Preparing for Waterways of the Tsars with Viking River Cruises
Russia isn’t easy to visit the way so many countries in Europe are. We would never have tried to navigate Russia on our own. Viking River has had a longstanding (since 1999) presence in Russia. Because we had previously experienced their exceptional level of preparedness and professionalism we felt confident that going with them would be safe, interesting and fun. And it was.
But Viking River can’t do everything for you; you actually need to do your own preparation. Reality bites.
We will share some things which may seem basic but were not done by everyone. If you follow our advice it will improve your experience. (Insert chest bump here.)
Get your visa for Russia as soon as you can
Once you book your trip get started immediately on securing your visa. We can’t say we were surprised that the forms required were somewhat daunting and didn’t give us a warm, welcoming feeling from the Russian government. So we used Generations Visa Services; a company Viking referred us to. It isn’t inexpensive to use them but it did make the process easy. We had the feeling that if we made a mistake on the application we would not get a do-over so decided to pay the premium to be led through the process like children.
You can certainly apply on your own; we have friends who successfully did that (with some attendant anxiety).
Whether you use a service or go the DIY route allow 6 weeks for the process. With expedited service ours came in 4 weeks but you can’t count on that so give yourself plenty of time.
Read the Waterways of the Tsars documents Viking River provides
Yes, we know this sounds suspiciously, in terms of reading excitement, as if we’re telling you to read the owner’s manual for your new refrigerator. But it’s much more interesting reading because it’s about you and your vacation and you need to know these things.
Some things to pay attention to in your documents are the degree of difficulty for various outings. Each one has a D (demanding) M (medium) or E (easy) after it. We had people with severely limited mobility sign up for some of the excursions rated D. They couldn’t do these excursions without significant assistance and Russia doesn’t appear to have made any strides in providing handicapped access. When Viking River says “D” they mean it; don’t over-estimate your abilities or you will compromise your own experience and possibly that of others.
Even the trips rated M needed some fitness. You need to be able to navigate stairs. The two city walking tours we did each involved over 6 miles of walking. This was over many hours and not a forced march and we really enjoyed them. But it would be a good idea to make sure you can handle it before you go. You have our permission to stop reading right here and go for a walk. Just please come back.
Be realistic as to how many activities you can do in one day
With hindsight we recommend going to the city your cruise is departing from (Moscow or St. Petersburg) a couple of days before the cruise begins. Viking River has pre and post cruise extensions that are well worth considering. Going early will give you some time to adjust to jet lag. Then you can be alert and able to make the most of the many fascinating shore excursions which are available when the cruise begins.
We signed up for a day-long private access tour of the Hermitage and the St. Petersburg Ballet on our first day. We are embarrassed to admit it but we nodded off a lot during the ballet. We might have done better, from the perspective of endurance, to have booked the shorter Hermitage tour. (Although seeing the repository of items that are not exhibited and eating in the canteen gave us a smug sense of being in the in-crowd.)
We were off not-so-bright and early the next morning and had to power our way through. One day we had three activities booked. Don’t wear yourself out. Our advice would be to eliminate a palace or a monastery visit as you will have opportunities to see several.
Pack for very changeable weather
The weather in Russia changes faster than Taylor Swift gets new boyfriends.
We had some sunny days of 84+ degrees and we had 57 degrees and heavy rain and wind. Sometimes we had both in a day. The old adage of packing with layers applies more to Russia than perhaps anywhere else we’ve been. Take at least one jacket (with a hood) you’re sure is too warm and you’ll never wear. It may end up being your favorite garment.
Bring an umbrella that is small enough to carry semi-conveniently. Viking River provides umbrellas so you can ignore our advice but their umbrellas are large and a bit much to wield in a crowd (at least if you’re short).
Remember that the weather will also affect your footwear so bring shoes that can handle wet cobblestones and won’t get ruined by rain.
Plan to tip your guides and the ship’s staff
Truthfully we aren’t huge fans of the arbitrary nature of tipping. People need to be able to rely on their income (and we don’t doubt that Viking River compensates competitively). But counting on the kindness of strangers must be a bit nerve-racking.
The staff and guides on our Waterways of the Tsars cruise with Viking River were so above and beyond that they absolutely earned generous tips. The booklet we told you to read has tip guidelines in it. Bring cash for the tips for the guides; you can charge the tips for the staff.
Our hotel manager Karoline Landa had an uncanny ability to be present at all hours making sure everything ran smoothly and it did. (She even provided Blonde with cold medicine.) Karoline was both friendly and professional which can be a hard combo to pull off.
Our guides worked very long days, managed not to lose 32 people making 3 transfers on a crowded, busy subway line and were endless sources of information. Sasha (above) had a sense of humor that caused us to try to get in his group even when we weren’t necessarily supposed to be. The guides also conducted classes on Russian history, the economy and life in Russia as well as learning the language (we failed totally at this).
We travel a ridiculous amount but it’s true to say that The Waterways of the Tsars cruise was unique in terms of changing our perceptions. It proved the over-cited Aldous Huxley quote that “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
Our images of Russia prior to the trip had been very far off the mark (would you expect the Kremlin to be beautiful?) and the people of Russia turned out to be people just getting through their lives the best they can.
This is a culture and history-rich cruise that may challenge your thinking too. We hope so.
Disclosure: We were the guests of Viking River on Waterways of the Tsars. So do you think that influences how much we like them? Of course it does, but all of this information is still accurate.