Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tips on Applying for a Russian Tourist Visa (from one who FAILED)

By Glenn Campbell
Mar. 13, 2014

To visit Russia, almost everyone needs a visa, and getting one is a convoluted process virtually unchanged since the days of the Soviet Union. My own attempt to obtain a tourist visa FAILED because I ran out of time, energy and money. But I did gain some valuable experience, which I want to share with any American who cares to try. The process is not impossible, just convoluted. To give the Russians the benefit of the doubt, let's call it "whimsical".

In the original blog entry here (Sept. 2012), I had some hypothetical advice on obtaining a Russian tourist visa, based only on what I found on the internet. Now that I have actually gone through the process, I deleted most of the post and replaced it with the things I now know from my own direct experience.

I was planning a visit to Moscow on a 18-day European trip, but the Russian Consulate called me in for a personal interview in New York only about 3 weeks before I was to leave home. This interrogation—er, interview—was necessary before the visa was granted. Since I was in another part of the USA at the time, it would have been prohibitively expensive to fly to New York for this interview, so I decided to throw in the towel and abort the Russian leg of my vacation. (Technically, I withdrew my visa application. It wasn't rejected.)

(Being called in for an interview may or may not have had anything to do with the Ukrainian crisis. My airline ticket was bought long before the Russian invasion of Crimea, but my visa didn't reach the consulate until a week after it. There's no way of knowing their reasons for wanting to interview me personally, since I didn't go.)

Expense aside, at the point where the government of Vladimir Putin calls you in for a personal interview, you have to wonder if the process is worth the vulnerability and loss of privacy. They wanted more documentation: bank statements, proof of income, evidence of real estate holdings and certificate of health insurance. This was in line with what the United States might require for a Russian wanting a visa to the USA—to assure they will go home—but for me it had become too burdensome in time, money and anxiety. Visiting Russia just wasn't important enough to me to jump through all the hoops.

Although my own effort failed, I picked up a few bits of advice that might be helpful to another American who might want to apply for a tourist visa. The process is not impossible, just a journey in itself. Here is my advice as of March 2014...
  1. Start the visa application process EARLY, as it could take a long time to work out the defects in your application. And the process is so obtuse and poorly documented that there probably WILL be defects.
  2. USA residents are supposed submit their applications through an intermediate agency, Invisa Logisitic Services, not directly to the Russian consulate. These people are taking a cut (and a BIG cut if you want the visa mailed back to you), but the agent I dealt with at ILS was very nice. Although the process is still clunky, ILS is probably going to be a lot more user-friendly than the consulate could ever be.
  3. I strongly urge you to visit an ILS office in person to deliver your visa application, because they can tell you right away whether anything is wrong, and they might be able to correct the problem immediately. Correcting problems by mail can be awkward. Only when everything is perfect will the ILS submit the application to the consulate. (You need an appointment at ILS, but it's free.)
  4. You may be called into the Russian consulate for an interview at a time of their choosing (as I was), so you have to be prepared for it. Only the Russians know who gets called in and why. This is going to be the consulate where you made the application, so if you don't live in one of the major cities where a consulate is located, just getting to the interview could be awkward and expensive (the thing that killed the process for me).
  5. USA residents are supposed to apply for a 3-year multiple entry visa, but the forms seem to be only interested in a single trip. Apparently you are supposed to fill out the forms for your FIRST planned visit, although it doesn't really state this anywhere.
  6. The application requires copies of your plane tickets to and from Russia, so you need to book them in advance (not knowing if you are actually going to get the visa). As a hedge, I think you should book your transatlantic flights to a traditional European city that doesn't require visas (like Warsaw), then book cut-rate local flights from there into Russia. That way if you can't get into Russia, you only lose the cheap flights and can still have a nice European vacation. (Air Baltic is a great airline for getting into Russia cheaply.) DO NOT ASSUME ANY LENIENCY FROM THE AIRLINE IF YOU FAIL TO GET A VISA. (In my case, the same change/cancellation fees applied.) Once you have the 3-year visa and have made your first visit, it is safer to fly directly to Russia.
  7. The visa application itself is generated by clunky software on a Russian government website, which produces a PDF that you print out. Be sure to bring your application number and password with you to ILS, because if something is wrong with the application, they can reprint it for you while you wait. (It is awkward to get back into the application after you have printed it the first time, but I finally figured it out. Hint: go back to the topmost level.)
  8. The 3-year visa requires TWO identical visa applications. I never saw that instruction online anywhere. The ILS agent had to tell me. (Each application needs a passport photo attached.)
  9. For the three-year visa, the dates on the application are the date of your first entry into Russia and the same day three years later (or maybe the day before, I'm not sure. I would use the day before.). At least, that's what the ILS agent put on my revised application.
  10. The application requires you to list the cities you expect to visit in Russia. How are you supposed to do this for a 3-year multiple entry visa? I just listed the city I planned to visit on my first trip: Moscow. (Will you get in trouble for visiting other cities you didn't list on your original application? In the Soviet era, you probably would. These days, who knows?)
  11. You need an "invitation" to come to Russia. This is relatively easy to obtain if you plan to stay in a hostel in Moscow, like Godzilla's. For $35, they will provide an invitation sent by email. (Although even that process can be clunky. I had to email them a couple of times to get a readable JPG version.)
  12. There can be absolutely no pen marks on the application form apart from your signature and date. No scratches or white-outs. Just another way the bureaucracy tries to trip you up.
  13. The application seems to require health insurance for your stay. I used GeoBlue to get insurance for my first visit then printed out the documentation they provided. I think that was sufficient, but since I didn't get the visa, I can't be sure.
  14. Once you have the visa and have taken your first visit to Russia, it "seems" that you can come and go from Russia as you please... but don't take my word for it. The wonderful thing about Russia is YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT THE RULES REALLY MEAN.
  15. Seriously, do you really need to go to Russia? There are so many great places Americans can visit without visas (nearly all of Europe apart from Belarus and Russia). The Russian Government tries so hard to turn away tourists that you really have to be dedicated to make it happen.
  16. Needless to say, if you've got plenty of money, there are bound to be agencies and tour companies willing to relieve you of it to "help" you with the visa process. I can't give you any advice on them. At that point, my budget it burst and I'd rather hang out in "old" Europe for much less.
The tips above only scratch the surface. The visa application process is still totally Cold War, and I didn't have the stamina to pull it off. Maybe you will do better.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Washington, D.C.—Best Transportation Hub in USA!

Sometimes even a homeless travelling dude has to lay back and chill for a while, so where does he do it without a home? It has to be someplace with mild weather where he can get by cheaply. It also has to be someplace well-connected with transportation options, especially if he doesn't know where he is going next. So where is the best place in North America to conduct such a-chill'n?

Transportation-wise, you might think that someplace in the center of the country would be best, like St. Louis or Kansas City, where you are equidistant from the coasts and where the cost of living is low. Turns out, however, that airfares to and from these places aren't cheap. Due to competitive pressures, it is usually cheaper to fly from, say, New York to L.A. than from St. Louis to L.A. Furthermore, although the cost of living may be low in the Heartland for people who live there, there aren't many options for the traveler, like hostels or cheap intercity buses.

You might think that New York City would be a good transportation hub, and it is, but transportation is just about all that New York offers. It's a jungle, painful to get in and out of and not the sort of place you can comfortably chill homelessly. Even the New York suburbs are dense and hard to navigate.

So where is the best hang-out for the homeless traveler? Suburban Washington, D.C.! I'm there right now, typing in the back seat of my cheap rental car in Alexandria, Virginia. Due to the vagaries of my business (gun for hire), I don't know exactly where I will be going next, and given that fact, this is the best place in the world to be.

I'm not interested in downtown Washington. I've already seen every tourist attraction. The suburbs are the "in" place for me, usually Virginia not far from Dulles or National airport. I rent a big full-size car and sleep in it. National airport is often a surprisingly cheap place to rent a car. This one, a spacious Impala, set me back $136/week, which is pretty cheap housing.

In D.C., I am blessed with the nation's best selection of transportation options. There are three airports: DCA, IAD and BWI, all accessible by public transit. Wherever I need to fly to, chances are one of those airports will offer a low fare.

D.C. is also a hub for Megabus, the new bus line the offering fares between major cities far less than Greyhound or Amtrak. I can get to New York or Philadelphia for $25 any day, which puts even more airports within my reach (PHL, EWR, JFK, LGA, RIC). Long haul routes are only about $45 to Boston, Toronto, Knoxville, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, and with connecting routes I can get as far as Florida, Minnesota or Texas. (See their system map.) Megabus can be cramped if every seat is booked, but one huge advantage is power sockets at every seat (more valuable to me than the wifi). Now, I can compute continuously from the moment I sit down.

Amtrak is an option if you can plan ahead, but their last-minute fares are way too high. If I wanted to go to New York today, I'd be paying $153 on Amtrak but still only $25-33 on Megabus. Megabus is really what made D.C. a hub for me. If I were a foreign backpacker touring the U.S., I would fly into whatever Eastern city had the best airfares than using Megabus to tour the East Coast. Cheaper than any sort of bus or rail pass.

The ambiance is nice in the D.C. suburbs. Here I have access to one of the two health club chains I belong to (Anytime Fitness), so showers and exercise are near at hand. Plenty of food options and other services. I can park almost anywhere to work or sleep; these suburbs are spacious enough that no one cares. I certainly have no concern for my safety in the Virginia suburbs. Demographics protect me from the rif-raff of the inner city.

Of course, there are plenty of Walmarts in Virginia for all my supply needs (clothing, camping supplies, etc.). These would be hard to come by in the dense suburbs of New York or Boston.

Only the summer sucks, when the humidity can be oppressive and sleeping in the car is a challenge. Cold is almost never a problem when sleeping in a car: You just close the windows and add more clothing and Walmart sleeping bags. Heat is the problem. To sleep in the car in the summer in Virginia, I would have to open all the windows for ventilation, and that means I have to be in a remote location with few mosquitoes. Good luck finding that! I would probably drive far out of D.C. in that case, perhaps to the shore where I can find some sea breeze.

D.C. also has hostels if I need them. (See the selection on Hostelworld.) If a rental car is prohibitively expensive or I need to catch an early morning bus, I may use a hostel for the night, generally for $25 to $40. Several are within walking distance of Union Station.

There is sightseeing here if I care to do it. While I have been to all the major D.C. attractions (my photos) there are always more obscure museums to explore. It seems that every organization wants to put some sort of museum or monument in Washington, and it would take years to visit them all.

Did I mention that it's our nation's capital? I may be jaded from overexposure, but Washington is a city that everyone should visit. Most of the government attractions are free. "Washington" looms so large in the news, that I think every human should have some direct experience with it.

But best to sleep in a rental car in the suburbs if you want an easy visit.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Travel Notes on Iceland

I am just coming to the end of a three-day visit to Iceland. (I am writing from my hostel in Reykjavik.) I feel very comfortable here and hope to come back someday. Here are my notes—things you might not figure out with Google alone. Also see my Facebook photos: Iceland and Reykjavik and here is a Google Map of my drive
  1. Iceland is very green. (Don't believe the "ice" part. It's Greenland that's the icy one.) It seems about equivalent in terrain and climate to the north of Scotland. Supposedly, winter temperatures are as mild as New York or Toronto, but it's probably much more gray and rainy. Bring an umbrella!

  2. Iceland is basically one giant volcano. 100% of the landscape is volcanic, primarily endless lava fields covered with moss.

  3. There is hardly a tree anywhere! I found this especially surprising, because even Siberia has trees. Apparently Iceland was once forested but got pillaged of trees by the Vikings. Most of the landscape is mosses, grasses and low shrubs. At least there's nothing to obscure your view!

  4. I was surprises by the lack of obvious history. There are museums but hardly any old buildings. Almost all the buildings in Iceland look new, as though the island was settled only in the past 50 years. It is hard to find any old buildings apart from a few stone foundations. The only "history" is what you read on information signs. Although the Vikings were here for centuries, they apparently built with wood and sod, which has rotted away. What's left looks like generic modern Scandinavia.

  5. Iceland is expensive, but once you take care of food and lodging, there's not much opportunity to spend money. This is a good place to use hostels and camp to avoid outrageous lodging charges.

  6. The only hostels are in Reykjavik. I was very happy with the Kex Hostel. For a short stay or for the first couple of days of a longer one, this is a pretty good base of operations, since the main tourist sites can be done in day trips from there.

  7. You really need a rental car to do Iceland justice. You can take tours to see the sights, but it is very confining and may not be much cheaper than having your own car and stopping where you wish.

  8. The one thing I would bring next time is a sleeping bag to allow me to sleep in the car. (Even a throw-away one.) Camping supplies are available here but don't come cheap.

  9. You have to work hard to meet an actual Icelander, and there's no obvious "culture" on the surface. You come here mainly for the natural scenery not the human environment.

  10. Assuming you can find one, it seems that nearly every Icelander along the tourist tracks speaks English. You'll have no trouble getting along without knowing a word of Icelandic.

  11. Icelandic towns are spotless, sanitary and bland. Hardly worth stopping in them.

  12. There is virtually nothing in Iceland to hurt you. No significant crime and nothing poisonous. (No snakes, lizards or even frogs.) The only danger is your own stupidity walking on rocks or too close to a cliff. Iceland won't protect you from that! Even at their national parks, you can walk right up to the edge of a waterfall if you choose.

  13. In Iceland, you'll soon suffer from Waterfall Fatigue. There are so many spectacular ones that after a while stopping at every one you pass seems like a burden.

  14. "Big City" Reykjavik is only a small city in global terms (140k in the city and 200k in the area). Not a lot to see. You can do it all in a day. Add another day if you want to do the museums.

  15. Two-thirds of Iceland's tiny population is concentrated around Reykjavik. They rest of Iceland is wild and woolly (literally). You'll meet only sheep and other tourists.

  16. Easiest and cheapest way to visit Iceland is to stopover on an Icelandair flight to Europe. Stopovers of up to 7 days at no additional charge!

  17. Gas seems to be the same fixed price everywhere in the country. In Sept. 2012, it was ISK 260 per liter. That's US$8.12 per gallon! A major part of your travel budget will be gas. (I drove a small automatic getting 7 km/liter. My total cost was about IKR 21000 (US$175) for 1250 km of driving.)

  18. Most gas stations are unmanned and automated. YOU MUST HAVE A PIN NUMBER for your credit card in order to use them! (Also, be sure to inform your card issuer of your overseas travel to avoid having your card disabled for unusual charges.)

  19. My three days in Iceland were quite satisfying. I stayed at the Kex Hostel in Reykjavik all three nights. On the first full day, I visited the most popular tourist sites in the "Golden Circle". On the second full day, I took a long day trip to the big Vatnajokull Glacier and the sights along the way. On the half days on either side, I explored Reykjavik itself. There is a lot of Iceland I haven't yet explored, but I feel I got the gist and that staying longer wouldn't give me much more to remember. If I had 7 days, I would have driven the full Ring Road. (Beyond 7 days, I probably would have gone mad in Iceland!)

  20. Kex Hostel: Close to downtown. Good kitchen facilities with lots of food left behind by past guests (pasta, condiments). Free lower linen. Use your own sleeping bag or rent top linen/duvet for ISK 1000 per stay. Free parking in front of the hostel overnight, but you have to pay between 10:00 and 16:00.

  21. There are steaming volcanic springs everywhere in Iceland, but I never found any natural hot pools where you can soak. There are, however, lots of commercial and municipal hot pools where you will pay money to swim. (Not my cup o' tea, since I would rather keep moving.)

  22. The most famous commercial hot spring is the Blue Lagoon, about 10 km off the main road to the airport. To actually use the swimming facilities costs €35, but it costs nothing to visit adjoining pools or look through the glass at the fools willing to shell out the money to swim. It's not really natural, having being created as a side-effect of the nearby geothermal plant, but it's quite interesting and worth the 20km diversion to see.

  23. There is a nice municipal pool complex in Reykjavik (near the City Hostel). It's only ISK 500 (under $5), but there's nothing natural about it except the water itself. (It's modern swimming complex like you might find in Canadian cities.) It looks like other big towns have similar developed hot pools.

  24. A full drive of the "Ring Road" around Iceland would take 4 full days ( I estimate, based on my tour of 1/4 of it) stopping at all the roadside sights along the way. I might do this someday. I would be camping or sleeping in the rental car.

  25. In Reykjavik, there is a tenting campground next to the City Hostel. Outside Reykjavik, it is easy to sleep in a car or find a discreet tenting spot after dark. (You need a tent mainly because of rain.) Many tourists rent small campers, but I don't see the need for them.

  26. Fast food is limited and expensive. KFC, Taco Bell and Dominoes are in the few big town. McDonalds, Burger King and all the others are nowhere to be seen.

  27. Grocery shopping is done at chain supermarkets. (You rarely see a "mom and pop" store, even in small towns.) Iceland seems to have been Walmartted by the Bonus grocery store chain, but don't expect low prices. Prices range from 100-300% of U.S. prices. All your basic foodstuffs are available, but not much variety.

  28. When driving, the usual European rules and signage applies. No left turn on a red light. Iceland stoplights do you the courtesy of showing red and yellow just before the green, but I don't understand why. Expect lots of roundabouts!

  29. The airport is a good place to change money, both coming and going. There's no commission, and the spread is reasonable. This is especially handy when you have excess cash you need to get rid of at the end of your trip. (You change dollars/euros into Kroners outside security, but you change money in the other direction inside security.)

  30. There are signs in the airport terminal saying you can't sleep there. The airport is in a lonely location 45km from the city. You'll have to either take a pricey bus or rent a car.