I just booked a Russian train on the Russian railways website without any help from an agency! It was actually… pretty easy.
I went all out (not really, just second class, but it feels like all out because you’ll see) and booked the Red Arrow – Кра́сная стрела́ or Krasnya Strela – possibly the most historic train in Russia. It’s the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow, and it’s been running nearly uninterrupted since 1931.
Nerd time: It’s train number is 001A. For the first train I take within Russia, I may as well start at the beginning, right?
AND. AND. AND. It just gets cooler because apparently they play ‘The Hymn to the Great City’ as the train leaves the station at 23.55. How fucking GRAND is that? It gets a sendoff EVERY NIGHT.
Plus, look at where I’ll be sleeping:
And to top it ALL OFF, you even get breakfast. You know how I love breakfast. I got to choose based on dietary requirements. There were pictures!
I fail to see how any of this won’t be incredibly exciting even though I’m supposed to be asleep most of the time. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t sleep much.)
I had originally planned on booking everything through Real Russia, who are SUPERHEROES by the way. They have the most amazing customer service ever, including near-instant chat support for whenever I had another slightly panicked question about Russian or Chinese visa applications. I’d have been lost without them. Plus their booking engine has the option to view all the Russian timetables in local time rather than just Moscow time, which makes things much easier on the brain.
I did book a few things through them, as well as getting my Russian visa support document. (I’d have done both my visas fully through them if I’d been in London, but more on that in a future ALL ABOUT THE VISAS post.) But after reading a few blogs about booking yourself and Seat 61’s guide to the English version of rzd.ru (the Russian Railways website), I decided I could spend a bit of extra time in exchange for saving some money.
AND ALSO feeling like a boss for working out the whole timetables and some-things-still-in-Cyrillic thing.
I mean, I’m going to have to do it when I’m there so why not start now! Plus I really like Cyrillic – it’s nice to look at. The only word I can yet recognise – because I’ve seen it a BILLION times now – is ‘вокзал’ (which is ‘railway station’) but, you know, it’s a process.
The English on rzd.ru isn’t perfect, and all the image-based ads and stuff are still in Russian, but as long as you do the whole check and double-sense-check your timings and have Google Translate open for the odd thing or two, it’s absolutely doable. (Thank you, Google Translate, you are and will remain throughout the next few months, my hero.)
They don’t seem to email you your e-tickets like most rail systems, but they’re all stored in your account and it says that you can download them to your phone to show if you don’t want to print them. I’m going to print anyway to be safe, but it’s nice to know I guess. And I think some of the trains I’m looking at don’t have electronic tickets, so it will be nice to get a real live Russian train ticket to save.
As for credit cards, I did have a slight hitch there, which wasn’t a surprise after what I’d read online. It declined my built-for-international-use Llloyds Avios MasterCard (twice), but it accepted my RBS Visa Debit. Slightly annoying as I’ll probably get an international charge for that whereas I wouldn’t have on the credit card, but whatever. I just keep waiting for the fraud team to call, because surely it’s not every day someone buys a Russian rail ticket online. I’ve gotten calls for way more normal things. Lloyds does fraud control by text (which is actually pretty great) but I didn’t even get one of those after being declined twice. Who knows how they decide this stuff?
It definitely would have been much more straightforward getting Real Russia to do this work for me, and I’d HIGHLY recommend them if you can’t be arsed. They’re not THAT much more expensive, and they are utterly fantastic. Plus I’m still double checking my timings with their local-time-d version of the railway timetables.
Anyway, I’ve got a few more trains to book and I’m currently trying to see if I can cut out Yekaterinburg as an overnight stop. It’s hard to pick a stop to lose, but if I don’t, I’ll just be running around like crazy not really seeing much. Also, I REALLY want to spend a good chunk of time on the train. Enforced chillaxing. So I don’t want to only be doing overnight stints without any full days on the train reading and staring out windows and sharing vodka and snacks with Russians.