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The Real Russia :: What It's Like at the Games - The Land Where Only Cash is King

by Mary Kay Wright

The Land Where Only Cash is King!

The first thing you learn pretty quickly about Russia is that you will be expected to pay for most things you buy in cash. Traveler’s checks are basically useless and credit cards aren’t automatically accepted everywhere. It makes me wonder how Olympics fans in Sochi are doing with this. 

I rely so much on my debit card that I almost never have cash with me.  Let’s face it these days you can charge $3.59 at McDonalds and the drive through worker won’t even blink an eye.  It is easy to take this for granted and assume the whole world operates as we do.

Here are the some things you need to know about money before visiting Russia.

1. Credit cards work for flights, hotels and at major shopping centers and restaurants.  But when you get home and look at the bill – an international transaction fee based on the amount you spent will be added to EACH transaction. This is a 1-2% charge for converting exchange rates.

2. It goes against everything you know about safe travel but instead of traveler’s checks bring cash. Estimate what you are going to spend on food, souvenirs and attractions  and bring as much cash as you are comfortable with .  (You can get it from ATM machines but again will be charged extra fees).

3. You can’t just bring any bills they have to be “new”.  This means going to your bank and requesting the most new they have on hand or calling ahead and requesting new ones before you leave. Nobody in Russia will take old, crumpled bills.

4. Expect that you will have to pay for everything in Rubles.  All visitors need to convert their currency to rubles right away to buy things.

5. Know the current exchange rate and be careful where you change your money.  Airports and hotels are convenient but they will not offer rates as good as exchange booths around town.

6. Exchange rates are usually more competitive in areas outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg – under normal circumstances regions like Sochi would give more rubles per dollar than the metros. 

7. Bring a small calculator to figure out what everything is priced at! Currently the rate is 34.75 rubles per dollar (which is the best it has been in a while). So if something is priced at 340 rubles – you are paying about $10 for it. Just divide the current rate by the Russian price to see what it costs in dollars.

8. Traditional shops, train stations and museums usually only accept cash (rubles).

9. Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to understand the small change you get back from a transaction in coins – they usually amount to nothing.  I brought coins home as souvenirs.

10. Try to spend all of your left over rubles before you leave – it is hard to find anyone who will buy them back when you return.