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Northern European (Baltic) Cruise?

I am putting this in the Netherlands forum only because I am mostly looking at cruises that depart from Amsterdam (although I will consider ones departing from other cities such as Copenhagen).

My family is considering Baltic cruise in June/July 2018. Since I will be travelling with teens, a family-friendly cruise will be important. The reasons to take a cruise this time are many, but include the desire to experience a cruise, the convenience of unpacking once, and, hopefully, a more cost effective way to see a variety of cities in northern Europe. We have done a few land-based trips to Europe and just are looking for a different experience to see some target areas. We are looking at cruises that visit a variety of cities such as Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, etc. I would love to hear the experiences of others who have done one of these cruises. I have been reading Rick's book on this subject, but would love to hear from others who have done it.

My questions include:

Which cruise line and why? What length of cruise? In which cities you used cruise excursions and in which did you plan on your own? How many days you choose to stay in your departure/arrival city? And, of course, anything else you wish to share. . .

Thank you in advance.

Posted by
2545 posts

We did this cruise on Norwegian line and left from Copenhagen. We stayed 2 days before and 3 afterwards. We were 10 adults. The cruise was 10 days.
We hired private tour guide for St Petersburg - he took us the the top spots such as Hermitage, church of the spilt Blood, Etc. we didn't make it to Catherine's summer palace which was a disappointment, but we had a fabulous 2 days.

Also hired private guide in Warnemünde, Germany. He also took us to Rostock. Lovely small cities with a East German history.
In Stockholm we did a ship excursion to the Vasa museum which was great then we had time to walk around before we got the last shuttle back to the ship.
The excursion we choose in Helsinki was awful.

In Tallin we did a quick town walking tour through the ship then stayed for the rest of the day on our own. The dock is within walking distance.
Having the local guides in the 2 cities really made a difference. They answered our questions about life before and after the changes and brought us to local restaurants. They were extremely well versed in Their respective cities. We went in July and the weather was cool. Never needed shorts and wore long sleeves with a light jacket.

Posted by
1005 posts

You should buy the Rick Steves book about this--Northern European Cruise Ports. It gives fantastic information on how to visit on your own rather than pay for a cruise line excursion.

Posted by
327 posts

Husband and I did the 12 day Baltic cruise with Princess Cruises from Copenhagen - stayed 2 days before and 1 day after in Copenhagen. We chose this cruise starting in Copenhagen for the itinerary, for the easy flight connections (including several days stop-over in Iceland en route) and spending 2 full days in St. Petersburg (where we toured via the ship's excursion from 7:00 am to 5 pm each day).

We used the Rick Steves Northern European Cruise Ports book to plan most of our excursions and really enjoyed all of the ports. Although many of the ship passengers traveled by train from Warnemunde to Berlin, we chose to spend an enjoyable day in Warnemunde - a German seaside town.

Posted by
219 posts

Barbara - Thank you. NCL is one of the lines I am considering. How did you find your private guides? Were they recommended in Rick's book. I really appreciate the info on the weather! Good to know what you experienced.

T- Thank you for the suggestion. I do have the book. I am looking for some people's personal experiences.

Mardan - Good to hear a review for Princess. I had not thought about adding in a stop over in Iceland. That is a great idea! I tend to see more affordable fares to Copenhagen than Amsterdam, so that may be the way to go. Did 12 days seem the right amount? It did not seem too long on the ship?

Posted by
265 posts

I travel on Holland America Line. They have Club Hal activities for all age groups including teens.
I would think Amsterdam would be a city that teens had heard more about....the canals and Anne Frank. Copenhagen is the other primary choice for Holland America Line. Your choice of departure cities may depend on which cities and countries you most want to visit during the cruise.

Posted by
219 posts

Robert, thank you. I agree about Amsterdam being the city that my teens would be most interested in which is one of the reasons I have been considering it. Have you taken one of the Baltic cruises on HAL? Did you like it?

Posted by
327 posts

mrp: In answer to your question, 12 days on the ship seemed about right for this itinerary, although a third day for St. Petersburg would have been OK too - there is so much to see! We have been on cruises from 7 to 28 days so 12 days was fine by us. With 2 "sea days" out of 12, there was time to do the laundry, enjoy all the activities on the ship, and meet new travel friends. For your teens, Princess offers "Movies under the Stars" every night at the pool deck - popcorn and chocolate cookies included.

Posted by
219 posts

Thank you, Mardan. That is good to know.

Posted by
21859 posts

We have done seven European cruises all with Holland Am and one Royal Caribbean. We prefer Holland Am but it does attract an older crowd though in the summer time there will be kids on board. We believe HA offers a lot of value for the dollar. Food was far better than on the RC. Ten days to two weeks is our min for cruises and are often in the three week range. Gives an opportunity to settle into a routine. Just get on the web site for the various cruises and search for cruises. We prefer ship sizes of about 2000 or less. We avoid mega ships.

We almost never take a ship shore excursion. We do a lot of research advance as to port activities, often hit the TI the first thing to arrange local guided tours. Never been disappointed with this approach. When possible will often pre-arrange with some of Steves' recommended tour guides. Also have had good luck with "Show and Go". The one exception to shore excursion is Russia because of visa requirements. Far easier to go with ship excursion.

We tend to go a week to ten days early and stay for a week afterwards but we are retired. When traveling with our two sons it was four or five days early and a couple days afterwards. But in those days were restricted to a school schedule.

Posted by
250 posts

We did Holland America last year, didn't care for that line. Ship was worn out looking, ports were good. Did all tours on our own, several through SPB tours which were wonderful. Took several bike tours which would be great for kids, check out a TripAdvisor. St. Petersburg was my daughter and my favorite, Kiel is boring, recommend train to Lubbeck, Helsinki was dull as well, loved Estonia and Stockholm. Skipped Berlin as a half day didnt do it justice and the other half of the day is travel time.

Posted by
219 posts

Frank, thank you for the excursion tips in particular just hitting the TI when arriving. I had not thought of that on such a short stay. We do prefer most things on my own, but I was considering making St. Petersburg the exception. I appreciate your insight on that. I appreciate knowing that you liked HAL over RC as RC is one that we have been seriously considering.

Kathi, I appreciate your info on HAL. Is there a cruise line that you prefer?

Thank you for the continued responses.

Posted by
250 posts

I prefer Princess and Royal Caribbean. Have done two HAL cruises and both ship board experiences were marginal. My twenty something kids were BORED on the ship, there was absolutely nothing going on, they were the only two at the dance club/bar, a much older crowd on this ship. By the way, Ricks cruise port books are great! Happy travels!

Posted by
15053 posts

Look for cruise lines that are family-oriented! I took a Baltic cruise on Celebrity in late June and there was one teen in our group - there were only about half a dozen other teens and tweens on a ship of 3000 passengers and pretty limited activities for the youngsters, though the crew did provide some organized things. If the pool isn't heated, it may be too cold for swimming. And when the seas are rough, they have to close the pool.

I went on cruises with a group of people with a common interest and we spent much of our at-sea days together doing our thing. If you don't want to just loll around on those days, make sure there are activities you'll enjoy - gym, spa, games, etc. Also look closely at how much time you'll have in each port. Keep in mind that you won't be off the ship until at least an hour after they dock and will need to be back about an hour before departure. In Copenhagen, the sights began just a few minutes' walk from the dock. Tallinn was a little longer walk, but pleasant and easy. In Stockholm it was about 20 minutes' walk or a bus ride (we never found the bus stop). In Helsinki, it was a bus ride to/from the town to the port. In all those cities, we chose what we wanted to see and do and went off on our own. In St. Petersburg, you either have to get expensive visas (not worth it) or take one of the organized tours, either arranging that on your own (pre-tour) with a local tour operator, or taking the ship's excursions. Most of the cruises I've looked at recently stop in Germany, ostensibly for Berlin - but Berlin is a good ways inland, and IMO too far for too little. Save Berlin for a "real" visit and choose to see one of the towns near the port. My cruise skipped Germany and docked overnight in Stockholm.

Note that you'll spend a lot more time on the ship than in the various ports. So if the shipboard experience doesn't appeal to everyone, it won't be a great choice. River cruises give you a lot more sightseeing time, usually sailing only from late night to early morning. So the on-board experience is less important. I don't know if many/any attract familys with teen.

Posted by
219 posts

Chani, Thank you for those extra details. They are very helpful. It looks like Celebrity will be off my list! It is important that all of us are happy with the experience.

Posted by
11292 posts

The CruiseCritic website has a lot of information, but it's very hard to navigate.

Here are their Baltic Sea cruise tips: https://www.cruisecritic.com/articles.cfm?ID=1341

Here is their assessment of the best Baltic shore excursions: https://www.cruisecritic.com/articles.cfm?ID=1292

Here is their Northern Europe and Baltic Ports Forum, which will have lots of reports on these cruises: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=192

Here are their Baltic cruise reviews from cruisers (as opposed to the site's editors): https://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/regions/baltics-cruises/

One thing that has been mentioned above, but which Rick's book does not clarify properly. For St. Petersburg, there are not two options, but three. You can go with a ship's excursion, and do not need to get a visa. You can go on your own, and do need to get a visa. Or you can go with one of the tour companies that get you a "visa equivalent"; that's not what it's called, but that's how it functions. There are many of these - Red October, SPB Tours, Alla Tours, DenRus Tours, and more. These companies have small group tours following a pre-set itinerary, or for more money you can get a private or customized tour with them. If you go with one of these companies, you do not need to get your own visa.

Posted by
489 posts

Funny you ask this now, as just 2 years ago today we were on Holland America (my one and only large cruise ship experience) on the Baltic cruise. We only signed up for St. Petersburg tours thru the ship mainly due to the lack of visa. The tours we took in St. Pete were great. I did one that was great and took us on the subways and into the markets with a vodka tasting. We really loved Tallin and actually just used RS walking tour for that city. We did venture on literally "the other side of the tracks" to a local market (no tourists there) and we went with a restaurant recommended by RS --- Mothers??? or something like that and it was excellent local cuisine. We really loved the Baltic capitals. We didn't mind Kiel (as we were meeting a German exchange student who had stayed with us). We did not go to Berlin, but opted to take a spur of the moment tour of town closer to where we docked... Got to see a lot of what East Germany was about. Stockholm is amazing and you should not miss the Vasa Museum! The restaurant in the museum has awesome meatballs! We actually did the hop on hop off bus/boat in Stockholm. We had 2 days in Stockholm and I booked a walking foodtour while there (see trip advisor) Helsinki was neat as it is easy to navigate and taking the circle tram you see a lot. The architecture is awesome ... rock church, etc. Food there is expensive. We started and ended in Copenhagen. We booked our airfare with HA and we were very glad we did as they held the ship for us. We were the last group from the airport to the ship. We then stayed 3 more nights in Copenhagen at the end of the cruise... I LOVE Copenhagen and the transportation is easy to use. The train from the city to airport is very convenient. We had the Copenhagen City Card and used it a lot! Went out to see the Viking Museum (working viking museum) Kids would love it.
On HA cruise lines, At this time of the year there are many kids on the ships. I wasn't terribly impressed with the food, but the one small restaurant had made to order hamburgers and fries that were definitely great quality.
My one regret was not going to Lubeck, Germany.
I hope this helps,

Posted by
219 posts

Harold, Thank you very much for the links. I am reading through them. I agree that I have found Cruise Critic difficult to navigate. Your links helped.

Tgreen, that absolutely helps! The personal experiences of others are so vital when trying to plan one's own trip. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.