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Hotel options in Russia have come a long way from the days of the state agency Intourist's monopoly on serving foreigners, but the country still has far too few mid-range hotel rooms to satisfy demand. Luxury chains were quick to recognize this new market and opened several top-class hotels in the 1990s, some opting for renovating elegant old hotels while others started from scratch. The most active chains in the luxury market are Marriott, InterContinental, Radisson, Sheraton, and Renaissance (now part of the Marriott chain). Holiday Inn (now part of the InterContinental hotel group) and Best Western have also entered the scene with somewhat cheaper offerings.

Even the highest-end locations sometimes offer deep discounts through online or traditional travel agencies or their own websites, up to 60% off the official or "rack" rate. It definitely pays to shop around. Most package tours rely on well-established Soviet-era hotels, usually enormous, architecturally bleak buildings offering the key services tourists need but with limited enthusiasm. The good news is that several of these hotels are renovating one floor at a time, and the increased price for the new rooms is usually well worth the fresh plumbing and improved service.

The best Russian hotel development in recent years is the flowering of the "mini-hotel" market in St. Petersburg. Dozens of hotels of 12 to 30 rooms have opened up, often occupying a few renovated floors of an apartment building. Most are centrally located and inexpensive, and offer eager, individual service that the big hotels lack. Unfortunately, Moscow's powerful hotel industry has kept this phenomenon largely at bay in the capital.

Hostels and traditional bed-and-breakfasts are rare though growing. Several companies rent out furnished apartments at rates much lower than the hotel rates. Quality varies widely, with some offering warm and helpful English-speaking hosts, others offering daily maid service and hotel-style assistance, and still others offering nothing but a key. Get the opinions of previous guests through websites such as www.frommers.com or www.virtualtourist.com before booking.

Russian hotels tend to be emptier in winter and busier in summer, especially around St. Petersburg's White Nights festival from late June to early July. Rates usually reflect this. Be aware of any big festivals or holiday events that might fill up hotels.

Neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg offers an official reservations service, and your chances of just showing up and getting a room are slim, even in hostels. You are strongly recommended to reserve in advance by phone or online; the cost is usually lower that way as well. Another advantage of reserving ahead is that most hotels will arrange for your visa, and register it once you arrive.

Hotels often have "floor monitors" employed round-the-clock who in the Soviet era often acted as KGB informers; now they're basically nosy chambermaids and sometimes they'll make guests tea.

Russia's star-rating system is only gradually adjusting to the international standard and is an unreliable source of judging quality.

Bed & Breakfasts, Home Stays & Apartment Rentals

Opting for less conventional accommodations can inject your trip with individuality and flexibility -- or it could tangle you in scams and unfulfilled promises. If you choose wisely, these three options can offer comfort, charm, and a convenient location at a reasonable price. Be aware that they lack many of the security features and financial guarantees of big hotels, and that rates and quality vary widely.

Just because a Russian hotel calls itself a "bed-and-breakfast" doesn't mean it will look anything like what you'd expect. Russian tourism gurus have taken the term to mean just about anything: an upscale urban hotel, a room in a student dormitory, a spotless apartment serviced by a real estate agency, or a cramped room in a family's apartment vacated just for the duration of your stay. There is no single body regulating who or what can call itself a B&B. The website www.bnb.ru, for example, is a portal for Russian accommodations of any category, from high-end Marriott hotels to long-term real estate deals. The main thing to keep in mind is that in Moscow and St. Petersburg, bed-and-breakfasts are urban experiences, not village cottages with fruit fresh from the orchard. Russian B&Bs usually occupy a single apartment or a floor of an apartment building. Some were once communal apartments, with entire families sharing single rooms and the whole floor sharing a single bathroom and kitchen, but today they are entirely renovated and quite comfortable.

In St. Petersburg, you'll see lots of places advertised as "mini-hotels." These are often a renovated floor of an apartment building, and they offer more services than most bed-and-breakfasts but are less expensive and more intimate than the massive Soviet-era hotels most tour groups prefer.

Renting a private apartment for your stay is also popular, opening up more options in price and location than the hotel industry can. This is especially convenient during high seasons, such as the White Nights in St. Petersburg, when hotels fill up fast. The safest bet is to use a real estate agency that services the apartment and is available for assistance at all hours in case of emergency. Many individual apartment owners also advertise rentals online or hover around international airports and train stations, but most of these are risky propositions.

If you're seeking a closer look at day-to-day Russian existence, or want to learn or practice Russian, a homestay can be a good option. The ideal homestay is an apartment with a family history and a family member eager to tell you about it, as opposed to someone merely renting out a room for extra cash. Your room will probably be packed with the family's stuff, a library's worth of books, and a few generations' worth of knickknacks. Your host will clear out a shelf in the overstuffed closet for your belongings, but little more. The best way to determine what you're getting into is to call your hosts before you reserve, or at least before you pay. (This is also a good way to check how well they speak English.)

Note: With any of the above options, be sure to find out before you reserve whether they can arrange your visa invitation. If not, you'll need to find a reputable travel agency to take care of that for you, which could cost up to 5,000 rubles more and takes at least 2 weeks.

  • Russian Travel Service (www.123russia.com): This service arranges homestays in St. Petersburg with English-speaking or Russian-only hosts. Rates start at 500 rubles per night. They'll ask you about your animal and food allergies and arrange your visas.
  • Host Families Association (www.hofa.ru): This service arranges homestays in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, with either Russian or English-speaking hosts. Rates start at 625 rubles per night.
  • City Realty (www.cityrealtyrussia.com): This company provides serviced apartments of all categories in Moscow and St. Petersburg, from 1,250 rubles per night.

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.