Travelling to St Petersburg by car from Finland, the Baltic States or from anywhere else is possible as long as you are confident about driving in stressful conditions after you cross the Russian border.
There’s an old saying that goes “Russia’s got two problems – fools and roads” and it surely applies even today.☺
Driving in Russia is fun and it definitely gives you a lot more freedom than using public transport or going on a tour. But accident rates in Russia are notoriously high due to bad roads and bad drivers.
Generally the Russian roads are dangerous, bumpy and unimproved (mostly in the countryside), narrow and poorly maintained; while the petrol stations are still few and far between.
When driving you will also see a lack of adequate signage, a complex Cyrillic alphabet (no English road signs), and keen-eyed traffic police (often corrupt), that will make your car trip a difficult task. In addition, you should also expect huge traffic jams (both in and outside the city) and reckless Russian drivers who have a reputation for being careless and aggressive.
For all these reasons, travelling to St Petersburg by car or just driving in Russia isn't really for everybody, but only for intrepid travellers.
Fortunately things have improved a little in the last few years, main roads and streets have been fixed and modernized, and according to the Head of Rosavtodora, a new large motorway that will link Moscow to St Petersburg is under way. So there is still hope for things looking better, though from my point of view, there is still a long way to go before reaching the European standard.
So, are you still thinking to go to St Petersburg by car?
If so learn more below, and when you're on the road, don't forget that in Russia you drive from the right-hand side.
If your answer is yes, then before you start your trip make sure to have all of the car's documentation in perfect order as the ever-hungry Russian police will quickly spot and fine any infraction.
Apart from being 18 years old and hold a driving license, to legally drive in Russia you should have an International Driving Permit with a Russian translation of your license (better if certified), and the registration and insurance documents for the car (a special insurance).
If you have got all of the paper work above plus a valid passport, and a Russian visa, then you are all set to go.
When going to St Petersburg by car, ninety percent of the way you will be driving on the M10 highway (one of the busiest and most important highways running in Russia).
This free Russian highway connects the two largest Russian cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, as well the border with Finland.
See the map on the right!
When on the road, remember to never assume that Russian drivers to your left will behave in a civilized and sane way (like using their indicators, or stopping at red lights), but rather be careful. Pay attention to cars coming in the opposite direction or passing you on the left or right.
Maybe you wonder now, are Russians really so bad at driving? Well...
...We don't mean that all Russian drivers are crazy, but unfortunately most of them are. Many Russian people drive aggressively and exceed speed limits almost always, no matter where they drive. So, do not expect any courtesy and always look front and back.
When travelling from Helsinki to St Petersburg by car expect to drive for 400 km and up to five hours, excluding 2-3 hours (sometimes even more) of long lines for customs and document check at the Russian border near the town of Vyborg.
The road is generally fairly good, though it's narrow and not as good as in Finland. Along the way, you will find many
trucks and cars on the roads (especially on weekdays), but not as many when you get closer to the city.
On the other hand, when driving from the border to Saint Petersburg you will see several old Russian villages and a huge chunk of natural beauty, like green forests, lakes and graceful hills.
Honestly, the wonderful views will be the best part of your entire car trip. We have travelled by car and bus from Finland to St Petersburg several times, and each time was amazing, though the rough road doesn't let you sleep.
Remember also that on the way you won't find many petrol stations or restaurants as we see in many European countries.
So, make sure to fill up the car with petrol and bring something to eat and drink during your Russian trip on the road.
Travelling from Tallinn to St Petersburg by car takes about five hours, excluding the time spent at the Russian border to check your passport and travel documents.
The travel distance between the Baltic capital and the imperial city is about 400 km, and the scenery along the way is amazing. You will drive through pine forests, medieval castles, old fortresses and Russian villages.
However, even if the view is wonderful, the roads unfortunately are not!
Generally from Tallinn to the border at Narva the road is pretty good, but soon after the Russian border (from the town of Ivangorod to St Petersburg) you will find yourself driving on a bumpy and narrow road filled with trucks and cars. So be careful!
If for any reason you decide to travel from Moscow to St Petersburg by car, then expect to have a long adventurous experience.
We have heard many stories from our Russian
friends who have driven a car to Sankt Petersburg from Moskva. Most of them keep saying
that a trip like that is tiring and stressful.
That said, a trip to St Petersburg by car from Moscow takes 12 hours, depending on traffic.
Approximately the distance between the two cities is 700 km, and the road in some sections isn't good and has only two lanes with an occasional third central lane to allow overtaking (except when you get closer to the city).
All this time, the M10 is also laden with cars and many trucks causing traffic problems, long queues and sometimes even car crashes, especially during winter.
As the old highway is well travelled and bumpy, a new long toll motorway (M11) is currently under construction. The new M11 motorway will ease the traffic and serve as an alternative route to the existing M10. Hopefully this new road will improve the driving experience of many Russians and maybe even yourself if you travel by car.
When you arrive at the border between Finland and Russia or Estonia and Russia, you will have to go through Russian Customs to check all your travel and car documents.
Generally when crossing the two borders you may need to wait up to 24 hours before you can cross the Russian border. Here, you will get a queue number and a time when you can queue up at Customs.
Also, the Russian guards will check your passport, visa and car, plus they will give you the migration card (also distributed to passengers on incoming bus or train and at arrival control points).
However, in case you don't receive anything, then don't forget to ask for it and make sure it's stamped.
The migration card is very important for your registration and stay in Russia. So, don't lose it and keep it with you until you leave.
When at the Russian border, you will also see that the checking points have separate lanes for trucks, cars and buses. Cars and trucks are processed in line, bikes can ride forward to the control point without standing in the queue. Buses are also processed in the lanes, but they have priority because they have passengers on board.
Anyway, with an estimated number of 6,8 million people
crossing the Finnish - Russian border each year, expect to wait long hours in the queue, especially if you travel in the summer or during the weekend or bank holidays. In case you don't like standing in line, then you should consider taking the train or the plane.
Heard many stories about the Russian police? Your friends have told you those guys can be a real pain? Well, yes and no! It depends on many things.
Usually the police target people who work illegally in the city of St Petersburg, like Tadjiks and Uzbeks. Our guess is you aren't one of them☺. So, if you are just getting around the city as a tourist you should not experience any problems, but if you travel to St Petersburg by car, then the scenario might be a bit different.
Unfortunately in Russia the traffic police are awful. You can be stopped even if you haven’t done anything wrong, but you won’t be able to prove that you are right.
With signs hidden, some non-existent and mostly in Cyrillic script, it would be easy to get confused and unwittingly commit a traffic offense.
So, when driving in Russia, be careful, because you could be easily stopped, and the officers of the so-called State Inspection of Safety of Road Traffic (GIBDD) will try to find any excuse to fine you.
Why? because for them this is just one of the many ways to supplement their low salaries.
For example, we heard that they might fine you for not having a fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit, but also for driving under the influence of alcohol or for exceeding the speed limit.
However, today the situation seems not as bad as it was in the past, but since the corruption in Russia is widespread, when travelling to St Petersburg by car or just driving around you should always expect the unexpected.
If you find yourself in such a situation be ready to open your wallet without complaining, or they take your passport away if you don't pay them. So, give them something from 1000-2000 rubles for each agent and you should be fine.
Renting a car in St Petersburg is simple and fairly straightforward, but driving is another matter.
By now you should know that driving habits and enforcement are still poor in Russia, so most of the tourists tend to avoid renting a car by themselves; but rather they prefer to travel by other means of transport, or they just hire a driver. In that way they feel safer!
That said, if you really want to drive to St Petersburg by car, remember that according to Russian laws, you need separate car insurance and written permission from the owner to take the car across the border. It should contain an explicit list of countries where you are allowed to drive.
Instead if you want to explore a place independently when you are already in St Petersburg, then the first place to look would be at the Pulkovo airport. Here you will find the major car rental companies such as Europcar, Avis, Hertz and many others.
If you have not found anything at Pulkovo aiport, you could also try one of the many rental agencies located in the central part of the city. Generally they all offer a great range of vehicles at each destination from cheap economy cars through to luxury cars.
When renting a car in St Petersburg expect to pay for one day something like €50/$65 for an economy-class car, and up to €100/$130 for a luxury car, but keep in mind that the price is not standard and can vary from company to company.
Honestly, unless you are going out of town, it is often easier, and around the same price to hire a car and driver (about €10/$13 per hour). In that way you will definitely have a safe car trip and have a great time! Think about it.
If you're in St Petersburg and you are planning to go somewhere by car, for instance, Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo or anywhere else in or out of the city, you can rent a car with a professional driver with us. With us you will be picked up at your hotel or place of stay, travel in comfort, and have peace of mind.☺
Another option, personally speaking the easiest and sometimes even the cheapest, would be to book on the internet through a reputable car rental online company. I have done that a few times in Europe and it works.
The final decision is up to you!
Are you wondering what to carry to get to St Petersburg by car?
If so, below we have summarized all the main info for you.
So, if you prefer to drive make sure to carry the following documents:
After collecting all the necessary travel documents above, if you wish to travel to St Petersburg by car you also need to pay attention to the following Russian regulations:
Looking for extra tips to get to St Petersburg by car? If so read on...
So, if you really wish to travel to St Petersburg by car, you know now that it’s going to be one long and stressful ride. Needless to say, going further is a much tougher challenge.
That said, if you have your heart set on a car trip, of course it can be done, but remember that travel by car to Russia requires patience, time and the documentation of the car.
How? In Russia you have to pay in advance at the kiosk. You just pull up to a pump and place the nozzle in the filler. Then, go to the kiosk and pay; the pump is switched on, and only then you can fill up the car with petrol.
Enjoy your trip to St Petersburg by car!☺
Written by Davide C.