Tips for a safe journey to Russia

Alena Repkina
We provide a guide on how to speak with Russians, deal with emergencies and not get in any trouble while visiting Russia, to ensure that you have a safe, enjoyable and relaxing trip to the world’s largest country.

As a travel destination, Russia is all about large distances with a low density of English speakers. Make sure you come prepared in case something goes wrong and you face a strong language barrier. 

Stock up on safety apps

Illustration: Alena RepkinaIllustration: Alena Repkina

Before any trip abroad, this is a sound option. For Russia, the special WhizzMate paid service provides 24/7 support in Russia to foreigners in their native languages. These facilities include lawyer and doctor consultations and internet and a mobile card for a local cell operator.

There are cheaper and even free ways to access critical support with some advance planning: Download a list of important contacts on your smartphone in case you lose your passport; have Uber and Gett Apps at the ready in case you need a ride; and always make sure to have the Emergency Phone Numbers App (iOSAndroid) – they can find and dial the correct phone numbers in cases of emergency.

Be prepared for an emergency

Illustration: Alena RepkinaIllustration: Alena Repkina

The Russian alphabet is trickier than it appears and Russian speech contains all sorts of weird consonants and vowels, so it is always better to have a person around who speaks both Russian and your language of choice. However, if you are in need of medical attention and there’s no translator around, it is always a good idea to have a special app downloaded on your phone with emergency phrases.

For example the TripLingo App  (iOSAndroid) contains phrases for different occasions in 13 languages and the SpeakEasy Russian App (iOSAndroid) features a large and well-structured list of expressions that could come in handy.

Don’t try to save money on vodka or the Russian Railways

Illustration: Alena RepkinaIllustration: Alena Repkina

When in Russia, it is but natural that you would want to try something “truly” Russian. However, are Russian traditions such as vodka, banya and long train trips safe? Yes they are, but there is a golden rule: The more money you spend, the better the product and experience. Cheap vodka leads to bad hangovers and a budget banya steam buys you Soviet service and dull interiors. Regarding the Russian Railways – there are plenty of trains with different prices.

For most travellers it’s probably best to buy a ticket on a high-speed train, such as the Sapsan, Lastochka, or Strizh – they are clean, ergonomic and designed to save time. If planning to travel long distances by train – longer than six hours – it is better to purchase tickets for a купэ (kooh-‘peeh or coupe) wagon. This is a second-class coach with compartments that lock for four people. Tickets usually cost more than on плацкарт (plazz-‘karrt), a third-class open car with no privacy, and they are totally worth it. 

Don't mix up Millennials with Gopniks

Illustration: Alena RepkinaIllustration: Alena Repkina

Without going into too much detail, a gopnik is a person of working class origin who often does not have a lot of love for strangers, especially foreigners and hipsters. They are often young, poorly educated, aggressive and fill low-paid and unskilled jobs. Sometimes they take up criminal activity, so there is always a possibility of robbery or armed attack if you encounter them.

Gopniks are usually found at the distant outskirts of large cities and don’t often proliferate in city centres. So avoid travel to distant neighbourhoods and suburban areas unless you have a good reason. If you must go to the city suburbs, schedule your trip in the daytime and travel through crowded places and streets. If you see a gopnik try to avoid eye contact – they are not shy about approaching strangers. 

Russia is famous for its great culture and extraordinary hospitality. Often, however, the easiest way to experience both is to speak Russian. The majority of adult Russians unfortunately do not speak English, but the Millennials fill this gap! Young people in their 20s and early 30s are open to Western culture and often have perfected their English by watching popular U.S. and UK TV shows.

It’s easy to encounter Millennials in big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk. So, the best – and safest – way to ask for directions is to find a young person wearing trendy glasses, sporting fancy tattoos on their arms, or showing off their fancy beard. You can also find Millenials via Tinder, AirBnB or the old standby Couchsurfing – depending on your needs, of course.

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