We are taking a cruise to the Baltic in late August and are thinking of booking city tours in some of the ports. Should we skip it in St. Petersburg and go out on our own? We'll be in port for 2 days.
What is on the tour and how much does it cost? It used to be (and might still be) that if you want to go out on your own, you would have to have a Russian visa if you aren't with a tour group. You need to check into this before making a decision to go on your own. Last I knew, they were about $100.
Be sure to go to Cruisecritic.com:
1) to get answers to your questions about guided tours http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=192 2) to learn about the ports so you can see if you can do them on your own (scroll down to the bottom for ports info) http://www.cruisecritic.com/ports/area.cfm?area=14 3) To join your "roll call" to meet others on your cruise, including those you can join tours with to reduce costs http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=34 (unfortunately, these URL's all have ? marks, so I can't make them active links; cut and paste them into your browser) Actually, the consensus from Cruise Critic is the opposite of your plan. Most of the Baltic ports are easy to see on your own, without a tour. The ships usually dock near the downtowns, everyone speaks English, and with Rick Steves Scandinavia (really - many cruisers swear by it) you only need a guided tour if you want one. However, if you don't use a tour company for St. Petersburg, you have to get a visa (complicated and expensive). And Berlin (which I realize you didn't ask about) is almost 3 hours from the port; opinion is divided about seeing it from the cruise port, vs seeing else something closer to the port (everyone loves Berlin, including me; it's the transit distance that's the problem). Everyone agrees that particularly for St. Petersburg, you save money and see much more using a private company compared with the ship's tour. Continued..
continued.. The following St. Petersburg tour companies come up frequently as being good ones: http://www.alla-tour.com/ http://www.spb-tours.com/st-petersburg/en http://www.redoctober.us/ http://www.denrus.ru/ Disclaimer: I have never used any of these companies and have no connection with any of them I saw St. Petersburg on my own (well, with my Russian-speaking sister) in September 2001 and April 2010. Things that I don't usually see listed on the standard tours that I highly recommend (if you have time) are: 1. The Russia Museum. We actually enjoyed this more than the Hermitage. When we returned in 2010, we didn't go back to the Hermitage (amazing though it is), but made SURE to go back to the Russia Museum. 2. The Yusupov Palace. Rasputin's assassination was started in the basement, but we didn't take that tour, which at the time was separate. The rest of the place was amazing, including the private theater. It felt intimate, despite the opulence.
3. The Sheremetov Palace. A museum of musical instruments, in a fantastic chateau. Of things that often are included in tours, I loved the Church on the Spilt Blood (also went both times) and the canal cruise. I didn't get to any of the palaces outside of town like Peterhof or Catherine's Palace.
Did one end of May- very enjoyable as we wanted a taste of Scandinavia for a first round. St. P was the reason for the trip. If you are a US citizen, you either have to have Russian Visa, OR a tour booked through a regular tour agency ( we used Alla Tours) or thru the cruise line. (If you were arriving by ferry, there are other ways to do this- but that's not your situation). We were extremely pleased with Alla Tours and got a group rate through cruise critic's roll call- made some friends. Another advantage to an independent besides the price is the size of the group- 13 or 16 people instead of a big bus. We also did not have to wait in line for the Hermitage. No biggie. The first day is strenuous but worthwhile, the second day is more relaxed. We bought Rick's Scandinavia book and used it in some ports such as Copenhagen, used Alla for Tailinn, Stockholm, St. P.
Wear your moneybelt!
For your brief visit to St. Petersburg, I think it best to book a tour with one of the companies mentioned above. Getting a Russian visa is a hassle and very expensive. With the two-day tours, the tour operator will get you a tourist visa only good for the time with the tour booked. You won't be able to walk around on your own, though. You'll want to make good use of your time, so definitely arrange for a tour ahead of time, like right now :) I was on a Baltic cruise 3 years summers ago and really enjoyed my experience in St. P. We made arrangements for the 4 of us to have our own guide and driver and it was great. We got off the ship, went through the passport control area, and our guide was waiting. It was efficient, no waiting at any of the sites, and customized to what we were interested in. Check out cruise critic boards and find the roll call for your ship. There could be others willing to share a tour guide that will lessen the cost. You can do a ship's excursion, but there will be a full busload of people for the same price you could most likely find for a smaller group of 10-12. Email me if you're interested in more specifics.
I would say skip tours everywhere else and book a tour in St. Petersburg. If you skip a tour, you will need a Russian visa to get off the boat (it cost $160 each when we went in 2010). We chose a two day Alla tours "strenuous tour" that covered all major sites in a van with driver, guide, and a total of ten people (eight other people from our boat that Alla put us with). The cost was $260 each, we tipped another $40. I just don't think you can beat that on your own. Everywhere else is visa free, so you can jump off the boat and use local public transportation to get around. The one caveat we found - while ATM's are everywhere in airports they aren't as common around ship ports. You may have to get downtown to get some local currency from an ATM. It may be worth paying the ship's exhorbitant fees for a little local currency to get you started with a bus or taxi into town. You should find out where your boat will dock and decide if it's too far out to walk into town. We did pretty well on walkable docking spots except for Helsinki (so if you have some euros around the house, it may be worth bringing them).
I went on a Baltic cruise in June a couple of years ago. With the exception of St. Petersburg, all the cities were easily accessible and a city tour would probably have been a waste of time and money. Since my friends and I were able to enter Russia (free visa) with our Israeli passports, we went on our own. We had the freedom to choose what we wanted to see and do and we managed without a guide and had a great time. It wasn't as easy as the other ports, hardly anyone spoke any English - even the cab drivers and some of the staff at various tourist sites (Hermitage, Peterhof) and we spoke no Russian. Given that you are leaving in little more than a month, it's unlikely that you have time to get individual Russian visas anyway (last time I checked, they were around $180 each plus handling fees if you used an agent to facilitate the process), so you will have to go with a private tour. As mentioned above, you will get more information at cruisecritic.com Go to the roll call section and find your cruise. The "forum" is one long thread, so you'll need a little patience reading through it. You will find recommendations for guides and maybe even be able to join a private tour that someone is putting together.
No, use a guide/tour. We were there a couple of weeks ago for three days, two of which we had booked tours and we were glad we did.