Now that you know how and where to buy train tickets, I will explain you which category of tickets to buy. First I will talk about the long distance train (sleeping car) and than about the Sapsan (Russians fast trains).
You can find 3 categories in these trains: плацкарт (“platzkart”), купе (“coupé”) and люкс (first class).
In platzkart, the all coach is open and can contain up to 54 beds; you don’t have a physical separation (a door) between the kinds of compartments. There is a long corridor, on one side you have 2 seats (that turns into two beds + two beds on top of them) and on the opposite side you have 1 seat (as a bed, which turns into two chairs and a table when you fold it + 1 bed on top of it). This is the 3rd class, beds are quite small, people can be noisy and you might have trouble to sleep there. However it’s very friendly, people usually share their drinks and food, they will talk to you very easily and there is more fresh air. If you are young, that you sleep well and are travelling for more than 12 hours, I strongly advise you platzkart. It’s usually fun and you will meet new people, especially as a foreigner. And of course it’s cheap! A personal advice: try to take the bottom seats if available (the same for “coupé”) as you can put all your personal belongings under the seat. If someone would like to steal them while you are sleeping, he would have to pull up your bed (with you on it) without you noticing it!! Generally speaking, travelling by train is safe and I’ve never heard of any story of people getting robbed in Russian trains. However, it’s always better to be careful, especially as a foreigner.
“Coupé” is the 2nd class; in each couch there are 9 closed compartments of 4 persons (36 passengers) with 2 seats down and 2 beds up. The sits can turn into bed whenever you want. It’s quite comfortable with longer beds and it’s quieter (if all your neighbors don’t snore!). It can be very friendly as well but usually it’s more families and older people, drinking beer at 2 in the morning might not happen there!! If you only want to sleep or if you like when it’s very quiet it’s a good option. As well if your travel is not too long, and you are just looking for comfort, than you should take it! Many Russians will tell you that Platzkart is awful and full of smelly people, it’s not really true. Of course if you take the train in summer when it’s +40°c outside, you might consider “coupé”, on a normal basis, it’s fairly good. If you are on a tight budget, know that it’s usually from 2 to 3 times more expensive and if you don’t speak any Russian, the chances that your neighbors only speak Russian are quite high.
“Люкс” is the 1st class; it’s quite similar to “coupé” but with only 2 persons in each compartment (a maximum of 16 to 18 passengers in each couch). In some trains you can have additional services such as drinks and food, a radio and even a TV. This is usually on special trains. You can even get some compartments for 1 person with its toilet and shower, but it’s quite rare. There is also an air conditioning system that can be very appreciated in summer time (I’m only guessing tough, since I never traveled in “люкс”!). The price difference between “coupé” and 1st class is between one and a half and two. It also depends on the services, and if you are alone or with someone else it the compartment.
To summarize, the Russian railways system offers a wide offer in the level of services as well as on the price. You can choose cheap and eventually noisy, not so comfortable (still quite good) and on my own experience very friendly and even fun. You can have a better comfort for a still affordable price, but it won’t be such a Russian experience! And you have the last option, it’s comfortable and quite expensive, but other than that I can’t really tell more since I never used it. The level of comfort will also depend a lot on the trains! It’s like in France where you can travel in a TGV in first class and you won’t even have a plug while in another train you had plugs even in 2nd class. If someone knows which trains you should try to choose first and which one to avoid (if possible), it’s with great pleasure that I will accept your comments!
In some of the long-distance trains that run during the day, you can find a 4th class where you are seated, usually for travels not exceeding 8 hours. Since December 17th 2009, you can take a high speed train, the Sapsan (witch means Peregrine Falcon in Russian), between St-Petersburg and Moscow (3h45-4h15) and between Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod (3h50-3h55). The train capacity is 604 passengers, all seated, you have business and economic class and both are very comfortable. In first class you have complimentary drinks and snacks included in the price, a screen with movies and games (like in planes), a plug (for your computer for example) as well as newspapers in Russian and in English. 1st class is almost twice as expensive as 2nd class.
The Sapsan from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg can stop as well in 5 different cities (depending on the trains) and there is a total of seven trains a day. The stops are: Тверь, Бологое, Вышний Волочек, Чудово and Окуловка. For the details of the schedule, I advise you to check directly the official site: http://sapsan.su/schedule.htm. Unfortunately it’s in Russian but here you have the direct link to the schedule so even in Russian it’s easy to check all the information!
The Sapsan from Moscow to Nizhniy-Novgorod can stop in 2 cities (also depending on the trains) and there are two trains every day. Both stop at Владимир, and one train only stops at Дзержинск, the morning one.
I hope that you now have all the necessary information to choose your train ticket category, if you have any cool anecdotes or any advises to give, please do not hesitate to leave comments! The next article will be on travels in suburban train (электричка)!
French version: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/2011/11/voyager-en-train-en-russie-quels.html