Cruising to Saint Petersburg: a visa primer

Navigating the visa hurdles of your Baltic cruise vacation

The crown jewel of any Baltic cruise itinerary is the port of call in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with most cruise lines offering 2 days (1 overnight) and some even offering 3 days (2 overnights). Saint Petersburg has an incredible amount to offer, from a rich and complicated history to stunning art and culture. Sadly, the Russian government has made it somewhat challenging for U.S. citizens to visit, in part in retaliation for travel restrictions placed on Russians wanting to travel to the United States.

Do not let the extra paperwork deter you; if you travel on a Baltic itinerary, Saint Petersburg will be the highlight. I hope this article will answer your questions and allow you to navigate the best way for you to visit this famous Russian city. There are 3 ways in which you will be able to visit Saint Petersburg on your cruise, and I will review the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Obtaining a Russian tourist visa – the “gold standard”

The “gold standard” for anyone visiting Saint Petersburg is that you should actually go through the legwork of obtaining a tourist visa. With a tourist visa you will be able to travel freely within the city and surrounding areas with no restrictions. You may visit friends, dine in restaurants, visit nightclubs, stroll the local markets and anything else you can think of. Be sure to verify that your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your dates of travel. You should also allow for at least 2 blank pages in your passport for your entry stamp.

First, you must obtain an “letter of invitation” or “visa support letter” from an approved Russian tour operator, hotel or travel agency. The Russian agent will need to know your passport information, in addition to where you will be staying (in this case, on board the ship!). The visa support letter should cost approximately $30-$40 per person.

Once you have the visa support letter in hand you will need to actually apply for the visa itself. At this time, the fee for U.S. citizens is $160 per person. The visa form is very extensive and delves very much into your personal life, so be prepared. You will need to answer questions about your parents’ birth dates, any country you’ve visited in the last 10 years (including dates), previous jobs held, and more. Health insurance is not required for U.S. citizens but it is highly recommended. Your cruise line should be able to sell you insurance, or you can purchase from a 3rd-party provider.

If you know you want to get a visa, start the process as soon as possible! At the minimum it could take at least 30 days to get a visa, but there is always a potential for delays. If you have to expedite the process, you will pay more. So how much does getting a visa actually cost? Unfortunately, there’s really too many variables to give an exact amount. At the bare minimum you should budget for $200 per person, but I’ve seen other accounts as high as $400 per person. This very in-depth article from The Points Guy (written in July of 2015) gives a total of $218 per person ($436 total), which is coming in at the lower end of some estimates I’ve seen.

Alternately, your cruise line will likely refer you to a visa service such as Visa Central that will guide you through the process from beginning to end. I would expect using this type of service would come in at the higher end of the cost range, but if you’re looking for convenience this may be the best way to go.

The south side of Catherine Palace in Pushkin, Russia, 30km south of Saint Petersburg.

The south side of Catherine Palace in Pushkin, Russia, 30km south of Saint Petersburg.

Let your cruise line handle the logistics

From reading the above description, you may be wondering why you shouldn’t purchase a Russian visa. Well, many visitors to Saint Petersburg do not have family or friends there, they do not speak Russian and they are interested in just getting a broad overview of the city’s history and culture. There is nothing wrong with being this type of traveler, and you may be in the majority. For this type of visitor, the cruise lines offer what is called a “blanket visa.” The cruise line in effect “sponsors” you for any excursion or activity that you purchase through them. This could include everything from full-day sightseeing tours, to private car and driver, to an evening ballet performance. Any activity that you book with the cruise line, they have you covered.

The advantages to this arrangement are clear. You do not have to spend the extra time and effort to arrange a visa on your own. You can have confidence that the cruise line has arranged for quality tours with dependable local tour operators. You will doubtless interact with fellow travelers that you have met on the ship. And based on your interests you will be seeing as much or as little of the city as you like. The ship tours are varied and cater to a variety of interests, and if you don’t like the group tours you can always branch out on your own with a private car and driver.

The important thing to consider is that the blanket visa is very strict in how it can be interpreted. There is no room for spontaneity. If you find an interesting restaurant that you’d like to eat at for dinner, you will not be able to eat there as it is not covered under your excursion. If you decide you want to meet up with a distant relative for lunch, you will not be allowed to. The blanket visa covers only what you have booked with the cruise line. One drawback, which should be fairly obvious, is that you may be paying a premium for ship tours, as the cruise line is adding to the retail price by building in their own profit margin.

Ship tours are nonetheless a great option for most guests, as the cruise lines offer a consistent, quality product with no hassle. The price may be higher, but you are also paying for peace of mind. If you are on a ship tour, and the touring vehicle breaks down, the ship will not leave without you. If for some reason you did not have a good experience on the ship tour you may file a complaint with the ship’s front desk and perhaps get compensation. Cruise lines go out of their way to contract with the best local operators and they have a vigorous system of quality control in place.

Forget the ship tours, go with a local touring company

Another route that some people choose to take is to arrange for an excursion with a local tour company, again under a “blanket visa.” Some of the more well-known tour companies that cater to English speakers include SPB ToursDenRusAlla Tours and Red October USA. An advantage to booking with local tour companies is that the tour sizes can often be much smaller and the pricing can be more competitive than ship tours. With a smaller tour size, local tour companies may also receive preferential treatment when visiting busy tourist attractions such as the Hermitage Museum, meaning local tour companies may be able to cut to the front of the line.

I used DenRus to book a comprehensive 2-day tour in 2009, and it was one of the best tour experiences I’ve ever had. The tour, the 2 DAY COMPLETE ST. PETERSBURG, covered all the main sites that you could possibly visit in that timeline. Priced at $285 per person today, I think this tour offers some of the best values out there, if you enjoy a fast pace and vigorous walking. In the evening on one of the days I also booked a ballet performance through DenRus.

There are some potential disadvantages with using a local tour company. First, local tour companies are not sponsored by the ship, so if something goes wrong the ship could potentially leave port without you if you are booked on an independent excursion. In practice, I’m not sure how often this would or could happen. Local tour companies are also in communication with the cruise lines and with the port agent. Additionally, as a cruise guest you will also be provided with the ship’s emergency contact information.

In theory, though, if the ship did have to leave without you, then you would be responsible for arranging to join the ship in a later port of call. This is where trip insurance would come into play to help cover your costs. In practice, any local tour company simply will not let this happen, as one incident of this nature would ruin their reputation for years to come.

Another disadvantage, or advantage depending on your perspective, is that you are less likely to be traveling with those you’ve met on the ship on an independent excursion. If you are trying to develop long-term friendships and contacts, which many people do, this may not be the best option for you.

Finally, there is always a risk of scam agencies who will take your payment and not provide any service at all. This is very unlikely if you book your tours with any of the major tour operators. But buyer beware. If you find a tour company with no reviews, a lackluster website and shoddy customer service, then your actual experience is likely to suffer as well. As with any large purchase, always purchase with a credit card, so that if there are issues you can make a claim with your credit card company.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Deciding which Saint Petersburg option is best for you

At this point, you may be wondering how to proceed. The answer is entirely up to you and how you want to experience Saint Petersburg.

  • If you decide you want to meet face-to-face with your Facebook friends, if you’ve found a local restaurant that you’re dying to eat at, if you want to visit a museum that’s off the beaten track, then a full tourist visa is for you. You will kick yourself later if you choose not to get the tourist visa.
  • If you want to keep it simple and you want just a general overview of the city, then the ship tour under a blanket visa may be your best bet. Ship tours offer consistency, quality and security. They are also a great way to forge bonds with your fellow cruisers.
  • If you want to branch out with a local tour company, again under a blanket visa, you may find smaller tour sizes and a better value.

Finally, you could very well decide on a combination of these different options. Consider that you decide to get the full tourist visa, just in case. On your first day in Saint Petersburg you may want to do a ship tour. In the evening, you use your full tourist visa to leave the ship and dine at a restaurant you’ve found on TripAdvisor. Afterward, you go to a local nightclub for dancing and drinks. The next day you take a tour from an independent company, one that is unique from what the ship offers.

However you decide to experience Saint Petersburg, I strongly recommend getting the full tourist visa, just in case. The tourist visa takes time to secure, and will cost you, but it’s a fraction of the price of your overall cruise vacation. As always, protect your investment with trip insurance! Finally, whatever route you decide, book as early as possible. The worst-case scenario is that you could be one of the sad sacks stuck on board, shopping for over-priced Russian souvenirs in the ship’s gift shop. With a little planning and foresight, you will decide on the best decision based on your own personal style of travel.

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Disclaimer: As the author of this article I have made every effort to ensure accuracy as of May 1, 2016. This article will be given periodic reviews in the future. That being said, I make no guarantees to the accuracy of information contained in this article. The contents published in this article may be considered “as is,” for informational purposes only. Please consult your cruise line or travel professional if you have any questions about traveling to Saint Petersburg. Please note additionally that visa requirements for Saint Petersburg are likely to change over time and that the information presented here applies to U.S. citizens only.

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2 thoughts on “Cruising to Saint Petersburg: a visa primer

  1. I would love to visit St. Petersburg and for several reasons.
    My wife went there on a school trip, at an age when she didn’t appreciate it, but now both of us would like to see the sights of this lovely city with it’s amazing architecture.
    The second reason for visiting, for me, is that this year while on lockdown I discovered s ome new music from a Russian group from St. Petersburg, Otava Yo. They play a mix of tradional Russian folk songs, updated with a blend of Celtic Rock, so it sounds rather Irish/Scottish come Bluegrass. I love it and would love to see them in concert.

    • Hi Tony,
      Thanks for the comment! St. Petersburg was amazing to visit, one of my most favorite trips. I highly recommend finding a good local tour operator to make the most of your time (if you go). I think it’s probably a lot more difficult otherwise. One highlight of my trip was seeing a local opera production. They have “budget” operas you can attend, basically by university students who will one day be professionals. But the quality was amazing. I am curious how the pandemic changes travel to Russia in the future.. It was already a somewhat difficult place to visit (as detailed in this article); I wonder what it will be like in the future.

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