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We did the Baltic last year. I was advised to book a tour through Insider Tours. You can find them on the website. Just tell them what you want to see, how many people and they will do a tour for you. We booked their 'Roll like a Russian tour'. We had a tour round the main sights, then went to the The Hermitage and then St Peterhof Palace. The latter has the most beautiful grounds but unfortunately we did not have time to go inside because we had a huge delay going through customs on arrival. Insider will arrange your visas and all the entrance fees and there is no queuing to enter the venues. There were 4of us and we had an air conditioned Mercedes car with the guide and a driver. There was a little stop off in the Hermitage cafe for refreshments. They took euros.
We had two days in Russia so we chose to do the trip on the first day, but you cannot leave the ship the next day if you do not have a separate visa. There are huge queues to get off the ship and despite being there early we somehow ended up being the last ones through at 10.30! We were supposed to meet the guide at 8 am. Fortunately I had rung the tour company the day before to,tell them about the delays and to please wait for us as we were definitely coming.
Insidor will give you a price and you do not pay until you meet the guide on the day. We paid by credit card but you have to make sure you tell your credit card company that you need to make a payment in Russia to Insider Tours and the date, otherwise they might not let the transaction go through. You also need to print off a pass they email you for each person to allow you through customs.
If I did it again I think I would book the tour for about 10 am when most of the crush has gone, or split it into 2 days by going say 12 or 1pm on the first day to miss the crowds. Then go say 9am the next day as there are likely to be less people going ashore on the second day. Th
That way you will be back in good time when the ship leaves about 5pm.
I hope this helps and enjoy your stay.
Many thanks for taking the trouble to reply in such detail to our query. Trouble is, we actually did the cruise in 2009! No matter, because I'm sure there'll be plenty of folk who will find your information very useful. In the end, we took two of the ship's excursions, (after first investigating several independent companies) which proved to be good value. The problem in Russia is that for independent travel you need a visa, the cost and supply of which is included in ship's tours. I would simply suggest that cruise passengers look carefully at the costs and work involved planning your own tour with a 'private' company versus the costs of the ship's tour ---- it is not always poor value.