I’ve had enough people ask me logistical questions about my trip to Russia that I decided to do a writeup about it:

 

Prepping for Russia

  • Do plenty of research and decide if you really want to go and where. I won’t spend much time here on that because I already discussed that.
  • Get a visa. Russia requires citizens of most of the world to obtain a visa. If you’re not a passport holder of one of these nations, you need a visa. You may also not need a visa if you’re planning to spend less than 72 hours in Russia in transit. As of the time of this post, the in-transit visa only applies to land and sea transit. So if you want to explore St. Petersburg on a cruise stop from Helsinki, this will work. But not if you have, say, a 12-hour layover in Moscow and want to leave the airport. Also, if the transit visa will work for you, you still have to “belong” to some entity while you’re in Russia so the cruise line or your host in-country will have to register you. I didn’t take that route though so I don’t have exact info about it.
  • The visa process:
    • Instead of reinventing the wheel, here’s the guide I followed that lists very clear step-by-step directions for the visa process.
    • Worth noting: If you know your lodging plans, email or call the hotel and ask them for the visa invitation letter (also called visa support). Most hotels will supply it to you for free as long as you actually stay in their hotel once you arrive in Russia. If you cancel or change your plans, the hotel will then charge your credit card a fee for the visa support they provided you. If you don’t know your lodging yet, there are companies that will sell you the visa support  a la carte for a fee. I googled and chose a company that charged $30 (though there are companies that charge less), paid my fee and had my support letter within 10 minutes by email. Very simple. I actually also ended up obtaining a second letter from my hotel in St. Petersburg because the original visa support I obtained was from a company in Moscow and I didn’t want any problems when I arrived in-country. I discovered I didn’t have to do that though. The support letter is used only to obtain the visa and no one ever asked to see it once I got to Russia.
    • I live in NC and the nearest Russian embassy is in DC so I was not making that drive. I opted to use Travisa and I hiiiiiiiiighly recommend their services. Yes, the visa itself is expensive ($198) and yes there is an extra fee for using a visa processing agency ($98 for Travisa) but it was such a worry-free process and you’ll have an online account with Travisa that allows you to know what’s happening every step of the way. You’ll know when your application gets to them, when they review it, when they take it to the embassy, when they pick it up, when they ship it back to you. Every step. Plus, my application reviewer noticed a mistake on my application and helped me get it corrected within two hours of my packet arriving to their office. From the day I shipped them my application until the day I got my passport/visa back was a total of eight days and I didn’t even pay for the expedited service.
    • As a US citizen, apply for the multiple entry three-year passport, setting your end date exactly three years minus one day from your start date (for example March 18, 2016 to March 17, 2019). If you use a visa agency, they will make sure the dates are right.
    • Take care regarding Russian holidays. I sent my visa application for processing in January but the whole embassy/country of Russia shuts down for a week in January for the new year.
    • Documents I ended up including in my packet: passport, signed visa application (which is rather lengthy but not overly invasive), passport photos and visa support letter. That’s all that’s required. I also read that I needed to send proof of medical insurance coverage valid for Russia so I included a printout of the part of my BCBS insurance that says I’m covered internationally. Travisa told me I didn’t have to send that though.
    • A confirmed itinerary is not required for the visa process.
  • Register with the Dept. of State Safe Traveler Program (or your country’s equivalent) so you’ll get updates and info on any issues in Russia.
  • Make sure anyone you tell about your trip is supportive and won’t fill your head with unnecessary worry and fear. This is key to remaining excited about your trip instead of anxious about it.

 

In-Country

  • Be prepared to be scrutinized while passing customs. If you go through with no issues, kudos to you. But if the customs agents take forever examining your passport or call for back-up or start making phone calls, don’t panic. You’ve done nothing wrong. And you probably look different, or you’re American, or whatever. They’re just being Russian.
  • Again, because I was a tad anxious about this trip, I pre-arranged a private transport through Lingo Taxi. Would use them again without hesitation in any country. The process was smooth and safe, I was allowed to pay in cash in euro once I was safely to my destination (21 euro plus tip), and the driver who picked me up, Elena, spoke English. I have nothing negative to say about this company. They’re awesome. Now in hindsight, an uber would have been fine. Also every guide ever says don’t use the local taxis at the airport because they’ll try to scam you. So I’d say avoid those.
  • Your hotel will register you because you have to “belong” to someone in Russia. This is usually about 300 rubles (like $4).
  • Logistics-wise, that’s it. Have fun! Make sure to keep your passport on you at all times. I also split my money up between a bum bag and RFID money bag that I wore under my coat but that ended up being totally unnecessary. Never felt in any danger whatsoever while I was there. Never felt that anyone was even trying to get close enough to me to pick my pockets or skim my cards. Not a thing.

 

Airport: Pulvoko (LED), distance to the city center: about 25 minutes by car

Transportation: Uber is as safe as anywhere else and also very cheap in St. Petersburg. The metro is also extremely cheap, 35 rubles (about 50 cents) for a one way token/trip including transfers. Buy one way tokens at the automated kiosks inside the metro stations.

City Center: Nevsky Prospekt is the main thorough fare through the city center. The majority of shops and restaurants are along the Prospekt. Don’t be fooled by out-of-scale maps of the city. St. Petersburg blocks are very long.

Things to Do/Sights to See:

  • Hop On Hop Off busses cover ground on all the must-see sights throughout the city and can be used for transportation around town also
  • Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
  • The Hermitage Museum
  • Russian Ballet – a MUST while in Russia. Whether you’re a fan of ballet or not, you may be a fan after the Russian ballet
  • River cruise (during the summer months)
  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral
  • Catherine Palace in nearby Pushkin (about 30 km outside of St. Petersburg) – good during summer months
  • Try traditional Russian foods: borsch soup, blini (savory crepes)
  • Kazan Cathedral
  • Faberge Museum
  • so much more!

 

Safety:

Practice typical big-city safety measures. Russia has a reputation for overt racism against persons of African or Asian descent. While I was there in March 2016, I experienced no racism and no treatment out of the ordinary beyond two or three curious glances. Shop owners and restaurant staff were very welcoming. Uber was safe. Police officers paid little to no attention to me on the streets. I also experienced no problems on the metro, besides it being busy and crowded. St. Petersburg is heralded as the “Window to the West” and the “Venice of the North” so there are more Europeans living in the city and foreigners are more accepted by the locals. Residents of St. Petersburg describe a stark difference from Moscow.

 

Leaving Russia

Looooooooord my ordeal getting out of Russia! Trust, I’m doing an entirely separate post on that because it deserves it. It’s the only time I actually felt like I had a problem in Russia and honestly, it was a tiny teeny bit scary. Maybe I was never in any danger but that’s not how it felt at the time. Read about it here.

But regardless, relish in the fact that you just went to Russia and you have great stories to tell about it. People will react as though you’ve gone to the moon.

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