Sunday, September 30, 2007

Maxima Irbis Hotel

On my recent visit to Moscow I stayed at the Maxima Irbis Hotel, part of the Maxima chain. It is an older building that has been totally renovated inside and is pleasant. It is located in a quiet, leaffy neighborhood --I could see white birch trees from my hotel room window--about midway between two Metro stations, Vladykino and Petrovsko-Razumovskaya, norht of the city center. It is not the most convenient location, but it provides good value for money. Service was good --everyone except the cleaning staff seemed to speak English, and there was an excellent buffet breakfast with scrambled eggs, green beans with ham, oatmeal, cold meats and cheese, juice, several types of bread including croissants, coffee and tea. I ate dinner several times in the dining room and that was also good and reasonably priced, less than $20 for a main course and a beer.

I booked my room through, and that worked well. It averaged a little under $160 Canadian a night, which may have been a little more than you would pay booking directly with the hotel. I saw a woman paying 3100 or 3200 rubles for a one night stay, which is about $125, but I considered it worth the difference for the convenience. She may also have had a corporate rate.

The room was reasonably sized, comfortable and very clean, and the bathroom was elegant, with blue stone floor and grey tile. There was cable TV and a minibar, and one of the best things about the hotel was the very low rate they charged for phone calls to North America, only 7 rubles a minute, which is about 25 cents. This is far less than many hotels within North America charge.

The walk from the hotel to the Metro was interesting, over a suburban railroad track, through small kiosks selling things and beside a large public market that offered a variety of not overly appealing goods.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Moscow Metro

Without its Metro, it is hard to imagine that Moscow would exist in its present form. Traffic clogs all the streets of this enormous city most of the day and into the evening. The Metro is usually the fastest way to get around, if not the most pleasant. It too is overcrowded, especially at rush hours, and is not for the claustrophobic. Still, it is cheap and extremely efficient, and some of the stations are really pretty, with Art Deco charm and Soviet art in the form of mosaics.

A card for ten rides costs 170 roubles, about $7. You put the card in front of a sensor on the turnstile and it tells you how many rides you have left. Be sure to consult the map on the wall before boarding the Metro, and preferably also carry a copy of the system with you. Within a couple of days I memorized the route between my hotel and the Kremlin, but I still needed to consult the map to go anywhere else.

The escalators descending to the platforms can be very long and steep, and they move very fast. Unless you are running up or down, stand to the right. You can watch the people on the other side coming up as you descend, and they all appear to be leaning forward. Being cautious, I worried a little about what would happen if someone fell or fainted while on or getting off the escalator. But guards equipped with cameras giving several views sit at the bottom of the long, long lines and can stop the escalators if there is a problem.

A bigger problem is crowding, both in getting onto the trains and once inside. I rode about seven stops from the Kremlin each day, and rarely did I get a seat. Sometimes I did feel nearly crushed by the mostly taller Russians, although riders were generally polite. Once, trying to get off to transfer to the popular Circle Line, I was pushed hard by a young man behind me.

Still, you see quite old people, some with canes, riding the Metro, or young parents with small children, who are too short to reach the bars to hold on in the Metro cars. The Metro is obviously a great achievement of Soviet engineering and a boon to locals and tourists alike, but be prepared for lots of fellow riders. Of course, the best solution is to stay downtown where you can walk to most of the places you want to go, but on a budget in Moscow that is simply out of the question unless you are willing to stay in a hostel or rent a furnished apartment for several weeks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

kudos to Lufthansa

I flew Lufthansa on my recent trip from Boston to Moscow via Frankfurt, and my experience verified my previous opinion that this must be the world's best airline, or at least the best I have ever flown. On my return I arrived at the notorious Sheremeteyevo 2 with just about 35 minutes to catch my flight becuase my taxi was an hour late arriving to pick me up. It takes about an hour or more from most parts of Moscow to get to the airport because the traffic is usually so heavy. They advise you to arrive two and a half hours before your scheduled departure.

I hurried through the entrance, and immediately to the right was a woman standing at a one-person Lufthansa counter. I handed her my ticket and she said "I'll have to see if they will still take you." I said that I knew I was late, because my taxi had been so late. She made a call, and said they would take me. She directed me to a specific check in counter at the main Lufthansa area, and said the supervisor there would ckeck me in. I did as instructed, going up to the counter even though it had a closed sign. The woman there checked me in very efficiently, labelled my one small checked bag, and sent me to security. There wasn't a long line, and I arrived at the gate with time to spare (but not much.) It was altogether an excellent end to a stressful event.

It seemed to me that the Lufthansa people went out of their way to be helpful, even though I am not an especially frequent flyer. So different from tales I have heard of many other airlines, which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. My opinion of Lufthansa rose even higher when I discovered on arriving home that the miles from my flights had already been credited to my Air Canada Aeroplan acocunt. This is supposed to happen automatically when you fly on a partner airline, but in my previous experience it never did. I always had to try to keep and send in the tiny boarding pass receipts you get, then Air Canada would lose them and I would have to send in the photocopy I had kept. Eventually, a few months later, my miles would be credited. (This happened two or three times.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Milner Hotel Boston

Just back from Moscow via Boston on Lufthansa, connecting to Boston on Vermont Transit Lines. Very interesting trip --if you're going to Russia take lots of money. Much more about Moscow coming soon, but first I wanted to mention the Milner Hotel, where I stayed in downtown Boston the night of September 5. The location of this hotel is great, just two or three blocks from the T, which offers good connections to the airport and all over Boston. The fare to get to the airport is only $2, but I actually rode for free thanks to a very helpful employee who passed me through without charging (thanks whoever you are) when he saw me struggling with luggage. People in Boston were very nice, I found on my short visit. The Milner is also very close to the Boston Common and a great bookstore on Newbury Street, and to a branch of the very pleasant restaurant Legal Seafoods, where I enjoyed a tasty dinner of clam chowder, a crab cake and a beer.

The Milner Hotel is old but clean and not bad if you really, really need to save money. Never have I seen a smaller hotel room--I"ve seen many larger closets. It had just a single bed, not even a door on the bathroom (would have taken too much room out of what must have originally been a closet or perhaps at best a servant's room. ) The air conditioner helped to drown out the traffic noise. Continental breakfast was Ok, served in another quite compact room on the ground floor. With tax the bill for one night came to $149 --not cheap for a closet, but I guess lower than the other nearby hotels where you might get an actual room (no guarantees --just a guess.)

Hotel prices are rising very fast everywhere, it seems. That's why it's more important than ever to be armed with advance knowledge of what you are likely to encounter, the kind of knowledge I and others are trying to provide on keeping travel costs down.