Planning a Trans-Siberian journey can be a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re doing. The sheer number of different options available and bureaucratic loops you’ll have to jump through are mind boggling. If you plan in advance it’s definitely possible though and you’ll be rewarded with an adventure you’ll never forget. Here’s my step by step guide to planning your route and booking your tickets.
1. Choose your route
There isn’t really one set Trans-Siberian Railway as it’s actually more of a connected series of trains that run all the way across Russia and Asia. The main three routes that get called the Trans-Siberian are the Trans-Mongolian railway which goes through Mongolia and finishes in Beijing; The Trans-Manchurian railway which heads around Mongolia (which means one less visa to sort out) through the northeast of China to Beijing and the Trans-Siberian itself which runs all of the way to Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. Most tourists tend to take the Trans-Mongolian so that’s your best bet if you want to meet other travellers, Beijing is also one of the world’s great cities and is a great place to start exploring China from.
2. Choose whether you’re travelling independently or as a part of a tour
Some people love tours, others hate them. I generally prefer to plan things myself as much as I can in order to get a bit more freedom. Tours are significantly more expensive than organising everything yourself but they do take a lot of the hassle out of things and tour companies can sometimes offer excursions which you wouldn’t be able to sort out on your own. I found loads of good companies offering these trips like STA and Real Russia (who I’ll talk about a bit more later) but really this is down to the way you like to travel.
3. Pick your stops along the way
Unless you’re in a hurry you won’t want to stay on the train for the whole journey and you’ll want to get off and explore along the way. The Trans-Siberian is the best way to reach some incredible places in the heart of Russia which would otherwise be hard to get to. Some of the most popular stops are Yekaterinburg, Irkustsk (great for visiting Lake Baikal), Ulan Ude, and Ulan Bator. Read up on the destinations if you can and plan what you’d like to do there so you can work out how much time you’ll need there. For example to get outside of Ulan Bator and into the real Mongolia you may need to join a tour (most hostels offer these) and these are often only available for several days at a time and only begin on certain dates.
4. Book your tickets
Now you’ve got your itinerary planned you’ll want to get the tickets. The earlier you get them sorted the better. Russian train tickets go on sale 45 days in advance but many of them get reserved by travel agencies as soon as they become available. If you’re planning on going to Russia by train through Europe first (like me) you’ll also save a lot of money booking these a couple of months in advance. The best way of getting these sorted is through a travel agency. I used Real Russia and I’d definitely recommend them as they were incredibly helpful and good value as well. You can book tickets at the stations and for a slight discount however there’s no guarantee that there’ll be space on the train so there is a real risk of ending up getting stranded.
5. Obtain your Visas
Most travellers on the Trans-siberian will need a Russian Visa, you’ll also need a Mongolian and Chinese Visa if you’re going through there. If you travel through Belarus to Russia on the way you’ll also need a Visa for that. These can all be organised through a travel agency (Again I used Real Russia as it was easiest to get everything in one place, as with all things though, shop around.) and they cost about £100 each. Chinese Visas can be very strict so you’ll need to provide them with hotel bookings for a few nights in each of the cities you’re planning on visiting as well as a booking for your transport in and out of the country. This is largely a formality though as you can cancel your bookings once in China and then travel freely.
Once you’ve got all of this sorted you should be ready to go. Grab your tickets and enjoy the ride. If you’re still looking for planning advice then I recommend The Man in Seat 61 which was by far the most useful resource I found and really helped me, it includes huge amounts of detailed information on the Trans-Siberian journey as well as pretty much any other train journey you could be want.