My Visa-free Russia Trip
Now that I have returned from Russia, I cannot wait to give you the full report on my visa-free Russia trip! I booked this a few months ago when I figured out I can visit Russia without a visa, if only for a relatively short time, by travelling by a Russian-Italian ferry company to St. Petersburg. Visa-free Russia is easily done, and best combined with a trip to Scandinavia or the Baltic States.
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Update 26. February 2022 ++ Do not travel ++
On 24 February, Russian troops invaded Ukraine and started an unprovoked war. I therefore advise you not to visit Russia while this war is going on. With further sanctions against Russia looming, you may be unable to fly to and from Russia, get cash out of ATMs, and other unforeseeable obstacles, plus visiting is likely to support a totalitarian regime that does not respect the independence of neighbouring countries.
++UPDATE October 2019++
It’s not exactly a visa-free Russia trip, but now e-Visa is available! As of October 2019, you can also apply for a FREE e-Visa to visit St. Petersburg! The Visa is valid for 7 days within a 30-day period for visits to St. Petersburg and the surrounding area. You have to arrive and leave by air, your passport must be valid for 6 months, and you have to be a citizen of the countries specified. You can find the form to apply here. Depending on your nationality, it is now also possible to apply for the e-Visa for the KLAliningrad region and Russia’s Far East.
Booking a Ferry Trip on the St Peter Line for your visa-free Russia trip
Visa-free Russia Entry requirements
You will need a passport which is valid for at least another six months by the time you leave Russia and unrestricted travel in the Schengen Area or a Schengen Multiple-Entry Visa. You will need to arrive either on a St Peter Line vessel, a cruise, or be granted visa-free entry by holding a major sporting event ticket. Being neither a fan of cruises or major sporting events, I chose the first option for my visa-free Russia trip.
Booking St. Peter Line tickets and hotels
I have detailed the booking process for my visa-free Russia trip back in July. To be honest and contrary to several reports by others and reviews on travellers forums, I found booking directly on the St. Peter Line website relatively straightforward. The website isn’t fun to navigate, but booking went through without any glitches.
From the St. Peter Line Website click the “Booking” button in the top right corner, or go directly to their booking site (https://booking.stpeterline.com/touchspl/vx-homeRoundtrip). I do recommend you register for an account – it makes life easier if you have amendments to make later on. Choose your city of departure. Then choose the right menu “One-way Voyages from” , which will take you to a calendar with dates and prices. Put your approximate dates in and choose a date and a cabin and a plethora of add-ons if you wish to do so. However, only the St Petersburg City Tour and the harbour fee are mandatory, as is the hotel booking which you add later in the process. Put the trip in your basket and start planning your return journey by putting in St Petersburg as departure harbour and continue.
I paid with my VISA credit card and was emailed a booking confirmation less than an hour later. The hotel confirmation was emailed to me within 24 hours. Just then I noticed my passport would not be valid for six months at the time of travel. I was out by a few days! Wouldn’t want a slightly out-of date passport to hold up my visa-free Russia trip! I applied for a new passport, and emailed their Customer service my new passport details. The Email I used was firstname.lastname@example.org but you can also contact customer service under email@example.com. The responded so swiftly and updated my passport number. I was deeply impressed.
Boarding in Helsinki
So, a short flight to Helsinki and a bit of sightseeing in Helsinki later, I boarded a tram to the harbour and excitedly got onto my first Russian ferry! Visa-free Russia, here I come! Helsinki has two major ports and the one you need is the Western Terminal 1, or Länsiterminaali 1. Sometimes you come across its Swedish Name Västra Terminalen. Länsiterminaali is the Terminus for both Tram Lines 7 and 6T from the train station or Kampi Central area. Unless the tram is totally full, you will also see the huge painted ferry in the Terminal, indicating to get off! If you miss that stop and go to the terminus, it is a 400m walk or trip on the next tram back. Also, bring some snacks and water! There is only a tiny convenience shop opposite the terminal, better to stop up in town.
First, I had to check in, which, despite almost zero queue, took ages. I suspect some people in front of me had failed to book a hotel through St. Peter Line. Or at least this is what I caught from the lengthy discussion. Yes, it is slightly bothersome to have you choice restricted by the ferry operator, and to pay a mark-up of 10-30% depending on time of booking, but check-in staff in Helsinki will check for a hotel booking! The rest was smooth walking onto the ship. They will give you a departure card and arrival card which you need to keep for immigration procedures, a boarding cars, which serves as your room key and which you will need for several things while onboard, and vouchers if you booked meals.
On the Ferry
The current ferry, the “Princess Anastasia” is a decommissioned Bilbao ferry of the “cruise-ferry” type. Meaning it’s quite a comfortable vessels, but by no means a fancy ship. Although it was refurbished in the early 2000’s I got a certain 1990’s cross-channel party ferry here, although the partying was tame on both my passages. The other travellers… well, I’d say there were a lot of Russians going on Baltic cruises, a fair few Chinese tour groups, and some families and individuals speaking Finnish, English and German. The age was towards 50+, but then, it wasn’t exactly a social happening. I needed earplugs to sleep on the way out, although the ship did not seem busy. Coming back, the ship seemed to be near capacity, but my deck was altogether really quiet.
The ferry had a buffet restaurant, where you have to pre-book, a “fine dining” restaurant, several bars, an information point, ATM for EUROs, a currency exchange office with extremely limited hours, a very small gym and pool, a beauty salon, a cinema, some gambling machines, and a sundeck. All exude a certain 1990’2 vibe and style, but looked clean and tidy.
Most bars will serve food, too. Also note that there are about three tables on the decks you can sit at without going into a gastronomy establishment, where, of course you would be expected to order something. After a 4am start on the way in, I was so knackered by the time I boarded I used the time after departure for a good long sleep, and in St. Petersburg, I spent a lot of time on the outside deck (until sunset), although I briefly considered the bar! If you want a bar seat by a window, be quick though – most were taken by the time we left port.
Well I booked the cheapest cabin available, a Class “B2” and “B2V” cabin. This means it’s a cabin for two people, and always inside, and the “V” indicates the beds are bunks. All cabins have private bathrooms, and whether you get a quiet nights sleep is very much location-dependent.
I was quite pleased to be given a cabin to the bow on Deck 6 both ways – usually corresponding to Cabin Numbers in the low 6000s. This meant not only were they far away from any machines and vibration, but also situated below the buffet restaurant, which closes at 22.00, hence no noise from above either. The walls are thin, so any other noises very much depend on your neighbours.
The state of the cabins themselves was, to be hones,t nicer than any of the cross-channel ferries to the North of England I had the pleasure to travel on in the past five years. The bed was wide enough, on the firm side, and bedlinens were fresh and clean. The bathrooms, although there was a bit of peeling pain in one, was clean and, well, adequate. There was plenty of space for my small suitcase, a small table, places to hand clothes, and a bedside light. As expected, WiFi was pay-only and pricey, and for the majority of the trip, there was no mobile reception
Food on the “Princess Anastasia”
I though I try the food at least once, so, expecting lengthy queues when arriving in St. Petersburg, I booked the “Deluxe” Breakfast so steel myself for hour-long queuing and walking to my hotel in St. Petersburg! The a la carte options I found expensive, looking at about 5EURO for a small beer or a glass of wine, 8-10EURO for a cocktail, 13-20EURO for a main course. They do security screen your things and confiscate water cookers when you board, but nobody bothered with my bag of snacks and bottles of soft drinks upon boarding.
And while the a la carte did not appeal to me at all, it was with great excitement that I went for my Deluxe Breakfast at a nearly deserted New York Restaurant at 7am.
The sun was rising and we started entering the Port of St Petersburg. The prosecco was freshly opened, and there was indeed a very generous bowl of caviar, as well as a great selection of smoked fish, but the rest of the “Deluxe” breakfast was stale bread, fried eggs that looked like they were cooked hours ago, soggy hash browns and terrible coffee. Nothing I would like to repeat, however, looking at the prices in their coffee shop (3 EUROs for a small Americano, 6EURO for a portion of scrambled egg, 3 EURO for a single croissant), I’d still recommend the buffet option if you cannot live without breakfast, as the queues in St.Petersburg are lengthy and it’ll be a while until you get into town.
Visa-free Russia Visa-free Russia Immigration and Arrival in St. Petersburg
Oh, this was fun and really reminded me of crossing borders during Eastern Block times! There is quite good information available at the information desk on where to disembark (Deck4) and when (09:30 for all standard passengers), and they make several announcements about this in the morning. When I sauntered down to Deck 4 just after 09:30, I was met by a rugby scrum of people all trying to pass through the bottleneck that is a tiny open-air gangway, which took about half an hour of standing neck to neck in a grim windowless and airless area, followed by a precarious climb down (best not take that huge suitcase), a short walk into the terminal building and the loooong wait at immigration for us Non-Russians, who presumably were all on a visa-free Russia trip.
It was quite a no-brainer to get to the correct immigration desk. Everything was signposted in English AND there was a lady directing the crowds. Bit of pushing and shoving until one had established themselves in the messy queue, and a very matter-of-fact immigration check which, in my case, took less then a minute.
The compulsory “City Tour” was waiting in the form of a Eastern Block marshrutka. They bundled the few individual tourists up, and within 20minutes of passing immigration I found myself vis-a-vis of the St. Isaacs Cathedral right in the centre!
Now, stupidly I had not changed money or arranged internet on my phone, so summoning a cab was out of question, although the regular cabs usually will take credit card payments. Now the advantage of having central accommodation is obviously that you can walk to it, which I did, thanks to having downloaded offline maps beforehand. Took 20minutes in a drizzly St. Petersburg, and to be honest, nobody at all hassled me for the usual tourist stuff, although I did give Nevsky Prospect a wide berth initially.
I booked the M-Hotel just off Nevsky Prospect on the strength of its good reviews on Booking.com* and its convenient location. I was quite happy with it in general and can wholeheartedly recommend it. It is not going to win prices for its interior design, and this being a mid-range business hotel, it’s probably not the place for romance, either. Its strength really is its location, central yet quiet (in a courtyard), the decent breakfast and super clean rooms. I’ll probably write a separate post on it soon.
Leaving St. Petersburg
On the current timetable, the Princess Anastasia was due to leave St. Petersburg at 19:00, with the last shuttle bus leaving town at 17:00. All I can say is… be there well in advance! I can’t say much about the shuttle bus, because buses 10 and 11 stopped 200m from my hotel on Nevsky and took me right up to the Port , from where it was 200m to the “Morskoy Vokzal” Terminal on Vassilievsky Island, all for the cost of about 0.50 EUROs. The journey takes 30-45minutes depending on traffic. If you take a taxi, specify you want to go to teh St . Peter Line of “Morskoy Vokzal”, which is on Vassilievsky Island. The cruise terminal is somewhere totally different
Having pitched up there just after 16:00, there were huge queues about everywhere! First Check-In, which moved quickly. Then Immigration and boarding, which took ages, but once I was checked in and had spent the last few roubles in the somewhat tacky but very well priced souvenir shop, I joined the passport queue and knew I was going to make it onto the ship. Make sure that you take the check-in documents from the ship as well as the arrival document from immigration, along with the registration slip from the hotel. It was all straightforward if time-consuming due to the extensive form-reading and passport-stamping, then back onto the wobbly gangway and onto the ship!
Is St. Petersburg safe?
From what I experienced, yes, it is! I wasn’t even going to mention this until several warnings from acquaintances that I paid any attention to this, and a quick look at traveller forums indicated that pickpocketing was rife. People reported being distracted by groups of people near St. Isaacs Cathedral and along Nevsky Prospect and central Metro stations, and their valuables stolen. Even in my hotel I was advised not to carry my passport with me but a photocopy because of the pickpocket problem.
The pickpocketing problem
Use some caution around Nevsky Prospect, the Admirality, major cathedrals and the Eremitage, as well as on public transport leading there. Especially given how some people still carry the old wallet quite visibly and as an invite to any crook.
I really relaxed when I sat down in a large cafe on Nevsky and was brought the Russian menu, so I probably looked pretty inconspicuous. I spent a time wandering the less touristed streets of St. Petersburg by myself, including a bus trip into its Southern suburbs. I also walked home by myself from the theatre twice, and never felt unsafe. I used public transport all the time without any issues. On the contrary! Most of the time, I felt safer than in Berlin. Therefore, other applying the usual common sense, carrying a cross-body bag and adapting to local custom (jeans, boots, coats in muted colours), nothing should stop you from going wherever you like.
Can you get by without speaking Russian?
Oh, I think so! I had mandatory Russian classes throughout school, so I read Cyrillic and Greek script and understand a fair bit while now speaking the language at primary school level, which is enough to get by. In the metro and on the major bus lines, there is also Latin script, and on the buses they announce the stations in English if they feel like it. Orientation is quite easy, especially if you use GPS with a map. Almost every tourist place int eh historic centre will have an English menu, and staff in hotels and upmarket shops speak excellent English. All major sites and museums are at least bilingual. ATMs and ticket machines are at least bilingual, some offer German and other languages too.
Some of the more “local” cafes and canteens will also have an English menu and advertise this on their doors. In general, I found the locals friendly and helpful, so even if you don’t speak the language, you’ll feel welcome if not always understood!
Conclusion – is the St Peter Line great for a visa-free Russia trip to St. Petersburg?
Yes, completely! Given the low costs of getting to Helsinki, it was really worth it, even though my total time in St. Petersburg was only 60 hours, considering the ferry schedule. There are disadvantages, such as a 14-hour Baltic sea voyage on a very aged cruise-ferry, high costs on board, and mandatory hotel booking through St.Peter Line at a higher hotel price, but for someone wanting to get a glimpse of this great city, or Russia, this trip offers a great opportunity to do this for relatively little money. The little add-ons like the city tour, the higher price for hotels, food on the ferry will add up to almos the price of a visa. However, given the sleep was good on the ferry, you will also save on two nights accommodation.
It is also a great option if you want to see the cities of the Baltic. You can make your own trip covering Tallinn, Helsinki and Stockholm. I wouldn’t recommend booking the trip as a cruise though. There are already plenty of cruise ship hoardes falling into Tallinn, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. To really appreciate these beautiful cities, consider staying for at least two nights. Getting in and out of St Petersburg is time-consuming, and disembarkation in Tallinn, coming into the Schengen Area- will also take time, giving you no more than 6 hours in Tallinn.
If you want to travel slowly and see all the major sights of St Petersburg and appreciate all the architecture and art, then, by all means, apply for a visa, book a flight and stay a week to ten days.
Cost of the trip
Ferry from Helsinki to St Petersburg and back to Tallinn: 120 EURO (St Peter Line)
Side costs St Peter Line (1 breakfast, mandatory city tour, harbour fees): 70EURO
2 nights in a 3-Star-Hotel (M-Hotel*) in St Petersburg: 170EURO
2 nights in an apartment (Ilmarine Old Tallinn Apartments*) in Tallinn: 68EURO
One-way Ferry Tallinn to Helsinki: 12 EURO (Eckero Line)
Low cost flight from Berlin to Helsinki and back: 70EURO Easyjet)
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links, which are marked with an asterisk (*). I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here. I visted Russia in November 2019. This post was first published in January 2020 and updated on 26. February 2022.