Our Crazy Sochi Accommodations Story

This entry is part 6 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

Settle in folks, this is more than 3200 words of our crazy Sochi Accommodations story. But I promise, it’s worth it.

During our entire two weeks in Russia, we only had two bad experiences. Checking into our accommodations in Sochi was one of those bad experiences. (You don’t get to find out about the other one until much later in the Trip Report!).  So needless to say, our trip did not exactly start off on the right foot.

If you recall, back in September, I lamented the troubles we were having booking accommodations in Sochi. You can read the full post here, but to summarize, I had been checking hotel websites several times a day for SEVEN MONTHS trying to find a hotel opening. And nothing.

On one of most active forums that I found related to the Olympics in Sochi, folks had started talking several months earlier about staying on cruise ships. Apparently the Russian government chartered several cruise ships to serve as hotels during the Olympics.

As late September rolled around and we were approaching the four-month mark until our departure, we decided to book the cruise ship accommodations, and we were ultimately very happy at the time that we made that decision and we didn’t have to worry about it anymore. It was more expensive than we had hoped, but we were okay with it.

Okay, so let’s start with our arrival in Sochi.

Arrival in Sochi

We were seated all the way in the back of the plane on our flight from Istanbul to Sochi, so by the time we got to immigration and passport control, the lines were pretty long. But you could see they had set up extra booths to accomodate all the extra passengers they were expecting. As we were waiting in line, we could see a baggage carousel in the distance containing the bags from the Istanbul flight. We were so worried that our bags wouldn’t make it because of our exceptionally long layover in Istanbul, so I kept craning my head to look for our bags, which I never saw. Then we were moved to a different part of the line, so we couldn’t see the carousel anymore. The line moved relatively quick, and the immigration process was fairly painless, especially considering the fear of god that the State Department descriptions of the process invoke.

Although Ken jokes that I almost got him deported right away. I thought the lady who was checking my paperwork spoke English. So, I asked her if my husband should come up with me since we were traveling together. She nodded yes. So I told Ken to come up to the desk with me. Then a very stern looking woman came from the perimeter of the room, gesturing for Ken to move back, move back. I apologized, which I’m sure was not understood, and the immigration process continued. And Ken was not deported.

We got to the baggage carousels and luckily our bags were on the carousel! Big relief. So then we needed to find our transportation to the ship. Since the ship wouldn’t have an “address” per se, we decided to arrange for an airport transfer through the cruise ship company to avoid any difficulty trying to explain to Russian taxi drivers where to take us. The instructions on the airport transfer confirmation said to find the “Svoy TT” desk at Sochi airport, but nobody seemed to know where that was. Somebody finally told us to walk to domestic arrivals to find it.

At one point, we couldn’t find an escalator or elevator, so we had to drag our bags (and we packed pretty light!) down two flights of steps in the airport. We finally made it to the Svoy desk, and we had to wait about 10 minutes for our ride. We were exhausted and getting impatient, so it seemed to be a lot longer to us, but I don’t think it was any longer than 10 minutes.

Our airport transfer was just a taxi driver that the cruise ship had arranged for, but at least he knew exactly where to take us.

Olympic Rings outside of Sochi Airport

It was only like 5AM, and my sister and her family, who had arrived in Sochi two days earlier, told us that the cruise ship was very strict regarding its check-in time of 3PM. But she told us that the ship had arranged for a very basic room at a hotel across the street that they could stay in, free-of-charge, until check-in time. So, we were expecting that we wouldn’t be able to check in to our cabin yet.

Checking In to the Grand Holiday Cruise Ship

The taxi driver dropped us off, and we showed cruise ship confirmation paperwork to get past security at the port. They directed us to a temporary tent-like structure that was serving as check-in.

Here is where the first element of craziness starts in our trip.

I had been reading in a few Sochi forums that people who had booked on the cruise ships were getting bumped off in order to make room for “official delegates” who needed rooms. But I wasn’t too worried. My sister and her family had gotten a room when they checked in two days earlier, and we had booked our reservation several days before them.

The girl who was checking us in told us that our cabin was no longer available, and we were being moved to a hotel much further on the outskirts of the city. She didn’t know the precise address or the price differences, but just knew that our cabin on the Grand Holiday was no longer available. She spoke very little English, so there wasn’t much I could do to argue with her. She told me we could go to the hotel across the street, called the Hotel Rus, free of charge, until 3PM. At 3PM, I should come back and speak to her manager, who could explain more about the hotel we were being moved to. I was so furious, but I was exhausted too.

Outside the Hotel Rus, the free hotel they let us stay at until 3PM.

We went to the hotel across the street which was, indeed, very basic. But it was at least a clean place to rest after nearly 26 hours of travel time. I was having a difficult time falling asleep. We had spent a year planning this trip, and I tend to plan things out very carefully, so I was really mad that this was happening. I finally fell asleep, probably around 6:30AM or so, and woke up around 10:30AM.

Basic, but much appreciated free accommodations where we could stay until check-in time

 

I had texted my sister earlier, when we were checking in, to tell her what happened, but she didn’t have her phone on. So when she was awake, she called me and we were trying to figure out a plan of attack. She came over to our hotel (which again, was literally less than 500 feet from the cruise ship) to get some things that we had brought over for her that she needed (like Kleenex. The moment she arrived in Sochi she got sick, and she was having a hard time finding Kleenex to buy).

 

Checking in (Again)

I decided I was going to play dumb. I left the hotel, went across the street to the port, showed my same paperwork to security, and went back to the check-in tent.

There were different people working than the ones who were there at 5:30AM. I made no mention of my interaction with the check-in desk five hours earlier, when I was told that my room had been given away.

I simply told the woman I was checking in and handed her my paperwork. I couldn’t believe it, the check-in process went through. I was assigned a cabin. They needed my passport, which I gave them, and I frantically called Ken on his cell phone so he could come over and show his passport. Ken arrived, showed his passport, and we got security badges to access the port area beyond the check-in desk. We were informed that we would get our cabin keys once we got on the ship.

The Luggage

They gave us luggage tags so that we could leave our bags in storage until the 3PM check-in time, but our bags were still at the hotel across the street.

We were instructed that we could not board the ship until 3PM, but that was okay. I was SO happy that my scheme worked and we were able to get a cabin. They wrote our cabin numbers on our baggage tags, and we took the tags with us back to the small hotel so we could put them on our luggage.

We had a lot to do until 3PM anyway. We actually had Women’s Halfpipe tickets starting at 2PM, but since the tickets were for an 8-hour duration, we decided we would just go to the event late since we wanted to check in to our cabin before we headed to the mountains for the snowboarding event.

Instead of putting our bags into storage until 3PM, my sister and her family took our bags on the ship for us and just stored them in their cabin.

Specator Pass and Texas Chicken in Sochi

Then we all went to the Olympic Village train station and took the train one stop to the Olympic Park station. Ken and I had to stand in a line to get our “Spectator Pass,” which would serve as our credentials allowing us access to the venues (in addition to our individual event tickets). We waited in line for about 20 minutes. We behind an American mother and son from Colorado who were waiting in line because the son had lost his spectator pass the previous day while skiing. The son, who was about 13, said this was his 4th winter Olympics! He has been to every one since 2002 in Salt Lake City!

After we got our Spectator Pass, we realized we were getting pretty hungry, but there wasn’t much around to eat (this became a recurring problem, there were very few food options near Olympic Park). We found a fast food-looking place called Texas Chicken. (go figure, right?) The line, which was not long, took at least 20 minutes. Thanks to my Russian class over the summer, I was able to decipher some of the menu. By the time we got to the front of the line, we learned that they were out of chicken nuggets, which is what I wanted, and we could not figure out how to communicate “onion rings” to them. Finally, a guy behind us intervened, apparently saying onion rings in Russian. He said he was a Russian who lived in Atlanta, Georgia, so he was happy to help.

After we ordered, we realized we forgot to ask for ketchup, which they charged us for (pretty usual for Europe), but they wouldn’t take our 1000 Ruble note, which was the smallest we had. So, I paid for the ketchup, the equivalent of about $1.00, with my credit card, which they did not mind at all.

The food was edible, and I was happy to at least eat something, even if it wasn’t great. It was a little after 3PM, which meant we could check in to the ship, so we decided to head back to the port.

“We Have Tiny Problem.”

Since it was now past 3:00PM, we were allowed to board the ship. We used our Port security access badge that had been provided to us at the check-in tent. We were directed to the ship reception desk to pick up our cabin keys.

Once we got on the reception area, we knew almost right away there was going to be a problem. A woman at the reception desk took our check-in paperwork that had been provided to us at 10:30 earlier that morning. We’re not sure what happened, but she probably looked at our name in the computer, and maybe it showed up in their system that we weren’t supposed to have a room and that we were supposed to be moved to a hotel? We aren’t sure. But she said, “one moment,” and retreated to some back office.

When the woman got back, there was a flurry of activity, including another woman standing next to us who spoke into a walkie-talking and said, in a strong Russian accent, “We have tiny problem.”

I’m not sure who she was talking to on the other end of the radio. The reception desk woman told us that there had been a mistake. That we should have never been given check-in paperwork or a pass to access the port, because we were not supposed to be staying on the ship anymore.

I just calmly said, “We made a reservation for this ship five months ago. We were assigned a cabin number this morning, and even given tags for our baggage. Now it is after 3PM, so we want to check in to our room so that we can go to our snowboarding event, which we are already late for.”

Eugene, our Coats, and our Luggage

At this point, I may have done a few things that were slightly disengenuous. But since what they were doing was also disingeous, I felt like I was justified.

She told us to go to our snowboarding event and they would have a hotel arranged for us by the time we got back.

I said, “We need our coats to go to snowboarding in the mountains! Our coats are with our luggage! The check-in staff gave us luggage tags with our room numbers earlier!”

Now, nothing in that statement was untrue. But it did lead them to believe that they had our luggage. I did not tell them that my sister had put our luggage in her cabin.

So I said, “How are we supposed to go to snowboarding without our coats!?”

At this point, there was another flurry of activity about locating our luggage. We were told to go sit on some sofas about 40 feet from the reception desk. After sitting for a few minutes, a man named Eugene came up to us and started explaining the situation.

Eugene: I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake. Your room was double booked. We have arranged for you to stay at another hotel.
Me: That’s not my problem that the room was double booked. I reserved the Grand Holiday. It is where I will stay
Eugene: I am sorry, but that is not possible. Your room has already been given to somebody else. It is a very nice hotel and we can take you there now.
Me: No, I have family already on this ship, so I cannot stay anywhere else
Eugene: Yes, I am sorry. That has happened with many other people. Many families have been separated due to double booked rooms.
Me: That is not my concern that they separated. We will not move. We were booked here. And, you are making us late for snowboarding
Eugene: Well, go to snowboarding, and I am sure this will all be resolved when you get back tonight.
Me: No, I am not leaving until we have a cabin. Plus, we need our coats for the mountains. Our coats are with our luggage, and the check-in desk gave us luggage tags earlier!
Eugene: Oh, your coats are with your luggage?
Me: Yes! We need our coats!!
Eugene: So you will not leave?
Me: I will not leave.

This conversation probably carried on for 10 minutes total and consisted of him telling me I had to go to a different hotel, and me politely declining.  I started asking him detailed questions about their reservation systems and occupancy statistics and all sorts of other random things I could think of.  I kept leaning in closer to him. He was getting more agitated by the second, and I was enjoying every moment of it.

Eugene gets up and leaves, never to be seen again. Ken surmises that Eugene is still looking for our coats and luggage.

Another 5–10 minutes pass and there is no resolution. I get up from the sofa and go to the reception desk again. I ask if our room is available yet. The woman tells me that she is sorry, it is not possible, and that two managers are working on getting us to a hotel as soon as possible.

Pulling the “American Card”

Let me preface this by freely admitting that what I did next was a pretty jerk, “Ugly American” move. If I was standing by and overheard an American say something like what I did, I would’ve rolled my eyes, BIG TIME. This is not normal travel behavior for me, but I felt that they were being very dismissive, so I had to take another approach.

After the woman told me that two managers were working on getting us to a hotel, I somewhat obnoxiously said, “I have to make a phone call! I have to make a phone call right away, it is urgent!”

The reception desk woman looked at me strangely.

Me: I need to call the U.S. Embassy to inform them of this matter.
Employee: What does the U.S. Embassy have to do with this ma’am?
Me: I am a U.S. Citizen that has been a victim of a crime on foreign soil. Fraud. In the United States we call this bait-and-switch. I am calling them now. I have the address for the American Citizen services unit that is set up here in Sochi for the Olympics. Where is this located? (I find the address and show it to her on my phone.) I need to report this right away so other Americans can be alerted to cancel their reservations.

The employee looks panicked.

Employee: Ma’am, we are working on getting you a cabin. We will have one in 10 minutes for you! (She says it in a huffy tone like it’s what she was planning all along, of course, to get us a room)

I shake her hand, thank her politely, and go back to the sofas.

Now, I’m sure that if I had actually called the Embassy to complain about a double booked hotel room, they would have laughed me right off the phone. But, my threat, no matter how ridiculous, seemed to start a new, even more pressing flurry of activity by the reception desk staff.

Another 10 minutes pass, so I go back to the reception desk. Before I can say anything, she says, “We have a room for you,” and tells me the room number. They give keys to me and Ken.

Triumph

I couldn’t believe that it had worked. I had read on the Sochi forums that so many people were getting screwed on their reservations, and I couldn’t believe I managed to still get a cabin. I was so happy to be able to stay on the same ship as my sister and her family, as we had all initially planned!

We went down to our cabin and momentarily enjoyeed our triumph. I had to get to my sister’s cabin (she had left us a key) to get our bags. I was hoping I didn’t run into Eugene along the way. Luckily, I did not.

 

We hurried up and gathered some things so we could head to the mountain cluster for our snowboarding event. We left the ship, took a taxi to the train station, transited security, and hopped on the train that would take us to the mountain cluster.

The Actual Accommodations

There’s nothing much to report about our cruise ship cabin.

It was a typical small cruise ship cabin, but we very much appreciated the safe location (three layers of security – ID check, followed by a port access magnetometer and bag x-ray, then a ship magnetometer and bag x-ray), especially considering all the hype about how “dangerous” the Sochi Olympics were going to be.  The food was really, really terrible (something we have never been able to say about a cruise ship before!).  But given the very limited food options in Sochi, we were happy to have the dining options available.  Plus, the dining was open until 2AM, which was such a relief because we didn’t get back from many of our Olympic events until well after midnight.

So, there you have it.  We didn’t have any missing doorknobs, broken curtains, or yellow water, but we definitely had our own unique Sochi Accommodations story!


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