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Help Planning a Trip to St. Petersburg

Esteemed travelers:

My wife and I are beginning to plan a trip to Europe for October-November 2014. On previous European trips, we planned our flight and hotel arrangements by ourselves. However, on this trip we plan to visit St. Petersburg, Russia for 3-4 days and visit the Hermitage. This will be our first visit to Russia.

While we would like to make our flight reservations independently, we are wondering whether it would be advantageous to use a travel agent to arrange for our hotel and visa. After visiting St. Petersburg, our intent is to travel to Berlin, Munich, and Austria for two weeks. As I understand, the Russian visa process can be a bit complex.

Could someone experienced in the process of obtaining a Russian visa and making Russian hotel arrangements give us some advice and point us in the right direction for planning this trip? In addition, is it a good idea to arrange for a guide in St. Petersburg to get us around the city and properly see the sights? These are the questions on our minds as we begin to plan this trip. Your insight and recommendations will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Posted by
252 posts

Have you considered taking the ferry from Helsinki? This way you can stay up to 3 days in St-Petersburgh and it is visa-free. It saved me time & money.

As for the question of hiring a guide...Do you usually do so? I visited most of the city on my own and had no issues. Does everyone speak English in Russia? Of course not. But it was part of the challenge and experience for me. I visited most of the sights on my own but I did go on a tour to Pushkin with a small group (since it is out of the city center) but to be honest...I wish I had done it on my own.
I simply enjoy going at my own pace...But that's just me. The tour itself was great and I do recommend ULKO tours.

Happy travels!

Posted by
2081 posts

@ Paul,

I will be monitoring what comes up since i too plan on going to Moscow and St. Petes next year. I already have an idea on how im going to do it, but the answers here will, i hope, be informative.

Happy trails.

Posted by
1771 posts

I believe if you use the ferry trip you must be restricted solely to whatever tour is taken from the ferry, as your entry without a regular visa would only be good for that.
There are agencies that you can go to for the visa, our son's study abroad group used Travisa, you can find this online. Makes it pretty simple.

And there are places you can contact in order to arrange the invitation, required for the visa, if you have not already arranged your lodging. The simplest place to get the letter of invitation directly is from where you will be staying.

Other than obtaining the visa, there is nothing involved that you can't do for yourselves (air, lodging, advance orchestra tickets...) as you would for any other country in Europe.

Posted by
516 posts

Hubby and I are seasoned EU travelers and also do all our own travel arrangements. After several months of research we decided to go with a travel agency. We checked into the three day visa free pass and opted not to do it because we feel three days is not enough time for St. Petersburg. We are going this summer during white nights and are using Travelallrussia. Our travel agent, who has been great this far, name is Cody. I'll do an extensive review when we get back. They take care of the visa to enter Russia and the invitation visas once inside Russia. We are also going to spend 2 nights in Moscow and train to St. Petersburg. We went with their seven day tour.

Posted by
4437 posts

We did St. Petersburg, Moscow and Volga cruise to Astrakhan last year. There is a little bit hassle with applying for Russian visa. These Russians are funny. Their visa application questions for Americans are exactly the same as in US visa application for Russians. Fortunately we did not end like Australians because when they asked Russians to fill their application in English, Russians immediately asked Australians to fill their applications in russian. Russian visa cost 140 US$ (not surprisingly it's the same what Russians pay for American visa) plus 30 US$ for Visa Agency (at least in Seattle you could not go with your visa application directly to consulate). I think 3 to 4 days is very little time for St. Petersburg and considering the price of visa (and little hassle) I would have at least 5 days for S.P. and if it was me I would add at least 5 days in Moscow to make my visa worth it. Russia is tougher country than others in Europe because very little English is spoken and their alphabet (cyrillic) is different than ours. It's a little better in S.P., you see some English signs, but in Moscow if you don't speak some russian, don't read cyrillic and don't have a guide, you are lost. Everything is just in russian, no English signs. We used this agency for most of our travel and visa support and can strongly recommend them. (And I can speak some russian and read their alphabet): http://www.expresstorussia.com

Posted by
571 posts

Paul, I've made two trips to Russia myself but they were so long ago that my information about the sites and using a guide are not relevant. (On my first trip, one had to have a mandatory, Soviet Intourist guide!)

That said, I hope this information is persuasive.
For my job, I had to arrange the travel visas for my boss and a small group of people from my employer to St. Petersburg on two occasions just in the past few years. I work within walking distance of the Russian consulate so I was able to go there in person and explain everything face-to-face. I studied Russian so I could converse with the staff in both English and Russian. I read their Web site, their printed materials, and followed all the rules. I was courteous, respectful, and careful to adhere to all the stated opening hours. All our paperwork was in order.

I will never, NEVER, NEVER, EVER again attempt to go it alone through the Russian visa process. Not for myself or for anyone else. The ringer they put me through (twice!)was excruciating. At the end, I think they were purposefully toying with me. They'd demand I fix a comma on one person's application, then reject the fixed application because I didn't indicate myself as "an assistant to the applicant" on the form. Real petty, bureaucratic nightmare stuff. Meanwhile, I'd watch the agents of the professional visa acquisition companies walk into the office, receive a warm embrace, and leave 20-30 applications with the promise they'd be ready in a day or two.

You may try it and have no problems, I don't know, but I'll never take that chance again.
Best of luck,
Matt
PS I don't want to be mistaken. "Piter" is a beautiful city and the trip is worth it. It's just the hotel invite/visa application / govt bureaucracy I would warn against.

Posted by
11945 posts

Several years ago, I too toyed with the idea of arranging a trip to St. Petersburg independently. It didn't take much research to learn that I was in well over my head. I then used a company called "White Nights" to arrange everything, but I don't think they're still in business (or, they've changed their name). Other than mailing my passport to the Russian Embassy, the whole process was seemless for me. Once there, though, I didn't feel the need for a guide, but it helps if you pre-arm yourself with some knowledge of how to pronounce Cyrillic letters. If you're able to sound-out the words in your head, you'll be surprised how many words are similar to English (ex: "PECTOPAH" is pronounced like "restaurant" and it means the same thing. "METPO" = "Metro", etc).

Don't miss the Russian Museum while you're there. And as an opera fan, the rare chance to attend Russian-language opear was priceless for me (even well-known works by Tchaikovsky, Schostakovitch and Rimsky-Korsakof are rarely staged outside of the country, due to the scarcity of singers that can manage the language).

Posted by
631 posts

Paul, we went to St. Petersburg last year, 2012, via the St. Peter Line ferry (stpeterline.com) from Helsinki. Here's an outline of the trip. Night 1 was on the ferry in a private cabin; day 1 we took one of their excursions though we weren't obliged to do so; night 2 in a hotel offered through the ferry but again we weren't under any obligation to book this hotel; day 2 we took excursions of a different tour company; night 3 in the hotel; day 3 we went out on our own; and night 4 we were back on the ferry returning to Helsinki. All of this was without a Russian visa. If 3 full days in St. Pete is enough for you, then we recommend this method. See the St. Peter Line website. BTW, the ferry trip can be used to stay one full day only in St. Petersburg, or one night and two days, or the trip we took.

@Larry, you said "I believe if you use the ferry trip you must be restricted solely to whatever tour is taken from the ferry, as your entry without a regular visa would only be good for that." Sorry, but our experience doesn't bear that out. And the St. Peter Line website gives the same visa rules as it did in 2012.

Have a great trip, Paul.

Posted by
45 posts

Everyone:

Thanks for all the great insights on this question. Everyone who responded to my questions has provided some great information. You confirmed many of my thoughts and pointed me in the right direction. It appears that our trip will take some serious additional research and evaluation to check this one off my wife's bucket list. The RS Helpline is a great resource and much appreciated. Thanks again.

Posted by
10699 posts

For St. Petersburg, I decided it was much better by boat with a local tour operator than trying to get a Visa and plan myself. We ended up using a Baltic cruise rather than a ferry, but the concept is the same. The tour operator was Alla tours.

Russia may be the least traveler friendly place (it's certainly in the running). Our two-day tour of St. Petersburg (with a total of ten people from our boat) was about twice as expensive as a visa alone, plus included transportation in a 12-person van, guide and admissions - for me it was a good travel value.

Posted by
1242 posts

We have found that many Russian hotels will provide you with a letter of invitation for your visa support for free or a $20-30 fee. You would then need to send this along with your visa application. We found the sites mentioned in the information on Rick Steves' upcoming St. Petersburg tour also can provide a letter of visa support for a reasonable fee, or even do the whole visa process for you with reputable, reasonable agencies. Do you live anywhere near a Russian consulate? If so, it's worth visiting them to find out exactly what they will need. This seems to be the cheapest way to get a visa, which will still be over $200 each.

Posted by
252 posts

I would be careful with the first sentence of Larry's reply.
I am sure he meant well but I disagree.

I think Galen's reply about the ferry trip is very close to what my experience was.

If you take the St. Peters line ferry from Helsinki. You need to pay for a cabin and a ''tour''.
Yeah...kind of! The tour is NOT a guided tour at all. It is ONLY a mini bus that takes you from the port to the city center. That's it. I did take the ferry last June...so my experience is very recent.

One day I will go through the hassle of getting a visa and visit Moscow and other cities...
But I really believe that doing the visa free cruise from Helsinki to St-Petersburgh is a nice first trip to Russia.

I hope this helps! You will love the city! :)

Posted by
281 posts

I can't offer much advise as I arrived in St. Petersburg on Holland America but
I did a two day tour with Alla Tours and they were efficient and I was satisfied
with their service. They did not require a deposit and did not ask for payment
until the second day of our tour. I wouldn't hesitate to use them again or to
recommend them.

Posted by
12 posts

Paul
I too arrived by ship and used Alla tours- great experience, wonderful guide- only problem was wish I had more time!!!
Enjoy- St Petersburg is a beauty.

Andrea

Posted by
6 posts

Dear Paul,
I agree with previous comments, the best way is to get to St. Petersburg by ferry for 3 days. In this case you are not requested to have a Russian visa (no extra expenses & no extra headache).
Actually I know several very good English speaking guides in our city. If you are still planning the trip, I can help you with all your questions (including picking up at the airport or ferry port), etc ...
Pls, visit my web site and find direct contacts: www.travelfriend.info

Kind regards,
Renata