SAPSAN vs NEVSKY EXPRESS and other Moscow-Piter travel options

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*.

Image credit: Tour Blogger.

Image credit: Tour Blogger.

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.

High-speed Sapsan train.

High-speed Sapsan train.

Sapsan on the inside. Welcome to the Amtrak of Russia.

Sapsan on the inside. Welcome to the Amtrak of Russia.

For train schedules and tickets: Russian Railroads 

For air shuttle: Aeroflot Russian Airlines 

*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.

31 thoughts on “SAPSAN vs NEVSKY EXPRESS and other Moscow-Piter travel options

    • It IS really fun, and there are some fancy trains that really maximize that experience. I would absolutely do it if, say, I was doing a cross-country scenic journey, through Southern Siberia, or the Rockies, or alone the Mediterranean coast.

  1. Trains are awesome and a sleeper even better. There’s something so exciting about putting your jim-jams on and going to bed as normal…but you’re on a moving train!

  2. I did the sleeper train when I went to Piter and we got lucky enough to get a free kupe to ourselves which was really nice. I would like to try the express trains, for sure, but I did love the drunken 12 hours on the tradition train!

    • If I went somewhere far, like Karelia, where even a high-speed rail would still take a while, I would totally get a kupe and get my ass drunk. In good company of course.

  3. A 60% saving for an extra 30 minutes travel time sounds like a great deal to me.

    This brings back memories of when I spent a month on trains travelling around Europe. The only downside was when we spent the night in one of those sleeper compartments. We locked the door for the night and had a good sleep. The next morning I found out that my travellers cheques had been stolen. The only person who had a key to open our door was the train guard. When I approached her to report the robbery she just didn’t want to know. I wonder why?

    • Whoa that is crazy! I dont think this happened to anyone I know in Russia, but then again we’re careful not to have these kinds of valuables while traveling. I generally try to go cash-free and keep my iPhone close to my chest. Russian paranoia is a useful thing when traveling anywhere!

  4. Купе is “first class” in Mongolia; хагас купе, literally “half kupe,” sounds like what you called platzkart. That’s how the Peace Corps Volunteers and I usually traveled. The lower bunk lifts up and then you put your stuff underneath it – so if you’ve got a lower bunk, your stuff’s safe. The cars can be loud, though, and they flip on the lights when they reach the major cities in the middle (at 2 am). Makes it a little hard to sleep!

    • Wow you are hardcore. Even the concept scares me speechless. Then again, I am a coddled little flower. Just a few weeks ago, my friend/coworker – London born & bred, Oxford educated, so you, know, not from a ‘rough’ upbringing – took a platzkart train with a few buddies to go skiing in Karelia for a long weekend. She said it was ‘fun.’ Crazy people…

      • Well, like I said, I was traveling with PCVs, and they had to get by on something like 350,000 tugruks per month, not counting rent (~$200-250, depending on the extremely fluid exchange rate). When you’re that poor, the difference 20k and 12.5k tugs for a one-way trip is huge!

  5. Anna, I love this post. You know how many times I’ve been nagging you about whether to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg and how could I get between the two cities ‘cos knowing me, I’d probably attempt to see both places in 4 days or something! Brilliant! Brilliant! I have to say that seeing the inside of the train has made me sigh with relief ‘cos my image of Russian trains is filled with sacks of potatoes and old women with goats!

    I’m going to Poland in a few weeks and even though I’ve been to Poland loads of times by train, the image of huge bags and sacks, still sticks. Having said that though once you get off the German border train and sprint to the it’s-going-to-leave-in-7-minutes-but-it-doesn’t-train, what you actually get is huge bags crammed and stuffed into every corner. And sacks!

    • LOL, no, no sacks. Not sure you’re even allowed to have those on these trains. Suburban rail taking people to and from their dachas and villages? Sure. But not inter-city stuff like that. It’s all VERY civilized. You can get your cocktails, hook up to the wifi and watch digital TV.

      • Did I hear cocktails? Now, that’s more like it. And wifi and Russian TV. Yeah!
        When I went to Vietnam, I watched a bit of Russian TV. In English. At the time they were all very upset about this Russian mafia film that had been set in London. It was called “Eastern Promises” and the main role was played by Viggo Mortensen. I really liked it myself but you can’t please some people LOL! 🙂

  6. This is article is just what I was looking for, thank you very much. Two questions though:

    1- Can I carry my suitcase on both of these?
    2- Do they both start and end at the same stations?

    • Hi, thanks for writing! Yes, you can take a full-side suitcase aboard on both. With Sapsan, the bigger luggage items are stacked toward the beginning of the car, and smaller can be stowed under the seat or on the overhead rack; Nevsky has more space inside the cabins so your big stuff can travel with you, but if you have a lot of big stuff, it too can be kept in the storage space near the car entry point. Also, if you’re taking more than one piece of luggage, you might have to pay extra.

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