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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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    How to Book

    You can book the St. Peter Line ferry tickets yourself directly on their website. (www.stpeterline.com then choose "English" from the menu top right). It looks slightly confusing at first, but it turned out to be very easy. First of all: unless you want to stay only one day (not overnight) in St. Petersburg, you are booking a "Ferry Trip" not a "Cruise" on their website. (So click on the "Ferry Trip" tab when booking to get started.) You can book it round trip - and you can choose a discount for round trip travel at the end, not chosen automatically for some reason, but you simply need to click on that before you pay.

    FYI, when you book on the St. Peter website, you can't book for more than 72 hours unless you provide a visa number. As there is no "visa number" for the 72 hour "visa free" visit, leave the visa number blank on their website when making the reservation. You can take the ferry even if you have a visa and that will remove some of the restrictions.

    There are two different ferry ships of the St. Peter Line (Princess Maria and Princess Anastasia) that sail into St. Petersburg, and they don't arrive/depart every day. I was on the Princess Maria both ways; I didn't care which one I was on, only about the sailing dates that fit my schedule. The Princess Maria was a fairly old ship that seems to have been partly refurbished, but my room, though clean and comfortable (and tiny) seemed very dated, with old 1970s-era radio knobs on one console.

    Besides the ferry passage and room, you also need to book a "City Bus Tour" - which is nothing more than a simple shuttle van from the ferry terminal into the center of St. Petersburg, like a hotel shuttle to the airport or something, but the shuttle bus "tour" satisfies some technical requirement in the "visa free" law that allows you to make this trip. No one actually kept track of who boarded either of my shuttle vans, but you still have to pay for the "tour," only 25 Euros total. The "tour" gets added to your reservation automatically, so you don't have to worry about forgetting to book it. Just book the cabins on the dates you want and the City Bus Tour will be added for you. You pay once at the end for everything on the St. Peter website and that's it.

    Once you get off the 15 minute shuttle bus in St. Petersburg (probably at St. Issac's Square, in the center, the last stop), you are on your own completely for the rest of your visit. You can leave nothing on the ferry (unless you booked the single day "cruise", not what I did) - it may be a different ship going back anyway. You stay in your own lodging as you would when visiting any other city. The shuttle bus has scheduled times to take you back to the ferry terminal at the end of your trip.

    You don't need to book anything else besides your cabin (and the automatic "City Bus Tour") when booking your ferry passage on their website - hotels, meals, etc. are completely optional. I didn't book anything else besides the cabin and the "City Bus Tour." You can book the hotel completely on your own, and you don't need to pay for any meals ahead of time. There are restaurants and snack bars on the ship; you can just eat what you want. I ordered pizza at the Italian restaurant on board - only about 8 Euros total for a whole pizza (for one person) and a soda. Booking the buffet dinner was something like 27 Euros - not something I wanted myself, but you might. You can just bring your own food and snacks and not buy anything on board at all.

    I also booked my hotel on Booking.com. I stayed at a modest place called The Library, next to the W hotel, very close to where the shuttle bus drops you / picks you up at St. Issac's square in St. Petersburg. This was a fantastic location close to the Hermitage and Nevsky Prospect. This hotel did not even contact me after I booked or before I arrived; some places you book may contact you asking about a visa or invitation letter. (Just tell them it's a visa free visit via ship - there is no visa at all.) I have heard of people using AirBnB too. The thing is, though: you MUST provide a printed copy of the hotel or lodging reservation to the St. Peter Line in Helsinki (or Tallinn) when you first check in before boarding the ferry. All you need is a printed piece of paper of the hotel reservation you made - no special proof of payment or anything. (This is a requirement only for the St. Peter Line, not for Russian immigration.) Just make the hotel reservation like you would for any other city in Europe, then print it out and take it with you before St. Peter check in. When I checked in in Helsinki for the ferry, I presented my passport, the printed copy of my Booking.com reservation, and a copy of my St. Peter Line website booking showing the confirmation number- that's all. Completely routine.

    When you check in with the St. Peter Line in Helsinki or Tallinn, the agent gives you a paper boarding card with a bar code - you show this to get on the ferry; it also works as your room key. They also give you an arrival card and a departure card that you must keep. Russian passport control in St. Petersburg needs to see the boarding card as well as your arrival card when you get there; when leaving St. Petersburg they need to see your departure card plus your new boarding card (which you get when you check in in St. Petersburg to go back). (Russian passport control will give you a migration document when you arrive, just a piece of paper that fits inside your passport, that you also MUST keep and give back to them when you leave!) My hotel also wanted a copy of the boarding card for their records, along with making a copy of my passport. I took pictures of all of these papers and cards just in case I lost something - not sure if it would have helped but better than not having pictures of them!

    I traveled alone and booked the cheapest private cabin (B2) I could. It cost only 99 Euros round trip (plus 25 Euros for the required shuttle bus "tour"). My cabin was tiny with two single beds and tiny bathroom, but it was all private. (This wasn't quite clear on the website - I kept thinking about shared train compartments, that I might be booking just one bed and sharing a cabin with someone, but my cabin was completely private.) The cabin was clean but modest and obviously old. There were knobs for an old radio between the beds - looked like something about of the 1970's. Otherwise, the ship seemed modern especially in the public areas.

    My ferry, the Princess Maria, seemed huge: eight decks, with stairs and elevators, like a cruise ship. You can go outside (if the weather is good) on deck 8 (there's a "sky bar" on top of deck 8, too). As noted above, there are several restaurants where you can buy food just like any other restaurant (with credit cards or with Euros or Rubles).

    St. Petersburg is nice, but it's huge: very touristy too. Few people speak any English, but the people at your hotel might (a few at my hotel spoke just a little; some spoke no English at all). Many restaurant menus and words are in Latin (Roman) alphabet as well as Cyrillic. I used my phone's Google Translate app a few times to translate text I was looking at (signs, water bottles, etc.). Sadly, I never got to ride the St. Petersburg subways (I hear the stations themselves are beautiful), but I did use the bus numerous times (very easy: pay 30 Rubles per ride to a conductor or to the driver once you get on; they will make change). If you use a map app like Google Maps on your smart phone, it will tell you exactly how to get to any place in town, by walking and/or by bus or tram (or subway I guess), so that makes navigating the bus system very easy. St. Petersburg is walk-able to a point - you can stay close to the center and the museums and easily walk among them without any public transportation, but the city is spread out so if you want to go beyond that small area consider public transit.

    I liked St. Petersburg - very pretty at night when everything is lit up! - but would have needed a week to get a great feel for it; without that, two nights was plenty to get a taste. I enjoyed my visits to the Baltic states too and was happy with my small taste of Russia. But my Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg itinerary is one you might consider.

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    Hi Andrew. Looks like great St Petersburg info but I skipped that for now as I'm not going there this trip. But I am going to Helsinki. You have already helped by pointing out where the Tallink ferry docks (which I had not focused on, so thanks, you probably just saved me a lot of angst). Did you take the tram (just googled it and it looks like tram 9) into the center. Not walkable? Google says 3km so was wondering if it might be a pleasant walk, no?

    What else did you do in Helsinki. I am going on a day trip from Tallinn tomorrow and have from 12:30 to 19:30 (but that includes getting on and off the ship which I assume takes a while). Did you go to the Suomenlinna Islands? Any advice on what to see?

    Have you posted your Tallinn, Riga, Vilinus report yet. I searched but couldn't find it.

    Thanks

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    Hi Isabel. Still working on my main trip report - but the pictures that go with it will take even longer!

    Yes, it is tram #9 to get you into the center of Helsinki. Don't bother walking. Buy a day pass from the machine that's right outside the ferry terminal. If you have a chipped visa credit card, it should work in the machine - my card did (I used a card that has no PIN and none was requested). The day pass works not only for the trams but for the HSL ferry out to Suomenlinna, which I did visit and is worth doing. You can buy single tickets on the tram for a small surcharge from the driver, but if you ride the tram twice and the ferry twice, the day pass is going to be cheaper.

    I spent only part of my last day in Helsinki but didn't do much besides putter around the town center and the market square by the waterfront, from which you take the ferry out to Suomenlinna. There are surely museums in Helsinki but I wasn't interested in them. Otherwise, Helsinki was a pleasant town to walk around but not the "charming old town" Tallinn is.

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