Though capitalism has brought Russia more in line with the economies of the West, money matters continue to vex visitors. Red caviar, symphony tickets, and haircuts can barely dent your wallet; rubbery pizza and roach-ridden hotels can drain it. Russia can be quite cheap, though visitors on escorted tours may not notice, as accommodations are often overpriced and tour operators charge a premium. Cash is by far the most popular form of payment among Russians, but credit cards are increasingly accepted. ATMs are widely available in Moscow and St. Petersburg and are generally reliable.
Frommer's lists prices in the local currency. However, rates fluctuate, so before departing consult a currency exchange website such as www.oanda.com/convert/classic to check up-to-the-minute rates.
Russia's ruble is still making the transition to becoming a truly "hard" currency, which means very few banks abroad will sell you rubles (in cash or traveler's checks) before you leave home or buy them back from you when you return. The U.S. dollar was the de facto second currency in the 1990s as the ruble lost all credibility among Russians. In recent years the ruble has remained quite stable, even stronger than the dollar, and inflation has calmed down considerably, though Russians still prefer to keep their savings in dollars or euros. If you're not queasy about carrying cash from home, change it at the currency exchange booths found at all airports, hotels, and most street corners. Exchange booths in town offer more competitive rates than do hotels and airports and do not charge commissions, though most buy only U.S. dollars and euros. Be sure to have crisp, new bills, as exchange booths often refuse well-worn notes or those printed pre-1995. Note that prices listed on menus and in shops are often in dollars or euros, though only rubles are accepted as payment. This is a remnant of the 1990s, when the ruble's value plunged daily.
Most prices listed are in rubles. Some are listed in U.S. dollars or euros, following Russian hotel and restaurant practice.
The easiest way to get cash in Moscow and St. Petersburg is from an ATM. The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe; look at the back of your bank card to see which network you're on. Most Russian ATMs accept both. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) before you leave home, and be sure to find out your daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Also keep in mind that many banks impose a fee every time a card is used at a different bank's ATM; that fee can be higher for international transactions than for domestic ones. On top of this, the Russian bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own small fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank. To limit these charges, take out as much money as you're comfortable with at once.
You can also get cash advances on your credit card at an ATM. Credit card companies try to protect themselves from theft by limiting the funds you can withdraw outside your home country, so call your credit card company before you leave home. And keep in mind that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time.
Few places in Russia accept traveler's checks outside major hotels and restaurants, and those that do usually accept only American Express. If you have checks from elsewhere, call your hotel in advance to see if they're accepted. Currency exchange booths in the major hotels generally accept traveler's checks, but most other exchange booths do not.
Traveler's checks are something of an anachronism from the days before the ATM made cash accessible at any time. Traveler's checks used to be the only sound alternative to traveling with dangerously large amounts of cash. They were as reliable as currency but, unlike cash, could be replaced if lost or stolen. These days, traveler's checks are less necessary because most cities have 24-hour ATMs that allow you to withdraw small amounts of cash as needed. However, keep in mind that you will likely be charged an ATM withdrawal fee if the bank is not your own.
You can buy traveler's checks at most banks. They are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233, or tel. 800/221-7282 for cardholders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322) -- AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee (for checks up to $1,500) at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378; and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Be sure to keep a record of the traveler's checks' serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa, and MasterCard offer foreign currency traveler's checks, useful if you're traveling to one country or to the Euro zone; they're accepted at locations where dollar checks may not be.
Another option is the new prepaid traveler's check cards, reloadable cards that work much like debit cards but aren't linked to your checking account. The American Express Travelers Cheque Card, for example, requires a minimum deposit, sets a maximum balance, and has a one-time issuance fee of $15. You can withdraw money from an ATM (for a fee of $2.50 per transaction, not including bank fees), and the funds can be purchased in dollars, euros, or pounds. If you lose the card, your available funds will be refunded within 24 hours.
Credit cards are welcome in nearly all Russian hotels and many restaurants, but many museums and train stations take only cash. Cards most commonly accepted in Russia are American Express, Visa, MasterCard, and Eurocard. Places that take Diners Club are rare, and those that take Discover are nearly nonexistent.
Credit cards are a safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can also withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, provided you know your PIN. If you've forgotten yours, or didn't even know you had one, call the number on the back of your credit card and ask the bank to send it to you. It usually takes 5 to 7 business days, though some banks will provide the number over the phone if you tell them your mother's maiden name or some other personal information. Keep in mind that when you use your credit card abroad, most banks assess a 2% fee above the 1% fee charged by Visa, MasterCard, or American Express for currency conversion on credit charges. But credit cards still may be the smart way to go when you factor in exorbitant ATM fees and higher traveler's check exchange rates (and service fees).
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.