Most Russians travel by train, which is not surprising since the train system is quite well developed, comfortable, and can be much less expensive than flying. For those interested in experiencing everyday Russian culture, a train trip is a not-to-be-missed adventure!
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It’s better to buy tickets as early as possible because they get more expensive as time goes on. Please note as well that all prices are one way and you must purchase two tickets separately. The Russian train system no longer offers student discounts.
There are two options to buy tickets: online, and at the station. Online is usually the easiest because you can do it in advance, buy straight from the rail company, and they have their website in English.
If you buy online, tickets, you will receive an electronic ticket. We recommend that you print this ticket, just in case there are any questions – but usually you can just show up with your passport once the electronic ticket is purchased.
There will be some ticket/train options to choose from
Your biggest decision will be between kupe tickets (купе—”compartment”), which will provide you a bed in a closed compartment with three other passengers, and platskart tickets (плацкарт—”economy class”) provide you a bed in an open carriage with about forty other passengers. Each option entails its own advantages and disadvantages.
The platskart wagon – beds and people everywhere!If you cross an international border, you will need to prepare for this. For those on our programs, SRAS requires that you read our Visa Information page before departing your home country so that you understand your legal obligations concerning your visit to Russia.
At the border, face a long process where 3-4 different officials will go through each cabin checking passports, luggage, looking around for contraband, illegal immigrants, etc. The border guard will take your passport (where the visa is glued in) and your migration card. Usually they leave for a time, then return with both documents stamped and return them to you.
There can occasionally be some unpredictable moments on the train and it seems at times that each border control station has its own understanding of various points of the law. Also, for those entering via Europe with single-entry visas, do not plan on stopping in Kaliningrad on your way to “mainland” Russia. Your entry into Kaliningrad will use up your only entry visa and you will not be able to enter again.
If you will be entering Russia with more than $10,000 in cash or goods, you will need to declare these to customs. SRAS highly discourages traveling with items of such value. If you need to do this for some reason and are on an SRAS program, consult your SRAS representative first.
While there are theoretical weight limits for luggage, the real limit is if your luggage will fit in your assigned space. Generally, you should pack for the train as light as possible. Especially if you are only going for a weekend, take a backpack and save yourself some hassle.
Newer trains will have luggage compartments below the bottom bunk and above the top bunk, giving each person about 3 feet by 6 feet of space to store their items. Older trains have luggage only below the bottom bunk –meaning that you’ll be sharing the space with someone else.
If you need additional luggage space, a luggage carriage is available on most Trans-Siberian trains (and many other long-distance trains). However, you cannot book space there in advance. You must come to the train station early to book and pay for extra luggage space.
Some things you may want with you on the train:
o Pictures of home. Russians love to see these!
o Notebook/address book for contact info of new friends
o Pocket dictionary. (You will probably learn some new words talking to people!)
Cell reception can be spotty on trains, particularly for Internet access.
Make sure you understand your tickets and know what station you will be leaving from (larger cities often have a few!). Also, make sure you look for the long-distance train timetable and not the prigorodni (commuter rail) schedule. These will usually be in separate parts of the station. Timetables will indicate train number, destination, scheduled departure time, actual departure time, and track number.
At each track, there will also be a sign with the train number, time of departure, and destination. Be aware of arrival and departure delays or last minute track number changes. Although any delays or last minute changes are announced, they are usually announced only in Russian. If you do not understand the announcements or feel uncertain about anything, address the Spravochnaya (Information) window, usually in the main hall. You may find that they also only speak Russian, but just show them your ticket and they will point you in the right direction. You can also try asking other travelers.
When looking for your wagon, look for numbers that are on a white sign in the window near the door of each wagon. Don’t be alarmed if train cars don’t appear to be in order. This is common. Ask the provodnik (wagon attendant) in front of each wagon if you don’t know where to go.
When you find your wagon, hand the provodnik your passport (and ticket if you have it printed or on your phone). They will check the information on their phone/tablet and direct you where to go. If you have an actual ticket, they might take it then, or once you are already on the train. When everything has been checked and confirmed, head onto the train!
The ticket lady will come around to re-inspect traveler’s information early on. For overnight trains, there will also be someone that comes by with sheets and hand towels. If you have a ticket “services” are not included in the ticket price – for which there is usually a charge of around 100-200 RUR or so. Always opt in for the sheets because otherwise you will be stuck either sleeping with someone’s old sheets, or sleeping on the same mattress and pillow that everyone uses without anything.
Many Russians will change into tracksuits or shorts and tapochki (slippers). You may be asked to step out of the cabin for a minute to allow people to change if on kupe, or just head to the bathroom to change there (but try not to take too long). You will only need this one outfit for the train, most people sleep and spend their days in this outfit on long distance trains; fashion is not a concern on trains.
There are only two toilets per 35-40 people (second class) and for 18 people (1st class). Mornings and evenings there are lines. Especially in the morning, passengers can take a remarkable amount of time in a space you personally wouldn’t want to spend more than necessary in. There is usually always toilet paper and paper towels, but if not, just tell the provodnik, and they will put some in. The bathrooms are also usually clean, but of course with 40 people using them, they can get dirty. Do not forget your tapochiki there as well. Bringing bottled water to brush your teeth with is a good idea.
Vendors will usually come by at least once selling drinks, chips, peanuts, etc. Tea and coffee are almost always available, just ask (and pay) the provodnik (wagon attendant). There is also a large hot water boiler on each wagon for free hot water if you ask. On long-distance trains you will stop for 15-45 minutes at some stations and passengers will disembark to stretch and buy food from the babushki that make extra money selling baked goods there. Often these are quite good, but the quality can be questionable at times. Stick with non-meat/non-dairy options; cabbage and potato piroshky are usually a good bet! Lastly, your traveling companions may offer you food – it is impolite not to at least try what you are offered, and you should preferably have something to offer in return (bringing fruit or candy is recommended for the socialable!)
Always keep your valuables with you. It’s best to take your purse/wallet/phone with you when you leave the bed area, and also to put them under your pillow when you sleep.
Note that the provodnik will make every effort to wake people up an hour before arrival, but make sure to set a quiet alarm anyways. There will be a line for the toilet in the morning and, if you are on a train that still has an older style bathroom (not the bio-toilet), the toilet is locked about 15-20 minutes before stops.
From Sarah Kapp, SRAS student 2008
From Katya Grigerman, SRAS student 2019