We wanted to see Russia and felt that a river cruise was the best way to see a lot of the country in a relatively short period of time. We selected Uniworld as the company was highly recommended by experienced travelers we met. Note - this was our first river cruise and the only other cruises we had enjoyed were on the 98 passenger Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos Islands, and a Windjammer cruise in the Caribbean. So, we're not experienced cruisers. This cruise met my expectations and I was quite pleased with what we saw, what we learned, and the service that was provided to us.
Using our travel agent, we easily made reservations for both the cruise and flights - Denver to Munich direct, then to Moscow. Our departure was St. Petersburg to Frankfurt, then direct to Denver. All flights were on Lufthansa. The check-in process for Lufthansa was horrible, in Denver we had to wait more than 1 1/2 hours just to check our baggage, and about 45 minutes in St. Petersburg upon departure. Once in the air, both directions, the flight was as pleasant as you can expect in coach for such a long flight. The flight crew were very accommodating, the food good and the provided entertainment/TVs were very good.
Arriving in Moscow was a real treat, as the "lines" for Passport Control were extremely long. Apparently 9 international flights landed about the same time. It appears to me that certain ethnicities of people do not respect lines, as they swarm like a hive of little bees to the front of the line while pushing and shoving without respect for anyone else. It took us 1 1/4 hours just to get through passport control, then through customs where the lines were horrible too.
Finally got through all of this and were met by an English speaking Uniworld representative. He said the bus ride would be 2 hours to the ship, so we should probably use the restroom while we could. (Just a note, restrooms in Russia are few and far between, limit your intake of fluids during any drive or excursion!)
We arrived at the dock and had to go through security again as we approached the River Victoria ship. No big deal here, as I wonder whether the scanner was even plugged into electricity. We were warmly greeted at the entrance to the ship and promptly provided guided to our stateroom (309). Our luggage arrived within minutes.
The stateroom was immaculately clean and well equipped. The room was what we expected but unfortunately we were docked for 4 days and the even number staterooms face the shore. This is great if you want to people watch, but not a scenic as the river side. Within a short period of time, all passengers (144) met in the lounge for a formal welcome and safety briefing. Then downstairs to dinner.
Service for all meals was outstanding, the dining room well-furnished and the wait staff all young students (most studying languages in college) were all very professional and spoke relatively good English. Meals included unlimited wine followed by a 4 course meal. I am a really fussy eater and for 12 days, I found something on the menu that was delicious and well-prepared. The chef, restaurant manager and all wait staff did an excellent job. The wait staff is sometimes too efficient cleaning the plates and silverware, so my wife and I or other folks at the table were asked to "guard" our silverware.
The tours were all very good and the guides outstanding. HOWEVER, traffic in Moscow in particular but also in St. Petersburg is horrible. We were often told our trip in the bus would take 20 minutes and it was over an hour. Be prepared!
My wife and I are in our 60's and in very good physical condition. We were surprised by the number of passengers who were relatively immobile and had difficulties walking steep steps into the buses, on cobblestone streets, or anything that was not smooth and flat.
There were a number of experienced river cruisers (older rich people) who were chronic complainers and whined about the cruise, the ship, the food, the staff, etc. Their comments usually were related to this cruise not meeting their lofty expectations and was not comparable to other Uniworld (or other high-end) river cruises they had been on. The Uniworld brochure clearly states that this cruise ship is owned by the Russian government and the crew is all Russian. Not having any other cruise to compare this one with like many of the other passengers, my wife and I were really pleased with just about everything.
If I had a complaint, which I have a couple, 1) I'd suggest Uniworld invest in better headsets for listening to our tour guides. The sets often malfunctioned and it took too long to program them each trip wasting valuable time. 2) Less mobile people should travel together so that they can travel at a slower pace, and 3) I suggest Uniworld install a TV in the tiny gym that is located on the first floor of the ship.
In conclusion, the trip was great, the Uniworld employees were outstanding, the food was excellent, the professor who provided Russian history and culture lectures was very informative, and the bus drivers very brave. I highly recommend this trip.
I would suggest paying extra for a cabin with a balcony, although we didn't use it due to cool weather and rain reserve an even number cabin so you have the river view in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. You don't need dress-up clothes, some folks dressed up for the captain's dinner, I just wore dress slacks and dress shirt with no tie and my wife a nice dress. Take mosquito repellent with you as at one stop they were pesky. Tips are suggested and happily received by the drivers, guides and at the end of the trip by the staff. Face the facts, this is not an inexpensive trip and if you can afford to be on this trip, you can afford to tip. Many of the complainers (often folks who like to let you know how wealthy they were) failed to tip.
And for the folks who are only happy if they are discontent, read the Uniworld brochure which specifically says that this ship and tour is different from all others, as it is Russian controlled.
I hope you enjoy Russia as much as we did!
Even for an upgraded cabin, it was small. We stacked the two chairs in the corner and placed the coffee table under another table to give us more room. The beds were very comfortable and the room well furnished and immaculately clean. Our room had a balcony but we didn't spend much time on it as it was chilly and often rainy.