People buy tours to Russia not realizing that it's actually very easy and cheap to arrange a trip on their own. Here we explain how to do that in several simple steps. If you know some key points about the visa and transport practicalities and have a vague idea of what you're after, you can make your own tour that will cost you much less than the ones offered by travel agencies.
Step 1: Get Your Visa
The first thing you need is a Russian visa. In order to get it, you need to get a Russian visa support
(invitation paper) online (the tourist one costs about $30), then fill out the online application form
for a visa on Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs website (free), print everything out, and bring it to a visa processing center in your country (ILS
for the US and EU and VFS
for UK) along with your passport, photos, and - in some cases - travel insurance. You will then pay the consulate fee (from $50 to $100, depending on the urgency of processing), and in 7 to 14 days you will have your Russian visa valid for up to 1 month.
Total price: $80 to $130
Lifehack #1: If you're a US citizen, you can apply for a 3-year visa with a standard tourist invitation, which will save you hundreds of dollars on consular fees if you travel to Russia more than once.
Lifehack #2: If you need to fly somewhere in Asia, you could take a transit flight through Moscow or the Trans-Siberian railway. Then you can get a transit visa directly at the consulate without having to present any visa support - just your tickets. The transit visa can usually be valid for up to 3 days (plus the time it takes you to travel through Russia).
Lifehack #3: If you're a citizen of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, South Korea, Thailand or Mongolia, you don't need a visa to Russia. You can just fly into the country with your passport and stay up to 30 days.
Step 2: Book Your Flight
The cheapest way to fly to Russia is to check Aeroflot for return fares or to fly to London, UK, or Berlin, Germany, and then get one of the budget airlines from there. It may cost as low as €100 for a return flight from/to Berlin (try Utair or Pobeda airline).
Total price: $100 to $450 return
Step 3: Get Accommodation
Now that you have all the travel arrangements sorted, it's time to book your accommodation. We would recommend from starting to look on www.airbnb.com and then check out our hotel prices search engine
. The cool thing is that with the exchange rate of the rouble so low, you can get a decent 4-star hotel room in Moscow for $50 per night (used to be 3 times more expensive).
We would recommend you to read our destination city guides where we list the best price / value hotels in major Russian cities and to book a hotel at the first point of your destination. You can then book hotels in other cities once you're in Russia. Availability is never a problem unless you're traveling for the White Nights period (end of June) to St. Petersburg.
Total price: $350 for a week in a 3-star double room near the center of the city
Step 4: Travel Around Russia
If you have only a few days, you should check out Moscow
and St. Petersburg
(3 days for each would be enough). If you would like a taste of the Russian province
and to see some beautiful countryside, head to Novgorod
(between Moscow and St. Petersburg) or to Golden Ring
(several small towns around Moscow). The best way to travel to any of these cities is to take a train (book it online on trains.waytorussia.net
or just buy a ticket at the station). You could also rent a car
and drive around on your own or take a bus.
For a more adventurous journey, we recommend you to take the Trans-Siberian train and to make a couple of stopovers before reaching Baikal lake, near Irkutsk (4 days journey). Stay at Baikal for at least a week and then take a flight back to Moscow or continue with the train to Mongolia or China (2 more days and you're there). Contrary to what people think, Trans-Siberian can be very cheap. If you take 3-rd class common carriage ticket (which is actually the safest and the most fun way to travel cause you meet lots of people) it costs about $150 one way to Irkutsk. If you take 2nd class private compartment ticket (sharing with 3 other passengers), it's about $250 one way. The flight actually costs about the same, so you can take the train in one direction and fly back, or vice versa. Check out our Trans-Siberian journey planner on trains.waytorussia.net/transsib/ where you can see live train schedules for every leg of the journey. Then either buy the tickets online or print the itineraries out and buy the tickets as you go along the route with the train. You might have troubles with availability in this case, but if you're prepared to stay in each city for 2-3 days, you will be fine (they all have good and fairly-priced hotels).
Lifehack #1: Our travel guide e-book has all the information you need (including the bus and train schedules) to plan your journey through Russia. It even has a page, which you can show to the Russian-only speaking service staff at the train stations to buy your train tickets!
Concern #1: Weather
Many people are scared about the weather in Russia. In fact, in Winter it's not as cold because it's the continental climate, so it's dry and what shows like minus 10 Celcius actually feels around 0. Rarely you have really cold frosts, but that only adds to the beauty of the experience. There's nothing comparable to seeing a huge sprawling city like Moscow covered with thick layers of white beautiful snow!
Concern #2: Safety
Many people are concerned about the safety. The thing is that Russia is one of the most policed country in the world. Even the train carriages have their own police on duty. Times are also different. Back in the 90s the number of poor people was much higher, so you could be in danger as a foreigner if you walk somewhere alone in the night. Now everyone just wants to live a comfortable, peaceful life, plus nobody wants to have troubles with your consulate. So whatever is left from the petty criminals and corrupt police will just leave you alone. And in case something happens, just shout "konsulstvo!" (means "embassy") – that will scare most people away from you.