St. Petersburg: Tips for Choosing a Tour

St. Petersburg: Tips for Choosing a Tour

A two-day chunk out of a 15-day cruise deserves some special planning so me and my friend Google spent quite a bit of time together to (hopefully) make the visit to St. Petersburg (SPb) the best it could be.

CruiseCritic.com’s forums offer a special section for ports so you can imagine I hung out at the Baltic Forum area for weeks before this trip.

Here’s what I did not have any idea about as an ocean cruise newbie: It’s quite common for cruise passengers to book a “private” tour at various ports. These are not the ship-provided ones which the your cruise line advertises (and takes reservations for) ahead of time, but a tour operated by a firm or an individual. They can be “canned” excursions with pre-planned itineraries or specialty tours you choose based on your interests (heading to the Baltic, I didn’t really think I’d find any ukulele-centric tours so I didn’t even ask…Mom’s probably happy about that).

I learned that, when booking a private tour, you should consider a variety of things:

  • You must get back to your ship in time. On a ship’s tour, you’re guaranteed that the ship will not leave the port until your excursion group is back on board. Not so a private tour; if that big horn makes its final bellow out to the berth community and you’re not on board, it floats away regardless. It’s then your responsibility–and your cost–to hopscotch to the next port. And your toothbrush and clean undies are still in your stateroom, so you’ll be doing your unexpected detour without their support.
  • Know what’s included–and what’s not. Does the price include admissions to museums, all transportation and any meals? Find out so you can compare fairly between the companies.
  • What qualifications/special knowledge does the guide have?
  • How many people will be in your tour group? Most in St. Petersburg were a maximum of 16 passengers. Keep in mind that smaller numbers make for faster restroom stops and meals. Smaller numbers also mean that an “odd” personality in the group will stand out more… Smaller groups typically cost more (makes sense, huh?).
  • Do you have any special needs for your tour? This could include mobility issues, travel with a child, hearing difficulties.
  • How responsive is the tour agency *before* your tour starts? If they’re not quick to answer your questions–thoroughly and with plenty of details–before you give them your reservation, don’t expect the situation to improve.
  • Reputation. This can include length of time in business, any certifications and reviews. I’m a frequent reviewer on TripAdvisor, but I’ll be the first to tell you that some of those reviews (either particularly glowing or slamming a business) are simply not written from a real experience with the company. SPb seems to really get a lot of these overly great and overly bad reviews. I understand from a city resident that there’s a lot of competition–for personal as well as business reasons–between the agencies. Some, I’ve been told, are downright malicious in harming their competition through bogus reviews. TripAdvisor works hard to screen out these reviews, but many get through. That’s why I wasn’t worried when our chosen company, Anastasia Travel, was listed as a “questionable” agency on TripAdvisor due to overly positive reviews. I believe a competitor tour company posted the positive reviews to trigger a “this isn’t real; watch out” warning from TripAdvisor. I can’t be certain of this, but you can bet I read the reviews and tossed out the extra high and extra low ones. TIP: Look for reviews with photographs; it’s hard to fake those, especially if they have the real people taking the tour in the picture.

Mom and Anna in one of the palaces…I don’t know which one without looking it up because there were so many “gold rooms…

St. Petersburg, Russia (commonly abbreviated to SPb or SPB on the CC boards) is a bustling hive of tour operators, all of them uber-eager to have you spend your time (and dollars) with them. Readers on the forum (as well as TripAdvisor) are also passionate about the tour agency/guides they’ve personally used (or a “friend” used).

Okay, here’s the scoop: About 90 percent of the people posting there have only been in SPb one time so their tour “reviews” are based on that one instance. Fair enough–my opinions of the tour agency we used in SPb are predicated on my own experiences, too; but I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last few days asking others about their experiences so I’ll add that into today’s mix.

I chose Anastasia TravelAnastasia Travel after researching (ad infinitum) the major and http://anastasia.travel companies, sending emails and reading reviews and blogs. All of them seemed to include admission to the major SPb museums and tours of the same sites.

Frankly, the difference was that Anastasia Travel offered us a great, customized and totally private tour for just Mom and me for $309/USD. This was only a little more than the other companies were charging for a tour of “up to” 16 people (though I did hear a couple on our ship say that theirs only had four people both days) and a LOT less than the ship-offered two-day excursion.

My pre-trip correspondence with Katherine was exemplary, all museum admissions were included as was the visa paperwork and cost. The only catch for me was that the full trip needed to be paid for at time of reservation, which for us was four months away.

I don’t know about you, but sending my credit card info to Russia, even in a “locked/secure” email, felt a little sketchy to me. Heck, we’ve had our credit card numbers hijacked three times in the past 12 months and I’m betting some Russian thievery was involved in at least one of them.

Still, my husband countered, since it would be charged to the credit card, the bank would provide a back-up in case there were problems with the tour service not being as represented. I sent ’em the numbers.

I couldn’t be happier that I did. Our tour with Anastasia Travel was perfect in every single way. As a private tour participant, we didn’t have to wait until the ship’s crowds hit the Russian passport control center just outside the ship. We had no line as we walked through at 7:30 am–but they sure don’t greet you with friendly faces. However the guide, Anna, waiting just past the control center’s exit, *was* smiling and holding a placard with our name on it.

Slava was our (very capable) driver for the two days

She greeted us warmly, asked if we were ready to go and then lead us through (another) government screening and out to the parking lot where our driver, Slava, waited with his four-door Mercedes (black, of course–all the “special” cars are black Mercedes’ in SPb it seems). Climbing in the back seat (the car was immaculate inside and out–plus it was fresh and did not smell of cigarette smoke at all) we each found a large bottle of water (we received another at the start of our second day) as well as a red lightweight backpack loaded with “a few gifts,” as Anna termed it. These included an inexpensive rain poncho, a fruit/nut bar, a book about St. Petersburg, a pack of cookies and even a small metroshka (stacking) doll.

Gee, we just got started with Anastasia Travel and already we felt pampered. Any reservations I’d harbored evaporated.

As the two-day tour continued, we were even more certain we’d chosen the right option for us.

Anna was professional yet exceedingly personable. She confidently shared with us every single important historical figure (so many named Peter, Nicholas, Catherine and Alexander!) but she told us not just dates but “personalities” so they seemed much more like real people than two-dimensional portraits on an ornate palace wall. She wasn’t one of those tour guides who overwhelms you with information you’re not interested in–in short, Anna had the information ready and presented it well, but she would start off with the basics and then let us ask questions about topics which interested us. Anna’s knowledge of art and the history of its creator was astounding–we later found she had worked at The Hermitage so that explains some of it; the rest, I think is just Anna’s personal passion.

She focused on, as she described it, the “best of the best” at each site but if we found something else we enjoyed, Anna was amenable to adapting the plans. I’d wanted to see Peter the Great’s cabin and, while it’s not on most big-group itineraries, Slava made a detour so I could walk around it (not open that day) and Anna told us more about the founder of St. Petersburg as a “royal” city. 

The “gift” bag waiting for us when we got in our car at tour’s start.

 

But more than architecture, emperors and art, we earned from Anna about daily life in St. Petersburg plus stories from her family (including her grandmother, who had shared her account of living through the Siege of Leningrad with Anna). She arranged a visit to a “working” Russian Orthodox church when a service was in session (they last two to three hours, I guess), and, as a churchgoer herself, explained the various elements of the service and what we were seeing (I understand the icons so much better now).

At Peterhoff, Anna suggested we enjoy a nice walk through the park after seeing the palace and fountains. She showed us several of the “trick” water features and told us how her son enjoyed the fountains and how the “tricks” worked. She laughed that when she gets old she wants to be the person sitting incognito on the bench and operating the plunger that squirts unsuspecting children in the fountain. She even had a small baggie of nuts, prepared to feed the red squirrels which, she told us, are almost like pets, at the park.

Mom and I didn’t really relish sitting for 1.5 hours of each day for lunch and Anna understood. She took us to a Russian “quick’ chain restaurant the first day (explaining the menu in detail) and suggested blinis (is that the plural?) for the second as a “quick food” break. Anna joined us for the meals and was more than ready to pay for her lunches but we took care of the check at both of them (well, except I was 50 rubles short on the blini day; oops, planned the money a little too tight!).

Slava’s driving was impeccable; we felt safe in a city with a lot of traffic. He had coordinated the driving plans so we could see Nevsky Prospekt as well as some “countryside” roads. They were both quite disappointed one day when a detour forced us onto the belt road (like a freeway) which they said was not too picturesque but we found interesting just the same because it showed us more of the non-tourist section of the suburbs of St. Petersburg.

Having just two of us on this tour was ideal; Anna moved us to the front of every line at the museum and knew where all the best bathrooms were (very important!). We were able to wander around, stopping to shop in a little store featuring amber items created in the workshop that had remade the Amber Room at Catherine’s Palace. Mom’s especially enamored of lilacs (as a young woman, these simple flowers graced the pews of the church when she and dad married 62 years ago in a small Wisconsin town) and, when Anna found out, she took us to what she described as a “lilac alley” at Catherine’s Palace that was rich with the sweet fragrance of the lavender- and cream-colored flowers.

This was truly St. Petersburg “our way” and we couldn’t have done it without Anastasia Travel.

[Note: I’ll write about St. Petersburg as a port city for us in the next post.]

23 Responses to St. Petersburg: Tips for Choosing a Tour

  1. Ed Hjermstad says:

    Question….Wife and I are on the June 27th trip. (can’t wait and love your reports) How much Rubles do you suggest we have for the 2 day tour?? where/how did you get them. We cant decide if we should use the local ATMs or get the appropriate cash here before we go. Have used local ATMs in past trips and had our card ripped off in Italy so a bit concerned.

    Thanks,

    • ukalady says:

      It looks as if you already got some guidance, Ed (we were in the fjords and the ship’s wifi has been done for a while).

      We brought $120 USD value in rubles (from our local bank). We used about $45 value rubles for lunch both days and put the rest (plus US cash/dollars) to the tips.

      I, too, didn’t feel comfortable with using an ATM in Russia, but I may have been overly concerned. I’ve had our card numbers stolen while in the US several times in the past 12 months and I just didn’t want to risk the hassle of it all…

      I put together a spreadsheet of sorts for each port, including our “extra” costs (meals off ship on long port days, etc.). Would it help if, when I get back to my regular computer, I load that up on this site? The iPad app I’m using to do the blogging won’t let me do a PDF upload…

  2. Mary Frances says:

    This sounds amazing. Thanks for the great review. The photo of your mom and Anna looks lovely, but there are no coats in the picture. Was it warmer in SPb?

  3. Susan says:

    Soooo glad to hear that Anastasia turned out to be everything you hoped for! I can’t wait to meet them in September and I’m thrilled that we decided to stick with our choice. Did Anna get you back to the ship in plenty of time the second day? And I’d also like to know where to get rubles, or is it even necessary? I have a chip/pin credit card and was hoping to use that most everywhere. Thanks!

    • ukalady says:

      Anna and Slava got us back to the ship in plenty of time before we left. We’d requested to arrive at the dock one hour before “back on board” just to feel comfortable. Frankly, we were pooped after the whirlwind two days and were glad to be back a bit early.

      As far as money, I didn’t care to use an ATM in Russia so I can’t speak to that. We brought rubles from our bank at home; $120 worth. We used $43 total for both lunches (and Anna’s) then we paid our tips in a combination of rubles (to use them up) and US dollars we’d brought from home. It worked well for us.

      We used credit card to purchase souvenirs (metroshka dolls–I have grandkidlets, you know!).

      Note, our credit cards have been acceptable everywhere even though they are “chip and signature.” I was frankly a bit worried about not having the real “chip and PIN” cards, but we never had an issue with anyone running the cards and having us sign; they did, however, ask for ID to match the card. This was true even with taxi drivers.

  4. JS says:

    Ed – I was on the Viking Star in May when it docked in St. Petersburg. There is an ATM at the port on the right as soon as you get past the doors and into the souvenir part. We got the equivalent of $40 (around 2,000 rubles) for our one day tour since it did not include lunch. Our lunch for the two of us and our guide was around $20 (or ~1,000 rubles). We also bought a small bottle of juice at a grocery store for around $0.75 (or ~40 rubles). That left us with about $20 in rubles and we used that for our tip. So, figure out if you need lunch money or not and then get enough so that if worse comes to worse and you spend none of it, you can use it for your tip rather than giving your guide USD or Euros.

  5. Ed Hjermstad says:

    Sounds like a plan … Thanks

  6. Karen Baker says:

    Darn…I think a ukulele – centric tour would have been a blast…..but I so enjoyed “our” tour with Anastasia Tours. SPB sounds amazing and how well they looked after you. You did not mention what food you had for lunch with Anna….Would it have been boorst ( did I say that right….my Russian is very limited) and vodka??
    Loved the pictures …you and your mom look great as well as Anna…and Slava is down right cute ( and so is his car) 😀

  7. Christine Smith says:

    Quick question: my husband wants to know if men are wearing sport coats to dinner on the ship.
    Thanks.
    Christine

    • ukalady says:

      Perhaps 5% are on for dinners in The Restaurant; even less at the World Cafe!

      On “special” nights and in Manfredi’s as well as The Chef’s Table, I’ve seen a higher percentage, though not by any means the majority. More like 35% or so.

  8. Mary says:

    Did you book any of the excursions offered by the ship?

  9. So very interesting!!!loved it!!

  10. Ed says:

    Thanks that helps a lot….

  11. Janet says:

    Such great comments and information. We will be on the Star on July 25th. I haven’t seen anyone ask about the daylight hours….the sun is up a Loooong time?
    How are the sun blocking drapes in the cabins? How long is the sun up?
    Thanks for all the helpful information.
    Cheers, Janet

  12. Linda says:

    Ukalady, where’d you go? We just started the Vikings Homeland, following in your footsteps. I really enjoyed following your blog and was sorry to see it stop. I hope you and your mom are both ok and had a great cruise. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that several folks at Cruise Critic have posted, wondering about you and hoping all is well. I found the bathroom with the chirping birds this morning so thought of you.

  13. Alexia says:

    Did you research Alla Tours? I have heard very good reviews about them and they are very prompt on responding. I’m going to check on your tour company too. Thanks!

    • ukalady says:

      I did check out Alla Tours, Alexia. We went with Anastasia Travel because for almost exactly the same cost we got a totally private tour–just the two of us. But Alla was very responsive and definitely is one of the top agencies in SPb.

  14. Janet says:

    We are on the Alla Tours for 2 days in STPB. We hope for good results. We’d still like to hear more about, the black out curtains in the cabins. Also about further ports after STPB.
    The weather looks great in the future. We are very excited to arrive on the ship
    on July 25th, in Stockholm. The weather looks Warm!
    Janet

  15. Janet says:

    Where fore art thou Ukalady? We were all enjoying your posts. Yesterday I got a notice you had posted something but it doesn’t show up anywhere. Hoping all is well with you and your family. Even tho’ your cruise is over we still would love to hear more about it.
    Please let us know…
    Your fans in California

  16. Mary Frances says:

    I think when you get an email notifiying you of a new comment that it has been a comment made by a reader, not Ukalady herself. We are all still waiting and hoping nothing unfortunate occurred.

  17. Pingback: St. Petersburg: Day One | What's an ocean cruise like?

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