After living in Alaska for much of my childhood, with Russian culture so close by, I’ve wanted to go to that country since I was in high school. Our town was the capitol city when Alaska was a Russian territory, so we still had an historic Russian cemetery and a Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian governor’s house was still a tourist attraction, and we had a restaurant that served borscht and a couple stores that sold Russian souvenirs. When I was a kid I had books full of colorful Russian fairy tales in English and matrushka dolls mixed in with my other toys. So imagine how excited I was to finally be able to plan our first big trip from London…to Russia!

St. Michael's Cathedral, Sitka, Alaska

St. Michael’s Cathedral, Sitka, Alaska.

There are two ways that you can get to Russia as a tourist…go with an organized tour or go independently. I looked at a couple of tours but didn’t find anything that really fit what we were looking for…plus we would be traveling with a three-year-old, which requires a bit of flexibility. If you do decide to go independently, I’d like to point out that there are two main things that differ from your average travel around Europe.

RUSSIAN TOURIST VISAS

The first one is visas. If you are an American and plan on visiting Russia, you will need a tourist visit. If you are going through Russia on your way to somewhere else and will be in the country for less than 72 hours, you will need a transit visa. The only time that you do not need a visa is if you are on a cruise ship, come into town with a registered group and return to the ship at night.

Sample Russian tourist visa.

Sample Russian tourist visa.

I am happy to say that I had no problems at all getting our tourist visas. I simply went through the website for Russian visas services called VFS Global, filled out the (extensive!) applications online, printed them, signed them and mailed them along with our tourist passports to the Russian Visa Center in London. They then send them on to the Russian Embassy for processing and then return them to you by mail. We had them back less than two weeks after I’d put them in the mail. A friend of mine that was also planning a trip around the same time decided to go to the embassy in person…and ended up being called back two more times. So I’m all about mailing them in.

But be prepared for the cost. The handling fee for the visa center is about $45 USD per application. The visas themselves are about $115 USD each. So a family of three is looking at about $450 just to get the visas. I had pretty much booked our entire trip before I found this out. If I’d known ahead of time I probably would’ve added a few more days to make it worth the extra expense. (Plus our son’s daycare ended up being closed for the holidays for two weeks, so we really could’ve taken advantage of the extra time away).

CONCIERGE SERVICES

The other thing that I would like to mention is the hotel concierge. I had never bothered to use them before, but if you are staying in a hotel in Russia, they are an invaluable resource. For one thing, you will need an official invitation to enter the country. The hotel can easily produce this and send it to you via email. You must then include it in your visa application package.

Our hotel concierge in St. Petersburg was also very helpful when it came to train tickets and restaurant reservations. I really do like to do everything myself. But there’s only so much you can accomplish when the Russian site for train tickets keeps timing out on you. A simple email to the concierge (plus a small administration fee), and we had three train tickets to Moscow waiting for us at the hotel.

The entrance to our hotel, the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic.

The entrance to our hotel, the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic.

Many Russian restaurants don’t have email addresses. So unless you’d like to make an international phone call to make a dinner reservation, just send another email to the concierge, and it’s a simple local call for them. They can also tell you if the restaurant is closed for the holidays or has closed permanently, which is a common occurrence.

Anyway, that’s my two rubles worth. Happy travels!

 

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