Looking at the map of Russia, tourists often wonder which transport to choose for their travel – car, plane or train? Pros and cons and insider’s view on experiences you will get may help you plan your trip.
My American friends often ask me, why I do not explore Russia by car even though I have an SUV. Road trips are a very American thing. Indeed, in the US I did travel by car a lot and always enjoyed that. Traveling by car in Russia is however quite challenging. Poor condition of the roads is the main obstacle. Technically it is possible to travel by car, but it would be a very difficult affair unless you choose a newly build highways (Moscow – St.Pete, Moscow – Crimea).
Roads are narrow, have holes, a lot of drivers are crazy and there are lots of accidents, traffic jams are horrible near main cities. On top of that, road police in the country likes to make money on tourists. Of course if you do not break the rules, you will not have to pay, but road signs aren’t always straightforward or may be absent. So, there are very high chances that you would break the rules at some point and road policemen will be there, waiting for you.
Another problem is navigation. Near big cities you will of course have Yandex or Google maps, but unless you download the directions, you may get lost once you are out of the reception zone. Finally – the infrastructure of gas stations, hotels, places to eat and restrooms exists mostly in the well-developed parts of the country. If you travel by car, you have to be well-prepared and have everything you need – water, food, gas with you.
For the foreigners, I would say not recommend renting a car and travelling in the country. Hiring a local driver may be an option, but that option is good for short-haul trips, such as trips along the Golden ring of picturesque towns, which are not far from Moscow.
If you plan to travel far away – to lake Baikal or Kamchatka or other destinations, planes will most likely be part of your itinerary. Each major city has an airport and our main airline Aeroflot is flying to all those destinations. There are also other airlines, some of which are not bad at all. But if you want to be on the safe side, I would recommend choosing Aeroflot as I think that this airline has newer planes and better pilots.
If you travel from Moscow with Aeroflot, you will travel from domestic terminal in Sheremetyevo. There is not much to say about air travel in Russia, it does not differ much from air travel in other countries. Food will be served in-flight, but do not expect gourmet food, so if you are a picky eater, bring your own snacks. And, also, bring your own in-flight entertainment as not all planes are equipped with modern entertainment systems. Flights to many places are long, for example a flight to Irkutsk (lake Baikal) is 5,5 hours, flight from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (Kamchatka) is 8 hours long.
Trains are preferred method of travel for locals. Less expensive than planes. Less hassle than car travel. Efficient. And providing unique experiences and ambiance. Let’s explore why we love traveling by train so much.
First of all, trains depart from the centre of the city. And arrive to the centre of the other city. Instead of spending 2 hours getting to the airport and another hour or more for airport procedures, you can arrive at the railway station minutes before the train departure and still make it.
Secondly, we just love the experience of traveling by the train. I need to explain to you though, what that means. And there is a lot to be explained here.
But first, a brief crash course, which will help you to buy the tickets and the link to the Russian Railroads official ticket selling site.
There are several types of trains in Russia:
very fast trains, similar to Shinkansen in Japan. These are such trains as Sapsan (Moscow-St.Pete-Moscow or Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod-Moscow) and several others. The entire trip between Moscow and St.Pete lasts 4 hours, you sit, use wifi, enjoy a meal or snacks and are at your destination in no time
How to use this information? I usually suggest foreigners to choose Sapsan trains if they are available on their route. Several hours on those trains are a comfortable experience. Would Sapsans be a preferred choice for Russians? It depends. A lot of Russians would prefer fast night trains. Sleeping on a train makes the trip seem much shorter. But before you book a trip on a night train (or a several day trip on a train), there are some things you need to know:
SV is a 2-people cabin, considered to be a luxury. You will have 2 bunk beds and table in the cabin. Linen, pillows and blankets will all be high quality. Some tickets may include meal and beverages.
Coupe is a 4-people cabin with a table and 4 bunk beds (lower and upper levels). Bed linen etc are also provided. Most Russians like to choose this type of cabin. The only nuisance is that you never know, who will be your neighbours. They could drink alcohol and then snore all night or just be too loud. At some routes you can buy tickets to women-only cabin, but that is not typical. As one of my foreign friends said: “I could not sleep because I am not used to sleeping next to an unknown shirtless man, who is staring at me as I sleep”. Also, when booking tickets for coupé, pay attention to whether you are getting upper or lower level beds. I prefer to choose an upper bed for myself, I usually sleep or read on a train. If you choose the lower level bed, be ready that the person, who has an upper level bed may sit next to you during day time.
Platzcart – is like coupé, but cabins do not have doors and there are two extra beds in the corridor. The cheapest of the sleeping options, but zero privacy and much less security. And security is important, when you travel for extended time with all your belongings. With SV or coupé you can lock the door inside for the night. When you travel in platzcart, your best bet is to put your purse under the pillow and sleep sound.
Food On A Train
Having a meal, served to your carriage, is a very new option, only available on some trains and in the luxury type carriages. On all other trains/types of carriage the only thing you can get is hot tea. Which is not bad at all – tea is served in a traditional “train-style”, in the glasses with metal tea-glass holders. That is a unique experience in itself, so make sure you do not miss it.
But people get very hungry at trains. What do they do? Many trains have restaurant carriage. It is an entire wagon, which looks like a restaurant, with tables, menu and dishes, ranging from soups and salads to the main courses. Quality of food really varies. Better trains (the ones with the lower train numbers) usually also have better food.
Most locals though bring food with them on a train rides. A classical “train picnic” would include a boiled chicken, boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, cucumbers & tomatoes, bread and something sweet. There are no refrigerators on the train, so it is important to choose food that does not spoil fast. Just do not forget to bring some salt with you.
However, time goes and food from home is eaten. What do people do then? The long-haul, non-express trains stop from time to time, so it may be possible to buy snacks at the train station kiosks. There are of course so many stories about people, who missed their trains doing that. Demand always creates supply, so local people, who live near train stations, also bring food for sale to the platforms. They sell snacks and they also sell boiled potatoes, eggs and chicken, home-made pies etc. But you have to be adventurous and look what you are buying and from whom you are buying.
How About Taking The Trans-Siberian Train?
Doing that trip is on a list of almost every foreigner, who ever planned to travel to Russia. And almost no Russian would ever take this train, unless you pay us a lot of money. Why?
First of all – it is a Very long train ride. We are ok with traveling 2-3 days by train, but more than a week is too much for us. Food is the smallest of our concerns. Number one concern is hygiene. Restrooms at trains are not the cleanest places on Earth. I heard that on a very long train rides, there could be a shower, but I do not believe it would be clean either. Finally – after a day or two any train ride becomes boring. People think that they would be able to really see the country from a train window, but reality is that for most of the time you see the same landscape – hours of forests or fields.
It is possible that the experience is different if you take a Trans-Siberian Express, but I do not know anybody, who took that trip, so I cannot endorse it. If you took that trip, please share your experiences with us!
The summary of all the above is that in such a big country as Russia, you may need more than one means of transportation. Knowing more about pros and cons of each of them will help you plan the trip. For example, I hope that now you will choose a train instead of a plane for a Moscow-St.Pete-Moscow trip, you will hire a local driver with his car for a short excursions outside of the city, you will take a plane to a far located destination etc.
Please ask questions and share with us your travel experiences in Russia!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.