I recently visited St. Petersburg for a couple of days, visa-free. The Russian Federation allows Americans to visit for up to 72 hours sans visa so long as the visit is part of a tour group or cruise. As far as I understand, it’s not too difficult to obtain a Russian tourist visa, but the application process can be quite complicated. It involves a handful of paperwork, time and a $160 price tag.
Russia has never been a coveted travel destination for me, but seeing I was in Tallinn, only a short distance away, I was eager to take advantage of the visa exemption rule.
Two friends and I booked a multi-day cruise departing from Helsinki via St. Peter Ferry Line. We embarked at 7pm on a Wednesday and arrived to Saint Petersburg the next morning. We had all day Thursday and half of Friday to explore the city before finally returning to Finland early Saturday morning.
THE CRUISE SHIP
We spent two nights on the Princess Anastasia in a private cabin. The room was very basic: bunk beds, a small desk built into the wall and a bathroom with shower. Nothing fancy. We didn’t spend much time in the room other than to sleep.
The ship had several restaurants, a duty-free store, an arcade room, a craft area, a performance stage, a casino/poker area and a handful of common areas. There were some bars, one of which converted into a night club during late hours, complete with stripper poles and scantily clad dancers. Our final evening on board, we popped our heads in and spied a few prepubescent teenage boys giggling and gawking at the topless performers. Their parents entered the club a few minutes later and whispered something to their boys. The whole sight was quite strange.
During the overnight leg from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, we watched a dance show on the main stage. It was kind of like Dancing with the Stars with everything from sexy tango numbers to energetic can-can performances. Very theatrical. Every table and seat in the room was filled.
After the show ended, the MC invited the audience to come on stage for an hour-long dance party. What followed was a spectacularly comical scene of Russians dancing and singing to a widespread musical assortment of Russian hits. People were drunk. The captain was inappropriately dancing with all the women. It was fantastically memorable.
ARRIVING & DEPARTING ST. PETERSBURG
The worst part about the visa-free cruise was when we had to enter Russia. We waited in line at customs for probably two hours. Another friend of mine who had visited several weeks prior experienced the same thing. Once we docked in St. Petersburg, everyone was eager to get off the ship, but in retrospect, we should have stayed onboard and slept for an extra two hours.
Leaving St. Petersburg on Friday was pretty painless. It took about 20 minutes to go through customs and immigration.
As part of the organized tour, St. Peter Line provides shuttle vouchers both to and from the port. The drop off and pick up point is Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (pictured below).
PAPERS AND DOCUMENTS
During the initial embarkation check-in, we were required to show our passports and the booking confirmation for the cruise and our hotel in St. Petersburg. We each received several arrival and departure cards, a room key, a cruiseship ticket, and some shopping coupons to use onboard. We were told it was very important not to misplace the arrival and departure cards as they were our ticket in and out of each country.
Upon exiting St Petersburg, they took our departure cards and stamped our passports. It always makes me happy to see another stamp in my passport!
We stayed in St. Petersburg one night at the Courtyard by Marriott Pushkin Hotel. I totally recommend booking a hotel and staying in town for any future cruise-goers. Technically, a hotel booking was not necessary as each cruise cabin is reserved for the entire 3-day journey; however, we wanted to maximize our time in the city and immerse ourselves a bit more.
Some travelers went back onboard to spend the night on the ship after their days of sightseeing.
TIPS FOR FUTURE TRAVELERS
1.) Bring food on the cruise. As expected, the restaurants on the ship are expensive and the food doesn’t taste great. We brought snacks, and we also picked up pastries in Saint Petersburg to save for breakfast the following morning.
2.) Upon arrival in Saint Petersburg, don’t rush to get off the ship. Take your time and stay onboard for an extra hour or two. Everyone is in a hurry to get off so you will have to wait in a massive line to go through security. There is an even longer wait to go through customs. Spare yourself the wait and sleep in.
3.) Arrive to the port early. Just like the airport, the cutoff for cruise check-in is one hour before departure. If you are taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki (or vice versa) as we did, arrive to the port at least 45 minutes before departure at the very latest. I have done the whole Tallinn-Helsinki-Tallinn journey multiple times. One time, I made it on board 10 minutes before departure. Another time, I arrived 20 minutes before departure and had already missed the cut-off.
4.) If you’re departing from Helsinki and coming from either Tallinn or Stockholm first, make sure you are at the correct port of departure. There are two ports in the city: Helsinki Olympiaterminal and Helsinki West Harbour. It’s a 15-20 minute taxi ride between the two. When we booked our Tallinn-Helsinki ferry, we arrived at Olympiaterminal and quickly learned we had to take a taxi to West Harbour. Also, at West Harbour, there are two terminals: T1 and T2.
5.) If you choose to stay in a hotel in St. Petersburg, you can leave any unneeded luggage in your cabin on the ship. We only brought our backpacks with one change of clothes and kept everything else locked in our cabin onboard. I would double check if this is okay with the cruise staff, but I am pretty sure this applies for all voyages. You get one cabin key and it is valid for the entirety of the journey.