The Trans Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world, spanning several time zones and connecting Moscow and Vladivostok. This once in a lifetime train journey is a bucket list item for many travelers, and rightly so.
This unique way to travel across the largest continent on earth is something you will never forget. Along the way, you will see diverse landscapes, big cities, the largest freshwater lake on earth (Lake Baikal) and endless kilometers of birch trees.
In this ultimate guide to the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian Express with kids, I’ll go through all the nitty-gritty details to help you plan the perfect Transsiberian experience. Even when you are traveling without kids, much of the information included will still be very relevant and help you plan your trip.
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The Trans Mongolian Express With Kids
In this post you can find:
- How to prepare for your Trans Mongolian Express family adventure
- Choosing a rail route
- The perfect Trans Mongolian Express itinerary
- How to book your train tickets
- What it’s like to travel on the Trans Mongolian Express as a family
- Life aboard the Trans Siberian Railway
Choosing the perfect rail route for your trip
While the name Trans Siberian Express may be the most famous and recognizable one for most people, there are actually several rail routes you can choose from:
- The Trans Siberian route
- The Trans Mongolian route
- The Trans Manchurian route
- The Baikal Amur Mainline route
The Trans-Siberian rail route
The Trans-Siberian route stretches from Moscow to Vladivostok and is a whopping 9.289 kilometers long! The entire route is within Russia and, when traveling non-stop, would take six days. During the trip, you pass through eight time-zones in total.
The Trans-Mongolian rail route
The Trans-Mongolian route takes you from Moscow to Beijing and is 7.621 kilometers in total. You will travel through Russia, Mongolia, and China (yes, that means three visas), the total journey takes six days as well.
The Trans-Manchurian rail route
The Trans-Manchurian branches off from the Trans-Siberian route at Chita, the total distance is 8.988 kilometers and also takes six days. This route takes you from Moscow in Russia to Beijing in China (you will not pass through Mongolia, so you only need two visas).
The Baikal-Amur Mainline route
The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) route is 9.087 kilometers long and splits from the Trans Siberian route at Tayshet. The trip ends at Sovetskaya Gavan and the entire journey is within Russia.
Which route to choose?
While each rail route has it’s own pros and cons, the most popular one is the Trans Mongolian, as this route allows you to see three distinct countries.
From the endless forests and huge Sovjet buildings in Russia to the yurt camps in Mongolia and the Chinese Wall in China, this itinerary covers it all.
The perfect Trans Mongolian Railway itinerary
Once you have decided you will embark on the Trans Mongolian, it’s time to determine your stops along the way. This can be quite a challenge, as there are so many interesting places to visit along the way…
Depending on how much time you have, you can either spend two weeks or several months on this unique train route. However, the most common itinerary is a three week trip from St. Petersburg (officially not a part of the Trans Siberian) to Beijing.
We spoke to many fellow travelers on the train and most of them followed the same itinerary as we did. This was our three week Trans Mongolian itinerary:
- Day 1-2: St. Petersburg
- Day 2: Night train from St. Petersburg to Moscow
- Day 3-4: Moscow
- Day 5-9: Train from Moscow to Irkutsk (83 hours)
- Day 9-10: Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
- Day 11: Train from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator
- Day 12-15: Mongolia (2 nights in Ulan Bator, 2 nights in Terijl National Park)
- Day 16-17: Train from Ulan Bator to Beijing
- Day 17-20: Beijing
Overall I was very happy with our itinerary, we saw three beautiful but very different countries and cultures, big cities, endless steppe, stood on the Chinese Wall and slept in a yurt.
Familie friendly Trans Mongolian itinerary
If you plan on doing the Trans Mongolian with kids, let me give you some advice based upon my own experience.
There is one thing I would change about the itinerary above and that is to add a stop in Yekaterinburg (between Moscow and Irkutsk).
Being on the train for three and a half days straight is a bit long, especially for our 10-month-old son who started to get a little bored after two days.
It didn’t help that he was a bit ill, but keeping him entertained on the third day was quite a challenge.
On the shorter legs (Irkutsk to Ulan Bator and Ulan Bator to Beijing), he was perfectly happy walking up and down the hallway and playing in our compartment with the toys we brought. He also spent a lot of time napping, probably because he liked the soothing rocking motion of the train.
However, the journey between Moskow and Irkutsk was 83 hours in total, which was too much in one go. I think adding a stop in Yekaterinburg would have been perfect, both for breaking up the journey as well as for the important role this city played in Russian history (it’s where the Romanov family was murdered).
If you have (an) active kid(s), I highly recommend adding an extra stop on the Moscow – Irkutsk leg, to break up the journey and keep the trip fun for the whole family. That being said, if your kids are a little older and can read, draw, watch a movie, etc. it’s probably fine to do the Moscow – Irkutsk trip in one go.
Trans Siberian railway tickets
Ticket classes: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd
On the Trans Siberian there are usually three types of tickets available:
- First-class (SV): compartments with two beds and often a shared bathroom (with sink and shower, no toilet) with the compartment next door. Compartments can be locked from the inside and from the outside with a special key carried by the provodnika.
- Second class (Kupe): compartments with four beds, two on the bottom and two on the top. The bottom beds are often used to sit on during the day by the people in the top bunks as well. Compartments can be locked from the inside and from the outside with a special key carried by the provodnika.
- Third class (Platskart): 54 beds lined alongside the compartment, there are partitions but no doors. This compartment offers the least amount of privacy and when traveling as a family I wouldn’t recommend buying a third-class ticket (though you see many Russian families in this class).
How to buy tickets for the Trans Siberian?
While it’s possible to buy tickets directly at the Russian Railways website, most people (including myself) book through a travel agent. While this will cost you a bit more, it saves you a lot of time and stress.
Booking train tickets for the Trans Siberian isn’t always straightforward, especially when you want to include several stops. Furthermore, most travelers (again, including myself) also book tours through the same travel agency. You can book tours locally as well, however, keep in mind it will take time to arrange this.
Personally I preferred arranging our itinerary beforehand, together with Real Russia (the travel agency we used). This ensured that when we embarked upon our Trans Mongolian Express adventure, all we had to do was sit back, relax and enjoy the amazing journey.
How does booking a Trans Mongolian trip via a travel agent work?
In our case it was pretty simple: once we decided upon our family itinerary, I contacted the Real Russia customer service department.
They provided us with a proposed travel schedule and after some minor adjustments from our side, they went ahead and booked both our train tickets as well as our preferred tours (more below).
For the night train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, we received an electronic ticket via email. We only had to print this e-ticket and present it to the provodnika before boarding the train.
We collected our other (paper) train tickets from the Real Russia office in Moscow, though you can have these send to your hotel as well (we stayed at an Airbnb so I didn’t want our precious tickets to be delivered there).
Important things to know about your Trans Siberian train tickets
Please note that for each leg of your journey you have to buy a separate ticket. For example, say you plan to travel from Moscow to Kazan, go sightseeing and continue your journey from Kazan to Yekaterinburg two days later.
In this example you would buy two tickets:
- A ticket for your trip from Moscow to Kazan.
- A ticket for your trip from Kazan to Yekaterinburg.
You cannot buy a ticket from Moscow to Yekaterinburg and disembark in Kazan. Well, you could but you would be refused when trying to board the train from Kazan to Yekaterinburg with your Moscow – Yekaterinburg ticket.
The reason for this is simple: you buy a ticket for a bed in a designated compartment on a specific train, for example, train #70 departing on Wednesday at 1.50 pm. This bed, or beds when you are traveling with companions (or as in our case our son), is reserved for you for the duration of the leg indicated on your ticket.
It’s very common that when you get off the train for a stop of a couple of days, somebody else will board the train with a reservation for that specific bed for the next leg.
How to prepare for your family trip on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
While you don’t have to plan your entire trip beforehand, there are some things to arrange before leaving home.
What is the best time to do the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolia Express?
First of all, you will have to decide when to take your trip. For families, I highly recommend traveling either in Spring or Autumn. Summers are too hot and winters too cold to comfortably travel with (little) children.
We traveled the Trans Mongolian Express in May, which I think is a perfect month for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The weather in Russia in May
In the Russian cities we visited (St. Petersburg, Moscow and Irkutsk), the weather was perfect for sightseeing. We had some showers in St. Petersburg, but other than that we had blue skies and a temperature of around 20°C.
At Lake Baikal we were incredibly lucky, the weather was wonderful which made our entire trip there unforgettable. There was very little wind, it was sunny and there were only a few other tourists.
The weather in Mongolia in May
I didn’t expect it to be so hot on Mongolia in May already, but during our first two days in the country, it was around 30°C.
While it wasn’t ideal to explore Ulaanbaatar with these temperatures, we spent a lot of time indoors (exploring the National Museum of Mongolia) as well as in an airconditioned car (being chauffered between the highlights of Ulaanbaatar) so it didn’t bother us (and most importantly our baby boy) too much.
After a heavy shower during one of the nights we spent at the beautiful Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, the temperature dropped back to a much more comfortable 20°C.
The weather in China in May
I’ll be honest with you, Beijing and the Great Wall were too hot (above 30°C). By the time we arrived in China, May was almost over and temperatures had started to rise.
To avoid the heat in Beijing, I recommend doing the Trans Mongolian route the other way around (East to West). Start your trip in Beijing early May and end it in St. Petersburg in late May.
Temperatures in St. Petersburg are much more moderate and sightseeing will be more comfortable and enjoyable, especially when traveling with (young) children.
Health is super important, so thoroughly investigate which vaccinations you and your children need. While I can tell you how we prepared for our trip, I am not a doctor.
As soon as you decide on doing the Trans Siberian or one of the other train routes described above, tell your doctor about your trip and ask for advice!
Our 10-month-old had already received most of the necessary vaccines (TDAP and Hep-B). However, when we told our doctor about our upcoming Trans Mongolian adventure, our baby was given an early MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccine.
He usually wouldn’t have gotten that until he was 14 months old but the doctor advised we have him vaccinated as health risks in Russia, Mongolia and China are slightly higher than in the Netherlands.
My husband and I already had all the required vaccines, including Hep-A. Unfortunately, our son could not be vaccinated for Hep-A since the vaccine is only suitable for children of 1 year and older. Again, please check with your doctor for advice regarding the required vaccines.
There are ticks in the area around Lake Baikal (only in May and June) so be sure to bring tick tweezers and thoroughly check your kids, partner and yourself for these nasty creatures after a visit to Baikal and Listvyanka.
Little children are inclined to put everything they come across in their mouths. During our time on the train, we were very careful to prevent our son from eating things from the floor.
We had a bottle of Dettol and used this to thoroughly clean the surfaces of our compartment (table, window and other surfaces our baby could easily reach). Furthermore, we made sure to clean his hands, face, and feet a couple of times a day; however, you can never completely keep your baby from getting his hands dirty…
Decide on tours and excursions along the Trans Mongolian Express
While we usually don’t go on tours and prefer to travel independently, for our family adventure on the Trans Mongolian I booked five tours before we left for our trip.
It gave me peace of mind knowing that during our trip we didn’t have to spend time checking the offers from different tour operators, comparing prices and making sure things like a baby car seat were available.
I did a lot of research before our trip and while we had a hard time narrowing down which excursions to choose (there were so many interesting ones), we ultimately settled for these five tours:
- Walking tour around St. Petersburg (Russia).
- Day tour to Lake Baikal and Listvyanka (Russia).
- City sightseeing tour in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia).
- A multiday (3 days, 2 nights) tour to Terelj National Park (Mongolia).
- Day tour to the Great Wall at Mutianyu (China).
We booked all our tours via Real Russia, who also booked our train tickets. All tours were led by knowledgeable (local) guides, who spoke English well. Each of them went out of their way to make our trip an unforgettable one.
The tours mentioned above are all suitable for families. Car seats were provided whenever necessary and during the tours, there was enough time (or time was made by the guide) to feed our baby or change his diaper.
I do recommend booking a private tour for your family. That way, you can customize your itinerary and spend a bit more time at the spots your kids really like.
Accommodation and transport
We arranged our own transport and accommodation in the cities where we stopped. However, if you prefer, your travel agent can also book everything for you.
Accommodation in Russia, Mongolia, and China
We slept on the train for 6 nights in total. The other nights were spent in cities and stops along the way. We had a mix of accommodation during our trip, from Airbnbs to a luxurious five-star hotel.
In St. Petersburg we stayed at an Airbnb. While the apartment was lovely and located within walking distance of the city center, it was too small for our family of three. Alternatively, there are many family-friendly hotels in St. Petersburg.
In Moscow, we stayed at an Airbnb as well. While this apartment was much more spacious, there was no furniture (couch, table, chairs or anything) and no curtains. I’d personally opt for another place next time I’m in Moscow, such as this lovely 4-star family-friendly hotel.
In Irkutsk, we stayed at the wonderful Kupechesky Dvor boutique hotel. They provided us with a baby cot and our son loved the brightly colored flowers on the carpet. I really enjoyed our stay here!
In Ulaanbaatar, we stayed at the Voyage Hotel which was basic but clean, spacious and within walking distance of the train station. The staff was very friendly and they even provided room service.
In Beijing, we stayed at the fabulous Zhaolin Grand Hotel. I was hosted by this hotel, but I can honestly say that this incredible 5-star hotel is the best place I stayed in my life (except maybe for the Jamahal on Bali). You can read more about our stay here.
Getting around in Russia, Mongolia, and China
In Russia, I recommend downloading the Gett app which is similar to Uber. This makes ordering a taxi very easy, you can even select Gett Kids (drivers with a car seat in their car) in the bigger Russian cities.
In Moscow and Beijing, it’s most convenient to travel around by metro. Keep in mind though there aren’t elevators everywhere and getting to the platform can be a bit of a hassle with a stroller.
In Irkutsk distances are small and we got around on foot.
Something I had not expected was how horrendous the traffic jams in Ulaanbaatar would be. I was so happy we had booked a hotel within walking distance of the Ulaanbaatar train station. It would have been so stressful had we been stuck in a taxi during rush-hour on our way to the train station!
You can get around Ulaanbaatar by bus as well, more information can be found at the Lonely Planet website. In the city center, the quickest way to get around is on foot, that way you can avoid the neverending traffic jams.
Currency and money
On the train, cash is kind. You cannot pay with a credit card so be sure to bring enough cash on board. In St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulaanbataar and Beijing ATMs are widespread and we never had an issue withdrawing money with our Maestro card or Mastercard.
The Russian Ruble
The Russian Ruble (RUB) is the official currency of Russia. Here you can find the current exchange rates, at the time of writing €1 is approximately 70RUB and $1 is around 62RUB.
The Mongolian tögrög or tugrik
The Mongolian tugrik (MNT) is the official currency of Mongolia. Here you can find the current exchange rates, at the time of writing €1 is approximately 3000MNT and $1 is around 2750MNT.
Note that the tugrik cannot be exchanged outside the country so be sure to spend it all (or exchange into Rubles/Chinese renminbi) before leaving Mongolia.
The Chinese Yuan/renminbi
The Chinese Yuan (CNY) is the official currency of China. Here you can find the current exchange rates, at the time of writing €1 is approximately 8CNY and $1 is around 7CNY.
Life aboard the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian trains
With the right preparations, traveling the Trans Mongolian as a family is very doable and a fun adventure for everyone.
But what to expect from life aboard the train? What do the compartments look like? And what about the toilets? Do you have a socket to charge your electronics? What do you eat aboard the train?
I’ll answer all these questions and more below.
Services on the train
The most important equipment on any Trans Siberian train is the samovar. This coal-fired kettle provides boiling water (between 80 and 100 degrees) and can be used to make tea, coffee, porridge, and instant noodles.
Toilets are very basic, however, the provodnikas keep them very clean and well-stocked with toilet paper. There is a small sink where you can brush your teeth.
While not every train has a restaurant car, most of them do. We mostly ate our instant noodles but had lunch in the restaurant car once. Lunch was okay, nothing too fancy or tasty, just what you can expect from train food.
The restaurant car is a nice place to spend some time and meet other travelers. You can have a drink, play cards or chat with fellow passengers.
If your kids are picky eaters it’s smart to buy plenty of food and snacks that you know they will eat before boarding the train.
Bed linen was included in our train tickets and provided by the provodnika when we boarded the train. Usually, the package contains a bedsheet, a duvet, a pillowcase, and sometimes even a small towel.
In our compartment there were warm blankets as well, however, we never used these as it was pretty warm during the night.
What does a cabin look like?
All trains are a bit different but the basics remain the same. In the first and second classes, there are nine compartments per carriage, plus the compartment where the provodnikas sleep.
Each compartment in the second class has four beds in a compartment, compartments in first class have only two beds. The bottom beds are used to sit on during the day.
There is also a small table in the middle and each bed has its own reading light. The blinds are very good at block out almost all daylight, which was very helpful when trying to get our baby to sleep.
Within each compartment, there is luggage space below the bottom beds and above the door.
First or second class?
Between Moscow and Irkutsk and between Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar, we had booked a second class compartment for our family of three. Between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing, we traveled in first-class.
While our first class cabin was nicely decorated and had a shared sink/shower with the cabin next door, I personally feel a 2nd class 4-bed cabin is more convenient for family travelers.
In the second class, there is more seating space during the day and a separate bed for your child(ren) during the night.
Why book an entire compartment for your family?
Because we were traveling with our 10-month-old baby, we preferred to have the entire compartment to ourselves and had booked all four beds. I was still breastfeeding at the time and our son took two naps a day (sometimes even three!) so it was nice to have some privacy when we needed it.
Also, we had a lot of luggage and because we had the entire compartment to ourselves we could use one bed for storage (besides the luggage spaces).
Where can your kids sleep?
Depending on the age of your kids, there are several options. For our baby, we had brought a small inflatable air mattress with us which fitted between the beds on the floor.
However, he actually ended up sleeping on one of the bottom beds. We used our suitcase and backpack to make a ‘wall’ between the bed and the table so he wouldn’t fall out during the night or one of his naps.
When your kids are older, they may actually love sleeping in the top bunks. These can be reached via a little step near the door of the compartment, but require some flexibility! Sleeping in the top bunk feels very cozy, like you have your very own little spot, something your kids will surely like.
There is a low rail next to the bed and the train doesn’t shake that much, so it’s not easy to fall out. However, I wouldn’t recommend the top bunk for young children (say under 7 or 8 years old).
In the end, it just depends on your kids and their preferences and of course your own. Keep in mind though that space is limited, there really isn’t enough space for more than four people (which may present a bit of an issue when you are a family of five).
We carry quite a lot of electronics on our trips, which needed to be charged every once in a while. Charging can be a bit of an issue on the Trans Siberian.
We didn’t have electric sockets in our compartment on all three trains we traveled on. On the first train, there were only two sockets in the hallway and we were glad (and so were our fellow travelers) we had brought a power strip with three outlets.
On the second train, we had two USB charging points above our beds and on a third train, we had a normal socket in our compartment. So it really depends on the (age of the) train you are on.
Other important things to know about traveling the Trans Siberian
We asked the provodnika to lock our compartment door whenever we got off the train for some fresh air at one of the longer stops. I don’t think anything would have been stolen if we locked the door, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
In the hallway of the carriage, you can find a detailed timetable all the stops and the duration of these stops. The time table also indicated the different time zones. Between Moscow and Irkutsk, the time difference if five hours in total!
On the toilet door, there is another timetable, indicating when the toilet will be temporarily closed (at all stops longer than one or two minutes).
Besides checking the timetable, we always asked the provodnika how long a particular stop would be, we most certainly didn’t want to miss the train!
Once or twice a day, the provodnika came by the compartments with a plastic bag for trash. However, because we had quite a bit of trash (including smelly diapers) we had brought our own roll of bin bags and usually threw away our trash at one of the larger stations during a stop.
The most challenging moments for us (and especially for our baby) were the border crossings. Both the border crossing between Russia and Mongolia as well as the border crossing between Mongolia and China take place late in the evening or at night.
There are strict procedures and it takes a long time. You have to show passports, tickets and your compartment and luggage will be searched.
As such, it wasn’t possible to let our baby sleep through all this, so he ended up going to sleep way past his usual bedtime. Also, as he had to process so many impressions he didn’t sleep well (and neither did we).
Furthermore, at the border between Mongolia and China border, we had to disembark with our luggage and wait in a large hallway (from 9 pm until 1 am).
Why you may wonder?
Well, because the track width isn’t the same in Mongolia and China, so each train that crossed the border has to stop for several hours to have the bogies of all carriages changed.
Luckily we had our stroller and our baby fell asleep after we walked him around in the waiting area for about an hour. Altogether, the process is long but it’s unavoidable and also part of the Trans Mongolian experience.
The Trans Siberian Express: in conclusion
Traveling on the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian is an epic adventure, especially with (a) kid(s). With the right preparations, it will be a magical journey and something you and your family will never forget.
Please let me know if you have any questions, you can leave a comment below or send me a message. Happy travels!