If you're a regular reader of this site, or if you know us, personally, you'll know that we've been around the world and visited a lot, a lot (a lot) of places. We've been to every continent together (at least once) and we've got more countries under our belt than we can count.
Most of the time, our clients ask us about our favorite trips--what was amazing? Where would we return? But occasionally, we'll get the question--what was your least favorite trip. And since the World Cup is happening in Russia right now...well...we thought this might be an opportunity to write a little about that.
Putting aside the fact that travel can get complicated very quickly on the turn of a dime, I think that, when asked, we've consistently said that our experience visiting Russia was definitely not our favorite.
We traveled to Russia before we'd started our travel business and because I had an opportunity to attend a conference for work. We were really excited about it. And at the time, though we were not certified travel planners (as we are, now), we were well-traveled and thought we knew how to book ourselves on a trip, using the tools available to laypersons.
Oof. It was a difficult week. We saw incredible sights and had really fun experiences, but overall, I think we really suffered because our experience wasn't mediated by a local guide, and because we'd tried to do it ourselves.
Lets start with the visa. As US Citizens, we've easily secured a visa upon arrival in lots of countries, including some of the most remote and isolated countries in the world. Zambia, Laos, Zimbabwe, Bolivia...you can pretty much land on a plane, fill out some paperwork and be admitted into that country.
Other countries--well, if a visa is required before you arrive, it's not that complicated to get your visa for countries like Brazil or China. But Russia is a whole different thing. In New York City, the Russian Consulate is only open for processing visas during a narrow window. And they require meticulous documentation about your reason for visiting Russia (including an "invitation" if there might be a business purpose for your visit). Plan ahead, read all of the requirements, follow them to the letter of the rule, and don't expect to be able to travel last-minute. If you're doing it on your own, you'll need to take a couple of days off of work.
Once you arrive, the hassles don't end. We started in St. Petersburg, and we successfully managed to see the Hermitage, which is absolutely phenomenal. Actually, all of St. Petersburg is phenomenal. But if you're accustomed to western-style customer service (even the curt, efficient style), you might be shocked to find indifferent locals when you require assistance.
We decided to travel by overnight train between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and we did not make advance arrangements. What resulted was nothing short of a disaster. Not speaking Russian, we were unable to find a ticket agent at the rail station who was willing to deal with us. And when we finally figured out how to board the train, we were in a crowded, un-air-conditioned slow-moving rail car during a heat wave (not Russia's fault, as far as I know, for the heat wave), and with an elderly woman who'd decided to try to engage all of the other sleepy, frustrated travelers in conversation about god-only-knows-what.
In Moscow, we managed to do a fair amount of sightseeing, even though the language barrier was significant. But even there, we felt like we were hampered by trying to do it ourselves. The subway stations in Moscow are architectural marvels. Stunningly beautiful. But, purchasing a ticket to ride on the subway is a huge ordeal. Crowds of locals refuse to stand in lines, insisting on pushing themselves toward the window, and if you're the lone English-only person trying to buy a ticket with hordes of Russians jockeying for position behind you--well, you can understand how this might not be the most relaxing vacation.
All of that being said--visiting Russia is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there are ways that you can experience all that is beautiful and incredible about that country without having to do it yourself. Now that we're professional travel planners, we've got a better understanding of where we missed the mark.
World Cup 2018 starts today in Russia, and I'm hoping that the DIY travelers who are of the "grab-and-go" variety are prepared to navigate what's in front of them. But, for the rest of you--we have lots of tour operators and travel providers that can take the guesswork out of traveling to Russia. So, if this is on your 'must-do' travel list--we can help you check it off, for sure.
And, we can help you be prepared and taken care of while you're there. Just let us know.