Renee Stillings, Director of The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS), has organized and promoted educational programs in Russia for over 15 years.
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Making the Most of
Faculty-Led Travel to Russia
Renee Stillings, Program Director
The School of Russian and Asian Studies
| Click here to download a full-color trifold brochure from SRAS! (PDF, 350kb)
Russia is a wonderful destination for educational travel. Yet study abroad is often inaccessible to many students. The expense coupled with losing money by not working summer jobs at home mean that students on financial aid are often excluded. Students in non-humanities majors, who often have less language training, frequently find regimented programs at home incompatible with study abroad.
Faculty-led travel provides a way to lower these barriers. Group travel often means less individual expense. Shorter, more-focused experiences can make it possible for more students to attend. Students (and their parents) are more comfortable about travel with someone they know, and perhaps because of that familiarity, students are likely to be better disciplined, particularly with their academics abroad. Nearly any subject can be studied in depth in Russia – history, art, music, science, math, theater, environment, politics, journalism and more!
This article will outline how to effectively organize a faculty-led tour to Russia.
Table of Contents
- Organization and Concept
- Budgeting and Planning
- Making Choices
- Meals and Souvenirs
- Free Time and Flexibility
- Rural Russia
- About Safety
- More Advice (From Educators Like You)
Renee, the work that you do is so far
beyond any kind of formal service or
trip planning in your vision, scope, and
ability to think of absolutely everything
and anticipate potential problems in
advance. You clearly have a gift for this.
Organization and Concept (back to top)
What is the main objective of the tour? Will there be a formal educational component, perhaps with pre-departure reading, journaling, or even exams? Will you stick with the "highlights" – Moscow, St. Petersburg, and perhaps Novgorod to focus on history and culture? Do you have a more remote destination in mind such as Irkutsk to highlight environmental issues or even Kiev, Ukraine to highlight issues of diplomacy?
Having a partner "on the ground" to coordinate the logistical aspects of the trip can be invaluable. Such partners could be a Russian university, a tour operator, or a study abroad organization working in Russia and based in your home country. The latter poses several advantages, often bridging contacts between tour operators and a university. These study abroad organizations can arrange payment for services such as tour guides and ground transport, many of which must be paid in cash in advance and in person in Russia.
Whomever you decide to work with, be sure it is a responsible partner who can communicate with you and understand you clearly, especially when it comes to budgets and deadlines.
Promotion (back to top)
A few ways to drive student interest in the trip:
- The Obvious. Make sure your students are told and told often about the trip. Market aggressively with flyers and well-publicized informational meetings. Don't skimp on the quality of your marketing materials. Laser color prints are not so expensive now, so make the trip look serious and attractive!
- Fundraise. Holding blini cook-offs, pelmeni dinners, and Cheburashka film fests can help not only lower the costs for your students to attend the trip, but also let the rest of the campus know about the trip and excite them about the culture they will see.
- Start Early! Start marketing your summer trips in September or October. Information should get to students well ahead of winter break and holiday gift planning. Most parents would much rather pay for a unique educational experience than join the hordes of other shoppers at the mall.
- Coordinate with the Study Abroad Office. This can be particularly effective if your trip offers credits applicable to a wide range of students.
- Go Co-Disciplinary. Broaden your market by partnering with a professor in a discipline such as political science or environmental studies - anything with a larger student body than your own. Pick a partner who is energetic and charismatic if possible.
- Broaden Your Base. Consider opening the trip to alumni, community members, or even students of other universities or community colleges.
- For still more ideas, see "Develop the Market," part of our Pages for Educators.
Click above for a scanned news article about Stetson University's annual Russian dinner. These can be excellent fundraisers!
Budgeting and Planning (back to top)
You know your student body and your budget best. Keep in mind that, especially with groups of twenty or more, it is possible to be very creative with excursions and accommodations in Russia – assembling an extraordinary experience on a surprisingly attractive budget.
Always remember basic marketing: the more unique, practical, and attractive your product, the more people will want it and the more people will readily pay for it. Always sell something cool for more rather than something cheap for less.
Plan early! Getting a visa and finding the best deals take time. Make sure that your participants pay you in time to make arrangements in advance.
- Visas: The entire visa process can take 2-8 weeks, depending on type of visa – if the students already have passports. Don't assume that all students have them and make very clear that passports take time to acquire. As soon as students express interest, send them to the post office to get a passport processed. If you are within four months of departing, rush processing is advisable.
- Air Tickets: Availability on international and Russian domestic flights for large groups is a challenge, especially during summer months. More about international airfare (this page written for individual students - prices and availability for groups may differ)
- Domestic Train Tickets: Train tickets go on sale 45 days before departure. Especially for a large group, getting them all on the same wagon requires putting in the purchase request on the first day of sale. More about domestic rail travel (this page written for individual students - prices and availability for groups may differ)
- Accommodations: Where you will stay should also be booked as far in advance as possible.
We recommend that if you are forming a summer group (mid-May or later), you should have commitments and deposits by February 1st at the latest.
We had a great time overall. The students were super impressed with SRAS -- the guides, the accommodations, the excursions, etc. The guides were super knowledgeable and kind--the only thing that would improve the tours is volume. They tend to speak quietly so a few people who can't hear lose interest. But we loved the Hermitage art project and Novgorod, and the bunker, and going behind the fountains at Peterhof, and the boat to Peterhof... We loved everything!
I can't say enough wonderful things about SRAS. Thank you so much for everything. I hope that some of our students choose to study through one of your programs in the future.
Associate Professor of Russian,
University of Montana
Making Choices (back to top)
In developing your program, you will need to make a few fundamental decisions early on, and then several smaller ones down the road.
- Visa Types and Registration
The two applicable visa types are "tourist" or "student."
A tourist visa is applicable if a) your trip is 30 days or less and b) your group will be living in a hotel or similar situation where such visas can be easily registered. Registration of all visas is required by Russian law and is not always an easy process. A tourist voucher, which must be issued by a travel agency or hotel in Russia in order for you to apply for a tourist visa, can be issued in one day, making the tourist visa very expedient.
Student visas can be issued if you will be partnering, directly or indirectly (via a study abroad group), with a Russian university. In this case, the Russian university will register your visas for you. However, an invitation for a student visa, issued by a Russian educational institution and needed to apply for a student visa, takes 5-6 weeks to issue on average. Subsequent consulate processing takes two weeks, but can be expedited with rush charges. You will find invariably that at least one participant has an unusual situation or ignores deadlines, forcing you to do rush processing. Pass these expenses on to the participants! More about all types of visas and registration
– Academic Content
Universities, to sponsor a student visa, will generally require a minimal contract for academic classes that satisfies the university's budgetary needs. This is usually not a big deal and the benefits often more than outweigh the expense.
A Russian university can often provide:
- Access to inexpensive accommodations – dormitory or home stay
- Student ID cards, which lower entrance costs for many museums
- Classrooms, if you want to run additional lectures on your own
- Language and other classes (can sometimes be delivered in museums or other sites)
- Access to certain organizations and individuals for field trips and guest lecturers
- Round-table discussions with young Russian students
- Experience working with large groups of young people (not all tour operators have this!)
We don't recommend using a university solely as a tour operator, as this is not what they are specialized in or even what they are supposed to be doing. They can provide the infrastructure if they are also providing academic content. It is best not to pressure them into providing you with classrooms in which to teach your own classes, while not providing work for their own staff who often rely on income from groups such as yours.
- Accommodation Types
Four types of accommodations are applicable for student group budgets:
- Dormitory: An inexpensive option available if you are partnering with a Russian university;
- Home Stay: Better if arranged by a Russian university as they have a much larger pool of regular hosts. Note that it is very challenging to place a large group with English-speaking hosts;
- Hostels: Most are converted communal apartments, meaning that for about 40 beds, there are 1-2 showers - this is fine for short side trips, but not for weeks.
- Budget Hotels: St. Petersburg is very much affected by the tourist season, and although there are many new, reasonable boutique hotels, they are small and fill up quickly. Moscow has a major shortage of hotels – particularly reasonably priced ones with good locations.
- More about some types of accommodation (prices and availability for groups may differ)
"Must-sees" in Moscow and St. Petersburg include the Kremlin and Red Square, Arbat, Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, The Hermitage, St. Isaacs, Peter & Paul Fortress, and at least one of the summer palaces (Peterhof and/or Pushkin and Pavlovsk). You should take in at least one performance, probably ballet. To see all this in both cities, you'll need about six days. You may be tempted to skip some of these sites you've visited a dozen times, but remember – most students are on their first trip to Russia and expect to see them.
With this base in place, fine tune your itinerary to match your theme or coursework objectives. This can be done by thinking in terms of subject matter and location.
- History: Siege of Leningrad (Museum and Piskarovskoe cemetery), Aurora, Yusupov Palace, History Museum (Moscow), Museum of Contemporary History (Moscow).
- Art: Hermitage, Russian Museum, Pushkin Museum, Tretyakov Gallery, Mayakovsky Museum (a very interesting artistic statement in and of itself!), Museum of Decorative and Fine Arts, Abramtsevo (artist colony), Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, and more. Architecture can be easily added as most museums are themselves historical/architectural monuments.
- Theater: Numerous performances (better to schedule trip early in the summer); Puppetry (including museum); Theater Museum (St. Petersburg or Moscow).
- Music and Music History: Concerts – from folk groups to classical conservatories to bard halls to clubs; Composer and musician house-museums and monuments.
- Literature: Author-specific tours (Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg or Bulgakov's Moscow, for example); Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy); Peredelkino (Pasternak); Other house-museums.
- Business and Politics: Visits to NGOs, meetings with politicians and businesspeople, the Duma, Chambers of Commerce, Embassy briefings.
- Science (environmental, space): If in Moscow, Star City (cosmonaut training center); if in Irkutsk, the Hydro-electric dam, Limnological Museum, Minerological Museum, Ice-Breaker Museum
And then there are the just-plain-fun excursions and events, such as cooking classes, the Baltika Beer Factory (St. Petersburg), visit to a banya, taking picnics, hikes, or "treasure hunts" and heading to clubs and pop or jazz concerts.
Custom Seminars can be arranged according to the requests of a group. It must be noted that for cost effectiveness in seminars conducted entirely in English, a group size of at least six is advisable. SRAS provides the following services for groups planing seminars:
~ Visa support and processing
~ Budget accommodations
~ Transportation, including air, rail, and bus
~ Tour guides, even for specialized topics
~ Lectures, seminars
~ Entrance to hard-to-access sites
~ Tickets to cultural and other events
~ Conference organization
~ Credit card payment collection
~ Consultation on program development
~ Assistance in promoting your program
~ Assistance in facilitating credit transfer
Contact SRAS for more information.
Meals and Souvenirs (back to top)
Students often most remember and recount their meals. It is easy for them to retell their experience through descriptions of food. After all, smell (indirectly leading to taste) is the sense with the longest memory according to studies. It is also pretty hard not to be impressed by a traditional Georgian feast, Russian buffet, or Uzbek meal. Twenty years ago food in Russia was likely to make travelers not want to return, but it is very much the opposite now.
Minimally we'd recommend having welcome and farewell dinners. All-you-can-eat buffets are plentiful and great for welcome dinners, as those who are finicky can at least find something palatable and as such are less intimidated by what might be a two-week culinary challenge. Georgian makes for a memorable farewell feast. There are also some opportunities for traditional Russian banquets with folk shows, particularly in St. Petersburg.
Whether to include other meals is a question of logistics and price. While it is somewhat less expensive to have students pay for their own meals ad hoc, this does not work on a busy excursion schedule or with a group of more than about fifteen. We advise organizing one to two meals per day with the third left to the students.
Shopping is another favorite, not necessarily because everyone loves shopping, but because it fills a real need for souvenirs and gifts. No trip to Moscow is complete without a trip to Izmailovsky Park and its sea of reasonably priced goods. It is also possible to arrange excursions to the source of many traditional Russian souvenirs – such as to the Fedoskino workshop (lacquer boxes) or the Gzhel factory (the ever-present blue and white porcelain items in every imaginable shape).
Rural Russia (back to top)
We can't encourage you enough to get out of the two capitals and into the "real Russia" as Russians call it. The capitals can give misleading impressions about the state of things in Russia as a whole. Try to at least squeeze in a trip to Novgorod or Suzdal. It is also fun to just jump on the elektrichka (commuter rail) and stop in a random village to stroll on a nice day.
If you'd like to lead a group to a more "exotic" location, head for Siberia. In terms of transportation, this will add a few hundred dollars, but other costs inside Siberia are lower, in part because the emphasis will be more on outdoor activities which do not require admission fees.
While in Siberia, consider the following:
- Trail building on Lake Baikal near Irkutsk (coordinated by a local NGO);
- Visiting Ulan Ude, the Buddhist Datsan and the popular Old Believers' Village;
- Olkhon Island – the most popular destination for local Russians and an ecological gem;
- Meetings with local environmental groups;
- Home stays in a village on the lake;
- Siberian arts and crafts – learn how to make them with locals and send you home with your own hand-made souvenirs;
- Limnological Museum: learn about the unique features, history, and ecology of Baikal.
Another option related to Siberia is to take the Trans-Siberian, stopping in a few cities and even holding language lessons on the train. With enough people you can have your own wagon.
Free Time and Flexibility (back to top)
Don't overload the participants. Give them enough free time to explore independently in small groups and to have the opportunity to meet Russian young people. One major event or museum per day, with classes, is all that human beings (especially young human beings) can tolerate before they start planning rebellions. Stay in control by giving some slack.
If you plan early and well and especially if you have a group of a reasonable size, you can do a lot on a small budget. To achieve additional savings, consider leading some events and excursions yourself. SRAS can often provide you with "self-guided excursion worksheets" complete with detailed visit information, related vocabulary and journaling/discussion questions.
Have a few slots of time marked simply "TBA." Rough out a few excursions you are comfortable with and then leave a couple others to a spur-of-the-moment decision on a free day to say "hey, it is a beautiful day I am jumping on an elektrichka!" or "it's raining and I'd like to go to the Red Army Museum – who wants to join me?" Leave the option open of joining or taking some free time. There will always be a few students who relish the free time to do their own thing and a few others who will look to a "leader" to get them out doing something. SRAS can even give your students ideas if they have specific interests to pursue.
About Safety (back to top)
There has been considerable news lately about safety in Russia, particularly as concerns racial attacks by skinheads. While this is often overplayed in the press, it is a valid concern, particularly for those visitors with clearly ethnic features. Prepare students well in advance by explaining to them what skinheads are (some honestly don't know!) and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations by staying alert and staying in groups. Discuss issues of racism and xenophobia in pre-departure orientation so that they are in a realistic and useful context. More about health and safety in Russia.
More Advice (From Educators Like You) (back to top)
We asked professors what advice they would give collegues contemplating leading a group of students to Russia. This is what they had to offer:
Consider the ratio of adults to students carefully, and realize that no matter how many helpers you have, keeping an eye on over a dozen people is nerve-wracking, especially in crowded areas like the metro.
To keep yourself engaged, plan at least a few activities where you are NOT the guide, so you can slip off to pursue your own interests, see friends, or just relax and recover.
Don't over-pack days: college students with little background in Russia can seldom do two large programs a day. One is better, ending as early as possible.
Students usually want time to "stroll." Some shop, and some just like to get a feel for the city. Plan time for this.
Never travel without both researching the liability for you and school, and having students and parents sign and notarize a comprehensive waiver and hold harmless. Ask your school's counsel to look over this document.
Consider requiring courses in order to participate, especially if there is a lot of interest. Often ambivalent students are either "hooked" or re-motivated after a trip to Russia.
Be sure to take a least one train trip. Many American students have never set foot on a train, so it's a novel and wonderful experience for them. The night train between St. Petersburg and Moscow is a convenient way to do this without straining the itinerary.
Be careful of offering options. Most students lack the background to say, "I really want to see the Tretyakovskaya," so you need to bear that in mind and take control. Obviously, you should plan a balanced program that appeals to the majority, but don't go overboard asking students whether they approve.
Make sure to get evaluations, in some form, from students after the trip. Note carefully what worked and what didn't, and any changes in logistics that should be made in the future.
If you would like to offer advice here, please send a letter to our editor.
Find Out More!
More Educator Resources
SRAS Travel Services
Health and Safety in Russia
Individual Programs Abroad
SRAS Testing Services
The SRAS Newsletter
Journal for Students
More Free Resources!
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor.
2010-12-26 - Travel Experience: St. Petersburg/Moscow
2008-04-17 - Travel Experience: Student Politics in St. Petersburg
2007-08-23 - Travel Experience: Murals, Folklore, and Locals
2006-11-01 - Travel Experiance: Cultural Exchange with Old Believers (Moscow)
2006-08-05 - Travel Experience: Siberian Adventures