25 Nov Navigating Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport
Russia has come a long way since the Communist government evolved into a more Democratic, and I use that word loosely, style government. In many ways, Russian citizens are living their lives much as Americans do, and with most of the modern conveniences that Americans have. Many of the controls that previously existed to block travel and limit freedom of its residents are no longer in place or are lightly enforced. This slight loosening of the reigns has, as it always does, opened the door for foreigners to travel more freely and thus the wave of tourists are arriving in Russia with more and more regularity. Russian capitalists are catering to tourists as a significant source of revenue for this developing economy. This is great for tourists and for those who have always been curious about what is behind the Iron Curtain and want to a peek. As for myself, being one of those who seek more a more adventurous style of travel, I am thankful for the opportunity I have had to travel to and spend a significant amount of time in Russia.
The opening of new worlds such as this does not come without problems though, and unfortunately, if you are going to travel in Russia you should be prepared to encounter at least some of them. This is not saying that travel in Russia is more difficult because overall it is not. In comparison, it is not much more difficult to travel in Russia than in any other modern country, but when problems do happen, they are usually difficult to overcome in Russia and this is why advance planning and preparation helps out tremendously. When in America, a quick cell phone call can solve most problems, but in Russia, where most American cell phones do not work, one can quickly become paralyzed by the inability to solve problems quickly, especially if that person is not very experienced with foreign travel. This is sometimes the first realization that Americans have about how convenient things actually are in America. Russia is a big country, and it seems that when problems occur, they occur in an equally big way.
First and foremost, don’t let anything I say in this article scare you away from visiting Russia. It is true that Russia is not the Garden of Eden, but it is a wonderful place to experience, especially if you are willing to get away from the tourist traps of the major cities. As a matter of fact, most of my travel in Russia has been in the Eastern half of the country in the territory known as Siberia and I am glad for that fact. That alone has allowed me to develop an attraction to this country in a way that most tourists never will. It is a different world in Siberia. The government controls of Moscow seem very distant, and it seems you are in a sedate world where people just go about the business of day to day living. This is also where I live on a temporary basis, and that just adds to the experience, but that is for another article. In Russia, other than the cab drivers and those seeking to sell something to tourists, most of the people you will meet will be very friendly. The problem is you probably won’t meet most Russians as they are not into socializing with foreigners or any strangers for that matter. In my experience, I have found that Russians are difficult to meet, but once the introduction has been made, they usually turn out to be a very friendly and accommodating people.
If your travel plans for Russia include flying into Moscow from any international location, chances are you will fly into Sheremetyevo Airport and that is what this article is about. It is not difficult to make your way through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, but it does require some advance information and knowledge or you will end up with one of those problems that I mentioned above and chances are you will be lost and will get ripped off very badly trying to solve the situation. The Russians that work in the airport deal with the same stresses that anyone who works in airports have to deal with, and more often than not, when you need assistance, it will be on one of those days when they would rather not be there, and they are more than happy to shuffle you off to someone else for a solution to your problem. Usually this someone else is the one who is waiting to help you and to take you for as much money as they can get at the same time. They will solve your problem, but it will cost you dearly. Some advance knowledge will enable you to avoid this situation all together.
The first advice I will give you about traveling to Russia is to purchase at least some Rubles (their currency) before you arrive in the country. It is true that you may not get as good of an exchange rate, so don’t use your entire budget at this point, but do purchase at least a hundred dollars worth or so. Once you arrive, you will need Rubles before you encounter a place to exchange cash. Also, if you fly in on Aeroflot, the Russian National Airline, you will get more for your money on the plane if you use Rubles. I noticed that the flight attendants conversion to US dollars was very loosely calculated. Basically, bringing Rubles with you will make life much simpler and your first experiences in Russia will be positive as opposed to stressful and difficult.
I was surprised the first time I flew into Sheremetyevo Airport at the fact that it is not a large airport in terms of the size of the terminals. With Moscow being the capital of Russia, I expected that Sheremetyevo would be a large airport but to the eyes alone, this is not the case. The one thing you need to know in advance though is that the airport consists of two separate terminals and they are not located close together. As a matter of fact, they are probably a mile or more apart. The International Terminal is Severementyo Terminal 2. The Domestic Terminal is Terminal 1. First we are going to focus on the International Terminal, Terminal 2. When arriving here from an international location, upon exiting the aircraft, you should just follow your fellow passengers as you enter the terminal and your path will wind along a hallway lined with glass for what seems like the entire circumference of the building. I remember thinking my first time through this corridor that I felt like I was being put on display to everyone else in the terminal on the other side of the glass wall waiting for flights out.
At the end of that corridor, you will come to a set of stairs that lead downstairs to the Customs and Immigration check point. Again, just follow your fellow passengers and ahead of you will be a line of booths similar to a toll booth back in America. There will be several lines that form, but most are for the same thing, and that is just passing through. Once you step up to the booth, you will need to show your passport, visa, and an immigration form that is handed out on the airline before you arrive. That is all that is needed at the customs check point, but be sure to fill the immigration card out on the airplane as there will be no time to do it once you enter the terminal. They will check your documents and scan your passport into their computer and then stamp your passport and Immigration Card. They call it a Migration Card. The whole process takes only a couple of minutes and there should be no problem. Once you pass through the check point, you will need to proceed to the baggage claim area which is located just ahead of you. You will see the conveyor belts.
At Sheremetyevo Airport, if you are arriving on an international flight as we have been discussing, and transferring to a Domestic flight for other destinations, you will need to collect your baggage and transport it yourself to Terminal 1, the Domestic Terminal There are signs posted that say that if you have a layover of less than 4 hours, then your luggage will be transferred for you, but my layovers have always been longer so I have no experience with this. I have always had to collect my luggage, carry it with me and re-check it at Terminal 1. I have no experience with a less than 4 hour layover, but I would be hesitant to leave the Terminal and my luggage without knowing for sure it is being transferred. If time is available, I would hang around and see if it appears on the conveyor belt anyway. Besides, this is your best opportunity to meet fellow Americans as everyone is there waiting and you can always hear an English conversation.
As soon as you collect your luggage, directly behind you is a corridor labeled “TRANSIT” and this is where you will exit. It is not difficult to find since all you have to do is follow the crowd. As you leave the baggage claim area, there are officials standing there around the “TRANSIT” sign to theoretically check you baggage tickets, but I have never been checked at Sheremetyevo. I have seen them check others though, so I think they must do it randomly. I just try to act like I know what I am doing, not make eye contact, and keep on moving. It is not a problem for them to check baggage tickets, but I just prefer less interruptions. This “TRANSIT” corridor will lead you directly out the front of the Terminal, and you will not have any opportunity to change currency, but you will need Rubles to catch the “TRANSIT” bus to Terminal 1.
This is the point where advance knowledge becomes very handy. It is important to know how to transfer between the terminals without losing an arm or leg to the taxi bandits. As you leave the terminal they will harass you continuously but if you keep moving and keep saying no or just shaking your head for no, then all will go smoothly. Once outside, in front of the terminal, you have two basic options for your transfer. You can either catch the official transfer bus for a very few Rubles or take a taxi and sign over at least one of your children. On my first trip to Russia, I was advised on how to take the transfer bus and I am glad that I was. Afterwards, I talked with fellow travelers who told me how they paid up to 80 dollars (U.S.) for a taxi to take them on the 5 minute trip between terminals. Later, in my own experience, I had taxi bandits approach me with offers between the previously stated 80 dollars down to as low as 20 dollars but none were lower than that. The transfer bus is ideal and I would tell anyone to use this option.
Once outside the terminal, to catch the transfer bus what you have to do is look for the transfer bus sign posted on one of the building pillars on the very first row toward the city. Once you find it, just stand there and wait for the correct bus as seen in the picture I have included. Do not take the green striped or the red or red striped buses. They stop in the same general vicinity, but, these are city buses and if you board one of these, there is no telling where you will end up. The transfer bus you are looking for is a white bus with blue stripes. It also has the price posted in the window, and the posted price is 15 Rubles, but I have learned that this price unofficially changes based on the drivers mood and how many bags you have. On my last trip, I had 3 large bags that took some effort getting onto the bus, and he charged me 30 Rubles, which still converts to about $1.50 U.S. This is why I said to convert some money before arriving in country. The transfer bus runs once an hour and in my experience, it is very timely.
I have heard some complain about waiting outside for the bus, but personally, after sitting in a plane for many hours, I welcomed the opportunity to stand and breathe some fresh polluted Russian air. After all, you came to experience Russia didn’t you? If you wanted to walk back into the departure side of the terminal to get currency you could, but I don’t because I don’t like dragging around excess luggage and having to have it all scanned again. There is one thing to be aware of though! If you want to eat, visit the Internet Café, shop, or buy snacks, it is best to re-enter the International Terminal and do it now, even if it does mean dragging luggage, because there are very few, actually there are almost no support services, (i.e. gift shops, Internet Café) at the Domestic Terminal.
After a 5 minute ride, the transit bus will drop you directly in front of the Domestic Terminal. Once you are inside you will see that it is very small and spartan, and if it is not crowded when you arrive, it soon will be. What you need to do is find a seat as quickly as possible and sit with your luggage until about two hours before your scheduled flight time, and then you can check in and check your luggage. Yes, you actually have to sit with all of your luggage. The goal is to find the best seat available, sit down, and stay there. Once you find a seat, if you are so lucky, and you decide to get up without someone saving it for you, it will be gone quickly and you will stand until another opens, and since apparently everyone knows this rule, very few ever get up until it is time for them to leave.
On my first trip, I had a wonderful seat on the end of a row with plenty of space, but I decided that I wanted a snack and went to get one. When I came back there were no more seats available and I stood for 3 hours staring at the seat that I had lost. One good idea is to find a friendly person who speaks your language while back in the baggage claim area at the International Terminal. Strike up a conversation, make friends with them and maybe hang out together at the Domestic Terminal. I usually always meet fellow Americans on the plane or at the baggage claim area because you can hear them speaking and an introduction is not difficult in those circumstances. On my last trip, I met an American and we took turns watching each others luggage while various excursions were made to the snack bar, the phone, a smoke break (outside, as it is not allowed in the terminal) and to the rest room. It makes life infinitely better if you can accomplish this. If you are alone, you have to take your luggage to the rest room with you, unless you have a friend to help you watch it.
In the Domestic Terminal, the regiment is pretty much the same as every other airport. The flights are announced two hours before departure and this is when check-in begins. You have to be careful though to listen for flight announcements, as they are announced in Russian and the best you can hope for is to hear the destination city and flight number. If you are not sure about what you heard or just want to check on your plane, there is an electronic flight board that you can check to see if your flight is boarding, and yes, it does have an English page. It will tell you if your flight is boarding and what gate number you should go to. The gate numbers are somewhat confusing though, as the board might say you should check in at gate 27, but gate 27 is not visible until you pass through the security gates which are numbered 1 – 4. You can go through whichever security gate is open, and then you will see the gate numbers. At check in, the usual documents are needed and it is not difficult to communicate. Hand signals are used very effectively.
If you are departing the country, the same procedures are in effect for transport between the terminals. Clearing customs is not as difficult in Russia provided you have the proper documents and assuming you entered the country legally. The Russian Customs agents are not as thorough as in the US, but once you get into the secured area and TSA, Delta, or contract security personnel search your carry on bag, it is as thorough as in the US. Then, as you enter the actual boarding gate, your bag will be searched again. This time it will be local companies or Russian uniformed individuals. The last time I passed through, there were individuals wearing two different uniforms checking the carry-on bags. One uniform looked more official, so I chose the ones who appeared to have on Russian uniforms. I don’t know exactly who these inspectors were, but a fellow traveler that I had befriended chose the other group. They spent 10 minutes searching every crack in his bag and opening every single thing that could be opened. The ones searching my bag moved things around inside, took a quick look and passed me through. I am not saying there was any skill or method that you should follow in this situation. I just got lucky, but it does go to show how much of a variety you will encounter in each situation.
All in all, travel in Russia is no more difficult than any other country, but advance planning is always prudent. Find out as much as you can before you go, and don’t rely entirely on your travel agent to provide this information. My agent did not tell me anything about the two terminals at Sheremetyevo, and I would have been lost without advice from a Russian friend of mine who I was going to visit. Russia is a beautiful country with many wonderful people and short of seeing military uniforms and the Russian architecture that we have seen in so many pictures; it is sometimes easy to forget you are in what was once the Communist Soviet Union. If you want my advice, get out of the big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg and visit some of the smaller cities or even venture into Siberia as I did and experience the wonder of the other side of Russia.
By Randall Gibbons