How to arrange transport in Russia
Despite being the biggest country on earth, travel around Russia is relatively easy and affordable. The country has an impressive railway network, with the Trans-Siberian being the longest train journey in the world. I have traveled by train mostly without hassle around the arctic North, through the Caucasus in the South and along the Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Vladivostok. Travel by plane is an option when you have limited time. Bus travel is not recommended, since it is slow and uncomfortable and the distances are usually too great. An exception is the mountainous South, where a lot of destinations are only accessible by road.
Booking train tickets
You can buy tickets in advance through the website of the Russian railways. The site works well in English at eng.rzd.ru. You need a credit card to book online and international cards seem to work. Once you board the train, a conductor will ask you for your passport. Sometimes, though not often, they ask for your ticket as well. You can show them the ticket on your phone or print the ticket in advance. An exception is international train travel. You can still book international tickets through the Russian railways, but you will need to pick them up at an office or machine at a Russian train station.
Booking domestic flights
Booking flights within Russia is comparable with booking flights in Western Europe. I flew with the Russian airlines Aeroflot, S7, Nordavia, Ural Airlines and Pobeda air. They always got me to my destination without trouble. But like everywhere around the world, delays do occur sometimes.
Planning bus journeys
When planning bus trips, I use the website t.rasp.yandex.ru. The site is in Russian, but is simple and allows you to type departure stations and destinations in English. When in doubt you can always use Google Translate. The site t.rasp.yandex.ru shows many, though not all, intercity bus routes. Quite often it is not possible to book bus tickets online. I usually look up a route on t.rasp.yandex.ru, screen-grab it on my phone and show the screen-grab at a desk at a bus station. This is also a useful method when you don’t speak Russian, since staff at bus stations rarely speak English.
Intercity “mashrutkas” are minivans that leave for a specific destination once they are full. You can’t book them. Instead you usually pay the driver or get tickets from a salesman near the van. Make sure you are not on a tight schedule, since it might take a while for the van to fill up and go.
Taxis are more expensive than buses and mashrutkas, but not pricey when shared. You can agree with the driver to find more passengers. Always agree on a price before you leave.
Planning transport within or around cities
“Yandex Transport” is a useful and accessible route planning app for local transport in Russia. It’s available in English (I even use it in Dutch) and it’s straightforward. You can type your departure and arrival point in English, after which the app will show you the options to get there. I have used this app to find buses, trams and metros in and around cities all over Russia.
There are several apps for taxis. Uber works in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In other cities Yandex Taxi is more popular or the only option. A foreign credit card won’t work on Yandex Taxi, but you can choose to pay in cash instead. When you don’t have an app, you can always approach taxis on the street. In that case you should agree on a price with the driver in advance.
Almost everywhere in Russia you need cash for local transport. In over a dozen cities I visited the buses and trams have staff on board selling tickets. They will approach you once you’re on the bus or tram. In Vladivostok you pay the driver once you leave the bus, in others you pay once you board. Within cities, routes are usually one price no matter where you travel.
Moscow has a different system, where the card “Troika” is needed. Troika-cards are sold around Moscow through vending machines that work in English. You need to put money on the Troika-card through the same machine, and only have to use it once you board a bus, tram or metro.