My husband and I have been invited to Ekaterinburg, Russia, by a friend for two weeks. What is the best way to take money for expenses and to pay for our hotel?
I spent 5 days in Russia this summer. I barely used cash, mostly to buy the odd metro ticket (but you will usually buy a card, so you might not need cash). Hotel, supermarket, etc., were not an issue with my card. In any case, ATMs were plenty.
So I would suggest to plan on using the card mostly, have a debit card in case you need to obtain cash. Bring some US dollars, a few to exchange initially to have some change, and maybe a few hundred carefully stowed for an emergency.
The simplest way is to just bring a bank card — credit or debit, Visa or Mastercard or Maestro. In big cities (and Ekaterinburg is definitely one of them) cards are accepted at almost all decent hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. In rather rare cases you will have to pay cash — in public transport (though I don't know about Ekaterinburg specifically, maybe they already accept cards even on transport), in taxi (depending on taxi company), in restaurants for tipping, etc. For those cases, plenty of ATMs are available to supply you with rubles cash charging your card.
However, note that you card will be charged in rubles, and it is up to your US bank to convert the sum to dollars to actually charge your account. Therefore, find out the rates and any fees in advance. The exchange rate will most probably change following the market rate, but at least find out how much bank's rate differs from market rate. I do not have much experience with US banks, but in reversed situation (paying abroad by Russian card) the exchange rate imposed by bank is usually very decent.
Also, ask whether your bank allows to use the card abroad at all. You might need to specifically inform the bank that you are going to Russia, so that they will not consider the transactions as fraudlent. A good idea may be to have cards of two banks for a case if one bank refuses a transaction.
You can also bring dollars in cash. There are plenty of exchange offices to exchange dollars to rubles and back, they often display exchange rates outside (example with Google apparently hiding some digits). However, not every exchange will offer you a good rate, and many are closed on weekends and holidays.
Also (as VMAtm notes in comments) beware that many currency exchanges in Russia refuse to accept dollar (and any other foreign currency) bills that have a least signs of being worn. Once I needed to exchange some Euros that were new and crispy — I just withdraw them from another bank, — but unfortunately I have folded them. The cashier did exchange them, but also said that their condition (the fact that they have ever been folded) was on borderline of what they accept.
Checks are of absolutely no use in Russia. You can not pay with them anywhere, and you can cash them only in few Russian bank with rather hight comission ($20-$40).