Last week we began examining a few shortcuts that will (hopefully) allow us to enjoy the tourist-friendly side Russia with ease and not much cost. Why make things difficult?
That’s not a rhetorical question incidentally, as there is a good reason to choose a subjectively harder path at times, it’s to gain a more authentic experience away from the tourist bubble, if that’s what you want of course.
The more we immerse ourselves in an unfamiliar world at street level, the more challenging and demanding the experience, and the more resourceful, aware and knowledgeable we must be. The reward, for the right person, is more “reality”, and of course more exposure to the ups and downs that it entails.
That’s a different tale of course, but worth bearing in mind for later. For now’ these few articles are pitched mid-way between gazing out of a tour bus window, and the resourcefulness of “going native”.
They lurk in wait in the foyer of Pulkovo airport (and others), waiting to pressure you into taking a ride for some vaguely defined price, due to be savagely pumped up by the journey’s end. If a suspicious character with a pushy, harassing manner isn’t enough to dissuade you from getting into any car, anywhere, then it’s hard to know what would. They operate in a grey, unofficial capacity with questionable credentials, and they want your money.
I was forewarned and swiftly extricated myself from their company, choosing a ride via the official taxi kiosk instead. Problem solved? Not really, even the licenced driver tried to shake-me-down for more cash than the fee agreed at the kiosk. An argument then ensued across St.Petersburg (with accompanying awkward silences), but I refused to pay more. This was a questionable decision and one we have to judge for ourselves at the time.
Fortunately, I had an official booking and an agreed price on my side. If you have neither, then you are just a person in a stranger’s car somewhere in a foreign city, with no leverage whatsoever.
The general advice that I receive is to go as official as possible when choosing a taxi. Perhaps agents from your travel company can arrange for a driver? Would the hotel/other that you are staying at send/call for one? Can you get picked up by a friend contact or by the person that you will be staying with? If not, then would they at least arrange for a ‘good’ taxi instead?
The other advice, from a Russian, is to use Uber or Yandex Taxis because they are the cheapest and the most reliable. I took a ride in each and the difference between these services and the regular players was like night and day. If I can’t travel via Metro then I will be using these folks again, every time.
A snag and a sim card
You’ll need a smartphone to utilise the above services of course. That’s the snag, but one that you can address before you leave home. It’s important to speak with your service provider to see what you can and cannot do with your device when in Russia and how much it will cost. Even the cost of checking your ‘home’ voicemail is usually appalling from Russia at the time of writing. Although UK mobile firms are extending their domestic rates to use within Europe, Russia is not currently included (neither is Ukraine).
Roam if you want to
You’ll need global roaming activated of course, and chances are that there will be a local provider that will facilitate a connection with your phone/sim as-is. However, the cost for this approach is usually brutal. A viable plan is to use a local sim card package bought from a retail outlet at the airport or in a local store instead. The airport vendor (if available) is more likely to speak English of course, as is the person at the information kiosk if you get stuck. Be careful that you don’t inadvertently sign up for unwanted extras! Chances are that you will need a “good” data plan for GPS/Skype etc, rather than one weighted towards calls/texts, -unless you have many Russian contacts, perhaps.
You should be able to turn off mobile data and use the airport’s wifi for your apps on arrival of course, but be absolutely sure that’s an option first. You’ll also need to look into mobile wi-fi security too, when “going public”.
I strongly recommend a decent powerbank. Mine can handle 4-5 full smartphone recharges; for me that’s around 4 days use. It also has two power inputs for an 8 hour bank-recharge time; an absolute boon.
You can pre-load your phone with useful tools that will give you a head start, straight off the plane. Skype, especially with added credit for calls to landlines/mobiles is very useful, as are offline translator apps/maps. These allow you to download all the resource files at home and carry them with you, rather than downloading the data in real time, every time, on the fly. Then there’s apps for the aforementioned Uber and Yandex Taxis and also the following caveat.
I recommend that you open, verify, and top-up/set-up any paying-app accounts (Uber for instance) whilst still at home. Doing so on your travels may flag a transaction against your credit/debit card as suspicious due to it taking place in a foreign country.
I opened my Uber account whilst in Russia and my England-registered card conflicted with my location, resulting in a lock-out after one ride! Fortunately I had that plan B: Yandex Taxis, which allowed for booking a ride and paying the driver in cash, very fortunate indeed: considering that I was heading out for the airport!
You’ve also told your card company/bank that you will be going abroad though, right? Now you should be able to pull rubles from Russian cash machines (inside banks, for better security) at an “acceptable” conversion rate. Check with your bank first though.
More ideas next time.
I like the tips covered on Elle Croft’s site, incidentally: “Don’t believe all that you hear… get an agency to take care of your visa… be smart but not paranoid” and more.