Friday, February 13, 2009

Things I'm Learning About Planning a Trip to Russia

I’m off to Russia next week. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process of planning for my trip.

· It is no easier to get a visa to Russia than it was when I last visited several years ago. If anything, it’s more expensive and complicated. Russia has not yet shown signs of wanting to encourage tourism.

· The cheapest tourist visa for Americans will cost you $181 (for two week processing and an invitation).

· The Way to Russia boards have the most comprehensive and helpful information on visa registration I’ve found. Having been through the process of registration in the Russian hinterlands before, I wonder if they are overly optimistic in their thoughts that local landlords can help register you. My guess is that this would take a substantial amount of time on the part of the landlord and probably some type of bribe. If you are going to ask a landlord to do this, make sure you are paying them enough to compensate them adequately for the hassle.

· For invitation processing, I used a company called Russian American Consulting, which is staffed by former employees of the Russian Foreign Service. What I like about this company is that you send your passport directly to them and they handle all interactions with the embassy. No need for contact with the Russian embassy on your part. They also followed through with what they promised and were professional and courteous. If you will be staying primarily in the Moscow area, they can register the visa for you for 1500 rubles. Otherwise, you have to register with the local authorities, which is a whole adventure in itself. Another, slightly cheaper, option that people recommended to me is Way to Russia.

· The tourist visa application, apparently modeled after the application the U.S. embassy makes Russians fill out, asks questions I’ve never seen on another visa application – such as all the countries you have visited in the last ten years and the dates of visit, full information on your last two places of work, including your supervisor, all educational institutions ever attended after high school, and all professional, civil and charitable organizations you have ever been a member of, contributed to or worked with. I understand they want to make a point that the U.S. visa procedures are cumbersome, expensive and condescending. However, I think they need to keep in mind the numbers of Americans (very few, I imagine) who stay illegally to live and work in Russia. Conversely, the number of Russians who stay in the U.S. illegally is significant and there is a whole network set up to assist them in New York.

· S7 airlines, now the largest domestic airline in Russia, sells tickets online. The customer service is excellent. But watch out for your bank charging you a foreign transaction fee of 2% or more. I was surprised when my debit card, issued by ING Direct (a bank I loved until that moment) added another 2% to my already expensive Moscow to Siberia flight. Capital One credit card doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees. Also, if you purchase your domestic flight separately from your international flight, you’ll be subject to the 20 kilo free luggage limit.

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