Q: Peter, what do you think about independent travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express? Is it a dream adventure or a nightmare?
A: I've done the Trans-Siberian Express, which stretches the nearly 6,000 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok. I must caution you that the trip can be a nightmare if not researched and planned properly. At the same time, it can be a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime dream voyage if you’re well-prepared. One option is to call a Russian rail-travel specialist like Travel All Russia or Red Star Travel. One of these companies can help you with logistics, tickets, and other essential advice.
You can also go it alone without the aid of a travel agent. If you go this route, make sure you do your research with a book, such as Bryn Thomas’s "Trans-Siberian Handbook," so you know what you need and can expect in visas, side trips, comfort, crowds, and prices. The important caution here is to take care where you pick to hop off the train along the way. There is still not a robust hotel network in many small Russian towns, so be prepared for Spartan accommodations. And everything varies wildly depending on the season, the particular train, where you start and stop your journey, and many other factors.
For example, there is a difference between the "tourist" trains, which are generally quiet, beautifully furnished, and have great food, versus the trains the locals take, which may be full of overly-enthusiastic prostitutes, boozy, verbose businessmen, cardboard food, and rock-hard beds.
Also, the peak time for foreign tourists is between May and September, so if you want to avoid the crush you might want to travel just outside that window. However, if you do travel during peak season, the weather during this time is gorgeous, and the sun stays out until late into the night, so you're sure to have spectacular views. But if you travel in late fall or winter, remember that Siberia is wet and cold, so pack accordingly, or you'll be miserable during excursions.