|Subject: Re: Russia - tour vs. independent|
I've been to Moscow but not St. Petersburg. Like you, we're independant travelers not tour people.
My husband was working in Moscow for 2 weeks so it was a bit of a unique situation. For a few of his day's off, we hired a private guide. We had a lovely woman in her late 50's/early 60's who would take us around. It was great as it was like being with a friend and not a tour bus. The pensioner's in Moscow don't make much money and many of the educated ones hire themselves out as private guides. I think we paid her something like $8. an hour. One day we paid more and had her as well as a car w/ driver. Her english was perfect. When my husband was working she'd meet me and we'd go around the city together. If you could find something like that situation, it would be perfect for you. I don't think still I have her phone number but if I can get my hands on it, I'll post it to you. The Russians will try to rip you off in any way possible. I asked the hotel concierge about tickets for the ballet and he quoted me $95. per ticket. I'm okay with him making some money on the deal but it sounded too high, so I asked my guide about it. Well, she picked them up for me one day before we met and we paid $2.25 per ticket for the best seats in the house!
I did walk around Moscow by myself during the day and took the buses. I didn't travel the metro alone as the signs can be confusing and no one spoke english. We've traveled all over the world independently and had the most problems with day to day stuff in Moscow. They're not especially warm to visitors and no one speaks english. Even looking for GUM (the largest store/mall in Moscow), no one was able to point me in the right direction. It took me two hours on my own to find it. The best restaurants are ones that are jointly owned by Russians and another group - ie french, mexican, etc. At least you'll have a waitperson who speaks a little english. Pure russian restaurants will have no english on the menu and often no one that speaks english. If you have to stick with hotel restaurants, you'll pay a lot of money and the food won't be as good...there are some exceptions of course.
You MUST have a pre-arranged car picking you up at the airport. Don't attempt to get a taxi there. You'll surely be ripped off!