My wife and I are taking the Grand Princess Baltic tour on June 28, 2004. We are taking 2 of our children, 10 and 14. Although we are experienced cruisers, Europe is new to us. What is the process of getting through customs at each port - both getting on and off the ship?
Would anybody be interested in putting a group together for a private tour in St. Petersburg? I hear that Red October is an excellent tour company, but can be pricy.
Finally - how much, if any - of the local language do we need to know? I'm studying Russian and my wife is studying Danish already (we've always had that desire so the cruise just gave us a reason) but we don't know how much we need to know in the other countries.
You'll go through customs at the end of your trip when your flight touches American soil, not in each port. In other words, if you are flying from London to Atlanta to connect to a flight in New Orleans, you will collect your baggage at the Atlanta airport, proceed through customs, and then re-check your luggage to fly home to New Orleans. This is so that the customs officials can search your luggage. I've only seen one passenger searched (in our 11 trips overseas), and she looked like a trillionaire and was trying to tell the officials that she hadn't exceeded her purchase limit coming back into the U.S. Pretty dumb since my understanding is that the tax is about 10%. I figure if you can afford to buy many thousands of dollars worth of European goods, you can afford to pay the duty tax. Another option is to simply have large purchases shipped to you house, and you can read more about that in a travel book like Frommers Scandinavia (which I highly recommend) or Fodors.
My husband and I traveled your itinerary in 2003, and we did not encounter a situation in which we were unable to obtain info in English (we speak conversational French, Italian, and German). We travel independently, so we interact with the locals a lot, and they seemed to like Americans and were glad to speak English with us.
Like Donna, we travelled a similar itinerary in 2003, and had no problems using English (which I can speak in a variety of decibels, depending on the listener's level of fluency). Your Russian may come in hand in St. Pete's, where none of the locals seemed to speak English (except some of the youth). That way you can tell the Russian customs inspector to stop looking in your bag and that the woman in line behind you was offering big money trying to buy a kidney back in town.
And like Donna, my wife and I like to strike out on our own, spending hours in places that aren't covered by a ship's excursion. (e.g. Suolimena Fortress in Helsinki, Oscarsborg Fortress in Oslo, Bomarsund Fortress in Aland, the Seefahrtsmuseum in Amsterdam, etc.). The only places where spoken English was somewhat limited was in St. Pete's (but our Red October tourguide did the translating for us, allowing us to shop for Russian foodstuffs from a local market - buy the vodka, avoid the chocolates). The other English shortage was on the museum displays in most of the countries we visited, which tended only to be in the native language. Estonia hadn't gotten around to labelling anything yet - everything in Tallinn was either "look there!" or "see that?"
Except for the airport back in the States, customs inspectors were non-existent. The only place where there was a customs-like inspection was upon returning to the pier at St. Pete's. We had no idea what the grim-faced green-hatted "inspectors" were looking for in our bags as we prepared to reboard the ship. They spoke no English, and showed no expression as they looked through our bags. We feared that we might find ourselves watching our ship sail away through the bars of the local paddy wagon for trying to steal Russia's chocolate-making secrets. (Believe me, they've got nothing to worry about.) All the other countries didn't care that you were buying their goods to bring back to the ship. Based on the way the Euro's been rising, I don't blame them.
Speaking of which, you may want to buy some Euros now, as a hedge against current trends - I wish I had kept my unused Euros from last summer - I'm going to have to buy them back at a 20% markup this spring when we sail the Med. Or you can buy fee-free AmEx EuroTravellers Cheques if you're a card holder. That way you won't have to track down an ATM and figure out the keypad and on-screen dialogue in Finnish. (We nearly missed a ferry sailing because of that).
Thanks Richard, great info! I never thought about the Euro and the dollar exchange rate being an issue but now that you mention it....
Thanks to all others as well. I did get tour info from Red October. For a 2 day fun filled tour for 4 people that sees about all the palaces, museums and royal sites, including lunches and evening at the ballet - over $2K!! I knew Russia was expensive, but - We may cut that one back a little!
Zounds! Over $2K for two days?!? I remember that our trip was expensive, but not THAT expensive! I imagine a big chunk must be for the ballet tickets, and the additional hours for your tourguide and driver. We opted out of the ballet, figuring we'd catch them on a stateside tour. Plus, you're paying the Western Tourist rate. The locals can get tickets for 10% of that, which some unscrupulous tour guides then sell to western visitors, sometimes at the western rate. I'm no cultural barbarian, but you can watch men dancing in tights anywhere in the world, but there's only one Peterhof and only one Hermitage (unless you count President Jackson's home).
Well, just remember that if you pay cash, Red Oktober will give you a 7% discount. That's a small consolation, but at least it's a savings. To save even more, buy your souvenirs from the street vendors - the same ones in RO's gift shop have a 50-100% markup.
Re: Re: Re: Grand Princess Baltic on 6/28/04 questions
I too am Kathy and my husband and I are sailing on the Grand June 28. We have been corresponding with Red October re: a modified tour on July 3. If you are interested in joining us, send me an e-mail and I'll give you the details.