Buying Russian railroad tickets.
Primary website for buying rail tickets in Russia is Russian Railroads (RZD) website.This link gets you to the search form where you pick travel destination and dates. The website is Russian/English. You need to register on RZD website to buy tickets. Payment is by plastic card of almost any type. Their system gives you train options with tickets available on the date of search for a chosen destination. If tickets or specific type of ticket not available at a time of search, go not give up, as ticket availability is dynamic.
You will need photo ID to buy a ticket (normally passport). ID number, name and type will be requited for buying a ticket. Exactly the same ID will be required for boarding the train. If you do not have an ID you used to buy ticket, you will not be allowed onto the train.
Tickets go on sale 90 days before train departure (45 and 60 days for some trains). Prices are dynamic, reflecting popularity, demand and availability. This means buying in advance gives you more chances of cheaper tickets. All railroad tickets now are electronic (paper tickets are still available if you buy from a ticket office). If for whatever reason you need a paper ticket, you can print standard paper ticket from the ticketing machine on any major rail station in larger cities. When you buy a ticket on RZD website, they will email you e-ticket in PDF format. Russian railroad tickets are Russian/English.
You can buy one-way or return ticket and sometimes you get some discount on two-way ticket.
Alternatively to electronic tickets you can buy regular paper tickets from ticket offices on any of nine major rail stations in Moscow. Difference is that buying from ticket office you will have no options of choosing specific seat on a train. There will be lines. There are many resellers online and offline. When buying from a reseller you will pay commissions and availability of tickets might be limited. Also, not every reseller provides seat choice and other Russian Railroad services. All tickets are returnable, you get fraction of a price if returned on the day of travel. There was an idea of cheaper non-returnable tickets, but I am unsure if it is implemented yet.
Types of railroad tickets and service
When you get list of train options available, each train has different types of cars and services included in a ticket price. There will be indication of number of seats on each type available in each car. If you click on a specific car on the list, you will get car map with occupied and available seats (beds for sleepers).
By the level of service, there are two types of trains: “firmenniy” (branded) or “ne firmenniy” (regular). “Firmenniy” train consists tend to have newer cars, better maintenance and passenger service. “Firmenniy” trains always have a brand name, which is written next to the train number on the online ticketing RZD website. They are also pricier. Regular trains are not necessarily worth. They can have older or newer cars in consist and good service. It depends on a number of factors, and I believe the most important one is where the train originates. Each RZD division that builds and maintains train consists have their own specifics.
Regardless of branded or regular all rail Russian railroads cars come in four major types.
Type of seater car depends on destination and train that service the destination. Each seater has its own class system. Each seater train service is unique because they have train consists and car layouts built for specific rout and service. Each seater worth separate article. I will outline some of the most popular seater train services below.
Sapsan (on above picture), “branded” train that runs between Moscow and St.Petersburg has tickets of seven classes. Sapsan trains are built by Siemens and provide excellent travel quality and comfort that comes with very good passenger service. Each of seven classes of Sapsan provides different accommodation or services included.
Nevsky Express (below picture) en rout between Moscow and St.Petersburg has been in operation long before Sapsan. Nevsky Express consist is built by a Russian manufacturer and runs almost with the same speed as Sapsan. Nevsky Express cars have separate compartments for six passengers each. That is 3 seats in two rows facing each other. The compartments have glass doors, luggage shelves, small table, and TV sets. Nevsky Express has only one class of service, and it comes with food included in a ticket price. All passengers get lunch delivered to their seat.
Moscow — Nizhniy Novgorod route is serviced by Sapsan and Strizh. Photo below has 2nd class of Strizh train.
Strizh consist is a Talgo train, provides three classes of service. One class is seater and two classes are sleepers, completely different from regular RZD sleeper cars explained below.
Many destinations are services by Lastochka trains. Lastochka is built by Siemens and it’s a very comfortable simpler type of seater that provides accommodation similar to airline economy seats (wider seats and more room for legs though).
Other seaters are Russian built and provide airline type of seating arrangement, 3+3, 3+2, 1+2 or 2+2 seats in one row. Some seaters serve regional destinations like Tula or Kaluga and have only seaters in their consist. Some long distance trains have 1-2 seater cars in their consist to serve regional passenger traffic.
Seater train options have less availability compared to sleeper cars as they serve less destinations. Sleeper cars come in 4 classes, explained below. International train services may have completely different accommodation and class system. Also, there are few deluxe trains operating on some routs by private companies, not RZD, and their class system can be different. Bellow class system is found on 99% of Russian long distance trains.
All long distance sleeping cars have small compartments called kupe (купе). Kupe or compartments come in 4 types, explained below.
Modern cars that have fewer compartments for 1-2 passengers each with private toilet and shower. Available on a very few trains and they are very pricey.
Mostly seen on trains between Moscow and St.Petersburg and obviously targeted to business use or private use for passengers who can afford them. I understand this type of carriage comes with multitude of services included in ticket price. Suffice it to say, if you can afford this type of ticket — go for it. If you travel in DeLuxe type of carriage you can skip all below reading, because DeLuxe cars are different in every way from “mass” type of rail car accommodations.
1st class sleeper (Russian — “spalniy vagon” — “спальный вагон” or “СВ”).
Each first and second class car has small kupe, compartments with sliding door. In 1st class, each compartment has two lower bunk beds. 2nd class cars have four bunk beds — two upper, two lower, and this is the main and the only principal difference between 1st and 2nd class.
Each bed in kupe is sold separately on RZD website. This means if you travel alone, you will have company of a total stranger, of whoever buys second bed in the same kupe with you. You can buy both beds on separate tickets to your name and occupy the whole compartment, but this is pricey as you have to pay for two full tickets. This is an option though, and this is the only way to get maximum privacy and safety. If you are lucky and no one buys second bed, you will travel by yourself. You might get company of a passenger, getting on the train on some of the stops though.
Your kupe bed serves as a couch at daytime and for sleeping it turns into bed. In older cars the bed linen is provided separately and car attendant makes your bed on request before sleep. For trains departing late at night, kupe comes with bed already made, so when you board the train your bed is ready to sleep. In newer cars, the bed linen stored inside the back of the couch. The back of the couch collapses and turns into a bed, that’s been pre-made already. You do not need car attendant, just flip the back of the bed and your bed is ready. Bed linen include one or two pillows (depending on service), mattress (slim) blankets and cover.
Other kupe amenities include: mirror, foldable table, TV set (in some cars), individual reading light, storage space for luggage, hooks and hangers for clothes, electric outlets (only in newer cars!). Normally each passenger provided small cloth towel. There are individual smaller shelves for keeping small personal items for each bed. Windows have shades. There can be other service options and amenities, I will discuss them later in part three.
A bit more about 1st class cars. First class is not available in every train, and where it is available, it’s usually only one car, perhaps two on some trains. This means first class tickets will sell quicker, despite they are priced more than double compared to 2nd class.
Since 1st class cars have less passengers, it’s more quiet. 1st class passengers get more attention from attendants and better overall service. There will be less morning lines to the toilet in the 1st class carriage.
Although Russian Railroads are making big effort in rebuilding or replacing old soviet rail cars, a big bunch of older cars is still in operation. This means even if you buy a first class ticket, you might travel in an older car.
Each 1st class ticket comes with different options and additional services and we will discuss them later in part three. Again, the main difference between 1st and 2nd class is number of passengers in one compartment — kupe.
2nd class sleeper (Russian — “kupe”).
In Russian, second class is just called “kupe (купе)”. Technically it is the same type of accommodation as 1st class, with only one difference — kupe, or compartment, has 4 bunk beds. Two upper beds and two lower beds. Again, similar to 1st class, all 4 beds sold separately and when traveling alone you get company of three strangers. It is good to travel with family or company, you can buy all 4 beds and have maximum privacy.
Second class sleepers have the same bed system as first class. Bed linen is either stored in a collapsible back of a couch type seat or bed is provided separately. Train attendant will make bed for you upon request or you can make it yourself.
Second class has absolutely the same amenities as 1st class, including mirror, foldable table, TV set (in some cars), individual reading light, storage space for luggage, hooks and hangers for clothes, electric outlets (only in newer cars!). Normally each passenger provided small cloth towel. There are individual smaller shelves for keeping small personal items for each bed. Windows have shades.
Since 2nd class has upper beds, there is foldable ladder to help passengers get to their upper bed.
If you are traveling for more than one night, normally lower beds (turned into a couch with bed linen removed) and table by the window are shared with upper bed passengers during day time.
Tickets for upper beds are cheaper, but because of inconvenience to some passengers getting to/from upper bed, lower beds are sold much quicker. When you get list of available beds on RZD website, there will be clear indication which bed is upper which is lower. Upper beds has its individual reading light and smaller shelf for keeping personal items.
Most 2nd class kupes are mixed sex. On some trains, there are female only kupes. This is indicated on the list of available beds on RZD website when you search for tickets. Male passengers can’t buy ticket to a female kupe.
Each train consists would have 1-3 2nd class cars and they are less popular as they are pricier. This means on a busy destination 2nd class tickets are sold quicker.
Trick for making your overnight train travel more comfortable.
When choosing kupe, aim at those located in the middle of the car. Soundproofing is not that good in Russian rail cars. Kupe close to sides of the car get lots of noice from wheels, car coupling mechanism that makes loud banging noise, doors opening and closing all the time, people gettin on and off the train at stops, talking at the platform, toilet that makes loud noise when flushed. This applies to all four classes on sleeper cars.
3rd class sleeper (Russian — platskart).
Same thing as 2nd class, except that compartments have no doors. This is a communal type of sleeper, cheapest and for that reason most demanded. Compartments are open and you get company of 50+ passengers for the entire trip.
In addition to open compartments with four bunk beds, there are two bunk beds on the side of the corridor. Lower side bunk bed folds and turns into two seats and a table for the day time, so both passengers (from upper and lower beds) can sit during day time.
Beds in 3rd class are shorter compared to 1st and 2nd class. This means if you are tall, your feel will hang in the corridor when you’re sleeping. 3rd class has less luggage storage space and 3rd class passengers get less of additional services and amenities. There will be no TV, no mirror (except toilet), in most cases no extra amenities like toiletry kits. I understand 3rd class never comes with food included in a ticket price.
In this type of car you get no privacy at all. It is noisy, smells with body odors, bad breath of drunk people, food people eat.
Generally speaking 3rd class is not recommended, unless you are on a very tight budget or for whatever reason you wanna be around Russians, socializing with them. Socializing is an inevitable part of Russian rail travel and we will talk about this in further articles.
3rd class is convenient in absence of seater service on chosen destination, when you travel long distance during day time and do not need to sleep on a train. This gets you very cheap and comfortable seater. Picks lower side bed (боковое место or боковушка), it will be a wide chair during the day with table, at the window.
Good thing is that almost all third class sleepers were renewed in the past years, so chances of getting an old car is much less (almost none) compared to 1st and 2nd class. 3rd class has less luggage storage space and 3rd class passengers get less of additional services and amenities, that will be discussed on the next article.
Finalizing ticket purchase.
Choose travel dates, destination. Check available train options and car options. Select preferred seat or bed. Finalize purchase by entering each passenger data. Pay for the ticket using plastic card. Ones the ticket is purchased, you receive confirmation e-mail with e-ticket in PDF format. You can always access your tickets through RZD website logging into your account.
Rail tickets are returnable and you get full refund if you return them before the day of travel. For tickets purchased from RZD website, returns can be made from your account.