Due to the immense size of the country, and the poor road safety, the best way to get around through the entire country quickly is by train. Russia has an extensive rail network linking nearly every city and town. For intercity travel, the train is generally the most convenient option for trips that can be covered overnight. Although accommodations may not be the best, Russian trains have efficient and courteous staff as well as timely departures and arrivals that would impress even a German. The train is an option for longer trips (many Russians continue to use it for trips of 2 days or more), but mainly if you appreciate the nuances and experience of train travel in Russia. For the complete Russian rail experience, the one-week Trans-Siberian Railway has no equal.
Russian trains are divided into types: Long-distance (дальнего следования DAHL’nyehvuh SLEHduhvahnyah) trains generally cover trips more than about 4 hours or 200 km (120 miles). Take a look at the Russian long-distance rail timetable. Shorter distances are covered by the commuter trains (пригородные PREEguhruhdnyyeh), which are popularly called электрички ehlehkTREECHkee. Most train stations (железнодорожный вокзал zhehlyehznohdohROHZHny vohgZAHL) have separate areas for selling tickets for these types.
Transportation of bicycles:
Transportation of a bicycle in a carriage is permissible for one ticket under condition of being compactly folded/dismantled and clean. Usually the bike is taken off its wheels and pedals, put into a bag and stored on the upmost shelf in the Platzkart carriage. The other class carriages have less space or shelves and the bike should be more compact.
Almost all long-distance trains are set up for overnight travel. There are several classes of accommodation:
- Deluxe – myagkiy (мягкий) – with private compartments for two adults and a child, with a private toilet and shower. Few trains have this posh class.
- 1st class – spalnyy/lyuks (спальный/люкс) – with private compartments for two people. Most trains connecting major cities have a car of this class; tickets are quite expensive in comparison with European standards. Colloquially this class is commonly referred to as SV (es-veh, СВ). Frequently these compartments are the same as in kupe with the two upper beds stowed away.
- 2nd class – kupe (купе) – with private compartments of four people. On some trains, compartments may be marked as male, female, or mixed-sex by the ticketing system.
- 3rd class – platskart (плацкарт) – with unwalled compartments of fourfold out beds opposite two beds on the window wall. There is controversy on safety of these compartments. For some these compartments are generally less safe than other classes as they allow uncontrolled access. Others point out that in an open car full of witnesses the chances of becoming a victim of a crime or harassment are less. Anyway, they provide for a much more immersive experience. Nevertheless, they will be abolished slowly.
- Sitting class – sidyachiy (сидячий) – sitting cars for shorter distance, with seat reservation. These are mostly met on slower regional trains.
Every car has its own attendant/conductor (provodnik or provodnitsa), which check your tickets at your boarding, provides you bedding, sells you tea or snacks and can lend you a mug and spoon for about 10 руб. The conductor will usually take your tickets shortly after boarding, they are returned shortly before you arrive at your destination. At the end of each carriage you will find a samovar with free hot water for making tea or soup. Most long-distance trains have dining cars.
Bottom-bunk berths (nizhnie – нижние) are slightly more comfortable than top-bunk berths (verhnie – верхние), because they have more place for baggage under them. There are also discounts sometime for top-bunk berths only (usually not in the tourist season and not in popular directions, which are from largest towns on Friday nights, and back on Sunday nights).
Trains are classified according to their average speed:
- skorostnoy (скоростной, numbered 151 to 178) – the fastest trains (seating only). Sapsan, Allegro and Lastochka trains fall here;
- skoryy (скорый, numbered 1 to 148 all-year and 181 to 298 seasonal) – rapid trains with overnight accommodation;
- passazhirskiy (пассажирский, numbered 301 to 399 all-year, 400 to 499 seasonal and 500 to 598 on specific dates only) – slower trains with more frequent stops;
- mestnyy (местный, numbered 601 to 698) – the slowest trains serving most of the localities along the railways. Typically this kind of trains run shorter routes, often just overnight, for example between adjacent or next to adjacent regional centers, or sideline dead-end branches. A somewhat rough upper limit for route length is about 700 km. Colloquially sometimes called shestisotye or shest’sot-veselye trains, based on their numeration (6XX or 600-happy trains);
- pochtovo-bagazhnyy/gruzopassazhyrskiy (почтово-багажный/грузопассажирский, numbered 901 to 998) – mainly used to deliver post and bulky baggage or goods. By railway regulation, depending on location and typically further from major centers, it may be possible to buy tickers on those trains. Where there is a choice of trains, they are inpractical, as they tend to have long stops on all major stations and thus being slower even comparing to 6XX trains. Expect a lot of police, when boarding and unboarding this kind of trains;
- prigorodnyy express (numbered 800 to 899 and 7000 to 7999) – local express trains, both suburban, such as REXes and Sputniks and interregional, including even trains from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg. Colloquially can be called popugai (parrots) for their bright colors, though further from Moscow regular local trains can be used as expresses;
- prigorodnyy/elektropoyezd (пригородный/электропоезд, numbered 6001 to 6998) – local or suburban trains mostly serving commuters in cities. Typically named elektrichka, or sometimes more informally sobaka (dogs). Although sometimes any kind of local trains are called elektrichka, even erroneously, their types are diverse, especially where rails are not electrified, including diesel-trains and railbuses, or short trains pulled by (usually) diesel or electric locomotive. Local trains, pulled by locomotives, also may be called kukushka (cuckoos).
Generally correspondence between numeration, speed and train types may be somewhat skewed, and trains from ‘slower’ category may actually be faster than trains from ‘faster’ category. Typically this occurs for various categories of rapid and express trains.
Service quality usually correspond to the class of train, but besides that, all-year trains usually have better service than seasonal trains, which are usually better than special dates only trains. Also according to their standards of service, some trains are promoted to firmennyy (фирменный) and given a proper brand and higher ticket price. The most distinguished trains use their special liveries.
Since 2011, dozens of local (prigorodny) trains are canceled each year due to lack of financing, and situation worsens each year. Cancellations occur everywhere over the country, except commuter zones of largest cities, such as Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk. Having latest news on cancellations may be essential for trip planning. Typical cancellation traits: most cancellations occur in the start of the year, sometimes some trains are returned into timetable, if local budgets find funds to sponsor them; some trains are cut at region borders, even when there are no roads over the border to the previous train destination; other local trains got cut to 1 a day or several a week, often with timetable, not convenient for tourists.
Reservations are compulsory on long-distance trains, so you need to plan specifically for each leg of your journey, you can’t hop on and off. Previously, all Russian railways used only Moscow time in their schedules, which was very inconvenient and misleading, especially for traveling to the Far East, where the difference between the departure time indicated on the ticket and the actual departure time could be 7-8 hours.
On August 1, 2018, the Russian railways finally began indicating local time in their schedules.
Ticket price depends on train class and car class, as well as on season (off-peak day tickets can cost 2/3 of peak day tickets). You can check the ticket price at Russian Railways e-shop.
The best way to buy your ticket is online from Russian Railways website. Where the online system shows the train as ЭР (with a little train symbol), you should print this ticket at home, and it doesn’t need validating before boarding. For trains without ЭP you’ll need to take your receipt to a counter to pick up your ticket, and this can only be done within Russia – so you can’t use those trains for journeys that begin outside Russia.
Alternatively, buy at the station: Kassovyi Zal (кассовый зал) means ticket hall. Lines vary widely – some stations are much better organized than others, and it also depends on the season. If you find the lines unbearably long, it’s usually not hard to find an agency that sells train tickets. Commission rates are generally not prohibitive. For instance, buying your ticket to Saint Petersburg from Moscow, it is much better to walk a flight of steps from the ordinary ticketing office – there are no queues upstairs and R140 is a small premium to pay for this service.
There are many agencies selling Russian train tickets abroad – RusTrains.com, TuTu.travel, Real Russia, Russian Trains, and RussianTrain. They have foreign-language (English, Spanish etc) websites, can post paper tickets to your home address, provide customer support and offer larger number of payment methods, but prices are 30-50% higher.
Travel time can vary from several hours to several days. There are more types of train between the two capitals than between any other two cities in Russia. Apart from ordinary trains, there are rapid trains (Sapsan) that run by day only and cover the 650 km between Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 4 hours. Some of the overnight trains are quite luxurious — these include the traditional The Red Arrow service and the newer, fake-Czarist-era Nikolaevsky Express, complete with attendants in 19-century uniforms. Sheets, towels and prepacked breakfasts are included in all the better trains. Shared bathroom facilities are located at the end of the train car. There are special hatches that one may use to secure the door of the compartment from the inside during the night.
Moscow-Saint Petersburg Express Train takes 5 hours of travel and costs min. 2400 руб. Trains are only slightly air conditioned. No one in the Moscow train station speaks any English, so if you are not familiar enough with Russian to purchase your train ticket in person, it is suggested that you purchase online or through your hotel concierge or travel agent before you depart. Main signages inside the train station is in Russian and English. The dining car of the express train is nicely appointed with real table linens, and an impressive menu and wine list, but is 3 to 4 times more expensive than eating in the city before and after you travel.
Stop duration may be very different, from as quick as one minute (barely enough for passengers to leave and board the train) to as long as 30 minutes. Check the timetable placed on door at the end of corridor. During stop you can buy various meals and drinks at platform from locals for pretty reasonable prices. Frequently, traders will walk through the cars between stops and sell everything from crockery to clothes to Lay’s chips.
The commuter trains are mostly hard-seat train cars. You don’t get a designated seat number — you just find space on a bench. These trains have a notorious reputation for being overcrowded, though this has declined somewhat. The trains make very frequent stops and are rather slow. For example, a 200 km trip to Vladimir takes about 3 h 30 min . They do (!) have toilets in the first and the last cars but it is going to be an unforgettable experience (use them in “emergency” cases only).
Tickets for commuter trains are sold in a separate room from the long-distance trains, and are sometimes sold from stalls located outside.
A few very popular routes, mostly between Moscow and nearby cities such as Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Tula, and others have an express commuter train that is considerably more comfortable. Your ticket will have a designated seat number and the seats are reasonably comfortable. The trains travel to their destination directly and are thus considerably faster.
Which time zone? Until August 2018, all trains in Russia ran on Moscow time, as much as 7 hours off local time in the Far East. This could be surreal, as you stumbled out of a train, platform and station hall all showing 10:00, to emerge into the gloom of a Siberian evening. But at least it was consistent, a boon for long-distance planning. Nowadays however the timetable uses local time, ever shifting as you journey east. Check tickets and timetables carefully to see which time is being used in a particular city.
Most Russian cities have bus links to cities as far as 5–6 hours away or further. Though generally less comfortable than the train, buses sometimes are a better option time-wise and are worth looking into if the train timetables don’t suit you. A small number of cities, notably Suzdal, are not served by train, and thus bus is the only option besides a car.
The Russian word for bus station is Avtovokzal (Ahv-tuh-vahg-ZAHL). Most cities have just one for long distance buses and the state buses depart from there. However, in Moscow and in some other Russian cities, a number of commercial buses are available, and they generally don’t depart from the bus station. Quite often, you’ll see commercial buses near train stations. Sometimes they run on schedules, though for popular routes (such as Moscow-Vladimir, Moscow/Yaroslavl, etc.) the buses simply wait to fill up. On these buses payment is usually to the driver.
Russian buses have luggage storage, but if it’s an old Eastern-bloc bus, you may find your luggage wet at the end of the trip. You normally have to pay a “bagage” ticket for luggage.
Apart from regular buses there are private minibuses called marshrutka (маршрутка). These emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union as an alternative to the moribund public transport system. Legally, they may be licensed as either taxis or buses. They have fixed routes, but usually no timetables and no regular stations. The official designation for them is Route Taxi, (Russian: marshrutnoye taxi, Ukrainian: marshrutne taxi), hence the colloquial marshrutka).
To board one of these, stop at the roadside and wave a hand, if you are lucky and the minibus isn’t full, it will stop. In a city, it will stop anyway and offer you an option to stand in the aisle or even stand in some corner bending over sitting passengers. This is neither legal nor convenient, but very common and acceptable. You can arrange with the driver to stop at your destination. If you need to get off, you have to shout: “Остановите здесь!” (Astanaviti zdes, meaning “Stop here!”) as loudly as possible so that the driver can hear. Marshrutka will stop pretty much anywhere, even in the middle of the traffic without moving to the side of the road. At main stops the driver may wait and collect more passengers. The waiting time is unpredictable and depends on the schedule, number of passengers, competing buses, etc. There are no tickets, you pay the driver directly. He may give you a receipt, but you have to ask for it explicitly.
Marshrutkas ride both in the countryside (in this case they are more likely to have timetables) and as city transport. Sometimes they look like regular buses, which makes them hardly distinguishable from official buses. Moreover, on long-distance routes you have an option of reserving a place by phone and even buying a ticket in advance. The system is very haphazard and organized in the most odd manner. It is highly advisable to check details about particular route with drivers or at least with locals who should know the current situation in their city. In cities, never rely on the route numbers. Sometimes they match those of the official public transport, but sometimes they don’t.
While trains, planes and buses will get you between big Russian cities and many of the smaller places as well, car travel can be a good way for going off the beaten path and travel at your own pace. Nevertheless if you’re not used to local road conditions and driving culture and don’t understand Russian, independent car travel can be challenging and even dangerous. Roads may be poorly marked, if marked at all, and poorly maintained, especially outside the cities and towns. Road numbers are not well marked, and direction signs are normally in Russian only.
Most federal highways (marked as M-1, M-2 and so on) are surveilled by automated systems, but minor roads are patrolled by State Auto Inspection (ГИБДД or GIBDD, though also known by its former name GAI). GIBDD roadblocks are inside every federal district border (about every 200 km). It’s very useful to have a detector for radar speed traps and a video recorder. A video record is your ultimate defence in all problem cases with GIBDD.
If you’re involved in a collision as the driver, the main rule is not to move your car and don’t leave the scene of the accident until a GIBDD inspector draws an accident plan and you sign it. Any violation of this rule may cost you 15 days of freedom. All other questions should be directed to your insurance company.
Not all highways in Russia are free: on some highways, toll gates block the way, so the traveller may need 20-60 руб per toll (may be paid by a credit card).
Petrol in some regions may be extremely bad; it’s always better to find any branded filling station.
Car rental services are expensive. If you don’t understand Russian, one option is using a private licensed guide. Guides generally provide their own cars or vans and know the roads, the customs and the countryside, making it possible to see small towns and historic sites.
The tremendous distances of Russia make plane travel highly desirable if you plan to travel to some of Russia’s more far-flung attractions. It’s worth considering for any destination that is farther than an overnight train ride. Travelling across Russia by train can sound awfully romantic, but it’s also time-consuming and rather monotonous. Nearly every major destination of interest has an airport nearby. The great majority of domestic flights are to/from Moscow, but other services exist.
The Russian domestic airline industry had an abominable reputation in the 1990s due to uncertain safety records, unreliable timetables, terrible service, old airplanes, and substandard airports. Due to substantial improvements the airline market has now mostly caught up to international standards. Aside of a very few exemptions on niche flights, all flights are nowadays operated with state-of-the-art equipment with excellent safety records. The on-time performance is very good as well nowadays with delays usually only happen in case of adverse weather conditions. On the other side, most Russian carriers have also copied carriers around the world regarding additional fees for refreshments, meals, luggage and seat selection.
Most Russian airports as well have international standards now. Lines at security and check-in are usually short but do not expect the staff to speak English. If you have done online or mobile check-in (available for almost every airline) you need to have a printed boarding pass. For those passengers doing mobile check-in, there is a small self-service kiosk at many airports that allows you to print a kind of boarding pass sticker.
Given the many different airlines operating domestic services, it is a good idea to use multi-airline flight search pages or (online) travel agencies. However, sites common in your home country does not know all carriers or do not show the lowest fares available. Therefore, use Russian sites like Biletyplus and Agent.ru.
- Aeroflot based at Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow, is Russia’s national airline for local Russian and CIS flights and international flights to worldwide cities (Germany, South Korea, US, etc.) Prices for flights from St. Petersburg back into Moscow vary, but you can get them for about US$32 (Feb 2016) and makes this less expensive and less time consuming than taking the train. Aeroflot operates both domestic and international flights from Terminal D next to the old international terminal (now Terminal F) serving non-Aeroflot international departures. Many international flights and most internal ones are operated by Boeing and Airbus aircraft, only a few Soviet-era aircraft are left.
- S7 airlines (ex-Siberia or Sibir Airlines) Russia’s largest domestic carrier with international service to many cities in Germany, China and ex-Soviet republics.
- Rossiya Airlines has a substantial network based at St Petersburg Pulkovo airport to both major cities in Russia, and to western Europe.
- UTair operates the largest aircraft fleet in Russia and ranks among the top five largest Russian carriers by passenger volume.
- Yakutia Airlines is Siberian/Far Eastern air carrier having extensive flight network around Siberia and abroad.
- Red Wings
- Ural Airlines
- Nordavia operates domestic and regional services mainly in Northwest region
- Aurora Far East regional air carrier, also serves international flights to Japan and South Korea
- Pobeda Airlines low-cost carrier operates both domestic and international flights from Vnukovo airport
- Nordstar (Taimyr Air Company) domestic and international air carrier
- Azimuth domestic and international low-cost carrier based in Rostov-on-Don and, for some of its flights, in Moscow
Many of these airlines were formed out of the onetime-Aeroflot operation at their home city from Soviet times when the old Aeroflot was broken up.
For remote locations, general aviation can be the fastest option.
In the summer cruise boats are frequent on the rivers in European Russia. Most frequent cruise lines is:
Weekend cruises, from Friday to Sunday
- Moscow – Uglich – Moscow
- Saint-Petersburg – Valaam – Saint-Petersburg.
- Moscow – Konstantinovo – Moscow via Moskva river
Long distance cruises:
- Moscow – Saint-Petersburg via Lakes Ladoga and Onega, 6 nights.
- Moscow – Yaroslavl – Astrakhan with stops in different cities
- Moscow – Yaroslavl – Rostov-on-Don with stops in different cities.
- Moscow – Nizniy Novgorod via Oka river.
These are the main lines, as well as other, more rare routes. Some cruise lines, like Moscow – Saint-Petersburg sold for foreign tourists. Most cruises are roundtrip, but you can use cruise ships to travel between some cities too, if you search for rare one-way routes, like Nizniy Novgorod – Moscow.