First thing you have to understand is that Moscow is a big city that has entire 3 international airports. These are Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Vnukovo (in the order of how likely you are to arrive to one or another from most to less so). They are usually abbreviated on your tickets (and later luggage) as SVO, DME and VKO respectively.
There are technically more airports around the city, but those are either flights within Russia and former Soviet space or closed military ones. So check your tickets and see which abbreviation of the three you have there. If none of the above, ask whomever sold it to you. You might be flying some other place instead of Moscow.
All three are nice, modern, freshly renovated for the World Cup 2018 with free Wi-Fi, overpriced coffee shops, duty frees, functioning escalators and all the modern amenities you'd expect from a good airport. There's no situation where one is significantly worse than the rest, and I'd suggest to rather burn your ticket than arriving there. If it's any of the three - it's good.
What is slightly different, however, is how far away from the city they are. From the closest to the farthest from the city center of Moscow it is: Vnukovo (28 km away), Sheremetyevo (29 km), Domodedovo (42 km). There's none, unfortunately, that would bring you straight to the main action. Moscow is not just the capital in status, it's the home of almost all main Russian government institutions. The entire city's territory for security reasons is a No-Fly Zone for everyone and everything including your drones. Hence the location.
Below is a quick overview of each of them in the order based on a subjective criteria of how 'cool' they are from least to most.
Flying in through Vnukovo? Congratulations, you are about to meet the oldest of all the currently functioning airports in the city as well as the first officially international airport of Moscow. It was first opened in 1941 and served during the WWII as a military airport. But nothing daunting, there's little that's actually left from the original project. It has some older terminals on the territory, but almost 100% of all operations have long been moved to the terminal A, the newest building there. Which is the one you'll be arriving through with almost absolute certainty.
The terminal was opened in 2010 and according to the official website is absolutely amazing. 'Dozens of innovative solutions were utilized during creation of the project. And the final version was awarded a golden medal on the International Exhibition of Innovation, Research and Technology 'Brussels - Eureka 2006''. It's also the only one that has free Wi-Fi there. So if you by some miracle arrived to any other, make sure you immediately go out and go to A.
Not only that during WWII a Special-purpose Air Squad was stationed there. But at the end of the conflict in 1945 this was the very airport to which the original version of the 'Unconditional Surrender of Nazi Germany' as well as that famous Soviet flag from the top of the Reichstag building were brought to.
Also, the airport keeps maintaining a special status of being the official airport of the President of the country as well as all the high-ranking political guests for over 60 years. Macron, for example, just recently in 2018 was coming through here. It helps a lot that all those special flights a served in a technically separate airport called Vnukovo-2 just a couple of kilometers away. But still, expect some serious traffic jams and blocked roads on the way to the city if you happen to arrive on the same day as some foreign leader.
It's the 3rd biggest airport of Moscow by the annual passenger flow (21,5 mln ppl in 2018) as well as 3rd here on my list of airport 'coolness'. And you might be asking your self, 'Wait, Paul. I feel myself like a substantially cool person. Why am I flying through 3rd and not 1st one?'
And that would be a totally reasonable question. You see, most likely you are from the Middle East, flying through a Middle Eastern country or through a place with elevated concentrations of Russian tourists (Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Cuba, Goa (technically, part of India, but might soon claim a special status judging by the number of Russians there)).
Of all three major airports this one also happens to be the most Russian one. Over 64% of all flights there are domestic and the remainder is divided mostly between Russian air carriers that specialize not so much on bringing people in, as much as moving the locals out during holidays in mass quantities at cutthroat prices. So they mainly cover the most popular Russian tourist spots.
Fun fact: one of the new Russian lowcosters is called 'Pobeda' (literally 'Victory') and it offers regular flights to Berlin through this airport. Which is... a bit on the nose;)
So, despite international routes being served at this airport, your chances of actually getting there are still relatively low. If you do see it on your ticket though, expect the plane to be full of Russians and everyone to clap upon landing.
This one is certainly not the biggest airport you've ever seen. In my personal experience, this is visually the smallest of all three. Pretty much regardless of where you stand inside this airport, you can see all of it. Which is good news for anyone who doesn't like spending hours looking for things you need. Whatever you might want to find, you can always just point directly at it.
It's like... imagine a rectangular box and then... stop imagining. Right there, you pretty much got the idea how this airport looks like. With all the recent renovations and the new glass wrapping it does look better than that though:
And significantly better than the original 1962 version:
But that is essentially all of it (as of January 2019), just one terminal. And that, combined with the fact that by the annual number of passengers it's the closest competitor to the currently biggest Moscow airport, Sheremetyevo, leads us to its biggest problem - overcrowdedness. On any given day, at the least agitated hour it normally gets somewhat overstuffed. Just before winter holidays - goodness gracious... But it's manageable. Over 30 million people use this airport every year, so you'll manage to get through as well.
Historically, it is the second civil airport of Moscow first opened in 1962. It was originally built exclusively for domestic flights to Siberia and far East or flights to the countries of Central Asia, but in 1992 was recognized as an international one. It was also chosen in 1975 as the departure point for the world famous Tu-144 - the first of only two supersonic passenger planes that ever existed.
For 10 years (2005-2010) this airport was actually the leading one in the whole country by yearly passenger flow. A lot of big international operators in early 00s started one by one leaving Sheremetyevo and moving there, noting better infrastructure, compliance with international standards of aviation and willingness to constantly improve the current condition. Many of the 'cool' foreign air carriers still operate there (some of which only there) today: Emirates, Qatar, Lufthansa, British Airways, Swiss Airlines and more.
It's the first airport of Russia to get an ISO certificate, first to run two simultaneously operating runways and first to be approved for reception of wide-body planes such as Airbus A380. In the 00s it was recognized by several foreign magazines as the fastest growing airport in Europe.
However, if you google something like 'Domodedovo scandal' in Russian, you can easily find videos of leaking roofs, endless lines, quarrels with the personnel and a cop beating the hell out of a man right in front of his two kids.
But that, I say, is all dirty work of haters and competitors. Although the airport has its issues, I'm positive that the best is yet to come for it. Because of all three, this is the only privately owned one.
Yes, in the country where currently any truly big and important business or entire sector of economy, normally, fully belongs to or dominated by the state, this whole airport quietly continues being owned by a private company run by a local billionaire.
So whatever your eventual experience with it end up being, always keep in mind how it serves as a beacon of light in Russian business environment, proving the strength of capitalism and private property. So that even if you don't fully enjoy something inside; at least, you'll always be able to enjoy the very concept of this airport.
And since government ownership is usually associated with inefficient investments and management, corruption, lack of innovation and promotion of dubious political ideologies, this airport is supposed to be the exact opposite of that: modern and high-tech, constantly growing and super western-friendly.
There's not always overwhelming evidence of that today. Especially, after massive government investments in Sheremetyevo over that last decade that made it comparable in if not better. But as a private enterprise that actually cares about its profits and customer satisfaction, Domodedovo always seems to be willing to improve further. Even if, sometimes, those plans hit a major snag along the way.
The new terminal (not yet finished in 2019) is supposed to extend its capacity by about 50% both solving the overcrowdedness and making it the busiest airport of Moscow once again. A slight issue there is that it was originally announced as an upgrade for the 2018 World Cup. But they definitely hope that it'll be finished by the time you arrive.
All in all, it's a nice, modern looking and feeling airport with free Wi-Fi, and it is very easy to navigate through. If you have it written on your ticket, rest assured you're arriving through one of the best airports of Russia.
Now this - is THE airport of Russia today. Over 45 million people a year (2018), 5 (!!!) main terminals with the overall territory of around 500 000 square meters. Biggest airport in Russia, in the top 20 biggest in Europe and in the top 50 busiest in the world.
Whatever direction you're flying to Moscow from today, you have about 60-65% chance of landing there. And about 100% of doing so if you decided to give it a shot and fly Aeroflot.
But it hasn't always been as rosy for it. Being the biggest state owned airport it suffered from significant internal corruption and lack long-term investments throughout the 90s that allowed its closest competitor Domodedovo surpass it in yearly number of passengers by 2005. Many leading airlines started tossing their partnerships with Sheremetyevo in favor of Domodedovo in the early 00s for reasons of dilapidated infrastructure, lasting lack of improvements and absolutely horrendous system of transport communication between airport terminals as well as between the airport and the city.
It was, essentially, the opposite of Domodedovo. Whereas Domodedovo had the simplest structure possible where you just go in - go out, everything is under the same roof. Here people had not just several terminals that were not connected with any bridges or tunnels, but several terminals one of which was lying on the opposite sides of the runways. Switching from terminal to terminal was done by buses, and getting to the farthest one on the opposite side could take people up to 30-45 minutes. Which for people catching connecting flights there was an absolute nightmare. So at some point, high-end airlines, with standards of customer satisfaction and all that, started being seriously upset about it.
But... from 2000 to 2010 with the construction of two new railway stations and an express train terminal for communication with the city, underground electric train connection between the farthest terminals, two new modern airport terminals (D and E) with convenient, covered walkways between them and adoption of a grand 20-year investment plan in 2008, the situation dramatically improved.
And by 2019, the only remaining part of the old Sheremetyevo is the terminal F built in 1980 for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Absolutely everything else is either built anew or rebuilt literally from the ground up. North of the landing strip: terminals A (2012) and B (2018, built for the Cup). South: D (2009) and E (2010).
The existing system of communication between the terminals allows to conveniently reach even the most distant ones in just about 5-10 minutes time. While between all the closely located ones you'll find glass-covered passages with horizontal escalators (travelators), which would also take you only minutes to reach the building you need.
Ever since 2011 the airport has been consistently (almost every year) given 1st or 2nd place in the rating of European airports by the quality of customer service by the so-called Airports Council International.
By 2021 the plan is to build another new terminal C on the northern side and open a brand new 3rd runway for planes. All of which is supposed to increase the airport's maximum capacity up to 80 million people per year.
Not too shabby for something government-owned that started as a Soviet military airport.
So, what to expect arriving to Moscow through it? Well, even with all the improvements it is still not the most straightforward airport to orient inside. First, make sure you know what terminal you're arriving to / departing from. That'll save you some time ordering a taxi later or switching terminals if needed.
Second, look at the airport's map at least once before getting there, just in case. You can see a screenshot of the fully zoomed out version above, but also better check the full digital one on the official Sheremetyevo website - https://www.svo.aero/en/map?terminal=all. They even made a mobile app with that map for you. Click for the iOS version and the Android version. The app is, basically, just a mobile version of their website packed into an app, and it also requires internet connection to run. But it wouldn't hurt having it.
All international flights today operate from terminals in the southern part of the airport, So if you don't have plans to travel within Russia and aren't arriving by a private jet (terminal A), chances are you're not going to discover all the wonders of having to wrestle with this map at all.
One way to quickly find out your terminal is by figuring whether you're flying Aeroflot - the biggest and state-owned airline of Russia. Aeroflot is not only a minor shareholder of Sheremetyevo and uses it as its home airport. But it also has its entire terminal there. Terminal D deals exclusively with flights of Aeroflot or its partners of the Skyteam alliance.
So, one can say that if you don't encounter any navigation issues with different terminals and don't get ripped off on money exchange, coffee or taxi, then you are pretty much guaranteed to have the best airport experience in Russia arriving through Sheremetyevo airport today.
This will do it for the quick overview of the three major international airports of Moscow. Thanks for reading it to the end. I hope you've leaned something new, and it'll help to be slightly more prepared when you arrive.
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