Trains: cheap tickets, going to and from St. Petersburg and other, nearby cities…

Trains are an excellent, fun, affordable, efficient means of venturing outside Moscow, whether to St. Petersburg or nearby towns and cities, especially Golden Ring cities such as Vladimir/Suzdal, and Yaroslavl/Sergiev Posad. This overview will provide most the information you will need, including how to get the best prices. The good news is one can now book tickets on the cheapest, direct RZD.RU web site in English, the bad is they do not currently accept United States/North American credit cards. Holders of USA/NA checking accounts can link those accounts to a PayPal account and can then use PayPal to purchase tickets on TUTU.RU.  TUTU.RU is a Russian-language-only reseller that charges a mark-up, but their mark-up is commonly smaller than is charged by tourist-oriented resellers. Travellers who cannot read Russian have been able to navigate it by toggling to the English-language section of RZD.RU and by invoking Google Translate.

Type of trains and service:

There are three basic types of trains, the first two have assigned “seating”/places, the last “open” seating.

  • Express/Sapsan (in Russian «Сапсан») – very fast for going to and from Saint Petersburg (less than 4 hours), Vladimir (2 hours), and, further out in the same, easterly direction, Nizhni Novgorod (4 hours). Due to shorter trips, there are no “sleeper” cars or separate cabins, although there are first-class cars (not advisable unless you crave “airline-like” first-class service - free meals and beverages, newspapers, and other pampering). These are an excellent way to travel in a reasonable timeframe (i.e. not overnight or all day travel), and certainly meet or beat any air alternative. These trains, however,  do not run very frequently – for St. Petersburg, early morning, mid-day, and evening, for Vladimir/Nizhni Novgorod, just early morning and later afternoon-evening. Also, as noted below, the latter runs out of the Kurski Rail Station!
  •  “Long-haul” trains: as the name implies, cover long-distances, and so provide sleeping quarters. One advantage of, especially with regard to St. Petersburg, is that IF YOU CAN SLEEP on trains ( the clickety-clack of the wheels lulls you to sleep),  you can leverage the 8-hour trip to save on a hotel room – and also precious daylight hours – by choosing one of many trains leaving between 11 p.m.  and 1 a.m. and arriving the next day between 7 and 9 a.m. Admittedly, you may arrive still not fully rested, and will want or need to stash your bags at your hotel until your room is ready (NOT a problem). For this train, you will need to choose your comfort-level, literally and figuratively- of travel with regard to service classes.  With the exception of the economy class, prices here are typically be between 20%  and 40% higher than the Sapsan/Express if one chooses a separate cabin (but, again, you are saving on a hotel room). 
  • Among the long haul trains, the "firmenny" or premium trains form a select category.  Those have names in addition to numbers, such as the "Red Arrow."  Expect newer equipment, a unique color scheme, attendants wearing matching uniforms,  better service, and a higher price.

             There are these basic classes of service to consider:

      • Luxury: go for the separate, “private”/lockable 2-person cabin  abbreviated in Russian as "SV". If there are two of you traveling, great – if not, then you will likely get to make a new Russian friend! Note it is not uncommon to find that your overnight cabin-mate is of the opposite gender. You may opt during ticketing for a gender-specific cabin, but this will reduce the tickets available, a potential problem during peak summer months and times. 18 passengers per standard railroad car. There is a bathroom at each end of the car.
      • Compartment, known in Russian as "Coupe": still a separate lockable cabin, but for 4 people, with upper and lower berths on each side. Again, if there are 2-3-4 of you, great, if not, expect to share! 36 passengers per car, so ticket price roughly half that of "luxury".
      • Reserved seat” (known in Russian as «Platzkart»): contrary to what the name might suggest, it's not a seat but a berth fit to sleep in but in a car with an open layout, with only light divider walls between sleeping berths, and thus they fit 54 people per “car,” with the ticket price correspondingly lower.  Think of it as a hostel on wheels. 
      • Sitting - self-explanatory.
      • Soft - a premium 2-person cabin with more amenities than "SV" including an en-suite bathroom/shower.  You'll have to buy out the cabin as a unit if you are traveling alone.  Offers the most privacy but expensive.  8 passengers per car have room to stretch out. 
  • Commuter trains (in Russian unofficially«electrichkas» , or "suburban trains" officially):  very basic trains, with no assigned seating that service towns and cities in the vicinity of big cities like Moscow.  As the term implies, their main purpose is to provide efficient transportation for those living a way out from Moscow to “commute” to and from the big city.  Be sure to hang on to your ticket stub as this is required not just on the train as proof of ticketing, but to exit through the “turnstiles”.  As with the express, no sleeping quarters.  Large train stations have a separate section for commuters and separate ticket windows. 

(Cheapest) Ticketing:

For non-commuter trains, you should get your tickets in advance, especially if you will be traveling during peak times (summer months), and days (Friday-Monday). You have several ticketing options discussed below, and the earliest tickets go on sale is 45 days before the desired departure date (60 days for some trains). Note that whenever possible (almost always!), opt for an “e-ticket”. This is easy to do, and all you have to do is show up at the train (your car) and show your passport, or, worst case, your receipt with a bar code on it (even though these are e-tickets, it never hurts to have this documentation handy). The boarding agent will very efficiently find your name/reservation on his/her hand-held device (very 21st century!), and wave you onto the train.

·         The “cheapest” by 25-40% will always be buying “direct” through the Russian Railways (a.k.a. “RZD”) official web site at  http://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en. The good news for mos folks is that this site now allows fully English-language booking (vs. having to use one of several cheat sheets to navigate the Russian language site!). For ticketing (vs. general inquiries), this site requires registration. Last but not least regarding saving money, as of the summer of 2013, RZD introduced new, more "market/supply demand-based pricing" at least for peak travel months (May-September). Instead of their usual, somewhat higher fares for this period (about 10% higher), pricing will be determined by the supply of open seats (in fairly real-time fashion, apparently, much like airline fares), and one can expect therefore pricing will gradually go up. A recent "testing" of fares showed a difference of as much as 50% if one buys very close to departure vs. 45 days in advance (the earliest possible). 

  Please note, that buying train ticket in Russia requires a passport. If you buy online you'll have to enter passport number (category called 'foreign document', not 'international passport'), country of issue, date and place of birth (new requirement from Dec. 1st, 2013). Passport number will be printed on your ticket and may be checked while boarding. Do NOT enter "33" anywhere as misleading online help and some internet posts might suggest: simply select "foreign document" as Document type and type your passport number into the Doc number field.

           NB: As of July 2014, the Russian Railways web site no longer accepts United States or North American-bank issued credit cards due to their processor, TransCredit Bank (now VTB Bank), determining these represented too high a fraud risk. Direct, formal appeals to management of the bank,  Russian Railways, and President Putin's administration (which got forward to the Central Bank of Russia and the "Office of Tourism") to have this policy reviewed and changed have met with no success. 

·         Most expensive: buy through a “consolidator” or travel/visa agency: while “convenient” (no Russian site to have to deal with), usually 25-40% more.  Some will also be happy to take your (extra) money earlier than the 45 days cited above, BUT all they are doing is hanging onto your money until the 45 day point arrives, then putting through your reservation.

·         Buy at a train station:  risky if one for travel during peak travel times (summer, Friday-Monday) as either tickets, times, or preferred service-class may be sold out. However, if you have your heart set on this, you may want to consider paying $5 or so for entry into a VIP lounge (available at most major stations) versus standing in line at an “English language” window with the noise, confusion,  and potential for delays this entails). The agents in the lounge will be able to a) understand you, and b) calmly, quietly get you your tickets, c) with free wireless to boot, and, d) in summer months, in a nice, air-conditioned setting.

·         Have your hotel get these for you:  with the same “risk” caveat as for buying at a train station, you can certainly ask your hotel to help. In a pinch, while they may charge you a bit more (the biggest portion for courier delivery since here you will be dealing with paper tickets), this might come in handy at some point!

Getting to your train station (Moscow only!)...

As with any place in Moscow, the Metro will whisk you to your train station, regardless of location. The good news is the 2 main ones are right in the same place – Komsomolskaya  Square. Overall, the three most likely suspects will be:

·         Leningradski Station (also sometimes known as the “Moscow-October” station, will appear on the ticket as МОСКВА-ОКТ ): hop on the Metro (Red,  “Radial” Line, or Brown, Ring Line) and get off at the Komsomolskaya Metro Station. The train station will be right there (depending on which line you may need to take the underground walkway to get to it). As the name implies (for those familiar with the old name of St. Petersburg, anyway!), this will be your station for trains to and from St. Petersburg, as well as other locations in a northwesterly direction from Moscow. 

·         Yaroslavski: right next door to the Leningradksi Station, used mostly for trains to several of the Golden Ring Cities directly to the north of Moscow, including Sergiev Posad, Yaroslavl, and Rostov Veliki (“the great”), including commuter trains heading out to a number of smaller towns in this direction. Most of the trans-siberian trains depart from this station, too.

·         Kurski:  to catch trains going east such as the Sapsan to get to either Vladimir (and ideally onto Suzdal by bus, car as part of a 2-day excursion) and/or Nizhni Novgorod.  Again, ust hop on the Metro – head out to the Kurksaya Station on the Dark-blue, Radial Line, or the Brown, Ring Line, or, less likely, the Chkalovskaya Station on the Lime-Green, Radial Line.