Plotting A Trans-Siberian Airline Adventure

Filed Under: Travel

I think it’s finally time to plan a trip that has been on my radar for a long time, because all of the pieces are slowly coming together.

The Russian Airlines & Cabins That Fascinate Me

Over the past couple of years I’ve written about various aspects of commercial Russian aviation that I find incredibly interesting, and I think it’s all shaping into what could be a very interesting review trip. In no particular order…

Aeroflot is getting new A350s this spring, featuring business class suites with doors, which they’ll start flying to the US.

Rossiya (an Aeroflot subsidiary) flies ex-Transaero 777s across Russia, and they haven’t removed the former first class seats from these planes, but rather are selling them as “Super Space Business Class.” I even went to an Aeroflot ticketing office in Minsk to inquire about booking one of these.

This is what those seats looked like before they “toned them down” a bit…

Yakutia Airlines flies 737 with fully flat beds between Yakutsk and Moscow…

S7 Airlines is the only oneworld airline I haven’t flown, and they operate an extensive route network throughout Russia, and also to other parts of Europe and Asia.

Constructing An Itinerary

The first thing I’d note is that my Russian visa has expired, so I’d need to get a valid visa for Russia first. But I’ve done that before, and it shouldn’t be too big of a hurdle.

Aeroflot will start flying A350s between New York and Moscow in late March, so that part of the trip is easy enough to book with SkyTeam miles (Air France-KLM Flying Blue is probably the best program for that). That flight operates with the following schedule:

SU123 New York to Moscow departing 12:55AM arriving 5:20PM

That’s the easy part, as I could spend a night or two in Moscow. The tough thing is figuring out what to do from there. The way I view it, there are a few approaches I could take.

My first option would be to fly roundtrip from Moscow to Yakutsk — I could fly Yakutia one way on their 737 in flat bed business class, and S7 Airlines in the other direction in their 737 business class. That doesn’t get me anything on Rossiya’s 777, though.

Alternatively I could fly Yakutia in one direction, and then connect on S7 Airlines through Novosibirsk, which has the benefit of allowing me to experience two of S7’s aircraft types, connecting through one of their interesting hubs, and also possibly staying at the Marriott there, which intrigues me. That might be one of my more exotic Marriott stays.

However, if I’m going to try to include Rossiya on this trip (which I really want to), I could:

  • Fly from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Rossiya 777 in Super Space Business Class
  • Fly from Vladivostok to Yakutsk on the S7 Airlines A320neo in business class
  • Fly from Yakutsk to Moscow on the Yakutia 737 in business class

That sounds like a great option to me.

The schedule isn’t ideal, though:

Rossiya 6281 Moscow to Vladivostok departing 6:25PM arriving 9:45AM (+1 day)
S7 6205 Vladivostok to Yakutsk departing 9:40PM arriving 12:01AM (+1 day)
Yakutia 477 Yakutsk to Moscow departing 7:40AM arriving 8:40AM

Okay, yeah, so that’s not exactly the most fun schedule on earth. But what about if we reversed It?

Yakutia 478 Moscow to Yakutsk departing 6:00PM arriving 6:20AM (+1 day)
S7 6206 Yakutsk to Vladivostok departing 2:15AM arriving 6:40AM
Rossiya 6282 Vladivostok to Moscow departing 12:05PM arriving 2:00PM

As you can see, neither of these options offer seamless connections, but then again I’d probably want a buffer anyway for delays.

So I guess that raises the question of whether Yakutsk or Vladivostok is more interesting to visit/which has better accommodation options?

Bottom Line

I’d really like to finally take this Russian airline trip in spring, because I’m fascinated by these airlines, and also by Eastern Russian in general. If anyone has any tips based on this itinerary, or can think of another creative way to efficiently try most/all of these products, I’d love to hear it!

Comments
  1. Forget the A350 and go next month, I want to hear stories of traveling in Siberia in the dead of winter Ben not the leafy spring!

  2. Russian Airlines all have much more modern fleet with much better safety records than the big 3 US carriers, all of which are flying coffins.

  3. I actually took the train the entire way! I would add St petersburg to your itinerary. Such a beautiful city. Would also add Irkutsk and go to lake baikal. It’s an amazing country. Enjoy.

  4. Hi Ben — Happy New Year to you and Ford!

    In your photo below this text “This is what those seats looked like before they “toned them down” a bit…” — I recognize those seats as being Air India First Class seats (from, I’m guessing, Circa 2005). I flew in one nonstop from JFK to Delhi a year ago.

    In August 2014, I had a dinner meeting in Hong Kong with a wealthy industrialist who was building a “Las Vegas” in Vladivostok. It should be operational by now. Do leave the airport and go see it!

    Have you considered transiting via Irkutsk (where I was in March 2018) or even via Ulan Bator (Mongolia) or Nur-Sultan (Astana), Kazakhstan? Both cities are just over the Russian border (as the plane flies) and provide additional connectivity.

  5. @ Marcus — As far as I’m concerned, all airlines in the world are safe (enough), significantly safer than ever driving…

  6. Marcus — S7 and Aeroflot are members of the three big alliances which have enforced safety standards — so I would say yes when it comes to these two airlines in particular.

  7. Lucky, you’ve achieved a measure of notoriety when the Russian trolls (John) have found your site!

  8. Hi Lucky,
    I am also planning a similar trip right now for this spring. My plan is Helsinki-Saint Petersburg with the Allegro train, than S7 to Yakutsk visa Novosibirsk.
    I will come back with S7 via Moscow Domodedovo (pity the new OW lounge isn’t open yet).
    In Yakutsk I have a local Yakuti friend who by day is a software engineer in Helsinki, but by night runs tours to Yakutsk and the surrounding region. We are planning to see the frozen tundra museum (think flesh and fur level complete woolly mammoths, cave lions etc.. that have been found frozen for thousands of years), take dog sleds along the Lena river past the Pillars of Lena, and then we are figuring out how to visit Oymyakon aka the “Pole of Cold” or the coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere, located a short flight away from Yakutks or a trip along the Road of Bones, a famous gulag road.
    Anyhow, if you want a native guide who speaks fluent English, Russian and Yakuti, and whose a lovely person, feel free to email me.

  9. Vladivostok definetly has the better accomodation options as there are bunches of tourists from neighbouring Asian countries. Yakutsk will still be rather cold in March/April.

    Looking forward to your trip report! If you have some time, you may throw in a few days of hiking on Kamchatka (just look at the airport fotos with the volcano in the background) or Sakhalin!

    Aeroflot and S7 have decent business classes for medium haul flights. Long haul (around 6 hours) on their B737s/A320s is OK. Aeroflot has some of the best Business Class flight attendants out there (and also some others). Except for the seats in Space Business Class I cannot recommend Rossiya though.

  10. Vladivostok would be the better option with more developed accommodation options.
    Also, regarding the visa, I wouldn’t be so sure. Make sure you leave plenty of time – due to the diplomatic spat, visas for US citizens have been much harder to get.
    Anyway, I’ll look forward to reading these! And as John said, Russian airlines are far superior to anything in the US at the moment.

  11. Yes, finally!
    I think that having the Rossiya flight originate in VKO would be better, since you mentioned the complexity of upgrading to SuperSpace and how it was only available at the airport. Considering potential Language barriers and possible lack of familiarity with the upgrade process (VKO agents will be more familiar with it given that it’s a hub), the first option might be a safer choice to ease an upgrade to SuperSpace

  12. I would expect VVO to be a preferable destination to Yakutsk.

    To make it more interesting, what about VVO to HND on a cheap BA redemption?

  13. @Brian: Having lived in the Far East of Russia for almost 7 years, I can say definitively that Russian winter sucks. I’ve been to Yakutsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Blagoveschensk, Khabarovsk and Kamchatka in the dead of winter, and that is a whole different level of cold. I’ve had tears freeze instantly, ice in my beard from breathing and my hands go numb after being exposed for less than 30 seconds. I live in Vladivostok, where the winters are milder due to the sea. Sure, it’s quite cold in Vlad, but nothing like the far north or the interior. This Alabama-bred guy still doesn’t like winter here 😉

  14. @Dennis nah getting a Russian Visa won’t be a problem for an experienced traveler like Ben. I just got one and yes they were strict at the consulate and it required patience but it was not an issue. Just make sure to dress at least business casual. I would have felt out of place in jeans and a t shirt at the consulate.

  15. The visa is not the easiest out there. I was in Russia last month…so had to update it. Not sure how it’s changed from the last time you had it but now you are required to have your hotels reserved and provide a confirmation in the application that each will send you. Dates are not flexible and you have to abide to the schedule and hotels. You can’t extend your stay beyond the exact dates you book at hotels and the visa is set exactly to your arrival and departure flights. It also cost me like $400 and two weeks to get through a service.

    I think you have a German passport as well though, Ben. If so it’s a bit easier and I heard this summer that if you fly in and out of St. Petersburg with an EC passport you won’t need a visa. The only thing I am unsure of is if it includes traveling onwards within the country. Seems like it should as they can’t control your movement onwards.

  16. AA award within Russia used to be 10K one way and not much more for business. Is that still the case?

  17. @ Lucky: As for the visa, the earlier you apply, the better. I had a nightmare of a time with the Russian consulate in Houston this past summer while getting my work visa renewed (It was my 10th visa, and previously I’d had no problems). It took nearly a month for them to fix a typo in my visa, and I ended up having to go to Houston myself (twice!) in August to deal with it.

    As for the trip, Vladivostok is by far the better option to stay. The infrastructure is quite good. There aren’t any Western hotel brands, so you’ll have to stay local, but the Lotte Hotel and Villa Arte are considered the best options by most Americans and Europeans. The Lotte’s location is unbeatable, as it’s in the city center, while the Villa Arte is quite a bit away from the city in general (but closer to the airport). Uber recently began working here, as well. I don’t use it, as I prefer the Yandex taxi app, but Toyota Priuses with Uber branding have popped up everywhere over the last half a year. Just note that the taxi ride from the airport to the city center usually takes 45 minutes to an hour and costs around $20, as the airport is about 40 km from the center of Vladivostok.

    The food in Vladivostok is phenomenal, so that’s a plus. Yakutsk has nothing on Vlad in that regard. Also, if you want to see a diverse mix of Asia and Europe, Vladivostok is the place. The city itself is quite scenic, but there aren’t many “touristy” things to do in the early Spring. I’d recommend August or September for a visit, which would maybe be convenient for you as Aeroflot will begin flying their new A350 on the Moscow-Miami route this summer. And the weather is AWFUL (read: unpredictable) in Spring.

    S7 is a good airline. I’ve never used Yakutia airlines. Rossiya is an unpolished red-headed stepchild to Aeroflot, and the one time I flew them wasn’t pleasant at all. If you want the upgrade at the airport, be prepared for a long process of going from agent to agent and be prepared for them not understanding you. In fact, there’s a great chance that they will tell you it isn’t available just to not have the headache. Customer service is not a strong suit of Russians, and everything is someone else’s problem. That’s a problem with ground staff of both Aeroflot and Rossiya.

  18. Random thought that would extend the length of your trip, but couldn’t you fly S7 from VVO to YKS via OVB? I doubt their routing rules allow that as one ticket, so you’d probably have to split it. But, that way you could grab your Marriott in Novosibirsk and also have more time to experience S7 instead of just on a 2 hour flight. I don’t know how the schedules line up, but it’s a thought.

  19. Why would the Novosibirsk Mariott be “exotic”? Its like any other chain hotel and could be anywhere in Europe.

    If you want exotic stay, go for old Soviet built hotels. The renovated ones offer far more character, and comfort than a Marriott!

    Like others said, it would be a shame to go to Russia and not ride the Transiberian First Class at least some of the way.

  20. Also, while you have to provide hotels for your stay in Russia, there is zero follow up and nothing preventing you from cancelling the bookings after you get your Visa and staying in other cities or hotels.

  21. How unfortunate that the “Matress, Sailor, and Albatross” hostel in Vladivostock is no longer operating.

  22. @Bob. I agree but the hotels that did provide it informed me that I would be required to pay a cancellation fee for the Visa paperwork if I canceled.

  23. I would definitely stay in Yakutsk, this is a unique permafrost city, and you can fly to the city of Oymyakon, which is the coldest city in the world. you can try these Soviet planes or helicopters on the way to Oymyakon. I think this is a very unique and very interesting trip. Also, you should try Kamchatka peninsula ( pure nature and the homeland of volcanos)

  24. Ben, the Rossiya 777 Super Space Business seats are identical to the Air India First Class seats but with different finishes, so I can assure you there is nothing special about them.

    Have you looked into different routes that Rossiya still operates 3-class 744s? These will be much nicer as they will have the former First Class seats from South African Airways.

  25. I’m very jealous – I’ve been planning a trip to Irkutsk, Yakutsk and Kamchatka for a while now (just never found the time). Please do make this a proper trip. Like others have mentioned, Yakutsk region is very very interesting. Lake Baikal is also meant to be beautiful. Vladivostok is less interesting, so maybe you can try S7 routed via Irkutsk? And take the train some way!

  26. @Jesse what kind of visa did you apply for ? Was it busy at the consulate during the summer ?
    I went to the Houston consulate too and it was not crowded in November. I went about 7 weeks before my trip. The day I went with my documents I had missing info on one line and was told payment must be a money order or cashiers check. The vice consul was helpful he gave me his business card. I went to fedex kinkos and returned the same day. Then I was told to pick up my tourist visa a week later. It was rather seamless. Yeah I felt like my visa , visa sponsor , hotels, and dates everything must match. Not switching anything.

  27. S7 fly to Vladivostok from Japan (NRT and CTS a least) so you could link in with on of your japan itineraries.

  28. I flew from Moscow to Novosibirsk last year with S7 in their business seats. Very nice business class for a short haul flight. Although it’s a 4hr joiurney +4hrs ahead of Moscow! Stayed at the Novosibirsk Marriott for a few nights. Nice hotel and they gave me a great upgrade!

    The NOVAT (Novosibirsk State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet) is opposite the Marriott hotel. Definitely try and go to a performance there while you’re in Novosibirsk.

  29. How exciting! My husband and I both grew up in Moscow as expats and my in laws still live there. We haven’t been back since having kids 3 years ago, but will make a trip in the near future. Looking forward to hearing about your experience on Aeroflot’s new planes. I second the recommendation to take a train to Siberia vs fly!

  30. @D3KingAmerican: It was a “Teacher, type 006” visa to be precise, which is a work visa. Usually, I have no problems with the visa service, but this time they just misprinted it and the correction took forever. That’s the thing with Russian bureaucracy, it is inconsistently inconsistent. At times, it works well, but if anything out of the ordinary occurs, it turns into a nightmare.

  31. Lucky, S7 also flies Airbus A320neo IKT-BKK non-stop for $699 in J
    or you can do OVB-BKK for $753 on the same A320neo. The latter flight is clocked at 7 hr 20 min.
    This would be your chance to share the joy of flying with whole bunch of Siberian Russians going to Thailand in the midst of winter!

  32. I think you can position into Tokyo (why not to review new ANA first or business class in the process) and fly S7 from NRT to VVO which will be enough of an experience for S7. Then fly Yakutia YKS-VVO. And then depart on Aeroflot’s new A350 from SVO to JFK. Or you can reverse the route – fly into Moscow and leave via Tokyo.

    From hotels point of you I am sure you would get a kick out of Azimut hotel in Yakutsk which has a real mammoth at the very entrance. 🙂 Even in March there is a lot to see in town like Diamonds Museum and Permafrost Kingdom etc. I would suggest you spend 24 hours in Yakutsk.

    There are no chain hotels in Vladivostok (except Lotte which is a far cry from their usual luxury standard in Korea or Moscow) and Novosibirsk Marriott is absolutely nothing special but very bland.

    I live in Yakutsk so feel free to contact me for any advice and/or assistance.

  33. Try Aeroflot JFK-SVO (A350 J)
    Then Rossiya VKO-VVO (777 with ex-Transaero first)
    Then S7 VVO-NRT (why bother going back to Moscow when Vladivostok is so close to Tokyo?)
    Then ANA NRT-JFK (new 777 first or business class)
    Save Yakutia for later.

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