Arriving by cruise ship in Saint Petersburg...

...things you should know.Photo: Fantastic metalwork in St. Petersburg, Russia.


Cruise ship travel to Saint Petersburg is a booming business which brings loads and loads of first time travelers to Russia. When I first visited Saint Petersburg in June of 2000, I saw that some of these massive ships docked near the English Embankment on the Neva River, which is an attractive area not far from the city's core tourist attractions. But in 2002, most of them are docking in a different place - an area some people are finding to be a shock. The ships are docking in a dirty, industrial, isolated part of the city.

Strategy - go independent or use cruise line's tours?
Well before departing on the cruise ship journey, the traveler must decide if it is better for them to use the "cruise ship sponsored offshore excursions" or to go independent and avoid exploring the city with a busload of people.

An early decision with this is important because if you would like to explore the city on your own terms, at your own pace, and with your own guide, preparations must be made.

Russia is very strict about how visitors enter and leave their country. If you go on the cruise ship sponsored offshore excursions, no individual visa is required. If you want to go independent, you must get a Russian visa. Russian visas are costly and they are the same price whether you stay for 30 days or 2. They won't let you off the ship unless you have one of these (with the exception of cruise ship sponsored offshore excursions). And you should expect a visa to take at least 2 weeks to obtain. Ordering it one month or sooner ahead of time is much more prudent.

* Important: If you want to explore Saint Petersburg independently with your own guide, don't get a visa invitation from the cruise line's Russian partner. There is a monopoly at the port. They control the offshore excursion business and they play hardball. If you get your visa through the cruise line's referral, there is a chance you will not be permitted to leave the ship if you are not going on their tours. They may squeeze you for some money. It is a technical matter where the issuer of the visa invitation has legal responsibility for you. So this organization gets leverage over you when you get the invitation through them. Get your visa through any other source - not the cruise line, and then they won't have that leverage. I recommend Peace Travel Services for visa help:

Changes in the rules at the port...
Before 2004, we could meet our customers at the ship in the commercial port. To do this, we had to go through a difficult bureaucratic process to get official permission for our driver to enter the port, which is a restricted customs area. This added $30 per day to get that documentation.

This year the rules changed and small operators like us can no longer meet and drop customers off at the ship. Our customers must meet their guide and driver at the main gate. There have been buses and taxis inside the port for people to use with going rates of $10 for this ride.

However, if you have chosen a ship which docks in the center of the city, like the English Embankment, then there is no trouble in meeting customers and dropping them off at the ship. A ship which docks in the historic center is far superior in desirability compared to ships that dock in the commercial port. It is highly recommended that you choose a ship which docks in the historic center. But this is Russia and things don't always go as planned in Russia. One example, this summer we had a ship that was to dock in the historic center, but at the last moment they were diverted to the commercial port! Our customer had the guide's cell phone number, and we were on top of it. We adapted. They were calm, didn't panic and everything worked out. Things like that can happen. (More details are below of what can go wrong.)

For those who make it to the main gate by themselves and have not hired a guide... we've seen cruise ship passengers standing around at the main gate not knowing what to do or where to go. Taxi drivers are gouging the tourists for rides into the center of the city. Fifty dollars appears to be the normal rate.

One option is to take the 22 bus into the center. I believe the cost is 7 rubles, but you will need to have rubles with you to pay for the ride. You may be able to exchange money at the nearby Hotel Moryakov (Seaman's Hotel). It's nice inside there: Nice cafe. An okay restaurant. Internet access. Nice lounge upstairs.  

The 22 bus takes 40 minutes to get you to Gostiny Dvor, the heart of the city. It travels very, very slowly and makes many stops. But the sights are interesting. When your time is so short and precious in the city, it's better to have a driver, especially if it rains! We can provide drivers and all of our guides are well qualified to serve foreign visitors.

Be aware of the pitfalls of cruise travel.
1. Sometimes things don't go as planned. For example, our customer's ship arrived on time during a nice sunny day. But it was too windy for the ship to dock. It took 13 more hours for our customer to step on the ground. This is time that was forever lost. That was a pity, but we stayed out late with them and had an event-filled time with them the following day, and they were still happy. But, just be aware that, although unlikely, this kind of thing can happen.

2. It is also possible your ship could skip the Saint Petersburg port of call. It happened in April 2003 with a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. People then learned that the ship had the right to do this (it was in the fine print of the contract). Some people had saved their money for a long time for this trip with the most important part of it being Saint Petersburg. There is a lawsuit underway:

The main thing you should be aware of is that you just can't get off the ship and enjoy a coffee at an outdoor cafe. I have walked all over that port neighborhood looking for hotels and I can tell you firsthand that I found that neighborhood to be absolutely depressing. So be prepared. It is an industrial area. There's nothing to see there. And you will be stuck on the ship if you don't have your Russian visa. Or, you'll have to join the large groups of people getting on the cruise ship buses.

3. One of the problems with the cruise-ship-sponsored-offshore-excursions is that you may not be able to get the tour you want. Sometimes numerous cruise ships are there and a guide shortage is a real possibility. Another problem is the cost can be quite high in return for the value and quality of experience you get. Also, when you tour with these groups, you are not free to do your own thing. You can't do a detour and enjoy the nightlife off on your own. You will need to return to the ship with the group. You need to be aware that these group tours have limits. And the guides are poorly compensated and only make a decent wage if their customers are generous with gratuities.

We (Russian Guide Network, Inc.) can set you up with your own guide and a driver. We can write up an itinerary before you arrive that we both agree on and follow a precise schedule, or we can do things on a more free-style basis. How you use the guide's time is completely up to you. You have maximum flexibility and freedom of choice.

Should you really arrive by cruise ship?
It is expensive to visit Saint Petersburg this way and two days is nowhere near enough time. If it is your dream to come to Saint Petersburg, why don't you let us help you to really have a good time here? Arrive by air. Stay longer. I will see to it that our people take good care of you.

Service costs for the typical 2 day cruise traveler:

Tour guide for day 1:                    $160
Tour guide for day 2:                    $160

Driver charges:
Estimated day 1 (14 hours):          $350
Estimated day 2 (9 hours):            $225

Total:                                           $895

Drivers are $25 per hour. The clock runs from pick-up until drop-off.  There is an additional one hour charge for the delivery of the vehicle (a standard practice among the independent drivers we use).

The costs above do not include food, museum/palace/theater entry costs, souvenirs, canal rides or visas.

The driver is a necessity for cruise travelers, especially those wanting to visit the suburban destinations like Pushkin, Pavlosk, and Peterhof. If you had more time in the city, it is possible we could use public transportation to go to many places, and it would be much cheaper. But with only 2 days, your time here is just too precious.                                 

If you are docking in the historic center though, it is possible to use a driver less, since a lot of things are within walking distance (it depends if you can withstand a lot of walking). One other advantage of having your own driver is that if it rains, you'll be more comfortable and not as wet. And rain happens often in Saint Petersburg.

Russia is worth the effort.

If you would like our assistance, this is easy to arrange.

My name is Ed Ryder. I'm a Philadelphia area resident in the USA and I handle most of our customer correspondence. Our manager Sasha oversees all matters of customer service in Russia. Our customers make their arrangements through me, and Sasha ensures our service is delivered with quality and attention to detail.

The heart of Saint Petersburg is a beautiful, vibrant, dynamic area. This is a very big city. And capitalism is flourishing. There are many excellent cafes and restaurants and shops. The city pulsates with activity. During the summer the sun sets sometimes after midnight. There are canal boat rides to do, many fascinating places to see, beautiful suburban palaces to visit. And so many beautiful old buildings. So many interesting things. We can help you to make the most of your time in this very unique, special place.

Please make your arrangements with us soon. The summer will be very busy.


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