Russia Travel Tips – Before you visit Russia
Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia has opened its doors to visitors eager to explore its natural wonders, spectacular scenery, and ancient history. From the snow-capped peaks of Siberia to the balmy beaches of the Black Sea, it’s a vast land of contrasts and contradictions, which can bewilder, as well as bewitch, the first time traveler. Here are some hints and tips to help you get the most out of your stay.
All visitors to Russia need a visa. Although it is possible to arrange your own visa it is recommended to pay some service to arrange one for you. If you’re determined to go it alone, contact the Russian embassy in your country for details – most are online.
Upon arrival in Russia, you will be required to register your visa within three working days. If you’re staying in a hotel, the hotel will normally automatically register your visa for you.
Visitors should also be in possession of a passport valid for six months beyond date of departure with at least one blank page and proof of return or onward travel.
Going through Customs:
Before passing through customs, you must fill in a “deklaratsia” a customs declaration giving details of any foreign currency in cash or traveler’s cheques, and any valuables, like a laptop, that you are bringing into the country. At the same time you will receive a second form pertaining to what you take out of the country on your departure take care not to lose this!
It’s advisable to declare any paintings or antiques purchased during your stay. Always keep receipts.
To and from the Airport and Getting Around:
It’s very easy to be overcharged when taking a taxi, especially as Russians consider practically any private vehicle on the road to be a taxi! Many businesses will send their own driver to meet you at the airport and most hotels will be happy to recommend a reputable taxi service which you can pre-book.
Luckily, although it may look archaic, the public transport is excellent and extremely cheap.
There are over 100 languages spoken in Russia today but almost everyone speaks the official language, Russian. Before you go, it’s worth learning the Cyrillic alphabet so you can at least understand maps and street signs. Although many young people speak English in the bigger cities, any basic phrases you learn will be appreciated.
There are no vaccination requirements for travel to Russia but vaccinations against Diphtheria and Tetanus and Hepatitis A are recommended, as is the flu jab for those traveling in the winter months. As always, it’s wise to consult your doctor well in advance of your departure date and make sure you have adequate health insurance before you go.
The main complaint suffered by visitors to Russia is “panos” diarrhea. Saint Petersburg natives seem to be immune to the parasites in the city’s water but visitors should stick to bottled water and preferably peel all fruits and vegetables before eating.
Needless to say, stay away from bootleg vodka.
Russia’s currency is the Rouble. It is illegal to make purchases with any other currency.
US dollars, Euros and GB Pounds can be exchanged in most banks and exchange offices. Make sure your bills are in pristine condition, however, as dirty, ripped or old notes are often refused.
It’s easiest to deal in cash as credit cards aren’t always readily accepted, especially outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and traveler’s cheques can be difficult to exchange.
Contrary to popular belief, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are as safe or as dangerous as London, Paris or any major metropolis. The main menace to visitors is the gangs of begging street children who jostle sightseers for their valuables. Use your common sense and don’t draw attention to yourself. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, talking English loudly and waving your expensive video camera about will mark you out as a tourist.
Although you may be wide-eyed with wonder at the strange sights and sounds around you, you will notice everyone else wearing a uniform expression of boredom and misery. Looking around, making eye contact with strangers, even smiling to yourself a Russian never does this! Similarly, you will never see a Russian woman leaning against a wall, sitting on steps or with her feet up on a chair. For your own comfort and safety, it is worth adopting their serious and formal demeanor. You’ll be surprised how much cheaper everything is if you can pass for a native, too.
At first, if your experience of Russia is limited to the stern faces you see on the Metro and the babushka shouting at you from behind a kiosk, you may come away with a poor impression of the locals. Everything changes, however, once you have been formally introduced. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home, you will be overwhelmed by the hospitality of your hosts.
On your part, always take a gift for your hostess. Flowers are fine but make sure to take an uneven number even numbers are strictly for funerals and if there is a child in the house it’s polite to present him or her with something small, too.
Don’t be surprised if, on entering, you are asked to remove your shoes and put on a pair of house slippers -this is common practice. Finally, be prepared to leave stuffed full of food and vodka!