I'm taking a Baltic cruise this summer, and I recently found out that exploring St. Petersburg won't be nearly as easy -- or inexpensive -- as I'd thought.
I figured it was just like any of the other ports we're stopping at. I'd get off the boat, poke around the Hermitage, walk the streets, do a shot or two of vodka and that's that.
Oh boy, was I wrong.
It started with a notice from the cruise ship, telling me that Russian law requires that travelers have a designated sponsor during their visit in St. Pete. The ground operator who handles the shore excursions can legally only assume responsibility when guests are actively engaged on the cruise ship's sanctioned excursions. Individual visas will be required for anyone wanting to go ashore on their own.
Yikes. The visas cost something like $100 and look like a gigantic pain to apply for. And the cruise ship's excursions are expensive -- not just because they always are, but because they know most people aren't going to want to bother with applying for visas on their own.
I've heard some big downsides to going with the cruise operator on St. Pete excursions. For example, you can get stuck in a large group and have very little flexibility to see or do what interests you.
On the flip side, going solo has its obvious drawbacks, like not having the tour operator clout to cut the infamously long line at the Hermitage.
My limited Internet research tells me there are some independent tour groups who are a good middle ground alternative for those who don't want to go with the cruise ship or on their own. Apparently they serve as your sponsor, so there's no need for you to get the visa.
Has anyone out there had any experience with one of these independent tour companies?
Did your cruise line do everything in its power to steer you away from that option?
I'd love to hear about it...