November 14, 2003 -- Put on your fur hat and get a hot cup of coffee, because Eastern European destinations get really cheap during the winter. This week, Finnair is offering very low fares to destinations in Russia, the Baltics and even Scandinavia, and two packagers are offering discounted hotel/airfare deals.
The Finnair sale is the hottest thing out there to Russia right now. For flights from New York and Miami via Helsinki, they're offering the following fares (roundtrip, before $100 tax):
- From New York to Helsinki, Copenhagen, Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw, Stockholm: $299
- From New York to Moscow, St. Petersburg: $399
- From Miami to Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Moscow: $399
- From Miami to Warsaw: $445
- From Miami to Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn: $499
A seven-day advance purchase is required to get these fares, as is a weekend night stay. The fares are good for trips of up to one month between Jan. 11 and April 4. Buy the tickets online at www.finnair.com -- travel agency Web sites don't seem to have access to these fares.
Russia can be a tough place to be a tourist. If you'd like some more hand-holding, Eastern Tours has a semi-guided tour using those same Finnair flights for $699 + $149 tax ($848) double occupancy from New York. Readers on our message boards love Eastern Tours, and we share their enthusiasm.
Their eight-day "Land of Tzars" tour (www.traveltorussia.com/LandOfTzars.asp) gives you four days in St. Petersburg, three days in Moscow, a whirlwind three-hour tour of Helsinki, hotels, tours of the Hermitage and Kremlin, a train ride between the two cities and most importantly an English-speaking guide for the trip.
Their Moscow hotel isn't very central, but Moscow is a disastrous sprawl anyway, the hotel is near a subway station, and this is a great price. The $699 tour is good for Thursday departures between now and March 15; call 800/339-6967 to book.
The Hurry Up and Wait Department. Welcome to Russian Bureaucracy!
It really helps to use a travel agent when flying to Russia, because it's a bureaucratic pain in the butt to get a Russian tourist visa. You'll get it, you just need to make a bunch of phone calls and jump through a bunch of hoops.
You need a voucher from your hotel in Russia, a cover letter detailing your itinerary (which you can write yourself), and a horrifying $100 processing fee. (Eastern Tours charges $125 to get your visa for you, including the processing fee; we think that's fine. The hassle is worth $25.) Allow at least two weeks to get the visa. For details, see http://russianembassy.org/CONSULAT/TOUR-VIS.HTM.
Finland, Denmark, Poland and the Baltics are considerably friendlier -- you don't need a visa to enter any of those countries.
Is it worth the challenge to see Russia? Talk about it on our Russia Message Boards.