Most cities have good public transport systems combining bus, trolleybus and tram; the biggest cities also have metro systems. Public transport is very cheap and easy to use, but you’ll need to be able to decipher some Cyrillic. Taxis are plentiful.
In St Petersburg, Moscow and several other cities located on rivers, coasts, lakes or reservoirs, public ferries and water excursions give a different perspective.
Services are frequent in city centres but more erratic as you move out towards the edges. They can get jam-packed in the late afternoon or on poorly served routes.
A stop is usually marked by a roadside ‘А' sign for buses, ‘Т' for trolleybuses, and ТРАМВАЙ or a ‘Т' hanging over the road for trams. The fare (R10 to R20) is usually paid to the conductor; if there is no conductor, pass the money to the driver. You will be charged extra if you have a large bag that takes up space.
Within most cities, marshrutky double up official bus routes but are more frequent. They will also stop between official bus stops, which can save quite a walk.
The metro systems of Moscow and St Petersburg are excellent. There are smaller ones in Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Vologda and Yekaterinburg.
There are two main types of taxi in Russia: the official ones you order by phone and ‘private’ taxis (ie any other vehicle on the road).
Check with locals to determine the average taxi fare in that city at the time of your visit; taxi prices around the country vary widely. Practice saying your destination and the amount you want to pay so that it comes out properly. The better your Russian, the lower the fare (generally). If possible, let a Russian friend negotiate for you: they’ll do better than you will.
Official taxis have a meter that they sometimes use, though you can always negotiate an off-the-meter price. There’s a flag fall, and the number on the meter must be multiplied by the multiplier listed on a sign that should be on the dashboard or somewhere visible. Extra charges are incurred for radio calls and some night-time calls. Taxis outside of luxury hotels often demand usurious rates although, on the whole, official taxis are around 25% more expensive than private taxis.
To hail a private taxi, stand at the side of the road, extend your arm and wait until something stops. When someone stops for you, state your destination and be prepared to negotiate the fare – fix this before getting in. If the driver’s game, they’ll ask you to get in (sadites). Consider your safety before doing this.
The trains of Russian Railways (RZD or РЖД; http://rzd.ru) are generally comfortable and, depending on the class of travel, relatively inexpensive for the distances covered. Every train in Russia has two numbers – one for the eastbound train (even-numbered trains) and one for the westbound (odd-numbered trains).
A handful of high-speed services aside, trains are rarely speedy but have a remarkable record for punctuality – if you’re a minute late for your train, the chances are you’ll be left standing on the platform. The fact that RZD managers have a large portion of their pay determined by the timeliness of their trains not only inspires promptness, but also results in the creation of generous schedules. You’ll notice this when you find your train stationary for hours in the middle of nowhere only to suddenly start up and roll into the next station right on time.
There are a number of options on where to buy, including online from RZD. Bookings open 45 days before the date of departure. You’d be wise to buy well in advance over the busy summer months and holiday periods such as New Year and early May, when securing berths at short notice on certain trains can be difficult. Tickets for key trains on the busy Moscow–St Petersburg route can also be difficult to come by; keep your options flexible and you should be able to find something.
Even if you’re told a particular service is sold out, it still may be possible to get on the train by speaking with the chief provodnitsa. Tell her your destination, offer the face ticket price first and move slowly upwards from there. You can usually come to some sort of agreement.
You’ll be confronted by several ticket windows. Some are special windows reserved exclusively for use by the elderly or infirm, heroes of the Great Patriotic War or members of the armed forces. All will have different operating hours and generally non-English-speaking staff.
The sensible option, especially if there are long queues, is to avail yourself of the service centre (сервис центр) found at most major stations. Here you’ll encounter helpful staff who, for a small fee (typically around R200), can book your ticket. They sometimes speak English.
Tickets for suburban trains are often sold at separate windows or from an automatic ticket machine (автомат). A table beside the machine tells you which price zone your destination is in.
In big cities and towns it’s possible to buy tickets at special offices and some travel agencies away from the station.
You can buy tickets online directly from RZD. During the booking process, when asked to fill in 'Document Type" you should pick 'Foreign document' and then your passport number. RZD has two types of electronic tickets:
e-tickets – these are coupons detailing your your 14-digit order and 14-digit e-ticket numbers. Print them out and exchange for paper tickets at stations in Russia. Some stations have dedicated exchange points and/or self-service terminals; at all others you go to the regular booking windows.
e-registration – only available for trains where you board at the initial station of the service, these are ‘paperless’ tickets; you’ll still be sent an email confirmation but there’s no need to exchange this for a regular ticket. You show the confirmation email and your passport to the provodnitsa on boarding the train. Note when booking these trains on RZD's site, when asked to fill in 'Document Type" you should pick 'Foreign document' and then your passport number.
Other online travel sites also allow you to book tickets and have the ticket delivered to your home or hotel, or pick it up at an agency or at the train station.
When buying a ticket in Russia, it’s a good idea to arrive at the station or travel agency prepared. If you don’t speak Russian, have someone who does write down the following information for you in Cyrillic:
Also bring your passport; you’ll be asked for it so that its number and your name can be printed on your ticket. The ticket and passport will be matched up by the provodnitsa (female carriage attendant) before you’re allowed on the train – make sure the ticket-seller gets these details correct.
Tickets are printed by computer and come with a duplicate. Shortly after you’ve boarded the train the provodnitsa will come around and collect the tickets: sometimes they will take both copies and give you one back just before your final destination; often they will leave you with the copy. It will have been ripped slightly to show it’s been used. Hang on to this ticket, especially if you’re hopping on and off trains, since it provides evidence of how long you’ve been in a particular place if you’re stopped by police.
Sometimes tickets are also sold with separate chits for insurance in the event of a fatal accident, or for bed linen and meals, but usually these prices appear on the ticket itself. The following is a guide for deciphering your Russian train ticket.
Russian train timetables vary from place to place but generally list a destination; number and category of train; frequency of service; and time of departure and arrival, in Moscow time unless otherwise noted. For services that originate somewhere else, you’ll see a starting point and the final destination on the timetable. For example, when catching a train from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, the timetable may list Moscow as the point of origin and Irkutsk as the destination. The following are the key points to look out for.
There may also be the name of the train, usually in quotation marks, eg ‘Россия' (‘Rossiya’).
Days of the week are listed usually as numbers (where 1 is Monday and 7 Sunday) or as abbreviations of the name of the day (Пон, Вт, Ср, Чт, Пт, С and Вск are, respectively, Monday to Sunday). Remember that time-zone differences can affect these days. So in Chita (Moscow +6hr) a train timetabled at 23.20 on Tuesday actually leaves 5.20am on Wednesday. In months with an odd number of days, two odd days follow one another (eg 31 May, 1 June). This throws out trains working on an alternate-day cycle so if travelling near month’s end pay special attention to the hard-to-decipher footnotes on a timetable. For example, ‘27/V – 3/VI Ч' means that from 27 May to 3 June the train runs on even dates. On some trains, frequency depends on the time of year, in which case details are usually given in similar abbreviated small print: eg ‘27/VI – 31/VIII Ч; 1/IX – 25/VI 2, 5’ means that from 27 June to 31 August the train runs on even dates, while from 1 September to 25 June it runs on Tuesday and Friday.
Corresponding trains running in opposite directions on the same route may appear on the same line of the timetable. In this case you may find route entries like время отправления с конечного пункта (vremya otpravlenia s konechnogo punkta), or the time the return train leaves its station of origin. Train times are given in a 24-hour time format, and almost always in Moscow time (Московское время, Moskovskoye vremya). But suburban trains are usually marked in local time (местное время, mestnoe vremya). From here on it gets tricky (as though the rest wasn’t), so don’t confuse the following:
You may sometimes see the растояние (rastoyaniye) – distance in kilometres from the point of departure – on the timetable as well. These are rarely accurate and usually refer to the kilometre distance used to calculate the fare.
The regular long-distance service is a skory poezd (fast train). It rarely gets up enough speed to really merit the ‘fast’ label. The best skory trains often have names, eg the Rossiya (the Moscow to Vladivostok service). These ‘name trains’, or firmeny poezda, generally have cleaner cars and more convenient arrival and departure hours; they sometimes also have fewer stops, more first-class accommodation and restaurant cars.
A passazhirsky poezd (passenger train) is an intercity train, found mostly on routes of 1000km or less. Journeys on these can take longer, as the trains clank from one small town to the next. However, they are inexpensive and often well timed to allow an overnight sleep between neighbouring cities. Avoid trains numbered over 900. These are primarily baggage or postal services and are appallingly slow.
A prigorodny poezd (suburban train), commonly nicknamed an elektrichka, is a local service linking a city with its suburbs or nearby towns, or groups of adjacent towns – they are often useful for day trips, but can be fearfully crowded. There’s no need to book ahead for these – just buy your ticket and go. In bigger stations there may be separate timetables, in addition to prigorodny zal (the usual name for ticket halls) and platforms for these trains.
Timetables are posted in stations and are revised twice a year. It’s vital to note that the whole Russian rail network runs mostly on Moscow time, so timetables and station clocks from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok will be written in and set to Moscow time. Suburban rail services are the only general exception, which are usually listed in local time; it’s best to check this.
Most stations have an information window; expect the attendant to speak only Russian and to give a bare minimum of information. Bigger stations will also have computerised terminals where you can check the timetable.
In all classes of carriage with sleeping accommodation, if you’ve not already paid for a pack of bed linen and face towels (called pastil) in your ticket price, the provodnik/provodnitsa (male/female carriage attendant) will offer it to you for a small charge, typically around R110. In 1st class the bed is usually made up already.
The very top class – myagky (soft class) or lyux – only available on certain premium long-distance services, offers a compartment sleeping up to two with an attached toilet and shower. There are between four and six compartments to each carriage.
Next down, and the most common type of 1st class, is SV (short for spalny vagon, or sleeping wagon). These compartments are the same size as 2nd class but have only two berths, so there’s more room and more privacy for double the cost. Toilets are shared.
All 1st-class compartments usually have TVs on which it’s possible to watch videos or DVDs supplied by the provodnitsa for a small fee (there’s nothing to stop you from bringing your own, although they’ll need to work on a Russian DVD player).
The compartments in a kupeyny (2nd class, also called ‘compartmentalised’ carriage) – commonly shortened to kupe – are the standard accommodation on all long-distance trains. These carriages are divided into nine enclosed compartments, each with four reasonably comfortable berths, a fold-down table and just enough room between the bunks to turn around.
In every carriage there’s also one half-sized compartment with just two berths. This is usually occupied by the provodnitsa or reserved for railway employees; it’s where you may end up if you do a deal directly with a provodnitsa for a train ticket.
A reserved-place platskartny carriage, sometimes also called zhyostky (‘hard class’) and usually abbreviated to platskart, is a dorm carriage sleeping 54. The bunks are uncompartmentalised and are arranged in blocks of four down one side of the corridor and in twos on the other, with the lower bunk on the latter side converting to a table and chairs during the day.
Despite the lack of privacy, platskart is a deal for one-night journeys. In summer, the lack of compartment walls means they don’t become as stuffy as a kupe. Many travellers (women in particular) find platskart a better option than being cooped up with three (possibly drunken) Russian men. It’s also a great way to meet ordinary Russians. Platskart tickets cost half to two-thirds the price of a 2nd-class berth.
However, on multiday journeys some platskart carriages can begin to resemble a refugee camp, with clothing strung between bunks, a great swapping of bread, fish and jars of tea, and babies sitting on potties while their snot-nosed siblings tear up and down the corridor. Only the hardy would want to do Moscow to Vladivostok or a similar nonstop journey this way.
If you do travel platskart, it’s worth requesting specific numbered seats when booking your ticket. The ones to avoid are 1 to 4, 33 to 38, and 53 and 54, found at each end of the carriage close to the samovar and toilets, where people are constantly coming and going. Also note that 39 to 52 are the doubles with the bunk that converts to a table.
Obshchiy (general) is unreserved. On long-distance trains the obshchiy carriage looks the same as a platskartny one but, when full, eight people are squeezed into each unenclosed compartment, so there’s no room to lie down. Suburban trains normally have only obshchiy class, which in this case means bench-type seating. On a few daytime-only intercity trains there are higher grade obshchiy carriages with more comfortable, reserved chairs.
Make certain on all sleeper trains that your baggage is safely stowed, preferably in the steel bins beneath the lower bunks. In 1st- and 2nd-class compartments you can lock the door but remember that it can be unlocked with a rather simple key; on the left side of the door, about three-quarters of the way up, there’s a small steel switch that flips up, blocking the door from opening more than a few centimetres. Flip this switch up and make sure to stuff a piece of cork or equivalent in the cavity so it can’t be flipped back down by a bent coat hanger.
At station halts it’s also a good idea to ask the provodnitsa to lock your compartment while you go down to stretch your legs on the platform. In cheaper platskartny carriages your unguarded possessions are often safer as there are more people around to keep watch.
Generally, Russians love speaking with foreigners; on long train rides, they love drinking with them as well. Avoiding this is not always as easy as it would seem. Choose your drinking partners very carefully on trains and only drink from new bottles when you can watch the seal being broken.
Many train stations have a left-luggage room (камера хранения, kamera khranenia) or left-luggage lockers (автоматические камеры хранения, avtomaticheskiye kamery khranenia). These are generally secure, but make sure you note down the room’s opening and closing hours and, if in doubt, establish how long you can leave your stuff. Typical costs are around R120 per bag per day (according to size) or R120 per locker.
Here is how to work the left-luggage lockers (they’re generally the same everywhere). Be suspicious of people who offer to help you work them, above all when it comes to selecting your combination.
To open the locker, set your combination on the outside of your locker door. Note that even though it seems as if the knobs on the outside of the door should correspond directly with those on the inside, the letter is always the left-most knob, followed by three numbers, on both the inside and the outside. After you’ve set your combination, wait a second or two for the electrical humming sound and then pull open the locker.
Long-distance buses tend to complement rather than compete with the rail network. They generally serve areas with no railway or routes on which trains are slow, infrequent or overloaded.
Most cities have an intercity bus station (автовокзал, avtovokzal). Tickets are sold at the station or on the bus. Fares are normally listed on the timetable and posted on a wall. As often as not you’ll get a ticket with a seat assignment, either printed or scribbled on a till receipt. If you have luggage that needs to be stored in the bus baggage compartment then you’ll have to pay an extra fare, typically around 10% of the bus fare. Some bus stations may also apply a small fee for security measures.
Marshrutky (a Russian diminutive form of marshrutnoye taksi, meaning a fixed-route taxi) are minibuses that are sometimes quicker than larger buses and rarely cost much more. Where roads are good and villages frequent, marshrutky can be twice as fast as buses and are well worth paying extra for.