St. Petersburg is like no other cruise port. Ships typically stop there for two, even three days, with options for lengthy day tours (including side trips to Moscow) and evening excursions. The complicated visa process, safety concerns, travel distances and the need to maximize time ashore means that nearly everyone who ventures off the ship does so on a group or private tour.
While your cruise line will likely offer a smorgasbord of tour options, from half-day tours to three-day packages, St. Petersburg is one place where you might be better off booking a tour independently of the ship. On a three-day visit aboard Seabourn Ovation, we booked an independent group tour with well-regarded company TJ Travel; here's what we learned that will help you make your Russia travel plans.
Why Cruise Passengers Should Book Independent St. Petersburg Tours
For many travelers, a cruise ship tour feels safer than going with an independent company. You know the cruise line has vetted the tour operators, and you will not miss the ship if your tour gets delayed. Booking with an unknown Russian company and handing over your credit card information can feel risky to many. But with the major tour companies who have guided thousands of travelers over the years, the benefits often outweigh your fears.
Here are a few reasons why you should consider an independent tour:
Cost: If you're looking at a group tour, your ship's excursions are often more expensive than an independent company because you've cut out the middleman. Our three-day St. Petersburg tour cost more than $100 less than the two-day option sold by our cruise ship. Yet we still had top-notch guides, included lunches and museum admissions, and comfortable transport.
Smaller groups: The destinations manager on our luxury cruise told me Seabourn caps its tours at 20 or 25 people per tour guide. Big-ship lines might have even larger groups. Our TJ Travel group had a maximum of 12 people per guide and van; 12 to 16 is the norm for most independent tour companies. Because tour groups are limited to travelers from the same ship, our group was only six people. So we paid for a group tour, but it felt small and private.
Many of the popular Russian attractions are very crowded, and smaller groups can sneak around big ones so they can experience each place more quickly and efficiently, and squeeze more into a day. The bigger the group, the more time you'll spend waiting for everyone to make purchases in the gift shop or use the restrooms, eating up your day.
Finally, a smaller group can be more flexible; we had some extra time and the guide offered to take us on a quick visit to St. Petersburg's synagogue, not on our original agenda. With a large group, we couldn't have managed a short visit, and likely wouldn't have ended up with extra time in the first place. Our guide also rearranged our itinerary to avoid the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood on the day a World Cup soccer match was taking place and the area would be mobbed, and possibly packed with pickpockets, due to the adjacent fan center.
More options: Cruise ships will offer a variety of tour programs in St. Petersburg, but they might not be perfect for you. For example, Seabourn offered a two-day package and a three-day package with one 18-hour day in Moscow, but did not offer a three-day, only-St. Petersburg package, which is what we wanted. TJ Travel also offered a variety of evening tours, whereas our cruise ship only offered one ballet and one evening Hermitage tour. Even if you book group tours, you have many options to find the tour that covers everything you want to see and do in Russia.
Russian visas: If you've started researching your Baltic cruise, you've likely come across Russia's complicated and expensive tourist visa requirements. Your cruise ship might lead you to believe that the only way to avoid this process is to book an excursion through your ship. Not so. All of the major independent tour companies will acquire visas for you, so you can enjoy St. Petersburg without the hassle of applying for a Russian tourist visa.
Safety: Tourists have been known to fall victim to pickpockets or get harassed by corrupt police while traveling in Russia. You will be safer in any kind of group tour, where your knowledgeable local guide can warn you about potential pitfalls and keep scammers away. On an independent tour with smaller numbers, it's easier for the guide to keep an eye on everyone, which can be reassuring to many travelers.
St. Petersburg Group vs. Private Tours
If you're interested in booking with an independent tour company in St. Petersburg, the first decision to make is whether you want a group or private tour. This decision is likely the easiest one you'll make, but here are some things to consider, nonetheless.
Cost: It's rather obvious but a private tour, which would include a guide and travel for your travel party, is much more expensive than a group tour. For a couple, the price of a private tour will be two to three times that of a group tour. If you are traveling with a large family party or several couples, or if you can connect with fellow travelers on the Cruise Critic Roll Call for your sailing and form a small group, you can often bring the price down to something more manageable.
Company: On a group tour, you have to spend a full day -- and possibly three -- with a group of strangers. While generally that's not a problem, you do run the risk of being paired with travelers whose personalities, interests and physical capabilities differ from yours. On the other hand, traveling with other people for a few days is a fun way to get to know others from your ship; the long days and shared experiences are definitely a bonding experience.
Customization: If you're interested in seeing St. Petersburg's highlights -- the Hermitage, Church on Spilled Blood, Peterhof -- a set-itinerary group tour will include nearly everything you want to see. And there are often a couple of options; for example, one tour might offer the Faberge Museum, while another substitutes the Russian Museum.
If, however, you have a particular interest (such as wanting to see Jewish St. Petersburg or experiencing places where locals go rather than tourist attractions) or are a repeat visitor, you might do better with a private tour where you can really customize your itinerary.
How to Choose St. Petersburg, Russia, Tour Companies
Once you have an idea of what kind of tour you want, it's time to compare the tour companies. Read Cruise Critic's Baltic message boards, and you'll quickly learn the names of the most popular tour companies: TJ Travel, Alla Tours and SPB Tours. In our experience, TJ, Alla and SPB were fairly similar in price and three-day tour itineraries, with minor differences.
As you compare the operators, use the following criteria to guide your decisions:
Cost: Price is definitely a factor in all decisions you'll make regarding private tours in St. Petersburg. When comparing specific tour options, don't just look at the base fare, look at what it includes. Are lunches covered or will you need to pay extra for those? Will you be paying extra for the hydrofoil to Peterhof, the Impressionist wing of the Hermitage or the Faberge Museum? Then compare the final costs with all extras added in.
Responsiveness: St. Petersburg tour companies get inundated with email requests, especially in the spring before the summer Baltic cruise season. Still, you should receive a response to any queries within 24 to 48 hours. Many travelers report vetting companies based on the quality and timeliness of their responses to emails and phone queries. Our guide at TJ Travel said her company has staff dedicated to returning emails and answering questions for prospective travelers. This is especially important if you want to customize a private tour and want to make sure the operator can deliver the experiences you request. Don't settle for a company that's unresponsive.
Group size: Will you be sharing your van with 12, 16 or more travelers? The more people in your group, the longer everything will take and the less flexible your group will be. It might be worth paying a bit more to have fewer people in your van. (Also, note that if your tour company only groups travelers from the same cruise ship, you are more likely to hit the max participant number on a big ship than on a small one.)
Payment and cancellation policies: Paying foreign tour companies can be tricky. Read the fine print before you book about whether you'll need to pay in advance or during the tour, whether there's a deposit, which currencies or credit cards are accepted and if there are any transaction fees. Also, pay attention to the tipping policies. Most fees do not include tips for your guide and driver (in our case, it was recommended to pay 10 percent of the tour cost to the guide and 5 percent to the driver), and these may or may not be payable in your home currency.
Itinerary: Finally, you'll want to nitpick the itinerary, even making a spreadsheet of what each tour includes. How long is the total tour; for example, we saw lengths of three-day tours ranging from 23 to 26 hours. Are there differences in how much time is allocated to different attractions? Do you get early admission to the Hermitage (highly recommended to avoid queues and crowds)?
Evening options: Most of the tour companies offer additional evening tours to see a ballet or a folk show, go on a boat ride with a vodka tasting, experience the early-morning White Nights Raising of the Bridges or have a meal of local dishes with a Russian family. Many of these are must-do activities for a once-in-a-lifetime visit to St. Petersburg. Some tour companies advertise more of these additional tours than others, so you'll want to vet options and pricing. (Though don't hesitate to ask if a company can offer an experience beyond its promoted options if you see it elsewhere.)
What Might You See on a St. Petersburg Tour
You can read all about St. Petersburg attractions in Cruise Critic's port profile, but here's a quick rundown of the staples on independent tour itineraries.
Cathedrals: On a three-day tour, you'll see the three biggies: Church on Spilled Blood with its onion domes and mosaic walls; St. Isaac's Cathedral with its iconic gold dome; and Peter and Paul Cathedral, where the Romanov czars and their families are buried (but possibly the least impressive building of the three). If you want to climb St. Isaac's dome, know that most group tours don't allow time for that.
Peterhof: The country residence of Peter the Great is better known for its beautiful gardens and trick fountains than for its interiors. Make sure your tour includes time outside.
Catherine Palace: Also out of the city, Catherine Palace was the summer residence of the czars, with a Rococo style commissioned by Empress Elizabeth and impressive, ornate interiors (including the Amber Room, decorated entirely in amber). If you can't fit in both Peterhof and Catherine Palace in your tour, consider skipping Catherine Palace if you're going to the Hermitage (its Winter Palace building is done in the same style); if the weather is bad or if you are passionate about lavishly decorated palace rooms, skip Peterhof.
Hermitage: The number-one art museum in Russia began as Catherine the Great's private art collection, and is a highlight on all tours. The Impressionist wing has a more modern interior with fewer crowds but is not always included on tours -- and while the art is sunning, with all the big names represented, if you want to see Russian art, it's not here.
Other museums: The Faberge Museum houses Malcom Forbes' collection of Faberge eggs, as well as other decorative items like jewelry, silverware and religious items, in the Shuvalov Palace. The State Russian Museum is where you'll find Russian fine art from the 12th century onward.
Shopping: All tours will feature the obligatory shopping stops, usually at tourist-focused gift stores that double as bathroom and coffee breaks. You'll find the standard matryoshka dolls, faux Faberge eggs, amber necklaces, Putin T-shirts, Russian-style colorful scarves and other trinkets. If you want artisanal crafts by St. Petersburg artists or high-end amber or other less touristy wares, you might need to book a private tour or find a group tour focused on shopping.
Boat ride: St. Petersburg is situated along the Neva River with a patchwork of canals, so a boat tour is a fun way to see the architecture (especially when it's sunny). However, we wouldn't consider it a deal breaker if your tour doesn't include one; you'll see many of the same buildings from your bus. On our cruise, a young teen followed the path of our boat on foot, running alongside the canal and waving to us from all the bridges. It was highly entertaining…and when the tour ended, he was waiting by the pier, hand out for tips.
Less touristy attractions: Most tours offer some sort of walk or stop along Nevsky Prospect, one of St. Petersburg's main drags, occasionally combined with shopping. A subway visit is a must because the stations are spotless and with beautiful mosaics, though know you're unlikely to take a ride. Some advertise farmers market visits. Our guide elected to skip it, saying that you will just see people selling vegetables rather than local crafts you might wish to buy. St. Petersburg's 19th-century Grand Choral Synagogue is one of the largest synagogues in Europe and a main attraction on Jewish-themed tours (or an add-on to regular tours).