First, forget about  travelers checks...they are so "20th Century!"

So, do you get along in Russia? The usual suspects - cash and credit card - also apply here, with some caveats.  Be aware that, unlike years ago, you make payments in the formal, official currency of the country - rubles. There is no advantage whatsoever to even trying to offer "foreign" currency.

Note that, unlike other countries, fewer places take credit cards, especially a lot of the smaller shops or street kiosks, food booths, etc. So, even if you want to use your credit card, you should be ready to pay for a lot of things with cash (this is, in a way, truly "going native" as Russia remains very much a "cash" society).  For both cash and credit cards, make sure you advise your bank(s) of your trip so they do not inadvertently shut you down, leaving a message on your home voice mail/recorder!

So, on to cash. Do not waste money getting rubles before your trip (unless you do NOT have an ATM//Debit/credit card). You will simply overpay- whether due to fees, or bad exchange rates. With regard to rates, the exchange rates you get at ATMs are, in most cases, pretty much the best/same rate as you would get anywhere (that is, when in doubt, use your ATM card to withdraw cash vs. the hassle of doing a "manual" exchange at one of the thousands of such places that do this, distinguishable by their sign ОБМЕН ВАЛЮТЫ and a set of big lit-up red numbers, signifying their buy/sell rates for dollars and Euros.  If you are a stronger believer in cash, you can take  in or out  of the country the equivalent of $10,000, in cash or travelers checks  without declaring it.  There is no upper limit on how much cash you can take in or out (as of April 2013).

There is almost literally an ATM on every corner in Moscow and St. Petersburg, including at the airport. You should, however,  try to stick to ATMs of either large foreign institutions like Citibank, or major banks in Russia. The top 5 Russian retail banks (for Moscow anyway) - good for both availability of machines but also presumably some higher degree of reliability- are Sberbank ( "Savings Bank"- by far the largest in Russia), VTB 24, Bank of Moscow (being bought by VTB), and Alfa Bank. From a security perspective, try to use ATMs which are near/connected to banks, and certainly avoid using them at night and/or in off-the-beaten-path type places. ATMs are not to be confused with similar-looking payment terminals from the various local electronic payment providers such as QIWI, which accept cash,  not disburse cash.  

  • UPDATE as of (at least!) July, 2011: Russia is on a list of "suspicious" places for usage of ALL cards. As such, your Financial Institution (FI) may "block" usage of cards. You MAY be able to temporarily UNBLOCK them via a call to notify of your trip. But, at the present time, be forewarned that you will likely find debit card usage to be limited to (PIN-based) ATM withdrawals only, i.e. not good at merchants, or for cash advances. So, for sure, call your FI before you go so you do not encounter any unpleasant surprises!

ATMs of any of these banks work very well for debit cards, and presumably for credit cards as well, and have at least English as well as Russian. ATMs tend to have a limit of 6-8,000 rubles per "session" (about $215-285 at current summer, 2011 rates), and will, in addition to rubles, also do Euros (but not sure why anyone would really want to get "foreign" currency inside Russia!). Of course, if you want or need more, you can just use the machine again! One final tip - when getting rubles, keep in mind that smaller places will have a problem changing larger bills, especially 5,000 ruble notes. So, get an amount like 4,900 so you will get a mix of 1000, 500 and 100 ruble notes (if the machine allows this), or at least 3,500 as the machine should have at least 1000 and 500 ruble notes.

Be careful in smaller cities and villages, they may only be from the main Russian bank - Sberbank.  Sberbank will usually work with most foreign ATM/Debit cards (but in small cities and villages you rely upon the particular ATM having a good uplink to the main system in Moscow) so it is not wise to rely upon ATM's only and take some cash, just in case. In Samara only citi bank will give you 15000 rubles all other atm's will give max 7,500 and as you pay per transaction its better to get the larger amount.

For credit cards, not much different from using anywhere else, except they are not so widely accepted. While some have questioned the safety of using credit cards in Russia, based on ongoing discussion on TA, it does not seem there are really grounds for totally refraining from using them. Having said that, it would be advisable to use the same common sense you would at home- use them only with larger, trustworthy places hotels, larger restaurants or stores, and try not to lose sight of your card.