Russian Trains FAQ, Survival Tactics, and Useful Tips

Author: Dimitry Paranyushkin (on 26 Jan 2010)
After a more lyrical introduction to the world of Russian trains, it's important to talk about the practicalities. Below we explain how to buy and read your train ticket, which seats are the best, how to make sure you're safe, how to do stopovers, and so on. If you have more questions, ask below, on our forum or WayToRussia.Net Facebook page.


Q: How to Read a Russian Train Ticket

A: Yes, they are in Russian and hard to understand, but they do contain valuable information, such as the number of your carriage, the time of departure and arrival and so on. So you just absolutely have to know where is what on this otherwise cryptic piece of paper:

Reading a russian train ticket / photo by Real Russia
Reading a russian train ticket / photo by Real Russia

Q: What Types of Trains are there?

A: There are standard and "firmenny" trains, the latter ones are generally cleaner, more expensive, and serve a pathetic breakfast. There 4 classes: seating trains, 3rd class or "platzcart" (~ 50 bunks in a common carriage), 2nd class or "kupe" (4-berth compartments), and 1st class or "spalny vagon" (sleeping carriage with 2-bed compartments). The 1st class is rarely worth it because the prices are too high. If you want privacy it's cheaper to buy out the whole "kupe" compartment. Those who don't want to risk getting stuck in their compartment with total strangers for several days (when you travel Transsib, for example) or want to meet random people can get a 3rd class berth. It's also a better choice for women traveling alone, because there are no separate men/women carriages.


Q: How to Buy Train Tickets in Russia

A: First, you need to always present your passport when buying a Russian ticket or boarding a train. For the same reason it's not possible to exchange a train ticket with someone else or re-sell it – because your name will be written on it. You can only buy a train ticket in Russia not earlier than 45 days before the travel date. Normally, if you decide to do it on your own, you can go to any train station, queue at the official ticket sales office, tell them what you need, and they'll get it for you. Get ready that the queues are long and the sales clerks don't speak any English. But you'll get by with some persistence. Availability may be an issue, so press them for all the options available (not only direct, but also passing trains, also – 3rd class, departures from other train stations, etc)

There are also so-called "commercial" ticket sales offices (often also at the stations), which charge a markup per ticket (€5-€20) on top of the normal price. These may have shorter queues and more friendly and helpful staff, although not often. 

Queuing for a train ticket / photo by aaronray@FlickR
Queuing for a train ticket / photo by aaronray@FlickR

Another option is to go online and purchase your tickets there. This is a good choice if you need to plan your itinerary beforehand or have a limited time period for your travel. You'll end up paying about 20-25% on the total price, which may in fact make more sense than paying a fixed markup when you're buying several tickets or multi-leg journey. Most online agents have English-speaking operators and offer delivery.

Finally, since 2009 you can get electronic train tickets (e-tickets) online, however, you still have to bring your print-out to the station and get a real ticket before you board the train. Some trains have onboard check-ins but you have to check it beforehand. Also, availability allocated to electronic tickets may be an issue. Also, the Russian railways don't yet have the English-language version of the e-ticket ordering system, but we do :) 

Book Train Tickets to Russia Online, Compare Prices, Routes, and Operators:


Q: Who Operates the Trains? 

A: The Russian Railways (RZhD) is the company that owns the railway network throughout Russia. It has a few departments (or sections), such as Oktyabrskaya railway network (serves Moscow - St. Petersburg route), or East Siberian railway network (serves the area around Baikal Lake in Siberia), but generally it's one huge government monopoly. The Russian Railways is like a state within a state with its own schools, little towns, hi-tech communication network, and equipment. It is quite a successful company too, because it manages to run trains on time in such a huge and diverse country as Russia and to pay good salaries to train drivers and staff.


Q: Are Russian Trains Safe?

A: They are some of the safest in the world. Every train carriage has a dedicated conductor who checks the passport of every passenger who boards the train and watches you like a KGB agent. Every train has its own police on board. There are no lockers though, but if you take the lower bunk and put your valuables under your bed, no one will have access to it during the night (because you're sleeping on it). None of us or our friends have never had anything stolen and we took a lot of trains, so our personal experience was really safe.
Your only problem might be that you get stuck with some people you don't like in a 2nd class compartment, in which case you might prefer 3rd class common carriage instead (and it's cheaper, too).
Russian trains, especially on longer journeys, tend to make a lot of stops, so you should watch out for your stuff during these moments, as people are leaving and entering the train.

Train conductors (provodnitsa) / Photo by magical-world@FlickR
Train conductors (provodnitsa) / Photo by magical-world@FlickR


Q: What Seats are the Best?

A: If you want to meet people or if you are traveling alone, you may be interested in getting a 3rd class common carriage "platzcart" – you have less chance getting stuck with unwanted companions. In the 3rd class the best places are at the top, because you can rest and no one will ask you if they can use it as a seat during the afternoon. Besides you can hide your valuables there as well. If you're two people then the "side top" and "side bottom" are good, because they are located along the corridor, so you have your own private corner for two, while also sharing the public space if you feel like meeting people. But these beds are a bit shorter than the standard ones, so if you're tall, get the standard top or bottom bed.
If you're taking 2nd class, our favorite is also the top beds, because again you have an option of having your private corner and you can sleep while the others are sitting in front of the table below.
If you're 2 people or more and want privacy, don't get the 1st class – just buy out the whole 2nd class "kupe" compartment because it's cheaper than buying the whole 1st class one.
Finally, if you need a bit more comfort and special treatment, 1st class may be a good option, because these are a bit cleaner and there are less people in the carriage.

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2nd class "kupe" train compartment / photo by toennesen@FlickR
2nd class "kupe" train compartment / photo by toennesen@FlickR


Q: Is There Food and Drinks on the Trains?

A: Every train has a "restaurant carriage" where you can have a meal for about €15 per person. It's nothing special, but quite romantic nevertheless, so try it at least once. Also, on longer journeys, like Trans-Siberian, you've got a lot of stops along the way (10-20 minutes long). There the local people sell home-made food and it's the best. Try to buy some home-made potatoes, cabbage, meat – it's all good, tasty, and super cheap. Also, all Russian trains have a boiler (some of them still work on coal, by the way), so you can have endless supply of tea! 
If you want to pack your snack, you should know that the train snack of choice in Russia are eggs, salted cucumbers, grilled chicken leg, tea, and, of course, vodka. You won't believe how many stories we heard about people losing their vodka virginity on long-leg journeys, so make sure you don't overdo on it too much! Pack a lot of bottled water in any case, as it's something that may be hard or expensive to get along the way. 

Selling food along the Trans-Siberian train / photo by Celine Smith / WTR
Selling food along the Trans-Siberian train / photo by Celine Smith / WTR


Q: What about Personal Hygiene?

A: Every train carriage has a toilet with a sink, these usually get dirty and stinky pretty quick. So pack some baby-tissues, your own toothpaste and toothbrush. Towels are provided with bed sheets (you might have to pay a bit extra like €3 for them). Some long-distance trains (which travel along the Trans-Siberian) have showers, but only in the 1st class carriages. Sometimes you can arrange with a conductor to use it for €3-€5. 
If you need condoms, sanitary towels or tampons – these you have to get beforehand, as you won't find any along the way.

Russian train toilet / photo by WayToRussia

Russian train toilet - nice and clean! :)


Q: Are Stopovers Possible?

A: Not really – you have to have a separate ticket for each leg of your journey. So train hopping is not really an option. However, there's one rule that allows you to stop once along the way. If you do that, you should go to the train station manager as soon as you hopped off the train and get them to stamp your ticket saying that you did a stopover and book you the next train directly. You might have to pay a bit extra for it, but usually not more than €20 (it's an official fee called "platzcarta" – something like a seat reservation service on top of your ticket price). Do this only if you can speak a bit of Russian or are confident in your persuasion skills: even though there's a rule for it, train station managers are very reluctant to take on any extra work. However, if you missed your train while it was stopped, for example, this is a good option, so you don't lose your ticket.


Q: I Have a Question You Didn't Answer!

A: OK, maybe it's in the Russian Trains Guide or in our Guide to Russian Train Rules & Regulations for Geeks. But if it's not, leave your questions in the comments field below, on our Forum or on our Facebook page and we'll give you the answer.


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