ACCOMMODATION IN RUSSIA
Long gone are the days when visitors to Russia were restricted to specified hotels and a few grotty camp sites, all of which had to be booked before you could even get a visa. It’s a good idea to book a few nights in advance for Moscow and St Petersburg, but elsewhere it’s usually not necessary. Make bookings by fax rather than email or telephone, and note that some hotels have a small surcharge for the first night’s accommodation.
Camping in the wild is legal in many places, except those signposted – No putting up of tent and/or No camp fires; if you’re off the beaten track it is usually fine just to put up a tent and hit the hay. Check with locals if you’re in doubt.
Kempingi-organised camp sites – are increasingly rare and, usually, only open from some time in June to some time in September. They are not quite like Western camp sites: small wooden cabins often take up much of the space, leaving little room for tents. While some kempingl are on the city fringes, they may be in quite attractive woodland settings (although communal toilets and washrooms are often in poor condition and other facilities few).
Tourbases, Rest Houses & Sanatoriums
There are lots of these Soviet-era relics around Russia ; some are worth searching out, others not.
A turbaza (tourbase) is a holiday camp for Russians, usually owned by a factory or large company for the use of its employees. They’re often spartan and lodging options are usually a large common room with six or more beds, smaller doubles and private cottages. All are cheap – from as little as R300 per person – and there are reasons for this: many turbaza have no indoor plumbing, with the stolovaya (canteen) the only place to eat. But if you bring a good supply of food and a sense of adventure, turbazv are a great way to get a feel for the average Russian’s holiday. At some, you can arrange boating, skiing, hiking or mountaineering.
Donza otdvkha (rest houses) are similar to turbazv, although generally more luxurious. Some are now privatised, but many retain original owners. They’re cheap, popular with Russians and expats alike, and can be booked through travel agencies in big cities. It’s always worth asking about ‘elite’ doma otdvkha, belonging to the presidential administration, the various government ministries (especially the Foreign Ministry), and major plants.
Sanatorii (sanatoriums), usually booked through local travel agencies, have professional medical staff on hand to treat your illnesses, design your diet and advise you on correct rest. Sanatorii can be spas, sea resorts (there are several good ones in Sochi ), or resorts where you can get some kind of nontraditional treatment (for instance with kumys, fermented mare’s milk of Central Asia ).
Komnary oldykha (resting rooms) are found at all major train stations and several smaller ones. Generally, they have basic (but often quite clean) shared accommodation with communal sink and toilet (but no shower). Sometimes there are single and double rooms and, rarely, more luxurious ones. The beds are usually rented by the half-day and their cheap price means they are often full; komnary otdykha are worth trying on the off-chance, or if you’re stuck for cheap accommodation. Some will ask to see your train ticket before allowing you to stay.
There are several youth or backpacker hostels in Moscow and St Petersburg, all more or less in the international mould and able to offer visa support. (See the individual city listings for details.) The rest of Russia is ripe for development (for foreigners and locals), but so far no hostel movement has emerged (although there are plenty of cheap hotels).
In Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities with large universities, it’s possible to stay in Russian student accommodation, sometimes for as little as R300 a night (the conditions are not unlike the kind you find in hostels and guesthouses). Getting in can sometimes be a bit iffy, dependent upon availability or even the administrator’s mood – a student card, and looking like a student, certainly helps. See the city listings for further information or ask around at campuses.
Russian hotels run the gamut from dirt-cheap flophouses to megabuck five-star palaces. Most hotels have one price for Russians and a higher price for foreigners (less common in Moscow and St Petersburg ) – there is little you can do about this, even if you arrive with Russian friends. The only exceptions are a few, mostly out-of-the-way places that get very few foreigners, or haven’t heard of such things as ‘foreigner prices’. In this book we list the prices hotels charge foreigners.
At most hotels, you can just walk in and get a room on the spot. If you can’t, it will probably be because the hotel is genuinely full (rare); or because they say they don’t take foreigners (sometimes receptionists think the hotel is not up to your impeccable Western standards, although they can usually be persuaded otherwise; when you’ve seen around some places you might agree with them); or because they didn’t take foreigners in the Soviet era and don’t know times have changed.
At virtually all hotels you have to show your passport and visa when you check in – staff may keep it till next day to register your presence with the local PVU. Don’t worry about this – it’s normal – but do remember to get your passport and visa back before you leave. Better yet, tell them you need your passport to change money; they should then complete the paperwork in five minutes.
In most hotels (except the cheapest and the expensive new foreign ones), each floor has a dezhurnava (floor lady); they’re well worth making friends with. Often, the dezhurnava and the room cleaners will be the nicest people in the place, almost always able to supphyou with snacks, bottled drinks and boiled water. (Also remember that hotels with significant numbers of foreigners attract prostitutes.)
Checkout time is usually noon, but it’s unlikely that anyone will mind if you stay an extra hour or two. If you want to store your luggage somewhere safe for a late departure, arrange it with the dezhurnaya or front desk staff.
While many hotels have a range of rooms at widely differing prices, they may automatically offer foreigners the most expensive ones, often claiming that cheaper rooms are ‘not suitable’. Given that away from the major cities room prices average about R300, you may be happy with their idea of ‘best’. But feel free to look around and ask about cheaper options.
Not all hotels have genuine single room, and ‘single’ prices often refer to single occupancy of a double room. Some hotels, mainly in the bottom-end and lower-middle range, have rooms for three or four people where the price per person comes to much less than a single or double. Beds are typically single.
Hot water supplies are fairly reliable, but since hot water is supplied on a district bask whole neighborhoods can be without it for a month or more in summer when the system is shut down for maintenance (the best hotels are able to avoid this by having their own hot water systems).
A lyux room is a suite with a sitting room in addition to the bedroom and bathroom. A polu-lyux suite is less spacious.
Rooms may have their own toilet, washbasin or shower, or you may have to use facilities shared by the whole corridor. Some places are clean, if musty, and even include a 1’V or huge, Soviet-era fridge in the rooms; others are decaying, dirty and smelly and lack decent toilets and washing facilities. Take care with security in some cheap hotels. Prices range from R600 in Moscow to less than R100 elsewhere.
These mainly Soviet-era tourist hotels are typically concrete-and-glass rectangles, though some of the older ones have a bit of style. They have clean, reasonably comfortable rooms with bathrooms (and often small balconies), and there’ll be a restaurant along with a bar or bufetv (snack bar); a casino haunted by mafiosi is another common feature. These are the most common hotels in the country and you’ll pay R300 to R600 for a mid-range single (except in Moscow and St Petersburg, where it’s R2100 to R3000).
To date, Russia has disappointingly few of the small, cosy, moderately priced hotels found elsewhere in Europe.
The top end consists largely of Western-run luxury hotels in Moscow and St Petersburg. These are up to the best international standards, with very comfortable rooms hassling satellite TV, minibars, fawning service, tine restaurants, health clubs, and prices to match, from around US$200/250 to US$350/ 400 for singles/doubles. (Prices will always be quoted in dollars, on top of which you’ll typically pay 20% VAT and 5% local tax.)
Outside the two big cities, the ‘top end’ (where it exists) is composed mainly of the very best Soviet-era tourist hotels, along with the occasional former Communist Party hotel or smaller, newer private venture. Expect to pay from R2100 to R4500, although you may get better prices through a travel agent.
It’s not hard to find a room in a private flat, shared with the owners. This type of accommodation – often referred to as ‘bed & breakfast’ (B&B) or ‘homestay’ – enables you to glimpse how Russians really live. Most flats that take in guests are clean and respectable, though rarely large! If you stay in a few you’ll be surprised, despite outward similarities, how different their owners can make them.
Moscow and St Petersburg have organisations specifically geared to accommodate foreign visitors in private flats at around US$20 or US$30 per person, normally with English speaking hosts, breakfast and other services, such as excursions and extra meals. Many travel agencies and tourism firms in these and other cities can also find you a place for around US$25 per person, but the price may depend on things like how far the flat is from the city centre, whether the hosts speak English, and whether any meals are provided.
It’s also possible to pay less by going with one of the people who approach travelers arriving off major trains in Moscow and St Petersburg. But be sure you can trust them, establishing how far from the city centre their place is – you’ll find many such people are genuine, and just in need of some extra cash. It’s better to avoid committing yourself before you actually see the place.
You can contact many Russian homestay agents from overseas (if you do, check they provide visa support), and can even book through travel agencies in your own country.
One reliable Russian organisation is the St Petersburg-based Host Families Association (fax 812-275 1992; http://www.hofa.us ), which can provide accommodation with English-speaking families throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union, from around US$25/40 for singles/doubles, including breakfast. It charges US$30 to US$50 for a visa invitation and registration.
In Australia Eastern European Travel Bureau, Gateway Travel and Passport Travel Services can book rooms in Russia. In the UK try Interchange (020-8681 3612, fax 8760 0031), which offers homestays in Moscow (?43 a night) and St Petersburg (?34 a night).
In the USA Russian Home Travel (Tel: 800861 9335; email: firstname.lastname@example.org ) offers visa support and represents hosts in Moscow and St Petersburg.