Simon Calder's Holiday Helpdesk: Advice please on visas for out Moscow trip

Every day our travel guru answers your travel questions

Q On a bit of a whim I booked two cheap flights to Moscow in June for myself and my 11-year-old daughter. We have both always wanted to visit Moscow to see its fabulous buildings and experience the rich culture, so it seemed like a good idea at the time! Since booking I have looked into obtaining visas and it seems like a minefield of red tape. Do you happen to know the process?

Matt Denby, West Yorkshire

A Congratulations, Matt. You are one of the very first to realise that the Russian capital is a “big, new destination” for 2013 is the. Big: this is the largest city in the biggest country in the world, and with eight million inhabitants, tops anything in Western Europe, including London. New: Moscow joins the no-frills route network, with easyJet flying in the spring from Gatwick and Manchester to the city’s best airport, Domodedovo. And after decades when it has been difficult or impossible to find a flight below £200 return, there are at last tickets at less than £100. (Usual rules for finding these apply: book well ahead, and avoid Friday/Sunday/school holiday peaks.)

The attractions, too, are immense: stand in the middle of the vast Red Square, and the domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, the walls of the Kremlin, the Lenin Mausoleum and the nation’s foremost shopping venue – GUM – stretch beyond your field of vision. And that is just the start of the repertoire of fascination that awaits you. But before you reach the fine art, grandiose architecture and gastronomic adventures, you need to jump through some bureaucratic hoops.

Obtaining a visa is an expensive and time-consuming business that has hardly changed since Soviet days. First, you have to get your ground arrangements sorted out – which for your trip presumably means just booking a hotel. But don’t imagine that an email by way of confirming your plans will suffice: you need an officially stamped and signed “tourist voucher/confirmation” from the “inviting organisation” – usually, the hotel.

Having acquired this precious document, you can start applying for a visa through the outsourced visa provider, ru.vfsglobal.co.uk. The normal price is £27.60 per person, and you need to allow plenty of time for the process.

All in all a daunting process, and one that you might want to place in the hands of a long-established expert, such as Regent Holidays (regentholidays.co.uk) – which can guide you through the bureaucracy. It may prove more expensive than the DIY experience, but the extra is well worthwhile to avoid the pitfalls that await the unwary visitor to Russia.

One final tip: between now and June, gently teach yourselves the Cyrillic alphabet and a few words of Russian. Being able quickly to comprehend signposts will make your stay much easier, in particular finding your way around on the marvellous Moscow Metro.

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