Rossia cruise + spending cash in Russia

We took a cruise-tour in Russia, the 18-day “Tatars, Cossacks and the Golden Ring,” April 28-May 15, 2007, with Grand Circle Travel (Boston, MA; 800/221-2610,

The cost from Atlanta was $3,295 per person plus $241 for taxes and fees. Optional cancellation/medical insurance added $380. Russian visas were additional at $270 per couple using a visa service.

Departing on Delta’s direct flight from Atlanta to Moscow, we had a quick overnight and then flew Aeroflot from Moscow to Rostov on April 30 to board the 216-passenger Rossia. When the ship ultimately arrived in Moscow, it was our hotel there for two nights, including sightseeing.

Grand Circle has offered this trip once yearly for the past couple of years. The ships leave their winter berths on the Sea of Azov (the northeast part of the Black Sea) to sail the Don and Volga rivers from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow in order to begin the Moscow/St. Petersburg sailings during the spring, summer and fall seasons. There were at least four other ships doing this transitioning cruise the same time we were. Grand Circle offers extensions in Moscow in advance of the cruise and in St. Petersburg at the end.

The ship had been completely redone in Romania during the winter and was nicely upgraded in shades of navy and gold. Top- and middle-deck cabins are 150 square feet and lower-deck cabins, 130 square feet. The bathrooms were tastefully refurbished also.

Picture windows could be opened, and there were individual heating and air-conditioning controls in each cabin. Also included were a TV, small refrigerator, hair dryer and safe. On board were a one-seating dining room, small library, souvenir shop, hairdresser and doctor.

Coffee and tea were available 24 hours a day (no charge). Bills for onboard services were charged on

Visa, MasterCard and American Express in rubles only. The souvenir shop would take rubles, euros, credit cards and American dollars (25 rubles to the dollar).

The largest denomination of U.S. currency we took was 50 dollar bills, with plenty of smaller denominations and about 50 one-dollar bills. We exchanged money in Moscow, and anyplace we used American dollars nobody seemed interested in which treasury secretary had signed any of the bills (Jan. ’07, pg. 2).

In Samara we bought bottles of Sprite from a kiosk (rubles only). A couple of souvenir kiosks had prices in rubles but in dollars if you asked. I was only in two grocery stores and the goods were priced in rubles only.

In Ulyanovsk (formerly Simbirsk) I bought some simbircite (ammonite shell fossil) jewelry at the museum (rubles only). I was told this was the only place it was made. It is similar to agate.

In Yaroslavl we stopped by a small art museum with a display of lacquerware for sale on the second floor. These items were probably of the best quality to be found in the region, and expensive, as everything of good quality is nowadays; dollars, euros and credit cards were accepted. I also bought, at the same location, Russian chocolate bars for one dollar. I think they were 100 grams each.

I knew in advance that the best place for shopping was in Uglich. Vendors lined both sides of the street from the port into town. We paid for the items we bought with American dollars, but they were marked in rubles and euros. There did not seem to be a “rule of thumb” about the currency used; it depended on the vendor. Some (not many) had Visa and MasterCard signs.

Throughout the trip, where vendors were selling on the dock there would be those who would accept currency other than rubles and some who would not. Getting larger-denomination ruble bills changed into smaller ruble currency was a challenge, even for the 5-ruble note, worth about $20.

I felt I needed smaller change to give to the sweet little old ladies selling flowers on the street or at the dock. This is an area of Russia where the retired income of the older folks averages the equivalent of $125 per month. I do not know how these workers of the now-defunct Soviet regime can survive on that.

Our tour managers told us that normally these retirees’ children and grandchildren have to help support them. What do they do if they have no family? However, I did not see very many begging, and those who did were close to the churches tourists visit.

Our first trip to Russia was in 1977, and we went again in the late 80s, but I was not prepared for the nine lanes of traffic at a dead standstill during an afternoon traffic jam in Moscow!


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