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Escorted General-Interest Tours

Russia's tourism industry is only beginning to tap the travel possibilities across the world's largest country. No roads exist across much of the territory, and hotels and services in small towns are often little better than gulags. All this makes an escorted tour -- with a group leader, including airfare, hotels, meals, admission costs, and local transportation -- quite appealing. The chief benefit is that the tour company negotiates the hassle of getting a visa; it's also handy to have tour guides navigate museums and street signs labeled in Russian only. The main drawback of an escorted tour is its high cost.

Special-interest tours remain rare in Moscow and St. Petersburg, though some adventure and ecological tours take you to the wilds of the Russian Far East or the Trans-Siberian railway.

For general-interest tours to Russia's premier cities, Escorted Russian Tours (tel. 800/942-3301; www.escortedrussiantours.com) provides a range of offerings focusing on Moscow and St. Petersburg, as do the U.K.-based Russian Gateway (tel. 07050-803-160; www.russiangateway.co.uk) and the Russian-based www.tourstorussia.com.

One popular excursion is a cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It takes your boat about 10 days to wind through rivers and canals, with stops at the island monastery at Valaam, the fairy tale-like wooden village of Kizhi, lakes Ladoga and Onega, and the Volga river towns of Yaroslavl and Kostroma. Russian Tours (www.rus-tours.com) and Russiana (www.russiana.co.uk) are two places to start.

Package Tours

Package tours are simply a way to buy the airfare, accommodations, and other elements of your trip (such as car rentals, airport transfers, and sometimes even activities) at the same time and often at discounted prices -- kind of like one-stop shopping. Packages are sold in bulk to tour operators -- who resell them to the public at a cost that usually undercuts standard rates.

Two tour companies to try are Eastern Tours, run by Russian émigrés and focusing on reasonably priced tours to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev (tel. 800/339-6967; www.traveltorussia.com); and Cosmos Tours, which includes several Russian packages (tel. 800/276-1241; www.cosmos.com). Be sure to read reviews of their tours by former clients on www.frommers.com or other independent websites.

Many of the mainstream packagers haven't caught on to Russia yet, so the choices are more limited. Russia-based packages are cheaper but riskier than those based in your home country; be sure to get as much insurance and guaranties as you can. Places to check include Tour Vacations To Go (tel. 800/680-2858; www.tourvacationstogo.com) and Budget Travel (www.budgettravel.com). Russia-based agencies include Russia Info-Center (tel. 495/939-1605; www.russia-ic.com) and www.homestays.ru, which offers high-end hotels as well as homestays.

Before you invest in a package tour, get some answers. Ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. Then look up the hotels' reviews on Frommers.com and check their rates online for your specific dates of travel. You'll also want to find out what type of room you get. If you need a certain type of room, ask for it; don't take whatever is thrown your way. Request a nonsmoking room, a quiet room, a room with a view, or whatever you fancy.

Finally, look for hidden expenses. Ask whether airport departure fees and taxes, for example, are included in the total cost.

Academic Trips & Language Classes

"Russia cannot be understood with the mind/Or by an ordinary yardstick/She has a special status/All you can do is believe in Russia." So goes an oft-quoted verse by 19th-century Romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev that has stood as a challenge to foreign scholars of Russia and Russian ever since. What better way to prove him wrong and expand your understanding than to take a language tour in Russia? It is certain to be intense and productive, as English speakers and familiar lettering are scarcer here than in Western Europe. Tours linked to reputable Russian universities are the least risky and most streamlined. Study Russian (tel. 495/939-0980; www.studyrussian.com) offers language lessons in Moscow or St. Petersburg for all skill levels and can tailor them to your business specialty. Courses in Russian history or literature are also available. Visas and accommodations are arranged for you. The Center for Russian Language (tel. 495/939-1463; www.ruslanguage.ru) arranges courses and accommodations at a dormitory; conditions are basic but comfortable and immersion is guaranteed.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.