The largest nation in the world that borders a staggering 14 countries, crosses 9 time zones and has a population of over 142 million people is by no means one that you can pop in for a quickie. Quick visit that is (what were you thinking?). Even our one month of backpacking through Russia felt somewhat rushed given we spent a third of it on trains.
It’s the country that derives the word ‘vodka’ from ‘voda’ which means water with a reputation for being one of the highest alcohol consumers in the world and yet in our entire time there, we didn’t have a drop.
To make the most of your trip to Russia, it’s necessary to see both the European and Asian parts. While the majority of tourists only come for St Petersburg and Moscow, we urge you to travel further inland to see Russia’s breathtaking landscapes. Spend time there to really see, feel and understand Russian hospitality and we guarantee that by the end of it, you’ll find it difficult to leave.
- 1. Top Places To See & Things To Do in Russia
- 2. Cost of Backpacking Russia
- 3. Budget Travel Tips for Russia
- 4. Accommodation in Russia
- 5. Best Time to Travel Russia
- 6. Currency, Cash & ATM Charges in Russia
- 7. Eating and Drinking in Russia
- 8. Getting Around Russia on a Budget
- 9. How to get to Russia
- 10. Travel Insurance
- 11. Safety & Female Travellers
- 12. Useful Travel Phrases for Russia
- 13. Scams to Avoid
- 14. Visa / Entry Requirements
- 15. Responsible Travel in Russia
- 16. What to Pack for Russia
- 17. Useful Apps to Download
- 18. WIFI & SIM cards
1. Top Places To See & Things To Do in Russia
1.1 St Petersburg
Also known as the capital of the west, St. Petersburg was the imperial capital for two centuries, having been founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Today, it is Russia’s cultural centre and is home to many theatres hosting operas and ballets as well as museums showcasing Russian art.
1.2 Visit the infamous Red Square in Moscow
There’s no trip to Russia without a stop in Moscow! And while you may think that Red Square’s name has something to do with communism, it doesn’t. The name is derived from the word “krasnyi”, which once meant ‘beautiful’ and it certainly lives up to its name. Often seen as the central square of Moscow, there are many iconic buildings and landmarks in and around this World Heritage Site.
1.3 Take the Trans-Siberian
Or at least part of it if you don’t have time. The Trans-Siberian is the longest train ride you can do in a single journey and connects Moscow with Russia’s far east – some 9,258 km! If you were to stay on the train the entire time, a journey from one side to the other would take 7 days!
While it might sound like quite the experience to stay on a train for 7 days, let me be the first to say that even 2 days on the train can get a bit much. So, it’s imperative (for your sanity and for sightseeing) that you break the journey up.
1.4 Road trip through the Altai Republic
The highlight of our Russia trip was hiring a car and exploring the Altai Republic, located in the south of Western Siberia. Known for its landscapes and mountain terrains, this more remote area of the country is a striking contrast to Russia’s big cities.
Out here, people speak Russian and Altai and no one speaks English. It’s off the beaten path and where you want to go if you want an authentic experience with creature comforts.
1.5 Lake Baikal
Where will you find over 20% of the world’s fresh water? In the oldest AND deepest lake in the world, right here in Russia. Lake Baikal is 1,642 m deep and contains the purest fresh water on the planet. The area of the lake is the size of Belgium so there’s no chance of seeing it in a day. With different cities and towns located around the lake, you can stop in for a day visit and see a part of it if you’re short on time.
Winter is when the lake really shines, with the entire lake completely freezing over. Although cars can drive over the ice, we don’t recommend this unless you are experienced or going with someone who knows what they’re doing and where they’re going.
2. Cost of Backpacking Russia
We were warned that Russia would be expensive and came expecting it to be on par with the Slavic countries we had visited. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to find that, not only was Russia fairly affordable, it’s almost as cheap as South East Asia!
The largest expense here is transport, given Russia is literally the biggest country in the world. If you’re planning on travelling from one side of the country to the other, the train is the most economical option and we’ll discuss that a little later on. Accommodation is also fairly expensive which is why we chose to Couchsurf, a free yet invaluable experience.
If you are open to Couchsurfing and taking only third class trains, you could easily backpack Russia on a budget of 1,000 – 1,500₽ (~15 – 23 USD) per person per day. For a more flexible budget and some luxuries, budget around 1,600 – 2,300₽ (~25 – 35 USD) per person per day.
2.2 Examples of general costs
- Private room in Altai: 1,500₽ for 2 (~23 USD)
- Lunch special in Moscow: 250₽ (~4 USD)
- Beer from supermarket: 50₽ (~0.75 USD)
- Metro or bus in Moscow (with metro card): 36₽ (~0.55 USD)
- Metro / bus / tram in St Petersburg: 40₽ (~0.61 USD)
- Fuel: 42 – 45₽/L (~0.65 USD)
2.1 Breakdown of What We Spent in Russia
From our breakdown, you can see the majority of our budget (nearly 70%) was spent on transport. We always chose overnight trains to combine our transport and accommodation for the night.
We also bought food for long train rides ahead of time at a supermarket as once on board, everything almost doubles in price. Here’s a full breakdown of what we spent in Russia (total for two people):
TOTAL SPEND: 103,254₽ for 2 people = 51,627₽ per person (~788 USD)
- Accommodation: 3,000₽ (in Altai)
- Food & drinks: 24,313₽
- Food at restaurants: 19,115₽
- Groceries: 5,198₽
- Transport: 69,341₽
- Public transport overall: 1,766₽
- Taxis: 300₽
- Car hire for Altai (4 days): 6,500₽
- Fuel for Altai: 3,583₽
- St Petersburg to Moscow train (third class): 3,908₽
- Moscow to Kazan train (third class): 4,204₽
- Kazan to Barnaul train (third class): 5,668₽
- Barnaul to Irkutsk train (third class): 6,411₽
- Irkutsk to Listvyanka return: 542₽
- Irkutsk to Baikalsk train (seated): 715₽
- Baikalsk to Ulan-Ude train (third class): 1,440₽
- Ulan-Ude to Vladivostok train (first class): 33,864₽
- Bus to Vladivostok Airport: 440₽
- Entrance fees: 1,800₽
- Saint Isaac’s Cathedral: 500₽
- Moscow Kremlin: 1,000₽
- Cave in Altai: 300₽
- Miscellaneous: 4,800₽
- Sim cards: 1,100₽ for 2 (~12 USD)
- Luggage storage at various train stations: 1,060₽
- Toll for bridge crossing in Altai: 100₽
- Russian baths & pool entrance fees: 2,200₽
- Public toilet x 2: 60₽
- Cinemas: 280₽
3. Budget Travel Tips for Russia
- Couchsurf: we’ll go into detail in the next section but you get a local experience and don’t have to pay for accommodation.
- Learn some basic Russian: English is not widely spoken, even in Moscow. We downloaded some podcasts and watched youtube videos to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. You should do the same!
- Download Google Translate: If your Russian skills aren’t up to scratch, Google translate is a lifesaver.
- Take the 3rd class train: the standards are good, you get clean bed sheets and it’s the cheapest option.
- Get a metro card in Moscow: you pay a deposit of 50₽ (~0.80 USD) and pay discounted metro and bus fares. You can return the card at the end of your trip and get your deposit back.
- Yandex Taxi over Gett: it’s cheaper!
- Lunch Specials: lookout for weekday lunch specials, usually between 12 – 4pm. You’ll often get a soup, salad and main course for around 250₽ (~4 USD).
4. Accommodation in Russia
The best way of backpacking Russia is to Courchsurf! We couchsurfed our entire way through Russia (except for 2 nights in Altai) and have never found a country that embraces Couchsurfing the way Russia does. Couchsurfing allows you to put a ‘public trip’ where you list where you will be over what dates.
Hosts can see your trip and make contact with you. We did this and had multiple people offer to host us for our entire journey through Russia!
Our hosts were all incredibly kind and generous and this was one of our greatest highlights in Russia. Daniel was quite sceptical about Couchsurfing because he found it odd that people were going out of their way to welcome us into their homes.
I am happy to say that Russia changed his whole perspective on Couchsurfing and now he’s a big fan! That’s the whole point of travelling, right?!
Here’s a list of our hosts and links to their profiles.
If you’re not down to Couchsurf, have a look at some of these places. We are making these recommendations based on our own research and what we would have booked if we didn’t Couchsurf.
|Saint Petersburg||Maestro Hostel|
|Moscow||Capsule Hostel Yes|
|Kazan||Business Blizzzko Hostel|
|Gorno-Altaysk||Kedrovy Dom Kochievskih|
|Vladivostok||Gallery and More Guest House|
5. Best Time to Travel Russia
I dare say that any time is a good time to travel Russia depending on what you want to do. You also just have to be properly prepared clothing wise. Keep in mind that the seasons also vary significantly throughout the country.
The best time for backpacking Russia is spring or fall as they aren’t as crowded or busy. You’ll find last minute accommodation available and won’t have to book train tickets far in advance.
Russia has 4 seasons:
- Spring – March to May: is probably the best time to go if you want to catch a bit of everything. The snow starts melting at the start of spring so you get flowing streams and remnants of winter minus the low temps. Nature begins to dress up again and the country starts to explode with colour.
- Summer – June to August: is the peak travel season for foreigners and locals in Russia. While this is the season that you can enjoy every part of the country comfortable, it’s the busiest. If you plan on doing a lot of hiking and camping, we recommend going early in summer or late spring.
- Fall / Autumn – September to November: is a cold but very picturesque time of the year. It’s the low season for Russia and a more quiet time to travel the country.
- Winter – December to February: snow, frozen lakes and ice. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly scenic against the falling snow but if you’re not accustomed to a hardcore winter, you’re in for a cold surprise. Some areas around Russia get as low as -40 so bring good quality outerwear.
We travelled through Russia during autumn and were very lucky with the weather. We had a day of rain in St Petersburg and a few hours in Moscow. Outside of that, we enjoyed cold but sunny days and autumn’s colours in full force.
6. Currency, Cash & ATM Charges in Russia
The currency in Russia is the Russian Ruble (₽ or руб or RUB ). The exchange rate at the time of writing is:
- 1 AUD = 46₽
- 1 USD = 65₽
- 1 EUR = 75₽
- 1 GBP = 85₽
ATMs don’t charge fees for withdrawals and you can easily find ATMs in all cities and larger towns in Russia.
6.1 Can you use credit cards in Russia?
Yes! Credit cards are widely accepted throughout the country except at small shops, road side restaurants and in towns or villages. Although you can certainly depend on using your credit card for most places, we recommend always carrying some cash (we kept a maximum of 5,000₽ on us at any time).
7. Eating and Drinking in Russia
Russian food is fairly typical eastern European food and mostly consists of meat, rice, potatoes, buckwheat, bread and soup.
7.1 Typical Russian cuisine
Since Russian or eastern European food isn’t popular in western countries, this is the perfect opportunity to try some local dishes. These are some must-try dishes:
- Borscht: a red, sour, beetroot soup usually served with a dollop of sour cream.
- Pelmini: dumplings with a variety of fillings but traditionally with minced beef and pork.
- Beef Stroganoff: beef sauteed in a white sauce, mustard and onions and eaten either straight or poured over rice or noodles.
- Olivie: a salad of potatoes, pickles, bologna, eggs, and carrots swimming in a bowl of mayo.
- Kasha: boiled buckwheat that is offered as an alternative to rice or potatoes but so much better for you. Buckwheat is gluten-free, a good source of fibre and is rich in minerals and various plant compounds.
- Blini: Russian pancakes very similar to crepes made with unleavened dough served as either savoury or sweet.
- Pirozhki: pastries filled with potatoes, meat, cabbage or cheese.
7.2 Vegetarians and Vegans
Outside of big cities, it can be quite challenging to eat healthily as a vegetarian or vegan at restaurants particularly because menus aren’t in English. Some dishes may not necessarily contain meat but are made of animal by products such as stock, cheese, butter and milk.
Buckwheat is a very common dish that is found all over the country and is also very delicious and healthy. If you can pair that with some veggies, you’re in for a nutritious meal. You may also find vegetarian soups, vegetarian dumplings (called pelmini) and pastries or bread filled with potato or a cabbage and carrot mix (prozshki).
Some useful phrases that will help:
- I am vegan: я – веган, я – веганка / Ya vegan (male), ya veganka (female)
- I am vegetarian: я – вегетарианец, я – вегетарианка / Ya vegetarianets (male), ya vegetarianka (female)
- I don’t eat meat: я не ем мяса / Ya ne yem myasa
We recommend having some phrases pre-translated on your phone to show your waiter.
8. Getting Around Russia on a Budget
8.1 Public Transport
Public transport is the cheapest way of travelling in cities and Google Maps is accurate for stops, times and prices. Some buses or trams have a person on board who goes around to collect payment, otherwise, you pay the driver just before getting off. Across the country, you are charged for a single fare regardless of distance.
Public transport in Moscow: the metro is extremely reliable and convenient with trains every 1 – 2 minutes. Stops are announced in English and trans have an easy-to-navigate map. Almost the entire city is connected by metro so you can get off and change trains without paying any additional fares.
TIP: Tip: When you arrive in Moscow, get a metro card for 50₽ and put money on it. Fares without a metro card cost 55₽ or 36₽ with one. At the end of your time in Moscow, you can return the card and get your deposit back.
Public transport in St Petersburg: stops announced in English. Bus and tram fares are 40₽ and the metro is 50₽.
8.2 Trains for long distances
Cities are connected by the railway network so travelling by train is the most common way to travel around the country. Tickets can be purchased online on the RZD website which is in English and fairly easy to navigate. Booking through other websites include an additional service charge for no additional services!
8.3 BlaBla Car
Blabla Car is a long distance ride sharing website that allows drivers to share their journey with passengers to split the cost. For shorter distances (under 8 hours), you should check out this option as an alternative to the car. Most people only speak Russian so be sure to translate your messages first. You should also check if there are additional fees for baggage.
Hitchhiking over large distances isn’t common in Russia given the accessibility of trains. However, one of our Couchsurfing hosts hosted a guy who was hitchhiking from one side of the country to the other. He carried a tent and sleeping bag with him in case he had to wild camp or couldn’t get a ride.
If you’re not short on time and have some people to share the driving with, this is a great way to explore Russia. Some of Russia’s most beautiful sights aren’t marked on a map, they’re just out there somewhere. The downside of driving is covering the huge distances in a certain period of time. This also isn’t the most backpacker friendly option.
9. How to get to Russia
9.1 International Flights
Russia has over a hundred airports throughout the country but the main airports to fly into are in St Petersburg and Moscow on the west, Novosibirsk in the centre and Vladivostok in the east.
9.2 Ferry from Japan or South Korea to Vladivostok
There’s currently one ferry route running between Sakaiminato (Japan), Donghae (South Korea) and Vladivostok in Russia’s far east. The ferry is operated by DBS Cruise Ferry and has a different schedule for summer and winter. Tickets can be purchased by emailing DBS Cruise Ferry.
9.3 Overland through various borders
You can enter Russia from all of its land borders except North Korea. These borders are: Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.
There are trains or buses through most of the European crossings. Over in Asia, it’s fairly easy to cross through by car so long as you have arranged all of your visas in advance.
10. Travel Insurance
We never travel without travel insurance and recommend that you do the same. If you are already travelling or are currently in Russia and don’t have insurance, World Nomads allows you to buy while you’re on the road.
Daniel got typhoid when we were in Egypt and without travel insurance, we would have spent over $3000! So yeah, please travel with insurance!
READ MORE: If you would like to know more about travel insurance, head over to this page to do some further reading.
11. Safety & Female Travellers
Russia is very safe to travel and we didn’t encounter a single problem or felt threatened in anyway. As a female, I would feel comfortable travelling solo and would have had no issues Couchsurfing on my own.
Trains also have female only compartments if needed.
12. Useful Travel Phrases for Russia
English is NOT common in Russia, even in St Petersburg or Moscow. Don’t expect anyone to speak English and start learning Russian before your trip. We used podcasts and youtube videos to help us.
You should also learn the Cyrillic alphabet so that you can read station names
Here are some useful phrases to start you off:
- Hello: Здра́вствуйте (Zdravstvujte)
- Goodbye (formal): До свидания (Do svidanija!)
- Goodbye (informal): Пока (Poka)
- Thank you: Спасибо! (Spasibo!)
- Please & You’re Welcome: Пожалуйста! (Požalujsta)
- I don’t speak Russian: я не говорю по-русски (ya ne govoryu po–russki)
- Do you speak English?: Вы говорите по-английски? (Vy govorite po–angliyski?)
- Yes: да (Da)
- No: нет (Nyet)
13. Scams to Avoid
We’ve read about Russian police shaking down foreigners for “paperwork infringements” although we didn’t encounter this ourselves. We suspect that during and after the World Cup, this wouldn’t happen. Carry your passport with you at all times.
14. Visa / Entry Requirements
Visas are required for most international visitors. To obtain the visa, you need a letter of invitation and need to complete a very lengthy application form online.
We were overseas when we decided to go to Russia so we went through Visa HQ to help us get it when we were in London. If you want to complete the Russian visa application process on your own, you should obtain the letter of invitation from Visa HQ and then head to the visa website to complete the process.
Tips for completing the application:
- Set aside around 1 hour to complete the form
- You will need to submit a list of the countries you visited in the last 10 years as well as dates
- Make sure you have everything printed out and triple check it all before attending the visa office
- It is easier to apply from your home country than abroad
- Leave dates open if you haven’t booked flights
- Apply at least 2 months in advance to allow yourself time
15. Responsible Travel in Russia
15.1 Don’t bring up politics
Of course, if it’s brought up with you during a conversation, go for your life. Our sense was that locals tend to be both a little aware and worried about what other countries think of them.
We were asked by numerous hosts what Australia thinks of Russia, not that we can speak for an entire nation. Politics would come up in conversation and our hosts were quite honest about their political views.
15.2 Say no to plastic bags
Everything (and seriously, I do mean everything) is handed out in plastic bags here. Produce, bread, pastries – you name it and it’s probably going to be handed to you in a bag.
We had to politely decline and insist a few times there isn’t a general awareness of the devastating impact of plastic and so it’s not part of the Russian culture to reduce waste and plastic.
We encourage you to bring along a reusable shopping bag whenever you travel.
15.3 Bring a Lifestraw or boil water to avoid buying bottled water
You can’t drink tap water in Jordan so everyone drinks bottled water. As a result, you see piles of plastic waste all around the country. Rather than adding to the waste, bring a Lifestraw so that you can filter tap water and don’t have to worry about boiling it first.
16. What to Pack for Russia
Your packing list for Russia is going to vary drastically depending on what season you’re visiting.
Across all seasons, you should bring:
- Waterproof shoes
- Sandals/flip-flops for long train rides: you’re expected to change out of your regular shoes and into house slippers so you should have a pair of easy to slip on sandals or flip-flops.
- Sun protection: sunscreen, hat and sunglasses
- For the ladies, BYO sanitary products as you may find it hard to purchase. But hey, rather than using pads or tampons, why not switch to a menstrual cup instead?
- Lifestraw: as you can’t drink tap water.
- Ear plugs and eye mask to survive long train rides
Winter: It’s critical that you pack smart and bring adequate layers for warmth. To preserve body heat, you wear a base layer, mid layer and outer shell. Wear light layers so you can remove them when indoors. We recommend bringing:
- Thermal base layers: look for something thin and light. Merino wool is best.
- Down jacket / windproof jacket: Something light and compact is ideal so that you can take it off when indoors or on the metro. If you are opting for a jacket, we love goretex jacketGoretex jacket because they keep the wind and rain out effectively but are thin and light.
- Snow boots: something with good grip and can handle the low temperatures.
- Good socks
17. Useful Apps to Download
17.1 Google Translate
We’ve never had to use Google Translate so much in our lives! The camera function is particularly helpful in translating menus and signs. The app is also useful when you want to have a conversation with locals though some functions require internet.
17.2 Google Maps
Great for pinning locations and mapping out major sites within cities and for figuring out public transport routes. We also used it for driving routes in the Altai region.
17.3 Maps ME
We love Maps.ME but boy does it drain the battery. Best thing about this app though is that you can see walking / hiking paths and figure out distances beforehand. This saved us from committing to a 30km hike into the mountains!
TIP: Make sure you download offline maps before going to Russia even if you plan on getting a sim card. There are many areas where you won’t get service so you’ll need it off if you won’t have a sim card with the internet.
17.4 Yandex Maps
Russia’s answer to Google is Yandex and with it comes Yandex Maps. We only found that this was better than Google when it came to searching a couple of specific home addresses. Overall though, we found that Google Maps and Maps ME was sufficient and that Yandex Maps wasn’t as user-friendly.
17.5 Yandex Taxi
You won’t find Uber in Russia, only Gett and Yandex Taxi and the latter is what is preferred by locals. Yandex Taxi is also usually around 25 – 40% cheaper than Gett.
17.6 RZD Trains
If you’re booking long distance trains, you can do it straight from the app or check your orders and bring up the tickets there. There’s no need to print anything out and it’s much easier to use than the website.
18. WIFI & SIM cards
Getting a sim card is easy and very cheap. We used MTS (MTC) and had 4G coverage in all cities. A sim card with unlimited internet for one month costs 550₽. If you need to tether, a sim card with 20 GB costs 450₽.
Phew! That’s almost EVERYTHING you need to know about Russia. We’ll be releasing some more detailed guides on day trips soon but in the meantime, make sure you pin this post or save it for your backpacking trip to Russia.
Let us know if you have any questions or think we need to include more information.
Disclosure: Visa HQ sponsored our visas for Russia, however, all opinions are our own. This post contains affiliate links so if you make a purchase through one the of the links, you will not pay anything extra but we get paid a small commission. Your support helps keep our site running.