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Trip Report Visa Free 72 Hour Ferry Excursion to St. Petersburg via Helsinki

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I recently visited St. Petersburg for two nights via the St. Peter Line ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and back. Normally, Americans require a visa to visit Russia, and getting a Russian visa involves some hassle and expense - e.g. filling out applications, sending your passport to the Russian consulate, and a few hundred dollars in fees. But Russia makes an exception for visitors who arrive by boat: they can visit for up to 72 hours without a visa - "visa free." This is ideal for cruise passengers who are visiting multiple cities and might stop for a night or two in St. Petersburg. But you are allowed to visit this way by ferry, too. The St. Peter Line seems to be the only ferry line offering this kind of trip.

The ferry is about a thirteen hour overnight trip to St. Petersburg one way, either from Helsinki or Tallinn. It gets you into St. Petersburg in the morning; you can stay up to two nights in St. Petersburg on your own, at your own lodging, then you must leave by ferry again at the end of the third day. (You can't depart by plane or train - you must depart by ferry the same way you arrived.) However, the ferries don't run every day - maybe four or five days a week. So if you want the full three days (not really 72 hours - more like 60 hours), you have to check the ferry schedules and pick arrival and departure dates that give you two nights in St. Petersburg. (You can go for less than two nights if you wish - but would it be worth it?) For example I found that June 1 departure, arrive June 2 (stay nights of June 2 and 3 in St. Petersburg) and a June 4th return to Helsinki (back in Helsinki morning of June 5) worked with my schedule; other adjacent dates did not, so I had to play with my whole itinerary to fit it in.

I was in Tallinn before going to St. Petersburg. Although there is a ferry directly from Tallinn to St. Petersburg, the schedule did not work to give me the full almost-three-days in St. Peterburg unless I departed from / returned to Helsinki. So I had to take a shorter ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki and then get on the St. Peter Line the same day to St. Petersburg.

(If like me you arrive by ferry in Helsinki from Tallinn, note that the various ferry lines serving Tallinn to Helsinki use different ferry terminals in Helsinki. The St. Peter Line uses Helsinki's west terminal, which is nowhere near the center of Helsinki, but it is also the same terminal used by two ferries from Tallinn: Eckerö Line and Tallink. If you arrive from Tallinn by either one of these ferry lines, you can walk right to St. Peter check-in without even leaving the building. If you arrive by Viking or another ferry line, you will have to get from that terminal to the west terminal - there is a tram connection that would work but of course it is more hassle. Conversely, if you arrive in Helsinki with a few hours to kill before the St. Peter Line departs, you can store your bags in a locker at the ferry terminal and take the short tram ride into the center of Helsinki, because otherwise there isn't much around west terminal - currently a big construction site - other than some fast food options.)

You may wonder whether it's worth getting the Russian visa and doing a longer trip (e.g. adding Moscow, etc.) The "visa free" option makes more sense if you plan a trip that includes Tallin or Scandinavia and can work in the detour to St. Petersburg - that's what I did. I started in Vilnius, Lithuania and worked my way up north through Latvia and Estonia and then took the short ferry to Helsinki; afterward I flew back to Amsterdam from Helsinki (don't expect cheap flights into/out of Helsinki; Tallinn might be a lot cheaper to fly into/out of but less convenient). The St. Peter Line also goes to/from Stockholm if you fancy a longer ferry trip. Whether or not you want a longer stay in Russia depends on your interests, of course.

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