Our best tips for traveling in Russia (and other former soviet countries). If you are in a hurry, the most important tip is to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and install 2GIS (Android, iOS) on your phone.
The most important tip for traveling in Russia (and Central Asia) is to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. You don’t need to know any Russian, but just being able to read street names and bus destinations will help you a lot. Furthermore Russian contains a lot of English words, so if you know the Cyrillic alphabet you will be able to read e.g. the following signs:
- Интернет (internet)
- Автобус (autobus)
- Банк (bank)
- Вагон (wagon/coach)
- Кафе (café)
- Супермаркет (supermarket)
- Пицца (pizza)
If you know Danish you are even better off, as many nouns are similar in Russian. Here are a few examples:
- Билет (billet/ticket)
- Валюты (valuta/currency)
- Касса (kasse/cashier)
- Штраф (straf/fine)
Surprisingly few Russians know English, but Google Translate works fairly well between Russian and English. You can use Google Translate without internet by installing the app (Android, iOS) and downloading the Russian language pack.
If you also install a Cyrillic keyboard on your phone you can open Google Translate, switch the keyboard to Cyrillic, and hand your phone over to whoever you would like to communicate with.
Also, when you have downloaded the language pack you can use your camera to “scan” e.g. products in the supermarket and the app will translate it into English. It only works with standard fonts and not at all with handwritten text.
Make sure to have an offline map on your phone. The best offline map is 2GIS (Android, iOS), but it only works in cities. 2GIS knows all city bus and metro stops, and most shops/restaurants, including opening hours and contact information. It has turn-by-turn navigation for driving, walking and public transport. It uses the Cyrillic alphabet on the map, but the search function also works fairly well with the Latin alphabet. Another advantage of 2GIS is that all the locals use it too, so it is easy for them to point out something for you on your phone.
If you need offline maps outside of the cities or in a city without 2GIS coverage you can check out these apps:
- Locus (Android) supports downloading many maps for offline use. We download OpenStreetMap from MapsForge. The map is very detailed regarding map features, but not regarding shops/restaurant names.
- Maps.me (Android, iOS) has a map similar to 2GIS, but not as good. It is very detailed regarding shops/restaurant names, but not as up-to-date as 2GIS.
- Galileo (Android, iOS) has a good map (based on OpenStreetMap), but only very basic functionality.
- Scout (Android, iOS) is very good for turn-by-turn navigation, but you have to pay for maps.
- Google Maps (Android, iOS) supports downloading a section of the map for offline use in most countries, but the map is not very detailed, and the above options are much better.
City busses are flat-fare. The price differs widely between cities. Most busses have a conductor to whom you pay when entering the bus. If not, you pay directly to the driver. Sometimes you pay to the conductor when exiting the bus. Just follow the locals 😉
Use 2GIS (Android, iOS) to find the best bus route. If 2GIS does not cover the city you are in you can try WikiRoutes (Android, iOS), but it only works online (an offline version is coming soon, according to their website).
If you are not too scared of the Cyrillic alphabet it is fairly easy to book train tickets online with the national railway company. Use the links bellow:
Also read our guide for booking train tickets in Russia (much of the information also applies to other former soviet countries).
Finding a taxi in Central Asia is not difficult. Negotiating a fair price is a completely different story. In Central Asia every car is a potential taxi, and even the locals prefer unmarked taxis.
The easiest way to hire a taxi is to do it through Yandex Taxi (Android, iOS) — like Uber, but cheaper. You get a fair, pre-defined price. This is also a good way to check in advance what a fair price is, in case you are going to hire a taxi on the street. Note that Yandex Taxi is not available in all Central Asian countries, though.
Everybody in Russia and Central Asia uses WhatsApp (Android, iOS), so it is very useful to have this installed. As WhatsApp uses you phone number as user name, and because you always have to give your phone number when booking accommodation, your hostel can then contact you through WhatsApp and give you directions, ask additional questions, etc.
Booking.com (Android, iOS) is by far the most widespread booking service in Russia and Central Asia. When searching for accommodation you can adjust the price filter to only see hostels and cheap hotels.
Most hostels are also happy to take bookings directly, e.g. by email or WhatsApp. They pay a fee to Booking.com for every booking, so by not booking through Booking.com you save them money and may thus be able to negotiate a lower price (some hostels even offered us a discount if we cancelled our booking on Booking.com).
Hostels in Russia can be really hard to find if you don’t know exactly how to find them. Thus you need to have the exact directions from the hostel before arriving. To understand what we are talking about here is an example:
Go to <some address>, enter the gate in the corner, go to the red door, enter <some code> on the door phone, wait for us to open, take the lift to <some floor>.
None of these steps will have any indication or sign that you are on the way to a hostel, so without the directions it is impossible to find!
Many hostels are really small with less than 20 beds, and thus the 24-hour reception may not be exactly that. Therefore they really appreciate to know in advance when you will arrive.
Restaurants in Russia are mostly for parties, so it is best to avoid those. For good, plain, cheap, local food search for Столовая (stolovaya) in 2GIS. These are soviet-style self-service eateries/canteens. You queue up, take a tray, point at the food you want (they may offer to heat the food for you in the microwave, but most often they just do it without asking), and pay at the end of the line.
If you would like a little more fancy food look for a Кафе (café). Most cafés are actually small restaurants, although some just serves coffee and cake.
Don’t let you fool by the high number of cafés. Russians drink tea! You may be able to order coffee most places, but expect no more than instant coffee. Often you can only choose кофе 3в1 (coffee 3-in-1) which is instant coffee with powdered milk and sugar in the same package. Always check how they make the coffee before ordering. If they do not have a coffee machine on the front desk the coffee is probably not worth drinking.
Also good coffee is very hard to find in the supermarkets, so if you really like coffee you are better off bringing some from home, including brewing equipment.
You can buy the best and most fresh groceries at the local farmer’s market or базар (bazar). Prices are most often lower than in the supermarket, and you are sure that your money goes to the locals.
In Russia and Kazakhstan most goods have price tags, and the prices are fair. No need to bargain. In Uzbekistan there are no price tags, so you often have to bargain. Near tourist attractions offers will often start at twice the real price, but in Tashkent the offers sometimes start at ten time the real price. Nuts and spices sellers are the worst (disregarding taxi drivers, which are in a completely other league) — and there are also Uzbek nut sellers in Kazakhstan, so be careful! 🙂