Trans-Siberian Rail on a budget

By: Ron Carlson
This item appears on page 24 of the August 2018 issue.

The feature article “Crossing Russia in Luxury on the Trans-Siberian Railway” (May ’18, pg. 40) surely had readers dreaming about such a great trip. However, the tour’s price tag — $20,595 per person (not including air) — must have discouraged many.

Well, dream on! A similar trip can be had for a small fraction of that, requiring only that you give up the luxury (bane of budget travelers) and do a little planning, which is half the fun. My wife, Joy, and I did such a trip in September 2014 and, like the author of the “luxury” article, rank it high on our list of wonderful travels.

Our trip was opportunistic and a bit of a stunt. We were attracted by seasonally low one-way airfares: Minneapolis to or from either Beijing or Moscow for about $600. (Similar fares were available as of April 25, 2018.)

Linking the two cities with the Trans-Siberian Railway for $1,500 (the current average first-class price) gave us an affordable and unique ’round-the-world trip in 13 days of beautiful fall weather. We had time for a little sightseeing in both cities plus several days to enjoy Irkutsk (aka the “Paris of Siberia”).

We created our own rail itinerary, chose good hotels that suited our creature and logistical needs, booked a rental car in Irkutsk and improvised the finer details. Our sleeping arrangements on the train included upper and lower bunks that converted into a settee — quite comfortable.

While the published dining car menu was long and impressive, almost all of the listings were routinely unavailable. The Russian and Mongolian trains each offered a free meal, but (as Fodor’s commented in an article about Yangtze River passenger ferries) it was “execrable.” About the only things that were available and good were borscht and beer.

Having been forewarned about this by another guidebook, we took some provisions from home: vacuum-packed chicken and tuna, Finn Crisp crackers (our travel staple), peanut butter, ramen noodles, a box of wine, nuts, Oreos, etc. We supplemented that with some packaged food (soup, cheese, juice). Fresh fruit was available in the stations.

We ate quite well and enjoyed every bite of it, missing only the experience of Russian cuisine. Other travelers relied solely on station supplies and didn’t do anywhere near as well. Dining car patrons often complained.

The key to success, as advised by The Man in Seat Sixty-One (www.seat61.com), that one-stop source of global rail travel information, was to book our rail tickets through UK-based Real Russia (Loughborough, Leicestershire, England; phone +44 207 100 7370, realrussia.co.uk). For a reasonable commission, Real Russia eliminated the uncertainties and delivered tickets to our door via FedEx.

Upon advice from Real Russia, we chose the best regularly scheduled Russian train, Rossiya. It was very good, strictly managed and impeccably clean (except the windows). (A Dutch couple brought a long-handled scrubber to clean the windows from the station platform, but, as much as we tried, we could not strip the decades of grime baked on by the Siberian sun. Isn’t travel fun?)

While the Mongolian train was a bit scruffy and worn around the edges, it, too, was clean, comfortable and well managed. We shared a bathroom and shower with just one other cabin.

Real Russia assigned Yuri to buy our tickets and provide valuable advice on many details. The company offered to obtain visas and book hotels, but we chose our usual DIY approach and booked directly with each hotel in advance.

Scheduling short stopovers in cities along the way was problematic because of inconvenient train schedules, so we chose to stay a few days in just one city, Irkutsk, which proved to be a very good selection.

Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia was workable, but we had traveled there a few years prior so skipped it on this trip. (In fact, our interest in the Trans-Sib was inspired by chatting up passengers arriving in Ulaanbaatar.)

We felt Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk held little promise. We have visited a few large, remote Russian cities in the past and found them featureless and disappointing, but don’t take our word for that.

Our total trip cost, minus air, was about $2,200 per person, slightly more than a tenth of the $20,595 luxury-trip cost. Spend less; travel more.

I’ll supply full details and travel tips to anyone who wants to go; email carlsons@q.com.

RON CARLSON

Lakeland, MN