Prices are fixed in shops, but at souvenir markets, such as Izmailovo in Moscow, polite haggling over prices is a good idea.
Dangers & Annoyances
Despite the strain in relations with the West, Russia is generally a safe country in which to travel.
- Don’t leave any valuables or bags inside your car. Valuables lying around hotel rooms also tempt providence.
- It’s generally safe to leave your belongings unguarded when using the toilets on trains, but you’d be wise to get to know your fellow passengers first.
- Pickpockets and purse-snatchers operate in big cities and major towns. Keep your valuables close.
- Avoid drinking with dodgy strangers and discussing international politics when drunk.
Check with your government’s foreign affairs ministry at home or your embassy in Russia for the latest danger zones. Although it's possible to travel in Northeast Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia) these days, the area remains volatile. An Islamist insurgency is smouldering at all times and law-enforcement bodies are rarely concerned about sticking to the law.
In other parts of Russia, certain isolated villages suffer from the unpredictable side effects of chronic alcoholism, especially in western Tuva, where locals are frequently drunk and armed with knives.
In more remote areas of the country, specific natural hazards include bears and, from late May to July, potentially fatal tick-borne encephalitis (particularly in Siberia and Ussuriland in the Russian Far East). And, if trekking in Kamchatka, remember that many of those volcanoes are active.
Official border crossings aside, Russia's borders are usually off-limits and care should be taken when approaching. Trekking in some border areas is allowed, but you will need to possess a permit, which although free can take at least 60 days to process. Being caught near borders without a permit could result in a large fine at best and deportation at worst. The same goes for Russia's closed cities (usually associated with the military in some way).
Then there are regulated areas (Зоны с регламентированным посещением для иностранных граждан), mainly wilderness zones scattered across the country, for which you need official permission from the FSB to enter. These are not obvious and rarely marked – if you are planning any serious back-country exploration, it's worth checking first what official permits you may need to avoid incurring fines or deportation.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca)
- US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)
Racism & Discrimination
Racism is a problem. Russian neo-Nazi and skinhead groups are violent and have been linked to many murders.
Although the number of incidents has significantly decreased over the last 10 years, attacks on Africans and Asians on city streets are not uncommon. Visitors of African, Middle Eastern and Asian descent should be aware that they may not always receive the warmest of welcomes, though Russian racism seems particularly focused on Central Asians and people from the Caucasus.
Racist attitudes or statements can also come from highly educated Russians. Anti-Semitism, which was state-sponsored during Soviet times, is still easily stirred up by right-wing political parties.
It’s a good idea to be vigilant on the streets around Hitler’s birthday (20 April), when bands of right-wing thugs have been known to roam around spoiling for a fight with anyone who doesn’t look Russian. Another potentially risky day is 2 August, when streets and parks are swarming with ex-paratroopers who celebrate their holiday with copious amounts of alcohol.
Widespread anti-American and anti-Western sentiments may sometimes create tense situations, though violence is unlikely.
Be wary of officials, such as police (or people posing as police), asking to see your papers or tickets at stations – there’s a small chance they will try to find something wrong with your documents and hold them to ransom. The only course of action is to remain calm and polite and stand your ground. Try to enlist the help of a passer-by to translate (or at least witness what is going on).
Transport & Road Safety
Take care when crossing the road in large cities: some crazy drivers completely ignore traffic lights, while others tear off immediately when the lights change (which can be suddenly), leaving you stranded in the middle of the road. Many cars stop at zebra crossings these days, but some don't, so make sure all lanes are safe before crossing.
Full-time students and people aged under 26 can sometimes (but not always) get a substantial discount on admissions – always flash your student card or International Student Identity Card (ISIC) before paying.
Access electricity (220V, 50Hz AC) with a European plug with two round pins. A few places still have the old 127V system. Some trains and hotel bathrooms have 110V and 220V shaver plugs.
Embassies & Consulates
For a list of Russian embassies and consulates overseas see www.russianembassy.net. If you will be travelling in Russia for a long period of time (say a month or more), and particularly if you’re heading to remote locations, it’s wise to register with your embassy. This can be done over the phone or by email.
Emergency & Important Numbers
|Russia's country code||7|
|International access code||8|
|General emergency number||112|
|Fire||101 or 01|
|Police||102 or 02|
|Ambulance||103 or 03|
Russians are sticklers for formality. They’re also rather superstitious. Follow these tips to avoid faux pas.
- Visiting homes Shaking hands across the threshold is considered unlucky; wait until you’re fully inside. Remove your shoes and coat on entering a house. Always bring a gift. If you give anyone flowers, make sure it’s an odd number – even numbers of blooms are for funerals.
- Religion Women should cover their heads and bare shoulders when entering a church. In some monasteries and churches women are also required to wear a skirt – wraps are usually available at the door. Men should remove their hats in church and not wear shorts.
- Eating & drinking Russians eat resting their wrists on the table edge, with fork in left hand and knife in the right. Vodka toasts are common at shared meals – it’s rude to refuse to join in and traditional (and good sense) to eat a little something after each shot.
We strongly recommend taking out travel insurance. Check the small print to see if the policy covers potentially dangerous sporting activities, such as diving or trekking. For medical treatment, some policies pay doctors or hospitals directly but most require you to pay on the spot and claim later (keep all receipts and documentation). Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home. Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Installing a pay-as-you-go Russian SIM card with unlimited traffic on your smartphone is the easiest way to ensure constant access. These are available at airports and most shopping malls.
Wi-fi is common across Russia and usually access is free (or available for the cost of a cup of coffee). You may have to ask for a password (parol) to get online. Most of the time these days you also input your mobile phone number. Sometimes this will need to be a Russian number (ie one starting with +7); if you don't have one, ask a local if you can use their number.
If you don't have your own wi-fi-enabled device, it's probably easiest to get online in the business centres of hotels or at hostels that have a computer terminal.
Avoid contact with the myriad types of police. It’s not uncommon for them to bolster their incomes by extracting ‘fines’ from the unaware; you always have the right to insist to be taken to a police station (though we don’t recommend this; if possible try to resolve the problem on the spot) or that the ‘fine’ be paid the legal way, through Sberbank. If you need police assistance (ie you’ve been the victim of a robbery or an assault), go to a station with a local for both language and moral support. Be persistent and patient.
If you are arrested, the police are obliged to inform your embassy or consulate immediately and allow you to communicate with it without delay. You can’t count on the rules being followed, so be polite and respectful towards officials and hopefully things will go far more smoothly for you. In Russian, the phrase ‘I’d like to call my embassy’ is ‘Pozhaluysta, ya khotel by pozvonit v posolstvo moyey strany’.
- Russia is a conservative country and being gay is generally frowned upon. LGBT people face stigma, harassment and violence in their everyday lives.
- Homosexuality isn't illegal, but promoting it (and other LGBT lifestyles) is. What constitutes promotion is at the discretion of the authorities.
- There are active and relatively open gay and lesbian scenes in both Moscow and St Petersburg. Elsewhere, the gay scene tends to be underground.
- Visit http://english.gay.ru for information, good links and a resource for putting you in touch with personal guides for Moscow and St Petersburg.
- Coming Out (www.comingoutspb.com) is the site of a St Petersburg–based support organisation.
- Newspapers Main ones are government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the popular dailies Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and the left-leaning daily Trud. Novaya Gazeta is known for its investigative journalism, as is the online news site Meduza (https://meduza.io)
- TV Channel 1 (Pervy Kanal), NTV, Rossiya, Kultura, Sport 1, RenTV and the English-language Russia Today. Each region has a number of local channels, while in many hotels you’ll have access to CNN and BBC World, plus several more satellite channels in English and other languages.
- Radio Broken into three bands: AM, UKV (66MHz to 77MHz) and FM (100MHz to 107MHz). A Western-made FM radio usually won’t go lower than 85MHz.
- DVD Russian DVDs are region code 5.
Credit and debit cards accepted. ATMs plentiful. Euros or US dollars best currencies for exchange.
- If prices are listed in US dollars or euros, you will still be presented with a final bill in roubles.
- There are ATMs on every corner around the country these days; look out for signs that say bankomat (БАНКОМАТ).
- Credit cards are commonly accepted in urban centres, but don’t expect to be able to use them in more off-the-beaten-track spots and rural areas.
- Inform your bank or credit card provider of the dates you’ll be travelling in Russia and using your card, to avoid a situation where the card is blocked.
Credit cards are commonly accepted, but don’t rely on them outside of major cities and towns. Visa and Mastercard are the most widespread card types, while American Express can be problematic in some hotels and shops. Most sizeable cities have banks or exchange bureaux that will give you a cash advance on your credit card, but be prepared for paperwork in Russian.
Note that Western credit cards are not accepted in Russian-occupied Crimea, which officially is the territory of Ukraine, due to economic sanctions.
The Russian currency is the rouble (рубль), abbreviated as ‘р' in Russian or R in English. There are 100 kopeks in a rouble and these come in coin denominations of one (rarely seen), five, 10 and 50. Also issued in coins, roubles come in amounts of one, two, five and 10, with banknotes in values of 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 roubles.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
You’ll usually get the best exchange rates for US dollars and euros. British pounds are sometimes accepted in big cities, but the exchange rates are not so good; other currencies incur abysmal rates and are often virtually unchangeable.
Any currency you bring should be pristine: banks and exchange bureaux do not accept old, tatty bills with rips or tears. For US dollars, make certain they are the post-2006 designs printed with large offset portraits.
Carrying around wads of cash is neither a necessity, nor the security problem you might imagine – nowadays there are a lot of Russians with plenty more money on them than you. For security, though, divide your money into three or four stashes hidden out of view about your person.
Every town of any size will have at least one bank (most often Sberbank) or exchange office. You might be asked to show your passport. Rates can vary from one establishment to the next (and are linked to how much cash you want to change – larger amounts get better rates) so it’s always worth shopping around.
It is customary to tip in restaurants and cafes, but elsewhere it's optional. You are not expected to tip when you buy drinks from a bar.
- Hotels Only in the most luxurious need you tip bellhops etc, and only if service is good.
- Guides Around 10% of their daily rate; a small gift is also appreciated.
- Restaurants Leave around 10% if the service warrants it.
- Taxis No need to tip.
Travellers cheques are no longer a preferred method of carrying funds and will prove difficult to exchange in Russia.
Banks 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday, some open 9am to 5pm Saturday
Bars and Clubs noon to midnight Sunday to Thursday, to 6am Friday and Saturday
Cafes 9am to 10pm
Post Offices 8am to 8pm or 9pm Monday to Friday, shorter hours Saturday and Sunday
Restaurants noon to midnight
Shops 10am to 8pm
Supermarkets and Food stores 9am to 11pm or 24 hours
- Use judgment and discretion when taking photos of people. It’s always better to ask first, and if the person doesn’t want to be photographed, respect their privacy; older people can be uneasy about being photographed. In Russian, ‘May I take a photograph of you?’ is ‘Mozhno vas sfotografirovat?’
- Be very careful about photographing stations, official-looking buildings and any type of military-security structure – if in doubt, put your camera away.
- Some museums and galleries forbid flash pictures, some ban all photography and most will charge you extra to snap away (typically R100). Some caretakers in historical buildings and churches will also charge you for the privilege of using a still or video camera.
The Russian postal service is Pochta Rossia (www.pochta.ru). Pochta (ПОЧТАМТ) refers to any post office, glavpochtamt to a main post office and mezhdunarodny glavpochtamt to an international one.
Outward post is slow but fairly reliable; if you want to be certain, use registered post (zakaznaya pochta). Airmail letters take two to three weeks from Moscow and St Petersburg to the UK, longer from other cities and three to four weeks to the US or Australasia. To send a postcard or letter up to 20g anywhere in the world by air costs R37.
In major cities you can usually find the services of at least one of the international express carriers, such as FedEx or DHL.
Incoming mail is so unreliable that many companies, hotels and individuals use private services with addresses in Germany or Finland (a private carrier completes the mail’s journey to its Russian destination). Other than this, your reliable options for receiving mail in Russia are nil: there’s no poste restante, and embassies and consulates won’t hold mail for transient visitors.
If sending mail to Russia or trying to receive it, note that addresses should be in reverse order: Russia (Россия), postal code (if known), city, street address, then name.
In addition to the following official days, many businesses (but not restaurants, shops and museums) close for a week of bank holidays between 1 January and at least 8 January. Bank holidays are typically declared to merge national holidays with the nearest weekend.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Russian Orthodox Christmas Day 7 January
Defender of the Fatherland Day 23 February
International Women’s Day 8 March
International Labour Day/Spring Festival 1 May
Victory Day 9 May
Russian Independence Day 12 June
Unity Day 4 November
- Smoking Banned in public places, including bars, hotels, restaurants (if there is a smoking area, it will be separate or on a street terrace), children’s playgrounds, train station platforms and at the end of carriages on long-distance trains. If you're caught smoking in such places, you could be liable for fines of up to R1500.
Taxes & Refunds
Sales tax (VAT) of 18% (10% for food and children's products) is included in the prices of goods and services.
At the time of research a pilot project was in the process of being set up to allow visitors to recover part of the VAT paid on purchases (other than food) of R10,000 or more. The project will involve a limited number of outlets, mainly fashion and luxury brand retailers such as some Bosco stores, TSUM, DLT, Grand Hotel Europe gallery and the Crocus City Mall in Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi.
Local calls from homes and most hotels are free. To make a long-distance call or to call a mobile from most phones, first dial 8, wait for a second dial tone, then dial the area code and phone number. To make an international call dial 8, wait for a second dial tone, then dial 10, then the country code etc. Some phones are for local calls only and won’t give you that second dial tone.
To place an international call from a mobile phone, dial + and then the country code.
Prepaid SIM cards are readily available. International roaming possible.
Major phone networks offering pay-as-you-go deals include Beeline, Megafon, MTS and Tele2.
Reception is available right along the Trans-Siberian Railway and increasingly in rural areas. MTS probably has the widest network, but also the worst reputation for customer service.
To call a mobile phone from a landline, the line must be enabled to make paid (ie nonlocal) calls. SIMs and phone-call-credit top-up cards costing as little as R300 are available at mobile phone shops and kiosks across cities and towns as well as at airport arrival areas and train stations. Call prices are very low within local networks, and domestic roaming, which used to be an issue when moving between regions in the huge country, is being phased out.
Topping up your credit can be done online or via prepaid credit cards bought from kiosks or mobile phone shops, or, more commonly, via paypoint machines found in shopping centres, underground passes, and at metro and train stations. Choose your network, input your telephone number and the amount of credit you’d like, insert the cash and it’s done, minus a 3% to 10% fee for the transaction. Confirmation of the top-up comes via a text message (in Russian) to your phone. You can also use the websites of mobile phone companies to top up your phone with a credit card.
There are 11 time zones in Russia; the standard time is calculated from Moscow, which is GMT/UTC plus three hours year-round. In 2011, Russia abandoned the summer time switch, so the gap with European neighbours increases by an hour in winter. The following table is based on the summer time.
|Moscow, St Petersburg, Kaliningrad||noon|
|Yekaterinburg & Tyumen||2pm|
|Krasnoyarsk & Tuva||4pm|
|Irkutsk & Ulan-Ude||5pm|
|Vladivostok & Sydney||7pm|
|Paris & Berlin||11am|
|Riga, Kyiv, Helsinki & Minsk||noon|
Right across Russia, timetables for long-distance trains are written according to Moscow time. The only exceptions are those for suburban services that run on local time – but not always, so double-check. Station clocks in most places are also set to Moscow time. We list how far ahead cities and towns are of Moscow time, eg Moscow +5hr, meaning five hours ahead of Moscow.
- Pay toilets are identified by the words платный туалет (platny tualet). In any toilet, Ж (zhensky) stands for women’s and М (muzhskoy) stands for men’s.
- Public toilets are rare and can be dingy and uninviting. Toilets in major hotels, cafes or shopping centres are preferable.
- In all public toilets, the babushka you pay your R20 to can also provide miserly rations of toilet paper; it’s always a good idea to carry your own.
Official tourist offices are rare in Russia. Along the main trans-Siberian route, Western-style hostels are good sources of local information.
You’re mainly dependent on hotel receptionists and administrators, service bureaus and travel firms for information. The latter two exist primarily to sell accommodation, excursions and transport – if you don’t look like you want to book something, staff may or may not answer questions.
Travel with Children
Families planning to travel to Russia with their kids should have few problems, though there are a few things to note.
Baby changing rooms are uncommon, and you wouldn’t want to use many public toilets yourself, let alone change your baby’s nappy in them. Head back to your hotel or to a modern café or fast-food outlet where the toilets, while typically small, should be clean. Nappies, powdered milk and baby food are widely available except in very rural areas.
In all but the fanciest of restaurants children will be greeted with the warmest of welcomes. Some restaurants also have special children’s rooms with toys. Kids’ menus are uncommon, but you shouldn’t have much problem getting the little ones to guzzle bliny or bifshteks – a Russian-style hamburger served without bread, and often topped with a fried egg. Make sure you check whether the milk is pasteurised – outside major cities it often isn’t.
There’s no shortage of toyshops, but don’t expect to find many, if any, English-language publications for kids. In Moscow and St Petersburg there several restaurants with play sections for kids.
Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children contains useful advice on how to cope with kids on the road and what to bring to make things go more smoothly.
Travellers with Disabilities
Travellers with disabilities are not well catered for in Russia. Many footpaths are in poor condition and potentially hazardous and there is a lack of access ramps and lifts for wheelchairs. However, attitudes are enlightened and things are slowly changing. Major museums such as the Hermitage offer good access for those with disabilities. Liberty is a tour agency specialising in wheelchair-accessible tours in St Petersburg.
Before setting off, get in touch with your national support organisation (preferably with the travel officer, if there is one).
Local enterprises, environmental groups and charities that are trying to improve Russia’s environmental and social scorecard are usually on the lookout for volunteers. A good example is the Great Baikal Trail (www.greatbaikaltrail.org) helping to construct a hiking trail around Lake Baikal.
- CCUSA (www.ccusa.com/programs/campcounselorsrussia.aspx) This US-based organisation runs programs for those wanting to volunteer on Russian youth summer camps.
- Go Overseas (www.gooverseas.com/volunteer-abroad/russia) Lists a range of opportunities, from working in hospitals to summer youth camps.
- International Cultural Youth Exchange (www.icye.org) Offers a variety of volunteer projects, mostly in Samara.
- Language Link Russia (http://jobs.languagelink.ru) Volunteer to work at language centres across the country.
- School of Russian & Asian Studies (http://students.sras.org/volunteer-opportunities-in-russia) US-based SRAS has complied an online list of volunteer opportunities in Russia.
- World 4U Russian volunteer association.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Russia uses the metric system.
Russian women are very independent and, in general, you won’t attract attention by travelling alone. That said, it’s not uncommon for a woman dining or drinking alone to be mistaken for a prostitute. Sexual harassment on the streets is rare, but a woman alone should certainly avoid ad hoc taxis at night – have one called for you from a reputable company.
Stereotyping of gender roles remains strong. Russian men will also typically rush to open doors for you, help you put on your coat and, on a date, act like a ‘traditional’ gentleman. (In return, they may be expecting you to act like a ‘traditional’ lady.)
Russian women tend to dress up and wear lots of make-up on nights out. If you wear casual gear, you may feel uncomfortable at a restaurant, a theatre or the ballet; in rural areas, wearing revealing clothing will probably attract unwanted attention.
Bureaucracy makes getting a job or starting a business in Russia a hassle. It is wise to use a professional relocation firm to navigate the country’s thicket of rules and regulations surrounding employment of foreigners. Good websites for expats are www.expat.ru and www.redtape.ru/forum.