Ken and I like getting to the airport early, especially in cities we’re not familiar with. We never know what traffic might be like, how long security and immigration lines are, and what the check-in process might be like. So, we left for the airport about 4 hours prior to departure, even though it was only supposed to be about a 30 minute drive to the airport.
We did actually get stuck in traffic for a while. I could tell that the taxi driver was getting nervous. He started saying something in Russian, but I couldn’t hear him. Then, in my (VERY LIMITED!) Russian, I finally heard him ask what time our flight was leaving. I was saying, “5:45” in Russian, but he looked really confused. Then I realized that I should have been saying 17:45, since they use the 24 hour clock in Russia. Whoops. So, I just quickly set an “alarm” on my phone for the time, and then showed him. He looked relieved that we weren’t running late, even with the traffic.
In English, I said with a smile, “No problem!” And, he responded, using his arm to span the traffic jam, “BEEG Proplem!” And we all laughed.
I love how even when somebody can’t speak a different language, there are certain phrases that just everybody knows. Like people who can’t speak any English still know what “No problem” and “Big Problem” mean!
Well, when we arrived at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, we quickly learned that you’re barely allowed IN the airport more than 90 minutes prior to departure. Our taxi driver dropped us off, and we immediately had to put all our luggage through an x-ray scanner before entering the airport (something we had seen at Sochi and Moscow’s airports as well).
Then there is a pretty small “lobby” area for the airport. In the lobby, there were officials checking ID’s at podiums prior to passing through a separate set of doors, which would take you to the ticketing and check-in area. Well, we were basically “stuck” in the lobby. You could not pass through those doors until the ID-checkers said so, and it was completely unclear how long that would take.
The entire lobby area was a completely crowded zoo of people. There was a small restaurant / coffee shop place, and Ken and I managed to find a table. And we just sat there, drinking beverages until it got closer to departure time.
Once we were finally allowed into the ticketing area, we checked our luggage and received our boarding passes for our Air Berlin flight from St. Petersburg to Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Then we transited immigration, and we were finally on our way to find the Business Class lounge. (Security was not conducted until immediately prior to boarding, in the gate area).
I had low expectations for the Business Class lounge. I had read that it was pretty much a joke. Well, it was still better than a lot of U.S. domestic airline lounges (I’m looking at you US Airways lounge at DCA!)
Business Class Lounge at St. Petersburg Pulkovo Airport (International Departures)
The lounge was one big room, with chairs that very closely resembled (and might have actually been) Ikea Poang chairs.
There was a food and beverage area that was self-serve, complete with coffee, bottles of beer and wine, chips and other snacks, and bottles of water. #StillBetterThanMostUSAirwaysLounges
There was even an aquarium and a flat panel TV. Okay, I know that is not saying much, but considering how much of a zoo the airport was, and how limited seating was in the actual gate areas, Ken and I appreciated having a quiet place to sit before our flight started boarding. And of course, as a nervous flyer, I appreciated the free booze at my disposal.
Air Berlin Flight from St. Petersburg to Berlin (LED-TXL)
Ken and I booked business class tickets for the entire journey (St. Petersburg > Berlin > Miami > Washington, DC), but I knew that this leg would be economy class because it was a single-class aircraft. It wasn’t the end of the world, considering the flight was only 2 hours and 15 minutes.
At some point before our trip, I could’ve swore that I read online that Air Berlin just keeps an empty seat next to passengers who are booked on Business Class but riding on a single-class aircraft. Of course, as the trip approached, I could not find where I had read that, so I wasn’t sure if it would actually be the case.
When Ken and I checked in, we were booked for seats 1D and 1F, meaning that there would be an empty seat in between us. But, I really can’t be sure if we were given those seats because we were Business Class passengers. Why? That flight was literally the emptiest commercial flight I had been on in a LONG time. I’d estimate there were maybe 25–35 people on that A319 aircraft. So the fact that we had an empty seat between us wasn’t really saying much!
We were provided with a sandwich and chocolate. The sandwich was actually quite good!
The flight was uneventful, and we landed at Berlin Tegel, transited immigration and customs, and made our way to the Holiday Inn Express Tegel Airport. We ate a late dinner at the hotel and went to bed (no review of the Holiday Inn, it was a basic hotel, but a convenient location for overnight connections), and woke up early for our flight the next morning to Miami. We were ready to get home!
The second full day of our private tour was just as busy as our first!
Our started our day by taking us to a local bakery-type place called Stolle. They sold mostly savory type pies. It was a good light breakfast to start the day. We also walked around the area and took in the sights of St. Petersburg’s famed canals.
Canals in St. Petersburg
By the way, can you tell there is some slight sunlight shining on the buildings? Well, it was the first sunshine we had seen since leaving Sochi a week earlier. Within a few hours, it was overcast again!
Our guide called one location the “Seven Bridges” lookout point. Standing at one particular point, you can see seven canal bridges.
St. Nicholas Cathedral in St. Petersburg
After checking out the canals, we went to St. Nicholas Cathedral (also pictured with the golden tower in the photograph above.) Photography was not permitted inside the cathedral, so we just snapped a few photos of the outside and its grounds. But the inside was very ornate!
Along Nevsky Prospect
Following St. Nicholas Cathedral, we walked along the main St. Petersburg thoroughfare called Nevsky Prospect. Along Nevsky Prospect we stopped here, the Kazan Cathedral. (Again, photographs were not permitted inside)
Nevsky Prospect was lined with ornate buildings and spectacular views of canals and cathedrals.
And of course, we spotted American restaurants like Carl’s Jr. along some side streets.
It’s worth noting that while walking along Nevsky Prospect, our guide told us to hold our cameras tighter and to be aware of our surroundings. I’m guessing it might be an area of higher pickpocketing activity. However, it certainly didn’t seem like a shady area or anything.
We stopped by a cafe/chocolaterie type place called Eliseyev Emporium for some desserts and hot chocolate.
The cafe also had a very elaborate window display.
We continued our walk along St. Petersburg streets, on our way to the famous Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
We walked past the Russian State Museum:
And I just loved how colorful things were along St. Petersburg streets.
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
When we arrived at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, we were blown away by how beautiful it was. In Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is SO iconic. It’s recognizeable worldwide. But to be honest, it was plain in comparison to Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
By the way, that’s quite the mouthful. So I’m just going to refer to it as “the church” in this section.
Inside, it was even more amazing. But first, a funny sign at the entrance to the church:
So everything other than chewing gum and ice cream are okay?
The inside was simply indescribably beautiful. And, it was one of the few churches we visited in Russia that permitted photography.
The walls were covered with mosaic art.
Don’t know what I mean? Look more closely at these images on the wall. They are comprised of tiny stones! Can you imagine how long that must have taken??
The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the site of what is known as the first terrorist attack in history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated when a bomb was detonated next to his carriage. The church was subsequently built on that site to commemorate him.
Inside the church, a canopy marks the precise spot of his assasination.
The Hermitage Museum
Following our stop at the church, we went to the Hermitage, which currently serves as an enormous art museum in St. Petersburg. Previously it served as the Summer Palace for russian Tsars. (The previous day we had visited Catherine Palace, which had served as the Winter Palace.)
The Hermitage has a distinct green color, even among the colorful buildings in St. Petersburg.
Inside, it definitely had a palatial look.
And our guide, who so clearly loved art and art history, made the tour so interesting for us. She could hardly contain her excitement when walking into different rooms and explaining the art on the walls. It really made the museum experience even more amazing.
This room in particular was so amazing. It served as a ballroom when the Hermitage was a palace.
It was difficult to capture it in a single image, but the gold leaf design on the ceiling actually mirrors the wood design on the floor in the ballroom!
In another room, there was this very elaborate peacock clock inside the Hermitage. Once a week (and not the day we were there), the clock-keeper goes into the case and winds the clock.
Amazingly, there was some tour group that had paid extra to see the clock get wound, so we just stood around and watched it. It was a really fascinating process. I never thought I’d say that watching a clock get wound was fascinating!
There was an additional wing at the Hermitage that was under restoration that contained some impressionist and cubist pieces. So the halls they were displayed in weren’t nearly as ornate
There was an incredible antiquities exhibit at the Hermitage that contained artifacts from the Altai mountains region. The artifacts are from cultures that lived in the 4th and 5th centuries BC! Here was an incredible chariot from that era on display.
I’ll just let some remaining pictures of the Hermitage do the talking here:
After the Hermitage (we spent like FOUR HOURS in there, and probably could’ve spent more time if our tour wasn’t wrapping up. Oh, and if our legs weren’t killing us from standing all day).
We were starving, and couldn’t tolerate having to decipher any Russian menus, so embarrasedly, we went to a Pizza Hut that was nearby. Don’t judge! We had Russian food as a late dinner later that evening, including red caviar:
Ken also was coming down with a pretty nasty cold. Luckily we only had one day left in our trip! We found a pharmacy (and a super helpful pharmacist!) and Ken got some good cold meds and sore throat sprays. It worked “much better than the meds you buy over the counter in the US,” he said.
At dinner that night, our waitress asked us where we were from (although she mistook us for Russian! Just like everybody else in Russia seemed to do!) We told her, and that it was our last full day in Russia, and that we had been the Moscow and Sochi for the Olympics. She got SO excited when we told her we went to the Olympics.
She asked us what we thought, and we said it was so fantastic. She nearly started crying tears of joy. “Really??!!,” she said. We were like, yep! She said how happy that made her. That she couldn’t tell based on all the different news reports, she thought it might have been terrible for visitors.
For some reason, that memory just really sticks with me from our trip. Just how happy that girl was to know we enjoyed our time in Russia. It was heartwarming!
For our time in St. Petersburg, we hired a private guide for a two-day tour. Sites in St. Petersburg seemed incredibly spaced apart, and even though we had some sticker shock at the price of private tours, it ended up being a fantastic way to see the city and maximize our time (meaning no getting lost!). Plus, our tour guide was literally the BEST TOUR GUIDE that I’ve ever had. Ever. In any country. Of all times. Message me if you’re looking for private tour guides in St. Petersburg, and I’ll provide you the information!
Our tour started with some picturesque stops along the very frozen Neva River! The Neva River is the river that flows throughout St. Petersburg and also creates stunning canals, earning St. Petersburg the nickname “Venice of the North.”
Along the Neva River in St. Petersburg
Across the River, we could see St. Isaac’s Cathedral:
As well as the Hermitage, a HUGE art museum that we visited the next day.
Our guide told us of a local legend about this huge ball at the bottom of the ramp that leads to the Neva River. If you push it into the river, you’ll have amazing luck and love for the rest of your life. Apparently it’s customary for newlyweds to come here and try to push the ball and then drink some champagne
Ken tried to push the ball, but didn’t have any luck pushing into the river. Thank goodness, because that really does sound like something you could get arrested for. 🙂
We also saw this old lighthouse nearby.
One of the stranger things that our guide pointed out was this green building (partially pictured). Our guide told us that this museum had an exhibit of malformed dead babies. So there’s that. Apparently it has been there for several centuries. I’m hoping there was something lost in translation and that it is more of a medical research facility than an actual museum? I’m not sure, and to be frank, I’m afraid to Google it!
By the way, our guide pointed out that buildings in St. Petersburg are so “colorful” because the weather is so gray and drab for much of the year!
St. Peter and Paul Fortress
We got back in the guide’s van and then drove to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. We had actually been able to see it from our stop with the giant ball!
Inside the church, our guide showed us a lineage charge of Russian Czars before showing us the tombs where many of them were buried.
Here are the tombs of, among others, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.
Then we walked around the grounds of the fortress for a while.
Afterwards, the guide took us on the 40 minute drive to Catherine Palace, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
Catherine Palace was stunning. It served as the Winter Palace for Russian royalty.
The grounds were stunning, but many of the statues on display are covered by those metal boxes to protect them in winter.
We probably spent 3–4 hours inside Catherine Palace. Our guide gave us such amazing and detailed information for each room.
One of the most stunning rooms was the ballroom. The ballroom contained wooden carvings all along the perimeter of the room, which are covered with gold leaf. The floors were made of wood from Russian forests.
We continued and moved on through other rooms in Catherine Palace.
At some point, a Russian Tsar visited Holland and was inspired by their blue and white pottery. So he commissioned stoves and fireplaces to be made of this pottery throughout the palace
And here is a room that would have served as a kind of h’orderves room before people would enter the ballroom.
Clocks were numerous and intricate throughout palaces in St. Petersburg.
Now is a good time to point out that Catherine Palace was intentionally destroyed by the Germans in World War II. Here’s a painting of Catherine Palace after the Siege of Leningrad.
Many of the artifacts inside the Palace were salvaged prior to the attacks, but many were destroyed, including much of the physical structure. Many of the rooms in my pictures have actually been fully restored since World War II. There are still, sadly, many rooms that have not been completely restored, like these:
But, there were only a few. The remaining rooms we saw had been fully restored.
Apparently there are other buildings on the grounds of Catherine Palace that you can visit, but they are closed in the winter. Oh well, just an excuse to have to go back to St. Petersburg again! Summer Scandanavian cruise anybody?
After Catherine Palace, our guide drove about 10 minutes to Pavlovsk Palace, a residence built by Paul II of Russia.
It was smaller than Catherine Palace, but we still walked around for quite a bit.
Like Catherine Palace, Pavlovsk Palace was also destryoed by the Germans during World War II. Many of the rooms have been restored or are still under restoration
Afterwards, we walked around the grounds of the palace, which were stunning!
The rear of the palace has paintings that make it look like it views the inside. I did a double take!
That was it for our first full day of touring in St. Petersburg. We had been on our feet almost the entire day, and were looking forward to resting our legs at the hotel for the rest of the evening. We did an evening walk around the hotel, but didn’t even take our cameras with us, we were so spent! We’d be up early the next morning for another full day!
Our trip to St. Petersburg began here, at the Leningradsky Train Station in Moscow. It is the location of our worst experience of the entire trip. Something that has never happened to me during any of my other travels. Someone tried to steal my bags.
**Salty language warning in this post**
In which I scare the bejeezus out of the man trying to rob us
We took a taxi from our Moscow hotel to the train station. When we got out of the taxi, there were men standing around wearing matching jackets and carrying luggage carts. We didn’t have much luggage so we could manage on our own, but we realized they might be helpful for directing us to our train. They seemed a bit pushy, but nothing out of the ordinary. There were tons of police officers around (not sure if that was normal or whether they had an increased presence because of the threats in Russia during the Olympics), so I figured if the baggage guys weren’t legit, the police would be scurrying them away, like we had seen in Sochi. The guy that pulled our bags looked at our train tickets and started walking with us to the train platform.
We transited security x-rays to get into the train station, and then we waited on the platform. We tried to tip the guy for carrying our luggage, but he just kept talking to us in Russian, not accepting the tip, and just continued to hang around us. We exchanged as many niceties as we could given the language barrier. This included pantomimes for hockey and me saying “Ovechkin good America” many times. I always figure they love to know how popular their athletes are in other countries.
The guy started to give me the creeps. Not to sound gross, but it looked like he had recently peed his pants. Or something … else … in that general vicinity. So I told Ken that we should take our luggage off his cart, so we did. Then I tried to tip him again (about the equivalent of $5). He just kept standing around.
When the train arrived, he spoke a perfectly clear English phrase. “One Thousand Rubles.” Yep, he told us he wanted 1000 rubles, which was the equivalent of nearly $25.
I said no, and started to walk away. I kept holding the existing ~$5 tip amount in my hand high above my head, so people around could see that we were trying to tip him a reasonable amount of money. For perspective, our nearly 20 minute taxi ride to the train station had only been about $12).
This creep started shouting that he wanted 1000 rubles. I’ve been through situations like this before when traveling where ripoff artists like this are trying to get you to cave in and just pay them more money to leave you alone. I’m used to it, and there are a few tactics I use when something like this does happen.
Ignoring is usually the tactic I prefer. So I turned my back to him and continued to ignore him. There was a large crowd of people around waiting to board the train, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about safety or anything. In the meantime, I kept holding up the reasonable tip amount in my hand, hoping he’d get bored with causing such a scene and just take the money and leave.
Well, then he decided to start kicking my luggage.
Whatever. No skin off my nose. I didn’t have anything fragile in my bag, so he could kick my suitcase all day long if he wanted. We just continued to stand in the crowd to board the train. We got the attention of the train attendant checking tickets, thinking maybe she could call security on her radio, but she didn’t care that this asshole was kicking my suitcase.
I still had my back to the creep, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him kick my suitcase one more time and then PUSH MY HUSBAND.
I went into crazy person mode.
I turned around and looked right at his fucking face.
He seemed confused by the eye contact. Then he looked down and then reached for the handle of my suitcase and tried to yank it out of my hand, but luckily I had a good grip on it.
“Holy shit, somebody is literally trying to rob me,” I thought to myself in about a millisecond of time.
Well, screaming is a bit of an understatement.
I let out a most blood-curdling, ear-piercing scream that went on for as long as my breath let me.
The entire train station went completely and totally silent. The huge crowd that had been beginning to board the train just stopped everything they were doing. You could hear a pin drop when my scream was done.
The creep looked at me in absolutely stunned silence. But he was still in front of me, and I wanted him OUT OF MY FUCKING FACE.
So I stomped my foot and then let out another scream. So loud that it felt like something ripped far in the back of my throat. I screamed for probably another five seconds.
He had noticeably jumped when I stomped my foot, and when my second scream was done, he turned around and started to scurry away through the crowd.
But I was still SO FURIOUS, even though he was starting to leave. I was furious that this huge crowd of people around us were doing nothing to help, including the train attendants checking tickets. That police officers manning the x-ray conveyors just 200 feet away didn’t come to see what the commotion was. I was MAD.
So I turned my body to the left and took a few steps so I could look at the back of his head as he scrambled through the crowds down the train platform. When I spotted him, I started pointing to him in the distance and screaming again. My throat was hurting so badly, but I didn’t care.
As I was letting out that third scream, he started running so fast, like he was in fear for his life from this crazy American woman.
That was it, I was satisfied with the response. No more screaming necessary. He was gone.
We pushed through the crowd and boarded the train, afraid the guy might come back with some of his other luggage carrying buddies or something. After finding our seats, we tried to calm down, but it was hard. Adrenaline was pumping, and we were so irritated that nobody stepped in to help us. I have seen probably close to a dozen incidents during my years commuting by DC metro when something unfortunate was about to happen, and all sorts of bystanders step in to help. Like a fight breaking out or somebody getting harassed. Folks always step in to help. When I lived in Egypt and somebody started harassing me more aggressively than usual, folks always stepped in to help. When I was trying to figure out the Tokyo subway system, folks stepped in to help. I am used to people helping. Nobody helped us on that Moscow train platform. I learned a big cultural lesson that day.
Ken was so mad about the whole thing, and I tried to explain to him that these types of things happen, and that I wasn’t going to let it bother me. That I have had to use that same scream before in my travels, and that I knew it was very effective. I told Ken that when I saw the guy push him, I just went nuts.
Ken told me that the guy never pushed him. I was confused. Ken said that at one point, the creep was kicking my bag and lost his balance and kind of fell in Ken’s direction, but the guy never pushed Ken at all. I started to wonder if I overreacted, since that pushing was what precipitated my screams, but I don’t think so. He certainly was not a good guy either way.
In retrospect, after we returned from Russia and I thought more about the incident, I’m not sure if he was actually trying to “steal” my bags when he tried to grab the luggage handle from my hand. Instead, I think he may have just tried to hold my bags for “ransom” until I gave him the money he wanted. That doesn’t make it much better, but just a different perspective. I think he really wanted that 1000 rubles more than he wanted my luggage.
But fuck that guy. I hope he thinks twice now before he tries to rip off another tourist.
Train Ride Woes
Our train ride was annoying. Typically we enjoy traveling by train, but the train had assigned seats, and we were at like one of those sets of four seats that face each other with a table in between. So we were face-to-face with a 50-ish year old woman and (presumably) her mother. The 50-ish year old woman blared music through her headphones like a teenager the entire trip. There was a couple in the row next to us that made out and groped each other the entire time. I asked the attendant if we could switch seats, but she said it was a full train. It was not a pleasant five hours.
But, after the adrenaline stopped pumping and we had some snacks (available for purchase), we managed to read for a bit and take a short nap.
Unfortunately I was so distracted that I didn’t remember to take photos of the train. I did, however, manage to capture a few views from the train.
Despite our complaints about seat neighbors, it really was a nice and clean train. Also very fast. There is a slower and cheaper train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we took the high speed one. The bathrooms were immaculate, and there was even a food “cart” service, like you’d get on an airplane.
Taxi Ripoff Woes
When we arrived in St. Petersburg, we were anxious to get to the hotel so that we could stretch out and relax in a quiet environment. We were staying at The W St. Petersburg, and their website stated that a taxi from the train station should cost about 300-500 Rubles. After we exited the train station, we found a taxi driver and asked him how much it would be to the W St. Petersburg. 3000 Rubles. Umm, no. We can understand a slight ripoff for tourists, but 6 times the cost? No thanks.
After we turned that driver down, another one approached us and said he would take us to the hotel for 1500 Rubles. Okay, now we’re down to three times the price.
Ken and I were both in VERY foul moods after the events of the day, and this was making things worse. I feel like if this was the “only” annoying thing to happen to us that day, we might have just gone with the tourist ripoff price of 1500 Rubles. Sometimes it’s the price of being a foreigner. But, we were being stubborn. We waited around, seeing if any other taxi drivers would approach us with a reasonable price after everybody we asked directly wanted the same 2500-3000 Rubles range.
I called the hotel. The receptionist was in complete disbelief that taxi drivers were trying to charge us 3000 Rubles for the taxi drive. She said, “No, 500 Rubles at MOST! Maybe their English is poor?”
Nope, these guys understand just fine what they’re asking.
So, she dispatched a taxi for us. Ken and I waited in a coffee shop across the street. Then she called back with a description of the taxi that would be picking us up. It took us a while to find the taxi, because it was so crowded around the train station. We ended up walking to a hotel about a half block away and waiting there for the taxi. It was a less crowded location for him to find us.
Please don’t wreck the taxi
The driver picked us up … and proceeded to play iPad solitaire or something as he was driving through the busy streets. I thought I was going to lose my damn mind. I kept picturing him getting into an accident while playing solitaire. Great, that would be the cherry on top of this craptastic day.
Again, it’s one of those minor situations you expect when traveling in a place with different customs, but the cumulative effect of the events that day was trying my patience. Seeing that driver playing solitaire made me want to bang my head on the window. Hard.
I’m happy to report that, despite the driver’s solitaire addiction, there were no accidents.
I surrender, I surrender
I had never been so relieved to get to a hotel.
After the day we were having, I wanted to stay locked up in the room for fear that something else would go wrong. I was even eyeing up the room service and in-hotel restaurant menus, just so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere. I wanted to eat, go to sleep, and have a fresh start the next day.
Alas, Ken convinced me we should at least go out to eat, especially considering the hotel meal prices were outrageous. After relaxing for a while at the hotel, we walked a few blocks to eat dinner, and stopped a pastry shop on the way back for some desserts. Nothing went wrong. Disaster averted. Whew!
So, spoiler alert! The rest of our time in St. Petersburg was lovely! That day was the only bad day of our trip. (Well, as long as you don’t count the Sochi accommodations saga). And if you have just one bad day on a two week trip that takes you 6000 miles away, I’d still call that a win!
Like Ken always says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes for a good story later.”
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?