Major Russian airlines, including Aeroflot, Rossiya, S7 Airlines, Ural Airlines (www.uralairlines.com), UTAir (www.utair.ru) and budget carrier Pobeda (www.pobeda.aero), have online booking, with the usual discounts for advance purchases. Otherwise, it’s no problem buying a ticket at ubiquitous aviakassa (ticket offices), which may be able to tell you about flights that you can't easily find out about online overseas. Online agencies specialising in Russian air tickets with English interfaces include Anywayanyday, Pososhok.ru, One Two Trip! (www.onetwotrip.ru) and TicketsRU (www.tickets.ru).
Whenever you book airline tickets in Russia you’ll need to show your passport and visa. Tickets can also be purchased at the airport right up to the departure of the flight and sometimes even if the city centre office says that the plane is full. Return fares are usually double the one-way fares.
It’s a good idea to check in online as early as possible and sign up for notifications about delays and cancellations. Most airlines have handy telephone apps, which you can use for both booking and online check-in.
Airlines may bump you if you don’t check in at least an hour before departure and can be very strict about charging for checked bags that are overweight, which generally means anything over 20kg. Pobeda is notoriously strict (as well as unpredictable and arbitrary) about baggage allowances and carry-on luggage.
Have your passport and ticket handy throughout the various security and ticket checks that can occur, right up until you find a seat. Some flights have assigned seats, others don't. On the latter, seating is a free-for-all.
Many internal flights in Moscow use either Domodedovo or Vnukovo airports; if you’re connecting to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport, allow a few hours to cross town (at least three hours if you need to go by taxi, rather than train and metro).
Big city airports are gradually being revamped and modernised, but in small towns airports offer facilities similar to the average bus shelter.
Airline Safety in Russia
Deadly lapses in Russian airline safety are frighteningly common. Hardly a year passes without a massive civil-aviation disaster. If you’re worried about airline safety, the good news is that for many destinations in Russia, getting there by train or bus is practical and often preferable (if you have the time). But in some cases – where you’re short of time or where your intended destination doesn’t have reliable rail or road connections – you will have no choice but to take a flight.
Industry experts recommend taking the following factors into account when deciding whether an airline is safe to fly with in Russia:
- If there's a choice, stick to major airlines that are members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – these include Aeroflot, S7 and UTAir.
- A Class 1 Russian airport, which hosts more than seven million passengers per year, is much more likely to be safe to fly in and out of than a Class 5 airport, which serves less than 100,000 passengers a year.
- Fly with an airline that has regularly scheduled flights, not a charter. The accident rate for charter flights is about three times higher than for regular flights.
- Check https://aviation-safety.net or www.airlines-inform.com to see the number of accidents and incidents at an airport and to read traveller reviews.
One of the most pleasant ways of travelling around Russia is by river. You can do this either by taking a cruise, which you can book directly with an operator or through agencies in Russia and overseas, or by using scheduled river passenger services. The season runs from late May through mid-October, but is shorter on some routes.
Useful Russian Terms for Boat Travel
When buying tickets for a hydrofoil, avoid ryad (rows) one to three – spray will obscure your view, and although enclosed, you’ll often get damp.
|речной вокзал||rechnoy vokzal||river station|
|ракетa, комета, заря||raketa, kometa, zarya||river-going hydrofoil|
|теплоход||teplokhod||large passenger boat|
|катер||kater||smaller river or sea boat|
|корабл||korabl||generic word for large ship|
|лодка||lodka||small rowing boat|
|туда и обратно||tuda i obratno||return|
Moscow, St Petersburg & the Volga
There are numerous cruise boats plying the routes between Moscow and St Petersburg, many stopping at some of the Golden Ring cities on the way. Longer cruises to Northern European Russia and south along the Volga also originate in either of these cities. Some cruises are specifically aimed at foreign tourists.
Boat operators and agencies include the following:
Northern European Russia
Northern European Russia (including St Petersburg) is well served by various waterborne transport options. Apart from hydrofoil services along the Neva River and the Gulf of Finland from St Petersburg to Petrodvorets, there are also very popular cruises from St Petersburg to Valaam in Lake Ladoga, some continuing on to Lake Onega, Petrozavodsk and Kizhi. From Rabocheostrovsk you can take boats to the Solovetsky Islands.
Between June and September frequent hydrofoils connect the Black Sea ports of Novorossiysk, Anapa and Sochi.
Siberia & the Russian Far East
Siberia and the Russian Far East have a short navigation season (mid-June to September), with long-distance river transport limited to the Ob and Irtysh Rivers (Omsk–Tara–Tobolsk–Salekhard), the Lena (Ust-Kut–Lensk–Yakutsk) and the Yenisey (Krasnoyarsk–Yeniseysk–Igarka–Dudinka). You can also make one-day hops by hydrofoil along several sections of these rivers, along the Amur River (Komsomolsk–Nikolaevsk) and across Lake Baikal (Irkutsk–Olkhon–Severobaikalsk–Nizhneangarsk). Other Baikal services are limited to short hops around Irkutsk/Listvyanka and from Sakhyurta to Olkhon unless you charter a boat, most conveniently done in Listvyanka, Nizhneangarsk, Severobaikalsk or Ust-Barguzin. Irkutsk agencies can help.
Ferries from Vanino cross the Tatar Strait to Sakhalin, but it can be murder trying to buy a ticket in the summer months. Although sailings are supposed to take place daily, in reality there is no set schedule. There are also irregular sailings from Korsakov, on Sakhalin, across to Yuzhno-Kurilsk in the Kuril Island chain (you'll need a permit for visiting the Kurils to make this voyage).
Out of Vladivostok there is a range of ferries to nearby islands and to beach resorts further south along the coast. For the truly adventurous with a month or so to spare, it may be possible to hitch a lift on one of the supply ships that sail out of Nakhodka and Vladivostok up to the Arctic Circle towns of Anadyr and Provideniya.
Beware that boat schedules can change radically from year to year (especially on Lake Baikal) and are only published infuriatingly near to the first sailing of each season.
Bus & Marshrutky
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, you may 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 often 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.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving in Russia is not for the faint-hearted, but if you’ve a sense of humour, patience and a decent vehicle, it’s an adventurous way to go. Both road quality and driving culture have improved a great deal in the last decade, so driving has become much more pleasant than before. There are also reliable car-hire companies.
The sheer number of vehicles and constant road improvements make traffic jams a largely unavoidable obstacle in the vicinities of Moscow, St Petersburg and other large cities. Russia's most popular navigation app, Yandex, monitors traffic jams in real time and sends you on the fastest route.
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
You’ll need the following if bringing in your own vehicle to Russia:
- Your driving licence
- Your International Driving Permit (IDP)
- The vehicle’s registration papers
- Third-party insurance valid in Russia (known as a 'green card')
- A customs declaration promising that you will take your vehicle with you when you leave
To minimise hassles, make sure you have all your documents translated into Russian. For more details see http://waytorussia.net/transport/international/car.html.
Self-drive cars can be rented in all major Russian cities and some towns, too. Depending on where you’re going, consider renting a car with a driver – they will at least know the state of local roads and be able to negotiate with traffic police should you be stopped.
Private cars sometimes operate as cabs over long distances and can be a great deal if there’s a group of you to share the cost. Since they take the most direct route between cities, the savings in time can be considerable over slow trains and meandering buses. Typically you will find drivers offering this service outside bus terminals.
You'll need to negotiate a price with the driver. Look over their car and try to assess their sobriety before setting off. Note that you’ll always have to pay return mileage if renting ‘one way’ and that many local drivers want to get home the same night, even if that’s at 3am.
Urban car-share services, like Delimobil (https://delimobil.ru), are widely available in Moscow and St Petersburg. In addition, the Blablacar.com sharing service is now widely used in Russia, but make sure you choose drivers with the best profile and reviews.
You must be over 18 years of age to legally drive your own or a rented car or motorcycle in Russia. You'll also need to have a full driving licence and an International Driving Permit with a Russian translation of your licence or a certified Russian translation of your full licence (you can certify translations at a Russian embassy or consulate). Nationals of countries that signed and ratified the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (most EU countries did) are theoretically exempt from the translation requirement, but in practice many police officers demand it anyway.
Western-style gas (petrol) stations are common. Petrol comes in four main grades and ranges from R30 to R40 per litre. Unleaded gas is available in major cities. Dizel (diesel) is also available for around R35 per litre. In the countryside, gas stations are usually not more than 70km apart, but you shouldn’t rely on this.
Russian roads are a mixed bag – sometimes smooth, straight dual carriageways, sometimes pot-holed, narrow, winding and choked with the diesel fumes of slow, heavy vehicles.
Russian drivers use indicators far less than they should and like to overtake everything on the road – on the inside. They rarely switch on anything more than sidelights – and often not even those – until it’s pitch black at night. Some say this is to avoid dazzling others, as, for some reason, dipping headlights is not common practice.
If an oncoming driver is flashing their headlights at you, this usually means to watch out for traffic police ahead.
Winter tyres are a must during the winter months, but for their own safety most people use them from early November until the end of March in European Russia.
- Drive on the right.
- Traffic coming from the right generally (but not always) has the right of way.
- Speed limits are generally 60km/h in towns and between 80km/h and 110km/h on highways.
- There may be a 90km/h zone, enforced by speed traps, as you leave a city.
- Children under 12 may not travel in the front seat; the use of seatbelts is mandatory.
- Motorcycle riders (and passengers) must wear crash helmets.
- The maximum legal blood-alcohol content is 0.03%, a rule that is strictly enforced. Police will first use a breathalyser test to check blood-alcohol levels. You have the legal right to insist on a blood test (which involves the police taking you to a hospital).
- Traffic lights that flicker green are about to change to yellow, then red. You will be pulled over if the police see you going through a yellow light, so drive cautiously.
Russia’s traffic police are officially called the GIBDD (ГИБДД standing for Государственная инспекция безопасности дорожного движения; www.gibdd.ru), but still commonly known by their previous acronym: the GAI. The traffic police are authorised to stop you, issue on-the-spot fines and, worst of all, shoot at your car if you refuse to pull over.
The GIBDD are notorious for hosting speed traps and finding ways to stop cars and collect ‘fines’ on the spot. Russian drivers often mount dashboard cameras in their cars to record what is going on, in a bid to stop corrupt police officers faking evidence or unfairly prosecuting them – you might want to do likewise! That said, their performance has improved a great deal in recent years, and unpleasant encounters with corrupt officers are less common, except in the south of European Russia and the North Caucasus, where these incidents are still frequent.
For serious infractions, the GIBDD can confiscate your licence, which you’ll have to retrieve from the main station. If your car is taken to a police parking lot, you should try to get it back as soon as possible, since you’ll be charged a huge amount for each day that it’s kept there.
Get the shield number of the arresting officer. By law, GIBDD officers are not allowed to take any money at all – fines should be paid via Sberbank. However, in reality Russian drivers normally pay the police approximately half the official fine, thus saving money and the time eaten up by Russian bureaucracy, both at the police station and the bank.
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 in most cases 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.
Bus, Marshrutky, Trolleybus & Tram
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 (R15 to R40) 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 on 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 and Yekaterinburg.
Normal yellow taxis, which could be hailed in the street and used meters, disappeared after the fall of communism. The taxi situation was a pain until a few years ago, when phone apps, such as Uber, Gett and Yandex Taxi, made cabs much more affordable and easy to use. Download the various apps to your phone before you arrive or while in Russia.
Elsewhere, taxis are ordered by phone. If you need one, watch out for a taxi that has its phone number written on it. English-speaking operators are rare.
It's less common these days, but it's still possible to flag down a taxi, or just a random driver whose owner needs some extra cash, in the street. 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. Practise saying your destination and the amount you want to pay so that it comes out properly. Generally, the better your Russian, the lower the fare. If possible, let a Russian friend negotiate for you: they’ll do better than you will.
To hail a 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 will ask you to get in (sadites). Consider your safety before doing this.
Risks & Precautions
- Avoid taxis lurking outside foreign-run establishments, luxury hotels, railway stations and airports – they often charge far too much.
- Know your route: be familiar with how to get there and how long it should take.
- Never get into a taxi that has more than one person already in it, especially after dark.
- Keep your fare money in a separate pocket to avoid flashing large wads of cash.
- If you’re staying at a private residence, have the taxi stop at the corner nearest your destination, not the exact address.
- Trust your instincts – if a driver looks creepy, take the next car.
Russian Railways trains are generally comfortable and, depending on the class of travel, relatively inexpensive for the distances covered. The network is highly centralised, with Moscow, which has nine large train stations, as the main transfer hub. Given large distances, a vast majority of carriages are equipped with sleeping berths, while only newer and shorter-distance trains have seats.
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 for where to purchase tickets, including online from RZD or using the RZD app on your smartphone. Bookings open 60 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. Cheaper 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 may still be possible to get on the train by speaking with the chief provodnitsa. Tell them your destination, offer the face ticket price first and move slowly upwards from there. You can usually come to some sort of agreement.
At the Station
You will 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 go to a service centre (сервисный центр), found at most major stations, where helpful staff can book your ticket for a small fee (typically around R200). They sometimes speak English.
Dozens of major stations are now equipped with automatic ticket machines that have English interfaces. These will save you a lot of time and trouble.
Tickets for suburban trains are often sold at separate windows or from a ticket machine. A table beside the machine tells you which price zone your destination is in.
At Travel Agencies & Ticket Bureaux
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 enter your passport number. Apart from the website, RZD now has a well-functioning mobile app, which allows you to purchase tickets within seconds. RZD has two types of electronic tickets:
- e-tickets – These are coupons detailing 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.
Other online travel sites, such as tutu.ru (www.tutu.ru), also allow you to book tickets and can have the ticket delivered to your home or hotel, or allow you to pick it up at an agency or at the train station.
How to Buy & Read Your Ticket
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:
- How many tickets you require
- Your destination
- What class of ticket
- The preferred date of travel and time of day for departure
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 and may prove useful 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.
Reading a Train Timetable
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.
Generally speaking, the higher the Hомер (nomer, number) of a train, the slower it is; anything over 900 is likely to be a mail train. High-speed trains, however, go under the numbers 151 through 198.
- Скоростной (Skorostnoy, high-speed trains)
- Скорый (Skory, fast trains)
- Пассажирский (Passazhirsky, passenger trains)
- Почтово – багажный (Pochtovo-bagazhny, post-cargo trains)
- Пригородный (Prigorodny, suburban trains)
There may also be the name of the train, usually in quotation marks eg ‘Россия' (‘Rossiya’).
- ежедневно (yezhednevno, daily; abbreviated еж)
- чётные (chyotnye, even-numbered dates; abbreviated ч)
- нечётные (nechyotnye, odd-numbered dates; abbreviated не)
- отменён (otmenyon, cancelled; abbreviated отмен)
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 at 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 the end of the month 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.
Arrival & Departure Times
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 such as 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:
- время отправления (vremya otpravleniya) Time of departure
- время отправления с начального пункта(vremya otpravleniya s nachalnogo punkta) Time of departure from the train’s starting point
- время прибытия (vremya pribytiya) Time of arrival at the station you’re in
- время прибытия на конечный пункт (vremya pribytiya v konechny punkt) Time of arrival at the destination
- время в пути (vremya v puti) Duration of the journey
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, more modern cars and more convenient arrival and departure hours; they sometimes also have fewer stops, more 1st-class accommodation and restaurant cars.
The new modern trains that are being gradually introduced on the busiest routes are generally classified as skorostnoy poezd (high-speed train), but generally they go under their brand names. Servicing the Moscow–St Petersburg route, Sapsan trains are the Russian equivalent of German ICE or Italian Pendolino. The slower Lastochka and Strizh trains feel more like an average Western European suburban train.
A passazhirskiy 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.
Dozens of major stations are equipped with ticket machines that have English interfaces and are handy for checking timetables.
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.
Online timetables are available on the RZD (http://pass.rzd.ru) website and at www.poezda.net.
Modern high-speed trains, such as Sapsan, have 1st- and 2nd-class carriages, and business class, which comes between the other two. The difference is in the seat comfort, legroom and on-board entertainment.
In all classes of carriage with sleeping accommodation, if you’ve not already paid for a pack of bed linen and face towels (called postel) in your ticket price, the provodnik/provodnitsa (male/female carriage attendant) will offer it to you for a small charge, typically around R140. In 1st class the bed is usually made up already.
Lyuks is a shortened version of the Russian word for luxury. The very top class is only available on certain premium long-distance services, namely on the Moscow–St Petersburg line. Compartments typically fit one or two persons and are equipped with individual bathrooms.
SV (1st Class)
SV is 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).
Kupe (2nd Class)
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.
Platskartny (3rd Class)
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 pairs 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 can be a favourite way to go. 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. They are wonderful for meeting and getting to know ordinary Russians. Platskart tickets cost half to two-thirds the price of a 2nd-class berth.
On multiday journeys, however, some platskart carriages can begin to get messy, with clothing strung between bunks, a great swapping of bread, fish and jars of tea, and babies sitting on potties while their 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 (4th Class)
Obshchiy (general) is unreserved. On long-distance trains the obshchiy carriage looks the same as a platskartny one, but when it's 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.
Dangers & Annoyances
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 you 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 R200 per bag per day (according to size) or R200 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.
- Put your stuff in an empty locker.
- Decide on a combination of one Russian letter and three numbers and write it down or remember it.
- Set the combination on the inside of the locker door.
- Close the locker.
- Pay the attendant the fee.
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.
Hitching is never entirely safe and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
That said, hitching in Russia is a common method of getting around, particularly in the countryside and remote areas not well served by public transport.
Rides are hailed by standing at the side of the road and flagging passing vehicles with a low, up-and-down wave (not an extended thumb). You are expected to pitch in for petrol; paying what would be the normal bus fare for a long-haul ride is considered appropriate.
Use common sense to keep safe. Avoid hitching at night. Women should exercise extreme caution. Avoid hitching alone and let someone know where you are planning to go.