6 March 2020.
The Trans Siberian Railway is the quintessential bucket list adventure.
A journey that will carry you across the largest country on Earth, from the windswept port town of Vladivostok, through wide tracts of taiga forest, along the shores of the impossibly beautiful lake Baikal, across the boundless steppe, between the peaks of the Ural Mountains, through countless villages, towns and cities, before arriving to the glittering metropolis of Moscow some 9,258km later.
It’s a trip that perfectly embodies the old line ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination.’
After all, Vladivostok, Moscow and even Beijing may make worthy bookends for this immense expedition, but it is without a doubt the places and people you’ll encounter along the way, the many oddities of life in remote Siberia and the hours of quiet contemplation as you hurtle through this unfathomably vast part of the world that will make your experience truly unforgettable.
I spent a month riding the rails across Russia, discovering the many quirks, challenges and wonders that this trip entails. These are my top tips for taking the Trans Siberian Railway, covering everything from booking those train tickets to not pissing off your cabin mates.
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1. How And Where To Book Your Train Tickets
Back in the day, planning a trip on the Trans Siberian Railway was no easy feat.
In fact, it was a fairly tortuous process that involved correctly aligning train schedules based on Moscow time, buying and registering each ticket from the station or navigating the Russian train website without the help of Google Translate.
In short, it was a recipe for disaster which is why most people employed the help of an agent to take care of the hard part.
Thankfully, those days are long gone and planning and booking your adventure independently is now a straightforward process and surprisingly affordable.
You can book all your tickets directly through the easy-to-use Russian Railways Website (RZD) which has an English version and will clearly show the various options for each trip, such as the train class, available seats, travel times, meal options and whether pets are allowed on board.
Tickets are released for sale 4 months in advance and it’s a good idea to secure your reservations early for summer trips. If you’re travelling in winter you’ll have far more flexibility.
To make a booking, you’ll need to create an account where all your tickets will be saved – be sure to keep your credentials to log in to the RZD App which is mentioned below. When entering your passenger information, foreign visitors should select ID Document under Document Type, and then enter your Passport Number under Document Number.
As always, be sure all your personal details are correct as this will be checked against your passport when boarding.
2 | Choosing The Right Ticket – Train, Class, Bed and Meals
When it comes to buying your train tickets, there are a few important things to consider. Most of these will come down to your budget, where you choose to stop and how long you have to travel the route.
Trains | Generally, trains with fewer numbers are better quality. The 001/002 Rossiya (Россия) is a fast, premium train and one of few that travels the full distance between Moscow and Vladivostok every other day, departing Moscow on odd days and Vladivostok, mostly, on even days.
Other local trains that span shorter distances across Siberia are still perfectly pleasant, though won’t offer the same level of comfort as you’ll find in the upper classes of the Rossiya. For a more lavish experience, there are also a handful of luxury private trains that travel the route.
Class | First class includes a private compartment with just two beds, second class (kupe) is a private compartment with four beds and third class (platzkart) is an open compartment with six beds, four in parallel and two strung along the aisle.
Not all trains have a first-class carriage, while the quality of second class can vary widely. For example, some firmeny or premium trains offer a ‘comfort class’ in second, like a premium economy, where cabins are slightly more spacious, beds come ready-made, bathrooms have modern fittings and sometimes include a shower, and you’ll be brought water, snacks and newspapers during the journey, as well as a menu for any meals. On the more basic end, sometimes the only difference between second and third is the fact that there’s a door.
Pricewise, first class is generally at least four times the price of third, while second class is around double depending on which bed you choose.
Beds | For each trip, you can choose between the upper or lower berth, or a lateral berth if travelling in third class which runs parallel to the aisle. The lower bunk is widely regarded as the best option as you’ll have free reign over the seating area during the day, will have direct access to the table and luggage compartment and will get the window seat for as long as you like. These luxuries do mean lower bunks tend to be slightly more expensive.
For long journeys, it’s well worth booking the lower bunk for the added comfort, but for short overnight trips where you won’t be spending much time hanging about the cabin, you may as well save some cash and book the upper bunk as you won’t have much opportunity to enjoy the view anyway.
Meals | Some train tickets include one meal or have the option to add a meal during the booking process. Often this means a considerable increase in the price of the ticket which, personally, didn’t seem worth it. I had the meal option only when I travelled overnight in ‘comfort class’ but found self-catering to be the better option for the rest of the trip.
Pets | Adventure pups ahoy! Yes, believe it or not, you can travel the Trans Siberian Railway with your four-legged friends in tow. This is only the case in select carriages which you’ll see listed when buying your ticket but is something to consider if you’re allergic to pet fur. Carriages with pets are generally cheaper as well.
Other Options | You’ll see various other icons for air conditioning, bio toilets etc. but overall I found these amenities to be much the same between trains. Toilets are the basic metal variety, while carriages will be kept a constant temperature whatever the season.
3 | Plan Out Your Entire Route Before Booking Anything
When you set out to plan your route, you’ll quickly realise that perhaps you don’t have as much time to fit everything in as you’d originally thought.
Over a shorter stay of a week or two, this won’t be as big an issue, but if you’re planning out an entire month in advance with numerous stop, you’ll discover that there are plenty of moving parts that go into making the perfect itinerary.
Some trains only go every other day, others only travel by day or arrive in the dead of night, while a few are simply much slower and will add several unnecessary hours to your travel time.
Then there are the destinations themselves. Do you want to stay overnight everywhere you stop or will a day trip suffice? How many hours of daylight will you actually have to explore? Are there any side trips that are unmissable?
Finalising your Trans Siberian Railway itinerary will mean juggling all these things to ensure you get to visit all the places you really want to, have enough time to see them properly and not wind up completely exhausted at the end of it.
I’d suggest writing down a rough itinerary to begin with then hashing out the details of each leg with what trains work or don’t work and rearranging it as you go. Once you’ve found an itinerary that fits, you’ll have all the details to book everything then and there.
I’m normally more of a fly by the seat of my pants kind of traveller, booking everything last minute in case I decide to change plans, so locking everything in months in advance was… a challenge. But overall, I was very happy with how my trip played out and it felt good not having to worry about planning anything on the go.
These are a few things to help in planning your trip.
| The most spectacular stretch of the journey traces the shores of Lake Baikal with a backdrop of snowcapped peaks, a section which I’d highly recommend travelling during the day.
| There are a number of wonderful small towns along the route, but many can comfortably be seen in one day. Don’t waste half a day checking in and out of hotels if there’s no need to.
| Hours of daylight vary drastically between summer and winter, often by around 10 hours. Account for shorter days if planning your itinerary for winter.
| Virtually all major train stations have luggage storage where you can store your belongings while heading out on a day trip. This website has links to all the Russian train stations and their amenities.
| With so much to see and such a great distance to cover, there can be a tendency to try and pack too much in. I am the worst at this! But you don’t want to find yourself one week into the trip feeling completely burnt out. Try not to move every day or even every other day, allocate enough time to relax so you’re not running around like a headless sightseeing chicken and factor in plenty of days where you’re not actually on the train.
4 | It’s A Surprisingly Affordable Adventure
I had always imagined that the Trans Siberian Railway would be an expensive venture, but travelling in Russia is actually reasonably affordable.
My train tickets for the entire journey cost just €275 using a mix of third, second and comfort class in both upper and lower bunks. For one month, my day-to-day travel expenses added up to €760. This included a combination of hostels and private rooms in guesthouses, the odd day tour, everything from self-catering on the trains to eating at one of Moscow’s best restaurants, using taxis and public transport to get around the cities and several long-distance buses to reach the mountains.
Russia is a place where it’s easy to live on the cheap, but where you can also splurge and find excellent value for money. If you were travelling on an extremely tight budget, you could certainly do the trip for much cheaper than I did.
5 | It’s Easy To Cancel Your Tickets If You Need To
You can plan and plan and plan, but sometimes things just don’t work out.
For me, this meant my trip to the Altai Mountains. With so little information available on this region, especially in winter, I left one week completely blank in my itinerary and decided I’d just figure it out once I arrived. I spent the first few days at Teletskoye Lake which was completely magical, but I quickly realised the other things I had earmarked for my stay just weren’t going to be feasible.
And so, instead of floundering about in the mountains trying to force plans that just weren’t going to happen, I decided to change them entirely which, in the end, worked out so much better.
There are a number of conditions that apply when it comes to cancelling your train tickets, but in general, if you’re cancelling a domestic route at least 8 hours before you were due to board the train, you’ll receive a full refund, minus the R200 (€2.70) service fee. If you cancel less than 8 hours until boarding you’ll receive a 50% refund and if you cancel just 2 hours before boarding you’ll forfeit the cost of the ticket. This also only applies to e-tickets, i.e. not ones you purchase over the counter at the station.
For more details on cancelling tickets, see here.
For making changes on the go, it’s easy to cancel your ticket and process the refund right in the RZD App. Just click on the ticket, select ‘Actions’ in the top right corner and select ‘Refund Ticket’ from the menu. It should be processed within a few days.
6 | Summer Vs Winter In Siberia
When I used to dream about taking this trip, it was always a scene of vast snowy landscapes and forests clung with frost that I envisioned flashing by the window. And so there was no debate in my mind that if ever I were to make the journey, it would be during winter.
But there are definite pros and cons to visiting in any season.
In summer you’ll be welcomed with warm temperatures and plenty of daylight hours with which to explore. The pockets of taiga will be lush with foliage and the endless steppe will be awash with vivid green. Summer is also high season so expect to see far more tourists along the route, especially travelling eastward from Moscow, along with higher prices. Rainfall is also highest at this time of year.
Winter in Siberia, unsurprisingly, brings with it bitter sub-zero conditions that can either become a burden or a blessing, though, in all honesty, it’s usually a bit of both. Freezing temperatures, icy streets and being dressed like a human burrito on the daily are all things you’ll need to accept if you’re visiting at this time of year. But you’ll also be able to witness some of the most breathtaking winter landscapes imaginable, day after day, and as an Aussie who has spent very little time surrounded by snow, these moments made the trip every bit as magical as I’d hoped.
Winter travel also means far fewer tourists which is great for making last-minute plans and immersing yourself in the local culture, but not ideal if you’re looking to meet fellow travellers. It also presents a handful of other problems like batteries getting zapped from the cold, interrupted transport schedules away from the railway and much shorter day to get your sightseeing done.
A frozen Lake Baikal is also one of the most popular winter attractions, but you’ll need to visit between January and April for this phenomenon.
Spring and autumn are also beautiful times to visit and generally fall somewhere in between these two extremes. In spring, rivers and lakes swell with melting snow and wildflowers begin to bloom, while autumn brings a symphony of fiery hues and the first dusting of white across the upper peaks.
7 | There’s No ‘Right’ Way To Travel The Trans Siberian Railway
Siberia is… unfathomably big.
But there’s no one way to experience it.
As epic as crossing the entirety of Russia by train may be, don’t feel like you can only travel by train. Some of the best adventures lie within a few hours of the tracks – like Olkhon Island, Taganay National Park and the Altai Mountains which turned out to be some of my favourite places from the entire trip – and it would be a shame to miss out on them just because the train doesn’t happen to go that way.
There’s also many ways to travel by train, whether you take the classic Moscow to Vladivostok route, travel to Beijing on the Trans Mongolian or get off the beaten path on the Baikal-Amur Mainline.
8 | Download the RZD App
Long gone are the days of fumbling about with half a dozen paper tickets and squabbling with the station officials about having them registered.
Today, there’s the fantastic and easy-to-use RZD App (iPhone | Android) which is a lifesaver. Log in with the same account information you used when making your bookings and you’ll find all your tickets organised within the app along with the details for each trip and the schedule en route. The app can also be used to cancel and buy new tickets on the go if needed.
When boarding the train, the provodnitsa will scan the barcode of your ticket and check your passport and immigration card.
9 | Brush Up On Your Russian Language Skills
Six months before my trip, I downloaded Duolingo and began religiously working through the exercises. After two weeks, what felt like a thousand repetitions of the phrase ‘Tim is a doctor’ and very few actually useful travel words learnt, I called it quits on becoming a Russian aficionado before my trip.
As a result, I admittedly really struggled with the language barrier in Russia, more so than any other country I’ve visited. Outside of major cities, you’ll find very few people who speak English, but beyond that, Russians just aren’t the most expressive with their body language and facial expressions which makes even non-verbal communication incredibly difficult.
However, there are a few things you can do to prepare for your trip.
Download Google Translate And The Russian Dictionary | Once you’ve blurted out a friendly Zdravstvuyte and realised you’ve exhausted your only Russian phrase, Google Translate’s speaker mode will help you to have at least a basic conversation. You’ll be spending plenty of time in close proximity with your cabin mates and while most passengers are content keeping to themselves, many are curious about where you’re from and what on earth you’re doing out here in the middle of Siberia. This is a great way to break the ice and set a friendly tone for the journey.
Learn The Cyrillic Alphabet | Even if you don’t have a strong grasp of the language, learning the alphabet will make travelling in Russia a whole lot easier. Think bus signs, street names, menu items – things you may take for granted in your everyday life but will quickly make you feel quickly out of your depth in a foreign place. For more complicated language, you can also use the camera tool in Google Translate to decipher written text on the go.
Add The Russian Keyboard To Your Smartphone | In case you do need to ask someone for help or type something in the local tongue, having the Russian keyboard on your phone is essential.
Learn Key Phrases | So, perhaps you won’t have mastered the language, but as with any place you visit, it’s always a good idea to learn a few basic phrases. Hello, Please and Thank you are a good start, though for the purposes of this journey I’d also recommend learning some train specific lingo.
10 | Get a local sim card
I very rarely get a local sim card when I travel, but given how much time I’d be spending on the move, I figured it was worthwhile having one just in case.
If you’re hoping to use this opportunity as a digital detox, don’t worry, reception is still patchy at best across much of Siberia so you’ll have plenty of time to disconnect, but for any last-minute research, figuring out your transport options and in case of emergencies, it’s certainly useful to have.
I went with Beeline (Билайн) which was very affordable at just €7 for a month of unlimited data and worked reliably for the duration of my trip. Within major cities and some remote communities, you’ll have access to 3G but amidst the vast wilderness of Siberia, you’ll likely be without connection.
11 | Bring Plenty Of Entertainment, But Leave Time For Contemplation
Time is a funny thing.
So often we wish we had more of it, but when we do, we’re not quite sure what to do with it.
Travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway will afford you plenty of time. Time to sit in silence, to mull over your thoughts, to watch the world rush by and to contemplate your place within it as your tiny speck on the map traces a wide impossibly slow arch across the wilds of Siberia.
Take the time to let it sink in and enjoy the journey because that is precisely the beauty of slow travel.
But of course, entertainment is inevitably a crucial part of the experience as well. While I’d implore you not to spend the entire journey staring at your screen with your headphones plugged in, spending three days straight on a train is enough to send even the most patient traveller stir crazy.
Before you leave, load up your smartphone with all your favourite playlists, a bunch of podcasts, a few tv shows and a great new audiobook for the journey.
Psst… Haven’t jumped on the audiobook train yet? I love Audible and sign up every few months to restock my audio library. Some of my recent favourites have been The Goldfinch, All The Light We Cannot See and the Ken Follet Century Trilogy, while the Harry Potter series is always a go-to for easy listening. You can sign up for a free 30-day trial here and receive two complimentary audiobooks of your choice.
Also, don’t forget a portable charger to keep all your electronics charged. A pack of cards is also a good idea.
12 | Wear Comfortable Clothes
Russian’s are a stylish bunch but on the trains it’s comfort all the way.
Think of your train outfit as basically pyjamas that you won’t feel totally mortified being seen wearing in public.
For winter, this often means a pair of loose cotton trousers or thermal leggings and a t-shirt and light sweater along with socks and train shoes (aka slippers). In summer, a t-shirt and comfy shorts will be adequate, though some parts of Siberia are still relatively conservative so it’s best to err on the side of modesty just to be safe.
13 | Pack Your Carry On With All Your Day-To-Day Train Essentials
Whether you’re in first or third class, there’s not a great deal of storage space on board and trust me, you don’t want to be that annoying tourist having to boot your neighbour out of bed late at night to fumble about in the luggage compartment because you forgot something important.
Instead, pack absolutely everything you might need for the journey in a small carry on bag which you can keep with you, whether you’re on the top or bottom bunk. This will include all your day-to-day train essentials like your coffee mug, eating utensils, food, water bottle, train clothing if you’re not already wearing it, changes of clothes/underwear, train shoes and socks, electronics, chargers, toiletries and medication.
For more tips on packing for the trip, see this Trans Siberian Railway packing list.
14 | Have Your Ticket, Passport And Immigration Card Ready When Boarding
When boarding the train, you’ll always need to show these three things so be sure to have them handy.
Your ticket can be the paper variety from the ticket office or the digital version in the app. The details will be checked against your passport. When you enter Russia you’ll also be given a flimsy bit of paper which is your immigration card. Guard this with your life as you’ll need to show it every time you buy a long-distance train or bus ticket at the station, when checking into your hostel or hotel and when leaving the country.
15 | There’s no need to fear the Provodnitsa
Don’t believe everything you read in the Lonely Planet – all the provodnitsas I encountered were nothing short of polite, helpful and sometimes even curious.
The provodnitsa is the carriage master and in charge of everything from checking your ticket when boarding and ensuring the samovar is full to managing disorderly passengers and hammering the buildup of ice off of the undercarriage of the train.
Essentially, if you’re after clean sheets, hot water, a fresh roll of toilet paper, an extra tea bag or just wondering when mealtime is, she’s your girl. And yes, they’re virtually all female.
16 | Be aware of the time differences
There are eleven different time zones in Russia; the Trans Siberian Railway will take you through eight of them.
Thankfully, the days of train schedules operating on Moscow time are over having only recently switched to local time in 2018, but it’s still helpful to know when the time will change.
If you’re travelling westward from Vladivostok, you’ll be gaining at least an hour every day, but if you’re moving east from Moscow and suddenly lose an hour this could catch you off guard and leave you scrambling to get off the train at the correct stop.
Be sure to set your smartphone to automatically find the correct time zone, though I also found it helpful to have a clock set with the starting time zone so that I would know whether it had shifted or not.
17 | Always put a lid on your coffee cup
You’re lounging in bed reading your book, the first rays of morning light are streaming through the window across the snow-dusted treetops and a freshly brewed cup of tea is waiting for you on the side table.
And then a sudden jolt in the carriage sends half the cup slopping across the bench and trickling in a constant stream across your bed.
Yes, it happened to me.
Most trains run smoothly but there are definitely a few that seemed to unexpectedly shudder an awful lot, certainly enough to send any uncovered beverage or bowl of soup flying.
So, keep a lid on all your drinks. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
18 | Be A Good Cabin Mate
This may be a no brainer, but it doesn’t always happen.
Whichever class you’re in, you’re going to be spending plenty of time in a confined space with perfect strangers, sometimes for several days at a time without a shower. A few golden rules for good train etiquette are:
| Keep your space tidy and your things in order – this goes for your bed, luggage and the communal table.
| If you’re on the bottom bunk, make your bed each morning and invite the passenger on the upper berth to sit there if they wish.
| Offer to share your food. Locals are unlikely to accept but it’s polite to offer all the same. Chocolate always goes down well.
| Have a separate small bag for your rubbish or take it directly to the trash. Don’t let it pile up.
| Use your headphones!
| Contrary to all the vodka tales you may have heard, alcohol is strictly forbidden on board the Trans Siberian. That said, plenty of people drink it anyway. Just do so discreetly and don’t get drunk.
| You may not be able to shower on board, but no one wants to be stuck in a cabin for three days straight with someone emitting a pungent odour. Bring a hand towel or use the one provided and wash as best you can.
19 | Navigate Station Stops Like A Pro
Extended middle-of-nowhere station stops are a fun part of the experience and you’ll always know when one is coming up.
Men who have been horizontal for hours suddenly spring to life, chuck on their coats and start filling the aisles. Women check their make up and brush their hair. Disembarking passengers begin to organise their belongings ready to make a quick exit.
As the train lurches to a stop in a new town, passengers spill onto the platform, gulping in deep lungfuls of fresh air, or more often, getting their nicotine fix, dashing to the station to top up their snacks or simply taking a stroll up and down the platform to stretch their legs.
Most stops are just 1 to 2 minutes, but several times a day there’ll be a longer breaks of 30 minutes or more. You’ll find the schedule posted along the wall inside the carriage or listed in the RZD App. Simply click on your ticket, select ‘Train Route’ and you’ll be shown a list of stations where the train will stop and for how long. Just be sure to keep an eye on the provodnitsa and listen for the call to get back on board.
20 | To self-cater or rely on the dining cart
Before beginning this trip, I had always expected that visiting the dining cart would be a frequent occurrence; a quintessential part of the Trans Siberian Railway experience. But after stopping by the dining carriage on my second day of the trip, it quickly became obvious why I was the only person there.
Sure, the food was fine, but high prices by Russian standards and small portions mean they’re not great value and are very rarely used by locals. I paid more for a tiny bowl of borscht on the train than I did for most 2-course meals I ate elsewhere in the country.
If you’re not on a budget, you’ll find a variety of traditional Russian meals and the carriages themselves are rather nice with big bright windows and comfortable lounge seats.
If you’re travelling on a shoestring, however, I’d recommend bringing your own meals for the train and relying on the dining cart as a treat if you need it. Each carriage is equipped with a samovar of boiling water which makes things like hot beverages, instant noodles, cuppa soup and oatmeal a breeze to make. Add in some fruit and healthy snacks and you’ll be sorted.
For short overnight trips, it’s also common to either eat beforehand or buy a takeaway meal to bring on board. For more tips on what food to bring, see this post.