Organizing a train trip on the Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian) route may seem complicated. In this guide I explain you step by step how to organize the trip in the easiest and most economical way: the visa process, train tickets, flights, accommodations, etc.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- 0. Introduction
- 1. What is the Trans-Siberian?
- 2. Trains serving the route
- 3. Steps to organize the trip by regular trains
- Step 1. Decide the route that you will take (100 days in advance)
- Step 2. Book the flights (90 days in advance)
- Step 3. Arrange the visas (75 days in advance)
- Step 4. Buy the train tickets (45 days in advance)
- Step 5. Book hotels (30 days in advance)
- 4. The train ride: useful information and recommendations
In this article I have tried to collect each and every one of the most important aspects to consider when making a trip with the Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian) in the easiest and most economical way possible.
The existing information online to make this trip is very abundant, but it’s rather scattered and sometimes inaccurate, so I tried to compile it all in this article in a practical way.
As I will show you, the tour can be done by private luxury trains (like on a cruise), with prices starting from 6,000 australian dollars per person, but the vast majority of tourists do it by using regular trains, as the cost is much lower.
1. What is the Trans-Siberian?
The Trans-Siberian is a railway route (not a train) that runs through Russia from end to end, but it also connects to Mongolia and China. In this route very different trains can circulate, both regular lines and luxury trains operated by private companies.
The main route, opened in 1904, linked Moscow with Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast after traveling 9,288 kilometers (the red line on the map below). The line crosses 8 time zones and it requires 7 days of travel, but it’s usually to do so with stops in major cities.
The Trans-Siberian also has two other branches:
- The Trans-Mongolian (purple line on map). It is the most popular route and goes from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia and its capital.
- The Trans-Manchurian (yellow line). It also makes the journey from Moscow to Beijing but without going through Mongolia.
2. Trains serving the route
The route of the Trans-Siberian railway line can be served in two ways: through private special luxury trains or by regular (economy) trains.
2.1. Private luxury trains
Due to the touristic attraction of this route, there are private travel companies that organize trips by special private luxury trains leaving only certain dates a year. These are travel packages for tourists from around the world.
These trains are like a 5-star hotel. The reservation includes a private bedroom compartment; excursions organized in advance, food service in the luxurious restaurant wagon, etc. It is a full package. Similar to a cruise but in this case you are traveling by train.
The prices of these trains are not available to all budgets. But three luxury trains are highlighted here:
- The Golden Eagle. One of the most luxurious trains in the world. It is operated by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains from the United Kingdom. It organizes various tours along the route of the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Mongolian in both ways. In 2016 there are departures from February to September. The cheapest ticket costs about AUD$ 20,000. You can find more information on their website: http://www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com/. Here’s a screenshot taken from the web:
- The Tsar’s Gold (“Gold of the Tsars”). This is a train from German company Lernidee, which goes from Beijing to Moscow (and vice versa) for 16 days (in 2016, there are 5 times in each direction, scheduled between May and September). The prices start from AUD$ 6,000. You can find more information on their website: https://www.lernidee.de.
- Imperial Russia. It is the newest train and it started offering trips in 2014. The trip on this train is organized by Russian Railways itself, through their travel agent RZD Tour Co. Ltd, established in 2005. All information about routes and prices can be consulted on its website: http://rzdtour.com/en/routes/transsib/. During 2016, Imperial Russia makes several trips during the months of July, August and September, with prices starting from AUD$ 6,000.
This is the promotional video of the train:
2.2. Regular trains
This is the option chosen by the vast majority of tourists each year that decide to go the Trans route, by using the regular trains operated by the Russian National Railway Company (RZD, its acronym in Russian), since it is the most economic option and it allows contact with the local population.
Some of these trains offer first-class wagons and a good restaurant service, but not at the level of luxury trains like the above.
While some of these trains cover the entire route, others only make some sections of the route.
The route through regular trains can be done in two ways:
- A non-stop trip, sleeping every day on the train. You only need to buy a train ticket. However, this can be very tedious and you won’t get to visit the major cities (the stops made by the train are usually short, and there’s no time to visit the city).
- A tour, stopping at one or several cities: you can spend the night in a hotel and the next day you can continue the journey on another train. This is the default if you like sightseeing and the most comfortable, but you should bear in mind that in this case you must buy different tickets for each journey combining different trains.
Types of regular trains
To make the journey, you can use 4 different types of trains that can be combined:
- High Speed Trains. There are high-speed trains that make the Moscow – St. Petersburg route (such as the Sapsan), but there is no high-speed train that goes the entire Trans-Siberian route from Moscow. However, from June 1st, 2015, the “Strizh”(” СТРИЖ “) train is operational, which can do only the first part of the journey between Moscow and Nizhni Novgorod in just over 3 hours.
- The Firmeny Trains. These trains are the most used for the Trans-Siberian route (or Trans-Mongolian). These are modern bedroom trains, with various types of compartments (1st, 2nd and 3rd class) and a good restaurant service. These bedroom trains have fewer stops, which mean that the journey time is less than that of other trains, but for this very reason they tend to be more expensive. They carry low enumerations and some have names, such as the Rossiya. They are most often used by tourists and among them are the following:
- Trains 1 and 2 (Rossiya). The Trans-Siberian route Moscow-Vladivostok (9,288 km). It is the most famous train that covers the Trans-Siberian line. The train 002 leaves Moscow on odd days at 13:20 hours (with some exceptions) and takes about 7 days to reach Vladivostok, if the route is nonstop. Train 001 does the reverse journey from Vladivostok to Moscow. This is a Russian train.
- Trains 3 and 4 (sometimes they are numbered as 33 and 43). Trans-Mongolian Route Moscow-Beijing via Mongolia (7,621 km). The train 004 leaves Moscow every Tuesday at 23:45 and arrives in Beijing on Monday. Train 003 makes the journey in reverse. These are Chinese and with Chinese staff.
- Trains 5 and 6. They make the trip from Moscow to Ulan Bator
- Trains 019 and 020 (Vostok). The Trans-Manchurian route Moscow-Beijing via Manchuria (8,986 km). Train 020 leaves Moscow every Saturday at 23:45.
Rossiya Train Restaurant (photo taken from the RZD virtual tour):
- Skory Trains. The vast majority of trains of Russian railways are Skory. They are good but these trains are not as modern as the Firmeny and make more stops, which mean that the journey is slower and therefore more economical. They have 2nd and 3rd class but usually they don’t have 1st class wagon. They also have a restaurant wagon but the service is of less quality than the Firmeny trains. The best known are:
- Trains 99 and 100: they make the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. They are a cheaper alternative to the Rossiya.
- Trains 007 and 008: they make the journey only between Novosibirsk and Vladivostok
- Trains 60 and 70: they make the journey between Moscow and Chita.
- Passenger Trains: these are trains that make both short and long routes and often stop at almost all stations on the route which makes them the slowest (and most economic) trains. In these trains you will find a higher percentage of local population and fewer tourists. The quality of these trains is lower than that of the previous and they only have 2nd and 3rd class. The best ones are:
- Trains 361 and 362: Irkutsk – Ulan Bator
- Trains 23 and 24: Ulan Bator – Beijing
Types of compartments
Regarding the types of compartments you can find 3 different:
- First class (“Spalny Vagon” / “SV” / “Soft”). It is the most expensive compartment, for two people and 2 beds which become seats during the day. While in the Rossiya they don’t have a shower, the first class compartments of trains 3 and 4 have a shared shower. This is the photo in the first-class compartment in the train Rossiya:
- Second class (“Kupe” / “Compartment”). Compartments for 4 people, with two beds above and two below. If there are two people, you will have to share the compartment with two other people. The second class compartment in the Rossiya train:
- Third class (“platzkart”). Unlike the first and second class that have closed compartments, the third class is an open wagon with beds in which there are no compartments or divider curtains. These are for those who are going to make a short trip or for those seeking the most economical ride without caring much for comfort.
Ticket prices are variable, just like airline prices, so it is difficult to give you an exact estimate. It is best that you enter RZD’s site for that. As demand increases and the departure date approaches, prices tend to rise, so it is important to try to book in advance (they can be purchased 45 days in advance).
For example, a train ticket in the Rossiya all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok in 2nd class can cost between 15,000 and 30,000 rubles (even if there are few places left). If you choose the train 100 then 2nd class prices are cheaper, between 10,000 and 20,000 rubles.
3. Steps to organize the trip by regular trains
Step 1. Decide the route that you will take (100 days in advance)
Making a trip in the Trans-Siberian involves starting to organize it at least 3 or 4 months in advance.
First, before you start buying airline and train tickets, you need to decide the route, which depends on your preferences, the available time and budget.
To have everything clear, you need to answer a series of basic questions:
When to go?
The Trans-Siberian operates all year round, so you can do it at any time, though the summer months are in my opinion the best, due to good weather and the days are longer. By contrast, tickets for trips not in summer are usually less expensive, and you will find less influx of travelers and you will discover the Siberian winters.
What journey to make and which countries to visit?
Once you know when to go, you have to decide which route to perform and the final destination. Options are varied, but the two most popular are:
- Traveling only by Russia, making the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. This is the Trans-Siberian This is a classic route that only goes through Russian territory and that will take you to the Pacific coast.
- For this route only the Russian visa is necessary.
- You can buy all tickets online way at RZD’s website.
- It can be done entirely in the Rossiya train or train 100, the most economic, or a combination of both.
- Travel through 3 countries, covering the three capitals: Moscow (Russia) – Ulan Bator (Mongolia) – Beijing (China). This is the Trans-Mongolian route, the most popular of all. It goes from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia and its capital.
- To make this journey you will need three visas.
- Russian train tickets can be purchased at RZD’s travel website, but to buy tickets for the trains crossing Mongolia and China you will have to resort to some intermediary agency, such as Russiantrain (or buy them directly at stations).
- Or you can combine the Rossiya train along the Russian territory with trains that enter Mongolia from Ulan-Ude (trains 4, 6, 362, etc.)
These routes can be extended further. For example, instead of beginning (or ending) in Moscow, you can choose to do from St. Petersburg. From Beijing you can also go to Vietnam, or from Vladivostok you can catch a ferry to go to Japan or Korea. The possibilities are varied. Everything depends on the time and budget you have.
Routes can also be shortened. Depending on the time you have can do only the Moscow-Irkutsk route or extend it to Ulan Bator. You can also leave Beijing and end in Irkutsk.
From which city should I depart?
The Trans-Siberian route can be done from east to west or vice versa. Most travelers depart from Moscow it but can be done perfectly in reverse from Beijing or Vladivostok, in which case surely you’ll encounter fewer tourists and the passengers will be mostly locals.
In which cities can I make stops?
The most popular stops are Irkutsk in Siberia (where Baikal Lake is) and Ulan Bator in Mongolia (to visit the city or Gorkhi-Terelj National Park). But if you have time, you can stop in intermediate cities like Yekaterinburg (in the border between Europe and Asia), Novosibirsk (the largest city in Siberia and third largest in Russia with 1.5 million inhabitants) or Ulan-Ude (a cultural mix between the East and the West).
If you have more time, you can also choose to take other routes and stop in cities like Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, etc.
Step 2. Book the flights (90 days in advance)
Ideally you should always book flights with at least 3 months in advance to find better prices.
If you’re traveling in July or August, from April you can already start looking for flights. The most common is to book a flight back to Moscow and another back from the city that you have scheduled as the end of the trip (Beijing or Vladivostok, for example).
To find the cheapest flights, it is best to use a comparison site. I use Momondo, since it usually offers the best prices and allows you to calculate routes for multiple destinations. Once you know which the most economic flights are, you can make reservations through Momondo or through the airline (it costs the same).
You can see some tips and recommendations when choosing the most economical flight in this article. The main cities in which the Trans-Siberian passes have an airport: Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Ulan Bator, Beijing, Vladivostok, etc.
Step 3. Arrange the visas (75 days in advance)
Once you have the airline tickets, it is good time to apply for visas (meaning the authorization granted by the country to foreign nationals to enter their territory). For visa proceedings you can choose two options:
- Do it through some specialized agency: fewer headaches but it’s more expensive.
- Apply to them on your own: it is easier than it looks and it will be much cheaper.
The visa is a document that will be attached to your original passport. So if you’re going to deal with three visas, you need to get them one at a time, since the original passport will be held by each Consulate few days. Tourist visas must be processed:
- Russian Visa. Russian visa proceedings are explained in detail in this article: How to obtain a Russian Visa in Australia in an easy and cost-effective way.
- Mongolian Visa. More info about Mongolian visa: Embassy of Mongolia to the Commonwealth of Australia
- Chinese Visa. More info about the process of obtaining a Chinese visa in this article: How to obtain a Chinese Visa in an easy and cost-effective way.
I recommend beginning the visa procedures about 2 months and a half in advance. You can’t get visas at the border; you need to apply for them in your country of residence/origin.
Step 4. Buy the train tickets (45 days in advance)
The tickets for the Russia tour can be purchased through a travel agency that will take care of making reservations, upon payment of a fee. But if you want to do it directly you have two options:
- Buy tickets at the station. For those more adventurous travelers, you can purchase tickets as you go through the journey. The advantage is that you have much more flexibility if you want to stay a little longer in some city. The downside is that in high season it’s possible that some of the trains or the types of compartments that you want to take are already full. Don’t be surprised if the cashier at the station does not speak English, something which is quite common. Note that station times will be in Moscow time, not in local time.
- Buy the tickets in advance online. To get the lowest possible price without intermediaries, it is best to buy tickets at Russian Railways (RZD) official website. Tickets can be purchased 45 days in advance (you can know more information on RZD purchase process in this article). Types of tickets can be:
- E-ticket with electronic registration. It is an electronic ticket that you will receive via email, ready to print, and you can present directly on the train, along with your passport. Most tickets are with electronic registration.
- E-ticket without electronic registration. You can obtain also these tickets by email, but they must be redeemed at the same station, either in a window or a vending machine.
- Paper tickets. These tickets must be purchased on paper in the station itself. You can order them through any intermediary agency (such as Russiantrain) so they can send them to you via mail/carrier or you can pick them up before your trip at the offices of an intermediary in Moscow. Tickets for international routes are paper tickets.
Important aspects that you must consider:
- All times in RZD website is in Moscow time (you need to add the hours of difference by city). Instead, the times in the cities of Mongolia and China are in local time.
- For international routes that enter Mongolia and China you must go to intermediary agencies (you can’t buy tickets on RZD website or in Mongolia or China’s official railways website). In these cases I use the Russiantrain web agency, which has better prices than others I have found.
Step 5. Book hotels (30 days in advance)
The last step is the easiest, make hotel reservations. There are many reservation websites that allow you to make reservations with the possibility of cancellation until the day of arrival itself (such as booking.com). Reservations can be made until a few days before arrival, though it is possible that in high season, some popular destinations will have more demand, that’s why it is preferable to book them with 30 days in advance.
You have two options for your stay:
- Hotels and hostels. The greatest variety of hotels and hostels can be found at the Russian reservation platform Ostrovok, where you can find even better prices than booking.com (more information in this article: Ostrovok, the best alternative to Booking.com)
- Airbnb Apartments or through Couchsurfing. This is another way to travel but to make short stays, I think it’s faster and more convenient to make hotel reservations.
You can find more information about accommodation in this article: Accommodations in Russia: How to choose and where to make a reservation cheaply.
Accommodations in cities along the route of the Trans can be very economical; though even in big cities like Moscow or Beijing the prices are higher. Train stations are located near the center of cities.
The trains that make the Trans-Siberian route depart from the Yaroslavsky Station, fairly centric, located northeast of Moscow and very well connected by subway.
The choice of hotel in Moscow will depend on your budget. As you can see in the screenshot below (the Yaroslavsky station is the red flag), there are great accommodation offers, ranging from 6 dollars a night in a hostel, to 184 dollars for a 5 stars hotel.
The Yekaterinburg railway station (officially called Ekaterinburg-Passazhirsky) is located at the north part of the city (the red flag in the screenshot) but it’s quite centric. Accommodations are quite economic (from 4 dollars a night in a hostel, to 24 dollars per night in a three-star hotel).
The Novosibirsk-Glavnyy station is situated at the West part of the city, but it’s centric too. A 3-star hotel can cost 11 dollars a night per person.
Irkutsk Pass station is also quite centrical (red flag):
The Ulan Bator and Beijing station are also centric.
4. The train ride: useful information and recommendations
The regular trains that make the Trans-Siberian journey are not luxury. Comfort conditions are very simple. This is a trip for those who value adventure and authenticity over comfort.
4.1. Before boarding the train
Before starting the journey on the train it is important to pack everything in a suitcase. The ideal is to seek balance between weight and comfort. The things that you must carry are:
- Moist towelettes and toilet paper (the train has them but they can usually run out)
- Cutlery, glasses, cups (for coffee or tea)
- Food: pasta, biscuits, tea, coffee, etc.
- Earplugs for sleeping on the train
- Russian SIM card with Internet connection (they are cheap, How to buy a Russian SIM card for your smartphone)
- A terminal block to charge several electronic devices at once. There are few electrical outlets on the train
- A flashlight (or flashlight application in your smartphone)
- Book, playing cards, board games, etc.
- Comfortable clothes
4.2. Boarding the train
When you arrive at the station, you must first look at the electronic schedules panel to check your train schedule and departure time. Trains are usually on the platform ready to accommodate passengers 40 minutes before departure.
The wagons are numbered in the first or last window of each car. At the door of your car you will be waiting for the inspector to check your ticket and your passport.
Thus, each wagon is attended by two officials (called provodnik or provodnitsa, whether is a man or a woman) who are responsible for:
- Check the tickets when boarding the train.
- Distribute sheets, pillows and towels as well as charge you a small fee for them (2-3 dollars) as long as they are not included in your ticket (in first class they are always included, but not always in second class)
- Serve black Russian tea (1-2 dollars).
- They also sell food products.
When accessing your compartment you can see that it has a table and space for suitcases.
Important: trains run on time.
4.3. During the journey
Russian trains are safe but you should never take it for granted and always keep your valuables at hand.
The trains make many stops along the way, some for a few minutes and others that can last several hours (border crossing). These stops are posted on a sign on the wagon itself, though it is in Russian. These stops are a good time to get down, get some fresh air and stretch your legs, not going too far and always checking that the train is not going away. If you get down, it is convenient to carry your ticket and your money.
At the stops platforms you will find many fresh food sellers, fruit, books, toys, clothes, etc. at very low prices. In larger stations there are also kiosks where you can shop. You can’t smoke on the train nor on the platforms (though it is common to see people smoking on the platforms).
The cars usually carry two WC (with toilet bowl and sink), one at the beginning of the wagon and at the end. In the morning it is easy to find lines to use them. The WC usually closes about 45 minutes before and after a stop. In long distance trains, some wagons can come with a shower.
In each car you will also find the typical Samovar that distributes hot water. That’s why it is useful to take coffee powder, tea, soups, chocolate powder, and bring your own cup. Hot water is also useful for preparing the popular noodles (pasta shaped noodles).
The voltage of the electrical outlets in the train during the journey is 220-230V. The problem is that sometimes the electrical outlets are usually located outside the compartment (on the side of the wagon and in the WC). If you want to load multiple sections at the same time you can use a terminal block.
The Trans-Siberian has a dining wagon. Meals are paid in cash. Prices are more expensive than if you eat in a typical restaurant (a complete meal can cost about 15 dollars). You can eat in the dining wagon or you can bring your own food that you purchased at any supermarket, or on the street markets that are found on each train stop.
An hour before arriving at your destination station, the provodnitsa will let you know. In this moment is when you should return the sheets and towels.
I hope this guide has been helpful, you can help me by sharing it on your social networks to make it known to those interested in going through this exciting journey.