Baltic Cruise?

Apr 18th, 2016, 11:30 AM
  #1  
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Baltic Cruise?

Considering going with friends on a Baltic cruise in May 2017. Wife and I aren't cruise or organized tour people. We much prefer independent travel ... have done a lot. The people we'd go with like cruises. We're open to try it once. We're very active/good physical shape mid 70's ... our travel style would more fit someone in their 20's - 30's.
Questions:
1. What Baltic cruise companies would you prefer? (Our default would be Viking, but open to others.)
2. Most times in port seem short. Are there others with more days in ports?
In any case, we'll tack on a week or two to our trip at one end or the other for some independent exploration.
elbegewa is offline  
Apr 18th, 2016, 01:23 PM
  #2  
 
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We did a cruise with Celebrity from/to Amsterdam and enjoyed it very much.

Most Baltic ports are easy to visit. E.g. Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Talinn are ports where you just walk into town, maybe after a short bus or taxi transfer from the dock into the city center. One day will be sufficient for these ports.

The main challenge - and the cruise's climax - is Sankt Petersburg. Most cruise ships stay for two days in this port and I would not accept a shorter stay.

Sankt Petersburg is almost impossible to travel independently, because the ship docks in the industrial port and you are not allowed to pass the customs gates without having a tour ticket.

The best thing what you can do is booking a local tour operator. For half the price of a ship's excursion, you will get a VIP tour which is fantastic, whatever operator you choose. The price drops if you find other passengers willing to share a minibus (use the roll call on cruisecritic).

In addition to the usual tour, we booked an evening transfer to the Marinskii Theatre with a fantastic opera performance.
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 18th, 2016, 05:28 PM
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Very easy to travel independently in St Pet - just don;t go on a cruise. We've been by ourselves twice and loved it.

If I were you I would take the cruise only as far as St Pet and make your own arrangements there - I would reco at least 6 nights there.
nytraveler is offline  
Apr 18th, 2016, 05:28 PM
  #4  
kja
 
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IMO -- and it is one that, I believe, is decidedly up to one's personal call! -- is that the time allowed on shore on these cruises is FAR too limited. With the possible exception of "semester-abroad" cruises, I have never seen a cruise that allowed sufficient time on land to do more than see a highlight or two.

And of course, dashing about to see just one or two things can lead to some very odd (and distorted) impressions of a place.

I am well aware that at some point in my life, I might need to switch to cruises as a way to deal with the limitations that come with age. My personal choice is to defer making that switch as long as I can! JMO....

I'm not sure I understand traveller1959's comments -- perhaps the reference to "ease" has to do with convenience, rather than the ease of seeing one's priorities while in the area? I certainly did not think a part of one day sufficient for Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Helsinki. (I haven't visited Oslo or Talinn yet.) And I found it challenging to see everything that I wanted to see in Saint Petersburg into a "mere" 6 full days.... If it matters, I didn't use a tour or tour guide for ANY of these locations.

Good luck!
kja is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 07:55 AM
  #5  
 
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kja and nytraveler: you are comparing apples and oranges.

You are absolutely right that a cruise is a completely different experience than a city trip.

I have done both to Sankt Petersburg and to Copenhagen (as well as to other cities) and you are right that a single day in port gives you just a quick impression of a city. The advantage of a cruise is that you see 5 or 6 destinations in 7 days without the hassle of packing and unpacking and travelling between destinations. So, both types of trips cannot be compared.

If OP has decided to go on a cruise, then he/she can easily visit most cities because the city centres are walkable. In most ports, you take a short bus or cab ride into the centre and then you start walking. Or you can even walk from the dock into the city.

Sankt Petersburg cannot be visited independently from a cruise ship because the cruise ship docks in the industrial harbour which is gated. You need a visa to go through the gates OR the invitation of a tour operator. Most cruise ship passengers do not have a visa, so they need to book a tour. There are several companies offering such tours and all of them are MUCH better and MUCH cheaper than the cruise ship's tours. That is all I wanted to say.

I agree that flying into Sankt Petersburg, staying there for four or five days and discovering the city independently is the better way to see this city which I consider as one of the world's most beautiful cities at all.

Actually, I would even dare to recommend to fly only to Sankt Petersburg rather than going on a Baltic cruise with many ports of call. But it is a matter of travelling style. I have done both and both were fine.
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 08:55 AM
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Well if they have 2 weeks no reason to do just St Pet - there is time to also see Stockholm and Copenhagen as well - if you fly (or train from S to C).

But yes, this is a completely different trip that an cruise - which you couldn't pay me to do. Just keeps you too isolated from the places you are visiting.
nytraveler is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 11:00 AM
  #7  
 
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I've visited all those places happily without a cruise. While, like kja, I suspect cruises may be in my future, I would not do a Baltic cruise at this point, and from your description it sounds like you will be disappointed if you try it. Can you talk your cruise-minded friends into trying something else? Or how about meeting up with them at strategic points and doing the rest on your own?

If you do decide to risk the cruise, you may find this helpful for tackling ports on your own:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rick...ves/1113868167

Also, check out cruisecritic.com for info on the ship and the cruise, and for connecting with others if you do go.
thursdaysd is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 11:05 AM
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Please, forget this notorious Rick Steves. This guy has no clue of Europe. He recommends only the places which are good for his business.
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 11:41 AM
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Can't see how telling you how to get from a port to the city center under your own steam instead of shelling out for an expensive cruise tour is supposed to only be about helping his business.

Not all his suggestions are good and not all are bad. You need to be selective. But to say he "has no clue about Europe" is just ridiculous.
thursdaysd is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 11:45 AM
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His maps are ridiculous.
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 11:50 AM
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We did a Baltic cruise with Celebrity about two years ago (12 days late June into early July) - from London to St. Petersburg and back with stops to visit Bruges, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn and Helsinki. We were traveling with friends (two other couples) who enjoy cruising.

We, too, are active and experienced travelers, in our early and mid 60s. Not normally cruisers - but we did enjoy this trip for the most part. The stays in the port cities were short, especially having only two days in St. Petersburg, but they were all full days, and we thought we got a good taste of each of the cities. We spent two weeks in London prior to meeting our friends for the cruise - rented an apartment in the city - and thought that made the trip seem a little more like our usual mode of travel.

The ship was large enough that we always seemed to find something of interest to do - yet we had our privacy in our cabin with balcony when we wanted that. The passengers were for the most part slightly younger than we are, fairly lively, and most were European (lots from the UK). I have to admit I especially loved that we saw so many places and didn't have to pack and repack and lug our bags around.

I will also say that sailing through the archipelago into Stockholm early in the morning was one of the most beautiful travel experiences I have ever had.

All that said - you say you are looking at Viking - is it a river cruise? I know I have heard people say they were on a Baltic river cruise, although it doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

If it is a river cruise, I can't speak to that itinerary, but .... we just returned from a 10-day river cruise in Holland and Belgium, and NEVER AGAIN. We booked it as a last-minute trip to see the tulips at a very attractive price which included RT airfare from the US. It wasn't Viking - it was Vantage - but from what I understand the passenger demographics of most of the mainstream river cruises are similar. It was pretty much all elderly passengers. There was little to do on board - even though it had been billed a "jazz" cruise and was a new ship. Everyone was snoozing by 8 p.m. each evening; the only time we ever saw anyone moving with any speed at all was when the dinner bell rang. Then you had to stand back or be stampeded.

We did love what we saw of the Netherlands and a few repeat places in Belgium, but the tours - which were included - were s-l-o-w, and tedious. We usually ditched the groups, but occasionally we couldn't, due to docking logistics and transportation possibilities. The other passengers, none of whom apparently had ever traveled outside an organized tour group, kept telling us how "brave" we were to leave the tour leader and head off to a museum or other part of any village or town we were in. This was in Holland, for god's sake, not in the darkest jungles of some third world country.

One night's special "live" entertainment consisted of a lip-synching group called Sgt. Wilson - it was a WWII cover group - and they thanked us for being their "liberators." Seriously, I know the folks on this cruise were old, but hey, not THAT old. I don't think most of the WWII veterans are traveling that much anymore.

We thought a river cruise would involve some beautiful scenery and being docked in great places with good views. Nope - they only moved the ship at night, and when we were docked in the cities, it was always right next to other riverboats, actually tied alongside each other, so the view out the window was directly into another boat's cabin. Worse that the view from any really cheap hotel.

Hope that sheds a little light on cruising -
scdreamer is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 04:08 PM
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We also did the Celebrity Baltic cruise and recommend it highly. We usually travel on our own but found that the cruise was an inexpensive and efficient way to see a lot of territory. Be sure your cruise has two days in St. Petersburg. We used the ship excursions.
happytourist is offline  
Apr 19th, 2016, 04:54 PM
  #13  
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The cruise we're considering is a 15 day Viking cruise ... on a small ship, not like their river cruises ... apparently a new business for them.

Our friends, who like cruises, know there's no way they'll get me on any cruise - maybe, just maybe, this one. I'm expecting to see each city like absent-mindedly looking at a 30 minute travel show. It's not my ideal (I'd REALLY enjoy the discomfort but experience of a 2nd class train trip on the Trans Manchuria). Your comments have me even more concerned about the cruise, but heh, lots of people do it, so might as well try it.

I'm a little worried that the ship is only in SP 2 days, so I presume that means arriving one morning and leaving the next afternoon. It would be great if we did have 3 days in port.

Any other cruise lines with smaller ships spend more time in port, especially SP? On the basis of a few posts will check into Celebrity. I'm really not interested in what entertainment might be on the ship or its restaurants, etc.... just what its port calls are like.

In SP, re the comments about not being able to leave the port area without going on an organized tour: Am I right in presuming that would apply only to those without a Russian visa? Since their visas seem to be good for 3 yrs, I'd be tempted to get a visa if that would allow me to wander in the short available time ... then maybe in another year returning to explore more.
elbegewa is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2016, 06:30 PM
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I may be able to tell you more in a couple of months... we are taking our first ever cruise of any type in this summer aboard the Viking Star (the Viking Homelands cruise you mentioned, elbegewa).
You should read about the arrival/departure times and the information about which ports are walkable from the pier, since Viking's ships are smaller than your average behemoth. Even though Viking offers a free tour at each port, we are opting out of even those to explore on our own at stops that will put us right in town. We booked a private tour for the two days in St Petersburg because we know very well what we want to do and how long we want to spend doing it; shopping is not a big priority for us. With a private guide and driver, we can be flexible about changing to anything that catches our interest. Of note: If you are with a licensed tour company, you do NOT have to have a visa for St Petersburg--another big plus for us. As long as you are with your guide, you can move freely about the city. We will travel to/from the palaces by hydrofoil on the river, and can make a short trip on the Metro. which is supposed to be quite spectacular. Picture us trying to arrange either on our own. Not.
We are in our late 60s but "mostly" physically active, although my sister and I would not be up for walking long distances without stopping. We accordingly signed up for some of the cruise tours that did exactly what we wanted, simply because it will be guaranteed to fit into the port times, we won't have to fight with other sightseers for tickets or seats anywhere, we have admittance to many opportunities that are not normally available to tourists, and the Viking shore excursions are mostly small groups. For example, there will be only 50 people on the "Norway in a Nutshell" excursion (Flambana railway/fjord cruise/lunch at Stalheim Hotel). Our husbands are doing the half-day, 2-man kayak trip through the 12 harbors of Tallinn while my sister and I make chocolates at an historic candymaker's shop (to take and enjoy later, of course).
As we lived in Europe for many years, we have a pretty good idea of what to avoid and what to take advantage of... probably the only reason we now feel comfortable on a cruise. But I'll be happy to let you know how it goes, if you're interested!
FlaAnn is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2016, 11:05 PM
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2 days in Sankt Petersburg can be okay if you book a private VIP tour. They pick you up with a minivan in the morning directly at the vessel (compared to the cruise ship excursions, you save the first hour), then they guide you through the main attractions.

Your guide will know when to go where to avoid crowding and waiting times. Often, you will skip lines. Sometimes, they will lead you through secret entrances. In the Eremitage, our guide led our ladies even to a secret restroom, because the normal ladies restrooms were crowded. You don't waste (like the passengers on the cruise ship excursion) hours for mediocre lunch and shopping at souvenir stores.

They drop you off at the vessel in the late afternoon. You may take a shower, dinner on the cruise ship, dress up and then they pick you up again at the ship to drive you to the Marinskii Theatre where you will see a most stunning opera or ballet performance. After the show, they bring you back to the ship.

The next day the same procedure (without the theatre).

There are several companies that offer such VIP tours. The general roule is, you pay half the price and see twice as much compared to the excursions offered by the cruise ship companies.

The cruisecritic roll calls are often used to find other passengers to share a private tour, then it becomes even more economical.

There are several companies offering private tours, like Anastasia, Red October, Alla Tours, DenRus and many more. There are also private guides who are even less expensive. For further reading:

http://www.cruisecritic.com/articles.cfm?ID=1304
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 24th, 2016, 10:17 AM
  #17  
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@Traveller1959: thanks, that's the sort of advice I was hoping for.

I chafe at the idea of big organized tours, and had been considering getting a standard Russian tourist visa to avoid them. But this article presents a great option. A few years ago on an independent trip to China we used independent guides in various cities and found that to be a great way of finding out more than we would have likely discovered on our own.

Since cruises aren't my thing (I travel to experience places, not to enjoy being cooped up and pampered on a ship) I haven't looked at cruisecritic, but after reading this article, will look at it more.
elbegewa is offline  
Apr 24th, 2016, 10:28 AM
  #18  
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@FlaAnn Yes!!! Thanks!! Be sure to let us know after your trip. Although we are in our 70's we're very active (ski, hike, bike, kayak). Having not done much study yet for 2017, I had presumed in many of the ports we'd just look for a bike rental place and bike around.

Because of the people we are going with we will probably default to a few of the ship excursions, so would be highly interested in your comments on them.
elbegewa is offline  
Apr 24th, 2016, 11:55 PM
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elbegewa:

Since you said that cruises are not your thing but you will going on one, let me write a few words about cruises.

I have always been the independent, adventurous traveller and I am still. When I was invited to join a cruise some 20 years ago, I was very skeptical. Three weeks in a tin can? Hopping from port to port for a couple of hours in each port?

To make it short, I thoroughly enjoyed my first cruise and have been on a dozen more cruises since then, including a Baltic cruise, but still travelling independently. Cruises are a different type of travelling, with some disadvantages and some advantages.

First, the advantages:

Cruises are like wine tastings. You get a little taste of each port, but it is just a taste, not a whole bottle. But you will taste a larger number of ports than it would be possible by travelling independently.

On a Baltic cruise, you will see Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Sankt Petersburg, Talinn and a few more ports within 10 days or so. Travelling independently would require a lot of flying or taking ferries between these destinations, so you would pick only two or three of them and lose a considerable portion of your precious time for checking in and checking out, transportation and waiting at gates.

On a cruise, you will be transported during the night to your next destination while you are enjoying a multi-course dinner, an after-dinner drink at a bar and sleeping comfortably in your cabin. And the morning, you will find yourself in a different city.

The downside of a cruise is that the cruise ship companies, while often offering cruises for bargain prices, are very inventive to pull the money from your credit card account.

One of the methods is ridiculously overpriced beverages, especially when considering that the ships stock themselves tax-free. Develop your own strategies to deal with this.

But most of their revenue the cruise ship companies earn with shore excursions. It starts with the brochure and website that lists all these excursions. Some of them will lead you to outright tourist traps. Some of them lead you to uninteresting places but are advertised as once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Some of them are really good. And a few of them lead you to places which would be inaccessible if you would try to do it on your own.

But ALL shore excursions are grossly overpriced. Often, you will find on the pier where the ship docks exactly the same excursions, offered by local operators, at half the price.

In 98 per cent of these excursions, you are herded into a bus, out of the bus, to the restroom stop, into the souvenir store (your guide gets commission!) and into a mediocre restaurant for lunch. Up to 50 per cent of a shore excursion is nothing but a waste of time. And money.

So, the independent traveller in me usually avoids shore excursions. For most Baltic cities, I would recommend just walking through town, maybe taking a taxi to a more distant destination. If you share the taxi fare by four passengers, it becomes dirt cheap. Often, we would rent a car in a port of call and explore the area on our own (on our Baltic cruise, we did this in Klaipeda).

Sankt Petersburg is a special case. We have written about it.

In order to decide what to do and what not to do in each port of call, the cruisecritic forums are an invaluable resource. Also, browse the "cruises" forum here on Fodor's. And read guidebooks about your destinations.

Researching in advance will save you a lot of $$$, will help you to make the best of your trip and is part of the fun and anticipation.
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 25th, 2016, 07:13 PM
  #20  
 
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elbegwa, I will be glad to! traveler1959 is on target with many suggestions, although some don't apply to Viking. I think we will have a nice mixture of taking the ship's shore excursions, going on our own, and hiring a private guide/driver, so should be able to tell you more when we return home. We are especially looking forward to the ports in Norway through some of the western fjords, and are arriving a couple of days early to Bergen to explore there on our own.
We booked two days with Anastasia in St Petersburg based on several reviews, including the very detailed one at oceancruisenewbie.com/2015/06/on-board-and-happy-to-be-here/. That's an entertaining blog from yet another first-time ocean cruiser, aboard the Viking Star last year (its first year in service) and complete with photos. Her commentary about some of the ports may give you additional insight. We have been extremely pleased with the responsiveness of Anastasia, allowing us to set our own itinerary and answering emails almost instantly (I don't know when they sleep).
We particularly like the amenities offered by Viking, with a mini-fridge stocked with free drinks/snacks daily (in all but the lowest category cabin), a veranda for every room, free spa access (with its "snow grotto" and sauna... how Nordic), and homey library feel with books everywhere. Also like the free wine/beer with meals and that Viking encourages passengers to BYOB from local ports!
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