Exactly How to Plan an Epic Trans-Siberian Railway Journey

by Carly | Fearless Female Travels

Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway Across Russia to Moscow

For many travelers, a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is a bucket list travel dream.

In fact, the Trans-Siberian Railway was on my own bucket list for many years, until one day I sat down at my computer and said, “Could this actually be doable?”

The first websites I found were sponsored by companies selling Russian travel services to foreigners, and they all seemed to imply that traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway was difficult and confusing for foreigners… and that I’d be better off paying them lots of money to plan every detail of my trip.

But my gut was telling me that I’d traveled independently all over the world, including through much of Eastern Europe, and there must be a way to do the Trans-Siberian Railway on my own terms.  I consulted a few guidebooks, read some internet forums and brushed up on my Cyrillic reading skills, and came to the conclusion that I could travel across Russia by train at my own pace, on  my own budget, according to my own interests.

In this post I’m going to talk about my own experiences on the Trans-Siberian Railway, including budgeting for the train journey, buying my own train tickets along the way, choosing which stops to make, living on board the train and obtaining the dreaded Russian visa.  There’s a lot of information to digest here, so grab a cup of tea (get in that Russian railway mood!), find a comfortable chair and even consider keeping a notepad close at hand.  If you’re left with any questions at the end, don’t hesitate to leave your questions in the comments! 

How long is the Trans-Siberian Railway?

Sign Showing the Trans-Siberian Railway Length and Distance

Signs in Moscow and Vladivostok proudly announce the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway:

The Trans-Siberian Railway is 9298 kilometers. 

That’s like driving all the way from Los Angeles to New York City… and back… and then up to San Francisco for good measure.

That’s like driving from London to Istanbul… and back to London… and back to Istanbul.

But what does that distance actually mean to travelers on board the world’s most famous rail journey?

Well, it means that if you don’t get off the train anywhere (which, in my opinion, is a terrible idea), you’ll be on board the Trans-Siberian Railway for six days and twenty-two hours.

Crowds Waiting to Board Platzkart on the Trans-Siberian Railway

It means you will make one hundred and forty-four stops along the way.  Ninety-nine of those stops will be in small Russian towns and villages where the train will stop for less than five minutes (like the station shown above… that’s a crowd of people waiting to board a third class, or platzkart wagon, in Eastern Siberia… read more about travel classes below).  Only ten stops will be thirty minutes or longer, giving you sufficient time to get off the train, stretch your legs and stock up on provisions from the vendors who crowd the tracks with fresh produce, preserved meats, home-cooked pastries and other local specialties.

As I said, I would never recommend that a traveler stay on the Trans-Siberian Railway for the full seven-day journey without getting off the train and seeing what Russia has to offer. 

Personally, my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway took seven weeks (inclusive of a ten-day detour into Mongolia by bus).  This gave me time to really get to know Russia, all the way from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east, and many of the cities and towns in between (you can read about my ten favorite stops here).  Of course you don’t need seven weeks to do this trip, but I think you’d be selling yourself short if you tried to tried to make the journey in less than three weeks.  With a typical tourist visa valid for thirty days, I recommend planning a three- or four-week Russian rail journey. 

How much does the Trans-Siberian Railway cost?

Russian Rubles

There are three main factors that affect how much a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway costs:

  • Number of stops
  • Class of carriage
  • Date of travel

Basically, the less you get off the train, the less you’ll pay.  The fewer people you share your compartment with, the more you’ll pay.  And prices tend to be lower if you book well in advance or travel in less-busy periods.

What does that actually mean for your travel budget?

I’m writing this on February 1st, 2019.  As of today, the furthest out that I can possibly book is May 1st.  I’ll price out a few different journeys so that you can compare the costs.

  • Moscow to Vladivostok direct, second class, tomorrow: 12,869 rubles ($196 USD)
  • Moscow to Vladivostok direct, second class, next week: 12,869 rubles ($196 USD) (same as above)
  • Moscow to Vladivostok direct, second class, in April: 11,917 rubles ($182 USD)
  • Moscow to Vladivostok direct, first class, in April: 49,198 rubles ($751 USD)
  • Moscow to Vladivostok direct, third class, in April: 8,360 rubles ($127 USD)

In my opinion, the difference in price between a third class ticket and a second class ticket is not that large (considering it’s a seven-day journey), but second class is significantly more comfortable.

However, those were the prices for a non-stop journey.  I always recommend that travelers get off the train in several different cities.  Let’s compare prices for some point-to-point journeys on the Trans-Siberian Express.

  • Moscow to Yekaterinburg, second class, April: 3,727 rubles ($57 USD)
  • Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, second class, April: 7,199 rubles ($110 USD)
  • Irkutsk to Vladivostok, second class, April: 7,737 rubles ($118 USD)

As you can see, the price increases dramatically when you start making stops along the way.  You’re now looking at 18,663 rubles, or $285 USD.

But what if you stop in all of  my recommended cities (excluding Saint Petersburg, since it’s not on the official Trans-Siberian Railway route)?

  • Moscow to Vladimir, third class, March: 320 rubles ($5 USD) (because it’s only a three-hour trip, I would recommend booking a third-class seat on a local commuter train).
  • Vladimir to Perm, second class, March: 3,644 rubles ($55 USD)
  • Perm to Ekaterinburg, third class, March: 1,197 rubles ($18 USD) (again, this can be a five-hour trip on an express train, so third-class should be fine)
  • Ekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk, second class, March: 5,664 rubles ($86 USD)
  • Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, second class, March: 3,242 rubles ($50 USD)
  • Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, third class, March: 1,025 rubles ($15 USD) (less than seven hours on a fast train, third-class should be fine for a journey during the day)
  • Ulan-Ude to Khabarovsk, second class, March: 5,954 rubles ($90 USD)
  • Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, second class, March: 1,829 rubles ($28 USD)

Interestingly, because some of the trip was in third class, this route came out to only about 18,000 rubles, or $276 USD.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that if you want to cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, in second class, and make stops along the way, you should budget about $300 USD, or $19,500 rubles, for transportation costs. 

Where can I buy Trans-Siberian Railway tickets?

You do not need to use an agency to buy Trans-Siberian Railway tickets. 

Let me say that again.

You do not need to use an agency to buy Trans-Siberian Railway tickets. 

Trans-Siberian Railway Station in Khabarovsk

You can walk into any train station in Russia (like the one in Khabarovsk, shown above) and buy a ticket on the spot.  Many stations have automated ticket machines with an English-language option, but some do require a face-to-face conversation with a ticket agent (who is unlikely to speak English).  Much easier, however, is purchasing your Trans-Siberian Railway tickets online.

If you have ever bought clothes, groceries or electronics online, you are more than capable of buying your Trans-Siberian Railway tickets yourself, using the official Russian Railways website.  Don’t worry about speaking Russian – there is an English version of the official Russian Railways website.  It’s a little bit hard to find, so here is a direct link.  I suggest that you bookmark that link (or come back to this post every time you want to book a ticket!) because the English version is somewhat difficult to find from the site’s main landing page.  (Full disclosure: I do not make any money if you book via that link!)

Before you book any Trans-Siberian Railway tickets, you need to register for the website.  Follow the link above and look for the registration button in the top right corner of the page.

It is not possible to book tickets that include a stopover or layover along the way, so if you’re planning to break up your trip (as I highly recommend!) you need to book separate point-to-point tickets.

You don’t need to book your tickets in advance!  I booked all of my tickets after arriving in Russia.  I just followed the steps outlined below to keep an eye on the availability of tickets on the routes I wanted, and only booked in advance if it looked like the train might sell out (which only happened once or twice on my seven-week trip).  For the most part, I booked my onward ticket two or three days before each segment of my journey.

Buying Tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Booking a ticket is as easy as entering your starting point and destination, then choosing your preferred date of travel.  Sometimes, the website uses an unexpected English spelling, so if you can’t find the city that you’re looking for you should try entering just a few letters, or trying a different spelling (for example, the most common English spelling of Хаба́ровск is “Khabarovsk”, but on the booking site it is listed as “Habarovsk”).

Choosing a Train and Seat on the Trans-Siberian Railway

In the past, Russian trains were famous for operating on Moscow time.  This practice ended in August 2018.

Recently, the Russian Railways website has updated their ticket booking system to accommodate travelers who are more comfortable booking in local time.  See where it says “14:32”?  Look above that and you’ll see the option to choose how the schedule is displayed: local time or Moscow time.  I prefer to use the local time option (as shown in the photo) for two reasons: first, it is now the standard used across the railway network, and second, it just makes logical sense.

You can see from the photo above that there are two direct trains between Irkutsk and Vladivostok on March 18th, with one leaving in the morning (local time) and the other leaving in the evening (local time).  The trip takes approximately three days, give or take a few hours.

The morning train offers three classes of service: first class (often called spalny vagon, or sleeping wagon), second class (kupe) and third class (platzkart), but the evening train only offers second- and third-class seats.  Which class should you choose?

  • Second class was always my preferred choice on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  This is a comfortable four-bed compartment with two lower bunks, two upper bunks, a window and a small table.  Sometimes it’s possible to book a single-sex compartment, and you will typically find yourself sharing your little cabin with middle-class families or business travelers… and sometimes, you’ll have the whole compartment to yourself!
  • I tried traveling in third class once and did not enjoy the experience.  In third class, the entire wagon is open and the bunks are sometimes stacked three tall.  There is no privacy and very little quiet in a platzkart wagon, but it is by far the cheapest and most social way to travel across Russia by train.
  • I don’t have any experience with first class travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  If you’re traveling as a couple, you might want to consider booking one of these two-bed compartments that often come with extras like televisions, complimentary meals (served in your cabin) and, sometimes, access to a shower.

Choosing a Class of Travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway

You can click around on this screen to see exactly what is available.  Playing around with second-class options on the morning train, I would most likely choose what I have shown here: a second class ticket for one of the seven remaining lower beds on Car #8.  This wagon has a toilet and sink, air conditioning in the summer and bedding included.  I would not choose the disabled passenger seat (because I’m not disabled) and I wouldn’t go for the options in Car #11 or #13 because I don’t like the onboard “room service” (I’ll talk more about food below).  The cost of this ticket is 10,613 rubles, or $162 USD.

Choosing a Bed on the Trans-Siberian Express

When I click on the price of 10,613 rubles, the page expands to show me the beds that are still available at that price.  The bold spots are vacant, and the grey ones are already occupied.  Generally, I prefer a middle cabin, as the end cabins are quite close to the bathrooms and can get a little… fragrant.  Given the options shown above, I would choose Bed #11 This would be my choice because it’s a lower bed and the opposite set of bunks is already reserved.  The chances of another solo traveler booking the bed above me is slim, so we’d probably end up with only three travelers in our compartment.  Lower beds are preferable because they have under-bed storage that can’t be opened while you’re in bed unless someone literally lifts your entire body (hopefully you’d notice!), and there’s no ladder-climbing involved!

Finalizing Your Trans-Siberian Ticket Booking

You’re almost done!  On the next screen, you will enter your traveler details, opt in or out of travel and medical insurance (I always opted out because I had my own coverage… and you should too!), choose your bed and make the final reservation!  Be careful to enter your passport number correctly as it will later serve as proof of your identity when you board.

I can’t show you any more of the booking process without actually making a reservation, so I can’t show you the confirmation screen.  My personal strategy was always to print the confirmation screen to a PDF on my iPad, but it was generally unnecessary as I was always able to see my bookings in my Russian Railways account.

Once you’ve booked the ticket and can see it in your Russian Railways account, that’s all you need to do!  With the exception of commuter trains and international routes, you generally don’t need a paper ticket to board the train.  Instead, you board the train through the door of your assigned wagon, where the attendant will be waiting to check your passport against the list of travelers they are expecting.  If you’ve made your reservation at the very last minute, showing the confirmation on your phone or tablet is generally sufficient.

What is the best Trans-Siberian Railway route?

Technically, there is only one Trans-Siberian Railway route, and it is the direct line that runs from Moscow to Vladivostok.  However, there are several other rail journeys that cross all or part of Russia.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway follows the Trans-Siberian line from Moscow to Ulan-Ude.  Here, it changes lines and begins its journey south into Mongolia, through Ulaanbaatar (the Mongolian capital) and onward into China before terminating in Beijing.

The Trans-Manchurian Railway also runs from Moscow to Beijing, but it skirts around Mongolia by traveling from Moscow to Chita (Russia) on the Trans-Siberian Line, then continuing west into China, passing through Harbin on its way to Beijing.

Because China uses a different width of train track than Russia and Mongolia, a taking either of these rail lines will involve a fascinating stop to move the wagons from one set of “bogies” (or, undercarriages) to another.  Typically, this process takes about three hours… during which there is no air conditioning or toilet access!  Be prepared!

Baikal-Amur Mainline Station in Tynda, Russia

Additionally, the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) is a secondary train line crossing much of Russia from east to west (or vice versa), about 700 kilometers north of the main Trans-Siberian tracks.  I actually took the Baikal-Amur Mainline between Khabarovsk and Lake Baikal, stopping in Komsomolsk-na-Amur, Tynda and Severobaikalsk.  It’s a much quieter journey with fewer passengers and longer waits between trains, but it’s easy to book and I found it interesting to visit parts of Russia that rarely see foreign tourists.  Architecture fans will love this “little” detour, as the stations along the BAM are famous for their spectacular architecture inspired by different elements of Russian urban development, culture and environment.  Check out the spaceship-inspired station in Tynda!

How is life on the Trans-Siberian train?

Imagine you had to spend an entire week on your sofa, getting up only to use a weird old kettle and an only-passably clean toilet, and only being able to walk down one narrow hallway to a restaurant that served the kind of food your high school cafeteria served on the last week before summer break, when they were cleaning out their pantry.  You don’t have a TV or internet access, but you do have a bottle of warm vodka and your body weight equivalent in instant noodles.

That’s life on the Trans-Siberian Railway. 

Food on the Trans-Siberian Railway

A Restaurant Wagon on a Trans-Siberian Railway Train

A Traditional Restaurant Wagon on the Trans-Siberian Railway

If you weren’t already sold on a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express, hopefully those two photos sealed the deal.  How can you resist these beautiful onboard dining wagons, styled in a 1980s vision of a futuristic disco or a 1970s version of a turn-of-the-century tea room?

As a vegetarian, I rarely ate in the train’s dining rooms.  Vegetarian dishes were few and far between, and were often ridiculously priced (for example, I recall paying $10 CAD for a “salad” that was made up of half a baby cucumber, half a tomato and one quarter of a red pepper, sprinkled with dill).  It was kind of offensive, as huge meat-based dishes cost half that.  However, on multi-day trips I would sometimes swing by for coffee, tea or a beer (or breakfast, on the off chance it was available).

Instead of dining in the restaurant wagon, I made like most Russian travelers and packed food for my journey.  This is much more simple if you’re making lots of stops, as you’ll never need to pack more than two or three meals.  However, if you’re staying on the train for the full six days and twenty-two hours, you’ll need to plan a bit more carefully.

Again, speaking as a vegetarian, I relied a lot on instant noodles, instant oatmeal and instant soup for my on-board meals.  If I was departing from a big city, I would also try to visit a proper supermarket before boarding the train.  Supermarkets were great for bananas, drinkable yogurt and pastries (both sweet and savory), and a few even had to-go salads in their deli sections.  I also liked having some digestive biscuits for dipping into my tea.

Snacks on the Trans-Siberian Express

Not all trains had restaurant wagons (plan ahead!) but every wagon I rode in had a friendly provodnitsa, or attendant, who was very happy to sell junk food, coffee, tea and sugar.  Often the selection of treats was left outside her personal cabin (look for it at either end of the wagon, near the samovar, or hot water machine).  In addition to maintaining a constant supply of treats for sale, the provodnitsa is responsible for checking documents as passengers board the train, delivering clean bedding, maintaining the bathroom and ensuring that passengers are not too badly behaved.   

Drinking Tea on the Trans-Siberian Railway

When you’re on a train for seven days (or longer!) tea becomes your very best friend.  Back home, I never drink black tea or any kind of tea with sugar, but on board the Trans-Siberian Railway I became a sweet tea addict.  You see, the water in the samovar has quite a distinct metallic taste, making it unpleasant to drink on its own.  To hide the taste, I would brew super-strong mugs of tea (often with two tea bags and two sugar cubes), and then either drink them hot or let them cool.  I even used sugar cubes in my green tea and herbal tea (which I had to buy in a local supermarket – only black tea is served on board the trains).

Sidenote: I was obsessed with the glass-and-metal tea cups used for purchased tea on board the Trans-Siberian Railway.  Many trains advertised these cups on their “souvenir menu”, but every time I asked about purchasing them my provodnitsa told me that they were sold out.  If you happen to find yourself on a train that has some for sale, buy them!  They’re beautiful souvenirs and the chances of find them on another train are almost non-existent.

A Samovar on the Trans-Siberian Railway

This is a samovar – a machine that delivers a steady supply of scalding hot water on demand.  You will usually find one in every wagon on the train, at the end that is close to the bathroom and the provodnitsa’s cabin.  You can use the hot water to make tea, instant coffee and foods like instant noodles and instant oatmeal.  The provodnitsa will not provide a cup, though, so make sure you have your own (more on packing tips below!).

Inside Your Cabin on the Trans-Siberian Railway

A Second-Class Kupe Cabin on the Trans-Siberian Railway

That’s a photo of a pretty standard second-class (kupe) berth on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  As you can see, it consists of two sets of bunk beds separated by a small space, a little table and a window.  I took this photo as I boarded the train, and I think you can see how well the provodnitsa cleaned it to prepare for my trip.  I had the lower bunk reserved, so I was able to store my luggage under my bed – that’s a 70-liter backpack in the storage box, and a regular daypack in the open space between the storage box and the wall.

Bedding on Board the Trans-Siberian Railway

Every train that I rode in Russia was immaculately clean, and that cleanliness extended to the provided bedding.  As you can see from this photo of a different kupe wagon, most cabins have duvets and pillows inside.  Once you’re on board, your provodnitsa will come to your cabin with a sealed plastic bag full of freshly-laundered linens: a flat sheet to cover your bed, a duvet cover to slip over the provided duvet, a pillow case and a hand towel.  You may not need your duvet in the summer, in which case you can store it on an unused top bunk or in the little nook above the door.  I also liked to roll up the duvet (in its cover) and use it as a back rest, so I could sit comfortably and look out the window during the trip.

Bathrooms on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Bathroom on the Trans-Siberian Railway with a Toilet and Sink

Slightly more spacious than an airplane bathroom, the bathrooms on the Trans-Siberian Railway typically look something like this, with a toilet (that flushes directly onto the tracks, explaining why it’s usually locked when the train is within city limits) and a cold-water sink with non-potable water.

Bathrooms like these are usually found at both ends of every carriage on the train.  The bathrooms in platzkart get significantly more use than those in kupe, so travelers looking for unimpeded access to a toilet as often as possible should book a second-class ticket. Although your provodnitsa will do her best to keep the soap and toilet paper replenished, occasionally supplies will get used up in the night.  BYO toilet paper, just in case.

There are no showers on most Trans-Siberian trains, though occasionally you’ll come across a first-class ticket that includes access to a shower.  Some travelers neglect personal hygiene altogether for the duration of their trip (um, no…), but most people will brush their teeth in the sink (I recommend using bottled water!) and then use facial cleaning wipes and baby wipes to freshen up.  I packed a few face clothes and used hot water from the samovar to wash my face with warm water whenever possible (put the water in a cup first!).

Passing the Time on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Bring books.  Find books.  Trade books.  Books, books, books.

Although there is limited electrical supply on board most Trans-Siberian Railway trains, there aren’t nearly enough power outlets for everyone.  If you happen to find an outlet that isn’t being used, chances are good it will be at ceiling height and there won’t be anywhere to put your device, so you have to literally stand there, arm in the air, holding up your device as it charges.  Obviously, make sure your device is compatible with the on-board voltage before you plug anything in!

Most of my travel was in kupe, which tends to be pretty quiet.  I never had other foreigners in my wagon (much less in my cabin) and I rarely encountered other passengers who spoke any English.  Occasionally I would find someone who I could communicate with, and I would tell them about my plans in Russia and they would ask me questions about Canada.  If you’re traveling in platzkart it can get a little bit more social, and you’ll probably find Russians who want to share their vodka, play card games and sing songs with you (even if nobody speaks a word of English).

Hallways of a Kupe Wagon on the Trans-Siberian Express

Otherwise, I spent a lot of time walking up and down the halls of the train, teaching myself to read Cyrillic using the dual-language signage on board and looking out the window at the Siberian wilderness.  Oddly, even with nothing in particular to do, I never really got bored as a solo traveler on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  I found the journey to be quite calm and restorative, and it gave me lots of time for both sleep and contemplation. 

What should I pack for the Trans-Siberian train ride?

I’m going to assume that you know how to pack the basics for any trip (clothes, electronics, etc…. unless you want me to include affiliate links to socks and toothpaste?) and just focus on specific items that are useful on long-distance train rides.

What to Bring From Home

Packing for the Trans-Siberian Railway

There are a few things that are worth buying at home, because they’re hard (or impossible) to find in Russia.

First, you want to have a large, insulated travel mug to make tea on board the train.  Bring one from home or pick up the top-rated 20 oz travel mug from Amazon before you go.  The mug in my photo was my favorite travel mug for many years, and it stayed with me long after I left Russia… until a certain someone helped themselves to it!  If you’re reading this, I know who you are and I know you have my favorite travel mug.

Second, you’ll be really glad to have a set of travel utensils.  I got this knife, fork and spoon set (in a zippered neoprene carrying case) from Amazon, and used it almost every day on the train.  Above, I’m using the spoon to eat a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and a juice box (flashback to first grade!).  Provodnitsas don’t provide utensils or flatware for food you bring on board, so be prepared!

Third, you really do need a guidebook.  In my post about the best places to stop on board the Trans-Siberian Railway, I recommend my two favorite guidebooks: The massive Lonely Planet Russia (which I carried with me on the Trans-Siberian Railway) and the smaller Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway (which I consulted as I planned my trip).   Check out that post for more information about which book will better meet your needs.

Fourth, if you’re not keen on standing around in the hallway, arms above your head, desperately charging your phone, bring a portable power bank.  I always recommend this slim gold power bank because it fits into my evening clutch bag so I can charge my phone during a night out.  However, if you’re a heavy phone, tablet or camera user, this bright blue portable charger has double the charging power (and great reviews, though I haven’t personally used it).

Finally, if you have strict dietary requirements, you may want to pack some snacks from home.  Big cities like Moscow, Irkutsk and Vladivostok have health food stores where you’ll be able to buy vegan, allergen-free or gluten-free snacks, but you’re unlikely to find these products on board the train, in smaller towns or for sale at stations.  It never hurts to have a few protein bars in your bag.

What to Buy Locally

Buying Food on the Trans-Siberian Railway Tracks in Russia

Dried fish. 

You do not need to bring dried fish from home, as many vendors at the stations around Lake Baikal will be more than happy to sell you all the dried fish you can imagine.  And more.

But seriously, you don’t need to bring a bunch of food from home unless you have a restrictive diet.  Part of the fun of riding the train is sampling dishes from the vendors along the tracks and exploring foreign supermarkets.  Russian supermarkets have excellent tea selections and small boxes of sugar cubes that are just right for a seven-day train journey.

You also don’t need to bring many toiletries.  Facial cleansing wipes, hand wipes and baby wipes are widely available in Russia, and they are much cheaper than in North America or Europe.  Tampons aren’t very popular in Russia, but most beauty supply stores and pharmacies sell OB tampons in mini (мини), regular (нормал) and super (супер) absorbancy.

There is definitely no need to bring your own bedding or anything like that, as the linens provided on the train are clean and comfortable.

What are the best stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway?

The Most Beautiful Places in Europe - Suzdal, Russia

I have a complete list of my ten favorite stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway, including what to see and do in each city, where to eat and which Trans-Siberian hotel or hostel I recommend.  In my opinion, though, The Big Three are Moscow, Vladivostok and Irkutsk.  Give yourself lots of time for Moscow because there is something new and amazing around literally every corner… plus it has amazing food and shopping.  Irkutsk is charming and well-equipped to welcome foreign travelers, and Vladivostok has a spectacular oceanfront location.  Once you’ve committed to these three, my next two “can’t miss” stops would be the non-stop I mention in my other post: Olkhon Island (in Lake Baikal, accessible from Irkutsk), with its mystical heritage, and Suzdal (shown above, accessible from Vladimir, not far from Moscow) where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time to 1819.  (Suzdal also made it onto my list of the most beautiful places in Europe!)

Read more about the best things to do in Moscow in my comprehensive city guide!

Beyond that, choose your stops based on how long you can reasonably tolerate staying on the train.  Personally, I preferred trips that only involved sleeping for one night on the train, though I did have to pull a two-nighter once when I realized I might not make it back to Moscow in time for my flight home!

Do I need a visa for the Trans-Siberian Railway?

Please don’t trust a random blogger (even one as smart and reliable as me!) with your Russian visa advice!  Go direct to the source – either the Russian government’s website for foreign tourists or your local Russian consulate.

Unless you hail from a country that has a visa-free travel agreement with Russia, you are going to need a Russian visa.  Most travelers obtain a thirty-day tourist visa, which come in single- and double-entry variations.  Some countries have Russian consulates where you can apply for a tourist visa, but many others have official third-party processing centers that handle Russian visa applications.  Make sure you apply through one of those two avenues, and not through a sketchy third-party service that charges you even more money just to compile your documents and send them to one of the offices I’ve mentioned above.

Personally, because my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway lasted for seven weeks and included a detour into Mongolia, I wasn’t eligible for a standard tourist visa.  Instead, I needed a double-entry business or humanitarian visa that was valid for ninety days.  In order to obtain this kind of visa, I first needed a Letter of Invitation (LOI) from a Russian organization.  There are many travel agencies and other companies that can issue an LOI to anyone willing to pay.  I obtained mine through Real Russia – I wouldn’t describe the process as smooth, but I did get what I needed in the end.

Getting a Russian visa is not a quick or inexpensive process.  Because I needed a special type of visa, the whole process took me more than two months and cost $511 CAD (equal to $390 USD).  That included the letter of invitation, photos, the application fee and all mailing costs (including return postage to and from the official processing center).

It looks like prices have gone up since I applied.  At present, the fee for a single-entry tourist visa for a Canadian citizen applying for a Russian visa in Canada (like me!) is $112 CAD.  On top of that, you have to pay $50 for the privilege of using the mandatory official processing center, $45 to send your application by mail and another $45 if you need them to mail your passport and visa back to you (rather than picking it up in person).  That is $252 CAD, a hefty sum for the privilege of going to Russia and spending even more money!

For information about visa applications and fees in other countries, use the link at the top of this section, or check out the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the USA or the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom.

Should you travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway?

Stopping at a Station on the Trans-Siberian Railway

If you’re someone who needs constant stimulation, attention, action and excitement, a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway probably won’t be enjoyable for you.  There isn’t much to do on the train itself, and most of the stops outside of the five I’ve noted above are pretty sleepy.  Similarly, if you’re a committed luxury traveler, you’ll probably only enjoy the trip if you travel in a first-class wagon.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who can entertain themselves for multiple days at a time and prefers the type of travel where you’re fully immersed in a new culture, living like the locals, then you’ll love riding the Trans-Siberian Railway.  I have never felt more connected to a country I was visiting than I did while I rode the Trans-Siberian Railway.  I came home feeling like I understood Russia – and myself – much better than I did before my epic train adventure.

Thinking about riding the Trans-Siberian Railway?  Bookmark this post for your trip planning and let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions.  I will respond as soon as possible!

Remember to read my article about The 10 Cities Where You Absolutely Must Get off the Trans-Siberian Express!

If you’re interested in Eastern Europe but don’t want to go through the hassle of obtaining a Russian visa, consider a trip to Ukraine instead.  I’ve got lots of Ukraine travel advice, including how to spend the night in Chernobyl and some fascinating side trips from Kiev

Exactly how to plan your own epic Trans-Siberian Railway journey across Russia. Includes information about budgets, tickets, visas and life on board a Russian train. No Russian language skills required!You can travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping only where you want and traveling at your own pace. You don't even have to speak Russian! This guide explains how to plan an independent Trans-Siberian Railway adventure the easy and cheap way!

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