HOW SAFE IS IT TO BOOK WITH YOU? We are a fully licensed Australian travel agent (Victorian Travel Agent's licence 32740) which means your booking is covered by consumer protection laws in Victoria. And we are a full participant of the Travel Compensation Fund, a national statutory body that oversees the security of our customers' money in the unlikely event of our financial failure. We are the exclusive agents in Australia for UK wholesaler, 'The Russia Experience' who are regulated by stringent UK and European consumer legislation. Remember that if you book any travel arrangements through overseas suppliers directly your trip will not be covered by Australian law.
ARE VISAS A BIG HASSLE THAT TAKE WEEKS? Yes they are a bit - but that is our problem because we get the Russian and Mongolian visas for you. All we levy is the consular fee plus $35 per visa. Russian visas in particular require considerable supporting documentation which we obtain but its best to get your booking form into us at least six weeks prior to departure. If you do book less than six weeks prior to departure you still will be able to go, if the trip is available of course, but you will need to pay express fees (please check with us how much these will be as they are dependent on what passport you hold and how much time we have). We’ll also need the original of your passport to get your visas and this must be the same as the passport number you gave us when you completed the original booking form.
DO I NEED INSURANCE? DO I NEED VACCINATIONS? We insist that you have Travel insurance to take any of our trips and indeed Russia requires you to enter your insurance certificate number on your visa application. Please click here for our insurance rates or ask your consultant. Which policy you purchase is your own choice but please be careful about relying on credit card travel insurance as many east European cities ask to see an actual insurance document. No vaccinations are mandatory but you would be well advised to get medical advice (not every GP may be as well informed on the latest health developments in these locations). Particular concerns are Cholera, Typhoid, Hepatitis B, Tetanus and Diphtheria. Tick-borne encephalitis is a small risk on some Siberian trekking routes but there is a vaccine available. The risk is VERY small and our leaders observe safety procedures. It is a good idea to take a first-aid kit with you.
WHY IS IT COSTLY TO MAKE EN-ROUTE STOPS? A Trans-sib secret that no guidebooks seemed to have grasped goes like this… non-stop international tickets are still priced accordingly to old bilateral agreements dating back to the Soviet era which cannot be broken, even now! But if you introduce stops into the your trip these sectors are priced commercially by Russian Railways…so you only get the benefit of state subsidised fares for part of your journey.
CAN I STAY EXTRA NIGHTS? No problem for Beijing, Moscow or St Petersburg as those cities stand at either the beginning, or the end, of your rail journey. But once on the railway, the train schedules on some of the less frequent routes make altering the stays almost impossible. During some periods it might be possible to add one extra night to Ulaan Bataar or Irkutsk but please do not assume this as a given. We always include two nights in Moscow prior or post to your Trans- Siberian journey and extra days can be added. Two days in St Petersburg is the standard if you buy a St Petersburg add on-but “there is stacks to see, and I wish I had stayed longer!” is always the feedback we get!
HOW MUCH SPENDING MONEY WILL I NEED?
Don't forget you will have already paid for your transport, accommodation, specified sightseeing and some meals (when staying at family stays) so really how much extra you need depends on what lifestyle you plan pursuing on your trip! The information pack we provide will give you an idea of current costs. Eating and drinking are very similar to most European cities, although Ulaanbaatar and Beijing have upscale versions if you have cash to flash! When itineraries take you far from the shops or cafes we often include meals. Russian souvenirs tend to be fun and low priced so you will be able to stash your pack full of Russian goodies!
WHY DON'T YOU OFFER HOMESTAY OPTIONS IN RUSSIA? Until recently our preference was to offer homestay or family stay options in Russia to give our clients a glimpse of family life. Although we can still offer such accommodation if requested (outside Moscow and St. Petersburg) we now prefer to offer hotel accommodation throughout. Homestays that were once intimate family run affairs have expanded and the feedback from many of our clients has been that most of them have become large and anonymous. For example many have built separate dining areas for their guests rather than have them eat with the family. At the same time the bathroom and toilet facilities remain very basic. It is our belief that most homestays have become inferior, low grade hotels. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, government security concerns have restricted foreigners to hotels.
IS FOOD INCLUDED IN THE COSTS?
All our Russian and Mongolian hotels include breakfast. When staying in family stay accommodation in Russia all your meals are included. Similarly the Ger camp in Mongolia is based on full board. All our hotel rates in China are room only. Meals are not included on board the train. There is a dining car on all trains with reasonably priced meals (reasonable and bland fare to be honest). Many travellers buy food at the staion stops en route and our information booklet has plenty of information on this subject. Please also note that there is a nominal charge of US$8 to obtain bed lined on the train.
SPECIAL DIETS: Meat features strongly in the national cuisine of most of our destinations and vegetarianism is bemusing to some of the locals. But do not despair - we have sent many vegetarian clients on these trips and not one has starved! But for when you are off the train you must advise us prior to departure if you have any special dietary requirements. If you have anything more complicated than a lacto-vegetarian diet, consider that in some of the remote places you are to travel this could be a considerable problem-and stock up accordingly.
TRAVELLING WITH CHILDREN: There are no serious downsides, and the infrastructure of travel and accommodation works well if you’re taking children along. However, Communist-era thinking very much treated children as small adults, with little or no provisions or amenities. So priming your children is essential if they are not going to get bored. Take supplies of books and fresh comics secreted in your suitcase. Reading material in English is unavailable for both children and adults alike. The journey is however the most fantastic introduction to a world they will have never known and they will meet many local children along the way, who will be very curious about their lives, so take photos of home! Child prices are on application.
HOW MUCH PRIVACY DO YOU GET ON BOARD THE TRAIN? All our standard trips are based on 2nd Class Rail in Russia which is 4-berth compartments. You’ll be sharing with any travelling companions who book with you plus other train passengers. It’s possible to buy yourself more privacy than that with an upgrade to 1st Class (2-berth compartments) BUT this is in very short supply and some trains don’t have it at all. An alternative is a “buyout” of a four-berth compartment-which could be for one, two, or three travelling companions, prices on request. There are no foreigner only carriages or compartments so you will mix with the locals, which is what travelling is all about.
UPGRADING TO A TWO BERTH COMPARTMENT
Upgrading to 2- berth compartment on the train is becoming more popular every year and not helped by the train operators only confirming this request 30 days or less prior to your departure. We have however devised a workaround for this that’s proving very reliable. We request a 2-berth at the time of booking but if this comes back not possible we block out a 4-berth compartment for 2 person occupancy. The standard of these cabins remains the same, and you get the extra space and privacy one way or the other.
ARE THERE SHOWERS ON BOARD? Never used to be but now most of the main long distance trains (24 hrs+) on Russian Railways (but not on Mongolian or Chinese) have a pay-to-use shower. You have to go to the “Special Services” wagon. One use is R50-90pp (prices are set by the varying train operators). No towel or soap is included in the price so better take your own and the feedback is that thongs are a necessity. Alternatively you can wash yourself down for free in the toilet compartment using a plastic scoop and the sink - check this out with our consultants.
WILL I MEET OTHER TRAVELLERS? Very likely-especially in the northern Spring and Summer months (April - September). There is only one train a week for instance between Mongolia and Beijing (incredible, but true) so a bit of bunching is inevitable!
DOWNSIDES: There are no serious downsides or dangers in visiting our destinations, and there is no need for woman travellers to worry. In fact the men get the worry as Russia has an old take on a new annoyance; sexual harassment by aggressive ladies of the night. A firm 'nyet' should get rid of them! Dressing-down is recommended for both sexes anyhow as the lure of conspicuous wealth is the biggest draw for unwelcome attention. Also remember that it is law to have your documents on you at all times in Russia and spot-checks are routine. The cops know this and if you don’t have them on you, will march you down to the Station to waste half a day of your trip and cost you a lot of trouble.
WANT TO CUSTOMISE YOUR TRIP?: All the trips in the brochure have a pre arranged schedule however if you would like to customise your journey with longer stays, or special requests for instance, please check with us and we will see what’s possible. Note that no alterations will be possible once your trip has commenced.
We strongly advise all our clients to check the latest Travel Advice from their own national Foreign Ministry. See smarttraveller.com.au for the Australian governments advisories. This information is constantly updated.