Posted January 14th, 2018, 04:19 PM
Lets try and make it very clear. (this applies to both Americans and Canadians but we do not know about other nationalities). If you book a Russian tour with a local "licensed" tour provider they will cover your tour(s) under their own Group Visa program. In fact, the savings on not having to obtain your own personal visa will often pay for the tour
. The procedure is that these companies will e-mail you the necessary Visa document..which you must print-out and use to clear Russian Passport Control as you exit the vessel. The Russian authorities will check your documents each and every time you exit the ship. When on a tour, you will be required to stay under the control of your guide (who will only give you very limited on your own freedom). We can personally recommend two local companies, TJ Tours and Alla....and there are other companies that have been recommended on this blog.
There has been some previous problems with a few cruise lines who mislead cruisers into thinking that "only those booking cruise line excursions" can leave the ship...unless they have a personal visa. This is simply not true and seems to be a veiled attempt to get cruisers to book cruise line excursions (which are generally more expensive and crowded when compared to small local group tours). It should also be noted that the local Russian authorities do not give any preference to the cruise ship excursions...although some cruise lines might try to prevent cruisers from going ashore before their own excursions. Our most recent cruise to St Petersburg was on a HAL ship...and to their credit they simply let folks off based on first come first serve (we easily walked off before any of the cruise line excursions). Once in the cruise terminal you simply entered one of the lines to clear Passport control. Local tour guides will meet you in the terminal once you clear Passport Control, or out at the curb (they will e-mail meeting instructions).
On our most recent trip we booked 2 days of tours with TJ Travel. We were grouped with 8 others (total of 10 in our group) and driven around in a very new Mercedes Bus/Van that had 20 seats (2 seats for each of us). Our driver spoke some English and our tour guide was wonderful and a real professional. We actually did not pay for our 2 day tour until the morning of the 2nd day (they accepted US Dollars or major credit cards).
I should add that our 2 full days of touring cost a little more then half the cost of a similar tour from the cruise line. And when DW and I decided we wanted to add another tour (during our evening in port) to go to the ballet, TJ Tours arranged for excellent seats and sent a car/driver to pick us up (after we finished dinner aboard) and drive us to the theater. Our cost for the tickets and private transfer was less than the cruise line charged on a similar tour with a packed large bus group.