John and I are (all being well) off to Russia at the end of this month. We’re staying in Moscow for two nights then taking a sleeper train to St Petersburg, then staying there for another two nights before flying home.

I’m a bit of a nervous bunny when organising such things – mostly because if I get something wrong in the planning/booking stage, it’s a waste of quite a bit of money. Consequently, it took me a while (think, months) to actually book the flights and the hotels. We got that sorted a few weeks ago though so then my attention turned to getting the visas.

To get a tourist visa for Russia in this country (UK), you need the following:

  • a passport, valid for six months after your return
  • a passport photograph
  • a completed application form
  • supporting documents from your hotel in Russia, assuming you’re staying at a hotel and that hotel is registered with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or has an arrangement with one that is).

t point is the real issue though. Not all, particularly cheaper, hotels are registered; it can be an arse getting the correct documentation if you don’t understand Russian; you’ll need a fax to receive them or wait for them in the post; some hotels make you pay handsomely for the pleasure; and, you can only have an invitation from one hotel, which can be a problem if (like us) you’re staying in more than one place. We struck lucky: our hotel in Moscow not only agreed to cover us for the whole trip, as long as we didn’t cancel the room, they did it all for free.

It was still a pain though. I’m on first-name email terms with the (very helpful) Reservation Secretary after all the correspondence we’ve exchanged. I also had a fax issue: I could have them sent to the office but couldn’t send the initial forms from here so I had to trudge over to Media Services and pay a considerable amount for the privelege of sending them from there. When the documents finally arrived back, they were only for me (not me and John) and had the wrong dates on them so another set of emails began. I felt like dancing when I finally got the correct forms in my hands.

So, with all the necessary bits of paper collected together and having filled in the comprehensive application form, I started on the next stage: actually getting the visa. I could, if I was so inclined, take all my bits down to London or up to Edinburgh and queue at the embassy myself. But, when I worked out the costs, I realised it as cheap to go with an agent to do the processing for me.

I looked at a few different options but the best seemed to be: either Russia or Scott’s Tours. I went with the latter because it was a bit cheaper and they were mentioned in my guidebooks.

On top of the £30 fee at the embassy, Scott’s Tours charge £30+VAT per visa for the service (although because we were getting two done, they knocked it down to £25+VAT). They can provide the support documents too but charge a hefty £50+VAT per person for that. (If I hadn’t got the support documents from the hotel, I would have gone with Russia Direct as they do an all-in package for £75 per person – as opposed to the £30 then £80+VAT of Scott’s Tours.)

I can’t say I found Scott’s Tours incredibly easy to deal with considering I was paying them circa £60 just to take the forms and passports to the embassy, then collect them again and put them in the special delivery post back to me (which I was paying for on top of the service charge). Maybe it was a lost in translation thing but the emails seemed a bit condescending and the sales person I spoke to one the phone was a bit short with me. I guess I wanted someone to hold my hand through a process I hadn’t done before but I didn’t really get that from them.

But they got the job done. I called them the day after I sent off the forms and our passports and was told that not only had they received them but they had already lodged them with the embassy. Because we had the time to do it, we let the embassy take 8 working days to process the visas (it’s cheaper that way). Scott’s Tours told me they would collect them on the 15th August and lo, on the 16th August I got a card in the post saying I had a special delivery item to collect from the sorting office (because we weren’t in when they tried to deliver it). It cost £123 in total for the two visas, plus handling and registered post back to us.

If I go to Russia again, I’d probably go down the agency-doing-all-the-work path – whether I can get the support documents from the hotel or not – and just build it in to the general expense of the holiday. Getting the paperwork shouldn’t have been hard but along with planning everything else, it was just one little stress I could have done without.