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Old November 15th, 2018, 05:41 AM
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Default Planning a Baltic cruise in 2019

Hi everyone,
We are planning a family cruise around the Baltic ports next summer. As we are experienced travelers, we are planning to do most of the ports on our own. My two concerns are St Petersburg and Berlin. The cruise line is telling us you can't disembark unless you buy their tours, and I do not have the slightest desire to be herded aroung in a huge group of some 50 people. I heard that independent tour companies can get you off the ship without a visa - how does that work? Any info appreciated.
Also, I would love to visit Berlin, but we dock in Warnemunde. I read it is quite a distance between them, so what would be the best way to get from the port to the city? Have anyone done that?
Thank you all for anything you can share!
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Old November 15th, 2018, 08:41 AM
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Haimia Haimia is offline
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We, too, are fairly experienced travelers. In Russia, you DO need a visa - no way around it. But, there are independent tour companies that operate and provide "short-term, tour-only" visas. You cannot, however, go out on your own (ie walking the city, etc.) unless you have a full, tourist visa.

We went in 2013. For us, it was easier to just do a ship tour and have all the visa needs and security to return to the ship included! There are many pickpockets in the city! Our group was overrun by a group and one gentleman lost an expensive camera. The group just pushed through us while we were returning to the busses. We were in between the busses with about five feet of passage and they just barreled through our group. So, take extra care while out and about; even in a group.

For Berlin, there is train service from the port to the city. We did not do this port on our cruise, so I do not have any experience with the train service. However, trains are excellent in Germany. There may be bus service, too, but it will take much longer to get to Berlin by bus.
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Old November 15th, 2018, 02:08 PM
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I agree with Haimia said.

I'm surprised your agent is not able to provide all this information to you, which would definitely make your cruise much more enjoyable.

But don't listen to what the cruise line says, because obviously they want you to buy their excursions. This is especially true in St. Petersburg by telling you that unless you buy their excursions, you can't get off the ship. That's just crap. There are some wonderful independent excursion companies that are much better than what the cruise line offers. For example, we purchased a 2-day excursion through a vendor we use and we had 10 people in a brand new 12 passenger Mercedes Benz van. It was great! Or we could have done it through the cruise line, paid more money, gone on a 45 passenger bus with a bunch of other old farts, been herded like cattle, seen a lot less, and done a lot less. Gee, which way do you think is a whole lot more fun? Plus, their excursion gives everyone a hearing device, so you can listen to the tour guide as they lead you around in a very big impersonal group. Or, on ours, the tour guide was in the middle of 10 people and we could ask questions and be interactive with our tour. And our visa was included in the price, so there was no hassle about that at all.

And as for Berlin, we've toured there as well as staying in the Warnemunde area. While Berlin was interesting, you have to decide is it worth the time and hassle. There are a couple of different ways to do it, but again, I wouldn't suggest going with the cruise line, unless you like crowds.

We've traveled all around Europe and everywhere we've been is amazing. People are great, food is very good, and the sightseeing can be easy or not, depending on how you want to do it.

Bottom line though, I would definitely not suggest booking directly with the cruise line, because you'll only get their information the way they want you to have it, whether it's right or not.

Pete
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Old November 16th, 2018, 06:52 AM
Sariola Sariola is offline
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We took a Baltic cruise in 2016, and used an independent tour company for St Petersburg. No troubles at all. They did all the paperwork, so going through customs was easy. You can't wander around on your own in the city, that's true, but the tour was worth every penny. It was totally private just for our family, so it was a little more expensive than a group tour would be. But we had our own guide and driver, and both were fantastic! That was one of the best tours I've ever been on. There's just too much in St Petersburg, so the tour really helps you save time and squeeze more in one day.
For Berlin, we used the same company, and again no hassle. They met us at the pier and drove to Berlin. It takes about 3 hours one way. Some people say it's not worth it, but I found it interesting. I guess it depends on the guide, and ours was great. You can look for a private tour company in St Petersburg, and most likely they would do Berlin as well.
Enjoy your cruise!
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Old November 16th, 2018, 12:00 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sariola View Post
You can't wander around on your own in the city, that's true.
Actually, that's not quite true. You can walk around on your own, but to do so, you need a Russian Tourist Visa. It's definitely more involved, but not real pricey to get one. To get one if you want to sightsee on your own; Russian Visa Information and Russian Visa Requirements. Russian Visa in Moscow, Russia. or Russian visa Step-by-Step: Step 1 of 5 - What is a Russian Visa? - Russian Visa Online, Moscow, Russia. Tourist, Business, Multiple-Entry Travel Visa Support Invitation Services - Russian Federation Visa Requirements, Embassy and Consulate Forms.

Taking a group tour is easier and you don't have to worry about getting a visa, because they'll include it in the price. Taking a group tour in St. Petersburg is not a cheap proposition, as you can easily spend around $275 per person for a 2-day tour. But it is so well worth it. St. Petersburg is an amazing city with lots of history, so it's one place you have to visit and you'll want to see as much as possible, which is why I would suggest only considering cruises that spend 2 days in port and not just 1 day.

Pete
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Old November 16th, 2018, 06:15 PM
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Hi there, it may be worth trying to establish what tours & what prices the cruise line are selling for St. Petersburg. The time before last, we took a '3 stops tour' which was quite reasonably priced. It was a very odd feeling as this was the first time we had ever been let loose without security, errr I mean an escort.
The first stop was for about a hour and we were dropped at the Fields of Mars, which backs onto the Neva River, but was mostly for those wanting to visit the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood.
Next we spent another hour at St Isaac's Square, and we strolled along the streets & gardens to the Winter Palace of the Hermitage
The last stop was for a couple of hours right on the Nevsky Prospekt, which was great for people-watching (which made a change from being watched by the authorities)
For better details, search P&O Cruises, St. Petersburg Explorer.

If having done that you are still wanting to go it alone(ish) then there is/was a company called Red October who have a very good reputation.
For the evening, again depending on your tastes, we much preferred the Folk dancing to the ballet, but the venue changes all the time, so it is pot luck how opulent the location is.

For Berlin, we have only taken the train a couple of times, once from Hamburg where we were overnighting, and the other from Travemunde, I am not certain that Warnemunde is really an option as the trains are infrequent and the journey takes up to 4 hours each way, so organising a private tour, or booking a transfer in may be a safer option.
Once there, the city is very compact with a great transit system, so you can do a lot especially if planned in advance, and again it depends on your wishes for the day. if you are interested in The Wall, then unfortunately this has become quite touristy in the main city, so has changed a lot from my first visits there. However check out the Nordbanhof area (u-bahn Mitte). The station itself was a 'ghost; station during the occupation as it was walled up with the tracks between East & West simply bricked up at the tunnels, outside the station there is still a section of the Wall (BernauerStraße) along with rows of houses that simnply stop havnig been knocked down to prevent people jumping from the windows over the wall. Follow the wall past the memorial gardens & you find a Church that was also partly demolished as it crossed the Wall boundary, and finally a wider area with an origial guard post, wires, alarms and wide expanse of sand as it was when the Wall was there. Quite dramatic & moving experience if it is of interest.

If you have any particualr interests in either of these cities & want more info, then please feel free to ask ormessage me directly - I love both cities & have been to most of the highlight areas - and beyond
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Old November 17th, 2018, 07:15 AM
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Thanks everyone for sharing! Great to know that someone can actually take care of your "visa" or whatever it is. Doing a small/private tour sounds like a good idea. I see some of you have taken tours with local companies, can you tell me which ones? I see the name Red October, and I'm sure there are others. Just want to have some options and see your opoinions. Thanks!
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Old November 17th, 2018, 04:59 PM
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We use SPB Tours and we've had many clients use them as well with great feedback. In fact, we had a client come back from their Baltic cruise in August and they booked the excursions in 3 ports, including the 2-day St Petersburg tour and they could not say enough good things about them.

From our own personal experience, we had a great time. I made up a cheat sheet and compared all 2-day excursions offered by the various companies that were recommended, where they went, what it included, how many people were on the excursion, and how much it cost. I suggest you do the same thing, because they are all just a tad different in what they offer.

Pete
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Old November 18th, 2018, 06:49 AM
Sariola Sariola is offline
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We booked with Anastasia back in 2016, and it was a fantastic experience. A friend of mine went with them before, so she suggested to contact them. Up to the smallest bit they were great, very communicative and personal. I remember I planned very carefully and asked millions of questions, and none of them was ignored. They adjusted the tour plan to our interests, so we could fit all we wanted to see. I still have the cute red bag they gave each of us at the start of the tour. Our guide was a fountain of knowledge with a good sense of humor, and for me it is very important that touring is fun. She steered us around all the lines, so we did not waste a single minute. The driver was also very professional, and was instantly on the spot wherever we needed him. It was a wonderful tour, and I'm definitely coming back.
We actually did all Baltic ports with them: Tallinn, Helsinki, Stockholm, St Petersburg and Berlin. All of them were excellent, but if you prefer independent exploring, you don't have to take the whole package. Probably, a tour to Berlin will make it easier.
There is definitely a number of companies, and most of them have excellent reviews. Try to contact several operators and see who is more appealing to you. Good luck with your planning!
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Old November 21st, 2018, 07:51 AM
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Thanks everyone for sharing. I have contacted several companies and we will probably go with Anastasia. They seem to be quite responsive, I get reply emails pretty fast, and they answer the questions clearly. I also like the itinerary they suggested. Can't wait for the next summer to go there!
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Old November 23rd, 2018, 06:29 PM
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Hope you have a fantastic cruise & adventure.
Enjoy all the build up to it as well.

Alan.
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Old November 25th, 2018, 08:33 AM
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Thanks everyone for your input. I actually have one more question. Is it worth the pain trying to get into Catherine's Palace? I heard it is out of St Petersburg, VERY crowded, and that maybe a better option would be Faberge museum. Has anyone been to both places? Which one do you recommend (or both?)
Thanks in advance!
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Old November 25th, 2018, 03:37 PM
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Hello again, whilst I have to say that the Catherine Palace rooms are absolutely stunning and are another great example of why there was an uprising against the elite, you are shuffled quickly through the rooms so don't get much chance to appreciate all the artwork. The crowds aren't as bad as those at the Hermitage, but you still spend a lot of time waiting, time which I would rather spend exploring the rest of St. Petersburg.
If you want to do one of the 'big name' palaces, then I would actually suggest the Peterhof Palace which is still stunning, but also has amazing gardens with gold everywhere. I believe there is also a rapd ferry from St.Petersburg, which saves time on the road.

We were lucky enough to visit the Fabergé museum in 2016, and were blown away by the exhibits there, the museum being a palace is itself beautiful, even if I spent a lot of time chasing the blue shoe covers that kept pinging off my rather large feet!! The exhibits are truly wonderous, not only the incredible Fabergé Eggs which leave you in awe over the skils of the artistes, but also the other pewter works, gold, inlaid religious image, artwork & so on.

One other Palace we visited which is in the city centre, is the Yusupov, where Rasputin was murdered ... over and over again !! That was very interesting, so worth investigating to see if it something of interest.

I would encourage you to look at pictures online to see what your group think.

Have fun :o)
Alan
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Old November 26th, 2018, 08:44 AM
Sariola Sariola is offline
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Catherine's Palace is really beautiful, but indeed very crowded. And that's right, you don't really have time to wander and look at things, as the rooms there go one by one like a one-way street. You are chased by another tour group from the back, and they want you to get out of the room as quickly as you can. Personally, although the Hermitage is crowded too, I found it better in terms of navigation: there are a few optional directions that you can take, and not just one way.
The Grand Palace in Peterhoff seems to be the same as Catherine's Palace: large crowds and one-way streets. The interiors are beautiful, but in Peterhoff there is always an alternative to see one of the "small palaces" - there are a few, and they are pretty atmospheric.
Faberge museum is gorgeous, and if you have a chance, go for it! Their collection is fascinating, and I have never seen so much jewelry at one place before. The palace itself is beautiful, although there are no such interiors as bedrooms, dining rooms etc., they are all used for the exhibition.
Yusupov Palace has marvellous interiors, but as far as I know, little flexibility. They have strict entry times, so you REALLY have to be there at a certain hour. If you are OK with this, you may check this one as well.
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Old December 4th, 2018, 11:29 AM
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St. Catherine's Palace is really beautiful, but I actually liked Peterhof a bit better. The crowds are St. Catherine's are intense, but only because it is a beautiful place. The crowds at Peterhof were not quite as bad when we were there. The gardens at Peterhof were amazing.
I think it doesn't matter where you go in St. Petersburg, you will spend some time standing in line. That being said, if you use a local tour company (not the ship), they will know the ins and outs - what times are the busiest at each place, and how to get you in as quickly as possible. You won't avoid all the lines, but will have an easier time with all of them. The travel company will also (usually) take care of the tourist visa you need, and any other paperwork. We used Anastasia's Travel, and they took care of all of the details for us. All we had to do was walk off the ship. Our guide was there to greet us and took care of everything else. It was wonderful! And, if you are looking to book now, she is offering discounts through the New Year!
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Old December 15th, 2018, 05:10 AM
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Thanks everyone for your replies! I have finally booked my St P tour, and I'm SUPER excited! We finally decided to skip Catherine's Palace and do Faberge museum instead. This is what our itinerary looks like:

DAY ONE
8.30 - 9.00am Passing the Passport control. You need to have the following documents with you: Passport, Copy of your passport front page, Tour ticket (blanket visa).
9.00 am Meeting. Your personal guide and driver will meet you right next to the passport control with the sign: Anastasia Travel Group ……..
9.00 - 11.00am City Tour.
11.00 am Hydrofoil trip to Peterhoff
11.30 – 1.30 pm Peterhoff Fountain Park tour. Monplaisir palace or Bathhouse (optional - 15 $pp)
1.30 -2.30 pm Lunch (optional)
2.30 - 3.30 pm Transfer to the downtown with the metro tour on the way
3.30 – 4.30 pm Faberge museum visit with audioguide
5.00 – 5.30 pm St.Isaac's Cathedral
5.30 – 6.00 pm Shopping time
7.00 – 9.00 pm Optional evening Folk show – 100 USD per person
9.30 pm Back to the ship
DAY TWO
9.30 am Meeting. Your personal guide and driver will meet you right next to the passport control with the sign: Anastasia Travel Group ……..
10.00 – 11.00 am Private rivers and canals tour
11.30 – 12.00 am Savior on the Spilt Blood visit
12.00 - 1.00 pm Lunch (optional)
1.30 - 3.30 pm The Hermitage visit.
3.30 - 4.00 pm Time for shopping
4.30 pm Back to the ship

I've done a little internet research and now have an idea what all these places are. Counting days to see them all!
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