We’re Back from Russia! (A Quick Recap)

This entry is part 1 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

We’re back from Russia!  We’ve actually been back for about five days now, and I think I’m finally getting over the jetlag.  Our first three nights home I was in bed by 8PM each night.  Yikes!

So, what was the consensus?  We had a GREAT trip.  All of my fears and fitful sleep in the weeks leading up to the trip now seems so silly.  As soon as we arrived in Sochi, I instantly relaxed.  The entire city was like a fortress, and I didn’t have a worry in the world.  I cheered my heart out for Team USA and applauded the other teams.  It was a true sportsmanlike atmosphere.

Moscow and St. Petersburg were unlike anything I expected.  Both cities were very modern, and I never even saw any dashboard-cam worthy footage.  I guess I should be happy about that and not bummed!

We took nearly 3500 photographs during our two week trip, and I’m still sorting through them.  I need to curate them, edit them, caption them, post them to Facebook for my friends to see, post them here on the blog, and even eventually make a print album.

So, since I don’t have any pictures ready just yet, I thought I’d share with you my “Random Thoughts on Russia” to keep you entertained.  Photos (many, many photos) will be forthcoming.

Random Thoughts on Russia

Apparently Ken and I look Russian.  Everywhere we went, people spoke Russian to us.  If, for example,  an Olympics volunteer was giving guidance for where to go at an Olympic event, they’d tell us in Russian.  When we would say “We don’t speak Russian,” they’d easily skip to English and explain it to us that way.  This also happened in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Waiters and waitresses, museum ticket offices, and random strangers would always speak to us in Russian first.  We mentioned this to a tour guide we had one evening in Moscow.  He told us that there is no such thing as a stereotypical looking Russian.  So if you are white, then it is presumed you are Russian.  I told our guide that I thought I looked so stereotypically American.  I wasn’t wearing stylish clothes, I wore hiking boots instead of heels, and I carried around an SLR camera everywhere.  He said that didn’t matter.  There are many Russian speaking tourists, either from smaller Russian cities or former Soviet republics that come to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

That “Soviet Era” visual you may have of Russia is all wrong.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was expecting Russia to be a borderline third world country.  And, even though the Soviet Union fell 25 years ago, I was expecting supermarkets to be ill-stocked and clothing stores to sell basic, utilitarian items.  I was expecting traffic to be horrible and unsafe (thanks to watching all those Russian dashboard cam videos).  None of my preconceived notions was correct.  Moscow had three Cartier and Burberry stores in a three block radius.  We saw some beautifully stocked and arranged supermarkets.  The only “less developed” element I noticed was the air pollution.  Cars are filthy because when it rains or snows, there is basically soot in the rain that covers vehicles.

Streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg are VERY wide.  This seems like such a strange thing to point out, but it just stood out to us so much.  In so many large American cities, city streets are usually no more than two lanes each way.  Streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg were easily three or four lanes each way, making each street six or eight lanes wide!  There were a couple of explanations provided to us about this.  In Moscow, guides told us that 1) Stalin loved his parades, and therefore wanted nice wide streets to accommodate the parades.  He even tore down a 17th century structure in Red Square to make it wider.  And 2) St. Petersburg, founded in 1703, is a much “newer” city by European comparisons. When Peter the Great founded the city, he told the architects and designers to take advantage of the vast space, so buildings were not erected close together.  I’m not sure how I feel about that second explanation.  After all, there are many cities in the United States that are newer than 1703 yet still have much narrower city streets!  In Moscow, because of these wide streets, there were convenient underground walkways so that pedestrians did not have to cross the streets and affect traffic flow.

We never saw any dashboard-cam worth traffic incidents.  I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed about this.  The traffic we saw was typically very orderly.  I was expecting to see Russians completely ignore stoplights and traffic laws, much like I saw when I lived in Egypt.  However, drivers yielded to pedestrians, obeyed traffic signals, and we even witnessed first hand that police enforce traffic laws.  We hired a tour guide and driver one evening in Moscow, and the driver got pulled over for making a right turn on red!  We were a bit nervous because we didn’t know what was going on, especially after the police officer made the driver get out of the car.  However, she was let off with a warning.  After the incident, our guide told us that corruption among police officers is decreasing in Moscow.  In the past, a police officer might have asked for a bribe, but with the increasing popularity of dashboard cameras, police officers do not want to be caught asking for bribes.

As they said on the news, security in Sochi was tight.  The city was a fortress.  During one of our bus rides from the coastal area to the mountains, I commented to Ken that there was virtually no traffic in the city, something I was not expecting.  Then we realized that the “ring of steel” that the Russians kept referring to, really was in effect.   I guess they weren’t letting hardly any vehicles on the roads.

The Olympic experience was amazing, Period.  Many people keep asking us, “So was Sochi ready?  Was it as bad as they said on the news?”  We thought Olympic Park was beautiful.  It was HUGE.  Transportation was very efficient and well organized.  Multilingual Olympic volunteers wearing those trademark colorful jackets were so numerous, you were never more than a few feet away from help.  As mentioned above, security was impressive.  But, since people are constantly asking us if anything was “wrong” in Sochi, I thought I’d point out a few (very petty) things I noted.

  • There were several landscaped areas with trees in Olympic park that seemed to be unfinished.  In one area, there were trees planted in the dirt, but only a single row of sod.  So it appeared that they wanted to sod some areas but either ran out of time or resources.

  • There was an ugly elevated scaffolding walkway featured prominently by the medals area.  It looked like it was probably intended to be some sort of finished, constructed walkway but that they ran out of time and built it with scaffolding instead.

  • The wait to get in the Olympics souvenir “superstore” was routinely 3+ hours long.  There were a few smaller “kiosk”-like souvenir stores in the arenas and venues, but those also had 30+ minute long waits. To make matters worse, the kiosks closed as soon as the events were over. Because of that, I almost didn’t buy any Olympic souvenirs.  But, after the speed skating event, I begged the kiosk store employees to let me in, saying I knew exactly what I wanted to buy.  They were kind enough to let me in.  Luckily, there was another large Olympics store in Moscow, so we bought most of our souvenirs there.  It was only a two hour flight from Sochi to Moscow, so we joked that you could fly to Moscow to buy your souvenirs in a shorter amount of time than it would’ve taken to stand in line at the superstore in Olympic Park.

  • The food selection was really awful in Olympic Park.  I’m not terribly picky when it comes to food.  I like trying new foods when I travel.  Ken is fairly picky, but enjoys fast food and other vendor-like foods.  But we both thought the food was awful.  And we weren’t the only ones to think that.  There was a woman who we met at a Moscow restaurant and she asked us if we liked the food at the restaurant.  It was kind of random (she had started to put her coat on Ken’s chair while he was up getting food and I tried to motion for her not to put it there.  She, of course, spoke Russian to me, but when she realized I spoke English, she quickly switched to English).  A few minutes of conversation ensued, and we mentioned how we had been in Sochi a few days earlier and the food was not good.  And she heartily concurred, “No, food in Sochi very, very terrible.”  On the upside, food was very reasonably priced.  Definitely not the exorbitant prices you would pay at a sporting event like a Major League baseball game or NFL game.

  • Olympic Park was almost TOO big.  Walking from the entrance of the park to the arenas area took nearly 30 minutes (and that’s only if you didn’t stop anywhere along the way.)  And, there was only one way in and out of the park, so when your event ended in one of the arenas, you had to walk ALL the way back to the way you came in.  Obviously this was my first Olympics, so that might be normal.  But I did visit Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta back in 2008, and I was kind of expecting something more compact like that.

Russians seem to have a low tolerance for cold.  As you probably heard on the news, Sochi was quite warm.  The same day that 12 inches of snow shut down DC while we were away, it was 63 degrees in Sochi.  But Russians continued to wear their heavy parkas and gloves all around the park!  I was totally perplexed.  It was definitely colder in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but nothing worse than the cold we have had in DC this winter.  (I would like to thank the Polar Vortex for making the Russian winter seem downright balmy).  But any time we would briefly walk with our coats unzipped or gloves off, people were immediately concerned that we would freeze to death.

 


When is fear unreasonable?

Can we talk about fear for a few minutes?

The news of threats to Sochi have no doubt been on my mind and the minds of my family and friends considering our trip to Russia for the Olympics next month.

A few people call me crazy for going.  Some days I think I’m crazy for going.

But I’m afraid of a lot of things, but I still do them because I want to enjoy life.  Despite all my travels throughout my life, I still don’t like to fly.  I remember becoming acutely aware of turbulence and how unnerving it was when I was about 15 years old.**  Before that, I don’t remember having a single fear when flying, and I flew a LOT as a child.  But these days, during takeoff and turbulence, I am a truly white knuckle flyer.  But I still fly all the time.  Last year, I was terrified to try rock climbing.  But I did it anyway. And I’m always so nervous waiting in line for roller coasters at amusement parks, but I still go on them.

There are many things to be scared of here in the United States, so why am I more scared about things that might happen when I’m abroad?  Here in the United States, we realize that no one is immune from being a potential victim of a mass shooting.  Not when we’re at the movies, not when children are at school, not when we’re at the mall, and not even when we’re at our workplace.

But, despite all the news coverage, I think we all realize that the odds of these things happening to us are very low.  That’s why people still send their children to school, and go to the movies and to work.  That is how I’m trying to approach this risk that is being reported for Sochi.  It is an unlikely event, so why should I change my plans?

At other worrisome times in my life, I’ve had random sleeping problems.  I’m typically a champion sleeper, as my husband can attest, so any time these sleep issues arise, it always seems like SUCH a big deal because I’m not used to poor sleep.  When I’m worried about something,  I usually have no trouble falling asleep, but I’ll wake up at some point in the middle of the night, like 2AM or 4AM, and my mind will be racing with thoughts.  This has happened at various times in my life like before our wedding, right after my mom died, and now.

I’m waking up in the middle of the night panicked about our trip to Russia.  I debate canceling the whole thing.   I just lay there and panic.  It’s certainly not a very healthy thing to be doing.  But, I eventually fall back asleep and by the time I wake back up again, my panic has subsided and I feel confident in our decision to go.  Then the panic starts all over again the next early morning.

One of the most dangerous situations any of us experience in life is getting into an automobile.  But we do it anyway.  My study abroad program, called Semester at Sea, departed on August 31, 2001. That meant we were traveling all over the world in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and seeing anti-American sentiments in many places.  I picked up and moved to the Middle East for nearly a year just three months after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. I’ve obviously put myself in less-than-safe situations before. And I was always a little scared too.  I was never one of those teenagers or young adults who thought they were invincible. But fear is definitely more pervasive these days.  Perhaps it’s because I’m older now and even more acutely aware of these dangers?

I did some googling earlier today.  Threats before the London 2012 Olympics were just as numerous and specific as the ones to Sochi.  And the London Olympics were fine.  So that calms me down.  At least for a bit.

I’ve experienced some crazy things in my life.  If a time traveler from the future had told me these things I would eventually experience, I would’ve said to them, “I could never handle that.”  And, yet, when I’ve always handled things just fine, even under really terrible circumstances.  So, what if the shit does hit the fan one of these days when I’m traveling.  Assuming that past performance can be an indicator of the future, I’d say that I’d handle it.  I’d stress and worry, sure.  But it would all work out just fine.

**Yes, I know my fear of turbulence is unreasonable.  Yes, I know that planes fly just as well in smooth air as they do turbulent air.  Yes, I know that there has never been a major plane crash directly attributable to turbulence.  I understand all of these things conceptually, so I can’t explain why my mind goes into instant panic mode during turbulence.  It just does.  And please, please, do not tell me to just “think of something else” during turbulence.  If that actually worked for me, that would be amazing, but it doesn’t.

Trying for Hyatt Diamond Status Match

Thanks to my relatively recent hobby of earning travel points and miles, much of our upcoming trip to Russia will be free.

I’ve mostly been interested in earning large sign-up points bonuses through credit card offers.  I travel, but not frequently enough to earn the amount of miles that I can earn through credit card sign up bonuses!

But recently, I have become more interested in learning about elite status options on airlines at at hotels.  Unlike large quantities of points earned through credit card bonuses, elite status, generally speaking, are earned mostly by flying a lot on a particular airline (like 25+ times per year) or staying a lot at a single hotel chain (again, 25+ times per year).

There are typically different tiers of elite status, so depending on what tier you are, you can get additional perks when you fly or stay.  For instance, you might be able to get a free breakfast at a hotel, or earn additional bonus points on paid stays.  Similarly for airlines, you might be able to get upgraded to first class on a paid ticket, and you can also earn additional bonus miles when flying.  There are some dedicated folks in the frequent flyer world that do “mileage runs,” which are flights they take solely to make progress toward their “status.”  These flights are typically very cheap.  This time of year, you see a lot of folks talking about status, because status is usually earned on a calendar year basis, and then you get to keep it for the following calendar year.  For instance, if you have flown 48 times this year in 2013 on a particular airline, which means you might be two flights away from reaching a mid-tier status level achieved by flying 50 times, you might take a mileage run of two flights to make sure you achieve that status and are able to keep it all the way through the end of 2014.

A similar concept for hotel status exist, except it’s called a mattress run.  You might book some very inexpensive hotels at a chain you’ve been staying at, just to achieve status.

While I always saw the value in status, I can’t say that I paid much attention.  After all, I knew that I didn’t travel enough to get status, so I never really researched it much.

Well, I’ve been starting to research it a bit more.  Not necessarily to actually start doing mileage runs and mattress runs, but strategizing a bit to get additional perks out of my travel time.

One of these tidbits I’ve been researching are called “status matches.”  I’m not sure if there’s any formal definition (although I’m sure there’s a dictionary on Flyertalk somewhere), but basically it is a way for one hotel chain to attract an “elite” customer of another hotel chain by offering similar perks to what the customer is used to at the hotel chain he is loyal to.  For instance, if Bob has Marriott Mid-Level Status, Bob can call Hilton and say, “Hi, can you match my Marriott mid-level status at Hilton?” Hilton would almost certainly say, “Yes,” and voila, Bob has his status matched.  Then when Bob goes and stays at a Hilton during his next trip, he is afforded many of the same perks as what he would at the Marriott, like free breakfast, or whatever.  Typically that status “match” might only be temporary, or there may be some conditions if he wants to keep the matched status longer term.  For instance, he might have to stay 10 nights at a Hilton hotel within three months to keep that status for the next year.

So, what is the point of this big long explanation of status matches?  I’m going to try and get status matched for some of our upcoming hotel stays in Russia.  Specifically, I want Hyatt Diamond status for our stay at the Park Hyatt Moscow.

Since I don’t stay at hotels enough to earn status, how exactly am I going to get Hyatt Diamond status?  Well, although I don’t earn status through hotel stays, I do have some hotel status from being an American Express Platinum Cardholder.  Through my American Express Platinum card, I have Starwood SPG Gold and Hilton Gold status.  (My American Express Platinum Card was also great because I was reimbursed for the $100 Global Entry fee)

wpid-HyattGoldPassportMembershipLevels-2013-11-30-15-02.png

Luckily, with my Hilton Gold status, I can request from Hyatt a two month Hyatt Diamond status match.  Diamond status would be a HUGE benefit for our stay at the Park Hyatt Moscow.  It guarantees us the best room (excluding suites) when we check in.  It also provides us with a food and beverage amenity, 4:00PM check out time, as well as free breakfast.  Breakfast costs, especially in an expensive city like Moscow, can really add up over the course of three days.  Plus, I like eating a big breakfast when traveling because I feel like then I’m typically not hungry again until dinner time.

The Hyatt Diamond Status Match only lasts for 60 days.  Since we don’t leave for Russia until mid-February, I’m going to wait another month before applying for the status match.  (To earn long-term Hyatt Diamond status, you have to stay 12 nights at Hyatt properties within those 60 days.  I don’t think I’ll be able to achieve that, but I’ll at least be able to get some benefit from having temporary Hyatt Diamond status during our stay in Russia.)

Sochi Olympics Accommodations Update

We have finally secured accommodations in Sochi for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Since about July, folks on this TripAdvisor forum had been discussing several cruise ship accommodations available for booking in the Sochi and Adler ports.  These cruise ships would be docked throughout the Olympic games, serving as hotels (or “floatels” as someone cleverly named them) for travelers.

I really didn’t want to book cruise ship accommodations for a number of reasons:

  • I preferred to stay at a chain hotel in hopes of being able to redeem travel points for free (or at least mostly free) accommodations during our stay in Sochi, much like our subsequent accommodations in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  • Although chain hotels were either not available for booking due to the IOC’s hold or because they were still under construction, I was confident that hotels would become available by late summer or early fall.  This obviously has not come to fruition.

  • I am an avid cruiser.  I went on my first cruise with my family when I was just 14, and have been on about a dozen cruises since then.  I know that older ships, like the ones that will be docked in Sochi and Adler, are not always the most, ummm, comfortable accommodations in the world.  Tiny (and I mean tiny!) cabins with barely any room to move around, and showers so small that the curtain is constantly clinging to your arm.  Uh, no thanks.  I prefer newer ships with their (slightly) larger rooms.  I didn’t want to stay for four nights in claustrophobic settings while I could stay at a lovely hotel like the Hyatt Regency or Radisson Blu.

  • The cruise ship accommodations are non-refundable and require the entire payment up front.  So even if chain hotels did open up that were cheaper or free options using hotel points, I would be out of luck.  Plus, the thought of spending that kind of money (around $1500) on accommodations and not earning any value through earned points really kind of bummed me out!

Last week, after lengthy discussions with my husband as well as my sister (who will be going to Sochi with her family too), we decided to book the cruise option.  There were a few key points that made the final decision an easy one:

  • Although we’ll be paying around $1500 for two people for four nights accommodations, that includes all meals!  That will be a huge cost savings during our stay, as I imagine food prices will be inflated everywhere around the Olympic venues.  We can indulge in more traditional Russian cuisine when we go to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  • The location of the ship in Adler port really cannot be beat.  We’ll be within walking distance of the “Coastal Cluster,” where most of the non-mountain events will take place.  I don’t think that any hotel opening up would have a location that good.

  • I wanted to be able to get our Russian tourist visas as far in advance as possible.  Generally speaking, you need confirmed hotel reservations as support for getting a visa.  Current rules stipulate that you cannot apply for a Russian Visa more than 90 days prior to your intended arrival date.  Therefore, I want to apply for our visas in November as soon as we reach that 90 day mark.  I was afraid if we continued to wait and wait for hotels through December or January, we could potentially run the risk of experiencing visa delays.

  • Frankly, I was just so tired of constantly checking for hotel availability.  I had been doing that AT LEAST twice a day for more than six months.  It was growing old, and there was never any progress.  I’m all done checking for hotel availability now!  But I still check the Sochi TripAdvisor forums.

Has anyone else finally decided to book the cruise ships?  Or are you waiting it out for hotels?

Searching for Hotels in Sochi

Recently, as soon as I boot up my computer in the morning, my routine goes like this:

  1. Check Radisson’s website
  2. Check Hyatt’s website
  3. Check Marriott’s website
  4. Check Travelocity
  5. Check BookingBuddy
  6. Check Accor Hotels website
  7. Check Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel
  8. Check American Express Travel
  9. Check TripAdvisor Forums

What, you might ask, am I doing?

Looking for some freakin’ availability for hotels in Sochi during our upcoming trip to Russia for the Olympics.  It’s not just in the morning that I do this.  Waiting for a conference call to start?  Let’s check the TripAdvisor Forum.  About to go to bed?  Let’s check the hotels one more time.

I bang my head on my desk, ponder whether we should just cancel our whole trip to Russia, and then tell myself to relax.  Then I Google some keyword search terms like “Marriott Sochi” and “Hyatt Sochi” to see if folks on other blogs or forums have posted updates about whether they have been able to book hotel rooms.  (Hint: It’s a no).  The apprehension sets back in, then I just tell myself that I am worrying about a first worldliest of many first world problems.

Here’s some back story.

 

sochi-hotels-meme

Attending an Olympics is a strange planning experience.  I was slightly panicked at first about how things worked, but after a bit of research, I realized this is just how it works.  Every Olympics.

First and foremost, the event tickets are released for sale more than a year prior to the Olympics.  And you pretty much have to buy the tickets the day they are released for sale, because they sell out within an hour.  Olympic event ticket sales occur WELL before flights are available to book. Generally speaking, you cannot book a plane ticket more than 330 days in advance.  (There are a small handful of airlines that are 365 days, and some airlines, like Southwest and AirTran, that are 180 days or so.)  To add to this already complex situation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retains “ownership” of all hotel rooms in an Olympic host city until shortly before the Olympic games commence.  Meaning you cannot book any hotel room in any host Olympic city during the Olympics, until the IOC say so.  In the past, it looks like hotels have been released to the public about five or six months prior to the start of the games.

As you can see, buying Olympic event tickets takes a huge leap of faith.  Sure, I could get an idea of how much it will cost to fly to Sochi on a normal day, but I have no idea what it will cost to get there during the Olympics!  So, after spending about $700 on four different event tickets for me and Ken (Snowboard halfpipe, speed skating, luge, and ski jumping), we waited about two months before we could begin booking any sort of flights.  Once March rolled around, and we were able to secure Business class flights using United miles. (Score!  More on that in a future post.) We also planned stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  So our Russia trip plans were looking up as of March.  We had Sochi Olympic event tickets, we booked flights, booked the Park Hyatt in Moscow for free using points, researched that hotel availability is aplenty in St. Petersburg, and now we just had to wait for hotels in Sochi to become available.

And here we are. It’s September.  Every day since March, many times multiple times per day, I perform those searches I listed at the top of the post.  We have just over four months until we depart for Sochi.  And we do not have a place to stay.  I am trying not to panic.  But I am.  I thought my panic might be due to my compulsive need to plan things, but I am not alone in my worries about this situation.  No one has been able to book any hotel rooms in Sochi for the Olympics.  Adding to this complicated situation is that many hotels in Sochi are still under construction.  There have been rumors on various forums that many of the hotels won’t even be completed in time.

So, we continue to wait.  And wait. And wait.  Ken says that we can just go over there and wing it if hotels never open up, but I’m not really into that.  I don’t want to find myself sleeping in a car … in Russia … in the winter months.

Has anyone else ever attended an Olympics and found themselves in a similar situation?