Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Flying through Moscow without a visa

Usually when I book my flights, I automatically disregard the ones that fly through Moscow.  I've heard that you need a visa just to be in the Moscow airport.  However, more recently I've heard that that only applies to certain terminals, it is possible to fly via Moscow without a Russian visa and be okay.

This past spring our principal and her husband flew to Moldova.  On their way back, they were not allowed to board the plane because they didn't have a visa for Russia, and they were flying via Moscow.  After several days, they finally returned to Astana via Ukraine.  I learned then that Kazakhstan is considered "domestic" in Russia, and they were booked to fly a domestic flight from Moscow, meaning they'd have to go through passport control in Moscow, which they couldn't, because they didn't have a visa.

However, this past summer two families from our school flew through Moscow.  The school secretary told me that the principal had booked her Moscow-to-Astana flight separately from her Moldova-to-Moscow ticket, and that is what caused her problem.  And when looking for flights to Berlin for Christmas, Transaero (a Russian airline that flies through Moscow) kept coming up as the cheapest.  I finally decided to book the tickets, after which I panicked and asked around.  It seemed like technically I should be okay, Transaero should provide a way for me to get to my gate without needing a visa, but no one knew for sure.

I must admit I was worried.


Sophia and I left Astana early morning 18th December, and we flew to Moscow's Domodedovo airport.  When we left the plane, we followed everyone else down a tiny hallway to a small room where everyone got in the passport control line.  I saw a woman sitting behind a desk, above her was a sign, in Russian and in English, that said something like "Transfers for non-visa holders".  I talked to her; she checked our tickets and passports, wrote something down in her book, and told me to wait.  Three other people waited with us--a woman with a small child, and a man.  They both looked Kazakh and I heard the airport woman try to tell the man that he didn't have to wait with us (but he did anyway).

Finally a shuttle bus came; she unlocked a door and led us to the bus.  It drove around in mostly a large semi-circle before dropping us off somewhere else.  We entered another, larger hall, with lots of other people exiting planes and going into long passport-control lines.  A woman ushered me up the stairs, and I saw a sign saying "Transfers" pointing up the stairs.  I also saw a sign saying this was for holders of Belorussian passports.

Upstairs Sophia and I went to the transfer desk and they pointed to another sign that said "transfer," which was next to the stairs I'd just come up.  I was confused until I noticed that there was a small hallway behind this sign.  So we went that way.

There, we went through security and had our passport checked before entering the international terminal.

The international terminal was nice, although crowded.  We shopped for a few souvenirs and looked in the cafes before searching for a seat.  It was a large terminal, but not large enough for all the people, and we milled around a bunch of seats until someone finally moved and we could snag one.  A man had pity on me and stood up, so I got a seat too.

Finally, it was time for our flight...  So far, so good!  We made it through Moscow!

In Berlin, I started to worry again...  Would the return home be as easy?  Because this time, I'd been going from a supposedly domestic flight to an international terminal; next time, I'll be transferring from an international flight to a supposedly domestic flight.   I emailed the school secretary and my co-worker (who'd flown through Moscow before).  The secretary said the same as she'd said before--it should be okay, but of course she couldn't be sure.

The day before our flight back, my co-worker responded.  She'd been in Kyrgystan with no internet.  She and her family had had no problems coming back, except for the 6-hour layover with no food.

Yes, we too had a 6-hour layover.  Ugh.  I made sure to put some movies on my computer for us to watch and to pack some apples and croissants!

When we arrived at Domodedovo, we entered the hallway we'd been in before (the larger one with the stairs).  So we went upstairs and registered at the transfer desk.  They asked about our baggage and checked our baggage ticket; I think they had to call someone to make sure our baggage went where it was supposed to go.  Then we were told to wait.

We waited for an hour here, quite patiently, and two more people showed up.  Both were far more impatient than us, and after some time asked the transfer desk women how much longer. 

Finally, the tall Russian woman with long blond hair briskly told us to follow her; we followed her down the stairs and waited by a door for some time for the shuttle bus to show up.  She seemed a bit frustrated that it took a while to come.

She unlocked the door, told the bus attendant how many of us there were, and then we were in this other woman's charge.

We drove to the other terminal, and then waited in the bus while the attendant waited for someone to come to unlock the door.  Then we entered a tiny room at the bottom of a staircase and were led to the 3rd floor, where we went through security.  Then we were free to go.

The terminal we were in was a long hallway with several gates, all to Kazakhstan.  There were two closed shops here, plus two vending machines, an ATM, a water cooler, a smoking room, and bathrooms.  At this point we were down to about 3 1/2 hours (our first flight had been an hour late) and so settled down to watch a movie.  Not long after the movie ended, the screen with our flight information said "go to gate."  Our gate had no seats, so we just stood there with a bunch of other people, in front of the smoking room (ugh!) until we were finally able to board.

Not a bad experience.  But it would have been nicer if there'd been a cafe in the Kazakhstan terminal!

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