A trip to plan: will it be Stoic Russian or Festive Mexico?

The trip in May came down to two locations.  Mexico or Russia?  My husband and I had our usual debate.  We breakdown each place and do the pros and cons, look to see what the weather is like when we can travel, find out if there are any holidays that could get in the way of travel, and write down the initial costs of going.

We decided on Russia.  The weather is nice, the end of May will allow us to travel without the hassles of May Day and Victory Day that fall at the beginning of the month (parades would have been a sight but maybe another time) and we could use our miles with Capital One.  The free flight helps when we think about how the costs of hotels, restaurants and all the other chiselers Russian we will meet along the way.   At least we expect it.

So the plane tickets we decided upon are with Finnair.  This way we won’t be flying through Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, have a chance of getting a decent vegetarian meal and we get One World sky miles.  The half hour turnaround in Helsinki is going to be a challenge.  A carry-on in this case is required.

We will only be staying for 11 nights so booking hotels or hostels beforehand is necessary.    There isn’t much room for a side trips on this one.  Moscow and St. Petersburg are both known to be very expensive cities.  It was tricky finding a budget price that’s within a reasonable walking distance to Red Square.  There were plenty of hostels that were very close and have good prices but for the most part were bunk style accommodation and reviewers on the particular booking site seemed to be mostly 18-24 in age.  They may have been an option 10 years ago.

Another option was renting a flat.   This is nice because they usually have a kitchen (good if you are looking to save money and have diet restrictions), and have privacy.   These are usually best if you are on an extended holiday that runs at least a month.  The rates looked reasonable on a site called http://www.getorussia.com but if you read the fine print the quoted rates are based on a month or more.  A few days stay goes up at least 30%.  So that wasn’t an option.

With a little more  research on Thorn tree and basic google searches I found a place called the Petrovka Loft. This place looks good through pictures they and travelers on http://www.tripadvisor.com had posted.  There gets to a point where I have to just believe the reviewers.   I found that they are listed on http://www.hostelworld.com.  I like using this site or http://www.hostelbookers over others like Expedia and Orbitz because a reservation only requires a 10% down-payment.  The remainder is paid when you arrive.  If you don’t like it for some reason you don’t lose too much money if you keep on walking.  It’s also a trust issue between yourself and the hotel.  I have had the times when I show up at a hostel and they haven’t a record of my reservation.  It’s always safe to make contact ahead if possible so they know you are coming.  This may just prod them to check their bookings from outside agencies and update yours and other reservations.

The fun has momentarily ended.  It’s time to gather documents for putting together the Visa application.  Each country that requires a visa has their own system.  Some are easy at the border stamps (they just really want cash) and others require filling out questionnaires and forking over large sums of cash.  Russia is stuck in the pre-Pesrestroika days. The questions are pretty much aimed at figuring out if you are a Jason Bourne character whom they are trying to prevent from entering the country or just an innocent tourist wanting to take pictures and spend money.  The questions are like an employment application.  I wonder if they ever call up your previous employees and ask them questions about your character and if you legit?   I had visions of the person on the other line not having a clue that I worked there since it’s been so long.  Let’s just hope they believe I have written only the truth.

The Russian Federation is very thorough with each applicant.  Visitors are required to get an invitation from a hotel, travel agency or person living in Russia.  Basically, someone who will be responsible for you  while in Russia.  These days it’s just another money-making tool but you have to do it.  The hotel you have booked can either vouch for you or they can recommend a travel company to process the paper work.  We just paid the $30 used http://www.getorussia.com.  It took less than 5 minutes on the internet.

Now, my  (1) valid passport with at least  two clear visa places available (2) a 1″ 3/8 X 1″ 3/4 photo of myself not smiling and showing my shoulders up (3) questionnaire is filled out, I have a copy of (4) my invitation, and  now all I need to do is get (5) a  $131 USD money order from the bank.  I hope I don’t forget anything when I head to the Russian Consulates office in the morning.  I’m fortunate to have a Russian Consulates office in town so I don’t have to mail off my passport and nervously await for it to come back to me via U.S. Mail or Fed-ex.

The process takes anywhere from 4-20 business days.  I’ve got some time but these things seem to end up taking more than you think.  Now, I have to go look for more trip information including what our hotel options will be in St. Petersburg, train schedules to St. Petersburg and what there is to do and see in each city.  After that, a good nights sleep because who knows how long it’s going to take me to get through the consulates office tomorrow.

Maybe I should have gone with the room facing the Caribbean and the days of sipping margaritas on the beach…naahh

Click here for more information on obtaining a Russian Visa

For a quick guide of St. Petersburg click here

For Moscow click here

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