Maybe it's a holdover from Communist days, when Soviet citizens patiently queued up to buy meat, vegetables, and other necessities of life from poorly stocked groceries, but lines seem to be part of Russian culture. The trick is knowing how to avoid them—and I recently learned how to avoid one of the most infamous: the line for tickets to St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. I’ve heard horror stories of people waiting in the ticket line for two or three hours during peak summer times, but even when I visited, on an Icy November day, the line was hundreds of people long by the time the museum opened its doors. But I was able to go straight in because I had already purchased my ticket, more than a week in advance, from the museum’s official website.
After you make your e-purchase you will be emailed a PDF voucher, which you must print out at home and present (along with a valid ID, like a passport) in a special office just inside the museum courtyard. In return you’ll be given an admission ticket, and off you go, bypassing the line of people who, for whatever reason, would rather wait…and wait…and wait to get inside. Tickets cost about $17, including the right to take photos of the artworks. Considering that the Hermitage is one of the world’s greatest museums, housed in several of Russia’s most beautiful buildings (built by Catherine the Great, for her library and paintings), the admission fee is a bargain.
I arrived in St. Petersurg by rail from Moscow. As I was planning this trip weeks earlier, I was concerned about waiting to buy my train tickets in Russia. There are few if any signs in English in most train stations, and the chances of getting an English-speaking ticket agent are iffy. Also, because Russians can purchase tickets in person, at the station, weeks ahead, I was afraid that the train might be fully booked if I waited to buy a ticket just a day or two in advance.
As it turned out, the Moscow-St. Petersburg train was sold out—but fortunately I had decided to buy tickets from RealRussia before leaving the States. The agents I dealt with were helpful, sending me emails to let me know the status of my tickets, answering questions I had over the phone, even providing a diagram of a ticket with tips on how to decode the Cyrillic info. My train ticket was delivered to my Moscow hotel as requested, waiting for me when I checked in. What made me feel confident about the process was that RealRussia is based in England, so there are no language difficulties. Also, the company has brick-and-mortar offices in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, which would have been useful if anything had gone awry with my ticket delivery. Thankfully, everything went according to plan. My only complaint about any of this? After eight solid hours of walking through the Hermitage, I have a blister on my big toe that still hurts.
Mark Orwoll is the international editor at Travel + Leisure.