Welcome all!

First I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, I hope you will enjoy reading it! Do not hesitate to follow me!

This blog has three main objects. First, it allows me to share my impressions and to provide useful informations to people who visit or leave in Moscow.

Than across this blog, I would like to exchange on Russia and more specifically on Moscow, to discuss everyone's outlook and eventually correct some stereotypes!

At last but not least, I would like to publish contributions of foreigners and Russians living in Moscow in order to have a multitude of glance on this wonderful city

I wish you all a good reading!! (There is also a French version of this blog: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Travelling in Russian trains : which ticket to buy

Hello everyone!

Now that you know how and where to buy train tickets, I will explain you which category of tickets to buy. First I will talk about the long distance train (sleeping car) and than about the Sapsan (Russians fast trains).

You can find 3 categories in these trains: плацкарт (“platzkart”), купе (“coupé”) and люкс (first class).

In platzkart, the all coach is open and can contain up to 54 beds; you don’t have a physical separation (a door) between the kinds of compartments. There is a long corridor, on one side you have 2 seats (that turns into two beds + two beds on top of them) and on the opposite side you have 1 seat (as a bed, which turns into two chairs and a table when you fold it + 1 bed on top of it). This is the 3rd class, beds are quite small, people can be noisy and you might have trouble to sleep there. However it’s very friendly, people usually share their drinks and food, they will talk to you very easily and there is more fresh air. If you are young, that you sleep well and are travelling for more than 12 hours, I strongly advise you platzkart. It’s usually fun and you will meet new people, especially as a foreigner. And of course it’s cheap! A personal advice: try to take the bottom seats if available (the same for “coupé”) as you can put all your personal belongings under the seat. If someone would like to steal them while you are sleeping, he would have to pull up your bed (with you on it) without you noticing it!! Generally speaking, travelling by train is safe and I’ve never heard of any story of people getting robbed in Russian trains. However, it’s always better to be careful, especially as a foreigner.

“Coupé” is the 2nd class; in each couch there are 9 closed compartments of 4 persons (36 passengers) with 2 seats down and 2 beds up. The sits can turn into bed whenever you want. It’s quite comfortable with longer beds and it’s quieter (if all your neighbors don’t snore!). It can be very friendly as well but usually it’s more families and older people, drinking beer at 2 in the morning might not happen there!! If you only want to sleep or if you like when it’s very quiet it’s a good option. As well if your travel is not too long, and you are just looking for comfort, than you should take it! Many Russians will tell you that Platzkart is awful and full of smelly people, it’s not really true. Of course if you take the train in summer when it’s +40°c outside, you might consider “coupé”, on a normal basis, it’s fairly good. If you are on a tight budget, know that it’s usually from 2 to 3 times more expensive and if you don’t speak any Russian, the chances that your neighbors only speak Russian are quite high.

Люкс” is the 1st class; it’s quite similar to “coupé” but with only 2 persons in each compartment (a maximum of 16 to 18 passengers in each couch). In some trains you can have additional services such as drinks and food, a radio and even a TV. This is usually on special trains. You can even get some compartments for 1 person with its toilet and shower, but it’s quite rare. There is also an air conditioning system that can be very appreciated in summer time (I’m only guessing tough, since I never traveled in “люкс”!). The price difference between “coupé” and 1st class is between one and a half and two. It also depends on the services, and if you are alone or with someone else it the compartment.

To summarize, the Russian railways system offers a wide offer in the level of services as well as on the price. You can choose cheap and eventually noisy, not so comfortable (still quite good) and on my own experience very friendly and even fun. You can have a better comfort for a still affordable price, but it won’t be such a Russian experience! And you have the last option, it’s comfortable and quite expensive, but other than that I can’t really tell more since I never used it. The level of comfort will also depend a lot on the trains! It’s like in France where you can travel in a TGV in first class and you won’t even have a plug while in another train you had plugs even in 2nd class. If someone knows which trains you should try to choose first and which one to avoid (if possible), it’s with great pleasure that I will accept your comments!

In some of the long-distance trains that run during the day, you can find a 4th class where you are seated, usually for travels not exceeding 8 hours. Since December 17th 2009, you can take a high speed train, the Sapsan (witch means Peregrine Falcon in Russian), between St-Petersburg and Moscow (3h45-4h15) and between Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod (3h50-3h55). The train capacity is 604 passengers, all seated, you have business and economic class and both are very comfortable. In first class you have complimentary drinks and snacks included in the price, a screen with movies and games (like in planes), a plug (for your computer for example) as well as newspapers in Russian and in English. 1st class is almost twice as expensive as 2nd class.

The Sapsan from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg can stop as well in 5 different cities (depending on the trains) and there is a total of seven trains a day. The stops are: Тверь, Бологое, Вышний Волочек, Чудово and Окуловка. For the details of the schedule, I advise you to check directly the official site: http://sapsan.su/schedule.htm. Unfortunately it’s in Russian but here you have the direct link to the schedule so even in Russian it’s easy to check all the information!

The Sapsan from Moscow to Nizhniy-Novgorod can stop in 2 cities (also depending on the trains) and there are two trains every day. Both stop at Владимир, and one train only stops at Дзержинск, the morning one.

I hope that you now have all the necessary information to choose your train ticket category, if you have any cool anecdotes or any advises to give, please do not hesitate to leave comments! The next article will be on travels in suburban train (электричка)!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Buying train tickets in Russia!

Hello dear readers and fans!! Excuse me for not writing for such a long time, I had to take all the existing trains throughout Russia in order to write this article!!

Well as you guess this is only partly truth, but I still took a lot of trains in Russia this last weeks!!

This article is the first one of a trilogy, I will explain here how to buy train tickets in Russia; in the next one I’ll talk about the unique experience you get traveling in trains (long distance) in Russia and in the third one I’ll describe a travel in a suburban train (электричка), there is much to say!!

In one of the previous posts, (http://glance-on-russia.blogspot.com/2011/05/russia-through-eyes-of-latin-american.html) my South American friend already explained the different ways to buy tickets, with his own experience. Here I will give a slightly different version, more complete; I hope both are interesting so I invite you to read the other article as well!

So let’s see how to buy ticket in Russia, especially as a foreigner:

The first and easiest way is usually through Internet: it’s quick, you have the best fare (special offers), it’s easy and you don’t have to queue! However you need two things, a credit card that works on the website (usually only Russian credit cards) and to speak Russian (or to have someone who does right next to you!). It’s possible to buy tickets on-line on the site http://rzd.ru/, you can also look on http://www.tutu.ru/poezda/ but I think they take a commission. However Tutu’s website is great to look at the trains, suburban trains and planes schedule as their website is quite well done! Once you found your route, you can go on the RZD’s website to buy the tickets directly. If you know any other good websites (especially in English), please put it down in the commentaries.

For the express trains to the airport, the Aeroexpress, you can also buy your tickets on-line in advance on the site https://www.aeroexpress.ru/en. The good news here is that you have an English version that works perfectly (it's the proof that nothing is impossible in Russia)!

For the high speed trains Moscow - St-Petersburg and Moscow – Nizhny-Novgorod you can buy the tickets on the website http://sapsan.su/. Unfortunately it’s only in Russian so far.

If you don’t speak Russian, there is an English version of the Russian Rail Roads (RZD) website, http://eng.rzd.ru/, but for the moment it’s only corporate site, not commercial. You need to switch to the Russian version to buy the tickets! Let’s hope it will change in a near future, especially due to the upcoming events such as the winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. If you want to look for train schedules in English, here is a pretty good website with useful information on how to travel by train in Russia, http://www.seat61.com/Russia-trains.htm

The second option (the old classic one!) would be to buy your tickets at the Train station counters: If you speak Russian, it should be okay, but in that case, buy online! If you don’t and that no one can help, I advise you to go first at the train station machines (some of them have an English version) and check which train you want to take, and then queue to buy your ticket. If you do that, make sure to write down the number of the train, the seat number you want (I advise you to always take the down seats) and to look for the price. Than as the operators usually don’t speak English, give them the paper, your passport or photocopy (it is advisable) and the necessary amount of money! You can also give the copy of your passport to someone else for him to buy your tickets; you don’t have to go yourself. In some train stations in Moscow and I guess St-Petersburg, they have special counters for foreigners where they speak English!

When queuing, you must be very careful at the schedule of the desk where you are staying. Each desk successively has a technical break, usually 15 minutes, and a lunch break of half an hour or one hour! 

If you want to take a suburban train, you will have to buy your tickets directly at the counter; try to be at the train station at least 25 minutes before your train’s departure as they might be lots of people queuing. The tickets are very cheap, for example if you are going 120 km away from Moscow, you will pay around 200 rubles so 5€!! Do not expect the employees to speak English (although a miracle can still happen!), so make sure to know your final destination, look at the price written on the notice board near the counter and just say the station name (or write it down) and give the money! You don’t need your passport or other documents.
If you don’t know any Russian, I advise you to come 30-40 minutes before the train’s departure to avoid any problem. In some train stations you will have different counters for suburban trains depending on your destination, so it’s easy to get lost. If you have any problem, try to ask a Russian girl (age 18-30) to help you, by experience it’s the category that is the most likely to speak English. I say a girl because in Russia (and probably in many countries), I found that girls often mastered more languages than guys.

Previously I talked about the Train station machines: If you don’t want to queue at the counter, these machines are inside the train station and allow you to buy your train tickets as well. They accept credit cards but once again, not all of them. You can check your train number and price on the machine and than buy your ticket directly at the counter. And as it would be too easy, most of them are in Russian, meaning few of them are also in English!

The last solution and maybe the easiest one, if you don't speak any Russian, is to buy your tickets through specialized Travel Agencies (ЖД и авиа билеты, meaning train and plane tickets). They will take a commission depending on your ticket’s price but there is usually no queuing, and in most of them in Moscow they will have someone who does speak English! Otherwise you can go to any other “normal” travel agency to buy your tickets.

Oh! I forget to tell you that if you have to cancel your trip, you can be reimbursed. If you ask the pay back more than 8 hours before departure, you have a fixed commission, between 8 hours and 2 hours, the commission is 50% of the cheapest fare (Platzkart) and between 2 hours before and 12 hours after departure, it’s 100% of the cheapest fare.

A last advice, be very careful to the name of your train station, some of them are quite far from each other and you don’t want to go in the wrong one. In Moscow there are more than six big train stations and dozens of small ones, so make sure to double check it!

I hope that now you have all the keys to buy train tickets in Russia! If you have any questions or advices, do not hesitate to comment on this article, thank you!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Euro-Ruble, Ruble-Euro, How to change your money in Russia

With the instigation of Euro, interrogations on change rates, bank commission and how much money to withdraw to go abroad… are not anymore necessary in a large part of Europe! But if you need to go to Russia it’s not as easy.

The launch of Euro still made things lots easier, I remember the first time I came in Russia, I was 13, and I (my parents!) had to go to my bank to change francs into Dollars, since in Russia you couldn’t change directly your francs. Now with Euro it’s not a problem anymore, we can change it into Rubles or every other money in the world! But the question that raises when you go in Russia is where and how to convert your Euros (or Dollars)?  

In Moscow it’s very easy, there are lots of currency exchange offices everywhere in the city and you can pay in most shops with your credit card (which wasn’t true 5 years ago). Cash withdrawal machine are also at your disposal, it allows you to withdraw rubles of course (!) and in some Dollars and Euros as well. It can be interesting to do so in order to avoid change commission that your bank might charge, they differ slightly from one bank to another, so you should check before leaving. The change rate is also (according to my personal experience) more interesting in a “good” currency exchange office than the one applied by banks. When you withdraw money remember that there are bank commissions, it’s usually less expensive to withdraw a big amount once than several times small ones. Indeed there is in most cases a percentage fee + a commission each time you withdraw money.

If you don’t want to use your credit card, you can still come with cash, but you can do so only as a tourist! For expats, you need to find a bank with an international option (few or no commission) or you can open an account in Russia.

Previously talking about currency exchange offices, I said it was very easy, it’s true but you need to watch out for rip off! There are high variations between change rates offered, here are my advices to get the “right” price.

First of all avoid all currency exchange that take a percentage fee, even if they offer the best change rate, it will cost you more than in other offices. Mostly banks and hotels do that, and few other places. For security reasons avoid as well all currency exchange that is open on the street, even tough Moscow is quite safe on this matter.

Then I consider that there are three categories of currency exchange offices. A first one, the more common and the one I use the most, where the change rate difference is 30 or 40 kopecks between selling and buying Rubles. For example if you change Euros for Rubles, you’ll have a rate of 40.10 Rubles for one Euro, and if you sell Rubles to buy Euros, the rate will be 40.40 for one Euro. 

A second category, without percentage fee but to absolutely ban is when there are different rates depending on the amount of money you want to change, more or less than 10 000… Euros of course, not Rubles! If you want to change more than 10 000 Euros, in that case feel free to go there, but I don’t do that often! In these places the variation between selling and buying is usually between one and two Rubles. With the previous example, it would be respectively 39.10 and 41.40 (at the airport notably).

The last category is the hardest to classify, it pertains currency exchange where the change rate difference when selling and buying is only 5 kopecks, for example respectively 40.15 and 40.20. They are not that frequent but they are the most favourable, if you are careful. Indeed some offices are reliable and in that case you should convert your money there. But other places make profit only by ripping off people since you can’t really make money with a 5 kopeck difference. I have no idea of all the ways they might use but I can describe at least one of them! The most common is that there is a slit that you can’t see in the part where you put you bills. The person behind the counter recounts the money in front of you and then gives it to you, but when you take it one or two bills disappeared! It’s hard to prove especially if you don’t check straight away. This is usually done with big amounts, so if you want to change 100 Euros it’s quite safe! For fake bills, I don’t think there are many risks in Russia.

Concerning other places in Russia, in big cities it’s still easy to find a place to change money, but as soon as you are in small places, you need to have Rubles with you.

If you have anecdotes or advices, do not hesitate to share them in the comments!