It’s no secret that I’m beyond passionate about travel. Call me a travel junkie, nerd, whiz, maniac, whatever – I’m enthusiastic about anything related to this big blue planet of ours.
One of the biggest draws about travel to me – and one of the ways it enriches my life the most – is the fact that discovering more of the world often goes hand-in-hand with some of the other interests and passions that we all share.
If you’re an avid skier or snowboarder, for example, you’d be keen to visit the world’s most challenging slopes, or perhaps plan your next retreat at one of the top luxury ski resorts around the world. Or, if you were big on cultural events and festivals, you’d be seeking out some of the most unique celebrations of culture across the lands, like Holi in the Indian springtime or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
And if you’re a huge football/soccer fan like myself, you’ll no doubt be looking forward to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the showpiece tournament of world football that’s going to take place in Russia next summer, from June 14 to July 15, 2018.
With just over 300 days to go until the tournament kicks off, I've written this guide for anyone who's at all interested in attending the summer-long football frenzy that is the FIFA World Cup. I went to Brazil three years ago for the 2014 edition and had the time of my life, and you can be sure that a trip to Russia is on the top of my list for 2018 as well.
Let's begin with the formalities. It has to be said that the general visa policy of Russia is quite restrictive – no doubt a reflection of the current and historical political climate with regards to countries in the West. The vast majority of countries' citizens require a tourist visa to visit Russia, which can be difficult and expensive to obtain. Just look at those prices...
Regardless of your views on Russia’s leadership and foreign policy, though, I think everyone can agree that visa-free travel is great news all around.
Indeed, Russia will be implementing a visa-free policy for World Cup spectators, which will be effective between June 4, 2018 (10 days prior to the start of the tournament) and July 25, 2018 (10 days after the final).
To be admitted to the country under the visa-free policy, however, you will need a valid passport as well as a Fan ID, which comes with the purchase of any World Cup match ticket.
Naturally, the visa-free policy is meant for World Cup spectators, but even if you aren’t crazy about soccer, it might be worthwhile to purchase one cheap ticket and get yourself visa-free travel within Russia. The cost of a Russian visa is otherwise pretty considerable, and you’ll get to discover Russia’s natural and cultural beauty, as well as take in the atmosphere at the world’s greatest sporting event, all in one go.
The 64 matches of the FIFA World Cup will take place across 12 venues in 11 host cities, for the most part located in European Russia to minimize the travel time between venues. Find out what the host cities have to offer in the below list, in which I've curated some of each city's local highlights. Also, click here for a copy of the match schedule, which will show you where and when each of the 64 matches is being played.
Moscow will be the centrepiece of the tournament. The Russian capital's 81,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium will host the opening match on June 14, as well as the final on July 15. The Otkrytiye Arena will also witness four group stage matches and one Round-of-16 knockout tie. Between matches, don't miss some of Russia's most famous landmarks, such as Red Square, the Kremlin, and St. Basil's Cathedral (pictured).
St. Petersburg is Russia's second city and the so-called "Venice of the North". Recognized as the cultural capital of Russia, St. Petersburg is home to The Hermitage, one of the largest art galleries in the world. If you've got a few days to spare on your jaunt up north, be sure to catch a booze cruise across the Gulf of Finland to nearby Helsinki or Tallinn. The Krestovsky Stadium will host one of the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Yekaterinburg is the fourth most populous city in Russia and the only World Cup host city located east of the Ural Mountains, the traditional marker between Europe and Asia (but don't let the locals hear you). While it's historically been an industrial city known for its metallurgy works, Yekaterinburg's colourful parks and markets offer plenty to keep you occupied, if you're in town to catch one of the four group stage matches being played here.
Nizhny Novgorod is an important economic and cultural hub of Russia with a charming historic quarter. Located at the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers, Nizhny Novgorod offers some amazing views from the embankments on both sides of the river. Minin and Pozarsky Square (pictured) is the main square. The Nizhny Novgorod Stadium will host four group stage matches, a Round-of-16 match, and a quarter-final.
Samara, another city shaped by the Volga, is perhaps best known for its beautiful riverfront. Samara is known for its fabulous oil-driven wealth and high-tech industrial production, but it'll also dazzle you with its cultural richness, home to numerous museums and theatres. Catch a show in between four group stage matches and two knockout ties at Samara's Cosmos Arena.
Kazan is the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan and home to the Tatar ethnic group. It boasts a high standard of living, a Kremlin of its own, and – thanks to its location near Russia's Europe–Asia divide – the sort of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity that many places can only dream of (the Temple of All Religions pictured). Kazan Arena will host group stage matches, a Round-of-16 matchup, and a quarter-final.
Rostov-on-Don is a port city in southern Russia which, as the name implies, sits on the Don River. Besides the city's beautiful bridges and river lookouts, check out the bazaars and fresh fish markets for a taste of the local way of life. There's also a highly-rated zoo and a botanical garden here to keep you occupied. Rostov will play host to four group stage matches and one Round-of-16 knockout stage match.
Volgograd, situated along the Volga River in southern Russia, is perhaps best known for its former name, Stalingrad, and the eponymous mega-battle that took place here in World War II. A commemorative statue that was erected here in 1967, The Motherland Calls (pictured), holds the title of the tallest statue in Europe and the tallest in the world of a woman. Volgograd Arena will host four group stage matches.
Kaliningrad is an exclave of Russia situated on the Baltic Sea, separated from the mainland by Poland and Lithuania. The Old Cathedral of Königsberg (pictured) is the city's main attraction, a remnant of the city's German past. Anyone who's mathematically inclined might also enjoy walking along the city's bridges, which inspired a famous problem. Kaliningrad Stadium will host four group stage matches.
Sochi is one of the southernmost places in Russia, which most recently achieved notoriety for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. Situated on the coast of the Black Sea, it's almost a resort town, extremely popular among Russians for a nearby summer getaway. Check out the Stalinist-period architecture or explore Sochi National Park. The Olympic Stadium will host group stage matches, a Round-of-16 tie, and a quarter-final.
Saransk is the least populous of the eleven. It's pretty much located bang in the middle of all the other host cities, potentially making it a popular stopover point among World Cup spectators. While you're in town, check out some of the 17th-century architecture and explore the city's various cathedrals and monuments. Saransk's Mordovia Arena will host four group stage matches.
Get Your Match Tickets
Attending the world's most-viewed sporting event is a dream come true for many followers of the Beautiful Game around the world, and getting a ticket requires some diligence, a little luck, and lots of mashing the F5 button on your computer. Let's jump into the nitty-gritty details on how to get your hands on a ticket.
FIFA published the ticket prices back in 2016. The prices are broken out by match importance (group stage games cost less, while the opening match and final will obviously run you a bit more), and by "category", which relates to where in the stadium you'd be sitting.
The cheapest tickets go for US$105, which isn't all that expensive. As you go deeper into the tournament, however, the ticket prices start ramping up pretty quickly.
The cheapest semi-final ticket is US$285, while the cheapest seats at the most-watched football match on Earth – the World Cup Final – will cost you US$455 a head. If you want the best view, the top-tier Category 1 seats at these matches go for US$750 and US$1,100, respectively.
Residents of Russia fall under Category 4 enjoy much cheaper prices, ranging from RUB 1,280 (US$21) for group stage matches to RUB 7,040 (US$118) for the final. I'm not sure whether having a Russian friend help you buy tickets will be a valid strategy or not, but something tells me that FIFA won't take too kindly to that sort of behaviour.
When do tickets go on sale? The FIFA website says sometime in 2017, so it ought to be quite soon. There's likely going to be many rounds of ticket sales; some will be first-come, first-serve, while others will be held as a random draw. I can say from experience that the first-come, first-serve tickets sell out FAST, so make sure your refresh-button finger is fired up and ready to go!
Lastly, note that the draw for the World Cup group stage will be made on December 1, 2017. In fact, we won't even know the full lineup of qualified teams until mid-November! So if you're going to be in Russia to support your country, it might be best to wait for the round of ticket sales after December 1, so that you'll at least know where your team will be playing.
To Russia, With Love
Of course, the match tickets are only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to attending a global sporting event. There's also the small matter of booking your flights and accommodations.
Russia is eminently well-connected to the rest of Europe in terms of air transport. Moscow itself has four international airports, and Russian national carrier Aeroflot offers direct flights to such North American gateways as Los Angeles, Washington Dulles, New York–JFK, and Miami. Most of the remaining host cities enjoy nonstop service from European hubs like Istanbul, Frankfurt, and London–Heathrow.
Intra-Russia air transport is relatively cheap thanks to the advent of low-cost carriers, with one-way flights under $100 not at all uncommon. You'd probably want to catch a flight on Aeroflot, S7 Airlines, or Pobeda if you're looking to follow your favourite national team around the country during the tournament, given the vast distances between the host cities.
(While I think the World Cup would've been a great way to give some more exposure to Russia's hidden gems further east of Yekaterinburg – an area of the world I'm fascinated by – the logistics of taking long-haul flights around the world's largest country simply wouldn't have been feasible for both players and fans.)
If you have a little more time, I'd definitely consider taking the train between cities. Not only do you get to take in the diverse Russian countryside, but your Fan ID also gets you free train transport between host cities on select "additional" train services that are being run solely for the World Cup. For a country not exactly known for its warm hospitality, Russia is really going above and beyond to show Fan ID holders a good time.
In terms of accommodations, you can be sure that hotel prices will be elevated above normal levels. On top of that, my preliminary research on the subject indicates that many chain hotels will have blocked off their award availability for the month, meaning that you can't book any rooms with hotel rewards points. Sad but understandable.
As always, though, look around early on Airbnb (take advantage of their ongoing offer of $50 off your first stay) and you'll be sure to find a deal. Hostels are always a good shout as well, especially during popular times like this.
Lastly, it might be worthwhile to start thinking about which cities you'll be visiting and for how long. For many first-time visitors to Russia, spending a couple of days to a week in each of Moscow and St. Petersburg might be enough.
On the other hand, if you're keen on venturing deeper into the country, it's probably most efficient to "post up" during the group stages of the tournament, either in the Volga River area (Nizhny Novgorod, Saransk, Kazan, Samara, Yekaterinburg) or in Southern Russia (Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Sochi). Then, towards the end of the tournament, head back to Metropolitan Russia to catch the semi-finals and final.
Another World Cup is almost here, and many of us are counting down the days until Russia kicks off proceedings at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, 2018. I've written this guide for those of you who follow the Beautiful Game and are interested in experiencing World Cup fever in person, and I'll definitely provide an update once the Finals draw is made on December 1 and we find out who's playing whom. In the meantime, good luck to all in the upcoming ticket sales, and I hope to see you all there!