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As we chase after our points and miles and hop on flights from Istanbul to Singapore to Seattle, it’s become too easy to forget how we’ve stripped away much of the romance from travel. Me? I always liked to imagine what it was like before the age of the plane, when the idea of the exotic went hand in hand with boarding a train bound for a distant city, waving your past goodbye as the engine slowly but steadily gathered steam and chugged into the future.
Of course, I’ve never lived without the fact of plane travel, but I had the movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, which let me step into the past and rub elbows in the dining car with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Bogey and Bacall, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Next to the mystery of an overnight train, even my favorite flights — like first class on Lufthansa — could feel as pedestrian as a commuter bus.
So when I had the opportunity to ride the Grand Express from Moscow to St. Petersburg, I didn’t hesitate.
The only private luxury train that has daily service between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Grand Express is no bullet train — it averages 45 miles per hour and takes nine hours to complete its journey — nor does it pretend to be. I wasn’t looking for a substitute for a flight, after all, but something more.
I had a plethora of ways to get me from Moscow to St. Petersburg. A flight from Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) or Vnukovo International Airport (VKO) to Pulkovo Airport (LED) would have taken about an hour and cost upward of $50. A faster train would have done it in four hours.
But what called out to me were the sleeper trains, so I decided on a Grand Imperial Cabin on the Grand Express leaving Moscow at 11:40pm and arriving in St. Petersburg at 8:40am.
I booked on the company website, which had a Russian-to-English translation option that I found crucially helpful. Unfortunately, the site has the tendency to reverse the departure and destination cities, so take special care not to pay for the wrong ticket! (That’s what happened to me, by the way.) It cost 385 rubles ($6.50) to rebook my ticket, which had shot up to 39,006 rubles ($660) by the time I realized the mistake a month later.
After some research, I discovered that Grand Imperial Cabin is twice as large as a regular cabin, has a bathroom with a shower and includes dinner and breakfast; the Grand Deluxe Cabin is the same as the Grand Imperial without food service; the Grand is half again as large as a regular cabin with no bathroom; and the Grand Single is the same as a Grand but costs more for some reason I couldn’t fathom.
I wanted to experience it all, so I selected the Grand Imperial Cabin for 30,118.20 rubles (about $425) for two people. Not cheap by any means, but I thought of it as saving on the price of a hotel room while still letting me arrive in St. Petersburg freshly showered.
An Uber from The St. Regis Moscow Nikolskaya to the Leningradsky railway station cost about $7, though we could’ve taken public transit.
We proceeded toward the tracks, where the train staff let us board about 25 minutes before departure. Our car was the first car behind the engine, and our cabin door was the third of four. Overall, the train was more modern than you might see in a 1940s film noir, and it was also relatively new and well-kept inside and out.
The cabin lived up to expectations, and came with a fruit basket and water. The closet was ample, and easily held our two big rollers, medium roller and backpacks. There was free Wi-Fi, which was good enough for Facebook and email. The A/C was powerful, and there was a 220V outlet conveniently located by the table.
There were reading lamps above the sitting area and a safe just to the other side of the seat. (A keycard was required to enter or exit the cabin.) There were two TVs, which came with headphones so each passenger could watch his or her own set.
The upper bed was narrower than the lower bed, but both were more than comfortable to sleep in, and came with night lights. I fell asleep in no time.
The shower may not have passed TPG’s shower test, but the water pressure was impressive given we were on a train. The sink and vanity were loaded with amenities (toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, hairbrushes, razors and shaving cream), and the towels and robes were thick and fluffy. Sure, the slippers were too small for my feet, but I was used to that with my US size 14s.
Food and Beverage
The train offered a dining cart with a reasonable menu of Russian food. In our case, we could have all food and drink items brought to our room or opt for private dining either in the cabin or at the back of the Grand Imperial Car.
Soon after departure, we were asked what we would like for dinner and breakfast. At 12:15am, we were escorted to a private dining area in our car.
I had a salad for an appetizer, while my husband ordered a fish platter. For our mains, we both chose beef Stroganoff with mashed potatoes. The food was fair, but we had eaten dinner already.
Wine, orange juice and milk were free, but I had to pay about $2 for a Coke Zero. Dessert never came after our plates were cleared, so we went back to our cabin. We later found out that dessert was meant to be served with breakfast. (Many of the staff members didn’t speak much English, if any.)
When morning came, we requested breakfast in our room. Our breakfast options were none too exciting, so we ordered club sandwiches and I had chocolate cake for dessert while my husband had the apple puff. I didn’t think the sandwich was good at all, but my husband enjoyed it.
After breakfast, we got dressed. The train arrived on time in St. Petersburg, where a driver hired by the Grand Express, and included in the train fare, was awaiting us. Our driver got us to our hotel, the W St. Petersburg, in 15 minutes.
To the Point
I would definitely take the Grand Express again between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I saved the cost of a hotel for the night and still got to wake up all refreshed. The food, though not exemplary, was good enough, and the train was modern and well-maintained throughout. It was a cool way to travel, and even if it didn’t transport me to the Golden Age of Hollywood, it did take me to St. Petersburg in comfort and style.
All images by the author.
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