Russia trip report/Viking

Old Aug 30th, 2008, 09:43 AM
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Russia trip report/Viking

Here is a trip report of my recent travel to Russia with Viking. I received a lot of assistance from this message board in preparing for my trip, so I’d like to try and add more information for those going later this year or maybe next.
I and a group of seven friends went on the Viking Pakhomov from St. Petersburg to Moscow, departing August 8, 2008. I went three days early and am glad I did because St. Petersburg is such a wonderful city and while the tour includes many of the highlights, there’s always more to see and do than you have time for.
I’ll concentrate on the nuts and bolts that might be useful for a traveler there rather than the sights, which can be found in any good guidebook or online.
First, don’t worry much about changing money before you go, especially if you will be picked up at the airport and won’t need money until reaching your hotel or cruise ship. There are ATMs and currency exchange places all over the place, including on the docks where boats are moored or not far away. I’d recommend bring a few extra $100 bills as for some reason the ATM cards of a couple of my “fellow travelers” were declined at various ATMs.
Also, while guidebooks say only rubles are accepted in Russia, I found that dollars, Euros and credit cards will get you most places except taxis or the metro and inexpensive restaurants that don’t accept credit cards and admissions to museums, etc. I didn’t notice anywhere to change money at the St. P. airport, which is small and grimy, but I had pre-arranged a car through my hotel and could pay for that in dollars on arrival at the hotel, so I didn’t look very hard. A friend snatched up some postcards from an individual seller there for dollars. Meanwhile, there are dozens of banks and currency exchange places along Nevsky Prospect and area streets, and while driving around the city it seems there are ATM machines and currency exchange offices everywhere, so you can get rubles easily. The same seemed to be true in Moscow and some stops along the river had ATMs as well. Souvenir vendors were also happy to take dollars, Euros and credit cards.
Water: a magazine in my pre-tour hotel said you could brush teeth with tap water and the ship said so too, and I did use tap water for tooth brushing with no ill effects. The ship kept our room well supplied with bottled water and the cabin had a refrigerator, so we kept one two-liter bottle in the fridge and one out for refilling our smaller water bottles for the day. The hotel (Nevsky Aster) had a large water bottle dispenser in the breakfast area which I used to fill up my small bottle.
Safety: I had no feeling of not being safe anywhere on my trip, though I wasn’t out and about at night. I spent three days on my own in St. P. and a couple of us went into Moscow on our own one day and we had no incidents nor did we hear of any among others on the boat. I also didn’t have any problem with pickpockets nor did I hear of other incidents. However, when we were in St. Isaac’s we noticed a middle aged Russian man wandering around slowly and lurking near obvious tourists. He was watching people, not the art or exhibits in the church. At one point a middle aged woman joined him, they talked for a moment, and she then wandered off. Both were carrying shopping bags. He saw us watching him and stared back without expression, a response that made me even more suspicious. I even took a picture of him! I am certain he was a pickpocket, sizing up his marks and had the shopping bag for stashing wallets or whatever he might manage to steal. So it pays to be very obviously aware of your surroundings and keep your money in a concealed place. I use the “PacSafe” products (Google them) which are about as close to pickpocket-proof as purses, fanny packs and backpacks can get.
I’ll post this now and pick up later on some other points. If anyone has any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!

K.
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Old Aug 30th, 2008, 10:19 AM
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Thanks for posting the information. I've never been interested in going to Russia, but would be interested in your overall impressions of the country, the food, the art, the people. Did you discuss politics with anyone? Did the country seem to be thriving or not?
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Old Aug 30th, 2008, 11:09 AM
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"rickmav" - I was just over there, also. Moscow & St Petersburg have sections that are booming. New construction, upscale malls, shopping, dining. In contrast, a LOT of buildings are falling down, or in obviously poor condition. The Moscow airport (and the surrounding area) reinforced my skepticism that the place is still a world power. Sure, Putin & his sidekick "pres" have plenty of $s to waive around, and use at their whim, but there was sooo much falling down everywhere I looked, I was shocked. I mean main thoroughfares that are obviously neglected. Places that anyone on the way from the airport will no doubt see, but that are in shockingly bad condition.

The dichotomy between rich and poor is depressing. Maybe the gov't can try to bully other nations, and assert their importance, but after seeing the interior of the country, I can not say I am favorably impressed with the way it is run!! All the billions of dollars in the country are going towards the lavish lifestyles of a lucky few.

I went to all the tourist spots - Hermitage, palaces, concert halls, etc. I saw all of the gold & opulence, but could not ignore all of the poverty that I saw when driving down the highway, outside of Moscow. I encountered a beggar outside a shopping mall, where I saw a dress for sale for $13,000 USD. Russia is really not a vacation place for me, but a cultural experience. I would go back again to explore some more,but not under the current political climate.

Food was very good, from my experience. The Russian people were polite, but not friendly to me. I was involved in a modern art exhibit. Packed with people interested in art and music, and very passionate people, in general. I also met a pianist who makes his living playing in a hotel lounge. He had a LOT of stories about life in St Pete! (crime, etc...wow!!!)
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Old Aug 30th, 2008, 11:28 AM
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To tell you the truth, I wasn't highly enthusiastic about going at first, either, but had told a recently widowed friend that if she ever wanted a travel partner, to call on me. She proposed the Russia trip and the more I thought about it, the more eager I became.

Yes, parts of Russia, at least, really are thriving these days, at least in the two largest cities. The cost of living in St. P. and Moscow are among the highest in the world. On the cruise we heard lectures by the Russian Viking guides about the political and economic throes Russia has been through especially after the breakup of the USSR and then the terrible "robber baron" days of the '90s and to some extent continuing. Now, while the elderly seem to be bearing the brunt of all the convulsions, the young and middle aged folks seem to be adjusting and finding work -- and purchasing power. I'm sure I've been exposed only to a skewed view in less than three weeks there, however.

Art and culture can't be beat! I went to the Russian Museum as well as the Hermitage and only just barely touched the surface. So many more places of interest to see in both places, and I wished I had been more widely read in Russian literature and more familiar with ballets and the richness of Russian composers. I visited the Dostoyevsky Museum and wandered around the Haymarket Square and we did see "Swan Lake" and heard several small a capella groups in various churches, but I would like to have heard some symphonies as well.

Food, I can't really speak about cuisine except what was served on the cruise boat. As I was alone in St. P., I didn't eat out much, although I did have a wonderful "meat" soup at a bistro off Nevsky Prospekt that was rich and delicious. On the boat, those who ate the fish entrees generally liked them but I was mostly dissatisfied with the meat dishes, particularly the pork. Well, add beef and lamb to that criticism. Most consisted of huge slabs of meat, fried to death and very tough. Also extremely salty, although the restaurant manager assured me the whole menu was "low salt." I hate to think what the "regular salt" diet would be.

On the boat there was a cooking class where they demonstrated making "pelmeni," or meat dumplings. They were excellent (filled with ground lean beef and pork), though pretty similar to Chinese "jiaozi" except for the dill seasoning. Dill seems to be the favorite herb if my experience is typical.

Politics? I only heard the opinions of the guides on the boat, not having the opportunity to meet and talk to others. The guides were surprisingly frank in criticizing former leaders, like Khrushchev, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, etc. They are unabashedly favorable toward Putin and Medvedev. I talked to the "lead guide" from the boat about the recent Georgia "incident," and he could barely conceal his animosity against the Western leaders and media for their portrayal of Russia as warmonger. He also was angry about what he saw as NATO constantly pushing Russia into a corner. He certainly was not shy about talking about politics, nor was another guide we talked to more or less privately. One criticism of their own government was that with the high prices of oil coupled with Russia's huge reserves, the "regular" people should be gettig a bigger share of the windfall.

The people? Again, I didn't get a chance to interact on more than a very superficial level, but if I might generalize on a small sample, I would say that I found them less friendly than in other countries I've visited. Infrequent smiles, gruff transactions. I have the feeling, though, that this is more a natural characteristic than unfriendliness.

Hope that starts to answer your question. There are several others on this board who probably know more than I do and maybe they will chime in!

K.
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Old Aug 30th, 2008, 12:26 PM
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Kudzu:

I await the continuaton of your report....we are taking the newly-remodeled Surkov in October, Moscow to St. Petersburg. Got almost a 2-for-1 last minute offer we could not refuse. I live near the Viking headquarters in California, and I popped over to see if there were any "deals" coming up for fall (our preferred time for travel, even in the colder climes of Russia..)...and there were.

This will be my third visit to what was the USSR on two previous trips (as far east as Uzbek SSR..now Uzbekistan). It will my wife's second visit. We are also continuing on to Belarus and Kiev for some personal genealogical research....just the two of us.

My last visit was in October '85 when Gorby took the reins. I expect to see vast differences now...some for the good, and some otherwise.

Amp322 and Kudzu:
Some of your comments on the conditions closely parallel what my colleagues and I discovered in the USSR mid-70's....from what we saw of the infrastructure, the lack of paved roads outside city limits, huge areas engulfed in abject poverty..made us wonder if Russia was truly the "hot war" threat that most claimed they were at the time....including our own strategically empowered organization.

If I told you exactly what we were doing there at the time (six of us), you would be shocked. But this is not a forum for that purpose.

Kudzu, any additional insider info on the river cruise would be appreciated. We are long-time independent travelers, so the cruise portion will be somewhat of a change from our normal mode. We are scheduled for the reverse cruise, Moscow to St. Pete.

Thanks, kudzu...

stu t.
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Old Aug 30th, 2008, 01:15 PM
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Thanks for your insights. Although there are parts of the world I don't necessarily want to spend my hard-earned dollars travelling to, I am still very curious about other cultures. You have given my husband and I some interesting things to talk about tonight with our bottle of wine.
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Old Aug 31st, 2008, 11:41 AM
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More trip report, and this time I'll focus more on the Viking experience, since Stu t. requested that.

Stu, you really handled your trip reservations well. I'm still a little hacked that I paid full fare and it seemed that about half the people I talked to on the boat had waited and got the 2 for 1 deal you did. I realize it's a business decision, but the result that the boat was chock-full exacerbated the crowding problems (slow service in dining room, not everyone could fit in Sky Bar for briefings or programs, other areas were crowded for viewing scenery, etc.) Word to the wise -- WAIT until the last minute to reserve if you can! A bit of resentment, I'll admit, since full fare is overpriced, in my opinion. As are the optional tours, beverages and other services on the trip. I still enjoyed Russia, but not really the means of getting there!

In addition, you were smart to choose the Surkov instead of the waiting-to-be-remodeled Pakhomov.

Anyway, here're some observations that are Viking specific.

Airport transfers: I used frequent flier miles, so had to make my own way to the boat and then pay an extra $50 for a transfer to the airport after the river cruise, but those who used Viking air were picked up in an organized and efficient way. Returning to the airport at the end also was efficient, though on my bus were people from three different flights, mine being the latest, so we had to wait longer at the airport than would have been the case if the transfer had been tailored more individually. However, with dozens of flights to deal with, I guess there’s no other way.

Cabins: The Web site is up-front with the tiny size of cabins on Pakhomov and other un-renovated boats, but you might pace off the area at home so you aren’t shocked when you open the door! I was in C class on the third deck and the cabin was just 90 sq. ft. The Surkov’s C class is nearly twice the size and would be much more comfortable (though much pricier!). However, one isn’t in the cabin a lot, so it might not be an issue for most. They told us the Pakhomov was going to be renovated like the Surkov in 2009, which will be a great improvement.
Since we were on board for 12 nights, we totally unpacked and found the storage space in the closets and built-in cabinets/shelves to be quite adequate for our stuff. We found a place for our suitcases in the cabin but the boat will store them elsewhere if you like. There are only about 4 or 5 hangars in the closet but you may ask for more.

If you haven’t been exposed to a shower that comprises the standing area between the sink and toilet before, you will be nonplussed, but it’s manageable and you get used to it. A big problem, however, is the deafening sound the toilet makes as the flush stops. Our cabin also was very mildewed. We left the window open much of the time so it was not that much trouble most of the time, and there was no other cabin to have switched to anyway.

Cabin amenities were good, including a refrigerator, shampoo, body wash and lotion. There was one shower cap and a packet of q-tips. However, hair dryers were available only through the main desk so you might want to bring your own small one unless you don’t mind walking it back in your robe (which were also supplied, though the size would fit about three normal people). Also BRING A TRAVEL ALARM CLOCK! I always travel with one, but some people don’t and since there were NO PHONES IN THE CABINS, the staff went around banging on doors for wakeup service. I saw a huge argument on the second day when a woman was loudly complaining she didn’t hear the wakeup-bang and slept through the departure for first day’s outing. I must say, the wakeup bangs were not very loud and there was no follow-up to make sure the person had heard. Everyone should include an alarm clock in their suitcase for any trip, in my view, but this would be a very sorry way to learn that lesson. Wakeup calls aside, I think the lack of a phone in the cabins is a serious detriment in any case.

Cabin location: There is no smoking allowed inside the boat, though that doesn’t seem enforced belowdecks for the crew. Thus, walking along the hallway on the lower deck, where the front desk and shop were, was nauseating for this non-smoker as the odor wafting up from the crew stairway was very strong at times. I imagine it might seep into the cabins on that deck, too….

The docks are pretty far from city centers, though it is possible to get into town on your own if you didn’t have difficulties walking a distance or dealing with non-handicap stairs. In Moscow, you will be docked at the northern terminus of the Green subway line, or Number 2. It’s nine stops to Red Square in a straight shot and the boat provides you with a map to get to the station. It’s about a 10-minute walk through a park but necessitates stairways under a main road in between. The map shows the location of ATMs but I didn’t notice them. In St. Petersburg there are two docks and this year Viking seems to be using the one on the far side of the Neva, a little farther from town than the one mentioned by previous posters. Unlike the closer one, this one requires you to take a bus to a subway station and the same to return. I didn’t do this, so can’t say how convenient it was. On the free day there, I and friends hired a local guide, which I heartily recommend. More about that another time.

At the St. Petersburg dock there was an “internet café,” which consisted of one computer in a corner of a large gift shop. Cost was 8 rubles a minute and there was always a line of people breathing down the neck of the poor person online at the time. The speed was not bad but nowhere as fast as I’m used to at home with broadband. The boat had “internet access” but warns that it’s a really slow, unpredictable dialup, so I didn’t even try it. There’s an internet café in Yaroslavl which lives up to its billing. Probably three dozen terminals, fast speed, about 35 rubles for a half-hour. They run out of change here, so try to have small bills! The gift shop on the St. P. dock sold all the usual souvenirs plus snacks and drinks of both alcoholic and soft versions, handy to get a few of to stash in the refrigerator. Near this dock also was a currency exchange place (but no ATM) plus a large tent where the Cossack folk dancing show was staged.

Plan on increasing your credit card limit or washing clothing out in the sink, as laundry costs are very high. I didn’t write it down, but remember being amazed at the prices. Here are some other prices that I did note: massages from E15-35; haircut/wash/dry – E45; doctor-E30 for the visit, more for any meds prescribed; daily featured alcoholic drink – E6; featured non-alcoholic fruity drink-E3; soft drink with meals – E2.7 or 2.9, I forget. The best bargain seemed to be a sauna, E7 for an hour.

Meals: You will not lose weight on this trip! Breakfast buffets included everything you could want including a flute of champagne and then you could order pancakes, French toast, omelets, etc. from the server. Lunches always included a wonderful salad bar including two choices of sandwiches – and THEN an entrée, soup, and dessert to order from the small menu! We were surprised the first day to find anything in addition to the great salad bar, which would have been plenty. Dinners almost included two choices of appetizer, soup, main course, and dessert. For entrees there was always a meat, a fish, and a vegetarian choice. Those I talked to were generally always happy with the fish choice and about 50 percent happy with the meats. You could always order grilled chicken (which a friend did a couple of times and which I wished I had, too) or a “steak,” which looked more like a fist-sized slab of beef rather than what I think of in a steak. Only water, coffee and tea are included with meals (except juices for breakfast) and I think they were too stingy in not offering complimentary soft drinks as well. But whatever.

One thing that impressed me is that on the first day they asked everyone with a dietary “issue” to see the restaurant manager. She then assigned you a number of your dietary requirement that you could tell the servers. A friend requires gluten-free meals, and all she had to do was tell the server “Number 6,” and she would get specially baked bread, etc. Halfway through the tour my ankles refused to un-swell, so I talked to the manager and was assigned a no-salt diet, or “Number 7.” Note to those who, like me, add little or no salt to foods – the kitchen is already operating on a so-called “low salt” regimen, which to all of my party was ludicrous. You might start off with the “no salt” request from the beginning! The second best thing about the boat was that one of the dessert choices at both lunches and dinners was always ice cream with a different flavored sauce!

So what was the best thing about the ship? The free beverage bar on the fourth deck. This was a jewel that I’d never seen before, and which was very appreciated by all. An area at the rear on the 4th deck had an ice and ice water machine plus a carafe of iced sweetened tea. Also there was a machine that dispensed coffee, hot chocolate or hot water for tea, and you could choose from a selection of about four different kinds of tea bags: English Breakfast, Green with jasmine, Green, and Camomile. Wow!

I’ll put together another entry soon about the optional tours offered by Viking, our own use of a local guide in St. Petersburg, and a couple of other things.

All the best, K.
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Old Aug 31st, 2008, 04:02 PM
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kudzu:


I really appreciate your detailed comments.

The Surkov does have cabin phones and hairdryers, and 26" plasma TV...all we can hope for are English language moves with Russian subtitles...

Thanks again...I will write.

stu t.

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Old Aug 31st, 2008, 08:23 PM
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"If I told you exactly what we were doing there at the time (six of us), you would be shocked. But this is not a forum for that purpose."

Oh come on Tower, now you HAVE to tell us! Look at all the other stuff that gets posted on here... please.........??!!! lol ;-)
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Old Sep 1st, 2008, 08:01 AM
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amp:

...even though it took place more than 40 years ago. ..probably no problem after all this time has passed; perhaps I'm being overly cautious.... In hazy retrospect, it's really not that big a deal!

Thanks for understanding this rather feeble explanation.

As a "peace offering", here are a few poorly scanned pics of my '85 "legal" visit (pre-digital time)to USSR and Uzbek SSR.

http://tiny.cc/MPq6O

http://tiny.cc/Wg50B

Write, if you wish, and I'll explain a bit further if I may.

[email protected]


stu t.
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Old Sep 15th, 2008, 06:21 AM
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Hello again! Here’s Trip Report Part 3 (and final unless anyone has specific questions) on my recent river cruise in Russia.

Some general observations:

The weather is very changeable! Even though I had checked historical temperature fluctuations over the previous five years and kept an eye on several weather sites (weather.com; wunderground.com; accuweather.com), the actual conditions were never as forecast or as they had been previously. First of all, August is the beginning of autumn and we actually saw some of the birch trees which line the rivers’ banks turning yellow. St. Petersburg and the first few days of the cruise were very chilly, dipping even into the 50’s during some days, and it rained a day or two in St. P. However, most other days were in the 60’s and Moscow even broke a record that had stood for 70 years for high temperatures when we were there August 18. It reached 35 C. or 95 F. and was terribly uncomfortable. So, practically whenever you go, be prepared for anything and dress in layers. August also lived up to its reputation as the rainiest month and our visit to Kizhi was marred by cold, moderate to heavy rain, but what can you do about Mother Nature?! Additionally, on our approach to Moscow we were delayed many hours by fog. The boats aren’t allowed to move, literally, in fog, so we missed our “free afternoon” in Moscow. The local guides covered everything we were to have seen the following day, however, so all was fine.

Order the small book, “Russia By River,” by Howard Shernoff, as mentioned by earlier posters on this subject. It really is worth its weight in gold by informing you about places you pass on the cruise that you might never know about. Especially interesting were detailed descriptions of the many locks the boat passes through, and you can use it to identify churches and towns you pass. Reading ahead, you can be on the alert for photo ops coming up and even though some of them are mentioned by the boat’s crew, the book contains even more information. It’s available online and the Viking Pakhomov actually had it on sale in its gift shop, though you won’t know if it will be on your boat until you get there. Unfortunately, you will have the chance to use only a fraction of the information in the book as the boat passes some locations either at night or during meals and other activities on board, but it was still worth the price to me. You can Google it to mail-order.

Take one or two guidebooks with you (or photocopied/torn out sections of the places you will visit) for more information than is available on the boat. Also, if you intend to sign up for optional tours be aware that some are cancelled for lack of interest, so you should have Plan B ready for your free time. For instance, optionals to the Pushkin Museum and Tretyakov Galleries in Moscow did not run on our trip. However, you could go to either of them on your own, and if you had a guidebook your visit would be much more fruitful. A couple of other optional tours mentioned in our pre-tour information never were offered. Guidebooks will also show you many additional places to discover on free days in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Consider hiring your own local guide in St. Petersburg, especially. I used this board to find one and was very satisfied. We had eight people in our little group, and hiring Lyuba and a Mercedes van (that actually could have seated about 4 or 5 more) and driver cost much less for a FULL day than the ship’s optional tour for just a (long) HALF-day only to Peterhof. Besides going to Peterhof (I must note we had to pay general admission of R300 plus entry to one of the smaller palaces, Mon Plaisir, and for our lunch at a lovely café on the grounds, expenses that would have been covered in the optional Viking tour), we were able to stop along the way back to the city at a monument marking the location of the German lines during the Siege and a lovely church we happened to pass. Lyuba also was happy to take us to the Siege Museum (very low admission, I think R50) and to St. Isaac’s Cathedral (admission R300.) and to a bank on the way back to the boat to change money. We also had her full attention to ask questions about life in Russia today or anything else, instead of having to “share” our regular guide’s attention with 34 people on the included boat tours. Everyone in our group was pleased that we had arranged for our own guide.

Don’t be surprised by the “surprise” shopping stop at the village of Mandrogi on the day that officially has no activity! Mandrogi is an arts and crafts center established in 1996 by an “entrepreneur and patron of the arts” where, according to “Russia by River,” “you will have ample opportunity to flex your credit cards to acquire some of the best-made Russian handicrafts of the journey, many of which are created by artisans in workshops on the premises.” I can’t speak to the best-made part of that, but it certainly is worth walking around to see the craftspeople making things even if you aren’t tempted to purchase. I did find some nice things there in spite of myself!

Tipping: I can’t speak to the veracity of a rumor we heard on the boat, but we heard that the tips put into the box on board at the end of the voyage were not shared only by that ship’s crew, as they say, but rather with all Viking boats. The supposed theory is that boats with a preponderance of big-tipping Americans would make up for others carrying other, lower-tipping, nationalities. So, the third-hand advice was to tip people you really wanted to get your money and put the rest of whatever you wanted to leave in the joint barrel. If this is incorrect, I apologize, but I’m laying it out there as it has a ring of truth.

Boat guides: On the first morning of touring there are up to a half-dozen busses and tour guides awaiting you on the dock with signs from 1 to 6 or whatever. About 30-35 people board each of the busses and are with that guide throughout the tour. She/he guides you on St. P. and Moscow city tours and is usually joined by a local guide in the smaller towns along the river. (You are invited to tip the local guides and drivers separately and having dollar bills or small change in rubles is necessary here.) The main guides sail on the boat with you though they are freelance and not directly employed by Viking.

I was under the impression that the guides would be out and about on the boat throughout the trip, as guides have done on other similar cruises I have been on, but that was not the case. They each were responsible for a couple of lectures or demonstrations during the days when we were just sailing, but otherwise were generally invisible. I asked the head guide about this and he said of course they were available for chats and questions. However, it took quite an effort to make contact with “ours” for a private, one-hour session with four of us in one cabin. She was very happy to do so when I tracked her down, but I don’t think anyone else made such arrangements and the guides definitely didn’t “advertise” their availability. Also, I asked the head guide frankly about tipping the boat guides. The boat has recommendations for a daily tip and I asked if that referred to the days we were actually with the guide out on the busses. He said no, the daily tips should be given for every day of the trip, or 12-13 days since the guides have to handle airport transfers, the lectures (which, by the way, were very interesting), etc. Well, I hope “our” guide wasn’t too disappointed, but we tipped only for the days we felt she was really working with us. I also tipped the head guide on the day he took my small group to the airport for departure, since I got to chat with him quite a bit and enjoyed it, but that was on top of having to pay $50 for the transfer. (That fee went directly to Viking, however, and not to the guide.) I have worked as a guide and quickly learned that the more friendly, accessibl, and helpful one is, the greater the chance that the tour member will want to show their gratitude. I didn’t find most of these guides particularly friendly, but I guess that may be a function of the “Russian personality” if there is such a thing. Anyway, tipping is a delicate proposition. And if you do want more in-depth interaction with “your” guide, don’t hesitate to ask and set up an appointment.

Learn the Cyrillic alphabet if you can! This was advice I gleaned from previous posters and it really is worthwhile, especially if you are planning to go out on your own at all, which I did. It would add to anyone’s experience, too, I think. I made up flash cards to study, and there are several Web sites that are valuable to make the alphabet easier to learn. I didn’t bother learning much of the language, though, except for “hello” and “thank you.” There was a Russian 101 class on the boat where I did learn a few other phrases that were useful, but which I’ve already forgotten.

Beware if you change planes at Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris! You have to go through security again, and they are more stringent than in the States or even in Hong Kong, where they also have mandatory security for transferring passengers. For instance, they confiscated my pair of scissors with rounded ends and blades of only about two inches, which are allowed at US airports. Also, I didn’t know I would face a checkpoint and had filled up a special, collapsible, water bottle I carry. I had to guzzle about a pint of water before the (rhymes with witch) would let me pass. My connection was tight as it was and the addition of an unexpected, problematic , security check added to my delay and anxiety. With forewarning I could easily have packed the scissors in checked luggage to start with and emptied the water bottle on the plane. Live and learn.

Finally, take dollars, both in small denominations for tips and a few hundred-dollar bills in case you need money when an ATM machine isn’t handy or doesn’t accept your card. A couple of folks had trouble with particular machines and one couldn’t use her card at all even after e-mailing her husband back home to be sure to tell the bank knew she would be using it in Russia. Luckily we were a group of friends traveling together and could lend cash among ourselves when needed, but if you go as an individual or couple, this may not be an option for you. The ship is not able to dispense money. Also, when you board the first day they recommend leaving your passport and air tickets in their safe. If you will be needing to change cash you may need your passport (this was irregularly enforced) so get it out of the safe before the shore excursion.

I think a river cruise of Russia is a wonderful, eye-opening experience (we were there during the “troubles” with South Ossetia and Georgia!) and hope this helps future travelers. Do consider adding a day or two in St. Petersburg, especially, and have a great time.

K.
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Old Sep 15th, 2008, 07:33 AM
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I've heard that you are not allowed to take Rubles out of the country. Is this enforced? Were you forced to spend, change or "donate" all your money before leaving? I like to keep a small amount of different currencies as souvenirs of my travels.
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Old Sep 15th, 2008, 07:40 AM
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K

Once again, your report is finely detailed, and is invaluable to us... we leave in 30 days. Talk about cold, I figure the temps in October will be frigid..but as I said, I've been to Russia in October so I know what to expect...
c-o-l-d

Thank you for your excellent contribution.

Stu T.
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Old Sep 15th, 2008, 11:30 AM
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@bdjtbenson:
I spent down all my rubles at the airport shops except for a few coins as souvenirs, but nobody checked anything, so I'm sure you can bring out whatever you want.

Reminded me of a funny incident. Most of the airport shops were half filled with vodka and other types of liquor for sale. However, since you still have to go through "security" -- again -- AFTER the shops and before the gate, you can't take any liquid with you. A woman shopping near me asked in frustration, "Then why is so much space devoted to something nobody can buy?" The answer: "The government." And I thought China was bad!! Nice Catch-22.

@tower:
Thanks for your kind words and have a great trip! Let us know how it all turns out!

K.
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Old Sep 15th, 2008, 02:02 PM
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Used to be you had to fill in a declaratsia on entry listing all the money you were carrying, and then do it again on exit. Since the regulations were changed to only require you to list if you had more than $3,000 equivalent this seems to have stopped. Leaving the country by train in '04 we were told to just cross out the section about money and no-one asked to see what cash we were carrying.
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Old Sep 16th, 2008, 01:06 PM
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Yes, there was some limit on currency to be declared on entering, forget what it was now, but I definitely had below that! On leaving, I didn't have to do anything to the copy of the form that was still in my passport -- just left it there and they just took it without comment.

-K
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Old Sep 16th, 2008, 01:41 PM
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We went on a Grand Circle Trip in May and I have to say by the description you give of the cabin, I am really glad we chose GCT. The cabins are at least 140 sq ft and the bathroom has a separate shower. Both boats are newly refurbished.
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Old Sep 16th, 2008, 03:58 PM
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My goodness, sdtravels, you sound like quite an advocate for Grand Circle! Wonder if there's any compensation in that? I notice that you offered to "refer" wanderlust5 on another Russia river cruise thread. Does that benefit you financially as a previous user of GCT? Have I heard that a person receives a couple of hundred dollars if a new traveler mentions them when booking on Grand Circle, or is that misinformation? Mea culpa if that's not true!

I believe in telling the truth and neither sugar-coating nor bashing any company. That seems to be Fodors' groundrules, so that prospective travelers have the benefit of those who went before, without commercial interests. I have nothing to gain or lose one way or another by talking about Viking, or Grand Circle, or any other European trip.

The truth is that the Pakhomov does need its renovation, which is on the books for next year, and they have other boats which have already been renovated. One of those is the Surkhov, whose cabin of the same class as mine was, is now 161 sf. A tad larger than GCT, no?

If anyone wants a completely ethical appraisal of Viking or has questions they want answered that I can help with, I would be glad to do so.

Thanks for letting me add to the conversation,
K.
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Old Sep 16th, 2008, 04:55 PM
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It seems that Fodorites like to bash GCT. WE have taken 5 trips with them and have nothing negative to say. We used Viking for Russia and we not as pleased. We are leaving tomorrow with GCT for the Alps.
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Old Sep 16th, 2008, 05:06 PM
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Well, I'm not at all implying GCT has an inferior product and they may be better than Viking for Russia, for all I know as I haven't taken both. And who has? What should be done here is to tell one's UNBIASED experience and let readers form their own opinions.

I do think that somebody who is likely financially benefiting from promoting a certain company should at least 'fess up to it so readers will be able to take her comments with a grain of salt.

Anyway, I hope your trip to the Alps is wonderful!

-K
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