Moscow and Saint Petersburg are about 700 kilometers, or 440 miles, apart. That’s the same distance as between Washington, DC and Boston, or between Barcelona and Monaco. Basically, if you’re in one town, the other one isn’t somewhere you just pop over for a day trip. That said, there are plenty of convenient and affordable travel options between Russia’s two largest and busiest cities.
The fastest way is to fly. There are around 15 direct flights per day, and for the price of $135 for a round-trip ticket you can get from Moscow to StP (or vice versa) in just over an hour. Of course that doesn’t include the trips to and from the airport, security checks, baggage claim, and so forth. Tack on a couple of hours at departure and an hour on arrival and you’re already at 4 and a half hours total travel time.
The alternative is to take a train. In both cities the rail stations are located smack in the center, making this a very convenient option for travelers. On any given day there are some 20 available trains shuttling between two cities, at all hours of day and night. The fastest of those is Sapsan (“Peregrine Falcon”), a super-modern high-speed train that began its service in 2009 and the trip on which takes 3 hours and 40 minutes. The longest travel option is a 9 hour overnight ride in either a seater- or sleeper-car, the latter of which is sectioned off into 4-bed compartments*.
When I traveled to Saint Pete’s – then Leningrad – as a kid, with one or both parents and sometimes my baby sister, we always got the compartment, or kupé. Even if it was just me, mom and the baby, we still bought out the whole 4-bed thing. It felt like a bona fide road trip, with snacks and games and adventures, and climbing the scary top shelf beds, and gazing at the villages and cows outside of our train room’s window.
But those were the carefree days of my childhood, when long family vacations didn’t put a premium on expediency. Today I want to travel fast, maximizing sightseeing time and minimizing the time I need to take off work. Thus, when I started researching options for my February trip, two factors were paramount – scheduling and speed.
The highly publicized Sapsan was at the top of my list, but even though the departures were frequent and the train was fast, I wasn’t too keen on paying $100 each way. Just when I thought I wouldn’t have other options – if I was going to travel on the cheap, at best I would spend 7 hours in a seater car – I spotted an outlier: Nevsky Express, just 30 minutes longer travel time at 40% the price of a Sapsan ticket, and getting me to downtown Piter at just the right time. It was a no-brainer.
Nevsky Express turned out to be a gem. The train turned out to be sectioned off into room-like compartments just like the sleeper trains, but with 6 seats instead of 4 bunk beds in each. The price of a ticket included complementary snacks, bottled water and a sandwich, plus that day’s newspapers. Compartments were bright, clean, with 2 TV screens and 2 power outlets each, plus ample room for luggage. I shared my compartment with a middle-aged professor tucked into his book; a leather pants-clad media exec and a very serious, very reticent businessman (both of them tucked into their own iPhones, iPads and MacBooks); and two very chatty train guards, one of whom was reciting the romantic poetry he writes for his wife, while the other one was making fun of him. And the attendant for our car was the sweetest lady!
There’s only one problem with the Express: it makes one trip a day, on weekdays only.
That meant that I got to ride the famed Sapsan on my return trip to Moscow. It was nice. Sapsan is very similar to the US Northeast Corridor Amtrak Acela rail service, but faster. All announcements are duplicated in Russian and English. There are TV screens hanging above the aisles like in an airplane. You can book a taxi or a hotel in either Moscow or Saint Petersburg through a complimentary concierge service. It is all clean and fast and efficient, and I have read that it is the only profitable Russian Railways service at the moment, because of high occupancy rates.
But the cozy Nevsky Express still has my heart.
For train schedules and tickets: Russian Railroads http://eng.rzd.ru/
For air shuttle: Aeroflot Russian Airlines http://www.aeroflot.ru/cms/en/special_offers/shuttle
*There are also sleeper cars that are not divided into compartments, called platzkart. It’s a whole train car of bunk beds, and I believe it’s the cheapest long-distance travel option in Russia. I cannot write about those not just because I have never traveled by such means, but because upon being told about platzkart, I couldn’t even believe this kind of thing existed in a civilized country in 2014.
Many trains also offer First Class and VIP options, which might mean a complimentary dinner and cocktails on a Sapsan, or a spacious suite in a sleeper car.