I just arrived back in the beautiful WSA (Walmart States of America) from a two-week trip to Iceland and the Baltic (photos), and I'm already plotting imaginary overseas journeys again. It's a big world out there, but I often find myself returning to familiar territory to push the limits a little more.
I now have broad experience with Eastern Europe—the former Soviet Bloc—and I find it a wonderful place to travel. I find it generally modern, safe and, most importantly, cheap. In general, you can travel in "new" Eastern Europe for roughly half the cost of "old" Western Europe. A €30/night hostel bed in Paris or Rome would be more like €15/night in most of the East. Most countries require no prearranged visa and many are parties to the Schengen Agreement, where you can waltz in from any other Schengen country with no border checks at all. English is widely spoken, at least along the tourist trails, so you don't need to know even a word of the local language. (Knowing the difference between the men's and women's rooms is a plus, though.)
Another thing I like about Eastern Europe is its relative freedom. There seem to be fewer rules than in the West and apparently far fewer personal injury lawyers. You can go places in, say, a castle that would be blocked off for "safety" reasons in the U.S. It almost seems like the Wild West of Europe. You are responsible for your own safety, and no one is going to tell you what to do. It's hard to describe, but I find this refreshing. I also love the general optimism here. All the border wars have been resolved (or at least stabilized) and people are still relishing their 20-year-old freedom.
Yet Eastern Europe is becoming routine to me. A touch of ennui perhaps. I've been to about 16 former Communist countries and I understand how they work. I have yet to visit Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldova or Belarus, I'm not expecting any big surprises. There is only one former Soviet country that remains intimidating to me: the motherland itself—Russia.
Until now, I haven't even considered visiting Russia because of (a) the presumed high expense of going there, and (b) the labyrinthine hoops you supposedly have to jump through to get a visa. On my Baltic trip, though, I was within an hour's drive of Russia and starting thinking about it. In Lithuania, Russia was both to the East AND West of me. (Look at a map and you'll see.) In Vilnius, I could have caught a fast train to Moscow. (See photo.) The main thing that prevented me was the visa issue.
I ran into a Canadian backpacker in Riga, just back from Moscow, who had successfully navigated the visa maze and had a wonderful time. I peppered him with questions, and his answers made me think I could do it too. I asked about safety in Moscow, whether I would feel comfortable with an expensive-looking camera around my neck, and he said that city was so thick with police that it's no more a concern than elsewhere. The main spiritual message I received from him on the visa was that it's doable.
On paper, it looks like nothing has changed since the Communist era. To get a tourist visa for Russia, you need a "sponsor", someone who will officially "invite" you to the country, register you once you get there and take a certain amount of legal responsibility for you. If you get in trouble in Russia, the sponsor is supposed to intercede on your behalf. A sponsor might be a tour company or a hotel you are staying at. How do I go about finding a sponsor without breaking my miniscule budget, which usually affords me neither a hotel or a tour?
It turns out that while the regulations are still Communist, Capitalism has greatly streamlined the process. How do you find a sponsor? You do it the American way: You pay for one! And competition makes the price quite reasonable.
I'm still researching this, but here is what I have found so far, starting with the practical matter of airfare and lodging. Everything here is theoretical so far, untested by reality, so don't trust that I know what I am talking about. (If you happen to know more about these subjects than I do, please tell me.) Much of what appears below is just "thinking out loud" as I try to figure out this process on my own. Also note that this information applies to U.S. citizens and may not apply to your nationality.
- A check of airfares on Expedia, finds that a round-trip flight from New York to Moscow in November would run about $600. That's about $100 LESS then the lowest roundtrip from New York to London. (I kid you not. Check it out for yourself.) You can get a nonstop flight for about the same price or even an "open jaw", flying into Moscow and out of St. Petersburg. (Tack on another $100 for a connecting flight between the two.)
- November or December would be very "atmospheric" for Moscow (don't you think?) but hopefully not as harsh as January or February. International flights include free checked luggage, so I could obtain secondhand winter clothing before the trip, haul it there and abandon it. I'm also counting on Global Warming to take the bite out of winter, as it seems to be doing everywhere else on the planet.
- Lodging is easy. HostelWorld lists dozens of hostels (See map above.) at prices ranging from $15 to $30 for a dorm bunk.
- My target budget is $50 a day on the ground. That's $50 for everything — lodging, food, admission to tourist sites and public transportation. You'd be hard-pressed to vacation in the U.S. for that, but judging from the hostel bed rates, Russia has similar overall prices as Eastern Europe.
- So how do you get a sponsor? Your first hostel can do it! It's not in imposition at all, because they're going to charge you for the service: about $35. That's mostly profit for them, so why not?
- I checked out the website for Moscow's largest hostel, Godzilla's. In addition to giving you lodging as low as $16 in the off-season, they will help you with two steps in the visa process: getting you sponsorship voucher and registering your presence with the government once you arrive (about $40).
- To prove you have a sponsor, you need a printed voucher which you will submit to the Russian Consulate with your visa application. As best I can determine, the voucher looks like this (click to expand)...
- BTW: Do not be intimidated by the Cyrillic alphabet. Its letters correspond roughly to letters or sounds in the Roman alphabet. For example: "telephone" in English is "телефон" in Russian. Spend an hour learning the letters and you'll at least know the sounds of words. I learned in Greece that you can pick up a fair amount of information just by knowing the sound of a word, since a lot of modern technology words like "telephone" are nearly universal across all languages.
- A link from the Godzilla's website leads you to what appears to be a 3rd party site that fulfills the tourist voucher. You just fill in the online form, type in your credit card information for the $34.99, and they email you back a printable copy of your voucher within 24 hours.
- I just love that price "$34.99" not $35. How Capitalist can you get? I assume that Godzilla's is still your sponsor, even though the third party is supplying the voucher.
- Godzilla's doesn't seem to particularly care whether you actually stay with them or not. I suspect that you probably have to stay with your sponsor for at least a short time so they can register you with the authorities (a future step, below). According to the Canadian, once you are in the country, you're pretty much free to stay wherever you want, but I would probably stick with one the one hostel while in Moscow.
- Now that your have the "invitation" from your sponsor, you can apply for the visa. Here is the official visa information from the Russian consulate, in clunky Russian English of course. Based on information I saw on non-official sites, I was expecting to pay $50 for a 30-day tourist visa. Now it seems that, effective this month, they want you to pay $180 for a 3-year multiple-entry visa. No point in crying about it, because I believe the U.S. government charges even more in the other direction. This visa costs more, but I it also includes the freedom to return again and again (up to 90 days each time). I understand Russia is a rather large country, so this feature might indeed be useful.
- They also seem to want you to use a third-party agency, Invisa Logistic Services, to process the application. This adds another $30 to the fee. That's $180 plus $30 processing fee plus the $35 voucher plus $40 to register once you arrive = $285.
- But wait, there's more! After consulting Invisa's clunky website and their price list, I find that if you want to apply for a visa by MAIL, they'll sock you for another $65. That's $30 mail processing fee plus $35 certified mail fee. (Certified mail costs something like $3 at the post office. Makes you wonder who is profiting from the Invisa monopoly.). Submitting the application in person apparently means visiting an Invisa office in one of five U.S. cities,giving them the application, money for both them and the Ruskies (cash appears to okay for the whole amount, but I wouldn't sweat by it) and your passport. Then you have to presumably come back to the same office in two weeks when your passport and visa are ready. Otherwise, if you do it by mail, you're now shelling out $35 to the sponsor for the voucher, $275 to Invisa and $40 more to the sponsor to register you after you land. Total: $350. That $600 airfare now looks like closer to $1000 to just get you into Russia your first time. (After that, it is probably $40 for each trip, just to have your sponsor register you once you arrive.)
- You can save the $65 by applying for the visa at one of Invisa's five US offices: New York, Washington, Houston, Seattle or San Francisco. You are expected make an appointment for the time you want to appear. One possible advantage of submitting the application in person, apart from the $65 saved, is they should tell you right away if something essential is missing. Based on my past experience with other countries, they'll tell you the date when you need to come back for your passport and visa, and you shouldn't need an appointment for that (right?).
- There also seem to be visa agencies willing to submit the forms for you (plenty are offering this service online, and two are listed on the Russian Embassy's page), but I am skeptical. You might save $65, but the agency itself must have some kind of fee, and you are adding one more layer of bureaucracy to the process.
- Invisa provides a clunky but functional online system for generating the paper form that you will submit to them. You have to "register" online to use the form, but it appears that your registration isn't used for anything but generating the form. (You can try it right now if you want, pretending you're applying for a visa.) Apparently, they only care about the paper at the other end, which I assume is a PDF that you will print out.
- On the visa application form (and the voucher request), you are supposed to specify all the cities you want to visit in Russia and all the lodging establishments you will be staying at, but how can you realistically do this for a 3-year, multiple entry visa? Beats me! I guess you just fill it out for your first visit then maybe add a few major cities you could conceivably visit in the future. This is where bureaucracy runs into pragmatism. If your visa says Moscow and you are found in Vladivostok, will you get in trouble? In the Communist era, you would, but who knows how things work in the current environment. I suspect that once you are inside Russia, you can go wherever you want, like the Canadian says, but you can't really know until you visit the first time and gather intelligence.
- You're also supposed to write a letter with your itinerary, which again makes little sense with a multiple-entry visa. I guess you just do it to reflect your first intended trip.
- According to the Embassy's webpage, they "may request" a bank account statement, proof of your employment, proof of property, etc., but I seriously doubt they ever do this for American citizens. (Not a lot of us are racing to Russia for the employment opportunities.) I'm also not seeing any direct request for proof of an air ticket, so it seems that you don't need to buy it until you actually have the visa in hand. That's good. It means you can apply for a visa with no real risk except the $245+ you're shelling out immediately. If Russia doesn't want you or throws too many obstacles in your path, you just walk away. If the visa is granted, you can use it any time in the next three years.
- BTW: Here is the US State Department's info on visiting Russia. Useful, but doesn't mention the new multiple-entry tourist visa (even though it is supposed to be by agreement with the USA).
- After you arrive, your sponsor is supposed to "register" you with the authorities. They only thing I really know about this process is that it costs more money (about $40 at Godzilla's).
- Whew! It's generally an absurd process, but doable. Based on the information I have so far, I would be inclined to apply in person at Invisa in Washington (since I often pass through there). I would do the process in two steps: first get the visa based on a theoretical trip, then make concrete plans at my convenience only after the visa arrives. Maybe I go this winter or summer two years from now. Shouldn't matter if I have a multiple entry visa.
What have I missed. Feel free to do your own research and tell me.