Russia Trip Planning (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 2 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This trip to our first Olympics events ever started with one task … buying the Olympic Event tickets.

This took place in early February 2013. The Olympics, obviously, were not taking place until February 2014. That meant that we had to buy our Olympic tickets about 380 days prior to when the Olympics would start. And that presents a few minor problems. Since you can’t book airfare until 330 days from your intended departure, that meant that we had to buy Olympic Event tickets before knowing if there would be points options to get us to Sochi, or how much airfare would cost.

Also, most hotels also don’t allow booking until 365 days prior to your arrival. Which meant that we had no idea how much hotels would cost in Sochi during the Olympics!

Sure, we could estimate by checking airfares and hotel rates for December 2013 and January 2014, but there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t jack up the costs for the Olympics or pull award space.

So, it was quite the leap of faith. We spent $700 on Olympic event tickets well before we knew how much it would cost to actually travel to Sochi and stay there!

Prior to the 330 day window, it looked like Turkish Airlines would be our best bet for getting to Sochi. I definitely wanted to try Turkish Airlines’ long haul Business Class product, and it would cost us 50,000 United Miles each for our Business class tickets all the way to Sochi. I had plenty of miles sitting in my Chase Ultimate Rewards account that could be transferred to United, so that was no problem.

We’d have fly from Washington Dulles Airport to Istanbul, have about an eight hour layover, and then take a short, 1.5 hour flight from Istanbul to Sochi. The flights from Istanbul to Sochi only operated on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so that limited our options a bit. To arrive in Sochi on Wednesday February 12 for our first event, we’d have to depart Washington on Monday the 10th. So our itinerary would go like this:

Monday January 10 at 10:40PM: Depart Washington for Istanbul
Tuesday January 11 at 4:30PM: Arrive Istanbul
Wednesday January 12 at 12:05AM: Depart Istanbul for Sochi
Thursday January 12 at 4:05AM: Arrive in Sochi.

We also decided that, since we were already in Russia, we’d visit Moscow and St. Petersburg for three days each after Sochi.

Booking the Flights

The Flights to Sochi. All of March I kept stalking United Airlines’ website for award space on Turkish Airlines. As each day approached 330 days in advance, award tickets were still available.

Then it became 330 days prior to the Olympics start date. Award availability vanished. There were still plenty of award tickets for the Washington > Istanbul leg, but not for the Istanbul > Sochi leg. I checked Turkish Airlines website, and they were selling the Istanbul > Sochi leg that we needed for about $175 each in coach. I decided to wait a few days. There was some award availability that opened for Olympics time period for like the 17th and 19th of February, but those dates wouldn’t work for us.

I decided to book the Washington > Istanbul leg to guarantee our choice for Business class seats on Turkish Airlines for the long haul portion of our trip. And I figured I’d wait it out to see if award space ever showed up for the Istanbul > Sochi segment, and then I’d just pay a small fee to United for changing our destination on the award ticket.

There is something so satisfying about booking business class seats on a 10 hour flight for just $2.50 each

But alas, two months went by and award space never opened up on Turkish for the Istanbul > Sochi segment. So, I finally decided to pay for the Turkish Airlines coach seats, but by the time I booked them about two months later, the price skyrocketed from $175 each to over $400 each! I was so, so mad at myself for not booking the tickets when they were so much cheaper.

I researched some alternate itineraries on American Airlines that have us starting in Moscow or St. Petersburg instead of ending there like our original plans, but award space from Sochi was just as nonexistent (or incompatible with our dates) as the award space going to Sochi.

So, I bit the bullet and purchased the very expensive Turkish airlines tickets for Istanbul > Sochi. One good thing about that inflated price was that they were refundable tickets. So, if award space ever DID open up on that leg, I could cancel my paid ticket and get a refund.

With those segments of our trip in place, I started planning the rest of our itinerary. From Sochi, we’d fly to Moscow. From Moscow, we’d take the train to St. Petersburg. And we’d fly back to the United States from St. Petersburg.

(Spoiler alert: I checked. And checked. All the way up until the day before our departure. Award availability for the Istanbul > Sochi segment never opened, so we were stuck paying that inflated fare for just a 1.5 hour flight. )

Flights to Moscow. S7 airlines, a Oneworld partner, was going to be our best bet for getting from Sochi to Moscow. It is a short hop flight from Sochi to Moscow, so I was hoping that this would be a good value to use some British Airways miles I’ve had sitting around. But, it appeared that S7 had removed all award availability during the Olympics. Double bummer! But, those tickets were very reasonably priced, and again, refundable. So I bought them.

Flights Back to the United States. Our trip home from St. Petersburg was actually the easiest leg to book. Air Berlin, another OneWorld Partner, offered a daily flight from St. Petersburg to Berlin. From Berlin, we would fly AirBerlin from Berlin to Miami, and then American Airlines from Miami to Washington Reagan National Airport. No paid segments necessary. Award availability was plentiful and easy to book all right on aa.com. For two business class seats, we used 100,000 AAdvantage miles for the entire leg. (However, the St. Petersburg > Berlin segment would be a single class aircraft, so no business class would be available.)

Booking the Hotels

I then proceeded to book hotels for Moscow and St. Petersburg. (The hotel situation for Sochi was still looking dreadful). It was pretty much a no brainer that I wanted to stay at the Ararat Park Hyatt in Moscow. It would cost 22,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night (pre-devaluation). For our three night stay, I transferred 66,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to my Hyatt Gold Passport account and made the reservation. Done and Done.

I spent a little more time selecting our hotels for St. Petersburg, but ultimately decided on the W St. Petersburg, a Starwood property. Award redemptions were 12,000 SPG points per night. Only I had very few SPG points. So, back in August when SPG had an increased sign-up bonus, I signed up Ken for the SPG card in his first ever App-o-Rama! The 30,000 bonus points + 5000 minimum spend equaled 35,000 SPG points, meaning we only had to spend a bit more on the card to reach the 36,000 points required for our three night stay at the W. By November, I booked our stay.

The woes for getting a hotel in Sochi were seemingly neverending. I searched for hotel availability (and not just award stays, I mean ANY availability) for any hotel multiple times PER DAY for months. I talked about these problems at length previously, so I won’t rehash it all here, but we ended up booking one of the many cruise ships that the Russian government chartered to serve as extra hotel rooms during the Olympics. We booked the Grand Holiday. It was much more expensive than I had ever hoped to spend, $1500 for four nights for two people, but at least it included all meals and it would be in a very safe location. Plus, the location was fantastic.

Getting a Russian Visa

After we booked our hotels, we had to request our “Visa Support Letters” from our hotels. This meant we had to send the hotels some information, including our passport information, and then they would e-mail us back a letter on hotel letterhead specifying the details of our stay. Their letter includes their special designated code number that you have to include on your Russian Visa application. I am happy to report that requesting the Visa support letters from the Hyatt, W, and Grand Holiday cruise ship was very straightforward.

Now that we had the Visa support letters, we had to apply for our Russian Visa.

If you hear folks talk about getting a Russian Visa, it kind of falls in the category of things like root canals, flat tires, and fights with health insurance companies. I won’t go into all of the requirements here (You can read all about the requirements on the State Department’s website), but I will say that most people recommend that you use a Russian tourist visa agency to process your paperwork.

But we live right here in the Washington, DC area, and any time I have needed a visa for a foreign country, I just go to that country’s embassy. Well, perhaps they were just shills for the visa agencies, but I read on many internet forums that applying for the visa in person at the Russian embassy is a huge pain. That they’ll reject your application for any minor reason, and then you have to pay another application fee to have it processed again. For instance, I came across this advice on the TripAdvisor forums for Sochi.

“The Russian consulate is incredibly pickly and will reject applications for the most trivial of reasons. The visa agents have been through all this and will check your application before submitting it to ensure all info will pass muster. Going in person yourself can be very time-consuming and not always successful. On no account should you send your passport via a courier service direct to the consulate. If you can’t go in person, definitely use an agent.”

I have no idea if there was any truth to these rumors, but it was enough to convince me to use a Russian Visa Agency. We used Travisa. They do have offices right here in the DC area, so at least we didn’t have to pay for the outrageous shipping fees ($35 per passport) that non-locals have to pay.

We filled out the online application for a Russian Visa. That took about three hours total for my application alone. They required employment history, education, foreign travel, etc. going back a decade. So it took me some time to look up the required information, like my boss’s phone number from two jobs ago and the address of my university.

So one day in December, Ken and I went to the Travisa office with all of our paperwork (printed copies of our completed application, our visa support letters, copies of our airfare and hotel reservations, copies of our Olympic tickets voucher, etc.). We were there about a total of 45 minutes. A person reviews your application line-by-line, making sure there were no mistakes, typos, etc. Somehow Ken had managed to leave the line blank for his “current employer,” so the representative made him fill that out. The application then had to be reprinted, which took some time.

Combined, we spent $370 for our Russian visas.

However, make sure if you ever need a Russian Visa that you triple check all your paperwork that you bring with you. My brother-in-law’s visa support letter from the hotel had two digits of his passport number transposed. He couldn’t get a hold of the hotel visa support office since it was already late in the evening in Russia, so there was no one available to fix the letter. So Travisa turned him away and he had to come all the way back to have his visa processed another day.

About two weeks later I went back and picked up my passport and Ken’s, and verified that all of the information on the visas was correct, and that was it. All of the critical logistical elements of our trip were complete, and we would be on our way to Russia in just a little over six weeks!

Have you ever had to fill out a very detailed visa application form for Russia or another country?