A journey on the Trans Siberian Railway should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is one of the greatest train adventures in the world. Our experience is amazing, especially since we travel in ‘spring’ and see Siberia with snow! Before stepping on the train, we dive into the internet to find EVERYTHING there is about this magical train ride. We have read many blogs and tips, and scrolled through LOTS of information. After traveling the train ride ourselves we made a list of the 17 ultimate tips and trust us: this is all the information you need!
Booking your tickets
Book your train tickets on your own, not through an agency
It will be a lot cheaper if you buy the tickets yourself directly from the Russian Railway website. The first time booking a ticket takes us a little longer due to language (the website is half English half Russian), and our credit card payment gets rejected a couple of times. But once you get the hang of it, it is the best way to get the cheapest tickets. You can also buy tickets on the go for the same price. Nonetheless buying tickets at the train station with no English speaking Russians seems too hard to us at first. Eventually we do make it happen one time though! As you can only buy tickets for trains in Russia on the website, we have to go to a train station for our ticket into China. We have to admit we have booked our ticket into Mongolia through an agency (we recommend Real Russia), as we need the certainty for our Mongolian visa.
Go on multiple train rides and visit some cities
If you have time, go out and see places instead of staying in the train for a week. Staying on the train is awesome but you will miss out on a lot of the culture. In addition, staying on only one train can be boring. We meet an Irish guy who travels the Trans Mongolian Express in once, and therefore he has booked a ticket on an international train. That resulted in him being all alone in the compartment during the ride (locals are not travelling by expensive international trains) and most of the stops takes place at very inconvenient night-times (because it goes in one go).
Book trains with different numbers (if you go on multiple rides)
There are many different train numbers riding (parts of) the Trans Siberian/Mongolian track. Beforehand we read the quality varies a lot between lower (great, classy, international trains) and higher numbers (less quality, but cheaper). In our experience, the higher numbers we take the more authentic the train feels. We take a very fancy and expensive 002ЙА, but enjoy the rides on the more cosy trains 082ИА, 140HA, 008HA, 012УА, 362 (into Mongolia) and the 004 (into China) even better!
Book different classes (if you go on multiple rides)
On most trains there are 1st, 2nd and 3rd class wagons, and even two options for the second class (with or without food). We travel in second class mostly. That means you travel in a closed 4-bed coupé. One train ride we travel third class, which is an amazing experience. In third class there are bunk beds, the big difference with third class is that there are no doors. This makes it look and feel like a 45-bed dormitory! People even say travelling third class is safer, because of social surveillance.
Preparing for the ride
Learn some basics words, download offline dictionaries & download Russian/Chinese keyboards on your phone
First of all, you are travelling in countries where the English-level is low, if they speak English at all. Travelling by train also means meeting (local) people and – believe us – you want to become friends. If only because they can help you when you have problems. So we recommend that you learn at least the Russian words for thank you, some things like hello, goodbye, and nice to meet you. Knowing some words guarantees a smile on locals’ faces – even on the harsh-looking-Russian faces! Luckily you do not need to follow an entire language course beforehand, since there are many handy apps (Google translate offline!) to help you with your conversations.
Charge your electronics
On most trains there are some outlets in the hallway and on the toilet. Only one time (the fancy train ride) we have an outlet in our coupe. It is best to just charge all your devices beforehand.
Pack light clothing
Packing light clothes for Siberia? Yeah! During winter and spring the heating on the train is working overtime, it gets bloody hot. And with the sun burning through the train windows – that can not always open – it is highly recommended to bring light clothing. So do bring your shorts, tank top and some flip-flops – you’ll need it. We even saw people cool off in their summer clothing at the stations with an outside temperature around -9 degrees Celsius.
Bring tea, noodles, instant coffee, and optional: some beef cubes
There is free hot water on the train! So bring a cup and bowl/lunch box with you and enjoy your warm drinks and meals. Bring enough food, because the restaurant wagon is expensive. And while some people tell us there are cute old women selling stuff at all stations, we have not seen any (might be the wrong time of the year).
Take cleansing wipes and toilet paper with you
There are toilets, but not always toilet paper, and there is water on the train. However, you will not stay fresh forever, so bring some cleansing wipes and toilet paper.
Pack ear buds
Always a good idea to bring ear buds when sharing a coupe with strangers. We are happy we have them when we share the small space with a snoring drunk Russian guy and a mum with a crying baby.
Bring some things to share with you
You can bring drinks like vodka or beers, snacks, card games or just an open attitude. Anything you can share will give you the most memorable moments in return! We do have to mention we are happy we do not bring vodka, because we only meet Russians who don’t drink vodka!
Be prepared to meet all kind of people
If not in your coupe, you may meet them in the hallway/restaurant car/at the station. We have had great meetings with the nicest Russian guys (who appeared much tougher than they were) and giggly tea-partying ladies, but we also encountered challenges with a drunken Russian guy and a mum with a baby. It is all part of a great experience, but you will have to be prepared (mentally) for it.
On the train
Clean the window
Before you even make your bed, check if your window is transparent enough! We had to clean it once, because it was too dirty to even look through. It will ruin your view (and your pictures), so make sure it is clean!
Make friends with the people you share the coupé with
This is the fun part; make friends! Most of the time you are on the train for a while, make yourself at home and get to meet the people with whom you share the experience of the ride. In addition, you might need them! Almost all train employees can’t speak English.
Know the trains stops and get out for some fresh air
In every train there is a list with all the stops and the duration of the stops. If the stop is longer than twenty minutes, go out, get some air and buy some (local) food/drinks at the station.
Go to the toilet in time
They almost always lock the door of the toilet when the train gets to a train station. Most of the time you can go to the toilet at the train station, but sometimes they don’t let you off. This is the case when you are crossing the border, and in that case you sometimes have to wait two to three hours!
Pay attention where you have to get off
After surviving the hours/days on the train, you have to make sure you don’t miss your stop! Sometimes the conductor comes to tell you it’s time, but sometimes they don’t. We read you can ask them to tell you, but with the language barrier we decide to figure it out ourselves. And make sure to clean your bed when you leave, someone else might get on the train and has to sleep in your bed!
If you like our tips, please share it with someone you think should travel the Trans Siberian Railway!
And if somehow we missed something, let us know.