Our biggest problems were before we got to Russia, in getting our airplane tickets. Screw up was piled
upon screw up by both Orbitz and Lufthansa. At one point I counted 18 phone calls needed to get Orbitz
to understand that their computer and Lufthansa’s computer did not have us on the same flights, and
nobody was sure which one was correct. Our next trip was booked on Expedia.
The government of Russia seems committed to discouraging tourism, and they do a good job of it:
1] A visa will cost about $200 per person, done through a visa service for $60-80 extra fee. Theoretically,
you can save the service fee by doing it yourself, but that’s a bad idea. You will have to get a letter of
invitation from whoever is booking your trip– we tried, and it never came. Best to use the recommended
visa service, who will have all the papers the Russian government requires.
2] Arrival at the Moscow airport after 17 hours of airplanes put us in very bad mood– 115 minute wait at passport control, unclear signs, and pushy mobs of stampeding Russians. It took about three minutes to clear passport control on our return to the USA.
3] The Kremlin is government property– 73-minute wait to get through the gate in the Kremlin wall– hundreds of visitors lined up, only one metal detector operating.
4] The State Hermitage wasn’t quite so bad. It only took 45 minutes to get into the museum.
5] Signs in the government operated metros in St Petersburg and Moscow are only in Russian.
Metro is complex, and the signs are in Cyrillic. I had a metro map in Russian, but the Cyrillic alphabet
comes in two very different written forms. My map was mostly in one version, the metro signs in the other.
Also, especially in St Petersburg, there is a high risk of pickpockets (see my Experiences entry on safety).
We arrived in Moscow on Friday and did our 2 days of touring Moscow on the weekend. It wasn’t until
we experienced St Petersburg on a workday that we fully appreciated the Moscow tour guides’ comments
about how lucky we were to have to deal with weekend traffic. Lucky meant taking only 45 minutes to go
1/4 mile in a midnight traffic jam.
Returning from Peterhof to St Petersburg, a trip of 12 to 15 miles, one of the busses from our group took over
four hours to make the trip.
Since our travel agent indicated that the MS Tolstoy’s Cruise Director went above and beyond in fixing
problems, I’ll tell you some of the things she did. On arrival day, the Tolstoy’s restaurant served diner
until 11pm. Since we didn’t get there until 10:30pm due to passport control, we got to eat when were
beginning to doubt it would happen.
The bus that took over four hours to return form Peterhof, 15 miles away, missed lunch and was scheduled
to go to the canal cruise after lunch. The Cruise Director kept in touch by cell phone, sent the bus directly
to the canal tour dock, and dispatched box lunches to the canal dock so the passengers would not miss
The next day, traffic also delayed the daytime tours, and the whole ship was scheduled to go to the ballet
that evening, which never could have happened with the normal four course diner schedule. The Cruise
Director split dinner into two seatings. Salad and the main course were served as soon as we got back to
the ship. Then, after the ballet, we went back to the Tolstoy’s dinning room about 11:30 pm for soup and
Each bus tour was accompanied by a tour guide/lecturer and one of the ship’s English speaking staff who
brought up the rear of the group to make sure everyone was there. One morning in Moscow, I asked tour
guide Masha if she had ever lost a tourist. Emphatically, she said, “No!!” So it happened about two hours
latter. The missing person had established a reputation as a pain in the a__ within the first half hour of the
Welcome Briefing, and was well known to members of the group of which he/she was traveling. They all
told the guide, “Don’t worry. He/she is like that. Went off on her own. He/sh will get back to the ship.”
Nevertheless, the tour guide was upset. Lots of cell phone calls were made. Two of the ship crew
accompanying the touring groups were dispatched to search the neighborhood, and regularly reported by
cell phone that they had no luck in finding the missing. Eventually, a call came from the ship that the stray
lamb had returned by taxi, to Masha’s obvious relief.
Two points here:
1] lots of people would abandon the guided tour from time to time, but they followed protocol– tell the tour guide and the ship person you are leaving, and establish where and when to rejoin the group; and
2] note the effort the staff made to find the missing. They can’t be faulted in the least. They won’t let you get lost unless you really work at it.
Dinner frequently took 1½ - 2 hours on the two other cruises we went on. The Tolstoy dining room crew
was much more efficient. I never timed it, but I never got antsy, which means it can’t have been much
more than one hour at the worst.
The bottom line is that this was a very well run operation, and problems were seldom caused by anything
the cruise people did.