While you will generally experience a strong language barrier, the public transport system should be the least of your worries. With a bit of beforehand knowledge it can be an easy, interesting and safe experience during your stay.
Airports are traditionally the most foreigner-friendly places in any country. You will find most signs and information in English (and sometimes even Chinese) and many employees will have at least a basic understanding of English. Right after you arrive, you will simply follow the other passengers from the plane to the passport check. In many airports there are many counters and some specifically say "Only for Russian citizens" while others are titled "All Passports", but in most cases it does not matter in which line you stand. It might be that a woman directs you in which line to stand, in which case it's probably best to follow that. When it is your turn, hand them your passport (and boarding pass when exiting the country) and be prepared to sign your migration card. This is an important document that (the size of a passport page) that will be taken from you again when you leave the country. Don't lose it! When you are through the passport check, take your luggage and head out through the customs channel. There will be many taxi drivers offering you rides, but you should very much avoid driving with one of them. This is a common rip-off strategy where they will drive you somewhere and afterwards extort an extremely high fare from you (10 or more times higher than the regular fare would have been). Instead, try to catch a bus.
Most airports are connected to the city's regular bus lines. The stops are often marked with an A (for "avtobus"). In most cities you can enter at any door and sit down without a ticket. A conductor, who is easily recognizable by her bright jacket, coil of tickets and sometimes electronic validator, will walk around and sell tickets. No need to talk very much: the fare is mostly printed over the door (something like 20 - 50 RUB) and you can simply hand her that amount. To clarify it doesn't hurt to say you want one ticket: just say "adín", where the accent marks the emphasis of the word. Sometimes luggage costs extra, so you might need to buy two tickets. You will receive a small paper ticket with 6 numbers. Russians sometimes check if they have a "lucky ticket" (счастливый билет) by comparing the sum of the first 3 and last 3 digits: if they match, some people decide to eat the ticket for good luck. You arrive at a metro station.
Note that in Moscow buses work differently: you enter in the front at the door marked Вход (entrance) and buy a ticket from the driver and go through a turnstile. You can exit again through one of the back doors (Выход).
To further complicate things, this was recently changed in Moscow and you can now enter through any door and validate your ticket electronically at a box near the doors.
Most large cities in Russia have a metro (subway). To enter you need either a contact-less card (БСК, BSK) or a token in the form of a special coin. Both you can always buy from a counter (касса) right in front of the turnstile. If the metro uses tokens (like in Saint Petersburg or Kazan for example), it is enough to say "dva" (2) and put money into the dish under the window. The cost of one ride is between 40 and 55 ruble and should be printed on or next to the window. For frequent travelers and tourists it is often cheaper to buy a card that has money loaded onto it. The fare per ride is reduced by a considerable amount like that. If the system uses RFID cards, also those can be bought at the counter. In Moscow, they are called "yedíny" (united), since the card allows you to drive not only with metro, but also with the regular bus and tram. In some cities (Moscow and Saint Petersburg for example) you can buy tickets also from a machine. The interface, however, is often only in Russian, so it might make less problems to just go to the counter. Credit cards (Visa, MasterCard) are almost always accepted.
If you are planning on staying a bit longer in Moscow or know you will eventually come back, you can instead by the Troika card. This works similar to the Oyster card in London: you charge it with some money and can ride with any public transport (bus, metro, trolleybus, tram). Each ride costs a bit less than if you'd just buy single tickets. The cards expire 5 years after their last use. You can buy them at most metro stations from a machine (in English), or everywhere at the касса.
When you have your ticket, you can enter the metro system. You will walk through a metal detector and if it beeps, you are sometimes asked to walk to another detector on the side and take out your keys, wallet and phone. Most of the time, however, no one cares, especially during rush hour. You might also be asked to have your bags checked. Simply put them on the xray scanner next to the turnstile and take them after they have been checked. Throw the token into the slot/hold the card to the reader at the turnstile and wait until the light turns green. You can drive as long as you want, as many stops as you want with as many transfers as you want, but you need to pay again if you leave the metro and want to enter again from outside. This means you should make sure you go onto the correct escalator when trying to change stations. Once you are on the escalator that goes outside, you'll need to pay again, since the escalators up and down are mostly completely separated.
In the Two Capitals (as Moscow and Saint Petersburg are sometimes called) the metro lines colors and names/numbers. Orientation is relatively easy if you know what station you want to go to. The current station is printed in cyrillic at the platform. Yandex (the Russian Google) has an app with offline metro maps and a navigator (Yandex.Metro).
A map of the metro system with some information in English can often be found between the platforms. Sometimes there is an electronic display showing the next stop, or a LED display that marks already visited stops. Metro trains arrive every 1-5 minutes, there is no schedule but instead a display that shows when the last train left. Typically when the clock shows 2-3 minutes, a new train will drive in. To figure out the direction you need to go, you should have a look at the metro map. In Moscow, often only big metro stations are written to help orientation, while Saint Petersburg has a full list of stations you can reach in a particular direction. Once you found out, hop on. During rush hour it can get very crowded and it is sometimes best to just let one or two trains pass until you find one that has fewer people in it. While you wait, admire the metro station itself! In Moscow and Saint Petersburg they are not just the means to get to sights, but are sights themselves. This is true in particular for the metro stations in the center. Many of them are themed to reflect their name: Sportivnaya station in SPb has Olympic torches as lamps, Mendeleyevskaya in Moscow has molecule-like lamps, Komsomolskaya (Moscow) and Avtovo (SPb) have chandeliers, stucco, columns and golden decoration. Some pictures to get you started.If that is not interesting, there is free WiFi in Moscow and SPb metro systems. The network is called
MT_Free. If it doesn't connect automatically, open the browser and type something. You should be redirected to some advertisement, after which it should work.
In the metro you might be asked "выходите?" ("vyhóditye", "Are you leaving?") if you are blocking another person who wants to leave. Shake your head and try to move to the side to let them pass.
Russians take care of etiquette in public transport, and so should you. Announcements will regularly remind you to offer your seat to elderly, disabled or pregnant people or women with children. If you sit and see someone enter who that description fits to, get up; you might risk an unfriendly remark otherwise and need to get up anyway.
Now is the time to observe Russians on their daily commute: in winter, you'll be surprised by the many fur coats ("shuba") and fur hats. At any time, there will be people trying to sell flexible pencils, passport covers and world maps, soldiers and police officers going commuting and couples going out to the movie theatre.
Changes between metro lines involve a lot of walking. Get out and follow the arrows to the color your next line has. Simple as that. Note that stations which are connected by stairs but are at different metro lines mostly have a different name, which can cause some confusion. The purple, blue and orange lines in the Saint Petersburg metro meet at one station which has three different names (Spasskaya, Sennaya Ploschad', Sadovaya) but are all connected by tunnels and stairs. When you are on the escalator, make sure to stand on the right and walk on the left. Otherwise you'll earn eyerolls and "polite" reminders to move to the side. Also interesting is that escalators have a guard, sitting at the bottom of the escalator in a small booth and watching everything on a screen. They might sometimes make an announcement to not run on the escalator, to hold onto the handrail etc. When you are out, you should (often, at least) see grandmas selling vegetables, fruits, flowers, scarves and socks. If someone is handing you some flyer, take it; otherwise they need to stand around even longer in the cold.
Trams work in much the same way as buses: you get in and pay the fare directly to the conductor in return for a paper ticket. Conductors mostly remember you and will not ask you again to pay, but if they do, just show your ticket. Trams connect major intersections and points of interest and are somewhat between metro and buses regarding density and frequency of the service. Trams have (like buses) predefined stops. This is opposed to minibuses, which generally don't.
Minibuses (or "marshrutki") are small, privately-owned buses with about 12 seats. This service is the densest and most unusual for most people.
To find the route it is advised to use Yandex.Maps, since it is able to use the route data of minibuses (compared to Google Maps, which doesn't offer such routes in its navigation). In many cities, the numbers of such minibuses start with K with 2 or 3 following digits, as opposed to regular buses which don't have the K prefix. Most of them are small, white vans with their respective number printed on the door and a rough outline of the route they will take. Major stops such as metro stations or sights are printed in Russian as a list on the door.
When entering, pay the fare directly to the driver. The fare is about the same as for buses (20 - 55 ruble) and is posted either outside the door or above the driver seat in large numbers. Just hand the money to the driver; in some cities you will get a ticket, in others not. Either way, get your change and sit down. If the minibus is very full, people are sometimes not able to move from the back door to the driver to pay. In that case it is common to hand the money to the person in front of you, until it reaches the driver. The same goes backwards with the change and the ticket. This system works astonishingly well and it is likely that you are tapped several times during your ride to help in this money transfer.
While you are doing that, it is also useful to check the route of the minibus with Yandex.Maps etc and to make yourself heard when you want to get out. Marshrutki only stop at large intersections or metro stations, unless someone asks the driver to stop somewhere else or someone wants to get in. When you get close to your destination, simply shout "astanavítye, pazhálusta!" (Stop, please) and exit. In smaller cities you should close the door yourself, in others it closes automatically. When you hear shouting after you left, better attempt to close it or run away quickly.
Note that since these minbuses are often privately owned, you cannot use combined metro-bus tickets (e.g. in Moscow) or credit cards. Here, cash is king.
That is again pretty much the same as a normal bus. It gets its power from overhead power lines, but in all other respects behaves like a bus. You again pay at the conductor. Some lines in Moscow especially require you to buy a ticket from the driver. There will be a turnstile a bit after you enter through the front door and you give the appropriate amount to the driver in return for an RFID card, your ticket. When you come from Vnukovo airport, the bus you need to catch will be such a kind. You probably want to buy a "единый билет" (yedinyi bilyet). Smaller cities (I'm thinking of Saratov as the only example where I have seen this) might have another interesting system to pay: you enter at any door and there will not be a conductor. Instead, you pay the driver when you leave through the front door. The price is probably written over the door, you just hand them the money and leave. Be careful to leave through the front door in such cases.
Long distance train (поезд)
Trains have a long tradition in Russia: they are efficient ways to cross the enormous distances between cities and are often used by locals.
You can buy a train ticket on the English website of Russian Railways (РЖД, RZD). A few things to keep in mind when purchasing tickets:
- Make sure to arrive at the train station (вокзал) on time. Until recently the departure time was given in Moscow time, regardless of the local time. Make sure what time zone the departure/arrival time is given in and what your current timezone is.
- At least in Moscow, there are some cases where multiple stations serve the same direction of travel. If you book a round trip, don't assume that return train will depart from the same station that you arrived at.
- Most long distance trains have sleeping wagons with bunk beds. When you purchase a ticket, you can select between 3 classes: сидячий (sidyachiy), плацкарт (platskart) and купе (coupé). The first (сидячий) has regular seats, just like in the German ICE or French TGV trains. These are only really suitable for shorter distances, since they tend to become uncomfortable on long trips. This class is generally the cheapest.
The next is плацкарт, which are open sections of 6 beds each. Even numbers signify upper bunks, uneven lower bunks. This is the budget version of the купе class, where only 4 beds are in a closed section (it has a door).
Note that bunks 25, 26, 27 and 28 are in one section. I already made the mistake to assume that since bunks 23, 24, 25 and 26 are closer together, it means they form one section. They don't.
- You need a passport to travel. It will be checked when you enter the train, and police might want to check your documents along the way.
- You have the right to interrupt your trip for up to 10 days at any stop and continue on your route in a different train on the same route. You need to tell this, however, beforehand to the conductor.
- Drinking and smoking on the train is not allowed and it can happen that the onboard police sincerely talks to you if you do it anyway. You can drink in the restaurant wagon if you buy something there, and if you have a nice provodnitsa and some cash, it might also be possible to smoke between the individual wagons. But you just better wait until the train stops.
You bought your ticket, what now? Mostly, you just need to have a passport and an electronic copy of your ticket. When you arrive at the train station and found your platform, the conductor will check that you have a ticket. She will just check your passport number in her list. If you have a foreign passport with letters instead of numbers, it might be useful to show your ticket and seat number; that makes it easier for the conductor (проводница, provodnitsa). Once your name is ticked, you are good to go. Find your bed and put away your luggage. Make yourself familiar with the surroundings: bathrooms are often located at both ends of the wagon, some only work when the train is moving. Power outlets can be found next to the bathroom and in newer trains next to every bed. Pillows and matresses should be on the top bunk. Extra wool blankets are very high up in the luggage section. In the front of the wagon will be the conductor you just met. She is responsible for a variety of things: you will get bed sheets from her, she will generally clean the floor and bathrooms and also sell coffee, tea, snacks and newspapers. Next to her door should also be a самовар (samovar) from which you can take hot water at any time for free. If you didn't bring a cup, you can ask for a подстаканник (podstakannik, a kind of tea-glass), it should also be free. These tea-glasses are quite unique and definitely add to your train experience. You can of course also buy all your food before and eat it on the train. In fact, many Russians do exactly this: bring instant noodles, tea and cookies and eat it during the entire trip, especially before the train starts moving.
After the train has started moving, the проводница will go to every section, introduce herself and explain a few things: whether the toilets work at stations, where the restaurant wagon is, etc. She will also (again) check your ticket and passport and bring you bed lining.
It is common to change into comfy clothes and flipflops and relax - for most of the way there is no mobile reception and while WiFi technically exists on some trains, it almost never works. Now is the time to improve your Russian and listen to someone who will tell their life story to everyone in the train. All night long.
Before you arrive at your destination, the conductor will wake you up. Take the lining off and leave it on the bed. Sometimes you might also need to bring it to some bin next to her cabin, that depends. There should be no rush to get out of the train, since they stop for up to an hour at major stations.
Long distance coaches (междугородний автобус)
You can cross the vastness of Russia also often with buses. They are often cheaper but also much less comfortable than trains on the same route. The quality strongly varies between companies and it might be a good idea to read reviews about a certain route first. Such bus services also go to surrounding countries, notable here is especially LuxExpress. They connect most cities in the Baltics and Eastern Scandinavia with comfortable buses. You can buy tickets online and just bring your passport to the bus stop. Smaller buses also cross country borders. Most of the time everyone needs to get out at the border and go through the passport check on foot. In the meanwhile the bus is checked for smuggled goods. After that's done, everyone gets in and keeps driving.
As in most countries it is not recommended to take a wild taxi, i.e. one without a proper license and visible registration number. Taxis are quite cheap in Russia and should cost between 150 to 700 RUB for a ride through the city, depending on the time of the day, destination and distance, of course. With the range and convenience of taxi apps, there is really no reason not to use them. The benefits are obvious: the price is clear and fixed beforehand, you can be sure that you get a taxi from a reliable company and have the opportunity to safely pay without cash through the app. A few days ago I have tried Yandex.Taxi (probably the largest of those companies, others being Rutaxi, Gett, Uber and Maxim) and found that it is simpler than expected, even without Russian knowledge. The app interface is in English. There is an option to notify the driver to not call - if it is necessary to clarify anything about the order (e.g. how many suitcases you will have or if you need a seat for children), you can do this via an integrated chat (and a translator app). Payment is handled through the app and you receive a receipt of your payment immediately after the ride has finished. In case there is any problem, the driver can scan the QR code on the receipt to see that you did in fact already pay.
Taking a taxi is often less stressful than public transport and might be a good alternative to get to hard-to-reach places or if it would be too inconvenient to travel otherwise. But be aware that the driving style of some drivers leaves a lot to be desired. Seat belts on the back seats might not always work, drivers might be overworked and tired or generally drive recklessly.
Means of transport that are not a very good idea
Bikes: Most Russian cities are not at all bike-friendly. This can be due to the road conditions, traffic and lack of dedicated bike lanes. Better walk or take a minibus. Many cities have very high sidewalks, deep potholes, reckless drivers and/or snow.
Hitchhiking: This was possible and popular in Soviet times, but scams and robbery make this a good way to be left alone without money and phone in the middle of nowhere.
Blablacar etc.: Mostly safe, but unpredictable due to driving habits of the drivers. If you are traveling to another city, better use long distance buses or trains instead, they cost about the same and are safer and easier to manage. Also, it's mostly difficult to communicate with the driver to agree on a pickup location and time. I had good experiences the few times I used it, and in some cases it might be the only good option (to arrive at an airport at an ungodly time, for example), but some language assistance is mostly necessary.
Potentially helpful apps
Google Maps (Android/iOS): Good coverage in Russia, good for routing if you plan on walking or taking a taxi. Needs internet connection, but can cache smaller regions for offline use.
Yandex.Maps (Android/iOS): The Russian equivalent of Google Maps, but more tailored to Russia. It can use all means of transport to find routes (including marshrutka) and has a good level of detail in Russian cities. Has no offline functionality but a nice English interface. It is good at classifying businesses (types of food, etc) and shows small icons of popular fast food chains and stores directly in the map. Recent updates now show buses and other means of public transport on the road in real time - you can quickly see which bus is approaching in the distance, even if you can't read the number on the bus itself yet.
2GIS (Android/iOS): A very detailed navigation app for cities. You can and need to download a city and have full access to addresses, business information and opening hours. Some buildings (malls etc) even have their floor plans in that app, you can see on which side the entrance to a building is and can filter businesses by type (for example the kind of food you want to eat). Very recommended for a trip to Russia.
Maps.Me (Android/iOS): Offline map that uses Openstreetmap data. Has very high levels of detail, but is not so often useful to find places to get somewhere. Shows house numbers. Can route by walking, car and bus, but the public transport option is quite limited. However, if you are traveling outside of a city in the middle of nowhere, this is the app you need.
Magic Earth (Android/iOS): Offline map that uses Openstreetmap data. Very detailed, satellite and terrain map included, and works very well with finding points of interest and navigating to them.
Yandex.Metro (Android/iOS): Shows a dynamic metro map of some Russian cities (offline) and can show you where to change to travel between two stations. The map is in Russian or English.
Yandex.Taxi (Android/iOS): Very useful to get a taxi if you have to. The price is shown before you accept the ride, you can see how long it takes your driver to arrive to you and you have the option to pay by card beforehand. They might call you to confirm the order, but it is mostly enough to say "ок". There is now the option to handle such things by chat.
Google Translate (Android/iOS): Translates words and sentences between two languages. Dictionaries can be downloaded for offline use. If an internet connection exists, also photos and speech can be translated. Has functionality for handwriting and showing a translated sentence on a big screen, to make it easy to show phrases to locals.
Yandex.Translate (Android/iOS): Again Russia's answer to Google Translate. Has largely the same functionality, but might outperform Google Translate if translating between English and Russian. Yandex.Translate has a nice feature of clearing the input field by swiping left and of showing some grammatical information when translating words (complete/incomplete aspect, informal speech, ...)
TripAdvisor (Android/iOS): TripAdvisor is never bad of course. It can give you an idea of what sights to visit and some things to check out.
Kiwix (Android/iOS): Offline reader for Wikipedia or Wikivoyage. You can download an offline copy of wikivoyage with travel guides for each region/city/district and learn about sights, tips and their history while you have no internet connection.
With these insights in mind and tools in your phone, it should not be a problem to get around in Russia, both in and outside of cities.
Не паникуй! Don't panic!