Travelling on the Trans Siberian railroad has been on my travel bucket list for years; it is something I have always wanted to do.
But I never expected to ride on the Trans Siberian railway with kids in tow!
There is something special about long train journeys, about traversing a country or continent by train.
Train travel gives you the chance to meet people from all walks of life, to slow down and to appreciate the size and diversity of the country you are travelling through.
The Trans Siberian is one of the worlds most iconic and famous rail journeys yet many people would consider it to be an unsuitable trip with kids.
The Trans Siberian Railway with kids
‘Why not just fly with kids? It’s quicker and easier!’
We did not initially consider a trip on the Trans Siberian railway as part of our round the world family trip.
But as our trip progressed, our confidence in travelling with three young children increased.
We were continually surprised during the trip by what our children enjoyed and were able to do in comparison to our expectations.
As a result, our destinations and activities became increasingly adventurous and off the beaten track. We learned to challenge ourselves and our children.
In addition, we realised as a family that we did not like airports or flying! We felt that occasionally we were ‘skimming’ a country or missing out on fantastic scenery by flying over it!
We needed to change our style of travelling.
Plus, we wanted to reduce the potentially massive carbon footprint of our trip.
Finally, we increasingly felt that many places and activities became ‘now or never’ options. This was not a trip we would be repeating.
We started to talk about the possibility of making a dream a reality and travelling across Russia on the Trans Siberian railway.
As is often the way in our family, our plans quickly expanded!
We eventually opted for a ‘no fly’ journey across half the globe, travelling overland from Hong Kong to our doorstep in the U.K.
After travelling from Hong Kong through China by train, we picked up the Trans Siberian in Ulan Bator.
From there, we travelled through northern Mongolia, crossed the Russian border and continued to our first major stop in Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia.
We spent one week exploring this vibrant, friendly city and visiting the tranquil Lake Baikal and surrounding forests.
We caught another train for a mammoth five day four-night journey to Moscow. We stayed for one week in the Russian capital before taking an overnight train to St Petersburg.
What is the Trans Siberian Railway?
The Trans Siberian Railway is the name given to sections of the Russian rail system that when pieced together create an epic journey across this enormous country.
The railway is not one specific line and there is no overall ‘Trans Siberian ticket’.
You have a choice of different routes to travel and you must buy a separate ticket for each section of your journey.
There are three principal long-distance routes which are Moscow to Vladivostok, Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia and Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria.
For every stop you choose to make, you need to purchase another ticket for the next part of your journey.
Trans Siberian tickets
There are three ways to book your tickets for travel on the Trans Siberian railway.
The cheapest option is to purchase tickets online in advance from the Russian rail website.
The usability of this site for non-Russian speakers has greatly improved in recent years and you can now buy your tickets in English.
Alternatively, you can use agents or companies such as Real Russia who will book your tickets for you according to the route and schedule that you provide.
You will pay a premium for each ticket you buy but you will have peace of mind that you have the correct ticket and helpful support should something go wrong.
These agents also provide tours and guided trips.
Finally, you can book a complete package through a travel agent specialising in Tran Siberian railway trips.
Packages vary from fully escorted small group tours to self – guided tours where all your transfers, accommodations and tours will be pre-booked and arranged for you.
Trans Siberian Child Tickets
In Russia, children under 5 years old who share a berth (bed) with an adult are free but you must still book a named ticket for them.
The beds are very narrow so I would only do this if travelling with a very small child!!!!
Children aged 5 to 10 years old travel at half the adult fare.
There are different child rates once you cross into Mongolia and China.
How you choose to travel depends on your budget and confidence.
We arranged our tickets through Real Russia but organised our accommodation, transfers and sightseeing independently.
Despite knowing no Russian language, we encountered no problems at all travelling independently on the Trans Siberian railway.
If we had had more time, I would not have hesitated to have bought the tickets ourselves on the Russian rail website.
The brilliant Maninseat61.com has a helpful guide on using the Russian rail website.
Getting a Russian Visa
Our Russian visa was by far our biggest challenge about travelling on the Trans Siberian trains!
We chose to apply independently rather than using a visa service.
Russian visas are notoriously complicated and subject to rejection on small issues.
Look into the strict visa rules, choose carefully which visa applies to you and start collating your paperwork as early as you can; it takes longer than you think! This is particularly important if you will be applying for your visa outside of your home country.
To apply for a visa, you will need a full itinerary for your trip – including accommodation bookings- and a letter of invitation from a host such as a hotel.
In some countries, you must apply for your visa in person at the offices of the Russian embassy.
If you have used a booking agent for your tickets, they will often provide these items for you. Hotels also offer this service if you have a confirmed, paid booking with them.
Many travellers do not like the lack of flexibility this entails. So, once they have secured the initial letter of invitation from one confirmed booking, some travellers choose to book fully refundable hotels for their subsequent accommodation.
Visa costs vary according to the type of visa you are applying for and where you are applying from.
For example, in the U.K, a standard 30 day tourist visa currently costs £63, plus an administration fee of £38.40. Sending your passport back to you by post is a further £13.
It is important to note that your visa and passport will be checked on multiple occasions in Russia and will be particularly scrutinised at border crossings.
Make sure you look like your visa and passport photo. My husband was questioned several times as his shaggy travellers beard had changed his appearance so much!
Our visa story…
As we were already travelling, we had to apply for our visas outside our home country of the U.K.
We applied for our visas in Brisbane, Australia. We had all the required documents and information but it was still an expensive and complicated process.
We had been travelling for nearly a year at this point so we had to get up to date passport photos, particularly for our ever-growing kids.
As we were not applying from our home country we had to have an ‘interview’ with the consulate in Brisbane. This five-minute interview cost us over $300 (paid by bankers order which we also had to pay for)!
A few days later, our visa was rejected on the grounds that our visa for Australia was not the appropriate tourist visa for applying for a Russian visa – an issue that had not been mentioned during our $300 ‘interview.’ We had a 90-day Australian visa and the Russian visa only accepted Australian visas over 90 days. We had to apply for – and pay for – an extension to our Australian visas before reapplying for our Russian visas.
We kept copies of all correspondence with the Russian consulate stating that an extension to our Australian visa would be sufficient so when we were rejected A SECOND TIME due to our Australian visa, we had evidence to appeal the decision.
We appealed the rejection and our visas were finally approved.
But the whole process was time consuming, stressful and expensive and on many occasions, we wondered if it was worth it!
Tips for travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway
Choose your trains carefully
You can buy tickets for different types of train and some are better than others. Rossiya or Firmeny trains are fast and of good quality.
Carriages are divided into first or second class.
First class (spalny vagon) is a small room with a chair, two bunk beds and a lockable door. There is a little bit of floor space.
Second class (kupe) have four bunk beds with a lockable door. The two top bunks can be folded flat against the wall for more spacious seating below or left set up as a bed. There is very little floor space.
In both classes, the bottom beds lift up creating ample storage for large bags beneath the bunk. There is also a storage area above the door.
Each bed has a small net pocket for personal items, a light and is equipped with a pillow (of varying quality), a sheet and a blanket.
The room has a tiny table and a samovar – a large flask for hot water that can be refilled at will from the hot water boiler in the carriage corridor.
Few trains now have the third class option of open plan bunks but with no doors and no privacy, these are not ideal for travelling with children.
With kids, I would recommend booking an entire berth for your family, whether in first or second class.
We travelled second class with four of us in one room and my husband had another bunk in the room next to us. More often than not, he slept on the floor of our room!
Second class is half the price of first class and was perfect for us.
Remove the minimal amount needed for your trip from your main luggage and then stow it away. The berths are too small to have large bags in them.
Be aware of changing time zones!
Trains depart on local time but with Vladivostok seven hours ahead of Moscow you need to know what time zone you are in and when it changes!
A small timetable is displayed in the corridor of each carriage. Find it and follow it carefully adjusting your watch as you go.
This is the only way to know when the train is stopping and how long you will have to exercise in fresh air before the train leaves again.
Sound confusing? It is! And it used to be worse as until 2018 all trains ran on Moscow time despite where they started from!
As a result, few people stray far from the train when it stops in a station!
There are two toilets per carriage, one at either end of the carriage.
Each cubicle has a toilet with a tiny corner sink. This will be your washing facilities for the duration of your journey; there are no showers or large sinks for washing.
All toilets are closed whilst the train is in a station. This is not an issue with short stops but it poses a much bigger problem when the toilet is out of action for six hours when crossing the border!
Follow the timetable and use the toilet before a train stop.
With kids, bring your own toilet paper (AN ESSENTIAL!), soap, hand towel and antibacterial hand gel. You will need it!
Make a toilet bag to hang on your door to bring with you on each trip to the toilet. It will save you searching for the same items time after time.
Keep toothbrushes separate to avoid contamination.
Flip flops are handy to wear to the toilet to avoid having to put shoes on and off each time you leave the cabin.
Passengers on the Trans Siberian railway are allowed to bring their own food on board.
Make sure you bring a mug, bowl/plate and a fork or spoon on board.
Each cabin has a samovar flask for hot water which enables you to make packet noodles, soup, hot drinks and porridge.
Snacks and drinks can be bought from the dining car, the carriage provodnistas or at station stops along the way.
Station stops usually have small shops or platform vendors selling bread, fruit, cakes and snacks.
The Tran Siberian trains have a dining car. We only used it once and found the food menu limited, served in tiny portions and expensive.
Bring your own!
With kids, bring more food than you think you will need.
We thought we had brought half a supermarket with us but we still ran out of food and had to buy more at station stops.
Try to vary your food to keep children happy!
We ate porridge and peeled fruit for breakfast, sandwiches, cake and fruit for lunch and noodles or soup for dinner.
We brought our own tea bags, coffee, hot chocolate and fruit juice.
If you choose one of the Trans Siberian routes into China, the border crossing will take several hours.
When the toilets are closed and the air conditioning is turned off it can seem like a VERY long time.
You are allowed to stay in your cabin but all the lights are turned on and the cabin doors must be left open.
The cabins are visited by customs officers who meticulously search the cabin followed by passport control officers who scrutinise your visa and passport.
You are not permitted to wander around or get off the train.
Changing the bogies
At the border crossing into Mongolia at Erlian, the bogies are changed.
The carriages are unhooked in turn and each carriage shunted into a siding; a jolting process which lasts for hours.
Each carriage is then raised up on enormous jacks. The bogies are slid out and new bogies slid in and then the carriage is lowered down again.
When all the bogies have been changed, the train carriages are then shunted back into one long train again.
When we crossed the border, this process took six hours.
We crossed at night and luckily, our kids slept through the whole experience.
With kids, go to the toilet before the train arrives at the border.
If travelling at night, the passport control officers may ask you to wake up your children so they can see ‘full face, full face.’ Hopefully, they will go back to sleep again!
Have some quiet activities to hand as other passengers will be trying to sleep and any noise will carry with the doors open.
I ended up reading our children a brilliant David Walliams novel. The next morning, a young backpacker poked his head around our door to say how much he had enjoyed the previous nights’ bedtime story!
Do not leave your bags unattended, do not have jewellery or large amounts of cash on display.
Lock your door when inside your cabin and whenever you leave it.
Bring your passport and money with you when leaving the cabin unattended.
With kids, accompany them to the toilet and never let children off the train without an adult.
Each Trans Siberian train carriage has a female attendant, known as a provodnista. Sometimes they will have a female or male helper.
The provodnistas are a formidable group of women who effectively run – and rule – the Tran Siberian trains.
The provodnistas check your tickets and passports each time you board the train and monitor the carriage doors at station stops.
They clean the carriages and cabins daily (keeping them spotless) and ensure the hot water boilers are always topped up.
The provodnistas have a key to unlock all the cabin doors and will knock and enter your room within seconds – be warned!!! If they want to clean your room they will unceremoniously turf you out.
They visit you daily to try to sell you drinks, souvenirs and snacks and can get irritated if you buy these elsewhere.
The ladies will also ensure a closed toilet means closed. No one gets past them.
With kids, make friends with the provodnista – if you can! A smile, a ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’ in Russian goes a long way!
Passing the time
Many people wonder how we passed the time on a train in a confined space with kids and no toys or wifi!
It was surprisingly – and unexpectedly – easy!!!
We spent hours looking out of the window. It was fascinating to fall asleep to endless fields of green grass to wake up to dense birch and larch forests.
Or to fall asleep to the windswept lands of Siberia to wake up to the city centre high rises of urban cities.
We read a lot, played window bingo, we drew things we saw out of the window and played endless card games.
Vary your work and play space – get a change of scene and to give each other some space. Nobody minded if we studied in the corridor or dining car.
With kids, take advantage of the station stops.
Leave the train whenever you can, even if it is just for five minutes. The fresh air and change of scene work wonders!
Try to keep a tidy cabin with everything in its place. It makes life much easier.
Maintain a routine
On our longest, five-day journey, we tried to maintain a routine.
We got up and dressed as usual and after breakfast, we did some individual homeschooling with each child.
After lunch, we did some homeschool topic work and following dinner, we had free time to play and relax.
We tried to go to bed at the same time and kept to our usual bedtime routine.
We walked the length of the train each day and tried to vary our work and play space to get a change of scene and to give each other some space.
It was important to give our day some structure and purpose.
It was great to ‘slow down’ with our kids and we loved it!
Learn some Russian
We found our fellow train travellers to be reserved apart from one jolly passenger who shouted ‘Manchester United’ and ‘Chelsea’ at us whenever he saw us.
If we had had more language, perhaps we could have broken down some barriers.
Take your time
Looking back, we regret not spending more time travelling through Russia on the Trans Siberian railway.
We should have made more stops and explored more locations especially when we consider the cost, time and effort involved to get our visa!
But at the time, it was the mounting costs of each separate ticket of the journey that prevented us from doing this.
It just means we will have to return again another time!
Have you travelled on the Trans Siberian railway with or without kids? What were your highlights?