Well at least I can laugh now. Consider this to be: “Things I got wrong: so you don’t have to”. Supplementary to the “By The Time You Read This” series, here are a few cautionary anecdotes, including some I have mentioned before, now all collected and collated into a list of personal humiliation for yours (and my) amusement. Ok, I may include some things that I got right, too, by way of vindication. Maybe.
Why take dollars unless you are an American?
I did, though: I took some dollars. Having heard that dollars are “readily accepted” and can be changed into Roubles easily, I thought: “why not?”. It seemed like a good idea to have a range of viable currencies in case of emergencies. However, there’s no point unless you are American. For the rest of us: why bother? Roubles will do just fine! It’s handy for Americans to take notes already in their pockets and exchange them directly in a Russian bank at the best rate. However, if the rest us convert cash into dollars before we go then we’ve already devalued our money through bank/commission charges, and we’re getting the worst exchange rate at home anyway.
Ok, Dollars are not “readily accepted”. All the price tags are in Roubles and I didn’t see a dollar sign anywhere (well, why would there be one?). I’d heard that street/airport taxi drivers accepted dollars, but I didn’t test the theory as I only dealt with these characters once and that was plenty. Incidentally, as a result; some words of advice on Russia Beyond The Headlines have a special resonance!:-
“…People sometimes forget that the street smarts they employ back home might apply anywhere. “The biggest mistake is feeling it’s rude or somehow wrong, bad or confrontational to say no,” says Michael Deasy from Canada. “You have to learn to walk away.”…”. This doesn’t advocate being recklessly aggressive, abusive or provocative of course. Keep it together. I digress.
The dollar thing is a throwback to the early 1990’s when the country was in turmoil and foreign currency was a safer bet. Yes, some of the information out there (including nuggets that I must surely have related to you) can be 25 years out of date. Mud sticks. On a similar note: you will not be mugged by roaming gangs of feral children in St. Petersburg. Well, that’s correct at the time of writing at least.
Don’t split your flight unless you absolutely have to
I did this; I travelled via Riga. Actually, I’m glad I did as I made a Latvian acquaintance and got to chat with a security guard who also remembered me on the way back. I can stay up all night, waiting for planes if I need to (which helps!), I also had to save money at the time of my visit. Split flights are cheaper, but for a reason: the inconvenience! Splitting a flight into two or more sections involves an extra set of baggage checks and security scans per additional leg of travel. It will almost certainly involve a lot more waiting around.
The connection between flights also has to work seamlessly. Therefore, enough extra time needs to be factored in for more rounds of processing and possible arrival/departure delays. The net result is that a 3 hour direct route can easily drag out into a split lasting 6+ hours, or even running overnight. The optimum solution is to book literally months in advance for the best direct deals, if at all possible.
I didn’t get a Russian sim card and data plan. This not an absolute disaster as I prepped daily on the apartment’s internet and made calls via Skype. The problem is that I was restricted whilst outside. There are WiFi spots throughout the city, although some form of mobile security is essential (or at least, highly recommended) when using them. It’s just really handy to have flexible connectivity; especially for tracking Yandex and Uber taxis, for translation apps, maps and mobile phrase books, – and for random emergencies too. Increasingly, UK phone companies are offering cheaper voice and data rates to customers travelling abroad. Tariffs can even match those found at home; I made several calls to UK mobiles from Latvia as part of my normal monthly plan for instance. Notifying the phone provider and requesting “roaming” access was a pre-requisite of course. This policy is currently confined largely to central Europe and excludes Russia for now. Let’s wait and see what happens.
Portable WiFi hotspots are a new development that allow you to remain ‘live’ 24 hours a day. They are pocket-sized devices that can enable 6-10 users (roughly speaking) to have internet access via a single node wherever they (as a group) are located. It’s important to compare pricing plans, as common policy is to offer ‘day-passes’ that cover whole 24 hour periods. These are presumably unused whilst the purchaser is asleep or merely underused if only a couple of emails are sent on a particular day. Hopefully such providers will come up with a more attractive pricing policy soon. It’s still early days.
[Original ‘Palace Square’ Photo by skeeze . ‘That’s My Room’ by Bernard H.Wood]