Somerville, Mass - I have turned my attention to Moscow, where I am headed next month. Part of my preparations involve trying to convince my oldest and dearest friend, Rebecca, to come visit me while I am there.
I am not sure at all if this is a good idea. Rebecca has the worst travel karma of anybody I know. This is the girl who had to be rescued from a practically sinking sailboat when she went sailing around the Keys. And this is the same person who - while flying from Chicago to LA - bumped her head on the overhead luggage compartment door and ended up with a concussion!
Rebecca assures me that she has had many trouble-free travel adventures. In her defense, I don't remember anything going terribly wrong when I used to tag along on her family vacations to Bar Harbor, Maine, when we were 13. And here we are at Paradise Cove in Malibu - no problems there!
Anyway, last week Rebecca sent me a list of questions about her potential trip. I thought these Frequently Asked Questions might be useful for anyone thinking about traveling to Moscow:
- If I do it - what would be the best time period to look at if I pick a week or 10 days... ??
Now, I think that Rebecca was asking specifically about jiving with my schedule. But for the sake of these FAQs, let me answer this question more generally. The best time of year to go to Moscow is late spring (May or June) or early fall (September or early October). Summer is not bad either, although summer in the city is hot and the theaters are closed. If you don't mind cold weather and dark days, Moscow is beautiful in January and February, when everything is covered in a layer of white snow. Avoid March and April, when the snow turns to slush and the city becomes a massive mudslide.
- What kind of arrangements would I need to make, or would I just stay in whatever room/apt you are in?
Again, I invited Rebecca to stay with me in my apartment, but this does not necessarily apply to the rest of my readership (though it doesn't hurt to ask!). So yes, you are advised to make some kind of advance arrangements for accommodations, especially during the busy summer months. One useful resource is Hotels & Hostels, a part of the Lonely Planet website which posts hotel reviews (written by yours truly!).
Unfortunately, hotels are outrageously expensive in Moscow. There is a dearth of hotels that are decent but not decadent, functional but not fancy. This - more than anything else - is what makes Moscow the most expensive city in the world.
- Is there a better airport I should fly into and a recommended airline?
No recommended airline - just take whatever is cheapest! These days, international flights go in and out of two airports: Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo. Sheremetyevo always had an international terminal. Although it is a pretty bleak place, it was always the nicest airport because it did service the foreigners. Then one day, somebody decided to privatize Domodedovo airport. Suddenly Domodedovo is servicing the likes of British Airways and American Airlines (as of June 2) and the place has undergone a massive rennovation. And suddenly Sheremetyevo seems to be even more of a ghetto.
Personally, I don't care too much about the aesthetics of an airport because I don't intend (key word intend) to spend too much time there. In my opinion, the most important question is: how do you get there? Domodedovo is farther away, but it has a speedy, direct train service that will wisk you there in 40 minutes (not counting travel time to the station, of course).
Sheremetyevo tried to institute a similar service. Unfortunately the train does not quite make it all the way there, so you still have to take a shuttle bus that final leg to Sheremetyevo, for a total travel time of one hour and fifteen minutes. Plus travel time to the station. Which turns into a very long trip indeed.
All this is a very long way of saying that there is no preferred airport; both are equally inconvenient. In either case, I usually end up taking a taxi! And frankly, taking a taxi is not so bad, as long as you make a reservation in advance. If you try to pick up a cab at the airport you'll probably consume your travel budget for a week!
- How much Russian should I try to cram in, or does everyone speak English?
No, everyone does not speak English. People speak English in the modern hotels and the most popular museums, but your average Sasha or Sergei on the street does not. I always recommend that visitors should try to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before they come. (It's not that hard - 36 letters, most of which overlap with our Latin letters!). Then at least you can identify your metro stop or street name when you see it on the sign.
It also helps to learn a few key words and phrases, mainly because it makes people happy if you make a little bit of an effort. At the very least, learn to say "Good Day" (Dobry den). Say it - and smile sweetly - before asking questions of locals; they might respond in kind.
- How do they feel about American girls, traveling alone?
Are you kidding? They love American girls traveling alone! Seriously though, Russia is a very safe place for women to travel. Back in the day, when foreigners in Russia were few and far between, I used to have to deal with unwanted attention. Sometimes it was a random stranger on the street, who would approach me and ask Mozhno poznokomitsa? ("May we be acquainted?") I learned that a polite but firm "Nyet" would usually finish that conversation pretty quickly. There was the occasional (usually drunk) guy that was more persistent, but that was a rarity. Anyway, it seems that now foreigners are less of a novelty and therefore less intriguing than they used to be. At least I attract a lot less attention than I used to. (Anyone who suggests that it has something to do with being 10-15 years older gets banned from this blog.)
- Would I need to bring anything special/important in terms of adapters, papers outside of passport, etc... any medical prep to bring?
Yes to adapters (just like Europe). No to medical prep (no special shots or anything like that). As for papers, everybody needs a visa! This is a three-step process that adds a couple hundred bucks onto everyone's travel bill:
- First, you have to get a letter of invitation, which is issued by a Russian travel agency or other tourist organization. In Moscow, I like Visa House (http://www.visahouse.ru/). The price varies depending what kind of visa you get, but the minimum is about $75 for an invitation for a single-entry 30-day visa. In my case, I need a visa for more than 30 days, so I ended up paying $110 for an invitation for a single-entry, three-month "business" visa.
- 2. Send your passport, invitation and visa application to your nearest Russian consulate, which in my case is in New York (http://www.ruscon.org/). Don't forget to include a money order for $131 (or more if you need a fast turn-around time). Include a prepaid FedEx airway bill and they will send it to you in 6-10 business days.
- Once you arrive in Russia, you must get your visa registered within three days of arrival. If you are lucky, your hotel will do this for you for free. If you are like me, you are not staying in a hotel, in which case the original inviting agency should be able to do it (sometimes for a fee). One of the reasons I like Visa House is that they do not charge to register your visa once you arrive in Moscow. Technically, you are supposed to get registered in every city where you stay three days or more. But the rules are so murky and there is really no way to enforce this. My advice is to register when you first arrive - wherever you arrive - and to register in your city of departure.
Any more questions? Feel free to post them below and I will try to answer. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you in Moscow!