Russia…USSR, Cold War, Yuri Gagarin, Red Square, Lenin, Siberia, Tundra, Vodka, Babushkas, Bears playing accordion or Hermitage, Russian ballet, Russian circus, Russian Gymnasts, Russian hackers or some other images might pop to your mind when you think of Russia. Of course it depends where you are from and what stereotypes your country holds for you.
Being from Ukraine I have never dreamt to go to Russia…for us it is more typical to dream about the Eiffel tower in France, Canary Islands of Spain or Berlin wall in Germany. However Jose, my husband, has managed to share his excitement with me and made me look at Russia from another angle. The idea was to travel the world famous Trans-Siberian railway. So I put on my traveller hat and start my research: first step is the visa, then choosing the best cities to visit and securing tickets.
How to get a tourist visa to Russia?
Most of the world needs a visa to Russia. The list of the countries that do not need a visa to Russia are seen here.
Being Ukrainians, little Lia and I, we do not need visa to Russia, at least for now while Jose being only a dual citizen of USA and Spain needs one. As we travel many places we prefer to do everything independently, from getting a visa to visiting sites. Of course there are always exceptions…
At that time, summer 2015, we lived in Finland. After contacting the Russian consulate in Finland we found out that it wont be an easy process considering our situation.
The requirements to get tourist Russian visa are:
- A passport with at least one blank page, valid for at least six months after the end of your proposed visit to Russia
- A completed and signed visa application form (you can get from the consulate)
- 2 recent passport sized photos
- A tourist confirmation either from the hotel where you will be staying or from your travel agent (visa support)
Read more about the Russian visa from this Website.
This list of the documents you need doesn’t look that frightening and as we found out later many hotels, even cheap ones, offer the visa support. The struggle was to present the hotel confirmation for every single day of our stay in Russia, that is 30 days. At that point we didn’t know yet our itinerary so we couldn’t book any hotels yet.
The Consulate recommended us to use the services of one of the Finnish travel agencies. The difference in price was 37 euros but we had no choice at that time. Luckily there were quite a few in our city.
So we made up our mind and went to the Neva Tours Oy. They needed passport, 1 picture and the application form. Jose filled out the form indicating few possible cities of visit and exact dates of entry because Russian visa is date-specific, meaning that entry and exit dates are set on the visa. The whole process took 5 working days, cost us 72 euros plus 30 euros insurance. We could purchase insurance by ourselves but we didn’t have time for that either.
More about exact dates of entry into the country. Usually every visa has its validity; commonly it is 3 months. It means once you get your visa you have 3 months to enter the country.
However Russian visa is date-specific, meaning that your 30 days start counting from the date of entry you have on your visa. You can entry the country later or leave earlier. It all depends how much time you want to spend in Russia.
From our experience and talking to others, Finland has the easiest and quickest visa agencies to get to Russia. Also it is relatively cheap to get to Helsinki from the nearby cities in Europe and once you have your visa you can get a bus from Helsinki to Saint-Petersburg for about 60 euros. So if you haven’t been to Finland saving a lot of trouble and seeing a country for 1 week may pay for itself and grant you another great experience. Also we met French travelers who got their Russian visa in Mongolia through the agency. They said it was very fast, around 5 working days, and very straightforward. Sounds like the same way in Finland.
Even though this post is about Trans-Siberian, I feel I have to mention that there is visa-free travel to Saint-Petersburg by ferry up to 72 hours. On different websites it says you have to be accompanied by a tour guide however I know for a fact that people just go by ferry independently and don’t have any problems. So if you happen to be in Finland, Sweden or Estonia, jump on the ferry and check out this beautiful city! Though I have to warn you Saint-Petersburg is nothing like the rest of Russia. Tsar Peter I used to call it the “Window to Europe” for a reason but more about this outstanding city in my next post.
Best stops on the Trans-Siberian railway
Once our visa was taken care of, we happily moved to the next stage: where to go in Russia.
You would think that 30 days should be enough to see the major country’s attractions however with Russia it is different. It takes 7 full days to cross the country by train from Moscow where Trans Siberian begins to Vladivostok where it officially ends. It is the longest railway in the world with the length of 9,289 km and we were so stoked to go till the very end!
We didn’t want to just sit in the train all the time, our goal was to see Russia, well-known prosperous Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and less touristy cities where we could observe true Russia.
The research has started and finally my Russian language skills were put to use.
My personal knowledge, recommendations of my friends and sadly just few blog posts from other travelers shaped our itinerary.
I put the link of one of the posts since it features a good number of pictures (the post is in Russian though).
After hours of reading and google imaging and checking Lonely Planet we chose the following itinerary:
Saint-Petersburg, even though not a part of Trans sib it is truly a must-see in Russia. Russian Ballet, Hermitage, Summer Residence Peterрof, cruises on the Neva through narrow canals… just to name the few. Plan at least 4 days.
Moscow, that is where Trans sib begins and you don’t want to miss the capital anyway with its Red Square and Kremlin.
Vladimir and Suzdal, 2h bus drive from Vladimir. These 2 cities are the part of Golden Ring of Moscow and are known for its outstanding old architecture. It is definitely a highlight of our trip. Plan 2 days for Vladimir and 1 day trip to Suzdal.
Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. Good Tatar food and beautiful architecture. Known for its Mosque. Even though Kazan is considered a detour from the original Trans sib we liked it a lot and would recommend people to stop there. At least 2 days.
Nijniy Novgorod, middle size city. The biggest highlight is large river Volga and Kremlin. It was nice but could be skipped. 2 days would be enough.
Tyumen and Tobolsk. Tobolsk is famous for its Kremlin and was listed one of the highlights in Lonely Planet. However by the time we made it there, we were sick and tired of Kremlins so we stayed in Tyumen instead. It is an average industrial city of Russia, nothing bad and nothing spectacular. Can be skipped or couple of days will be enough if you want to get a taste of Russia as it is.
Didnt take a single picture LOL
Irkutsk, lake Baikal. Must see! The biggest highlight of our trip. Plan at least 7 days for both. And if you have more time, you will enjoy every single one.
Vladivostok. They call it San-Francisco of Russia. The city was really nice but the best part was the 48h from Irkutsk to Vladivostok in the train. I personally believe it was the most scenic part. At least 2 days.
How to get tickets for Trans Siberian by yourself
You can buy tickets online as well as see timetables, check the prices and how many hours it takes to get from one city to another through the official site of Russian railways.
The site is easy to navigate. It has all the needed information, both in English and in Russian. In order to buy the ticket you have to register and then you can access all your orders online.
You can buy train tickets as early as 45 days in advance. If you want to get the best price, try to purchase the tickets as early as possible. The best time range is from 20 to 40 days in advance.
Our Lia was free for all forms of transportation at 5 months of age. In Russia the age limit for free tickets is 5 years old. From 5 to 10 years old 65% discount is applied. Bring the child birth certificate in case your child doesn’t have a passport on his own.
Keep in mind if buying the tickets in person while in Russia the lines can be very long, however babushkas (grandma’s) and people with Kids are allowed to go to the front of the line. This can be hard to do if you grew up in western culture, maybe wait until you see another family show up and go to the front and follow them so you don’t feel awkward as this is socially acceptable.
Usually there are 3 types of coaches:
- 3rd class-open coach compartment or plazkartniy is open 6 berths compartments
- 2nd class sleeping compartment or kupe is closed compartment with 4 berths
- 1st class sleeping compartment or spalniy wagon is a closed compartment with only 2 lower berths
Since we traveled Trans-Sib with a baby of 5 months on a budget we thought kupe would be the best option, this way we would only piss off two people in our closed room instead of the whole train. However I have to admit that to our own surprise Lia took the train very well and we didn’t have any problems.
Here I post the pictures of each of them so that you can see the difference.
3rd class, plazkartniy
2d class, kupe
This is in Kazakhstan, Lia just turned 1 year old. However the train is literally the same as in Russia.
Lia is sleeping in the luggage compartment. Very comfy and she couldnt fall since she couldnt roll yet.
How much to budget for Trans-Siberian journey
- Tickets for 2 people 2nd class sleeping compartment were around 550 dollars with the exchange of 73 rubles per dollar.
- Hotels were around 20 Dollars for a private room. Usually we had single bedroom apartments, booked through booking.com (keep in mind of almost a week of free stay by sleeping in the train).
- Food varied, from cheap delicious street food to high-end expensive restaurants. 10 dollars and up per day (not including drinks).
- For baby we spent between 4 dollars per day and full details on this are in this post.
- Tours or sightseeing about 10 dollars a day
We spent about 67 USD per day or about 2000 dollars for a month for our family of 3 not including flights in or out of the country.