Some questions about Russia.

Old Jan 11th, 2004, 12:02 PM
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Some questions about Russia.

We plan on visiting Russia in May or June. We have heard many negative things about the ways tourists are treated in Russia. I would like to know the experiences of fodorites who have visited Russia. Have you had problems clearing customs? (We will fly to Russia by ourselves and then join a tour or an independent package).
Is it very difficult to get a visa to visit Russia? (We have American and Canadian passports).
Thanks in advance for your help.
retiredinflorida is offline  
Old Jan 11th, 2004, 12:12 PM
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I've sent your query on to a friend who was in Russia in very lively times and who plans a trip on the TransSiberian Railway in a few months. She's also been to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and so would have good information for you.
Underhill is offline  
Old Jan 11th, 2004, 12:36 PM
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We traveled independently to St Petersburg a couple of years ago and had no problems at all with customs. However, unlike any place else I have been in europe we were often met with suspicion and sometimes unfriendliness by the locals.

This did not occur at any of the standard tourist locations (hotels, restaruants, hermitage, the ballet) where we were treated no worse than the locals (but keep in mind that many russians have been trained in the old Motor Vehicle Bureau school of customer service). But when off the "tourist track" at all many people seemed to think we had some sort of ulterior motive. For instance, every time we road the bus we were stopped by inspectors (who often stopped no one else on the bus) demanding to see our tickets. One rider commented to another (in English) that we shouldn't be on the bus, which is for russians, but taking a taxi. And when we attended a local performance (almost like vaudeville) we had to show our tickets numerous times - twice even after we had been seated.

We decided to ignore it. You need to remember the sort of government these poor people suffered until recently - and the shock they recevied when they found out they were not one of two major world powers but really part of the Third World. So many of them are feeling overwhelmed which adds to their suspiciousness and can make them defensive. And the older the person the more unfriendly they seemed to be - by and large the 20 somethings seemed more comfortble with us.

It was definitely a worthwhile trip but not nearly as easy as traveling in western or central europe.
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Old Jan 11th, 2004, 12:59 PM
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i have not travelled to russia, but a friend of mine who was born there recently went back for the first time ever since she left. she took a package tour, and wound up spending $1600 to change her flight and get new tickets home so they could leave early.

they did NOT have a good experience with the tour -- barely edible food, terrible accomodations and tour guide. she also expressed to me that this made the entire trip very depressing and she even said she regrets going back to see the country she was born in.

From listening to her describe her experience, I would not expect this to be as relaxing, exhilarating, or romantic as a western European trip.

Do your research and ask lots of questions about the tour. GOOD LUCK!
Thonglori is offline  
Old Jan 11th, 2004, 01:03 PM
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Hi retired,

Other than that you might wish to return to the ancestral motherland, is there a reason why you want to go to Russia?

I have spoken with a number of folks over the years who have been, and invariably thay have said that they wouldn't go back.
ira is offline  
Old Jan 11th, 2004, 05:21 PM
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I'm sad to hear that so many people had bad experiences.

We visited St. Petersburg and Moscow independently a few years ago (maybe 4 years?), and had a fabulous time.

We had no problems with customs on the way in, but a funny (in retrospect) problem on the way out . . . more later.

While in the two cities, we did face the stoic "customer service professionals" in hotels who seemed annoyed that they had to deal with customers, but other than that, we were impressed with the friendliness of the people. Waiters and waitresses, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, sellers in the markets, tour guides at the sites . . . everyone we met was very friendly. We went to many museums, shopped, ate at restaurants, went to bars, went to ballet & opera performances, even church! We were never once treated poorly, and were typically treated in a very welcoming way.

We took the train from Moscow to St. Pete & back, and shared a sleeper compartment with an older Russian couple. Even though we spoke no Russian and they spoke no English, we had a great "conversation"!

Ok, so we did have one customs problem. On our departure, I set my suitcase up on the scanner, and it set off the alarm. The officer said: "Miss, your luggage is radioactive. Please step off to the side." I thought: "Oh, sure, that must be the nuclear bomb I'm bringing back!" Bemused, thinking that it was a funny mistake that would soon be cleared up, I stood aside and waited.

Shortly, another customs official came over to me with a Geiger counter! It went beep . . . beep . . . beep . Beep . Beep . BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP as it approached my suitcase. I was told to follow the gentleman. My husband followed.

We went to a little room and they searched the luggage with the Geiger counter, until they found our very dangerous radioactive . . .


It was an old submarine clock we'd bought in the antique market. As it turns out, the numbers had been painted with phosphorescent paint so that they would glow in the dark. This radioactivity was enough to set off the sensors, so they said that we could not take it on the plane.

We tried to argue, and were upset at the loss, but overall thought it was a pretty funny story!

Assuming you don't purchase anything radioactive while in Russia, I think you will have a great time! Russia is rich with history - one of my favorite traveling moments ever is of standing in the Red Square, looking out over the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, and St. Basil's Cathedral. I could almost hear the clip-clopping of a horse drawn sleigh carrying czars through the square! Both Moscow and St. Petersburg are lovely cities, full of treasures, and fascinating to visit. I hope you will still consider going!!
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Old Jan 11th, 2004, 07:31 PM
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I have been to Russia a number of times and have never had any problems. Do some background research before you go. Now a days you don't even have to buy a guide book, just to a search online. Good site is

Find out what some of the rules are for when you entry into the country. Such as visa registration, declaration of currency, emigration card - to be filled out on entry.

Try to recognize the letters in the Russian alphabet. Most signage is in Russian although more English is starting to be used.

Getting a visa is no problem, use one of the internet sites, such as to obtain the visa invitation/voucher/confirmation cost $30US, obtain application for visa from any of the Russian Embassy sites. For Americans cost is $100US, for Canadians $70CND (through Ottawa) for 30 day tourist Visa.
Garfield is offline  
Old Jan 12th, 2004, 06:13 AM
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At no time during my last month and half trip to Russia did I feel mistreated in any way nor had any problem with customs. I rent an apartment in St. Petersburg and this last trip travelled from Ulan Ude in Southern Siberia to Moscow by the Trans Siberian Express. I stopped in various small cities enroute for a day or so and found my `foreigness` was an advantage. Most folks in smaller communties bent over backwards to help me in finding accommodation.....all in all I would return in a moment. Having an interest in Russian history brings me back to St. Petersburg and one of the best museums in the world, The Hermitage.

Obtaining a visa through the Russian Consulate in Ottawa, Canada is a really simple matter as the previous poster Garfield states.

Go and enjoy such a wonderful country.
goldwynn is offline  
Old Jan 17th, 2004, 03:12 PM
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I have just had a look at fodors after a long hiatus.

I am planning a trip to Russia with elderhostel in June and cannot wait. It is a place I have wanted to visit almost all of my life and I figured I had better do it now before I get too old to really enjoy it (with all the walking, etc.).

The trip is for two weeks (one week in Moscow; one week in St. Petersburg) and is focused on the arts. Elderhostel trips always have an educational component and we will be attending the theater in both places. We spend an entire day at the Hermitage, which I am really looking forward to.

I will report back on how it went after I return.
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Old Jan 17th, 2004, 03:39 PM
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My wife and I took a Russian river cruise starting in St. Peterburg and ending in Moscow over an 18-day period. The ship was spotless, the crew was wonderful, the food was OK, and the entire travel experience was completely enjoyable.

We struck out a lot on our own in both cities, taking public transportation, rubbing elbows with the locals, and having a marvelous up-close view of Russia and the Russians.

At no time did we ever feel unsafe -- we are experienced world travelers going back more than 50 years -- and we certainly never received anything but warm hospitality. Despite our almost total lack of any command of their language, we were helped with great care when we needed directions, even being taken by the hand one day when looking for a subway station in cental Moscow.

I cannot recommend the trip highly enough. Those folks, for the first time in almost a century, have a crack at freedom. They are intensely curious about anything American -- and those who spoke English had no reluctance to challenge the policies of our current, inept administration.
USNR is offline  
Old Jan 17th, 2004, 04:07 PM
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We stayed 3 days with a Russian family in St Petersburg, very interesting. Many questions and answers. We were in one of the Soviet style apartment buildings, comfortable, but very different than what we are used to. We have always been treated very well in Russia. Most of the time we use local transportation as well as trains and buses for longer distances. We do not speak Russian.
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Old Feb 13th, 2004, 08:49 PM
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I spent 5 weeks in Russia summer 2002. Russia is very different from any other place I have traveled, but definetly not unsafe and wonderful.

I lived in cheap, student housing while I was there and it was awful. I highly recommend splurgin on a nice hotel. In St. Pete, for example, you can stay at the Hotel Europa, supposedly the best hotel in town, for a few hundred US a night- much less (or at least the same) as you would spend on a luxury hotel here. Some of the more bargain hotels or those that cater to tour groups are a big rip off. I went to many of them to visit with friends or have a meal when I craved Western food in St. Pete and the rooms can be dirty and overpriced.

That being said though, be sure to get out and explore the less touristy areas, but be very careful where you wander. Russia is still pretty corupt and it is easy for an English-speaking foreigner to be taken advantage of. a good guide book should suffice for warning you where not to go.

As you would expect, in the main, touristy areas food prices. However, if you eat at a less touristy place you can have a whole meal, wine and all, for under 10 dollars.

In terms of airport issues, I had only one bad experience when I first arrived. I transfered from my Western airline in Moscow at the smaller airport (I flew US to Zurich to Moscow) and then caught a commuter flight to St. Pete. I was told when I checked in for my Russian flight that there was a very different weight/ size limit on bags, and I was over. At least I think this is what they said since it was all in Russian. At any rate, they took my bag and made me pay to get on the flight. The amount seemed completely arbitrary and I am pretty sure someone pocked the money. However, being a female, alone, in my twenties and cornered by two big Russian men with my bag I paid and went on my way. I had no other problems in the next five weeks.

Let me know if you have any more specific questions!
Punkyl44 is offline  
Old Feb 16th, 2004, 06:18 PM
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After considerable research on visiting Russia, my husband and I opted for one of the River Cruises, and we selected Viking, after reading all the reviews.

Unlike the various land tours, where you stay in hotels (the moderately priced of which were far less than desirable, hardly tolerable for many) and dine in local hotels/restaurants, you "live" on the ship for the duration, with comfortable accomodations and wonderful meals on board. In fact, all excursions are planned around meals, sometimes with a terrific "boxed lunch". And, they hire local tour guides in every destination, all of whom, on our cruise, were magnificent.

We opted for the river cruise having read dismal experiences from hotel/restaurant reviews (not to mention exhorbitant prices for same) with the land packages. And, we read that that train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg is more than a bit scary and dismal (especially with regard to the rest rooms, and "protecting" your bags/belongings along the way).

No matter how you choose to visit Russia, you'll need a Visa. Clearing Customs is the same for everyone. You must have the proper Visa and endure the "passport control" line, along with the "customs" line. Fortunately, when we landed, neither was very long.

If you are "joining a tour", which includes hotel accomodations, they will advise you regarding acquiring a Visa, since you must provide an "invitiation", usually from the hotel or tour operator.

As for "the ways tourists are treated" - not to worry. We found the Russians everywhere to be extremely friendly, helpful, and accomodating in every way.

Be advised, however, that you must be MOST diligent with all the pickpocket precautions everywhere you go. And, it's best to have local currency in VERY small denomiations (for a bottle of water, an ice cream cone, visiting the restroom). The ATM's dispense HUGE (for Russia) bills, which you'll not be able to use anywhere, even in the metro stations.

If you're dreaming of visiting the Hermitage during your visit to St. Petersburg, I highly recommend that you engage a licensed private tour guide - who can get you in - and into all the best exhibits and wings, such as the Treasury, which is astonishing, and the Michelangelo rooms. And, the Impressionist collections.

In Moscow, here's hoping you have engaged a local licensed tour guide for getting you into the Kremlin, or that your package includes same. Otherwise, the wait will be quite long, and your visit may or may not include the several cathedrals within, the palace, the Armory (chock full of AMAZING treasures), or a visit to all those (not to be missed) Faberge Eggs (which are moved all about).

Not to be missed in Moscow are Red Square (now and again not "open"), along with the CIRCUS. There's an "old" circus and a "new" circus. We were ever so lucky to attend BOTH! And, we were ever so lucky to have had the opportunity to stand in Red Square.

I'm not sure what you mean by "join a tour" or "an independent package", but I would advise investigating exactly what is promised by the providers of same.
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Old Mar 16th, 2004, 11:31 AM
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Along this same vein I'm curious if anyone here has stayed in Kazakhstan? And does anyone know if they even publish anywhere in the world a travel guide to Kazakhstan? I'm staying a month at a family friends and am curious as to all the wonderful things there are to do in that huge country. I've researched kz for almost a year now but have had little luck finding a concise book or guide.

All help is appreciated!
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Old Mar 16th, 2004, 02:35 PM
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There are two travel books on Kazakhstan that I know of: Trailblazer's "The Silk Roads" and Lonely Planet's "Central Asia". Between the two I would take Trailblazer.
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Old Mar 16th, 2004, 02:49 PM
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It might not count, but my husband was there with a choral group he sang with in 1994 and he said he had no trouble but others did in St Petersburg, thru customs. (they wanted bribes.)
but overall he enjoyed it.
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Old Mar 16th, 2004, 03:27 PM
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"One rider commented to another (in English) that we shouldn't be on the bus, which is for russians, but taking a taxi"

Heard the exact same remark on the trolley in Sand Francisco last year. . by a little old lady who resented "her" trolley being crowded by tourists!

Rich is offline  
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