Getting around St. Petersburg by public transport is generally pretty straightforward, and certainly won’t break the bank. But there are circumstances – airport transfers, for example, or travelling late at night/in the early hours of the morning – when you need to seriously consider your options.
Here, the natural reaction is to hail a taxi. But before you do so, it’s worth knowing what’s on offer.
Thirty years ago, most vehicles in Russia’s main cities were taxis, if only for some of the time. Because it was standard practice for all kinds of vehicles to stop if someone wanted a lift somewhere and was willing to pay the fare. Private individuals on their way to work would stop to give you a lift – for a price – if they were heading your way.
These days, things have changed, but not completely. There are still plenty of ‘gypsy cabs’ on the roads – unregistered and unregulated. Russians use them all the time (if they can afford the prices), and generally with no problems. But if you’re a tourist, and especially a tourist who doesn’t speak Russian, then you could end up wishing you’d taken a proper taxi.
That’s why we always recommend you book a cab in advance. Whether at the airport or via your hotel, this is definitely the preferred – and the safest – option. And with the rouble so weak against Western currencies at the moment, fares are relatively low, and more and more taxi companies now offer reasonably priced services.
In St Petersburg, for example, most companies will get a car to you anywhere in the centre within 15-20 minutes. There is usually a minimum fare of around £8, which covers the first 5km of your journey. After that, you pay per kilometre, and the price will be calculated when you book. You will need to give the operator a phone number that you can be contacted on.
There are plenty of reasons to avoid the city’s ‘gypsy cabs’. Apart from the obvious safety issues, most of these drivers are immigrants who don’t necessarily know their way around the city and rarely have GPS. And remember – a yellow sign or light on the roof of a car does not mean it’s an official taxi, whatever the driver may tell you.
If you do decide to risk it, never get into a car with more than one person in it, always agree on a fare before you get in (if you don't have the language skills to haggle, just show the driver how much you’re willing to pay and state your destination clearly), and don’t feel compelled to get into any car that stops – if you don't like the look of the driver, just wave them on and wait for somebody else to stop.
It’s a fact…
- The first taxis appeared on St. Petersburg’s streets in 1906.
- For about 30 years, they coexisted with regular horse-drawn cabs.
- The number of taxis grew quickly, and by 1913 there were 328 cars serving as taxis, all equipped with meters and with yellow stripes and taxi signs on the sides.
- During the 1917 Revolution, all taxis were confiscated to serve the needs of the Red Army and the government. The city’s taxi service was reintroduced only in 1929.
- A year later, the city had 83 taxis which people could only use after 5.00 pm (though this regulation was short-lived).
- In 1990, the city had 4500 taxis which served about 150 000 people a day.
- The last few years have seen the emergence of private taxis and even private taxi companies, though the number of people who can afford to use them has sharply declined.