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Trip Report Rubles & A River...Yes, We are in Russia

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I really debated if I wanted to write a trip report about this early August trip to Russia. I felt I might not be able to "do justice" to a country when I felt really "blah" about the experience. But in the end I decided I would write about my journey since every trip isn't always a spectacular adventure and maybe I can provide nuggets of information for future travelers....so here goes...

An 11 day cruise along the Volga River from Moscow to St. Petersburg sounded like a great way to see Russia a year ago when mom and I booked the trip. The reality was we learned a valuable lesson...cruising is not our preferred method of travel. However, we did have several memorable moments and saw some beautiful sites & sights.

Background:

My friend RM coordinates several group trips for women every year. Last year a friend and I went on RM’s Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand trip and had a good time with a small group of 9 travelers. When RM announced she was putting together a river cruise in Russia, my (and my mom’s) curiosity was piqued. Russia wasn’t at the top of our “travel wish list” but when this opportunity presented itself we thought it might be a good way to see Russia without having to handle all the detailed travel planning ourselves. Mom and I had been on Caribbean cruises before, me on 2, mom on 1. We weren’t thrilled with those cruise experiences, but we were willing to give a river cruise a try, thinking maybe it would be different. Some parts were different and some were the same as we’d experienced on the large ocean ships.

My initial thoughts were it might be nice to be on a boat and not have to live out of a suitcase, packing up every couple days to move to another city or town as we would have done on a land trip. I was also a bit (OK, a lot) intimidated to try and plan a trip to Russia, where I had no inkling of the language. I presented this scenario to my mom and she agreed. In hind-sight I think I pressed a little hard for this journey. I won’t go as far to say I twisted mom’s arm to come along with me, but I do think she agreed in part because she knew I was really interested in seeing Russia, perhaps more so than she did. However, she assured me that if she really didn’t want to go she could have/would have said no.

A sign that things may not be so enjoyable was the arduous Russian visa process, which after hearing from other ladies in the group about their experiences, ours was a cake-walk, but it was slightly frustrating and at that point we seriously considered backing out of the trip and loosing our deposit, but we soldiered on.

Once we paid our deposits, about a year before the trip, I got busy searching for airfare. I quickly realized tickets to Russia from Savannah, Georgia do not come cheap. So I offered mom the option of using our Delta sky miles. I didn’t have quite enough in my account so we moved some of her miles into my account and off I went in search of award tickets.

The night owl internet browsing tendencies of mine paid off this time. One night, it must have been close to 1am, I found 2 round trip business class tickets into Moscow and return from St. Petersburg for 150,000 miles each. Out bound was on Delta via Atlanta and JFK and return was on Air France via Paris and Atlanta. I snapped them up quickly and I’m glad I did, because after that the only redemption levels I saw were 300,000 or more each for economy class! I gave myself a pat on the back for this find; at least I thought it was a good deal.

Of course, when booking almost a year in advance I expect airline schedules to change and this itinerary was no exception. Initially when I booked the tickets the outbound to Moscow had only one connection in Atlanta, but about 6 months after booking Delta discontinued the Atlanta – Moscow route. This meant we were rebooked and our itinerary went from Savannah to Atlanta to JFK to Moscow on the outbound ticket. Well, this wouldn’t have been so bad; except we now had to leave Savannah at 5:30am instead of 11:30am…UGH…here I go again with the wake in the middle of the night to get to the airport on time scenario. However, I’ve got to say in the end the early morning departures (we had an early one out of St. Petersburg too) were somewhat acceptable since we did have business class seats!

The cruise company was AMAWaterways and the boat was the AMAKatarina. The boat was perfectly fine, it was clean, comfortable and the staff and crew were professional and friendly. Being the “foodies” mom and I are, we knew going in the food would not be stellar and we were spot on with that. The dining room servers and bartenders were all very nice, their levels of English comprehension varied with some understanding more than others, which was not an issue for us, however it was for some of the other travelers (you can’t please everyone all the time!). The food was fine, we did not starve, however I had a terrible bout of gastro-intestinal discomfort for the first 5 days which made eating very unappealing…who do you know who comes back from a cruise 5 pounds lighter? That would be me!

And now for the trip…

Journey to Moscow

The “trek” to Moscow started when we arose at 1:30am for a 5:30am flight out of Savannah, in my usual early bird fashion we arrived at the airport early, so early the TSA security lines weren’t even open yet…note to self, security at the Savannah airport doesn’t open until 4:30am. At which time there is a massive line because not only Delta, but US Air also has a 5:30am flight.

The flight to Atlanta was smooth and the connection was a breeze for our flight to JFK. I was happily surprised the JFK flight was departing from the new international terminal (Terminal F) at Atlanta, it is lovely, and everything is new and shiny. The terminal had only been open for a few months. The flight to JFK was smooth and on time, which meant we now had a 6 hour layover. Fortunately we had access to the sky lounge, which was barely a step above the regular terminal waiting areas, but at least the bathroom was super clean!

We caught up with 3 of the other ladies who were on the cruise with us and chatted before boarding the plane. The flight from JFK to Moscow boarded on time and with air traffic what it is at JFK we took off about an hour late, which was ok with us, that gave us an extra hour in business class!

We have flown business class before but never in a cabin with the lay-flat beds, so this was great for getting comfortable. We still didn’t sleep much, but at least we got to actually lie horizontally! The service was great, the food was good, and it was a pleasant flight.

We arrived in Moscow pretty much on time and it was nice to be in the first wave of passengers to deplane. We got to passport control quickly and there was barely a line. The agent scrutinized our passports and visas for a couple minutes then stamped our passports and we were done. We did carry-on only so it was an easy walk through customs with nothing to declare and we found our driver without any trouble on the other side of the sliding glass door.

We waited with our driver until our 3 travel companions made their way to the meeting point, about 20 minutes. This gave me enough time to stop at an ATM to get some Rubles. This was easy enough; I had my pick of about 8 different machines.

Being a Sunday the drive from Sheremetyevo airport to the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski was only about 30 minutes. This easy drive to the hotel lulled us into a false sense of what the traffic situation can be like in Moscow. Let’s just suffice to say the remaining time in Moscow included several days of sitting on a bus for hours in stand still traffic trying to get to or from the center of the city to where the boat was docked. Yes drawback number 1 of being on a cruise, the boat does not dock in the center of the city.

The hotel was lovely, the staff was nice. We were thrilled with the fact that when we arrived at 11am we were able to check into our room. And speaking of room, it was massive. This had to be the largest hotel room I have ever stayed in while in Europe. The room was comfortable and clean and the bathroom was spotless.

Even with the comfy business class seats, we were pretty “zonked” so we decided to take a nap for a few hours. Bless my mom’s heart, the woman can and does fall asleep in any bed she crawls into and she was fast asleep within minutes of putting her head on the pillow. Me on the other hand, did not get that “sleep gene” and for the next 4 hours I rolled around trying to get a little rest. I will say the beds were very comfortable; however the pillow left a lot to be desired.

By late afternoon we were ready to freshen up and have a glass of wine. After we each showered we meandered to the lobby bar for some wine and to wait for the rest of our group to meet for dinner. There were already 2 ladies from our group enjoying refreshments and we joined them. This was my mistake number 1, when we sat down I noticed one gal had a glass of white wine in front of her, and I asked her what she was drinking. She told me a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. Mom and I happen to enjoy sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand so we each ordered a glass.

After making our way through about half the glass I asked the gal if she knew how much the wine was and she said she didn’t know. I had an idea that a hotel lobby bar was going to have pretty high priced wine; there have been times in my travels when I’ve paid $20-$25 for a glass in a hotel. But the wine level in our glasses was decreasing and the rest of our group was delayed at the airport and was running late, so mom and I ordered a second glass of wine while we waited to go to dinner.

Finally the rest of our group arrived and we were ready to go to dinner. I asked the server for our check and nearly had a heart attack when I opened the check holder. Yes, we had just paid $36 per glass. $144 for four glasses of wine, do you realize how many bottles of wine I could buy at Trader Joe’s for that amount…A LOT! I have learned my lesson; always ask to see the wine list before ordering. I signed the check and we were off to a Ukrainian restaurant down the street from the hotel.

By the time we arrived at the restaurant it was close to 10pm and honestly I was not terribly hungry. The poor young man serving us had to handle a party of 16 American women. I’m sure his frustration level was stratospheric, especially given the fact he didn’t speak any English. However, he was a very good sport about the situation, or at least it appeared to me that he was. The dish I had was an eggplant and tomato salad, but mom was the real winner of the night with a delicious warm lentil salad served in a hollowed out loaf of dark bread.

When we finished dinner mom and I walked back to the hotel and made a stop at an ATM so mom could take out some money, but we hit a road block, for whatever reason mom could not access any money. This became an issue and we had to call her bank at home, even though she called to put a travel notification on the card prior to leaving. Her bank rep was very nice, but couldn’t determine why her card was refused and it was refused at more than one ATM, we tried several. The bank rep put another notice on mom’s card and we could try again to get cash in 24 hours. And that is how our fist day in Moscow ended.

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