Chicago Sun-Times
With Lori Rackl

Porting in St. Petersburg: go with the ship or go solo?

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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...

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4 Comments

We recently returned from our trip to St. Petersburg and wanted to tell you how delighted we were with the services provided by a tour operator called Red October. Our guide, Elena and driver, Uri proved to be the link that made St. Petersburg come alive for both my wife and me.

Without their services, the city would have just been a city to see, but their insight was the difference. I would tell all that if they want to see Russia, they should start with Red October

I am trying to plan a trip to the Hermitage for me and my wife in September. We are doing this solo and planning to fly from Chicago to Saint Petersburg via Zurich or Frankfort. It does not seem to difficult to apply for the visa but I'm worried about having a sponsor. How do I get a sponsor? And I REALLY don't want to have to wait in any long lines to get into the Hermitage. I was planning on spending 8 or 9 days in St. Petersburg. Does anyone have any idea if this is to long a period of time? Any suggestions on hotels and/or location to stay. I was thinking that late september would not be in the high season and lines (and maybe prices) would be down a bit. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Please feel free to send me an email directly. jimbral@aol.com

Sorry,
I should add that I do believe that you can visit for up to 3 days without a visa. This is not possible when flying but I think can be done from ships etc. I have not tried this but have read about it.

Lori responds: That's not my understanding, Harry. Could that be the case for UK visitors but not US visitors?

Getting a visa is not as difficult as you think, Here in the UK there are companies who will get one for you and supply the "invite".
The price depends on the speed of service that you require.
I suppose the problem that you have with a cruise is that you are only there for such a short time and could not see St Peterburg in full. So paying for a visa just may not be good value.

Harry

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