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Travel advice and tips for a western traveller to Russia

  • Let's start from packing for the trip. It takes some discipline, and you must be aware that airlines can charge one percent of a first-class fare for every kilogram over the limit, which will be about $20-50 per kilogram (1 kg = approximately 2.2 lbs). If you travel by local Russian airlines, the limit for the checked baggage is 20 kg (approximately 44 lbs), and they will not allow a single pound over the limit unpaid. If you are going to bring back some souvenirs/books, try to ensure your bag doesn't weigh more than 15 kg (33 lbs), so you have a few kilos spare for all those shopping you will do.

  • The recommended dress code for Russia is smart casual, or formal (the better you dress, the better people will think about you). You cannot be overdressed in Russia, only if you go on a hiking trip in your tuxedo. Foreigners in Russia are recognized a mile away for their dressing: blue jeans, a checked shirt and a t-shirt under the shirt. Russians do not dress like this. I would not recommend wearing shorts as they are considered a disgrace, but if you go on your own and want everybody around to know you are a foreigner, do wear shorts. What about women, they do not feel comfortable in a company of a man in shorts, even if she won't admit it.

  • The best time to travel to Russia is summer, which is the raining season as well. It is a good idea to invest in a small umbrella and thin raincoat that can be tucked away into a daypack. In any season of the year, including summer, be prepared for an occasional cold (5-7 degrees C, or 41-44 F). In winter all places in Russia have central heating but you must be prepared for those short periods that you may spend outside. Check average temperatures at the place you plan to visit, and take some cold medicine, just in case.

  • Ensure you have one pair of comfortable walking shoes, especially if you travel in the summer and another pair that can be worn to dinner. I would recommend having a suit, a tie and a dress shirt for special occasions.

  • Almost everything you need for your trip is less expensive if brought from home and if you are not fluent in Russian, not easy to buy in Russia.

  • Electricity throughout Russia is 220 volt. The plug is 2 pin thin European standard. If you travel from outside Europe, you will need a converter for electrical items.

  • BIG warning! Do not drink tap water in Russia. Buy drinking water in bottles. If you buy mineral water, ask for the one that is not salted.

  • Insects are not a major problem in Russia if you spend most of your time in cities and towns, except for mosquitoes. At night mosquitoes can be quite irritating; if you are sensitive to them, take an anti-repellent with a nice smell.

  • It is NOT recommended to use traveller's checks on your trip to Russia; rather use hard currency, preferably US dollars and Euros. It is easily exchangeable for Rubles at recognized official foreign exchange kiosks. There are probably more dollar notes in use in Russia than in the USA! You will be requested to produce your passport for the exchange; save the receipts they give you, just in case - you may be asked on the border what you did with the money that you brought in. NEVER EVER be tempted to exchange money for a better rate with anyone else, or you may get yourself into trouble. You must also know that currency exchange with private people is illegal in Russia. Major Russian and Ukrainian cities have ATM machines to draw cash, and some restaurants/shops will also accept credit cards (Visa or Master Card) but those will be the most expensive places, too. Russia generally is not on credit cards; they pay cash for everything. Checks will not be accepted in Russia; they don't know what it is.

  • If you are invited to visit people at home, you are expected to bring a small gift. A decent bottle of wine and/or bunch of flowers will do. If there are kids, bring something for them, too. The gifts don't have to be expensive; it is attention that counts. If you don't bring anything, they will think you are greedy.

  • Don't forget your camera and batteries for the camera. 

  • You will need a visa to enter Russia. Russian visas must be obtained in advance and are not sold at the airport on your arrival. You will need a passport and an invitation or travel voucher to apply for a visa. The best is to deal with a knowledgeable travel agent who will take care of all your travel arrangements, including visa, or go on a tour organized by a trustworthy agency. (You can apply for your invitation to Russia online) If you travel with a US passport, no visa is required for Ukraine. 

  • It's not appropriate in the Russian culture to smile at strangers and smiles are reserved for friends and acquaintances only. People in Russian streets usually have somber expressions and may be uncomfortable if you as a stranger smile at them. Nowadays Russian cities are more use to foreigners. 
  • When speaking English in Russia, speak very slowly and use only very simple expressions and words, pronounce all words clearly. Even Russians who speak English struggle to understand different accents and you need to speak in a very simple language.
  • Most Russians use public transport: subway, buses, trolleybuses and trams. Traffic in Eastern Europe including Russia is right-sided as in the U.S.A. Foreigners usually use taxis. Have your hotel administrator to write down the name of the place you are going to in Russian, so that you can show it to the taxi driver. Always carry your hotel card with you.

Read the following before visiting a girl in Russia.

  • These days one can book a hotel in virtually in any Russian city online, often with huge discounts. Check the prices online and also ask your girlfriend to recommend a few good hotels close to her place. It's better to stay in a hotel for your first visit, so that you don't have to rely on your Russian girlfriend for everything and have the service that is close to what you are used to at home. Most hotels have good security and English-speaking personnel. Women feel uncomfortable with men who ask to stay at her place during the visit. If you want this relationship to work, give it the best chance by booking a hotel for yourself - even if the woman invites you to stay with her.
  • When entering a Russian home, you should remove your shoes. Russians do not wear street shoes at home. You will be offered a pair of slippers, or you can remain in your socks.
  • You will be usually offered food and drinks when visiting a private home. There may be many dishes served and you are supposed to try all of them. Try not to leave anything on the plate as you may offend the hosts, so take only a small helping to try first. Even if you do not drink alcohol, take a small sip from your glass. You may be asked to finish your drink, if you don't want to do it, you have to offer a proper excuse. 

Enjoy your trip!

Russian winter is definitely not the best time to visit Russia. The temperatures of 20-25 C below zero (minus 4 F) are nothing special. (On the picture: VIZ boulevard, Ekaterinburg, Russia)

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