Get Your Visas Well in Advance
American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and European Union citizens all need visas to visit Russia. A recent US-Russia agreement has seen the visa application procedure for US citizens somewhat eased. The main benefit to come out of the new arrangements is that Americans can now receive 3-year tourist visas rather than the previous maximum of 1 month, although individual visits are limited to 6 months. Despite the fact that the need for official invitations has been dropped, a travel voucher or hotel confirmation letter is still required. Other possible requirements include bank or income statements, a travel insurance policy and other such documents. The exact application procedure can vary depending upon the Russian consulate at which the application is made.
Given the relative complexity of applying, using the services of a visa or travel agency is highly recommended. When you finally have the visa in hand, make sure you check such details as its beginning and ending dates (note that Russians write the day prior to the month, e.g. 31.12.2013 for December 31, 2013), the spelling of your name and your sex. Russian border guards don’t look kindly upon people showing up with an unintended sex change.
Look After Your Migration Card
Upon entering Russia, you’ll be issued with a migration card – either already filled in if crossing at one of Moscow’s major airports or otherwise blank, requiring it to be filled in (English is fine). The rather inconsequential-looking slip of paper is more important than you think. You will be need it to register at hotels and to leave the country – it’s valuable, so don’t lose it. Registration is Required Every foreign tourist is required to be registered in Russia within 7 working days of arriving. Normally, this is done automatically at any hotel where you stay, but if you’re staying with friends or family, a trip to the local post office will be necessary in order to take care of this.
Take the Airport Express in Moscow
Do yourself a favor and use the convenient airport express train services that run from all of Moscow’s airports. There are 2 flavors available – regular and business-class – and they speed you directly to one of the intercity train stations, which are located on the ring line of the metro (subway), allowing for easy transfers.
Avoid using the airport taxis if possible – they’re expensive, and Moscow’s traffic jams are legendary. There is still no express service in St. Petersburg, so it’s either the bus or a taxi.
Take the metro to get around. Both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the subway system is the most convenient – and inexpensive – means of transportation. What’s more, in Moscow the metro is a must-see tourist attraction in its own right, with stations that more resemble palaces than public transportation halls. One word of advice is to try to avoid using either metro system during peak hours (8 am-10 am and 5 pm-7 pm) when the crush can be somewhat overwhelming.
Use the Pedestrian Underpasses and be Careful on the Zebra Crossings
Just a few years ago, zebra crossing (aka crosswalks) were more of a suggested crossing point than a spot were cars were obliged to stop. Things have changed for the better, but nonetheless watch out for cars that fail to give way – there are still plenty of them around.
Fortunately there is help at hand in the form of pedestrian underpasses, which can be found at just about every major street corner and along most busy roads. Just keep an eye out for the blue sign depicting a stick figure walking down a flight of stairs.
Don’t Drink the Tap Water in St. Petersburg
Avoid drinking the tap water in St. Petersburg – while the water leaving purification plants is fine, the aging water-pipe system can let the purified water become contaminated with dirty city ground water. People have become sick with the water-borne disease Giardia after drinking St. Petersburg’s tap water in the past. In most places, water comes out of the taps in every color of the rainbow and with a decidedly “swampy” smell. Best to skip it in all but the most upmarket hotels where serious additional filters are installed.
Learn the Alphabet
If you’re coming for more than a couple of days, do yourself a favor and get acquainted with the Russian alphabet. It’s really not that hard. Besides being practical, it’s fun to sound out the names of dishes on menus – you’ll be surprised at how many you recognize.