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The Russian Visa
The biggest caveat in planning travel to Moscow is obtaining the visa. Turns out, they make you feel like it is a real crapshoot. You can be permitted or denied on a whim, seemingly for no real reason. It is highly recommended you do not book a non refundable plane ticket in advance of securing your visa.
Before you can even begin to apply for a visa, you need to have a written, stamped invitation or confirmation from the hotel/institution hosting you. I made a reservation with the hotel, and then emailed the concierge for assistance with my invitation documents. I needed to complete a visa request form, in capital ‘block’ letters, typed – not handwritten – text only, including a credit card authorization form. Once completed, I would get the visa support documents. These documents are free for guests of the hotel. However, should I cancel my reservation for some reason, I would be charged 4,000 RUB, hence the credit card form. A few days later, I received a signed, dated and stamped PDF visa support. It was completely in Russian, so I have no idea what it said.
The Visa Processing
I chose to use a visa processing center, Invisa Logistic Services, rather than the consulate solely for the reason that I was able to get an appointment quickly. It was going to cost a little more than the consulate, but since I felt I was cutting it close and didn’t know how this was going to shake out, I was willing to spend the money.
I’d advise that you arrive on time, if not early, for your appointment. There was a lot of competition and few agents to assist. However, the agent at the ILS was very helpful and pleasant. She recommended I request a 3 year visa rather than a single entry visa as it was the same cost.
The most uncomfortable part of the process is knowing your visa is not issued on the spot. Rather, the agency takes your paperwork and passport with the promise of sending it back to you in 7-10 days. It arrived 7 business days and $220 later, from the date of my application in an unmarked, unimpressive cardboard envelope.
Moscow airport, Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO), is quite large in scale but relatively easy to navigate. It is very modern and clean; almost juxtaposition from what you might expect from a country many largely believe is still living in the Cold War era. SVO has a lot of signage in English to direct you where to go. It was relatively easy to exit the gate area and head to customs. Luckily, the line was not too long and moved quickly.
Upon departure, it was even easier to find the ticket counters for my airline and get my carry-on sized. I went right through to the actual passport control; easy and one of the more painless customs areas I have been through.
SVO has ample shopping, both designer and local, and plenty of places to eat. However, the costs of souvenirs and goods were two to three times the cost of the same souvenirs in the heart of Moscow, even in the tourist oriented shops. Try not to buy anything here unless you have to.
Editor’s Note: Moscow has 3 major airports: 1) SVO is popular with SkyTeam airlines (Delta, Aeroflot, Air France, Alitalita, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech, KLM, Korean, ). 2) DME or Domodedovo is popular with Oneworld airlines (British Airways, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Qatar, and S7) and Star Alliance airlines (Lufthansa, Aegean, Air India, Austrian, Brussels, Singapore, Swiss, and TAP). 3) The smallest commercial airport – VKO or Vnukovo is popular if you are using Turkish.
Given the fact that I was traveling alone, renting a car or venturing on to public transportation with luggage was out of the question. I arranged car service from the hotel. This was a wise decision based on the lack of English signs outside the airport. The driver met me outside baggage with a nice big sign with my name, and into the car I climbed.
Traffic between the airport and hotel was impressive and stagnant. The ride took well over an hour, even early in the morning.
Editor’s Note: Uber is available in Moscow. If you don’t have an Uber account, consider signing up with Christina’s referral link – you will get $15 off your first ride.
Location, Location, Location
There are quite a few big name brand hotels right in the vicinity of Red Square, making them within a few block radius of the action. Everything is right next to one another, so you cannot go to the Kremlin Museum, for instance, without tripping over St. Basil’s. Make it easy on yourself – book a hotel near these landmarks. It is more than walkable and easily navigable. The main subway station is also virtually next door, so you can venture farther afield without having to stray far from the hotel.
The Metro has been written about as one of the premier, must see locations in Moscow. And with good reason. It is a marble tunnel of obscenely ornate construction and concrete sculptures, craftsmanship and mosaics. It is also home to the most impossible to read and understand map I have ever had the misfortune of encountering.
I got what they claimed was an English map, but the reality is, it looks pretty much the same as the Russian version. I just tried to match the symbols / letters to determine where I was. That, combined with the fact that the signs in the station are solely in Russian, it is quite a match game no matter how you slice it. It is best to use the map, count the stops, rely on the different colors of the Metro lines and pay close attention.
The Metro itself was inexpensive, clean and efficient. It was easy to buy the ticket and go through the gated ‘turnstiles’ with the electronic Metro card. The tunnels themselves are fascinating and worth checking out even if you have no plans to use the trains.
Tickets and Admission
I bought tickets for the Kremlin Museum prior to my day of arrival and used cell phone screen shots of the confirmation at the ticket will call. I will say the woman working the window was about as friendly and helpful as a Moscow winter. That being said, it is important to have proof of all your internet purchased tickets of admission on your person. Whether it be cell phone or printed versions, it is best to have all the confirmation numbers and any proof of purchase with you rather than verifying by last name, for example. This expedites the process as I witnessed a father daughter duo get into quite kerfuffle trying to explain who they were and what their admission should have been.
Credit cards are accepted everywhere, and ATMs are readily available. I used a card with no foreign transaction fee. I used an ATM to take out cash to spend at the bazaar outside of town. Aside from this, there was no need to use cash in and around the area of Red Square. I did not run into too many instances of needing cash tip, so the cash I got from the ATMs more than covered this need.
When paying with a credit card, always pay in local currency when given the option.
If traveling with American Express, they no longer recommend you call ahead of time to notify them of your travels. However, some other issuing banks may still want that phone call. Review your payment options and ensure your bases are covered to prevent credit card denial when paying for breakfast.
The Ruble is the currency of Russia, so it is not uncommon to see prices with quite a few zeros at the end. At the time of writing, 1 Ruble is equal to about 1.3 US cent. (Let that sink in)
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