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Moscow - The Smile on the Face of the Tiger

Where to Stay, What to Do
 

Russia can be a tourist's delight, and is becoming increasingly a source of business opportunities too.

 

 

In the mid 1990s, Moscow was consistently rated as the most expensive city in the world to do business. But, I've spent the last two weeks staying both in an all-suite hotel for $84 night and in a good four star hotel for $110/night (these rates included all taxes and cooked breakfast), I have a private car (BMW) and English speaking driver to chauffeur me around town during the day at a cost of $5/hr, and even the rule of thumb 'Big Mac' price index also confirms that Moscow is no longer expensive - a Big Mac costs only $1.25.

Note - this was written in Feb 2002, prices have increased considerably since then, alas, but smart people can still get good values.


Russia is still evolving and changing rapidly

The Russian financial crash of 1998 has given the country a much sounder base to build upon. In 1999, the economy grew by a mild 1.8%, then soared 8.2% in 2000 and in 2001 grew another 5%. 2002 is projected to bring another 4% increase. The new Russian President, Vladimir Putin (now the good friend of President Bush) took over after Boris Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999, and has brought stability and consistent improvement in all elements of Russia since that time.

A simplified tax code, reductions in business paperwork and taxation for both individuals and corporations, a growth in the predictable rule of law and order, continuing clampdowns on corruption, combined with boosting social services and the growing acceptance of western business standards by the major Russian companies are all making the country very much more attractive to western investors, partners and tourists.

Traveling to Russia

Although there are vague provisions for 'visa free' short visits to Russia (no more than 72 hours) you are better advised to always secure a visa before your travels. This is, however, a simple task these days, and you are almost 100% assured to be granted the visa you request with only a minimum of paperwork needing to be easily filled out.

When you fly to Russia, you have a choice of either Aeroflot or any one of many other western carriers. You might think you 'know' Aeroflot, but chances are you don't. Today's Aeroflot operates nearly new 767 and 777 aircraft on its flights from the US, with either two or three class cabins. Even discounted Aeroflot coach fares allow you to purchase a space available business class upgrade for only $350-500 extra in each direction - making it the best bargain in the skies. Sure, it isn't the best business class in the skies, but it is probably the cheapest!  Aeroflot's business class is reviewed here.

Otherwise, most of the major international airlines can get you to Moscow and St Petersburg via their European hub (often with a requirement for an overnight stay at the hub in one direction or the other).

Staying in Russia

There are more western style hotels in Moscow and St Petersburg now than ever before, and increasingly major international hotel franchisors are taking over the management of hotels and branding them with their recognizable names and imposing their usual standards of service and quality.

In Moscow the city radiates out from a central point which can be considered to be approximately at the Kremlin/Red Square. A central hotel is convenient for tourists, but not so meaningful for business visitors. There is no clear 'Wall Street' or 'London City' region in Moscow, with businesses having their offices randomly distributed, variously in glittering new buildings of the absolutely highest standard or in dowdy old Soviet style buildings (which may or may not have been extravagantly renovated inside). The key location issue in that case is merely to keep within the central part of the city (ie inside the 'Garden Ring').

Hotels range in price from about the $100/night mark - which will maybe get you a surprising bargain at an 'unknown' hotel such as the stylish Sretenskaya that I stayed at for several nights and the Best Eastern Volga all-suite hotel that I also stayed at, or a gloomy room in a former Soviet mega-hotel such as the Rossiya or Cosmos. Once you pass the $200/night point, you can expect a room in a fully westernised hotel that would be indistinguishable from any other room in any other hotel in any other major international city.

City Transportation

Your first challenge is to get from the airport to the city. Try to have a transfer pre-arranged for you, at a cost probably between $25-50. If you have to take a taxi from the airport, you will pay as much as the driver thinks he can extort from you, and probably very much more than a private transfer would cost!

City traffic in Moscow is atrocious. The best way to travel around the city is often to use their very efficient (and extremely crowded) metro system (25c per ride). Otherwise, if you are adventurous, and can speak a smattering of Russian, you can simply flag down any passing car and ask them to take you where you want to go. If the driver has some spare time and is keen to earn a few extra dollars, he'll take you there - most trips around the inner city are unlikely to cost more than $3-5. If you're going to want to hire a car and driver for an extended period of time, as you travel from meeting to meeting, then you will pay a flat hourly rate, typically in the $5-10 range (depending on the type of car, the driver's language skills, etc).

If you want an interpreter, they will charge a similar rate to that charged by a car and driver, with more seasonal variation - in the peak tourist months there can be shortages of good interpreters (especially in St Petersburg when cruise ships are in port).

As an amusing aside, a local Muscovite told me that their traffic was becoming more sedate and orderly - a situation that is generally ascribed to the changing demographics of the drivers. Once a rare sight, women are increasingly to be found behind the wheel of cars.

Leisure

New restaurants are opening all the time, and there are vast numbers of McDonalds outlets, all usually extremely busy!

The good news - most mid market and up market restaurants will have menus in English as well as Russian. The bad news - the servers may not speak English themselves. This can add a certain edge of ambiguity and uncertainty as to what you actually end up eating, and in what order! Mid market restaurants are no more expensive than 'back home' (a decent two or three course meal and a drink or two can be had for under $25 per person including tax and (no more than) 10% tip).

If you're a lover of the performing arts, prepare yourself for a treat. Earlier this week I enjoyed a front row center seat at the Kremlin Palace Theater for a performance of Swan Lake - the ticket cost $27. The previous Saturday night saw me at the Bolshoi - $50 for an excellent seat there.

As for shopping, the new Okhotny Ryad underground shopping center, and its adjacent neighbor GUM give you two extravagantly deluxe malls full of the same types of stores you'd see back home. The main difference is price - it seems that things are more expensive in these malls than in the US!

The Rest of the Tiger

Moscow is atypical of Russia as a whole, and while Moscow has enjoyed substantial foreign investment and is definitely western-leaning, much of the rest of the country is primitive and unfriendly to most westerners. Things can even turn sour in Moscow - make sure you always carry your passport and visa with you in case of a random police stop, (and beware of pickpockets). Also make sure you have formal confirmations from all providers of travel services - 'Murphy's Law' can operate with a vengeance in Russia and if you don't have total documentation to confirm your reservations, you might find yourself with major problems.

But, in a managed manner, Moscow and St Petersburg are tourist delights and business opportunities. See you there!

More Russian Information

See also our article on How to Speak and Read Russian, and, of course, why not consider going on one of our Russian River Cruises.

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Originally published 1 Feb 2002, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 


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