Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Guide to Train Travel in Russia: How and What It's Like

        Russia is a huge HUGE country, and naturally, the Russian rail system is one of the most extensive in the world. For train travel enthusiasts, you’ll be glad to find out that trains in Russia are ridiculously punctual (If they say 10.04 departure, it starts moving at 10.04!), hence it is a better mode of transportation over domestic flights, if you have no time for delays. In this post, I’ll be listing out some basic information from every aspect of the Russian train system. Hope this will help you plan your journey more efficiently! 
Russia Train

HOW TO BOOK/RESERVE?

General Information
  • Fares vary by season. We see the lowest fare in January and February, so if you are a shoestring traveler, you might want to consider visiting during winter (of course, provided that you are willing to brave the cold.)  
  • In Russia, children below 10 travel free (0-4) or on half fare (5-9). However, always remember to collect a “Free travel ticket” from the counter to secure a seat! 

METHOD 1: Buy Online
Russia Train
  • There are a few websites available to check train times and fares, however, I only trust the Russian Rails official website. There are too many travel scams online nowadays so to avoid getting cheated all together, just go to the official website! It used to be available only in Russian, but luckily since May 2013, they upgraded the system and now it has an English version! (No service fees)
  • You can only reserve a ticket 45 days before departure date
  • I personally paid through this website once and proved that it accepts credit card issued by international bank. However, my American friends who were traveling the country told me that their US bank cards were denied. If that is the case, there is another website to book your tickets — Real Russia, a reputable joint UK-Russian company. (Mark-up: service fees + credit card payment charge)
  • If you buy tickets online (either from rzd or Real Russia), don’t forget to print out your tickets. Train conductors do not accept electronic versions. It is advisable to bring your print-out tickets to the sales office and change to a real ticket. We did not do this on a recent trip but luckily the Provodnika let us board the train first and proceeded with the “check in” after departure. The “correct procedures” remain a mystery, but to be safe, better check with the sale office before boarding the train.
METHOD 2: Buy in the station
Russia Train Station
  • Another solution is (If you speak Russian), check the train schedule online and go to the nearest train station. In my opinion, this is the most reliable and cheapest way. (but be prepared to stand in lines.)
  • To buy tickets at the counter, you need to hand them your passport! Yes, even for domestic journeys.   
  • I don’t recommend buying tickets on the spot because seats sell out fast, especially on popular routes like Moscow-St Pete during religious or any public holidays.    
  • There will be an information stand in the station but never count on them because I found them (I won’t say always) empty most of the time. 
  • Some people say that an air-conditioned service center is available in bigger stations, that charge you extra 100-200 rubles for hassle-free booking, but since I speak Russian, I never make it a point to check out. You can try your luck!  

WHICH TRAIN AND ACCOMMODATION TO BOOK?

  • There are 3 types of trains in general. Firmeni are high-quality trains with the most modern carriages and the best onboard service. Skori are Express train and Passazhirski is ordinary slow trains. 
  • There are 4 classes of sleeper-seats/ accommodation on Russian trains. a) Spalni Wagon/ Lux (1st class) which is a private compartment with 2 lower beds, an upgraded version of this room type can be found on popular routes. b) Deluxe features private toilet and bathroom. c) Kupé (2nd class) is a 4-berth private compartment d) Platskartni (3rd class)… well, think of it as moving dormitory bunks (like in those budget hostels).
    My honest opinion on which accommodation to choose: 
           “Spalni wagon" is overpriced, but if you really want to experience lush life in a Russian Train then go ahead.          Kupe is a good choice if you travel in a group of 4, need privacy and want to travel comfortably. A friendly note to solo travelers, never book a bed in the Kupe because you will never know who’ll share the room with you. Besides, the Kupe can be locked from the inside and nobody will know what happens inside, in case something bad happens, no one can save you.
     
          I always use Platskartni because it is the most budget friendly version. Plus it is actually the safest option especially for female solo travelers because there will always be other people around to look after you. Don’t expect it to be comfortable though! If you have back or joint pain, never opt for the upper bunk bed (lower ones are acceptable ).  
Russia Train
Inside a Platskartni. 


Russia Train
First photo shows how little space I had, lying down on the upper bunk bed. (can't even extend my arm fully). The lower bunk beds are much better. And last photo shows the said metal safe. 


DESTINATIONS

  • There are no stopovers in Russian Train journeys, so if you want to explore a city along the way, buy separate tickets. 
  • Russia is huge, so don’t forget about the time zone when you travel from east to west, vice versa. 
  • But even if you do forget, the Provodniki will come to remind you 30-45 minutes before arriving at your destination. I couldn’t figure out how she managed to memorize everyone’s destinations, though!    

SERVICES ONBOARD

  • There are flight attendants on the planes and there are 'provodniki’ on Russian trains.  
  • In some trains, your tickets will either include “services" or without. If you bought one “with services”, that means meals will be served either in the restaurant onboard or in your compartment… Ask the conduction to be sure, do not miss it. 
  • How to know if service is included for your journey? Keep an eye for the "knife and fork" logo. 
  • Free hot water can be obtained from a samovar at the end of every wagon, so feel free to bring your favorite chocolate drinks and cup noodles on board. Usually, it can be found at the left corner at the exit of a wagon. 
  • If you do not bring any snacks for the journey, you can buy them on the train.  
  • Guess what, you’ll have to make your own bed. Blankets and mattresses could be found on top of the upper bunk bed, and beddings+ face towel are provided for free in sealed packs.   
  • Toilets are located at the end of every wagon but be warned that they are not the cleanest (if you expect clean Public toilets, go to Japan. )

FOOD ONBOARD

  • Food is allowed on the train, but be considerate. Don’t bring sambal/ durian (who knows you find it and become over-excited? hah!) because some Russians find it stinky.
  • Pay attention to what the Russians eat and you’ll definitely notice a special, beautifully-carved metal glass that they used to make half boiled eggs and/or drink tea with. 
  • Almost in every stops we see Russian grannies selling food like Pirovka (Russian pie), corns, potatoes, and fish at the platform. You can buy some food from them but you’ll need to move fast. Or else the train might leave without you. Ask the conductor first how long would the train stop before stepping out.   
Russia Train travel

SAFETY

  • It is very safe on Russian trains, even if you are a girl traveling alone (Provided that you book a Platskartni). 
  • Despite the journey being relatively safe, still, do not leave valuables unattended. If you get a bottom bunk bed, simply store your things in the metal safe underneath your bed. You see, it is quite safe because there is no way for other people to access your things.  
  • In Europe, you might be able to get away when you travel without a valid ticket, but in Russia, hell no. Hence, do not ask for trouble. Provodniki will check your ticket once at the door and another time shortly after departure. Sometimes there will also be police asking to see your passports even on domestic trains. 

MY EXPERIENCES WITH RUSSIANS ON TRAINS

  • During my first year traveling alone on the train (I bought the ticket late so I was separated from my friends by 2 wagons), I shared a Platkarni with a Russian girl and it was the most dreadful, awkward 16 hours of my life. Because firstly I don’t speak Russian by that time and secondly Russians don’t really do those smiling+ small talk thingy. 
  • Another time I met 3 Russian teenagers sharing a compartment with me, and they were making fun of my Asian eyes (my eyes are not even small…) along the way using Russian, which they thought I couldn’t understand. That was in 2011, when Asians are not yet common in Russia.   
  • When we became more comfortable speaking in Russian (although kindergarten level), Russians turned friendlier and seemed more ready to engage. Train journeys were never lonely anymore when Russians from the other compartments came to join us for UNO games, Thai horror movies, and chit chats. Sometimes they offered Vodka but it's completely fine to turn it down. Although they might look at you with disbelieve (what do you mean you don’t drink?), but they’ll still respect your decision (or religion).  

EXTRA TIPS

  • Remember to check your bags before leaving the train! But if you, unfortunately, do forget your stuff, Just run, chase the train and scream for help. Someone will throw your stuff out the window for you. (True story)

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, 

Here are some of my Instagram posts from Russia to spark your Russian-wanderlust! Who knows you might come in 2018 for the World Cup game

Read more: 
Caucasus Mountain Itinerary: Dombay 3 days II Kislovodsk 2 days ll Pyatigorsk 1 day ll Elbrus 3 days
Moscow itinerary: Moscow Metro Tour ll Suzdal 1 day ll Sergiev Posad 1 day
Arctic Circle: Murmansk 5 days
Others: Kazan 2 days ll Volgograd ll Sochi ll St. Petersburg


A post shared by Vivian Dominique Lee (@littlemisshappyfeet) on

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Thank You for Reading! This post is based solely on my honest opinion or personal experience. 
 If you have more tips to add, feel free to share your them with me by commenting below!

2 comments:

Hanis Amanina said...

This is so inspiring and easy to understand!

I am planning for train travel next September (if time and condition permits) to go back home for good from Czech to Malaysia. Still doing my reading on this stuff. :)

hanisamanina.com

Sally Cochrane said...

Thanks for sharing! There is not much information about Russia so it is interesting to read about your experience and the photos look incredible!