If you’re visiting only Moscow and St. Petersburg, you’ll have no need to drive. If you don't speak Russian and don't have local knowledge, don't drive: the poor roads, reckless drivers, and unwanted police attention all make doing so dangerous. Even if you plan to make extensive side trips from these cities, you’ll find it much easier to do so by train, bus, or boat, or on organized tours. If you do decide to rent a car and drive, keep in mind that you must be comfortable driving on roads marked only with Cyrillic and/or international symbols; you must be willing to deal with the bribe-hungry traffic inspectors; and you must be prepared for poor and sometimes even dangerous road conditions. Even the main highways have potholes and are in poor condition. Repair stations are few and far between, and many places sell poor-quality gasoline. In addition, you shouldn’t underestimate the risk of crime: highway robbery and car theft are common, and foreign drivers are often targets. Don’t stop to help motorists whose cars appear to have broken down, even if they wave at you for help—this is a classic ambush technique. Never leave anything of value inside your car. In light of these concerns, you may wish to hire a car and driver rather than driving yourself .
Your driver's license isn’t acceptable in Russia. You'll need an International Driver's Permit and, if traveling into the country by car, an international certificate of registration of the car in the country of departure. You'll also need a certificate of obligation (which should be registered with customs at the point of entry; consult your rental company about this) if you have plans for driving a rental car in over the border. International Driving Permits (IDPs) are available from the American and Canadian automobile associations and, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association and Royal Automobile Club. All of these documents will need to have a certified Russian translation, which you can obtain at a Russian consulate or embassy before you leave.
More and more stations bearing the names of major oil companies have opened, and it's easy to find somewhere to fill up, even outside of major towns. However, you may not be able to pay with a credit card. Always ask for a chek, or receipt. Gas prices are comparable to those in the United States. It's also fairly easy to find unleaded gasoline; for leaded gas, foreign cars should be filled only with 95-octane gas. Russian-made cars run on 92-octane. Gas is sold by the liter. Some stations provide full service, while at others you pump your own gas.
Paid parking has recently been implemented in Moscow to relieve the city’s notorious traffic jams. Parking costs 50R per hour and payments are made through a special machine called a "parkomat," marked with a "P." Currently, Moscow has some off- street parking in the big shopping malls. Sometimes, random sections of curb will be cordoned off and you’ll be expected to pay a guard—who may or may not be acting in an official capacity—to park there. The "official" city parking guards should wear uniforms with the parking price—currently 50R per hour in the city center—printed on the back. Cars parked illegally will be fined heavily and run the risk of being towed away. The driver then has to spend hours filling in official documents and pay a fine. Expect to see stricter parking rules in Moscow as the current mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, has made improving transportation in the capital a top priority.
Around Moscow and St. Petersburg, most of the country roads have been paved with asphalt. Nonetheless, driving in winter can be dangerously slippery, and the spring thaw can turn roadways into lakes. Driving in snowy conditions in the cities is only for the experienced—Russian drivers see fallen snow as an obstacle to be overcome, not as a reason to take the metro.
Because service stations are few and poorly stocked, it's recommended that for long distances you carry a complete emergency repair kit, including a set of tools, a towing cable, a pressure gauge, a pump, a spare tire, a repair outfit for tubeless tires, a good jack and one or two tire levers, a gasoline can, a spare fan belt, spare windshield-wiper blades, and spark plugs. You should also have a set of headlight bulbs and fuses, a set of contact-breaker points for the ignition distributor, a spare condenser, a box of tire valve interiors, and a roll of insulating tape. There's no national emergency service to call, but if you're in the Moscow area, consider joining the Angel Club ( 495/747–0022 angelclub.ru), an autoclub that offers some emergency services.
Rules of the Road
Traffic keeps to the right. The speed limit on highways is 90 kph (56 mph); in towns and populated areas it's 60 kph (37 mph), although on the wide streets of Moscow few people observe this rule. It's illegal to use a mobile phone while driving, but again you’re likely to see many drivers on their phones. You can proceed at traffic intersections only when the light is green—this includes left and right turns. You must wait for a signal—an arrow—permitting the turn, and give way to pedestrians crossing. Wearing front seat belts is compulsory; driving while intoxicated carries very heavy fines, including imprisonment. Don’t consume any alcohol at all if you plan to drive. You should also keep your car clean—you can be fined for having a dirty car.
Traffic control in Russia is exercised by traffic inspectors (GIBDD, but still commonly known as GAI), who are stationed all over cities and at permanent posts out of town; they also patrol in cars and on motorcycles and like to sit in ambush. They may stop you for no apparent reason other than to check your documentation. In this event, you're not required to exit your vehicle. Don’t ignore attempts by a traffic cop—known colloquially as gaishnik—to flag you over. Remember that the GIBDD is regarded as a confounded nuisance by most Russians, and the friendly cop who will provide directions to gas stations or garages is rare. Traffic cops are also good at finding something wrong with your documentation and/or your driving; this may be nothing more than an attempt to secure a bribe.
Some hotels will make car-rental arrangements for you. Otherwise, several international car-rental agencies have offices in Moscow; be sure to reserve at least three days in advance.
Car-rental rates are all over the map in Russia, but if you shop around you should be able to get rates from the major chains for as low as $60 a day for a Russian car (manual, no air) with at least 100 free km (60 miles) per day. If you want a foreign car, automatic transmission, or air-conditioning, they’ll cost you more. These prices usually include the tax on car rentals, which is 18%. Insurance is mandatory (Russian rentals usually include the cost of insurance).
All agencies require advance reservations (at least two to three days is a good idea), and you'll have to show your driver's license, an International Driving Permit (IDP), and a credit card.
Children's car seats aren't mandatory in Russia, but agencies are able to provide them. Ask for one when you book your car. You'll pay about 125R per day for a seat, and some places may do it for free. If you're returning a car to Sheremetyevo II, bear in mind that shosse Leningradskoye leading to the airport is notoriously slow. Allow two hours for the drive from the center.
If you’d rather hire a car with driver—and we think it's a way to avoid a lot of potential hassle—you can do so for about 400R–1500R per hour. Major hotels will arrange this service for their guests. Some local tour companies, such as Patriarshy Dom Tours, or Western travel agents specializing in independent travel, such as Mir Corporation, can arrange daily-rate car-and-driver options, which are less expensive.
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Your driver's license may not be recognized outside your home country. You may not be able to rent a car without an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver's license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves.