Baltic Cruise?

Apr 26th, 2016, 12:33 PM
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@traveller1959 & @ FlaAnn
Thanks for both of your suggestions. I really enjoyed reading the various posts by ukalady that FlaAnn referenced, both for the writing style and especially for the info.

We'll definitely check into independent tours in Saint Petersburg. In most of the other places will check into independent bike rentals if possible, or just exploring on our own. In Flam will check into whether we can independently arrange rail ticket as opposed to the ship tour on it.

Question to all: we'd go next May (2017) (being from Seattle we're used to the the Baltic's May weather). Would mid Oct. this year be a good* time to book on Viking? or better later or earlier? *good being a good balance between price/available offers and reservation availability
elbegewa is offline  
Apr 26th, 2016, 12:39 PM
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The weather in Northern Europe is never predictable. October will definitly be on the cool side. It may be sunny, it may be rainy, but certainly not warm. And daylight hours tend to become short.

In May, it may be sunny, it may be rainy, but if the sun shines, it will be warm. And long daylight hours.

If May or October is the choice, I would clearly go for May.
traveller1959 is offline  
Apr 26th, 2016, 06:29 PM
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Sorry, I wasn't clear ... we're looking at going in May ... but would prefer to wait to wait til October to make reservations for a number of reasons, if that's not too late to reserve.
elbegewa is offline  
Apr 26th, 2016, 11:45 PM
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That's one of the issues with Viking--their ocean cruises tend to sell out pretty far in advance. They brought on their second ship (Viking Sea) this year and a third was just floated out to go into service in 2017 (Viking Sky). That may help meet the demand, although I just took a quick look at their website, and several of the lowest priced cabins for the Viking Homelands cruises in May 2017 are already booked, both on the Stockholm to Bergen route and Bergen to Stockholm. There are only two sailings left on two ships in June 2017, which should give you an indication of the demand.

As a result, you'll have to decide when to pull the trigger and which category of cabin you want from what's available. I can tell you that the "sale prices" and "$1,000 off airfare per person" offer is pretty much permanent, from what I can tell. But I suppose that could change at any time. Also, cabin availability does not seem to vary from booking it yourself to booking through a travel agent. I can also tell you that the Viking Sea (the second ship) was delayed in service and they were having to reschedule cruisers who'd booked voyages on it. So just a hint about booking an early cruise on the Sky. We made our own flight reservations and did better than their deals. Also our own travel insurance through AmEx.

It's a little aggravating to have to book and pay for cruises so far in advance, especially since I've had some health issues the past few years. We started talking and planning in November, but people (including us) were just catching on that Viking had ocean-going ships. Now the word is out, and with all the accolades and awards it won in 2015, things keep booking up even with the new ships. You should take a look at the dates and pricing for the May cruises--they're all laid out on their website: and click on "Cruises." Best of luck with whatever you decide. I will post my thoughts about the trip regardless.
FlaAnn is offline  
Jul 20th, 2016, 10:25 AM
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elbegewa, as promised, here is my recommendation on taking a Baltic cruise (Viking Homelands) with the new Viking Ocean line: do it, do it, do it!
We just returned home from our cruise and we are having a hard time adjusting to reality. Loved everything about it, and while we were on board, the captain announced that we were celebrating the 1-year anniversary of the Ocean Star while on board, and that Viking Ocean had also just won a 2016 Travel and Leisure "World's Best" award.
You may recall we (4 adults) had never cruised anywhere, so we had some skepticism about the experience. That was easily laid to rest by Viking.
I'm not sure where 900+ passengers were, but we saw very few of them except in the World Cafe, which is like a cafeteria. For some reason (maybe unlimited food choices?) many people actually preferred that dining. There were several occasions where I was the only person in the beautiful Wintergarden. Even the recliners lining the windows outside the room (which had a tasteful and very restful fountain sculpture) were virtually empty. The recliners and couches had blankets so you could relax and watch the scenery glide by, especially nice in the archipelago outside Stockholm.
The spa (free, as opposed to every other cruise I've heard of) never had more than 2 other people in it... and we used it a lot. Even tried the snow grotto and steam room, although the large heated pool with jets and the hot tub were our favorites. The tile lounges in a quiet nook looked uncomfortable (I mean, tile?) but were actually wonderful--heated--I fell asleep in one. Pillowed lounges were elsewhere around the pool. There is an indoor pool as well as the infinity pool outside on the stern, but the spa facilities was our favorite!
We were suspicious of shore excursions, have always been a travel-on-our-own group, but we signed up for 4, only 1 of which was the free shore excursion offered at all ports. I have nothing bad to say about that one, which was in Stockholm. All the guides we had were excellent and the buses luxurious. Two of our tours were cancelled... one by us, one by Viking (the kayak tour of Tallinn's 12 harbors) due to weather. No problems doing that on-board, the refund went to our ship account, which was fine with us. We contracted with Anastasia for St Petersburg based on the recommendations from the blog by Ukalady and were very happy that we did. Severe weather kept us out of port so that we missed an entire day (as did 4 other cruise ships behind us), but Anastasia snatched us up at 7:00 a.m. (we were the first people off the ship) and ran our legs off all over the area: city tour, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Metro ride, Hermitage (through 4 buildings to see the specific highlights we requested, while the people going independent waited in a line around the block to get in), then out the door and onto the hydrofoil to Peterhof, and back to St Isaacs Cathedral to wrap up the day. Our fabulous guide didn't even stop for lunch: we had snacks and bottled water waiting for us in our van, driven by a guy after my own heart, who duked it out with all the traffic trying to slow us down, and won every time. Lol. And then they offered us a refund for part of the cost, since we missed the first day. Do not even consider seeing St Petersburg independently, whatever company you choose. It cost us hundreds less to use Anastasia than the ship's offered excursions, and we would have seen far less due to the unwieldiness of being in a large group, in the rain (so had to fight to the head of the line to leave coats and umbrellas in the cloakroom at the Hermitage, a requirement).
We walked and toured and did what we wanted at all other stops except for the ship's excursion to the Stalheim hotel via the Flam railway (Norway in a Nutshell), and the ones we took to Lubeck and Wismar from the port at Warnemunde, and the tour of Malbork Castle we did from Gdansk. We are so glad we did all of those! We could have ridden the Flam railway on our own, possibly (although one was fully booked by cruise passengers), but we would not have traveled to the Voss open air farm museum, with buildings from the 1600s that were in use until the 1920s, and we could not have gotten to the Stalheim, where we had lunch and was something I particularly wanted to do. We could not have seen the Teutonic castle of Malbork and it is really worth a visit (largest in the world by surface area), plus our guide and driver, seeing traffic jams ahead, took us out and back on different country roads and gave us the opportunity to see some beautiful scenery, Polish farms and historic villages, as well as showing us all the massive stork nests on chimney tops and even light poles that are in the area. We could have gotten to Lubeck and Wismar on our own by train, but we again traveled through beautiful German countryside (I'm not a city girl) with our young guide, who was raised locally and attends graduate school in Wismar. He had a lot of explanations for how things were in the East before reunification, and how things are working now, both good and bad. It was nice to hear from him his first-hand experiences; even though he was young when the walls came down, he has clear memories of what was happening. We also got to have lunch in a "marzipan factory" in Lubeck, which we would never have found on our own... upstairs above the candy factory. And even if we had found it, we never would have gotten the little box of tidily-wrapped marzipan chocolate hearts we each received as we left! Beautiful towns, both of them! And such a better alternative than a 3-hour bus trip to Berlin (also a free excursion, but we've been there several times while we lived in Germany).
So here's what I'd say: Do it! The ship is wonderful, the service unbelievable, the food fabulous, and you can do as much or as little as you'd like ashore. We had one day at sea and again, I don't know where 900+ people were that day! We ate primarily at the Chef's Table (5-course set menu with wine pairings, changed every 3 days) and at The Restaurant (very elegant but with a fine menu of choices you could mix-and-match, including options for local fare from each port). Unlimited house wine and beer are free with lunch and dinner and lunch is pretty liberally interpreted by the waitstaff. When Mamsen's closes at 2:30, lunch is officially over. We thought the house wines were very good; beer I believe was always Carlsberg and there's a choice of light or dark. Our mini-fridge stocked soft drinks, tonic water and candy bars and was replenished, with a fresh carafe of water, each day for free. Buses at every port were lined up waiting for independent travelers and ran every half-hour into the city center and back to the ship, all day until 1/2-hour before departure. So you can easily tour on your own, sometimes just walking from the ship, which is what we did in Stavanger.
I'd recommend that, if possible, you make your own travel arrangements and arrive a couple of days early to Bergen, which gives you not only the chance to adjust your internal clock, but also to explore that wonderful town on your own. We attended the Grieg piano concert at his home out of town (can book it online) and then walked on from there to the Fantoft church... well worth the climb! You can board the ship at 11:30 on the day of embarkation, and you will be escorted to the World Cafe for lunch and can explore the ship until your cabin is ready. They tag and take all your luggage when you arrive, so it's waiting for you and you can relax and find your favorite spots. I highly recommend the Explorer Lounge (especially upstairs in the library) and the Wintergarden, if you enjoy reading or research... there are books everywhere on the ship for you to enjoy. In short, I'd cruise again, but only on Viking. I saw the megaships in port with us and felt bad for the people on them, they were herded around like cattle. Even though we went on some cruise tours, there were never more than 26-30 people in our group. Although we'd never cruised before and had no way to compare, many people we met at dinner were experienced cruisers and said that Viking is head and shoulders above other cruise lines, even if only for all the things included with your fare that you will be nickel-and-dimed to death for on other lines (like free beverages and the spa facilities).
Sorry for the long report, and good luck with your decision!!
FlaAnn is offline  
Jul 20th, 2016, 02:05 PM
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How many Baltic ports did you visit? We have been in St. Petersburg and the Scandinavian cities so mostly interested in seeing several Baltic ports.
HappyTrvlr is offline  
Jul 20th, 2016, 06:50 PM
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We were on the Viking Homelands cruise from Bergen to Stockholm, with emphasis on the cities in the Hanseatic League. It's mapped on their website:
Eight countries (11 ports). We especially loved seeing so much of Norway!
FlaAnn is offline  
Jul 20th, 2016, 06:58 PM
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I also disagree that one day is enough for Copenhagen. I did think 1 day was enough for Helsinki and Tallinn.

We did RCCL bc of the itinerary - it started in Copenhagen, so we added extra time there, and ended in Stockholm. But the best was 3 days in St Petersburg. Our guide crammed so much into those 3 days and we were able to skip so many lines. We would have easily needed 6 or more days had we tried to visit all the places we did on our own.

I would highly highly recommend you not do the ship's excursions and book your own. Unless you want to pay more money to go slower in a tour,group with more people.
PhillyFan is offline  
Jul 21st, 2016, 06:51 PM
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I thought 1 day in Copenhagen was okay, but that was a DIY stop for us, with a canal tour, visiting the Anglican church, the Kastellet, touring Amalienborg and going into the beautiful Frederik's Church. It was a long day, but very enjoyable. Of course it's impossible to become acquainted with any location during a cruise stop, but I think it is what you make of it. Our cruise did offer a tour of Helsinki, which I should have mentioned but forgot the OP specifically said biking is an interest.
FlaAnn is offline  
Jul 21st, 2016, 06:52 PM
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Sorry, I meant to say "a BIKE tour" of the city!
FlaAnn is offline  
Jul 21st, 2016, 07:33 PM
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Just chiming in to say - I just got back from a Royal Caribbean Baltic cruise. If biking is of interest, we took a bike tour with Happy Guides Helsinki and had a great time. We had seven people, so it was just our group, and they customized it with a stop at one of the food halls for Finnish snacks that our guide, Dani, had prearranged.
jent103 is offline  
Jul 21st, 2016, 08:25 PM
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tuscanlifeedit is offline  
Aug 2nd, 2016, 09:44 AM
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FlaAnn: Thanks for your great report. I just now saw it and skimmed it. Will read it in much more depth later today ... I may have more questions later. Thanks!
elbegewa is offline  
Aug 9th, 2016, 11:49 AM
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@FlaAnn: Questions:
Would you have any comments/preference on the difference between Vikings' Homelands cruise going from Bergen to Stockholm vs from Stockholm to Bergen?

I notice that going from Stockholm to Bergen gives a 3 more hours in Flam.

One of my interests would be to take the train from Flam to Voss, then bike back to Flam. This is further than the bike trip Viking offers, but I've read that it's doable. Any observations?

And any comments re the Warnemunde/Berlin stop? I've been to Berlin and would like to go back, but can't imagine the short part-day in Berlin being worth it ... there's so MUCH there. What was other passengers' response to trying that? Lubeck/Wismar could be interesting. Or are there other DIY things to do near Warnemunde?
elbegewa is offline  
Aug 9th, 2016, 11:52 AM
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oops, in post above I meat Myrdal, not Voss
elbegewa is offline  
Aug 31st, 2016, 04:32 AM
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Best to look for late information because a number of posts contained very outdated information. For example the "old industrial port" for cruise passengers far from the city center". The new large passenger port is only for cruise passengers and is the newest and most modern in Europe. It handles 8-9 of the largest cruise ships at the same time with ease. There are 3 other ports for smaller ships, the ferry port, main river port and the two city center cruise ports right in the middle of the historic center for smaller ships with up to 1500 passengers+crew.
The new cruise terminals(4 terminals each with 2 separate reception sections and their own passport control and customs. City transportation covers the port to the metro station (subway) by bus for 30 rubles ($0.45) and then metro to the city center from Basil Island for a 6 minute journey for $0.54. So exploring on your own is very feasible if you have a visa. For Americans the visa is $160 and is a 3 years multiple entry. For Europeans it is 50 euros and 30 days single or double entry.
96% of cruise passengers enter visa free by booking a tour with a Russian tour company. Ships sell tours conducted by contracting Russian tour operators, but they mark up the price a lot and focus on large 50 passenger bus excursions. About 1/2 the cruise passengers buy the more expensive ship tours because they are told by the ship that they can't get off the ship unless they buy ship sold tours. That not very ethical and the immigration service has warned the cruise lines about it but nothing has changed for 15 years. The internet however had informed a lot of people so it is not the secret it used to be.
Booking a tour can be ANYTHING you might want, or none at all, just walking and shopping or full intense private tour with all the museums and palace interiors one can visit in 2-3 days. Anything that is arranged with an authorized tour operator is permitted for visa free entry. The only restrictions is that a tour needs to be 2 or more people, it can't involve staying in a hotel overnight and passport information has to be filed with immigration 4 days in advance of the tour. Passport info needed includes full name, country that issued the passport, passport number and date of birth. So tours can be as formal or casual as desired, either private or group type. There is also a lot of flexibility where you can wander off and explore some on your own as long as you meet back up with your guide at an agreed to time and place.
Most cruise passengers are not typical travelers, they cruise as the main reason to travel, and it becomes the important element in their social life. Many would cruise even if the ship stopped nowhere. Traditionally port calls are brief, 4-8 hours except for St Petersburg where port calls are usually 2-3 days.
Unfortunately, due to reading the same recommendations the vast majority of cruise passengers want the exact same destinations(Hermitage, Peterhof, Catherine Palace, Church on Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, canal cruise, and St Isaac Cathedral) so some of those destinations become extremely crowded when ships are in port. When 16,000 people get off cruise ships and all go through the same path through the Hermitage or Catherine Palace at the same time and it is a crush of people. But that means 340 museums, cathedrals and palaces are almost empty.

If coming to St Petersburg in the summer, particularly June and July, try to see those things on days when large cruise ships are not in port. The second half of June is rough with many international festivals, Stars of the White Nights, the Economic Forum, plus hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers all wanting to share the same space at the same time. Check the cruise schedules and find dates with few if any ships in port. A trend for a couple years has made it worse, the cruise lines schedule their biggest ships all on the same days of arrival so one day will be 20,000 and the next might have none. Picking the date carefully makes a difference in enjoyment. Or if in doubt come in the fall and if you are mostly interested in cultural performances, come in the winter when every theater and concert hall is staging performances. August is a poor month for cultural performances, it is the traditional "dark" month for theaters. The only ballet available is "tourist ballet" and at higher prices than one would expect for lower level of performance.

For those exploring on their own an unlocked GSM smartphone is your friend. You can get a local phone number for about $10 and data account(pay as you go) with data plan, or rely on the free wi-fi in every cafe, restaurant and most stores or fast food outlet. Having the local data plan will save a LOT of money instead of roaming charges. I know people who were running $90 a week for data until I showed them how to get better service with unlimited bandwidth for about $5/wk. My 4G at 55mb/s unlimited is $12/month. My fiber optic 110mb/s home service is $7/month, unlimited bandwidth. It is a very connected country.
am_expat is offline  
Nov 6th, 2016, 01:01 AM
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kawh is offline  
Nov 6th, 2016, 07:01 PM
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I really appreciate am-expat's great advice about visiting on one's own, since that is typically our modus operandi.
julies is offline  
Nov 6th, 2016, 08:18 PM
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@ julies -- it is definitely possible to see these places on one's own. No need for a tour.
kja is offline  
Nov 7th, 2016, 12:18 PM
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after many many decades of travelling on our own, we are giving a two-fer trip a try next summer.. 2 weeks on our own, then 2 weeks tour, then 1 on our own. this is the cruise we will be doing... signed on this morning.

will be posting questions of our own, but loving all the info here. this way, we can go to 2 countries with a little intensity (lithuania and latvia) and a little stretch across norway. we are looking forward to no unpacking and dipping our toes into russia and so many other spots on the cruise section! (but mostly, we'll look forward to the courtesy laundry facilities that seem to be on the ship, after 2 weeks our of a little suitcase!)
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