Russia Travel Tips
Russia is a country of contradictions - the rich splendor of its imperial history overlaid with the grim hardship of its more recent Communist regimes. It has struggled since the dissolution of the USSR but thanks to its oil and gas reserves, its growing economy is now breathing new life in to its people and culture. As a first time visitor you will notice this newfound vitality mixed with remnants of its old lumbering bureaucracy. It's a fascinating and diverse country, totally unique and well worth the journey to get there. Here are some tips and information to make your trip run smoothly.
Before you go
All foreign visitors to Russia must obtain a visa before departure - if you arrive without one you will be sent straight back at your own expense. You can apply directly through a Russian Consulate office in the US but Russia is one of those countries where it pays to utilize a third party to coordinate your application. What makes the process slightly different to other countries is that you need to obtain an 'invitation' from a resident, which for a tourist visa means a hotel voucher or confirmation. Check FLY Backpackers Visa page to apply online. You will also need a passport that's valid for at least 6 months after your intended departure date and a passport-sized photo. FLY Backpackers partner's - VisaHQ also have information on other types of visa requirements and current customs regulations.
Vaccinations are not required for travel to Russia and the health risks in general are no worse than in the US. This therefore means also taking the same hygiene precautions (particularly regarding HIV). Travel insurance is always recommended and should you need medical treatment in Russia, will mean that you can access a private clinic rather than having to wait long hours at a state hospital.
The currency in Russia is the ruble and one ruble consists of 100 kopeek. It's easy to exchange nice crisp dollars in to rubles but for some reason the exchange clerks often won't accept dirty or worn notes. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATM machines in the major cities although you might find it difficult to find those connected to Cirrus or Plus networks. If possible use bank ATM's since they are less likely to have been tampered with. Traveler's checks are more difficult to change and they have high commission levels but if you're taking some, Amex are best. Overall, always make sure you have enough cash to hand but don't flash it around too obviously in public.
What to take
The most important things to take are crisp, new dollar bills and copies of all your travel documents (including your airline tickets). This doesn't necessarily mean that the potential for crime is high but its wise to take precautions. As you would in New York, take extra care if you're traveling on the metro (pickpocket heaven) and avoid wandering out alone at night. As far as clothing is concerned, in Russia, casual clothing is more likely to identify you as a tourist since the locals tend to be a bit dressier, especially women. Jeans and sneakers might also make it difficult to enter some nightspots. Obviously check temperatures and pack accordingly, especially if you're going in the freezing winter months.
It's possible to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg without speaking any Russian but outside of these tourist centers few people speak English (and those that do will be the younger generations). Taking a phrase book and knowing a few basics will make life easier and the locals will always appreciate your efforts. Generally, the ease of getting around in Russia depends on where you're traveling. If you're sticking to the usual tourist routes it will be pretty straightforward but if you choose to go off the beaten track it gets trickier. There are lots of small local airlines but they cancel flights whenever they feel like it and the buses are uncomfortable, so the locals tend to use the cheap, slow rail network. Renting a car is possible in the main cities but not for the feint-hearted. Licensed taxis are easy to get but remember to negotiate your fee before you set off (beware unlicensed taxis that prey on unsuspecting tourists and don't get in to taxis late at night that have more than the driver inside).
Russia is not an obvious holiday destination but from a cultural perspective you will be amazed. And, whilst the Russian people may often appear grim-faced, they're also honest, hospitable and very proud of their country. Make an effort to get to know them and you will be welcomed as a loyal friend (probably over a vodka!)
Have a Wonderful Trip!
Read more in FAQ - Visa and Passport