Families: 'Can we visit Russia's major cities in a week?'

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Q. We are planning a family holiday before my daughter goes to university later this year. Russian history features on her course so we are considering Russia for what might be our last family holiday. However, I've heard travelling to Russia is prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain visas. How might we go about arranging a trip? Is it best to go independently or to book a package? We'd like to visit both Moscow and St Petersburg but aren't sure if that's too ambitious for a one-week trip. There will be four of us, including two teenage daughters, and our budget is £5,000. G Howell, via email

A. A trip to the Russian Federation should not only inspire your eldest daughter but also the rest of your family. As you mention, spending just a week in the world's largest country is ambitious. But focusing on the two largest cities will provide a good flavour of this vast and fascinating nation, taking in the imperial splendour of the former capital, St Petersburg, and the hyperactive modernisation of the present capital, Moscow.

By Russian standards, the distance between Moscow and St Petersburg isn't great: 650km. Given that your time is so constrained, you may want to cover the ground between them swiftly.

If you possibly can, fly in to one city and out of the other, covering the distance between by rail.

St Petersburg is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) from Heathrow and the national carrier Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; www.aeroflot.co.uk) from Gatwick and Heathrow.

Moscow has two airports: Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo. The latter is the hub of Aeroflot (which flies from Heathrow) and is closer to the city centre. Domodedovo is served by a wider variety of airlines, including BA, BMI (0870 60 70 555; www. flybmi.com) and Transaero (0870 770 2852; www.trans-aero.com) from Heathrow.

Book an "open jaw" ticket into Moscow and out of St Petersburg. British Airways is currently showing return fares of £390 per person in late July which would bring the total for flights to £1,560.

Travelling overland between the cities would also give you a glimpse of rural Russia. The luxury Grand Express train (007 495 787 5369; www.grandexpress.ru) operates an overnight service between Moscow and St Petersburg and deposits you early enough to enjoy a full day's sightseeing.

Since the train is aimed at business travellers, it's cheaper to travel on Saturdays, with one-way fares in a first-class sleeper costing 4,950 roubles (£106) per person including cooked breakfast.

If you prefer not to travel overnight, evening services taking under five hours depart Moscow at 6.30pm for a fare of around £26.

Now on to the question of visas. This year's Champions League final in Moscow drew attention to the complexity of untangling the red tape. You should apply well in advance to the Embassy of the Russian Federation, 13 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX (020-7229 8027; www.rusemblon.org). You must also provide a tourist voucher, which you can obtain from a tour operator or your hotel, as well as a confirmation letter in Russian. The fee is £45.

Accommodation is variable – particularly in Moscow, which is officially the world's most expensive city to sleep in. This is largely down to a shortage of beds, as old Soviet-era buildings are being knocked down to be replaced with more modern and luxurious offerings.

However, the central Suharevka Hostel (007 910 420 3446; www.suharevkahotel.ru) offers small doubles from a bargain 1,225 roubles (£26), room only.

Also within walking distance of the Kremlin and Red Square is the smart, modern Swissotel Krasnye Holmy (007 495 787 9800; www.swissotel.com), which charges 10,709 roubles (£229) per double, room only.

Better value and choice can be found in St Petersburg. The Neva Hotel (007 812 273 2563; www.nevahotel.spb.ru) is a central option in a turn-of-the-century building with recently redecorated rooms starting at 4,300 roubles (£92), room only. Cheaper rooms are offered at the former home of composer Rachmaninov (007 812 571 7618; www.hotelrachmaninov.com). Antique-filled doubles start at 3,600 roubles (£77), including breakfast and visa support.

Given the amount of bureaucracy and hassle involved in setting up an independent trip, many visitors are tempted to hand over the organisation of the trip to a specialist operator, such as Russia Experience (020-8566 8846; www.beetroot.org). Its seven-night Beetroot Express trip takes in Moscow and St Petersburg and costs a very reasonable £349 per person, excluding flights and visas. The price includes airport transfers, three nights' basic hotel accommodation in Moscow, three in St Petersburg, overnight train journey in a four-berth compartment and guided sightseeing. The company can also help organise your visas.

If you go for this option, the total for the British Airways flights above, accommodation, transport and basic sightseeing would come to £2,956.

Regent Holidays (0845 277 331; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) is another specialist offering trips in Russia.

Family travel queries: The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email crusoe@independent.co.uk