Russia has long been on my list of countries to visit. Chronically short of funds, however, getting a visa and traveling there in a conventional way was both a bit cost prohibitive and more bureaucratic than I wanted. However, thanks to a good friend of mine, I learned a couple years ago that you can visit Russia cheaply without a visa!
From Helsinki there is a ferry/cruise company called St. Peter Line. They connect Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), St. Petersburg (Russia), and Tallinn (Estonia). Some people use the two ships they have to visit all four destinations like a Baltic Sea cruise. However, you can also use the ships as a ferry to go from one point to another. This is what I did.
St. Peter Line has a special agreement to bring people to St. Petersburg, Russia without a visa for up to 72 hours. There are a number of caveats to this that you can read here. Most importantly, you have to take a St. Peter Line ferry in and out of Russia (so you can’t arrive by boat and fly out, or arrive by train from Finland and leave by ferry). You can’t stay longer than 72 hours, which really means you can stay a maximum of 2.5 days since the ship arrives in the morning and departs at night. Thus, the longest you could stay would be arriving on, say, a Monday and leaving on a Wednesday night. You have to book a 25 Euro “city tour” that is really just a shuttle that takes you from the port upon arrival and back to the port upon departure. And finally, you have to have a visa (if required for your nationality) to re-enter the Schengen state you will go back to (Sweden, Finland, or Estonia).
I booked my ticket online. The website is in English among other languages and had no problem booking a ticket. Booking early saves you a ton of money. While you buy your ticket they try to upsell you on a variety of goods and services. They offer excursions for the city you are going to, which is probably a good option for those who are on a cruise and just have hours to visit the city. They also offer pre-booked meals like buffet dinners and breakfasts for inflated prices and expensive hotels. Technically, you are supposed to stay at one of the St. Peter Line hotels. Well, not exactly. They say that other hotels may refuse you a room if you show up without a normal visa and the St. Peter Line approved hotels know what to do with ferry passengers that arrive without a visa. Your mileage may vary, but I booked a non-St. Peter Line hotel using points for a free stay.
In Helsinki I checked in showing the ticket above. They just needed the booking number and my passport. At check-in they gave me my boarding card that had my room number and a bar code to allow me to open the door to my room, a departure card, and an arrival card. The arrival card is presented when you pass through Russian immigration on the way in, and the departure card is presented on the way out. This will show the immigration officer how long you are staying. At check-in in Helsinki they asked where I was staying in St. Petersburg. That was the only question I got about where I was staying and I don’t think she recorded it in any way. I think she just had to make sure I had a place to stay before letting me board the ship.
I wasn’t sure if my room was private or not since I paid so little. I thought maybe I’d have a roommate. On board I found out that the room was, in fact, private even though I only booked it for one person. Even for the cheap rooms there is a toilet, sink, and shower ensuite.
The ship had many different options for eating, drinking, and entertainment. When you board the ship you get a program full of all the events going on that night. There was live music, a casino, and a dance club. On the way back to Finland, as I boarded the ship everyone was huddled around the TVs watching Russia lose to Slovakia in the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. People weren’t happy, as you can imagine.
I mentioned that the food options you can pre-order are expensive. Onboard there is an Italian restaurant and Japanese restaurant. There is a take out coffee shop that had coffee and snacks in the evening, and breakfast options in the morning. Going to and from Russia I ordered a plain pizza for dinner for just 6 Euros, which was quite reasonable. In the morning on the way to Russia I ordered eggs for breakfast for just 1 Euro. Bottled water is available in the duty free store for 1 Euro per bottle. Stock up on water there as if you buy it anywhere else on board they charge 2 Euros.
I’m a very sensitive sleeper and I was able to sleep well on the ferry. There is decent noise isolation, once the ferry leaves the port and gets moving it is very steady, and the engines aren’t very loud.
The only downside is immigration upon arrival. In Russia they told me to just stay on the boat for an hour after arrival. Those who have purchased excursions get priority to leave the ship first since their time is tight. The ships can hold something like 1800 passengers, so it’s as if 6 or 7 big planes land all at once. Even after waiting I had to wait for half an hour to go through Russian immigration. It was the same on the way back in Finland. I waited about 30 minutes before I got off the ship since they said that Finnish immigration goes much faster. The problem was that the ship was more full of Russians than is normal. Russians have to give a fingerprint and are more heavily questioned as they enter Finland. Had there been more EU citizens on board, they can speed through immigration without even having to talk to an immigration officer.
All in all, it was a great experience and I’m glad I took this trip to St. Petersburg. It’s a beautiful city and the ferry ride was far more comfortable and convenient than I expected.