How to save or splurge
on the Trans Mongolian

When you’re traveling entirely by train, following a set itinerary that’s been honed to precision by a specialist vacation company, the opportunities to save or splurge on the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are naturally limited. This is less of a journey than an experience, and it lends itself particularly well to budget travel. But there are ways to cut your costs without compromising that experience, and similarly there is also scope to make it a little more luxurious if you prefer to travel in style. Here are our top tips on where to rein in your spending, and where to flash the cash.

Travel style

Most Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian vacations are either small group tours, or follow a tailor made itinerary. Some last for around a month, meaning you will spend significant amounts of time off the train exploring. And by no means do you need to limit yourself to just the Trans Siberian (Moscow to Vladivostok) or the Trans Mongolian (Moscow to Beijing). You can carry on far beyond – to St. Petersburg and other parts of Europe westbound, or deeper into China, to Japan and even Southeast Asia eastbound. Some specialist travel companies will be happy to assist with your arrangements, particularly if you are on a tailor made itinerary.
Choose a tailor made tour without a dedicated tour leader. All of the key organisational details are still taken care of, for peace of mind: tickets, visas, accommodations, but at each destination you will be left to your own devices with no pre-arranged sightseeing. Your hotels will be located close to train stations for convenience, and if you’re traveling as a couple it’s worth noting that depending on rooming arrangements you may be separated.

Onboard Meals

All trains have a restaurant car attached to them – in fact, on the Trans Mongolian, it’s changed every time you cross a border, so you can try a mix of Russian, Mongolian and Chinese fare over the course of your journey. Payment depends on the car, but it’s cash only, so you will need a supply of roubles, Tugrik and RMB – a few small denomination US dollar bills will also be helpful. ATM machines are available at major stops. The food on the train is, as you might expect, fairly simple but perfectly edible, and prices are similar to what you would find in a city-center tourist restaurant, i.e. quite expensive for what it is. Meals in the restaurant car tend to be fun and very sociable, a great way to meet fellow travelers. You can also sometimes buy hot food on the platforms.
For most people, eating every meal in the restaurant car is not an option. If you’re sticking to a budget, then stock up on snacks before departure at a supermarket, and save your cash for purchasing delicacies from the babushkas that crowd platforms with their wares – you’ll get everything from sweets and crisps to pastries, fresh fruit and dried fish. Every carriage has in it a samovar of boiling water, so you can quite easily survive on instant noodles, packet soup and tea, eating proper meals only on overnight stops.
Sasha Chesnokova from our vacation specialist Sundowners Overland on how to save money on meals: “To save money on the train, just be careful where you buy food and souvenirs, avoiding the touristy areas at stops. You can buy snacks from the attendants, and also on the station platforms where you can buy some lovely homemade smoked fish, or Russian pastries.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Trans Mongolian Railway or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Stop offs

Each stop on your itinerary presents opportunities for excursions and activities that will deepen your immersion into the local culture. In the winter you might take a horse drawn troika ride at Lake Baikal, and learn how to make traditional Mongolian dishes with a cookery lesson while staying in a ger. In Yekaterinburg you can take a fascinating guided tour around key architectural landmarks, including the site where the Romanov family were infamously slain. Moscow and Beijing of course offer a staggering numbers of excursions from rickshaw rides around the hutongs and the Forbidden City to the Kremlin and its Armoury Museum. And if you don’t feel an itinerary includes enough time to really get to know a destination you’re interested in, then opt for a tailor made tour which allows you to add on a few extra days.
Your trip will be significantly less expensive if you simply travel direct from one end of the railway to the other, a journey taking around a week. But of course to do that is to miss out on what makes the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian such an incredible experience. It’s also a bit of a slog – six nights without a shower or a good meal, in a pretty cramped cabin? Yikes. Instead, look at a fairly simple organised itinerary that stops at the main locations: Lake Baikal, Ulaanbaatar, Yekaterinburg, and you can just spend your time there wandering around to get the feel of them without needing to pay for any extra activities.


Cabins on the train are either four-berth or two-berth. Couples might like to upgrade for that little extra bit of privacy and space, and if you’re traveling solo and money’s no object, you may even be able to pay a single supplement for a cabin to yourself. However given that people tend to spend most of their time on the train sitting in their own cabins, that does mean you miss out on what is perhaps the most enjoyable part of traveling the Trans Siberian: meeting your fellow passengers.
There may also be opportunities to upgrade to more luxurious accommodations during stops. However outside of the main cities your options will be fairly limited. The emphasis is usually put on location rather than quality, as given you will probably be in these places for only a couple of nights the theory is you’ll want to spend most of your time out and about.
Sasha Chesnokova from our vacation specialist Sundowners Overland: “In cities such as Moscow you can definitely upgrade to some really amazing hotels. On the train itself you can upgrade to a two-berth cabin if you want the extra privacy, but it’s worth noting that on public Russian trains there are never en suite bathrooms.”
The least expensive way to travel on the Trans Siberian is always to share a second class, four-berth cabin. You may be in with members of your group, or strangers, but either way it’s bound to be very sociable. A sleeping mask, and a set of earplugs, may come in very handy, as will a head torch for nighttime trips to the loo, especially if you’re occupying the top bunk. Board games and cards are good ways to pass the hours between stops.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marko Mikkonen] [Topbox: Clay Gilliland] [Travel style: Sistak] [Onboard meals: Clay Gilliland] [Stop offs: Kyle Taylor] [Cabins: Clay Gilliland]