Monday, February 21, 2011

Arranging Travel to Russia

On Friday afternoon, right before the three-day President's Day Weekend began, I received a phone call inviting me to travel to Moscow in the Russian Federation. In the days that followed, I learned that arranging traveling to Russia is neither simple nor straightforward.

The proposed trip was only about three weeks away, so arrangements had to be made quickly. Official sources of information such as the Russian Consulate would be closed for the long weekend, so my initial research would be on the Internet.

One of the first things I did was look into flight schedules. That part was straightforward with major Western carriers including Delta (in partnership with KLM), Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways, and others offering plenty of options.

However (and I would encounter a number of "howevers" in my research), travelers to Russia must obtain a visa before departing the U.S. and the requirements for obtaining that visa is where things got a bit fuzzy.

Here's what I found.

Based on my Internet research, there are a number of moving parts involved in obtaining a visa. And, as one of my prospective fellow travelers put it, "Everyone I talk to tells me something different."

First, I visited RussianVisa.Org. It features a handy flow chart that appealed to my linear thinking, but which also revealed the first bit of conflicting/confusing information I would encounter. The box that applied to me said, "You are planning only one short visit (up to 14 days)" with an arrow leading to "You need a tourist visa!"

In fact, I was looking at a stay of about 16 days so I was immediately concerned. However (#2), clicking on the words "a tourist visa" took me to another site: VisitToRussia.com. There, I was advised that a "single-entry tourist visa" was valid "up to 30 days." Hmmm... Which was correct: up to 14 days, or up to 30 days?

Another frustrating facet of Internet research is that very few sites put dates on their material so a web surfer has no way of knowing how old the information might be. Especially in a place like Russia, where rules change frequently, that can be problematic.

The VisitToRussia site referred to a change made on April 13, 2009, so I concluded the information could be reasonably current. However (#3), the Russian visa requirements page had two dates that added to my confusion. One said simply, "As of June 15" (without a year); the other referred to an effective date of "April 15, 1999." I continued to wonder exactly how current and accurate this information was.

My next stop -- which perhaps should have been my first -- was the web page of the Russian Consulate in Seattle. This page's listing of visa requirements was only slightly different that those on VisitToRussia but, while VisitToRussia said only one signed passport photo would be required, the Consulate site required two photos. Since passport photos are provided in pairs, this was only a minor disconnect.

The Consulate's instructions included a link to a Russian visa application form (two completed copies required), and included a reference to a required "Confirmation of hotel arrangements from authorized Russian travel company, or directly from the Russian hotel, showing reference number and confirmation number for the visa." Other sites referred to "invitation and voucher," implying two separate documents would be required.

Next, I downloaded the Russian visa application form and, while filling it out, found reference to yet another required item: Medical coverage valid in Russia. That entry had two options: Official medical protection plan purchased, or Other policy attached for approval.

Two questions came immediately to mind: How much is an Official medical protection plan and where do I obtain it, and If I choose to submit my own medical policy "for approval," how long will that take?

Then, I turned my attention to the authorization from the authorized Russian travel company, or directly from the Russian hotel. A Google search for "authorized Russian travel companies in Seattle" was less than productive, so I went to the website of the hotel I was considering: The Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya.

The hotel's web page offers "Complementary (sic) VISA service" and provides the option of downloading the Visa Support Request Form. The completed form can then be faxed or e-mailed back to the hotel, which will then presumably send back the necessary Visa Support Documents. However (#4), the only option listed for getting the documents back to the guest was "by fax", which I don't have. I e-mailed the hotel on Saturday evening (Russian time) requesting more information about how to proceed; it's now Monday evening (Russian time) and I am still waiting for a response.

Planning travel to Russia on such (relatively) short notice also requires a step of faith because one must have transportation and lodging arranged before submitting the visa form because specific dates for arrival, departure, and lodging are required. That means spending money on air travel and for processing of the necessary paperwork including the Visa Support Request Form (about US$120), well before one has everything they need to apply for a Russian visa. A portion of that risk can be hedged by buying travel insurance, but read the fine print carefully to be sure you'll be covered if you simply can't get a visa in time.

Adding additional complication, one web site referred to a "five-day waiting period;" a traveler must have his or her visa at least five days before they're allowed entry to Russia. So add up the time to get the documents from the hotel or travel agency, to process the paperwork at the consulate, and add in the waiting period.

After obtaining the visa (hopefully with more than five days remaining before your travel), there are the Requirements For Foreign Citizens To Enter Russia (from VisitToRussia.com)

Tourist Travel to Russia
1. Passport must be valid 6 months beyond intended stay
2. Tickets and Documents for return or onward travel
3. Russian Visa is Required
4. Vaccination - None Required

While VisitToRussia does not mention it, another site referred to "prescription medications" and the requirement that travelers have the actual prescriptions for the medications they plan to bring into Russia. This means contacting my doctor's office and, in my case, getting copies of four prescriptions, likely at some cost for the office's efforts.

Yet another site mentioned that travelers will need to declare any amount of currency in excess of US$500 they bring in to Russia (currently about RUB15,000).

On Tuesday, after the three-day weekend, I plan go to the Russian Consulate and hopefully get answers to many of my unanswered questions. More to follow.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



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