So now that we’ve had a few days to reflect on trip 1, I decided it was time to compile my list of recommendations, tip, tricks and other assorted pieces of info. Please keep in mind many of these nuggets of advice are general in nature; some may be more specific if you’re traveling to the Moscow region.
1. Don’t’ over pack! Don’t’ over pack! Don’t’ over pack! – It’ easy to over pack for a trip like this. You’re thinking “OMG, Russia…Cold weather, need lots of coats and boots! I won’t be able to find anything I’ll need. I need to pack for every possible contingency”. Wrong… Moscow has everything you’ll need. Other regions like Tula and Kaluga might be more limited in offerings. While the price may be higher, you can find most items. Packing light has several benefits:
· Many cars in Russia are much smaller than those we have here in the states. Thus you’ll have more difficulty getting to/from the airport if you’ve got tons of luggage. We had 4 pieces of luggage, plus 4 carry-on bags, plus a stroller (still in box). We had to resort to some ‘creative’ packing techniques in the car to get all this to the flat once we arrived in Moscow.
· When you go to check in to fly back to the States, security will inspect each piece of checked baggage individually. They open it and rummage through it. The fewer pieces of luggage, the quicker the process.
· Don’t forget that airlines have luggage weight limits.
2. Consider renting a flat instead of a hotel – If you’re the adventurous type or if money is somewhat tight, a flat may be the right choice for you. There are several companies that rent flats (apartments) to travelers. The flats have a kitchen (cooking in, a great way to keep costs low), many have a clothes washer (another great way to cut back on packing so much, wash your dirty clothes and wear them again). You can also find apartments that offer other incentives: Free high speed internet, free or reduced rate calls to the United States and even maid service. Be sure to do your research and pick an apartment that will be safe and convenient not only for you but also for CSS staff.
We stayed at the Duma flat offered by Peace Travel. It had a kitchen with a stove and microwave, dish washer, clothes washer, clothes dryer stand, frig, free high speed internet and free calls to the US. Since we were sharing the flat with another couple, we went with the Duma flat because it has 3 bedrooms. It is located literally just a short 5 minute walk to the Red Square. McDonalds is just across the street if you get a burger craving.
Pros to a flat – Can cost much less than a hotel; you can cook in and save money; wash your own clothes; call home; update blogs and email in private for free; More choices and locations;
Cons to a flat – You’re not in a hotel surrounded by other people, you can’t just wander down to the lobby for social interaction with others; no room service (you want it, you cook it…); Be aware that not all buildings have an elevator, if the flat is on a upper floor and there is no elevator, you’ll be remembering my first tip about packing light…
3. Peace Travel, Inc – We used Peace Travel for several things for trip 1. We used them for renting a flat, renting a cell phone and assistance with documents for getting our Visas for travel to Russia. Plus they will register you in country when you arrive. They offer other services as well. Dimitry and his staff are prompt and courteous. Check them out - http://www.go-russia.com
4. Rent a cell phone – Even if you have a ‘global phone’ from Verizon or any of the other US carriers, the chances of it working as soon as you land in Russia are slim. Chances are you would need a different SIM card. Even if it did work, International roaming charges are outrageous. Peace Travel offers cell rentals for $5 a day and I believe 20 cents a minute for calls within Russia (check with them for specific rates). Calls to the United States via the cell phones are also relatively cheap (I believe 50 cents a minute).
We found it comforting to have a cell phone in our pocket so we could call our CSS translator/guide at any time if we got out exploring and found ourselves lost or ‘in a pickle’. For the 8 days we were there, even though it cost us $44 (8 days and a few calls), that was money well spent because it gave us peace of mind.
5. Fly in a day earlier than you have to – There can be some advantages to flying in and arriving on Saturday:
· It can be cheaper on airfare. Play with different departure dates when making air reservations.
· If you’re trying to use frequent flyer miles, trying different dates for your departure can sometimes mean a huge savings in your miles.
· Departing on a Friday from the United States can mean a less full aircraft going over. This might give you the opportunity to grab a row of seats to yourself and stretch out.
· You can have the remainder of Saturday to rest and have Sunday for sightseeing. Plus you won’t be dead tired on Monday when you go to the Ministry of Education.
6. Store some stuff in Moscow – The CSS office in Moscow has a closet where families typically store items between trips. Chances are there will be some things that you’ll need in Russia that you don’t typically need back home. You can consider leaving them there for you to retrieve and use on your other trips. We left a piece of luggage full of boots, clothes, toys and some snacks. Plus we took a stroller over on trip 1 to use on trips 2 and 3.
7. Perhaps the best advice I can give is the following – Put your trust in the CSS staff. They always have your best interest in mind. We found the entire staff to be courteous, professional and friendly.
I'm sure I'll come up with other nuggets in the coming days and weeks. Plus, I'm sure there will be a whole new list once we get through trips 2 and 3.