Last summer, Jan and I decided to explore more of Russia by train. You probably have heard of the Trans-Siberian railway, the longest railway in the world. There are two main routes: from Moscow to Peking and from Moscow to Vladivostok. We chose the second. In this article, I am presenting you six important things you should consider while planning and being on this journey no matter which route you choose.
On a side note, there is not one Trans-Siberian train. There are many trains connecting major cities in Russia and you can always change trains on the way.
Tip 1: Book early for the best price
You can book your tickets online via the official site of the Russian railway company. We compared a lot of agencies that sell a whole trip to buying tickets by ourselves. Our research shows that buying tickets by yourself saves you at least 30-50% of the agency price. Yes, agencies also offer you guided tours in some cities and some other extras. However, this was not what we were up for. You can book your tickets two months in advance at earliest. Accepted are Visa, Visa Electron, MasterCard, Maestro international payment systems, Visa International, MasterCard International.
The tickets for the latest possible date become available every Monday at noon (Moscow time). A few trains feature seats while there are usually only sleeping carriages. In general, upper beds in a compartment are cheaper than lower beds. Prices go up as beds become scarce which means: the later you buy, the more you pay.
Tip 2: Which class to book?
There are three classes among which you can choose – “platskartnij” (3rd class), “Купе” (compartment, 2nd class) and 1st class (“CB”). Also there is a premium 1st class called “Лукс“ (Luxury) for which you cannot buy tickets online. So, what is the difference?
1st class carriages have only 2-bed-compartments. You have more space and a sink inside the compartment.
2nd class carriages have compartments with four beds. There is, however, only one 2-bed-compartment in each carriage (and they are booked out very fast!).
3rd class carriages have only beds and no compartments. There are four beds on the one side of the aisle and two on the other. Once we got on the carriage we saw an aisle full of feet peering from the beds, especially from the upper beds which were at the height level as our heads.
In each class there is enough space to store your luggage either underneath the bed or above the door. We were lucky to have 2-bed-compartments in 2nd class during most of the train rides and only once 3rd class beds. I have to say that at the upper bed in a 2-bed-compartment there was not enough space for me sit up on my bed (I am 1,73m). Whereas, in the four-bed-compartments there was much more space and people could sit in the upper bed.
Another thing you will see while booking your tickets are the different categories a class is divided into although differences are only minor. Bear in mind that if you book a ticket with a meal you will get only one single meal for the whole journey. Also, in summer, book only carriages that have an AC. Temperatures rise up to 40 degrees Celsius / 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, there are some compartments that are only for women or for men, and there are mixed ones. If you happen to be the first person to book a bed in a compartment in some carriages, you can choose if the other people should have the same sex as yours or you want a mixed one.
Tip 3: Get off every 12-36 hours
There are people who use this j
ourney to reflect on themselves and their lives. They don’t mind being on the train for seven days. We are not those kind of people. We wanted to meet people and see the cities – Novosibirsk, Irkutsk (and the Bailkal lake), Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok. Getting off at only these places was not enough, especially during the part from Ulan-Ude to Vladivostok. We were on the train for three full days and could not wait to reach Vladivostok and leave our small 2-bed-compartment. Therefore, plan your trip carefully! Explore a city, even if only for a day.
Tip 4: Where to buy your food
Before going to the train station go to a supermarket and buy food, a lot of food! Russian passengers always had lots of instant soups with them because hot water is free on the train, and instant food is easy to prepare. Most trains have a restaurant carriage where meals are overpriced and portions are rather small compared to those in Germany (which is also true for restaurants in Russia, in general).
If you run out of food, you still have possibilities to buy some while traveling. The train will stop for about 20-30 min twice a day – once in the morning / at noon and once in the evening. This is when you can get off the train and buy some food, water and, in the summer, ice-cream. If there are no small shops at the train station, there are always women (mostly “babushkas”, which means “grannies”) at the platform selling water, cooked food and snacks. A lot of them cook at home and sell the food right at the platform to earn some money. It is a win for both them and you. Usually you will find “pirozhki” (deep-fried dough filled with potatoes, cabbage, etc.) or “pelmeni” (=dumplings) and, of course, instant soups, as well as sausages, bread and butter. Keep in mind that Russians use a lot of fat to conserve some of the food. Food quality in Russia is generally high!
Tip 5: Be early at the platform
Russian trains are long. Very long. We almost missed our first train because we did not allow for much time. We were literally the last to board the train. You can board the train only at your carriage and most of passenger trains have at least 10 carriages. Trains in Russia tend to be on time, so don’t rely on delays! Therefore, I recommend you to be at the platform at least 20 min before announced departure.
Keep in mind that in some cities the central railway station is divided into two separate stations. One is only for suburban trains and the other one is for long-distance trains. In Novosibirsk, we confused the two stations. Luckily, we were there 30 min before departure, so we still had enough time to change stations.
Tip 6: Time Zone vs Time at the Railway station
Russia has eleven time zones. Trains, however, depend on Moscow time. This means that if your train departs from Novosibirsk at noon according to your ticket, then this is to say that your train departs at noon of Moscow time! Actually, your train departs at 4 p.m. Novosibirsk time. Accordingly, all railway stations show Moscow time, even in Vladivostok!
All the best,
P.S.: Check our video on how we enjoyed Russia!
P.P.S.: Check out our Route Map to see where we are!