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Trains: cheap tickets, going to and from St. Petersburg and other cities
Trains are an excellent, fun, affordable, efficient means of venturing outside Moscow, be it to St. Petersburg or nearby towns and cities, especially Golden Ring cities such as Vladimir/Suzdal, and Yaroslavl/Sergiev Posad or all the way across Siberia to Vladivostok or China. This overview will provide most of the information you will need, including how to get the best prices.
There are many travel sites and ticket resellers out there all using different and confusing terms for train types, ticket classes etc. This article sticks to the terms used by the official Russian Railroads web site – rzd.ru – which should be your first stop for checking timetables and buying tickets (more on that later).
Types of trains and service
There are three basic types of trains:
When to buy your tickets
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). Not only you risk to find your desired train sold out, the price for most trains goes steeply up (up to four times the initial price!) as the number of available seats goes down. Don’t be afraid to book early if you are not completely sure of your plans. Tickets bought on rzd.ru can be returned via the same site for a full refund (minus a modest fee of 185 rubles) up to 8 hours before the train departure.
The earliest tickets go on sale is 45 or 60 days before the departure date depending on the train. Some resellers will be happy to take your money much earlier and sit on it until the actual tickets go on sale – don’t let that fool you into thinking that they can secure your seats before those go on sale.
Where to buy your tickets
The only web site where you can buy your tickets at face value (same price as at the station) with no commission is the official web site of Russian Railroads - rzd.ru. The web site provides a user interface in English and accepts most Visa/Mastercard credit cards. Even though most people succeed in buying their tickets from rzd.ru web site lately, many complain about their cards being declined. Here’s what you can do to maximize your chances:
If you still can’t make your card work with rzd.ru no matter what, there is a large number of resellers online (see the list at the bottom), all of them adding a markup ranging from modest to outrageous. As of the moment of this writing, tutu.travel adds a very reasonable markup/commission and accepts PayPal. Anyway it’s up to you to compare prices between different sources and decide what price is acceptable to you.
You can also buy tickets for any train at any train station in Russia: see above the risks of postponing your buying until the last moment. 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.
Finally, you can ask your hotel to get your tickets 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!
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 and your e-ticket with a bar code on it – either as a printout or on the screen of your smartphone. The boarding agent will find your name/reservation on his/her hand-held device and wave you onto the train.
Please note, that buying a 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. 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.
There are two important points to be made re buying international train tickets:
Tickets for some trains (e.g. to Ulan-Bator, Mongolia) are NOT available online via rzd.ru. To get those tickets, you’ll either have to buy them at the station (with the risk of the train being sold out by then) or resort to a reseller/agency which would be able to buy out and deliver physical tickets to you.
Be very careful when buying tickets for international trains headed to Russia from abroad. If the train doesn’t have an "ЭР" (electronic registration/check-in) icon next to it on rzd.ru then you WON’T be able to board it abroad with your Russian e-ticket only: you will need a paper ticket that can ONLY be obtained in Russia. If the train does have an "ЭР" logo then the Russian e-ticket should work but still it makes better sense to buy the ticket in the country where you are boarding the train so that in case of any problem/ misunderstanding/ itinerary change etc you will find yourself talking to the same company that sold you the ticket.
Getting to your train station (Moscow only!)
As with any place in Moscow, the Metro will whisk you to any out of its nine train stations, regardless of location. The good news is three of them are right in the same place – Komsomolskaya Square. Overall, the three most likely suspects will be:
Russian train ticket resellers (mostly added by the resellers themselves):