By Steven Skelley & Thomas R.,
Melbourne, FL, United States
28 January 2011.Professional Association:
If you are planning a vacation to St
Petersburg, Russia, we highly recommend Red
October tours !
Red October's philosophy is "customers come
first." They have first-class transportation, tour
guides, drivers, and staff. This company stands head
and shoulders above most other tour providers in
quality and service.
While some cruise excursions place you on a bus with
40 or more people, Red October specializes in
providing services to any size group of people. You
could be in a group of only 2 or 10! This is an
incredible advantage as you move to and through some
of the most famous St Petersburg destinations.
Red October Company is unique in that Red
October obtains a GROUP TOURIST VISA for all
cruise passengers who tour with them at NO
ADDITIONAL CHARGE for the days you plan to visit
Russia. Red October takes care of all your
in-country visa needs saving you about $150.
We took their Standard Two-day St Petersburg tour.
Day 1 was 10 hours packed full of the sights and
sounds of Russia. Our driver Dmitri and our guide
Svetlana greeted us warmly at the cruise ship,
helped us into our mini-bus and began a very
informative city highlight drive with several
Soon, we were entering the world-famous Hermitage
Arts Museum which is filled with an incredible
amount world-class art by well-known masters. After
lunch we boarded a hydrofoil for an enjoyable boat
cruise to Peterhof Palace (the official Summer
Residence of Russian Tsars) which is also known as
the Russian Versailles. The landscaping, fountains,
statues and palace are awe inspiring. After Peterhof,
we visited the Grand Palace and then were brought
back to our ship. Both Svetlana and Dmitri gave
excellent descriptions, historical information, and
insights for every place we visited.
Day 2 was 9 hours filled with even more of the
wondrous sights and sounds of Russia. We drove to Pushkin, visited the Catherine Palace with its'
world famous Amber Room, strolled in the beautiful
Catherine park and then drove back to St. Petersburg
for a multi-course LUNCH at a trendy local
restaurant! After lunch, we boarded a boat for a
tour of the rivers and canals of St. Petersburg,
then visited St Isaac's Cathedral, Peter and Paul
Cathedral, and the Spilled Blood Cathedral.
Red October tours are very reasonable when
compared to standard cruise ship excursions but the
biggest advantage of Red October is that you
are given personal VIP service in a small group.
Another major advantage is that Red October
has preferred access to the major sights. We never
waited long in line for anything. When we approached
an entrance where there was a long line, we were
sent to the front immediately!
Red October provides the best tours in St
Petersburg. We highly recommend Red October Tours.
For more information -
Red October USA, LLC
P.O. BOX 216
Rexford, New York, 12148, USA
Phone: (518) 557-1230 or (518) 357-3383
Stan Wu. , Austin, Texas--Wu travel editor
What to Expect: An
Independent Traveler's St. Petersburg
The Baltic region has
become one of the hottest cruising destinations largely because
of huge, unabated interest in visiting
St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad), the
glorious capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 until 1914. No
other port city in the region can match this proud city's array
of dazzling sights: the Hermitage
State Museum, Palace Square, the Peterhof Palace, St. Isaac's
Cathedral and at least a half dozen more unique "must
see" attractions, all cloaked in that unmistakable aura of
Russian grandeur, Byzantine historical dramas and somewhat sad
Since Baltic cruisers rightly want to
maximize their enjoyment of the St. Petersburg port of call
(either two or three nights, depending on the length of the
cruise) and most have never been to Russia (with its own strict
regulations on visitors and unique visa requirements), most opt
to sign up for the standard shore excursions offered by the
However, increasingly savvy travelers
realize that with a little extra time and research effort, they
can easily book private city tours offered by several St.
Petersburg travel agencies, which tend to provide much more
extensive and fulfilling tourist experiences than the
tried-and-true ship excursions. Most interestingly, the reasons
for the generally better experience on private tours in St.
Petersburg (the undisputed artistic and cultural capital of
Russia) go far beyond the expected attributes of smaller tour
size and more personalized attention.
To get the real "skinny" on the private tour
scene in St. Petersburg, I booked a one-week
Stockholm-to-Copenhagen cruise aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises'
six-star luxury Seven Seas Voyager and opted out
of the ship's St. Petersburg tours. I knew that the ship offered
standard bus and shopping tours with a high number of
passengers, and they are certainly adequate for some. But in
order to maximize our time in St. Petersburg, I arranged a more
customized two-and-a-half day itinerary for my partner Doug and
me through the respected St.
Petersburg tour agency
Red October. ( US and Canada sales
Russian Red Tape
Unlike other port stops on Baltic cruises,
Russia requires visitors to obtain a Russian Tourist Visa, but
Since cruisers stopping in St.
Petersburg are well informed of this regulation by their travel
agents and by pre-embarkation information, they usually choose
to join some of the ship tours such as City Highlights (half or
full day) or more specialized excursions focusing just on art,
craft villages, or even guns and ammunition (Kalashnikov
factory). They then don't have to go through the hassle of
sending in their passports and can avoid the expense (about
$120) of applying for a Russian visa.
Most cruisers are aware that crime and
danger levels are slightly higher in Russia (more aggressive
pickpockets mostly) than in say, Stockholm or Helsinki, so they
prefer the safety net provided by the ship tours.
However, the majority of cruisers don't
realize that if they book through Red
October the best tour company catering to the U.S.
cruisers market, these experienced companies will do the legwork
and paperwork to apply for a "group visa" for all passengers who
tour with them. Thus by booking private tours through the
established St. Petersburg agencies, cruisers get the benefits
of a highly customized tour as well as the opportunity to skip
the Russian visa red tape.
After filling out the initial online quote
request with Red October, all
of my communications were via e-mail with
the very professional owner of the
agency, Laura, who also has a
U.S. sales representative named Mike Finn.
www.redoctober.us It was a smooth and easy process, with no
glitches or unexpected surprises. Because of some work travel
and a late start on tour research, I began planning the St.
Petersburg tour less than a month before our arrival in Russia.
After receiving a detailed draft itinerary
the most popular and important St. Petersburg sights that we
could cover, I did some more research on my own and decided to
tweak the proposed schedule here and there (I wanted more time
at the Russian Museum and
wanted to be back on the Voyager for lunch on the third day).
It was easy-going and had no problem
updating it with my recommended changes, all promptly. Indeed,
by the time I was ready to commit and send our passport
information (not the actual passports) so they could apply for
the visas in our names, it was only two weeks until cruise time
and I was on the road again. Laura offered to mail the
Red October tour tickets and
all necessary documents to my hotel in Stockholm to await my
arrival. It was a creative and unexpected solution to a
potential travel problem.
Indeed, this beyond-the-call-of-duty effort
set the tone for my entire St. Petersburg tour. She even offered
to pair us up with one or two other travelers to make up a
larger private group which would reduce our per-person costs,
but we decided to stick with having our own tour guide and
driver for the entire tour.
Alternatively, your travel agent can book
the private tours for you. If you prefer a smaller experience
than the large cruise ship tours, you can also join one of the
larger bus tours offered by Red
October, although to me this defeated the purpose of
hiring a private guide.
In the tour documents that were waiting for
me in Stockholm, Red October
emphasized the importance of disembarking the ship -- before the
ship tour passengers -- as soon as we were cleared by customs in
St. Petersburg. We were told that sometimes the ship did not
want to allow passengers on private tours to disembark. But at
8:15 a.m. sharp on our first morning in St. Petersburg, Doug and
I were at the front of the line to get off the ship, and did so
with no fuss or hassles. After we cleared the Russian
immigration office set up outside the ship in about 30 seconds
flat, we were met by our stylishly dressed and confident guide
Elena, who led us to our private Mercedes with driver Alexei
behind the wheel.
Petersburg: Day One
Leaving the gritty industrial port about 30
minutes from the city center, we were quickly enveloped in the
regal majesty and splendor of St. Petersburg's picturesque
monuments, cathedrals and palaces. On
this first day we visited the famous sites of Palace Square,
Nevsky Prospect Street, Peter and Paul Fortress, Savior of the
Spilled Blood Cathedral, St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the
Yusupov’s Palace. At the same time, we took advantage of
panoramic photo opportunities along the Neva River and stopped
at one of the "official" souvenir shops.
It was in this shop (actually run by
Red October) that we paid our
tour invoice in full using a VISA card, and we were even able to
make a last-minute change to the itinerary for day two (deciding
not to pay the extra $15 to see the Gold Rooms of the Hermitage
the next day). Again, the flexibility
of Red October was amazing.
Throughout the tour, Elena's exhaustive
knowledge of the history and background of the sights was
peppered with very interesting anecdotes that were geared toward
our interests. For example, I mentioned to her that I'd read an
excellent Rasputin biography, so she added some more time to
visiting the eerie cellar in the Yusupov Palace where Rasputin
was famously poisoned (but did not die) in 1916. Besides the
intimate exchange of information and questions, Elena was also
expert at whisking us through the special lines for private
tours at the various sights, tickets in hand, which helped us
save time in bypassing large crowds.
We learned from Elena that
Red October's guides not only
pass the same rigorous tests as required of all guides by law,
but that they are also some of the best in town -- and some of
the best connected (very important in this society). Elena had
no problem getting personal, telling us she used to be a nuclear
engineer, but transitioned into the much more lucrative tour
guide business after the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union in
1991 and fast-forward moves into a free market economy.
Petersburg: Day Two
Day two was the longest and most exhausting
tour day. We visited the gloriously restored Peterhof Palace
(located about 45 minutes from the city center) in the morning
and the world-renowned Hermitage State Museum in the afternoon.
By arriving in our private car at 9:30 a.m., well before the
tour bus crowds arrived, we toured the Versailles-inspired
Peterhof Palace rooms virtually by ourselves. We did meet four
jovial fellow passengers from the Voyager (who had smartly
arranged a very similar three-day private tour through Red
October) in one of the many bejeweled and gold-filled palace
rooms, and we shared our delight in having these quiet moments
to soak in one of the most spectacular palaces in all of Russia.
When we emerged onto the Peterhof grounds to
view the gorgeous cascading fountains, we gasped for a moment at
the din as we took in the sight of a line of several hundred
tour bus passengers (cruise ships guests among them) waiting to
enter the Peterhof Palace. Strolling the beautiful palace
grounds, we realized how fortunate we were to have booked a
private tour that gave us early admission. After a scenic, short
hydrofoil ride from the Peterhof Palace pier back to town, we
had lunch at an excellent local restaurant. The four-course meal
was $25 extra per person, and well worth it.
Day two in St.
Petersburg was capped off by what was, perhaps, the
highlight of the entire Voyager cruise and entire trip: a tour
of the Hermitage State Museum. Not surprisingly, we were whisked
to the front of the line of several hundred people waiting to
enter, and enjoyed a highly informative (albeit whirlwind) tour
of the most famous highlights within the vast rooms packed with
masterworks. The crowds were crushing in some of the most
popular rooms (such as the Rembrandts and DaVinci paintings),
but we were able to hear Elena's commentary clearly above the
buzz of the crowds standing right next to her the entire time.
Petersburg: Day Three
This half day began with another
blissfully crowd-free and bus-tour-free visit, this time to
Catherine's Palace at the
Czar's Village complex about half an hour outside the city. We
were awestruck (a common feeling touring the Imperial Palaces)
while walking through the expected room after room of
over-the-top Russian Imperial decor (gilded walls, priceless
antiques, intricate paintings, etc).
In the breathtaking
Amber Room (which we had to
ourselves), Elena not only recounted the fascinating history of
the famous amber wall panels and carvings, but also gave us more
memorable insights into the city's darkest days, the 900-day
siege of Leningrad by the Nazi Army from 1941 until 1944.
Millions of Leningrad citizens died of
starvation and exposure; there was no electricity or heat during
the brutal Russian winters. In her emotional and dramatic
stories, we learned that during these tragic days, both
Catherine's Palace and Peterhof (along with hundreds of other
Russian palaces) were completely gutted from bombing. While
other tour guides tell the same histories to clients every day,
we felt we'd achieved a very special bond with Elena (talking
about every political or historical topic under the sun during
the past three days) that made her discussion with us especially
honest and heartfelt.
In fact, she was so interested in giving us
a genuine portrait of life in Russia today that she asked the
guide to take a quick detour to a new, gleaming department store
reminiscent of Wal-Mart, where the new Russian middle class
shopped in American-style comfort. And even though we were
pressed for time, Elena noticed that we were impressed by the
smooth taste of unfamiliar vodka, so she brought us to another
tourist store where we picked up a bottle to take home.
Then when we needed extra time for
last-minute souvenir and caviar shopping, she didn't mind
extending our tour a half hour or so; this flexibility and
good-natured accommodation was what we became used to during our
three days together.
Our final day in
St. Petersburg ended, appropriately, with a two-hour tour
of the Russian Art Museum,
housed in the neoclassical Michael Palace. It holds over 300,000
exhibit pieces spanning the long and tortured history of this
proud nation. We then bid Elena good-bye, as she encouraged us
to visit again to see more of her beautiful city; we felt we had
established a very genuine friendship.
Benefits Worth the Higher Price
Needless to say, we both returned to the
Voyager energized and excited about our Red October tour,
ready to share our St. Petersburg experience with our fellow
cruisers. We spoke to at least a dozen guests onboard, all of
whom had taken some combination of half- and full-day ship
tours. They were all amazed by the sheer number of St.
Petersburg sights Doug and I packed in two and a half days
compared to their experiences.
One couple had noticed us leaving the
grounds of Peterhof just as their large bus tour passengers were
walking in! Unlike their large tours, ours moved remarkably
quickly (with that huge benefit of early admission to
Catherine's Palace), and had no
unnecessary breaks or long lines at Russian immigration, or
while entering the palaces or museums. For example, many ship
tour guests complained that they only got a few minutes to shop
on the full-day tour, and others bemoaned the fact they if they
wanted an hour or so for shopping, they had to sign up for one
of the official three- hour "shopping tour" excursions and
forego some of the most important sightseeing.
Others complained that the menu of ship
tours had to be "cut and pasted" together to make one
comprehensive touring program, and that some of the guides were
only adequate and harried. Doug and I didn't want to gloat, but
we secretly loved the fact that we enjoyed the same excellent
tour guide over three easily-manageable and organized days.
As for price, our in-depth private two and a
half-day customized tour, including private Mercedes sedan
transportation, all admission fees, and of course, the services
of Alexei and Elena were approximately $600 per person. These
fees, while higher than a comparable two and a half-day ship
tour program using buses, were more than justified given our
stellar experience and simple ease of movement around the city
and countryside. In fact, if we'd hired a private car with
driver/guide through the ship, the cost would have been about
$400 for just one day, so again, we felt we'd gotten a real
tipping guidelines for private tours such as Red
October's are 10 to 15 percent of the entire cost of the tour
per guest, divided 70/30 between the tour guide and driver.
Having experienced some of the most memorable and thoroughly
fascinating tours we've ever had, we gladly gave Elena and
Alexei a little extra.
Given the fact that most cruisers regard
touring St. Petersburg as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the
higher cost for a private tour (although lower than if you'd
tried to cut and paste the ship tours together) is more than
In order to get the most out of the private
tour experience, it's important to do your own research about
which special sights you'd like to see (such as the synagogue or
Metro stations) and any special requests; Cruise Critic's
message boards about Baltic ports are a great place to
start. The tour guides hired by Red October have sterling
reputations from the vast majority of guests (based on post-tour
feedback and research I did online), so odds are you will be in
very good hands.
A private two- or three-day tour naturally
involves long days full of walking and driving and sightseeing
(especially on the Peterhof and Catherine's Palace days (you'll
wear out your shoes happily trudging through the Hermitage's
endless galleries!). You should be in good physical shape, or at
least discuss any of your physical challenges with the tour
company and guide.
Any tour can be adapted or downsized to
account for this. And on the flip side, fellow
guests I spoke to all said they were only a little weary after
the three days in St. Petersburg, since they avoided the stress
of long lines and crowds the first thing each morning that was a
definite energy-booster that ship excursion guests didn't get!
Furthermore, stick with one of the most
established and well-connected tour company that deal
consistently with cruise ships (Red
October), as they
know the ins-and-outs of cruise schedules, know what can and
can't be squeezed into busy touring days, and are on top of all
the closing days of museums and palaces. You should also ensure
that you confirm all the written details of your itinerary, and
carry a copy with you on the tour. I have heard reports of some
confusion over whether interior visits to a certain church were
included, although on our tour, the visits were all included (as
was explicitly spelled out in our final itinerary).
On this point, a satisfying lunch at a local
restaurant is an extra charge; this is a better option than just
taking the bag lunch on the hydrofoil coming back from Peterhof.
Another helpful hint is not to buy all your souvenirs at the
first souvenir shop. If you've booked a two-day tour through
Red October, for example, there may be time to visit another
shop on the second day. Finally, verify the exchange rate of
rubles to the dollar, and carry U.S. dollars (or euros) with you
to get a cash discount at the souvenir shops.
An "A" Grade
Overall, I'd rate my private tour experience
in St. Petersburg through
October a solid "A." The combination of efficient
schedule, no lines or crowds, comprehensive sightseeing,
fantastic and friendly tour guide, and value for the money
ensured that our too-short time in St. Petersburg was maximized
beyond our expectations.
For travelers who are willing to give up the
usual ship excursion "safety net" and be a little bit
adventurous (emphasis on little, as this was a highly
professional and no-glitch operation), St. Petersburg is the
ideal port in which to book a memorable private tour.
RUSSIA TOUR GUIDE SERVICE - GUIDED TOURS &
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offers UNMATCHED QUALITY &
TOURIST VISA IS NOT REQUIRED.
Shore Excursions & Day Trips to St. Petersburg,
Novgorod & Moscow, Russia
Highly qualified RO guides are fluent in English, German,
French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese
Chinese and other languages helping you to have a very memorable
and rewarding experience !
The same Red October Guide,
Driver and Transport will accompany you through
USA will provide you with EXACTLY the same
Programs and Prices as RO St. Petersburg office.
Red October USA has been successfully working
with RO clients over the past 8 consecutive
Red October USA
P.O. BOX 216
Rexford, New York, 12148, USA
Please join Red October Company for your next trip
RO staff never misses an
opportunity to exceed your expectations.
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