Most folks seem to think that buying tickets as you go on the Trans-Siberian railway is way too complicated for them. Well, we’re here to tell you it’s not. We traveled from Beijing to Moscow, but buying your tickets the other way around should be the same.

First of all, you need to get your visas in order. Being on a budget, we always made our way to the nearest embassy rather than paying the extra US$15-30 service fees from guesthouses.

For us, we decided to get our Chinese visa in Vientiane, Laos, and our Russian visa in Hong Kong, China. The Russian visa is by far the trickiest visa to obtain abroad. Russia officially states that you must be able to legally reside in a country for 90 days in order to obtain a visa from within that country. Thus, obtaining the Russian visa within your home country is the easiest option. But, you’ve got to name your dates of entry and departure and they need to be within 90 days of your application. Thus, for most travelers on the road getting a visa from their home country isn’t an option and wasn’t one for us.

Since we’re American, however, we obtained the required 90-day stay upon entering Hong Kong and thus could obtain our Russian visa in Hong Kong. Of course, this is not true for all nationalities so you’ll need to do your research. We also met non-American travelers that obtained their Russian visas from the consulates in Beijing and Shanghai (two cities which internet posters often report as impossible).

Once you figure out where you can acquire your visas, you need to fill out the actual application which is a process in of itself. For the Chinese visa, you need to work out an itinerary in advance. Of course, you don’t need to stick to that routing but it does need to make sense to the consulate officials. You’ll also need to know your first date of entry and departure along with what kind of visa you want. There are several different visa options available. I can’t remember them all, but we chose the double entry with 60 days for each entry and paid US$130 per person. Easy peasy.

For the Russian visa, you’ll need to go through a sponsoring agency. The agency requirement is a hold-over from the old regime and seems more like a minor hurdle than anything else. We used Real Russia for our visa support letter and voucher. Paying roughly US$25, we received our support documents via email within one day. For the visa support documents, you’ll need to know your date of entry and departure along with whether you want single or double entry.

With our visa support documents in hand, we headed off to the Russian consulate in Hong Kong. Most folks applying for a Russian visa have a straightforward application. Americans, however, get the pleasure of completing a five-page complexity-filled form. We needed to list all the countries visited in the past 10 years, past two employers (excluding the current one), university specifics, itinerary specifics, and charity organizations. Whoa, that’s a lot of stuff. Well, our forms had a few gaps but it didn’t seem to matter in the end. Handing over roughly US$60, we received our single-entry, 30-day visa five days later. For those in a time crunch, the Russian consulate also offers next-day service for double the price. That being said, we met some folks that obtained their next-day visas from the Beijing consulate for the same price we paid.

Train tickets
With your visas squared away, it’s time to concentrate on train tickets. We recommend checking out seat61 for great information on the Trans-Siberian railway. It looks like they recently updated all their information, which is a huge bonus to independent travelers.

Since we pre-booked our ger to ger trip in Mongolia, we decided to book our train tickets from Beijing to Ulan Bataar in advance as well. We emailed for our train ticket from Beijing to Ulan Bataar, and Mr. Chen Hong replied immediately. Instead of doing a wire transfer and paying extra fees, he allowed us to pay upon arrival in Beijing. For second-class tickets aboard train K23 from Beijing to Ulan Bataar, we paid US$200.

As a side note, we tried to buy tickets at the Beijing train station ourselves (hoping to save some money) but eventually gave up after hours of wandering and being told no trains go to Mongolia. Seriously, one train official walked us to the flight desk. Other folks we met were sent to the Beijing International Hotel (where you can also purchase tickets).

We arrived in Mongolia without onward train tickets as well. After spending several days in Mongolia working out further travel plans, we booked our train onto Irkutsk. With daily trains headed to Irkutsk, it didn’t seem necessary to book far in advance. You can easily purchase your onward tickets at the International Railway Ticketing office in Ulan Bataar but we decided to go through our guesthouse and paid the US$5 booking fee. We paid US$45 per person for a 4-berth, second-class cabin on the slow train from Ulan Bataar to Irkutsk.

While in Mongolia, we learned our travel plans through Russia coincided with a major Russian holiday. We heard most of the country hit the rails during this time, so we became nervous about our train bookings. Luckily, once we entered Russia we could book further travel at any of the Russian train stations. Thus, we booked our tickets from Irkutsk to Moscow at one of our stops along the line from Ulan Bataar to Irkutsk. It really couldn’t get simpler. Of course, we used our trusty Trans-Siberian book to scribble out our request in Cyrillic (the officials don’t speak English) but it was still a fairly simple transaction.

To give you an idea on the time leeway needed, we booked the train from Irkutsk to Moscow five days in advance and the first train we wanted (train 1) wasn’t available. But, with daily trains making the trip from Irkutsk to Moscow we changed our plans by 1 day and purchased tickets aboard train 9 for US$350 in kupe class (a 4-berth cabin). All in all, we paid US$595 total for all of our train tickets. If we chose to travel in third-class (platskartny), the total cost would be one-half to one-third less. If we’d booked our tickets in advance through an agency, we would have paid upwards of US$800.
Many agencies combine tickets and excursions as part of the travel deal. Going the do-it-yourself route saves an incredible amount of money. For our 30-day tour of Mongolia and Russia we spent US$400 per person on tours, lodging, and food (excluding train tickets). If you add in the train tickets, our grand total for a month along the Trans-Siberian railway equaled US$995 per person; an enormous savings compared to the agencies charging US$1800 for comparable travel.

3 Responses to “DIY travel aboard the Trans-Siberian railway”

  1. Peter says:

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  2. Grant says:

    Great info. I’m planning to do the same trip, and your post has been a huge help.

    Do you recommend any specific guidebook to take along on the trip?

    Also, what type of outlets does the train have to plug in a computer or electronics.

    Is it possible to get internet on the train (maybe wireless?)


  3. Jill says:

    Thanks for the detailed post. We’ve been doing some reading on this trip and it all sounds really intimidating.

    In retrospect, do you think it’s worth the hassle and the price? Is not speaking Russian/Chinese a big drawback?