In this Russia travel guide, I will share some tips and hacks on saving money while exploring this gorgeous, vast country. I will begin with my first Russian trip highlights. My itinerary included Moscow, Suzdal, Vladimir, St. Petersburg, and Altai Krai in Siberia at that time. Among all these places, Siberia remains closest to my heart and I love Moscow because of my good friend Robert, who had a hostel there. From my own experience, the best things about Russia (for a traveller) are its friendly, helpful people, the amazing public transportation system, gorgeous countryside, and tourist-friendly deals like the Troika card, which packs in public transportation passes along with entries to many attractions. I can go on and on with my praises but let’s get straight to the point and begin this Russia travel guide with the banalest of all topics.
Table of Contents
Which places to visit in Russia?
For most people, a Russian holiday implies visiting Moscow, the Golden Ring cities, and St Petersburg. A few adventurous ones head over to Siberia especially Lake Baikal and some cross over to Mongolia via Ulan Ude. Many plan their Russia travel to fulfill their dream of undergoing a trans-Siberian train journey and while these are all good, do not limit yourself to these destinations. Owing to the vast size of the country, consider exploring possibilities like Kazan, Karelia, Murmansk (for Northern Lights in winter), Yakutia, and even Kamchatka.
Time Zones, Weather, and the Best Time to Visit
- Russia is divided into eleven time zones which means when you travel from region to region it js not only time consuming but might be expensive as well. Plus the time difference makes it important to check in which time zone you are, just so that you do not miss your flights or trains. Daylight saving time is not observed in Russia.
- Russia is a large country, so the climate changes from region to region. Warm weather prevails from May to September and it is the peak tourism season for Russia. The average temperature in summer in Russia is around 20-25°C. Russian winters can be notoriously cold with temperatures going below -35°C in Siberia and it is the perfect season to enjoy winter sports. One needs to dress appropriately in layers and thermals to enjoy a wide variety of winter activities like ice skating, skiing, making a snowman, and tobogganing. Plus a proper Banya experience after a winter’s day is amazing. To enjoy Russian holidays plan your trips around New Year (31st of December) and Victory Day (9th of May). You might as well stay for the Russian Orthodox Christmas on the 7th of January.
- In my experience, the best time to visit Russia is early autumn (end of August to late October).
What to pack for Russia?
No Russia travel guide is complete without some tips on packing for your trip. What you need to pack depends on the season and the most important clothing item should be a pair or two of comfortable walking shoes. Moscow and Saint Petersburg touristy areas are made to be explored on foot, so comfy shoes or the lack of it can either make or break your trip. Russian winters are very cold and make sure you pack warm layered clothing. Thermal tights, a hat, a scarf, mittens, sweaters, a really good warm jacket, and winter shoes with snow cleats are necessary. Russian churches demand that you dress appropriately and so make sure that pack in a shawl and a skirt. It is a local custom that women have to wear skirts below the knee and put on shawls on their heads when entering a church, men have to remove any hats or caps.
Russian currency and Money Matters
- Russian Ruble is the official currency of Russia. It is advisable to change money in banks. Russia has a few quirks when it comes to changing foreign currency and one of them is the infuriating commission charged on “not-so-perfect” banknotes. Make sure to carry the crispest, newest notes to Russia and do not fold them. Avoid carrying notes with their tears or marks. A lot of banks in Russia charge a penalty to exchange US dollars or Euros into Rubles if the banknotes are not “picture-perfect”. Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere: in hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets (even in smaller towns).
- Tipping is not mandatory in Russia and generally, 10% is added as a tip at restaurants.
- Russia follows a fixed price policy and bargaining is not a local practice. It is neither welcomed nor looked upon well.
Internet Connectivity and Getting Wired
- The power sockets in Russia are of type C and F. The standard voltage is 220 V; standard frequency is 50 Hz. Most travellers from other countries require an adapter in Russia.
- Getting a local sim-card is a hack to save money while travelling in Russia. Internal roaming charges are incurred if you change your region in Russia. So, if you are planning to visit several regions of Russia, explain it to the salesman when buying a sim card. A passport is required to get a sim card. The easiest way to recharge your phone balance is by using a Qiwi machine. You can pay with cash or credit card. Qiwi machines can be easily found in nearly every city in Russia. Look out for them at supermarkets.
- Wi-Fi is available everywhere in Russia and the connection is fast.
Public transportation between cities
Most Russians use local airlines like Aeroflot, Rossiya, S7 Airlines, Ural Airlines, and Utair to travel between cities in Russia. Trains are also popular for short-distance travel, though nowadays most Russians avoid long-distance train journeys. The Russian trains are clean and comfortable and they have the Kupe or a closed compartment for four people. The open dormitory-style Platskart is the cheapest option and provides no privacy. Check out Russian Railways for more information on train schedules and tickets. The new fast train Sapsan is the most comfortable and fastest way to travel between Moscow and St Petersburg. It takes only 4 hours. The price depends on the time and day of your trip. The slower, regular overnight trains are much cheaper. Show your train ticket at station restrooms to avoid paying a fee.
Public Transportation in Russian cities
Some of the main types of public transport include metro, buses, trams, and marshrutka (a privately owned van for about 12-15 people). In Moscow and St Petersburg, invest in a Troika card that will save you money while using the metro, bus, trams, etc. You can buy the Troika card at the airport, at any metro station, at mobile phone shops, or in special kiosks near bus stops. You can top up the balance of your card online and Troika is transferable. Uber is quite popular in Russia and the local app is a great way to use the otherwise expensive taxi.
Food and Drink
In Russia, keep a lookout for stolovaya — canteen. Canteens were a popular dining option in Soviet times and are still a great way to have a good affordable meal. Many restaurants and cafes also offer set lunch at lower prices than their normal menu. Tea is a popular drink in Russia and is called Chai. Apart from Russian food, there are many cuisines which are worth trying out. These include Georgian, Armenian, and Uzbek cuisines. Japanese cuisine is very popular in Russia and one can find plenty of sushi shops in big cities.
My Russia travel highlights
- Russia has some very good hostels and monasteries that offer cheap, clean, and functional accommodation.
- Moscow Metro and the suburbs are a great and cheap way of experiencing urban Russia in its truest form. I especially love the Lebanese shawarma stalls near the Tsarisina Park in Moscow and the cute and cheap shopping at the tube stations.
- In St Petersburg, try the pub hopping and rooftop tours offered by the local companies. The guides are young locals and these tours are a great way to get an insight into the culture.
- Eat what the locals eat is my motto. They not only know what’s best, but also what is the cheapest. For example, after St Petersburg, I visited Petrozavodsk in the Republic of Karelia and bought a very odd-looking fried fish, which was selling like hotcakes. It turned out to be the freshest fish I had ever eaten and was the cheapest local gourmet dish too. Later I bought another one for dinner along with a bag of juicy red berries.
- Do-It-Yourself meals in Russia can save a lot of money. Buy bags of frozen pelmeni dumplings at the supermarket, pies and pastries which are sold at half price in the evenings, and indulge in local fruits. as well as the fast orientation of the Metro network.
- The trans-Siberian train journey in the common class was comfortable enough with the added benefit of meeting these truly warm people without their usual unsmiling mask. It is achingly long but can be done smartly by adding stops. Expect no or little English during the journey but be prepared to experience the true warm Russian hospitality. A Russian will never have his meal without offering or sharing it with his fellow commuters first. Just get used to being treated kindly.
Follow the rest of Russia series
The world’s largest country seems to have it all: awe-inspiring natural beauty, exquisite architectural jewels, ornate culture, intriguing folk rituals, glitzy metro cities, and lots of myths. This is the land of massive economic, political, and social power. It is also the land of shamans, bears, volcanoes, icebergs, and long unexplored stretches of taiga. Imagination runs wild when it comes to Russia and it is one of my favourite places in the world.
- The beginning of my Arctic adventure
- The indigenous Sami culture of Russia
- The old Pomor Village by the frozen White Sea
- Aurora Borealis in Murmansk in Russia
- How to plan your own Arctic adventure
- Siberian Road Trip Travel Tips
- Autumn in Siberia
- Vladimir of the Golden Ring
- A Suzdal weekend
- Slow travelling in Suzdal
- Moscow autumn memories
- My first impressions of Russia
- My Moscow trip in a nutshell
- Russian visa guide for Indian passport holders
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE