequent lately, that problem will probably not exist in sometime either as local money exchangers take the hint.
One of the biggest hurdles for an outsider is the language. Considerably few people speak Russian, and most times it’s only a few words. Signs and boards are in Russian so it’s difficult to rent a car, go to eat at a restaurant and the menu will be in Russian (although some restaurants have now started keeping a print out of the menu translated to English), everything at the super market will be in Russian and even the metro at it’s stations are all in Russian. There’s no way around this one and you’ll find yourself pointing to boards and images more often than you think. One of the best solutions to this is Google Translate, that not only allows you and the person you’re conversing with to talk into the microphone, it also translates written words simply by placing your phone over the phrase. I used this heavily in supermarkets and it turned out to be far more helpful than talking in sign language and pointing at things around me.
Another problem most people face in Russia is the lack of dining options. Not only is our palate very different from that of most people in Russia, the options are severely limited. You will find a lot of veal, salmon and meat in the menu and only a dish or two in chicken. Most vegetarian dishes are either salad, mushrooms or eggplant. Though there are a few Indian restaurants in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, you might find yourself traveling far and wide to get them. Bread baskets, fries, grilled chicken with vegetables, sea bass, Russian blinis (pancakes stuffed with chicken/salmon/eggs/sour cream), pasta (very different from the ones we are used to, here in India), the chicken burger at Burger King and Japanese/Chinese food are some staples you might have to survive on. Remember to check the menu before you enter a cafe or a restaurant. Russia also has amazing-desserts-galore! Right from the supermarkets to street vendors, there is so much beautiful dessert everywhere.
The Russian metro is famous for being the most beautiful metro system in the world. If the stain glass paintings, mosaic work, brass statues and chandeliers are anything to go by, this underground system could give some museums a run for their money. The metro is the best mode of transport in both cities, though you will have to put in a fair share of walking as well. Local cabs are affordable but still on the expensive side. They will tell you they’re going by the meter but these private cabs end up fooling tourists when they charge 1300 roubles for less than 2 kms- by the meter. Uber charges considerably lesser and once they realise you can’t understand each other, they will automatically track you basis your GPS location. Renting a car might be a good idea but all signs and GPS is in Russian so you’ll be lost for a majority of your time. If you plan to use the metro (and you should!) it’s best to download the Yandex metro app that translates everything to English so you don’t find yourself cluelessly staring at signs around the metro stations.
In St. Petersburg it’s okay to pick a hotel that’s a little far from the city because they charge approximately 350 roubles to the city centre. For Moscow it’s best to stay at a hotel closer to the city centre even if you end up paying a few additional bucks. Cabs are significantly more expensive in Moscow compared to St. Petersburg, and the city is massive, making the travel time and distance to and from the city centre a task. The other thing to be cautious of is the type of hotel you pick. Given that Moscow is a business hub, most 4 star hotels here are business hotels. If you’re traveling with children or even with a third person it’s best to book yourselves at a family hotel instead of a Radisson or Park Inn chain, since the rooms will be significantly smaller, the third bed is tiny, there’s no tea/coffee maker or kettle, there’s no iron in the room and laundry is chargeable; and the breakfast is very matter-of-fact.
There are three airports in Moscow, all 1 hour away from the city and about the same distance from each other. Cabs in St. Petersburg are decently priced, where I paid 1900 roubles for a Mercedes that was willing to cart 3 massive suitcases as well as a small suitcase, a lot of hand baggage and three people. Disappointingly, this wasn’t the case in Moscow. The airport authority-approved cab services offered us a price of 13,000 roubles. We later figured they tried to sell us a mini van. We finally took an uber that charged us 3,500 roubles. I would recommend downloading the app before you head to Russia- it saves a lot of bucks and a lot of hassle.