I spent 72 hours in St. Petersburg, Russia, without a Russian Visa. For a couple of years now, I had been reading about the pain of getting a Russian Visa, not to mention the cost. However, travel forums mentioned a neat little scheme: For 72 hours, using the St. Peterline Ferries to and from St. Petersburg permits a traveler to visit Visa-free.
The whole thing seemed a little suspicious at first. Why would the Russian government allow this one ferry company to cut into its Visa revenues? Cruise passengers are allowed to visit without a Visa, but they are also required to be accompanied by a licensed guide when off of the ship. With the St. Peterline, a passenger is free to make their own destiny. I never ended up getting the answer as to why St. Peterline has this special permission – perhaps the government gets some money out of it. Perhaps the government wanted to discreetly boost tourism numbers from neighboring Finland by making the process easier. I am not really sure, but I can say that St. Peterline was exactly what I was looking for.
- I booked two one-way ferry rides on the Saint Peterline web site a couple of months before my departure (Tallinn to SPB and SPB-Helsinki). All PDF confirmations came by e-mail basically straight away. Doing Tallinn-SPB requires a little more planning since it is less frequent than the Helsinkiservice (I believe 2x week), and I wanted to be able to visit all 3 cities instead of doing HEL-SPB-HEL.
Passengers looking out at the old and new parts of Tallinn as we depart right on time
A commodore room with double bed; A peek into the 1980’s style Princess Anastasia
Tallinn – St. Petersburg on Princess Anastasia
- I stayed at Hotel Palace just on the cusp of the Tallinn Old Town. It was only about a 10 minute ride and a few euros in an Uber to reach Terminal A at the cruise port. Tallinn’s Old Town can be done in a day, but giving myself a couple of days allowed me to explore a bit more, and experience a quieter Old Town after cruise passengers leave.
- Check-in at Terminal A was seamless. Since I *guess* most people take the full cruise, I just walked right up to the empty check-in window and received my Boarding Card (also the room key), my breakfast card, my arrival and departure cards. The departure card lists the “City Bus Tour” (AKA the shuttle service) if you need to show it to the driver.
- The woman at check-in advised me two things: (1) That the Helsinki arrival would be 9am instead of 8am (this proved to be wrong later), and (2) to take my time in the morning because the lines would be very long. (this was true, but I didn’t heed the warning)
- The walk from the check-in to the ship boarding at Tallinn was LONG. A good 15 minutes or so at a brisk pace. I arrived at around 5pm for a 7pm departure, but I feel like 6pm would have been ok as well. It seemed like people returned to the boat at a steady pace, no queues or anything.
- I was booked into a Commodore room on the 5th floor. Air-conditioning was pretty lousy so it was stuffy and not really comfortable to sleep. The shower is an open shower, just a curtain separating it from the rest of the bathroom. Honestly, it wasn’t any worse than let’s say a cheap motel in the states. I just had to unplug the tv to get myself a charging port.
- I dined at the Funny Rabbit bar/restaurant. They served a reasonably-priced, decent Russian cutlet and mashed potatoes, but very slow service (Seemed to be the pattern in the restaurants – maybe a couple of people attending to a full dining room)
- There really isn’t much else to do, you can hang out on the 7th or 8th floor decks and get a drink, and there is a casino which I didn’t really see people using, a “cinema”, and a duty-free shop.
- They also have a Coffee Bake cafe where you get quick service food and drinks (even proper hot dishes like Stroganoff or cutlets) if you need a light snack or just don’t feel like dealing with the restaurant wait.
- The breakfast at the New York restaurant was revolting, and I am fairly easy-going.
- I was scheduled on a tour for part of the first day and wanted to make it as soon as possible, so I did not take the advice to wait out the crowd.
- All of us non-VIP folks lined up on the 4th floor, body to body, until the boat finally opened for departure, maybe around 8:30 or so. The woman at information told me to come up to the 6th floor in the morning the previous evening (I have no idea why), so I had been sitting there until I asked a new person at information and he informed me I should be on the 4th floor – not sure if the cost of VIP is worth it to get off the boat easily.
- Russian passport control was pretty bad, maybe about 5 minutes per person, so about an hour until I got out. I was given the passport sized paper to present to the hotel, which they took when leaving. They only thing the guy even asked me was to see my US military ID (Someone later suggested this was to throw me off guard). He asked a couple of times and I just kept telling him “no” and then he shrugged his shoulders – weird. I talked to a couple from another cruise, and they mentioned being straight through passport control, so I guess it really just depends.
- Once I was out of passport control, I was picked by TJ Travels. They were the only ones to indicate they could accomodate me, and there were only 3 of us on an organized tour to Peterhof, Catherine Palace and theFaberge Museum. Since I arrived later than the 2 cruise passengers, I missed the “city tour” but that was just a drive around the city, and I explored plenty on my own after. Honestly, I could have taken care of all of those on my own EASILY, so I regret arranging that.
- In the late afternoon, they dropped me off and I checked into Domina Prestige one block away from St. Isaac’s Cathedral and was asked to show the temporary permit paper and my St. Peterline departure card. I’m not sure how the whole thing works, but it seems like information gets communicated somehow about passengers on the visa-free arrangement. Or maybe it was just me.
- Spent the remaining 2 1/2 days exploring Saint Petersburg on my own and it was absolutely wonderful, and definitely not enough time if you end up loving the city the way I did. I am a dark-skinned, solo traveler and honestly encountered no problems at all. You won’t regret taking SPL because after the cruise passengers are back on their boats, the city takes on a different atmosphere, and did I menton unlike cruise passengers, you can do whatever you like?
A deluxe room on the Princess Maria with two single beds; The St. Peterline port in St. Petersburg is a working industrial port.
St. Petersburg-Helsinki on Princess Maria
- I was given some confusing information – told that we would arrive to Helsinki at 9am instead of 8am, and the SPB departure was listed 6pm when it was really 7pm. I was quite annoyed because I ended up rushing myself and stressing to catch the 3:45 shuttle when I could have easily come a couple of hours later (the vans line up right in front of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, no luggage room so I had to find a place in the aisle or seat, and it looks like they are really waiting to go when the van gets filled more than going per the hourly schedule). 10-15 minutes to the boat. Again, no wait at all to get my boarding card and breakfast card.
- Russian passport control was a piece of cake, after all, most countries care less about you going out than coming in. Again, they asked me for my military ID and when I kept saying I didn’t have one, shrugged his shoulders and proceeded – what was up with that?
- Again, I was miffed that I was on the boat 3 hours early with nothing to do, so I grabbed a drink on the deck and um, the St. Petersburg ferry dock is an industrial area so not exactly the prettiest spot.
- I was in a Deluxe A room this time – two very small beds, but the air-conditioning was better so I found it to be a more comfortable experience. Actually, I liked the Princess Maria much better than the Princess Anastasia. It seemed like most of the passengers were older Finnish people taking a short getaway vs. the other boat, which was a mix of what seemed like cruise passengers.
- The amenities are basically the same. Opted for the Italian place (Mia Napoli). The food was surprisingly decent on both legs despite the cheesy names, BUT again, you have 1 or 2 waitstaff tending to a full dining room which was painfully, painfully slow.
- I contemplated using the pool/jacuzzi until I realized the small facilities required one hefty fee. No one else was using those facilities, no surprise there.
- I wasn’t in a rush to get into Helsinki since I had a couple of days there, so I decided to take my time that morning. I did peek and see the same crowd of folks body to body, waiting to get off the boat. I on the other hand had a leisurely breakfast at the Explorers restaurant. This was much, much better than breakfast at New York on the Princess Anastasia — even had an egg station. .
- With everyone else off the boat, I practically flew through Finnish passport control, just for waiting 30 minutes after the departures started. It was just a minute walk outside to the #9 tram into the city center, and that was the end of my experience.
The breakfast buffet on the Princess Maria – I had the place practically to myself with everyone else rushing off the boat.
- I think the St. Peterline is a fantastic way to visit Saint Petersburg without a visa – everything worked out as expected from reading about this ferry for the last couple of years. I spent Euros 280 for both legs, which includes breakfast and the SPB “Bus Tour”. Considering two nights of accomodation and transportation, that is an amazing deal. The service is not really the greatest, and I suggest pressing for whatever information you need, no one is really going to bother to let you know anything. Boarding was seamless – disembarkation is chaotic if you you try to queue up with everyone else – if you wait a little bit, peace of mind will be there. If I had to do everything again, I would not book even 1 tour in SPB. Its as easy of a city to visit as Paris or Athens.
Flying Solo on the St. Peterline
- As a solo traveler, I have generally avoided places like cruises and resorts because these tend to be the most awkward spots for us and offer no escape. I may have spotted one older gentleman who was flying solo as well, but otherwise it was couples and families all around. If you are just taking the ferry trips in and out, there isn’t much to worry about. A few afters you board, you will probably be asleep to get ready for your next day. If you opt to take the full cruise, it will pretty much be the same because you will be off the boat exploring a city, maximizing your day. This is not really a cruise boat, so I can’t imagine showing up back at the boat early to hang out. Eating in the restaurants alone was not a big deal either, although most of the restaurants will be crowded, so expect some very noisy dining rooms and that somewhat awkward feeling when you are an island in between packed tables of social dining – I’ve learned to get over it over the years. For those on a budget, there are cheaper shared accomodations to bring the cost down even more.