I've seens lots of messages on this board about private guides in St. Petersburg. We are arriving on the Crystal Symphony and will be in St. Petersburg on July 28 and 29th.
I was wondering if anyone had any experience with simply paying for the visa and then touring independently? We've had no trouble in the past in places with similar language barriers like China or Egypt, and I'm curious if there is any particular reason why it would be any more difficult to visit St. Peterburg on our own?
Also, the long lines at palaces and museums have been cited as a reason not to go with the tours organized by the ships. Would one still have to wait on these long lines if they were touring on their own or is it just the private tours that can get quicker access?
We just returned from a Baltic's Cruise on Celebrity aand spent two days in St. Petersburg. We used Red October for two days of touring. We left each day at 7:30 am and returned to the ship late in the afternoon.
My feeling is that touring on your own would be very difficult in St. Petersburg. The transportation system is poor and language differiences would make it most difficult. We toured independently in all of the other ports but St. Petersburg. It's going to cost a minimun of $100/pp to get a visa. I would spend the money and get a local tour company, e.g. Red October, and have them tour you around St. Petersburg.
If you were on your own touring, for starters, you have a long way to walk to get our of the port before you will even see some form of public transportation. The tour operators sem to have a way of getting ahead of the long lines that independent travelers would not have.
I'm a firm beliver in independent travel, but feel a tour operator is best for St. Petersburg.
I am not a fan of ship's tours at all, and I think the reasons are pretty clear (the cattle call waits while the bus loads/unloads, 20-30 minute potty breaks, 2-hour lunches, etc. while you could be seeing the sights). We usually try to do independent sightseeing in European ports, but I also agree that St. Petersburg is one port that I would not try to do without a private guide. One fact that has not already been noted is that the Russians do not even use the same alphabet that we use! I think it is very difficult to get around on your own there, and it is a GLORIOUS city, so I recommend Red October. Regarding your question about standing in lines (sometimes up to 2 hours) on your own, the answer is yes; if you are not with a guide that can get you to the head of the line without waiting, you'll have to wait with the groups and the other independent tourists.
However, having been to St. Petersburg (or rather Leningrad) 30 years ago we had a feeling for how difficult the logistics are. Like the others, we opted to go with Red October last month and were richly rewarded.
We had a very compatible and enjoyable group of four couples and we toured, comfortably, efficiently and comprehensively for two days.
Specifically, yes, RO does seem to have a knack for beating the crowds. I think they do get special treatment at many venues. But part of it also is that the guides and drivers are very skilled at arriving at venues at the most opportune times. And, since the RO vans leave long before the ship busses, they get an early jump on things. For example, on the morning of the first day, we had the Peter and Paul church (where the czars are buried) literally to ourselves for the entire time we were there. I mean that quite specifically. There were eight of us plus our guide amid all those tombs, which made the perfect opportunity for her to review the Romanoff family tree in a location where hearing it really meant something. Afterward, we were treated to a mini-concert (again, just the nine of us) in one of the side chapels by the Men's Ensemble for Sacred Music of St. Petersburg. Quite special. At the Hermitage, we walked right in despite huge crowds waiting outside. As we went in the brass band at the door played the Stars and Stripes Forever, which, at that moment, I could have done without.
I suspect that when you toured in China and Egypt you had more than two days, so a certain amount of inefficiency could be tolerated. If you waste much time on logistics and other trivia on a two-day stop, you're basically screwed. Especially in light of the poor public transportation and urban sprawl. Remember, both Peterhof and Catherine's Palace are quite literally out of town.
This is the place for even the most experienced traveller to go for the guided program.
We are also looking for someone to tour with in St Petersburg with Red October on July 15th and 16rh when we will be there on the HAL Princendam. I keep sending e-mail to Red October and have not gotten a reply. I was going to try to call them. Has anyone done that?
If you don't arrange someone on the ship to go with (and I think most people will make arrangement before because of the Visa requirements) can they put you with another couple or two?