Truvor Waterway of the Czars-Fantastic cruise, boat and staff.
Several tips and tricks you need to know before booking and while on board. These were learned from experience! Given a choice, Moscow to St. Petersburg direction is better.
• Reservations and getting ready
1. Often they offer two for one sales on these cruises in January of each year and they include airfare on some packages. We had Delta over and Lufthansa back.
2. You have to have a visa for Russia and to get one you need a letter of invitation from the tour operator (Viking). The Viking literature says that once you have filled out the paperwork they will furnish you with the letter of invitation to fit your schedule (a necessity since you have to send your passports and the letter into the agency you have chosen to apply for your visa and your passports are unavailable for international travel while they are in the hands of the visa agency). In my experience, they would not deviate from their schedule to fit mine. I had 4 international trips scheduled and only a small window to give them my passports. The invitation letter division of Viking would not send me the letter prior to their 90 day schedule. Luckily I found that the Caring-Hands-services (caring-hands-services.com) could get the visa done with short turnaround and no additional charge. I would highly recommend them. Faster turnaround is available for extra but not needed as their standard service is fast and excellent. Beware, when you get your visa back, check it carefully for accuracy. One lady had two numbers transposed on the visa and it took her hours at the airport to get it corrected.
3. The package we purchased included airfare and airport transfers. Unfortunately, Viking did not notify me of the reserved air tickets until it was too late for me to upgrade. Since Viking gets low fares as a tour operator or consolidator, the fares they supply are the lowest and cannot be upgraded once they are issued, therefore it is important to address upgrading your tickets as soon as you can. The buses and people used for transport are great and efficient. Best way to go if you can.
4. Once you have booked, Viking will send you a marketing pep talk email every day telling you all sorts of information about the trip. Unfortunately, the essential stuff is included in these pep talks and if you opt out of them you could miss information or deadlines.
5. Note that your passport has to be valid long past the end of your trip and have two blank pages for the visa.
6. Once you obtain your ticket data you need to contact the airlines to reserve a seat.
7. There are several River Cruise schedules to choose from and the one starting in Moscow and ending in St. Petersburg gives you time to recover from jet lag in Moscow (where there are fewer treasurers to explore) and more time at the end of the trip in beautiful St. Petersburg where you need it. The Truvor was the ship we were on and I believe it is the best choice (based only on conversations with other passengers). Viking runs 5 ships on this route (perhaps more) and each sailing has different options.
• On Board:
1. The food is excellent! Breakfast and lunch both have buffets and a fixed choice menu is also available. Chefs on the buffet prepared dishes to order. Breakfast is probably the best meal (which we routinely slept through), offering standard fare too plentiful to list here. Lunch was varied and similar to breakfast choices but often with themes such as Russian fare, etc. Dinner was from a menu that changed daily and you could substitute if the offering didn’t conform to your taste exactly. Several items were always available such as filet with mashed potatoes, salmon, etc. Be prepared to put a new hole in your belt when you return!
2. While there are coffee machines available full time, there is little provision for taking coffee and cookies to your cabin in the morning (obviously I missed breakfast!). I learned to hide a dinner plate in the room refrigerator and use it as a tray to carry several cups of coffee and goodies back to the cabin.
3. The staff is unbelievable in their desire to help and fulfill your every need. Don’t even think hard about something you want while on board, because if you do, one of the crew will get it for you! The crew is attractive, well dressed, motivated, competent, extremely well trained, honest, and just plain nice. American HR could take a lesson from Viking.
4. Our cabin was located near the stern of the ship and, as such, we could feel the vibrations caused by the shafts when operated at high speed (12-15 MPH for Truvor). From my experience, this is usually caused by one of the shafts being bent or out of balance, and/or improper synchronization of the engines. Since the vibration came and went with a cycle of about 5-7 seconds, I believe is it more of a synchronization problem they could correct without great effort. When the vibration was present, it would rattle the mirrors, doors and ceiling panels. I overheard an interview with one of the ship’s officers and when asked about the problem he was unaware of the vibration.
5. The staterooms are laid out very well and are roomy. Soundproofing between cabins is almost non-existent and if you have noisy neighbors you get to know their business in great detail. Soundproofing in the bathroom is almost complete (so why couldn’t they have done the same with the cabin?). Be sure to let them know the desired bed configuration before the trip (the beds are very comfortable).
6. If you need Rubles once you are there for souvenirs or tips, a debit card used at a bank ATM will give you a good rate of exchange and the fees are often reimbursed by the larger banks if your account warrants it.
7. Charges on the ship can be paid in Rubles or Dollars. If you pay with a credit card they first convert the dollar cost to Rubles (at a rate advantage), then make the charge to your card in Rubles which your card company then converts back to Dollars (at their rate advantage) plus charges a foreign transaction fee for most cards. We purchased the Silver Spirit Beverage plan (highly recommended if you plan to drink even moderately) and it was $550 for two. I calculated a savings of almost $100 by paying in cash dollars rather than putting it on my American Express. Bring some cash to settle on board charges.
8. A number of people appeared surprised and irritated when they got their final bill from the ship as they hadn’t understood that the ship supplies beverages only at mealtime (except for coffee or tea). They found that they were paying for cola, drinks, and house wine when ordered outside of dining hours. Again, the Silver Spirit package covers all beverages, all of the time with the exception of vintage wines. This means you can drink single malt scotch, Limoncello, or rotgut of your choice all day without incurring additional charges. On the other hand, a Coke in the afternoon costs dearly if you are not on the plan.
9. The internet access is terrible but I hear this is universal with all of the ships on river cruises in Russia. I had an access point with me (T-Mobile) and often had good service with that when the ship’s system was down.
• Tours and shore:
1. Being in crowds is not my forte, and thus, going on the shore excursions in a group was painful, especially when they moved like a sloth. The guides are good but in my personal opinion they continue to patter on even when stuck in traffic or waiting for the next phase of the tour. A little silence would be golden.
2. The Hermitage was far too crowded to appreciate the offerings. The Catherine Palace was fantastic. Not too crowded and well maintained. Get Helen as a guide if possible (based in St. Petersburg). She speaks English without a heavy accent, is funny, knowledgeable, and irreverent.