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72 Hour Visa Free to St. Petersburg

I just wrapped up a visit to St. Petersburg utilizing the 72 hour visit free rule, and I thought I'd give a brief recap of my experience as I couldn't find a ton of recent experiences here aside from Andrew's in 2016 (which was still super helpful).

I booked my trip back via the Moby/St. Peter Line website in early March for travel dates May 15-18/19. It was roundtrip from Helsinki on the Princess Anastasia. I had seen conflicting information about whether you had to book a St. Petersburg hotel via their site or could use something like Booking.com or book directly with a hotel. The website didn't appear to require you book a hotel with the ferry, but I ultimately decided I didn't want to risk getting turned away at the port and booked directly with Moby. The hotels are more expensive through the site than they are if you book them directly or go to Booking.com, which was irritating but again, not overpriced enough to make it worth the risk of getting turned away. In hindsight, I'm still not convinced it's actually required to book through Moby/SPL but the rep I spoke with after booking claimed "rules" had changed and it was required, though I was trying to cancel my hotel at the time (more on that in a minute) so she may have just been trying to save the sale.

Following my online booking, I received a confirmation for the ferry (I booked the most inexpensive room I could as I was traveling alone and didn't need much for a night). My room was 75.50 euro Helsinki > St. Petersburg and 46.50 euro St. Petersburg > Helsinki. I also paid the 25 euro city tour fee, which is basically transportation to St. Isaac's Cathedral and counts as the "tour" you're required to take to qualify for the visa-free rule. In the ferry confirmation, I was told I would receive a separate confirmation for the hotel in 2 business days. I forgot about this for awhile and realized about 2 weeks later that I still hadn't received the hotel confirmation. I reached out to them and it took 2+ weeks, and several emails from me, before I finally heard from the hotel manager, who told me my hotel was booked and I would have to choose another, more expensive, hotel. I have no idea if it was actually booked when I made my reservation or if it was booked when the hotel manager finally responded to me almost a month after my reservation, but I was frustrated to say the least. It was at this point I asked if it was required that I book a hotel through Moby and was told that the "rules" had changed and I did indeed have to keep my reservation with them. It then took another 17 days, several emails, and a couple Facebook messages before I finally got a hotel confirmation at the new hotel I had selected. At this point, I was having serious reservations about the whole process, but I never considered cancelling as I had planned a lot of my 7 week trip around St. Petersburg and really wanted to see the city.

Fortunately, the hotel snafu was really the only issue I had with Moby/SPL; everything else was very smooth and every single employee I encountered was extremely helpful and spoke excellent English. I ended up leaving my phone at customs as I was entering the country and a very wonderful Moby Sales associate helped me extensively as I tried to find it, translating and just generally being comforting. Both of the check-in clerks were also very helpful and explained everything I needed to know and do and did a great deal to set my mind at ease about the whole process.

To be continued, running out of space....

Posted by
73 posts

The Princess Anastasia is very similar in layout to a cruise ship. There are a couple of restaurants to choose from and you can also book meals in advance on the site when you're booking your ferries. I ate a surprisingly good pizza at the Italian restaurant on both trips, reasonably priced, and had a mediocre breakfast in the cafe before we arrived in St. Petersburg. There's also a buffet and a steakhouse restaurant. The ship itself is really old, but seems well-maintained and I wasn't concerned about safety. I didn’t participate in any of the shows or activities they had going on or pay to use the pool or other facilities, so I can’t comment on any of that. There’s pay wifi available but I didn’t bother since I had cell service for the first hour or two at sea and then I just read and slept. It was about $5 for an hour.

We arrived in St. Petersburg at 9am the next day and disembarkation began at 930 on deck 4. I was on deck 5 and lined up at about 9; I didn’t get off the ship and into the customs line until 1030, as it was a disorganized mess trying to get off. People were pushing and shoving and all trying to exit one door while the crew scanned everyone’s boarding cards before they could get off. I had met someone earlier in my trip who told me it took her and her friends 3 hours to get through customs so I was somewhat prepared for chaos but it was still annoying to see just how chaotic and disorganized it was. I then waited 30 minutes “in line” but it wasn’t actually a line because people coming in after me didn’t actually line up behind me, they just moved up along the side. Fortunately, some additional customs windows opened up and I was able to move to the front of those lines. My visit with the customs agent was fairly brief, at least compared to others around me, but it was much longer than when I returned to the EU in Helsinki. She asked a couple of questions (was I traveling with anyone, how long was I staying, etc.) and then stamped me through (they give you a form you need to keep with your passport at all times and then present upon departure – don’t lose it!). All in all, it was about 2 hours before I was finally to the buses.

As previously mentioned, the buses drop you at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and you’re entirely on your own for your stay. My hotel ended up being very nice, though not as well-located as my original selection. I did get a free upgrade so it worked out for me in the end and the staff was friendly and spoke good English.

72 hours in St. Petersburg is really not enough to see the whole city, and it’s less since you don’t get to your hotel until noon-ish the first day and have to be back at the ship no later than 6pm the last day. It’s probably more like ~55 hours in St. Petersburg, but it gives you a good taste of the city and you can know whether you want to return again on a full visa or if that’s enough Russia for you. I’ll definitely go back at some point and see more of the city as well as other parts of Russia, but I enjoyed the experience even with the frustrations with my hotel booking, the chaotic disembarkation, and my lost phone (entirely my fault).

I hope this is helpful to anyone planning to utilize the visa-free rule. I’m happy to answer any questions about the experience and would definitely encourage others to give it a try if you’re in that part of the world and have a few days.

Posted by
316 posts

Thank you bunches; I'm sure many, many others will find it extremely helpful - especially this summer, with all Ru consulates and visa centers totally backlogged and suffering from quite atrocious wait times, visa-free might be the way to go.

Thanks again

Posted by
50 posts

Thank you so much for sharing such a valuable experience. May I know how you got around St. Petersburg? Did you tour on your own or you booked a tour with a tour company?

Posted by
4684 posts

Thanks for the update, Katherine. It sounds like the process is very similar to what it was for me in 2016, despite the acquisition of the St. Peter Line by Moby. (And I ate at the same pizza restaurant on the ferry.) Maybe or maybe not with the hotel booking. I think my immigration experience upon arrival in St. Petersburg was faster than it was for you but I don't really remember.

It was really a lot of fun - my little cabin was adequate and I enjoyed the "ferry experience" much more than expected and could imagine doing it again someday.

(Did you ever get your phone back?)

Posted by
4684 posts

Thank you so much for sharing such a valuable experience. May I know how you got around St. Petersburg? Did you tour on your own or you booked a tour with a tour company?

When I did this in 2016, I was completely on my own. St. Petersburg is very walkable but huge. It's a touristy city - lots of Chinese tour groups. I used the buses extensively. They might seem confusing - but I had a working smart phone, and Google Maps had precise schedules and I just used the phone to get around, how to get to a stop and where to get off. I didn't have to read any Cyrillic map or bus schedule. You just get on the bus and pay (was then 30 rubles) for a ticket from the conductor or from the driver. There is a subway too; I didn't use it. Walking is easy enough as well (Google Maps for walking directions helps here also), but my feet were already shot before I got to St. Petersburg from previous walking in cities, so the bus saved my feet and was cheap enough and easy with the phone.

Posted by
73 posts

Andrew, it's definitely pretty similar still and your experience was really invaluable to me, so I wanted to pay it forward and share mine, too. I actually used a lot of your tips on your Baltics trip report on the Fodor's forum, too. I used my phone exactly as you did, and it was so helpful.

And yes, I did get it back - when I finally got to my hotel (got lost without the phone and a decent map plus I was distracted and anxious that I'd lost it smh), I checked its location and it was still by customs, so I woke my mom up and had her call it and a customs lady answered and told her where it was. I asked my hotel to call a taxi to take me back to the ferry terminal, but the names for the train station and the ferry terminal are very similar, and the taxi took me to the train station. It was just a comedy of errors at this point, but I finally got there, found the same helpful Moby Sales lady, and eventually found my phone. I won't say I'm not attached to my phone normally, but traveling alone for 7 weeks made me especially attached to it and I had planned to use it extensively in St. Petersburg, so I was really happy to have it back.

Regarding the ferry experience, since I've cruised before, it felt like a cheaper knockoff version of the big cruise lines for me. But I enjoyed it for what it was and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it or do it again if I didn't want to get a visa.

Posted by
73 posts

Thank you so much for sharing such a valuable experience. May I know how you got around St. Petersburg? Did you tour on your own or you booked a tour with a tour company?

dkdjph, I also toured on my own and had no problems. I used my phone in the same manner Andrew described, and it was incredibly helpful. I think you could probably tour without it, but it was really nice to just be able to google directions and have it tell me which bus to get on and where and when it was coming. You could theoretically do this via wifi in museums and restaurants before heading to your next destination if you don't have data in Russia. Or maybe download a bus schedule/map before going. St. Petersburg felt very large to me, and while I agree it's walkable, it's a long walk between sights and my feet were also shot by this point, so the bus really helps. Nevsky Prospekt just felt like it went on for days, and it's so wide there are underground crosswalks so traffic can keep moving. Oh, and the bus is 40 rubles now - ~75 cents, definitely worth it!

I'm a woman and was traveling alone and felt really safe at all times, so if you're debating about a tour vs independent travel, safety is not a concern, at least more than any other city. I generally was able to find someone who spoke English everywhere I went, though I didn't venture much outside the tourist areas.

Posted by
4435 posts

Thanks for the update. I did this back in 2014 and also ate at the pizza restaurant twice :). I booked the hotel through St Peter Line and it was definitely much easier for us back then. The ”city tour” dropped us at the hotel. What hotel did they book you at?

Posted by
73 posts

What hotel did they book you at?

Laura, I ended up at the M Hotel on Sadovaya Street, right by Gostiny Dvor. The staff were friendly and helpful, the continental breakfast had good variety, and the location was good. For all the hassle, it worked out really well for me!

Reading this makes me want to go back!

Sorry, Andrew, I'm going to need you to go someplace I've never been so I can follow along behind you in a year or so!

Posted by
50 posts

When I did this in 2016, I was completely on my own. St. Petersburg is very walkable but huge. It's a touristy city - lots of Chinese tour groups. I used the buses extensively. They might seem confusing - but I had a working smart phone, and Google Maps had precise schedules and I just used the phone to get around, how to get to a stop and where to get off. I didn't have to read any Cyrillic map or bus schedule. You just get on the bus and pay (was then 30 rubles) for a ticket from the conductor or from the driver. There is a subway too; I didn't use it. Walking is easy enough as well (Google Maps for walking directions helps here also), but my feet were already shot before I got to St. Petersburg from previous walking in cities, so the bus saved my feet and was cheap enough and easy with the phone.

Andrew H., thank you for sharing! It's good to know it's not that hard to go around St. Petersburg alone. I agree the city is huge and I can't imagine taking public transport without knowing the language. It must be confusing and a bit scary but if you research beforehand and if you have Google Maps, you definitely won't get lost.

I actually visited St. Petersburg for 2 days but booked a private tour with Anastasia Travel. We were coming in from a cruise so we had limited time. We had the best time though and they did a great job of organizing a customized tour for us. But 2 days went by so fast and there's so much we missed in such a short visit. We really want to go back and we were wondering if we can tour on our own next time.

Posted by
50 posts

dkdjph, I also toured on my own and had no problems. I used my phone in the same manner Andrew described, and it was incredibly helpful. I think you could probably tour without it, but it was really nice to just be able to google directions and have it tell me which bus to get on and where and when it was coming. You could theoretically do this via wifi in museums and restaurants before heading to your next destination if you don't have data in Russia. Or maybe download a bus schedule/map before going. St. Petersburg felt very large to me, and while I agree it's walkable, it's a long walk between sights and my feet were also shot by this point, so the bus really helps. Nevsky Prospekt just felt like it went on for days, and it's so wide there are underground crosswalks so traffic can keep moving. Oh, and the bus is 40 rubles now - ~75 cents, definitely worth it!

I'm a woman and was traveling alone and felt really safe at all times, so if you're debating about a tour vs independent travel, safety is not a concern, at least more than any other city. I generally was able to find someone who spoke English everywhere I went, though I didn't venture much outside the tourist areas.

Katherine215, I know St. Petersburg seems huge and really hard to explore on your own. But thank you for your inputs I feel more confident now that we can actually manage to tour the city on our own without booking with a tour operator. I guess we just need to research beforehand and organize everything.

I totally loved the experience when we visited before and booked with Anastasia Travel. We are actually considering booking with them again for our second visit to St. Petersburg but we are looking into other options like doing it on our own. We are a bit torn between doing it on our own or booking with a tour company. I guess it's a choice between a comfortable, hassle-free tour and an exciting, unpredictable trip.

Posted by
96 posts

I am sorry you had so much trouble organizing your stay in St.Petersburg. St.Petersburg is safe to do on your own, for sure. The 2 main reasons why we did it with a tour guide was our limited time and the visa processing. We wanted everything organized prior to getting there and we wanted to see everything in only 2 days, well, 1 day and a half to be more precise. We also used the same agency someone mentioned above, Anastasia Travel and they did an amazing job. You are so lucky to spend 7 weeks around St.Petersburg. I wish I can go back one day...

Posted by
73 posts

You are so lucky to spend 7 weeks around St.Petersburg. I wish I can go back one day...

Cruisetraveler7, I should clarify - I spent 7 weeks total traveling but only 72 hours in St. Petersburg since I did the visa-free trip. Americans are not allowed in Russia for longer than 72 hours without a visa.

I guess we just need to research beforehand and organize everything.

dkdjph, your third option is to do a combination of guided tour (perhaps a walking tour?) and independent travel. I like to join walking tours or small group tours to break up my trips and get a local's perspective, while still maintaining the freedom to do what I want when I want. You just have to find what makes you most comfortable.

Posted by
4435 posts

We are a bit torn between doing it on our own or booking with a tour company. I guess it's a choice between a comfortable, hassle-free tour and an exciting, unpredictable trip.

You can always combine a tour with time on your own. I did a 72-hour visa free ferry trip back in 2014. We did the first on our own to tour the sights along Nevsky Prospekt and the various churches. On our second day, we joined an organized tour to visit the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Gardens, and the Peter and Paul Fortress. On our third day, we spent most of the day visiting the Hermitage on our own. Using a tour for one of the days enabled us to see a bit more than we would have been able to manage on our own given our limited time.

Posted by
50 posts

dkdjph, your third option is to do a combination of guided tour (perhaps a walking tour?) and independent travel. I like to join walking tours or small group tours to break up my trips and get a local's perspective, while still maintaining the freedom to do what I want when I want. You just have to find what makes you most comfortable.

katherine215, this is a great suggestion we never thought of. We can definitely book a guided tour for the sights that are a little out of the city and do our own thing within the city. It's always nice to travel and explore on your own pace without thinking about how much time we have based on the itinerary. Thanks for the suggestion!

Posted by
50 posts

You can always combine a tour with time on your own. I did a 72-hour visa free ferry trip back in 2014. We did the first on our own to tour the sights along Nevsky Prospekt and the various churches. On our second day, we joined an organized tour to visit the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Gardens, and the Peter and Paul Fortress. On our third day, we spent most of the day visiting the Hermitage on our own. Using a tour for one of the days enabled us to see a bit more than we would have been able to manage on our own given our limited time.

Laura, how were you able to tour on your own visa-free and without a booked tour on your first day? We were told we cannot disembark from the ship without someone from the tour company meeting us and accompanying us as we tour around the city.

Posted by
73 posts

We were told we cannot disembark from the ship without someone from the tour company meeting us and accompanying us as we tour around the city.

Are you coming in on the Moby/SPL ferry or a cruise ship? If it's a cruise ship, you must be with a tour guide at all times if you don't have a regular visa. You can only tour independently if you take the ferry in and stay less than 72 hours or if you get a regular visa.

Posted by
4435 posts

Laura, how were you able to tour on your own visa-free and without a booked tour on your first day? We were told we cannot disembark from the ship without someone from the tour company meeting us and accompanying us as we tour around the city.

I took the St Peter Line ferry from Helsinki (just like katherine215). This is the only option that allows you to tour on your own without a visa. If you are on a cruise, you have to go with a tour company.

Posted by
50 posts

Are you coming in on the Moby/SPL ferry or a cruise ship? If it's a cruise ship, you must be with a tour guide at all times if you don't have a regular visa. You can only tour independently if you take the ferry in and stay less than 72 hours or if you get a regular visa.

Thank you for the info! Yes, we are planning to come in from a cruise ship so we won't have a visa coming into Russia. The Moby/SPL option sounds interesting. We might look into it as well.

Posted by
50 posts

I took the St Peter Line ferry from Helsinki (just like katherine215). This is the only option that allows you to tour on your own without a visa. If you are on a cruise, you have to go with a tour company.

Thank you for confirming this too! We'll check out St. Peter Line ferry and weigh out all our options. We think that applying for our own tourist visa might be too much of a hassle and the visa-free tour might be the better option.

Posted by
1 posts

DId you talk to any other travelers on the Ferry who booked hotel stay on their own? any issues? are there registration papers the hotels give you to supply immigration or the ferry? Did you stay one or two nights in SP? - thanks for the info

Posted by
73 posts

DId you talk to any other travelers on the Ferry who booked hotel stay on their own? any issues? are there registration papers the hotels give you to supply immigration or the ferry? Did you stay one or two nights in SP? - thanks for the info

You know, I surprisingly did not talk to many people on the ship, and those I did talk to, I didn't ask about their hotels (we were mostly complaining about immigration's slowness). The hotels do not provide anything because you're booking directly through Moby. Moby does not provide anything for immigration because immigration all knows they are responsible for you since only Moby folks come in at that time. Immigration does ask how long your staying and I was very clear that I was leaving Saturday (arrived on a Thursday) and that it would be under 72 hours. I stayed two nights in SP.