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STUDENT GUIDE TO RUSSIA  / TRAIN TRAVEL IN RUSSIA
23.06.2015


The Russian Train System
From the author of "Literary History on the Trans-Siberian"

 

 Train travel in Russia for students
Picture provided by student Hannah Frank

Sample Fares
as of June-July, 2015
train and air
fare compared

Moscow - SPB 
1 class - from USD 345 
2 class - from USD 50 
3 class - from USD 30
Air ticket - USD 90

SPB - Helsinki
1 class - from USD 630 
2 class - from USD 115
Air ticket - USD 200
Moscow - Irkutsk
2 class - from USD 250
3 class - from USD 140
Air ticket - USD 310

Moscow - Nizhny Novgorod
2 class - from USD 40
3 class - from USD 30
Air ticket - USD 115

Moscow - Kiev
2 class - from USD 125
3 class - from USD 70
Air ticket - USD 115
Moscow - Odessa
2 class - from USD 165
3 class - from USD 100
Air ticket - USD 115
Irkutsk - Vladivostok
2 class - from USD 215
3 class - from USD 125
Air ticket - USD 330
Irkutsk - Ulan-Baatar
Air ticket - USD 570
Irkutsk - Beijing
Air ticket - USD 365
Moscow - Yerevan
Air ticket - USD 190
Moscow - Tbilisi
Air ticket - USD 190
Moscow - Tashkent
1 class - from USD 620
2 class - from USD 460
3 class - from USD 290
Air ticket - USD 285

Most Russians travel by train, which is not surprising since the train system is quite well developed, comfortable, and can be much less expensive than flying. For those interested in experiencing everyday Russian culture, a train trip is a not-to-be-missed adventure!

In This Guide

 

1. Finding and Purchasing Tickets      back to top

Note that while the Russian train system used to have student rates, it no longer offers them, so these prices will be the same for all adults. Please note as well that all prices are one way. Train tickets are only available one-way (you must purchase two tickets separately). Train tickets may only be purchased 45n (sometimes 60) days in advance of departure. It’s better to buy tickets as early as possible because they may be more expensive closer to the day of your trip.

Russian Railways now offers online train schedules and ticket purchase. After you've purchased the tickets, you'll be given a reference number that you can take to the train station, type into to the electronic ticket kiosk, and have the ticket printed for you automatically.

Tutu.ru offers probably the most user-friendly interface for searching timetables and making purchases.

Seat61.com offer a fairly comprehensive guide to purchasing tickets and planing your trip as well.

Students on SRAS programs can also contact SRAS about purchasing tickets through us. We've listed some sample ticket prices in the table to the right - including air tickets for comparison. Note that summer is a high-season for travel, so this can be considered a high estimate of what you might pay. Winter tickets often cost about 70% of these prices.

2. Entering/Exiting Russia by Train       back to top

You will face a long process at the border where 3-4 different officials will go through each cabin checking passports, luggage, looking around for contraband, illegal immigrants, etc.

The border guard will take your passport (where the visa is glued in) and your migration card. Usually they leave for a time, then return with both documents stamped and return them to you. SRAS requires that you read our ESSENTIAL Visa Information before departing for our programs so that you understand your legal obligations.

There can occasionally be some unpredictable moments on the train and it seems at times that each border control station has its own understanding of various points of the law. Also, for those entering via Europe, do not plan on stopping in Kaliningrad on your way into Russia with a single entry visa. Your entry into Kaliningrad could use up your only entry visa into Russia and you will not be able to enter again via the Baltics.

If you will be entering Russia with more than $10,000 in cash or goods, you will need to know how to handle customs. SRAS highly discourages this, but if you need to do this for some reason, consult with your SRAS representative first.

3. On the Train       back to top

There are theoretical weight limits on luggage, but the real limit is if your luggage will fit in the small compartment below your bench with one other person’s. Carrying much more than one larger suitcase is discouraged – if you are only going for a weekend, take a backpack and save yourself some hassle. However, don't forget some books and things to entertain yourself.

If you need additional luggage space, a luggage carriage is available on most Trans-Siberian trains (and many other long-distance trains). However, you cannot book space there in advance. You must come to the train station early to book and pay for extra luggage space.

The ticket lady will come around to inspect and collect your tickets early on. If you will be crossing a border, you will have someone inspect your passport as well. There will also be a woman that comes by with sheets and hand towels. If you are on an overnight train in which "services" are not included in the ticket price – for which there is usually a charge of around 100-200 RUR or so.

Many Russians will change into tracksuits or shorts and tapochki (slippers). This is more comfortable and even in winter trains are quite warm, so you don't have to worry about freezing.

There are only two toilets per 35-40 people (second class) and for 18 people (1st class). Mornings and evenings there are lines. Especially in the morning, passengers can take a remarkable amount of time in a space you personally wouldn't want to spend more than necessary in. Carrying your own toilet paper is strongly recommended. Bringing bottled water to brush your teeth with is also a good idea.

Vendors will usually come by at least once selling drinks, chips, peanuts, etc. Tea and coffee are almost always available, just ask the provodnik (wagon attendant). On long-distance trains you will stop for 15-45 minutes at some stations and passengers will disembark to stretch and buy food from the babushki that make extra money selling baked goods there. Often these are quite good, but the quality can be questionable at times. Lastly, your traveling companions may offer you food – it is impolite not to at least try what you are offered, and you should have something to offer in return (bringing cognac, vodka, fruit, or candy is recommended for the socialable!)

Trains are usually co-ed, and so usually the men step out while women change into sleeping stuff and then vis-a-versa.

Note that the provodnik will make every effort to wake people up an hour before arrival because about 15-20 minutes before arrival they will lock the toilets. Get there while you have the chance.  

4. Kupe or Platzkart?       back to top

Kupe tickets (купе—"compartment") provide you a bed in a closed compartment with three other passengers while platzkart tickets (плацкарт—"economy class") provide you a bed in an open carriage with about twenty-five other passengers. Each option entails its own advantages and disadvantages.

Lone female travelers may prefer platskart since it is an open space and thus prevents one from being trapped in a closed compartment with three strange men. However, as a lone female traveler, I never had unpleasant experiences in kupe. In addition, usually kupe was quieter as most of the people I met were either traveling on business or with families. If you do get placed in a compartment where you don't feel comfortable with your cabin-mates (like three men who snore loudly ...), tell the conductor or one of the train officials and they will most likely try to find you a new place. Also, sometimes trains have kupes specifically for women, and in this case you can be sure that all of your kupe-mates are women. Ask when buying your tickets if this is something that interests you. Kupe provides a more comfortable compartment in which to not only eat and sleep but to have drinks and get to know your kupe-mates. Kupe provides a more comfortable compartment in which to not only eat and sleep but to have drinks and get to know your kupe-mates.

However, if you're more about adventure than comfort, opt for the less expensive option of platzkart. While many kupe-passengers will turn out the lights at 10 or 11 o'clock, many platskart passengers with merrily lounge in the train restaurant passing around vodka and salo (сало—pork fat) into the wee hours of the morning and then continue on in the platskart car when the restaurant closes. Whatever option you choose, be sure to keep valuables on you at all times. While foreign travelers sometimes prefer platzkart for its openness, Russian travelers will tell you just the opposite; they say that kupe is safer since it's closed. All in all, through my own and other friends' experiences, we have found both options to be perfectly safe and fun.

 A Russian platzkart car
A Russian platzkart car -
rows of bunks in an open
carriage.
A Russian kupe car.
A Russian kupe car - four semi-private bunks in a seperate
compartment. Drinks and bedding are usually charged extra.


5. Your Tickets       back to top

Tickets for domestic and international travel are slightly different, but all contain the same information. Please note that most times for Russian cities are given in Moscow time and cities outside Russia are given in local time. Ask the cashier or information booth at the train station what time you need to be there.

Tickets for Russian domestic rail travel:

Russian Train Tickets

 

1 - Train Number
2 - Date of Departure
3 - Time of Departure (MOSCOW TIME)
4 - Wagon Number
5 - Class
6 - Departure City
7 - Destination City
8 - Seat Number
9 - Passenger Name
10 - Date of Arrival
11 - Time of Arrival (MOSCOW TIME)


6. The Station       back to top

Make sure you understand your tickets and know what station you will be leaving from (larger cities often have a few!) Look for the long-distance train timetable and not the prigorodni (commuter rail) schedule. This timetable will indicate train number, destination, scheduled departure time, actual departure time, and track number.

At each track there will also be a sign with the train number, time of departure and destination. Be aware of arrival and departure delays or last minute track number changes. Although any delays or last minute changes are announced, they are usually announced only in Russian. If you do not understand the announcements or feel uncertain about anything, address the Spravochnaya (Information) window. You may find that they also only speak Russian, but just show them your ticket and they will point you in the right direction. You can also try asking other travelers in this manner.

When looking for your wagon, look for numbers that are on a white sign in the window near the door of each wagon. Don't be alarmed if train cars don't appear to be in order or skip a number. The provodnik (wagon attendant) might collect your ticket either as you board or a bit later, and keep it until you disembark. This is also normal.  If you are disembarking mid-route (not at the end of the line), you should remind the attendant, as it could require waking you up in the middle of the night. On some mid-route stops you will have only few minutes to leave the train so you need to be ready in advance.

7. Organizing Excursions      back to top

Aside from tickets, if you plan on doing any kinds of excursions (such as going to Perm-36 outside of Perm for example), it is best to plan these in advance. Public transport in Siberian cities is not as elaborate as that in Moscow or Petersburg, so for trips outside major cities along the railway, you’ll sometimes need to either have your own personal arrangements for transportation in advance, hire a taxi, or have a strong grasp on that region’s bus system. Usually the larger cities have guide centers, such as the Yekaterinburg Guide Center in Yekaterinburg (Екатеринбургский центр гидов), where tourists can organize day trips for that same day or hire temporary guides, but it is cheaper to book ahead if you know the exact dates you’ll be in that particular city. For a trip to Perm-36 in Kuchino Village, for example, go to www.uraltourism.com.

8. Don't Leave Home Without:      back to top

  • "Tapochki" (slip-on sandals or good slippers). This is a must if you will be on the train longer than one night.
  • Toilet paper. Most of the train restrooms had TP, but occasionally it was BYO.
  • Hand wipes/sanitary towels
  • Loose, comfortable, layered clothes. The trains are either hot and stuffy or really cold, so pack accordingly.
  • Money belt/fanny pack. Keep all valuables—money, credit cards, passport, and visa—on you at all time to prevent any debacles.
  • Bottled water
  • Mug with tea bags and/or instant coffee mix. There is a large samovar in every wagon, so no need to buy a cup of tea or coffee on the train when you can prepare it yourself for free.
  • Silverware
  • Napkins
  • Food that keeps well. For example: sausage, bread, instant mashed potatoes, instant noodle cups, crackers, cookies, candy. Anything instant that only needs hot water is good. No need to overdo it, though. If you are friendly, I guarantee that your kupe- or platskart-mates will be trying to feed you as much as possible—regardless of whether you brought your own food or not. If possible, bring something native to your home country. Russians are fascinated by peanut butter and peanut butter cups, for instance, and anything imported as indicative of the area you live in America.
  • A couple of plastic bags (for trash)
  • Chargers. There are outlets in the corridors of each wagon, so you can charge your phone or camera on the train – but don't let the phone or camera out of you sight while you do so! These corridors are public spaces!
  • Pictures of home. Russians love to see these!
  • Notebook/address book for contact info of new friends
  • Pocket dictionary.

9. Personal Suggestions from Sarah       back to top

  • My chief suggestion to the foreign traveler is: don't travel in a large group! If you aren't keen on going alone, bring a friend, but I would try to limit your company to just one other person, especially if you are riding kupe. If you are a group of 3-4 foreigners occupying one kupe compartment, it will be more difficult to get acquainted with other passengers—and getting to know your fellow passengers is half the fun of a Trans-Siberian journey.
  • To prevent over-packing, prepare to wear one outfit per train ride. People on the trains aren’t too particular about fresh clothes, especially since you can’t shower anyway. Even when I was on the train for three days straight, I noticed that no one (including myself) changed clothes until the day of arrival. When I returned home after three weeks, I still had a couple clean outfits in my pack! Best to pack as lightly as possible.
  • If you plan on using your mobile while traveling, check with your provider to make sure you will have service at the next location.
  • Bring an up-to-date guidebook. The main guidebook that I used throughout my trip was Trans-Siberian Railway (Lonely Planet Travel Guides), which was published in April 2006. However, as many cities throughout Russia are rapidly developing, some information in the book was already out-dated! Be prepared to not always find things where you think they will be, and don't hesitate to ask around at your hostel of hotel for directions.
  • Take advantage—listen to people's stories, practice your Russian, try new foods, and have fun!

SRAS thanks former student Sarah Kapp for contributing to this guide section.



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