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Thoughts on Using Private Tours in St Petersburg Russia on Baltic Cruises

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Nov 11th, 2006, 12:43 PM
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Thoughts on Using Private Tours in St Petersburg Russia on Baltic Cruises

I posted these thoughts on the boards at cruisecritic.com but it was taken off by the moderator, probably because it is not particulary kind to the cruise lines. Didn’t mean to bash the cruise lines; ship’s excursions are just the ticket for many people. But for those that wish to do it on their own, here are some thoughts. I will be glad to answer any questions.
We were on the Baltic cruise with Celebrity Century June27-July9 this year. My Cruise Critic review is http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberre...?EntryID=20645
You can see my travel report on:
http://calbillstravnstuff.wordpress....along-the-way/
and pictures on:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbill...7594258507060/
In the Cruise Critic review mentioned above, I covered the Baltic ports we visited: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, and Oslo. This post will zero in on using private tours in St Petersburg. While we used Alla Tours, the experience is generally the same with the other majors like Red October and Denrus. There may be others. If I refer to Alla its only as a frame of reference. You should research the individual tour operators on your own. This is intended for those seeking independent tours. It is not intended for those wishing to leave the ship on their own and wander about on their own. There are a special set of problems, including visas, I will not address here.
We used Alla Tours and found them outstanding. I can tell you that passengers we talked to that used Alla or Red October (the other much used private guide) were happy campers. Not so with the ship’s excursions, which received spotty reviews, some glowing, others frustrated. The convenience and ease of booking of ship’s excursions is compelling. In a private tour, you will save much time (and in most cases, $$’s), as smaller groups can move in and out of areas much quicker, and you can design your own tour itinerary to a greater extent. You should know that you will have to do more research and a little work. That said, I would provide the following advice to all those on this thread that wish to take a private tour.
First, you do NOT need a visa to use Alla or Red October. The ships will try to intimidate you into using their own overpriced excursions, including telling you that you need a visa, but we’re on to them. Alla provided us with very clear instructions by email, and met us right at the dock. (In my pictures, you can see a picture of the dock area and the little clearing building you need to go through.) You need to bring your passport, a copy of your passport page with your picture and vitals on it, a copy of the itinerary that Alla sends you, and a voucher she will also send you, all via email. In the little customs office, the office will take the copy of the passport page, examine the rest and give them back to you. They also give you a little red plastic tag. When you exit, you will find the Alla van waiting for you holding a poster with your group “leader’s” name. Then off you go. No problem.
When you come back, you turn in the little red tag, and get it again the next morning. You don’t have to have a copy of your passport page the second day, but you need all the rest. Woe to the traveler who losses the red tag!
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Nov 11th, 2006, 12:44 PM
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The ship will try to give you all kinds of reasons not go on a private tour, including telling you that you won’t be able to get off the ship until all the ship’s excursions passengers get off first. BULL!!!. Just go to the gangway when you are ready with your group, and go. They can’t stop you, and usually won’t try at that point. You should know it will take about 20 to 30 minutes to go through the little customs office, as everyone has to go through and there are only two officers working the office. But while you are standing in line, there is a Russian brass band playing for you. All quite festive and exciting. I mean, this is RUSSIA! I’m getting excited again just thinking about it. Of all the ports we stopped at, this is the only one with any kind of passport control.
As to the St Petersburg itinerary, this is what you need to do. There is way too much to see in 2 or 3 days. So you end up deciding what you don’t need to see, and what you “must” see. That will be different for each of us. Study and research. You need to find out what you what to do and see. All of Alla’s itin’s and those you may receive from other posters and travelers are interesting, but with Alla, or any other tour operator, the neat thing is, we got to tell her what we wanted to see. We used the DK St Petersburg book for our primary guide, plus read a lot of these types of posts here and on cruisecritic.com. I ended up being a tour group “leader” in that I put together a group of 11 through contacts on the internet originated on cruisecritic.com of people interested in a private tour. I got proposals from Alla and Red October, Denrus never responded.
I believe the optimum size group to be between 8 and 15. More than 15 and you need a bigger vehicle which slows you down. Below 8 or 10 and the cost per person goes up, but many of my shipmates went out with 4 or 6 persons. Depends on your budget.
Our group got along great. 6 in USA, 3 in Australia, 2 in UK. The 2 from UK never made the trip, they got sick in Amsterdam. By email arrangements, Alla found two others from a different ship in port at the same time to fill the slots.
Via email, we all decided what we wanted to see from our individual tastes and ‘druthers. We crafted an itinerary through frequent emails with Alla that included Catherines Palace, Peterhof (grounds and fountains), a canal tour, several of the major churches and sites in town central, and a canal cruise. We had about an hour in a terrific shop (North Way) with high quality goods at reasonable prices).We had the most fantastic lunch at a restaurant, including many Russian dishes, Vodka, and folk singers for entertainment. Outstanding two days of intense touring, though the Hermitage was way too crowded to be enjoyable.
We all had different interests for the night, so we returned to the ship at 5 PM the first day. My wife and I took the ships excursion back into town for the ballet. I wouldn’t have done St Petersburg any other way, and it was definitely the highlight of our cruise. But you need much more than 2 or three days to see it all. That’s why doing your homework is soooo important.
I will be glad to answer any questions you may have. Bill.
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Nov 13th, 2006, 06:17 AM
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Thanks, Bill for such a detailed review.
I thought you needed the visa - Did it recently change so you could take a private tour ? or was it this way all along ?

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Nov 13th, 2006, 06:00 PM
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Hi, Maryann. I can only tell you about this year. From what I can tell, it's the way it's been for some number of years. You do only need a visa if you plan to tour St Petersburg on your own. That is, without the services of the short list of licensed tour operators like Alla, Red October, and Denrus. If you review their web sites, they will be very explicit about the rules.
If you want to tour on your own, that is get off the boat and wander into town (many miles), or plan to meet a tour guide outside the port area (about two miles to port entrance, and no cabs), that's when you will need a visa.
I read "exciting" trip reports from those who did just that, and I would not recommend it to anyone. Stick with the ship's excursions, or the licensed tour operators listed above, and you'll be fine.
Let it be known, the ship companies don't want you to take these private tours and will do a lot to scare you into taking their excursions. I was told flat out by Celebrity that I would not be able to get off the ship for my desired 8am departure until all the ships excursions passengers were gone, about 10am. This was an outright lie I discovered later, but got me all worried at the time. Also I was told by Celebrity I needed a visa if I booked with Alla, that also was a lie.
Only after I got on the boat and questioned the passenger relations representatives did I get the straight scoop. They were very nice about it and couldn't understand why I was fed the bs by their head office.
So if you want to go on a private tour, do your homework and go for it.
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Nov 14th, 2006, 11:52 AM
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Bill, Your pix are lovely. We just returned from a TA on the Century, Barcelona to Miami. Very eventful trip, we had a helicoter rescue in the middle of the night, a man overboard, and a rescue of three sick folks by the US Navy ship Wasp!!
Also did a Baltic in June of 2004 and your photos brought it all back.
BTW, we used Red October and were very happy with them. We had to email all our passport info and addresses to them, I'm wondering if we had some sort of visa arranged by RO.
We were on the Oceania's Regatta, a smaller ship and docked just about in town and could have walked into the thick of things if we had our own visa. Nice, and for three days.
To be in Russia!! Thanks for the post.
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Nov 14th, 2006, 05:03 PM
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Peggyann, or anyone else for that matter: We will be doing the Baltic in June too and I am curious about the amount of daylight then. How dark does it get? Or how light does it stay? Thank you, Larry
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Nov 14th, 2006, 07:38 PM
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Sunrise about 3:30 - 4 AM. Not sure, didn't get up to time it.
The first day out on sea, we needed a early start for our day ashore. We awoke with a start with sunlight streaming through a crack in the curtain. We jumped up fearing we had overslept, threw open the curtain to see sun shining on the tree tops and rooftops of the islands in the Swedish Archepelago as the ship sailed by. Looking at our watch, it was only 4 AM. We still laugh about that.
Sunset is about 11 PM, maybe a little earlier. I'm not sure it ever got "really" dark. Sort of a moon glow at midnight.
What a great cruise.
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Nov 15th, 2006, 05:38 AM
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Our Baltic cruise started on June 1. I can remember that the sun hovered on the horizon till very late, 11 ish. Never got very dark afterwards. Kind of neat! Have a great cruise, we enjoyed it so much.
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Nov 15th, 2006, 10:31 AM
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Thanks guys. Actually the day the cruise ends in the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. Can't wait. Larry
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Nov 15th, 2006, 06:08 PM
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Peggyann: OK, back to your post. "man overboard?" Like, gone? Forever?
We also had a helicopter evac while under way of an elderly gentleman with heart problems, but wow, overboard.
What'd they do? Stop, circle, find him?
Yeah, definately and eventful trip.
Glad you liked the photos. Fun to share.
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Nov 16th, 2006, 07:18 AM
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The most amazing thing. DURING dinner an announcement made asking so and so from cabin 8104 please report to...., then again at 11 PM IN the rooms the same announcement. Then, watching the TV screen in our cabin showing the ships position we see that we are backtracking. So next morning the captain explains that a person is missing.
The room steward had noticed that the elderly gentleman travelling solo had not used his room since morning. Had not left the ship in Madeira, our last and final port. The ship's card tracks everyone going ashore and returning.
Captain says that he has informed the British Embassy,(I think he said embassy), the authorities in Bahama, (ship's registry), AND the FBI.
I think that we were required to back track to search for him, but he was not found.
Our tablemates told us that they had been contacted late at night and shown a picture of the man to see if they had seen him. They were Brits.
It was rumored around the ship that he was solo, had recently lost his wife, left no note. It was very sad, but soon eclipsed by the next day or two when the whole dramatic rescue of three very sick pax by the US Navy "Wasp" took place.
Whew! There are some pix on CC using the Celebrity board.
It was quite the cruise.
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Nov 16th, 2006, 09:09 AM
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On our last cruise, August in FP, a passenger died while on board. We heard a "code alpha" called about 033 and didn't realize it was their lingo for a code blue. On the same trip two other passengers had to be evacuated for medical reasons as well.
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Nov 16th, 2006, 09:09 AM
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I meant 0300.
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Nov 16th, 2006, 10:19 AM
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jacketwatch

When are you doing the Baltic Cruise and on what ship.?

When are you booking this Baltic Cruise.

Thanks

Percy
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Nov 16th, 2006, 07:22 PM
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An amazing tale. Thanks for sharing.

By the way, I could not find your pictures. Do you have a URL?
Thanks.
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Nov 16th, 2006, 08:06 PM
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Hi BillJ

I have been reading all your postings about your Baltic cruise.

Since you were in Petersburg for 2 full days and overnight( on the Cruise Ship)...did any people take the trip to Moscow?

I am going to South America for the month of March and hope I can still try to do the Baltic in late June, before the summer crowd starts touring.

I just got back from a 12 days Mediterranean Cruise and I booked a private tour guide at every port.

Is it possible to do this for the Baltic Cruise.?

I generally do not like the big crowded buses off the cruise ship ,but I suppose that might be the only way to get to some places.?

Thanks
Percy

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Nov 17th, 2006, 09:07 AM
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Hi Percy: Good to hear from you again. It will most likely be June 11 and on the Star Princess. I will book fairly soon I think, hopefully by next week. Larry
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Nov 17th, 2006, 12:38 PM
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BillJ:
I tried to post the info on where to find the pix,(not mine) but somehow it didn't "take" so here it is again:

Cruise Critic to Boards, to Celebrity Cruises to the thread "Century met by Navy ship"
Scroll down to a post by "C 2 C" and also "florisdekort" each posted around Nov 10. Great shots from both the Century and from the Wasp Navy ship.
Hope this works.
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Nov 17th, 2006, 04:25 PM
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Percy: yes there were a few passengers that took the ship's excursion to Moscow from our port visit to St Petersburg. Did not talk to them personally. It is a loooonng day, and no doubt quite rewarding with the itinerary that I looked at.
As to the other ports, please review my "review" sited above http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberre...?EntryID=20645
wherein I discuss visiting each of the Baltic ports without using a group tour. We did not use a private guide at any of the ports except St Pete. Just did it on our own. Very do-able depending on your interests and amount of research/homework you want to do.
OUr St Pete visit with Alla was with only 11 (total); nice and small.
We did take the ship's bus to the ballet, but that was a little different than driving around town and trying to go through an attraction.
You'll love the Baltic's. Hope you get there.
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Nov 17th, 2006, 08:42 PM
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Thanks BillJ

It is nice to know that you do not need a private tour guide at every port if you do your homework.

Thanks for some great information

Hi jacketwatch;

Nice to "talk "to you again.

What are some of the ports of call that the Star Princess has on their Baltic Intinerary.?
How many days is the cruise for ( about 12?!)

Boy you are really booking a long way in advance...guess the cruise fills up fast doesn't it.

Take Care
Percy






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