Money

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TRAVEL TIPS

Money

Today the ruble is reasonably stable at around 30R to the dollar. Talk of a growing middle class aside, the majority of Russians can only dream of buying Western-made cars and clothes, dining out, and traveling abroad for their holidays.

Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.

Goods and services aimed at foreigners are as expensive as anywhere in Western Europe. Public transport is cheap; a ride on the metro costs 28R one-way, less if you buy many trips. Taxi rates are generally low, but as soon as the driver realizes that you're a foreigner, the rate goes up. Some museums and theaters, such as the Armory Palace in the Moscow Kremlin and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, have instituted special, higher fees for foreign tourists. For example, a "foreign ticket" for an opera or ballet at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre costs from 4000R to 6000R for some performances, whereas a Russian price ranges from 1500R to 4000R.

Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week for them to get it. If you're planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don't wait until the last minute.

ATMs and Banks

Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.

PIN codes with more than four digits aren’t recognized at ATMs in Russia. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.

Bankomaty (bank machines) have cropped up all over the place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in the city centers they’re not difficult to find: hotels and banks are the most obvious (and safest) places to look, but there are some on the streets as well. In addition, many metro stations now have them—but have a partner watch your back when you take money out, and remember that pickpockets often hang around such places.

ATM Locations

Cirrus. 800/424–7787; mastercard.com.

Credit Cards

It's a good idea to inform your credit card company before you travel. Otherwise, the credit card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is usually printed on your card.

If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill.

Many shops, restaurants, and hotels within Moscow and St. Petersburg accept credit cards, though you should always double-check with the staff, despite any signs you may see. Establishments outside the cities are less likely to accept credit cards.

To report lost or stolen credit cards, the U.S. Embassy in Russia advises that you call your credit-card company collect through AT&T Direct. From Moscow, dial 363–2400; from St. Petersburg, it’s the same number, with the St. Petersburg area code 812.

When you use your credit card to make travel purchases you may get free travel-accident insurance, collision-damage insurance, and medical or legal assistance, depending on the card and the bank that issued it. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa provide one or more of these services, so get a copy of your credit card's travel benefits policy. If you're a member of an auto club, always ask hotel and car-rental reservations agents about auto-club discounts. Some clubs offer additional discounts on tours, cruises, and admission to attractions.

Reporting Lost Cards

American Express. 800/528–4800; 336/393–1111; www.americanexpress.com.

Diners Club. 800/234–6377; 514/877–1577; www.dinersclub.com.

MasterCard. 800/627–8372; 636/722–7111; www.mastercard.com.

Visa. 800/847–2911; 866/654–0164; www.visa.com.

Currency and Exchange

The national currency in Russia is the ruble (R). There are paper notes of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, and 5,000, and there are 1-, 2-, 5-, and 10-ruble coins. There are 100 kopeks in a ruble and there are coins for 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopeks.

Russians and resident expats have gotten used to thinking in both rubles and dollars—that is, talking in rubles but mentally pegging prices to the dollar. This can create a certain amount of confusion for the tourist, so bear the following in mind. First, remember that payment, by law, can only be made in rubles or by credit card. Nonetheless, some stores, restaurants, travel agencies, and retailers list prices in dollars, or "conditional units" (uslovnye yedinitsy,often marked on menus and price lists as YE), a euphemism for the dollar (or in some cases the euro). This practice is thankfully diminishing and you’ll most often see prices in rubles. In this book prices are listed in rubles for everything, including sights, attractions, hotels, and restaurants. Bear in mind that the sum in rubles will be high for hotels especially, so it may be helpful to carry around a small pocket calculator for conversions that are difficult to do in your head.

At this writing one U.S. dollar equaled 31 rubles; one euro equaled 41 rubles; one U.K. pound equaled 47 rubles; one Canadian dollar equaled 31 rubles; one Australian dollar equaled 33 rubles; and one New Zealand dollar equaled 26 rubles.

Rubles can rarely be obtained at banks outside Russia, but if you somehow acquire them (through friends or acquaintances) it's legal to import or export them. There's no limit on the amount of foreign currency you may bring in with you, but you have to declare more than $10,000. ATMs are the way to go, but traveler's checks are a better option than bringing lots of currency. You should have at least $100 in cash (in 10s and 20s). If you don't mind the risk of theft or loss, bring more; you're bound to need it. For the most favorable rates, change money through banks. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are excellent because they're based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. You can also exchange foreign currency for rubles (and vice versa) at state-run exchange offices—where you'll get the worst rate—or at any of the numerous currency-exchange booths (obmen valyuty). Try to bring newer bills with you to Russia, as older versions (as well as worn or torn foreign bills) are frequently rejected by exchange offices. On your way out of Russia you can change excess rubles back into dollars at any bank or at the airport. For this you’ll need your passport.

Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh … that's right. The sign didn't say no fee.) And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.

Exchange Rates

Google does currency conversion. Just type in the amount you want to convert and an explanation of how you want it converted (e.g., "14 Swiss francs in dollars"), and then voilà. Oanda.com also allows you to print out a handy table with the current day's conversion rates. XE.com is another good currency conversion website.

Conversion sites

Google. www.google.com.

Oanda.com. www.oanda.com.

XE.com. www.xe.com.

Traveler's Checks

Some consider this the currency of the caveman, and it's true that fewer establishments accept traveler's checks these days. Using an ATM is preferable, but traveler's checks remain a cheap and secure way to carry extra money, particularly on trips to urban areas. Both Citibank (under the Visa brand) and American Express issue traveler's checks in the United States, but Amex is better known and more widely accepted; you can also avoid hefty surcharges by cashing Amex checks at Amex offices. Whatever you do, keep track of all the serial numbers in case the checks are lost or stolen.

Traveler's checks can be cashed at the state-run offices, at private banks, and at most major hotels within the cities (note that some exchange counters and many stores won’t accept traveler's checks). If you're going to rural areas and small towns, convert your traveler's checks to rubles before you go. Lost or stolen checks can usually be replaced within 24 hours. To ensure a speedy refund, buy your own traveler's checks—don't let someone else pay for them: irregularities like this can cause delays. The person who bought the checks should make request the refund.

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