Here are some general travel tips as you plan a visit to Russia:
GET A VISA
To travel to Russia, you need to apply for a visa. (NOTE: This is only true for Russia. If you’re traveling to Ukraine, you do NOT need a visa for stays of less than three months.)
Any reputable Russian travel agency or hotel can get you a visa support letter which you’ll need for the Visa application. Rules change all the time, though, so it’s best to check with the Russian embassy in your country. (Just go to a search engine and type in the name of your country, followed by ‘Russian embassy.’)
One tip: If you plan on leaving the country and then coming back in — say, to visit Ukraine and then head back to Moscow — you need a double entry visa.
CARRY YOUR PASSPORT WITH YOU EVERYWHERE:
In Russia, it’s best to carry a photocopy of your passport with you at all times. Now, within three days of arriving, you need to register at what’s known as OVIR, which is essentially the local police. It sounds scary but it’s not. Likely you won’t even do it yourself. Someone from the hotel will run down your passport there and handle it for you. The main point though, is, you might be without your passport for a day or two, but they give you an official receipt in the meantime. And sure enough, our second day in Moscow, the police stopped my friend Jeff and I in the street and asked for our documents. Since our passports were at OVIR I showed them the receipts we had and they smile and walked away.
A good tip: Bring two good color copies of your passport with you. Keep one in your suitcase and another somewhere else. And I personally email myself a color scan of my passport, too. Better safe than sorry.
BRING A CONVERTER:
The electrical current in Russia is 220 volts and they use the standard 2-prong European plug. If you forget your converter you can usually find one at just about any electronics store, or the hardware section of the local bazzar.
DRINK BOTTLED WATER:
Many people even go to the extreme of brushing their teeth with bottled water, though for me that’s one step too far. After all, water is bound to touch your lips when you take a shower. It’s not like you’re trying to avoid any contact at all. But yes, it’s a good idea to drink only bottled water.
BRING CASH & DON’T BRING TRAVELERS CHECKS:
I made that mistake once. I must’ve spent an hour in the bank in St. Petersburg trying to simply explain to them what a traveler’s check even is. No luck. So bring cash. If U.S. currency, try to bring crisp bills. I’ve had the cashiers at the currency exchange windows refuse what I considered quality bills due to a slight tear or look of age.
Tip: Be sure to tell your bank where you’re going and that you plan to use your ATM and/or credit cards. This way (as has happened to me more than once) they won’t put a freeze on your card when they detect what seems to them as suspicious activity.
TIP BY ROUNDING UP:
This is how many Russians seem to tip. They round up and say, “Na chai”. (Literally: “For tea”, which means, “Keep the change,” essentially.) So, if the cab fare is 225 rubles, you’d give 250 and tell the driver, “Na chai.”
LEARN SOME RUSSIAN BEFORE YOU GO:
Russians lag far behind the English skills of central Europe, and so be prepared that very few people in Russian speak even passable English. And thus, do yourself a favor and learn a bit of Russian before you go. The Russian language is much, much easier than is commonly thought. There are far fewer sounds than in English. Things are almost always written as they sound. There are tons of borrowed words in Russian. (And so you already know the words for passport, toilet, cafe, coffee, pizza, telephone, television, etc. These words are nearly identical in Russian to their English versions.) Check out some of these resources for learning Russian.