Football’s greatest tournament kicks off on 14 June and continues to 15 July. At least some of the host cities are superb destinations in their own right.
But as the World Cup is taking place in a nation with draconian visa rules, is there any room for impulsive football fans to travel there? Simon Calder assesses the options.
When and where?
The 21st World Cup takes place in Russia from 14 June to 15 July 2018.
The Luzhniki Stadium in south-west Moscow, 1,550 miles from Wembley, will host the opening match, Russia v Saudi Arabia, and the final. The capital’s Spartak Stadium is also being used. Of the other host cities, only Yekaterinburg (2,430 miles from Wembley) is on the eastern side of the Urals, and therefore technically in Siberia.
All the other venues are in western Russia. Easily the closest to Britain is Kaliningrad, the city wedged in a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, and just 900 miles from Wembley. It will host England’s third and final Group G match against Belgium on 28 June.
Next closest is St Petersburg, 1,290 miles from Wembley. The remaining venues are further than Moscow: Volgograd, which hosts England’s first game against Tunisia on 18 June; Nizhny Novgorod (England v Panama, 24 June); Kazan; Rostov-on-Don; Samara; Saransk; and Sochi.
Up to the last tranche of tickets going on sale on 8 June, 2.4 million tickets had been sold. Russians are by far the biggest customers: they have bought 872,000, or 36 per cent of the total.
The top 10 of foreign tickets sales is fascinating. In first place, the US (a non-qualifier, with 88,825 tickets sold, 3.7 per cent). Brazil (72,512) and Colombia (65,234) are second and third. The leading western European country is Germany (fourth place, 62,541). Then a trio of Latin American countries: Mexico (60,302), Argentina (54,031) and Peru (43,583). China is eighth (40,251). Australia, with 36,359 tickets sold, is in ninth place, ahead of England (32,362) in 10th. No sign of Poland, France, Croatia...
Are tickets still available?
Yes. You can apply at fifa.com/tickets run right through to the day of the final, according to Fifa. Tickets for many matches are still available, including England's opening game against Tunisia in Volgograd on 18 June. And if you think England will win Group G, you can buy now for the Round of 16 match in Rostov on Don on 2 July.
The semis and final show no availability at present, though that may change.
When you enter the website (for which the registration process is straightforward) you will be placed in an online queue. When it is your turn, you will have 10 minutes to enter the website, see what is available and start shopping.
How much do tickets cost?
Prices (quoted in US dollars) depend on the status of the match and the quality of the seats. For Group matches, the poorest seats are $105 (£79), and the best twice as much. The top-grade tickets for the final, if they are released, will be over $1,000.
What about the secondary market?
“Tickets obtained from any other source will be automatically cancelled once identified and will not entitle the ticket holder to access the stadium or to any refund or other compensation,” says Fifa. Fines for touts range as high as 30 times the face value of the ticket.
If the ticket details are reconciled with the information on the Fan-ID, as the authorities say they will be, it is difficult to see how widespread resale can happen.
How tangled is the red tape?
Fifa insists on the usual draconian bureaucracy for foreigners being eased so that football fans can watch games and sightsee without needing to apply for a Russian visa. Instead, you need a Fan-ID — effectively a personal spectator card, issued by Russia’s Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications.
The application procedure is straightforward. You can only do this when you have received the email confirming your tickets. The card enables you to apply for entry to Russia any time up to the day of the final (15 July) and stay until 20 July. But at the Russian frontier you must produce the Fan-ID along with a valid passport and either a match ticket or “a document providing the right to receive such a ticket”; an email confirmation should suffice.
Will I be able to find a flight?
Yes. The questions are: how convoluted a journey will it be, and how much will it cost? The easy cities to access are the capital and the former capital, Moscow and St Petersburg. Aeroflot serves Moscow from Gatwick and Heathrow, while British Airways serves both cities from Heathrow. In addition, there are dozens of connection opportunities to Moscow and St Petersburg from UK airports via European hubs.
Some BA departures to Moscow at the start of the tournament are running at close to £1,000 one way. But by the time the Group stage is over, return fares of under £300 are widely available, such as flying out from Heathrow on 3 July for a week.
The other nine cities are more difficult to access. The widest range of options are available through the two big airports in Moscow: Sheremetyevo, Aeroflot’s hub; and Domodedovo, where British Airways’ flights connect with its alliance partner, S7 Airlines.
In addition, Austrian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines and Turkish Airlines serve a sprinkling of host cities through their hubs at Vienna, Warsaw and Istanbul respectively.
Can I travel overland?
Yes, thanks to a late decision by the Belarus authorities to relax its strict visa rules for football supporters (in possession of the Fan-ID, match ticket and valid passport) by rail or road. By train, London-Moscow takes a minimum of 40 hours. By car, it is best to allow three days; the border crossings for Belarus and Russia are likely to be very busy and slow. There are also complex insurance and registration rules.
Renting a car is feasible, with the big hire firms represented. But driving standards and road surfaces are poor; UN figures show that the death rate on Russian roads is six or seven times higher than in Britain.
“Be vigilant when driving, take account of weather conditions, and consider limiting or avoiding driving at night,” advises the Foreign Office.
How do I get around?
Airlines are generally high quality and reliable, especially Aeroflot and S7 Airlines — members of the Skyteam and Oneworld alliances respectively.
Fans are also entitled to travel on football specials free of charge, though most of these are fully booked. To go by normal scheduled train, book through Russian Railways.
Be warned that journeys are not as straightforward as you might imagine. From England’s first venue, Volgograd, to the second, Nizhny Novgorod, requires a change in Moscow whether you go by plane or train.
Where will I stay?
On the nights before and after a match, rates may be very high; The Independent has found price-hikes of 18,000 per cent for England's match in Kaliningrad. But in the last few days before the tournament, rates may fall as proprietors realise they have spare rooms.
Most of the host cities will have a surplus of rooms throughout the tournament; a decent twin or double room in a city-centre hotel is typically £50 or less. Demand from “normal” tourists is likely to collapse during the World Cup. St Petersburg and Sochi may offer pretty good value because they have the highest number of hotel rooms.
Moscow is a special case: many fans will base themselves in the capital because of the good transport links. In addition, the organisers and media are concentrated in Moscow. A top-class hotel in Moscow over the Final weekend (13-16 July) is likely to cost £500 a night.
If, for your chosen match, rates at conventional hotels are too high, consider peer-to-peer options such as Airbnb and backpacker hostels (though note that strict registration rules are most effectively conducted by hotels).
Alternatively, base yourself somewhere out of town and travel in. For Moscow that might be the unglamorous town of Klin, 55 miles north-west; for Kaliningrad, the fine Polish city of Gdansk.
Can I change money easily?
Yes. Take a credit card as a back-up, but cash transactions are the norm in many circumstances in Russia. Don't bother getting any Russian roubles in advance, though: exchange rates are good even at airports. In the cities competition is ferocious, with excellent deals for sterling. There is no point changing pounds to dollars or euros first; indeed, so keen are the rates that Russia is a good place to change sterling via roubles to foreign currencies.
What are the highlights between the matches?
Russia is rich in culture and natural beauty, with fascinating cities and countryside. But Moscow and St Petersburg are the undoubted highlights — vast metropoles with great art, architecture and indulgence in abundance. Sochi combines an impressive setting with an alluring seaside location and the infrastructure from the 2014 Winter Olympics.
As capital of Tatarstan, Kazan has an extra degree of intrigue. And students of the second Second World War may be attracted to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and Kaliningrad (formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg), where England play their first and last group matches.
Anything else I need to know?
The Organising Committee has produced some useful online guides, covering everything from taxis (where smoking and “riding with larger or exotic animals, for example, reptiles” should be discussed in advance) to the rules for bringing in prescription medicine.
Six days before the first match, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned that the 10,000 British fans expected to travel to the World Cup in Russia are at risk from terrorist attacks, hooligan violence and attacks motivated by racism, homophobia or anti-British sentiment after the Skripal poisoning.
“We remain concerned about the safety of UK fans travelling to Russia,” said the MPs, “particularly in light of the expulsion of officials involved in the preparations.
“There will be additional consular support and rigorous security measures in place on match days in cities where England plays. However, we are particularly concerned about the safety of UK fans outside these times and places.
“We regret that the World Cup is hosted by countries with poor human rights records.”
The Foreign Office travel advice for Russia makes some specific warnings about crime: “Be alert to the possibility of mugging, pick pocketing and theft from vehicles or hotel rooms. The spiking of drinks does happen and can lead to robbery, violence and/or abuse. Buy your own drinks and keep sight of them at all times.
“In St Petersburg there have been reports of street crime where tourists have been specifically targeted. These crimes are carried out by well organised gangs. Be aware of pickpockets in the main tourist areas and around the main railway concourses. Bogus police officers have harassed and robbed tourists. If you are stopped always insist on seeing identification.
“Look after your passport at all times, especially in major transport hubs and busy areas. Passports have been reported stolen or lost from British nationals when in the airports in Moscow. Be particularly vigilant when passing through the airports, particularly in the baggage collection area and outside the arrivals hall.
“Most visitors experience no difficulties but racially motivated attacks do occur. People of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent may attract some unwanted attention in public places and should take care, particularly when travelling late at night.”