St. Petersburg independently and visa-free

By Scott Petoff
This item appears on page 13 of the January 2017 issue.

While planning a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I read Nylah Chilton’s letter about visiting that city for two days with Viking Ocean Cruises and not needing a Russian visa so long as she was on the cruise-tour operator’s organized shore excursions (July ’16, pg. 46). However, my wife and I decided to use a different approach, traveling to St. Petersburg independently by ferry from Helsinki, Finland, and taking advantage of Russia’s 72-hour visa-free rule.

We successfully took that 3-day trip using St. Peter Line (Länsiterminaali, 1st floor, Tyynenmerenkatu 8 00220, Helsinki, Finland; phone +358 9 6187 2000, Our travel dates were Sept. 22-28, 2016, including two nights in Helsinki and the overnights on the ferry to and from St. Petersburg.

From our experience, this is the easiest and only way to visit St. Petersburg without a tour guide and to visit Russia on your own without the cost and hassle of obtaining a visa.* 

The main requirement is booking a “tour” through the ferry line and returning by ferry within 72 hours. The “tour” was actually a shuttle bus that transported passengers from the ferry terminal to the city center and back. Once we were in the city, we were on our own to do as we wished. How awesome is that?!

The full rules for the visa-free ferry are explained on the St. Peter Line website ( One rule is that you must stay within the bounds of the “tour,” which means, for example, that you wouldn’t be able to take a train to Moscow during those 72 hours.

The bus “tour” can be booked directly on the website by following the instructions. The booking process automatically adds the “tour” to your shopping cart at a cost of 25 (near $26.50) per person. (Leave the visa-information field empty as directed.) For both of us, the total cost for the round-trip ferry and “tour” was 198 ($210). 

Keep in mind that with the overnight ferry crossing in both directions, we saved on two nights’ hotel costs. It sounds complicated, but it all worked out without a hitch. 

Do review St. Peter Line’s FAQ and disclaimer pages fully. Also read the firsthand experiences posted on travel forums such as Fodor’s (
) and Frommer’s ( This made us more confident about being able to follow all the rules for the 72-hour visa-free visit.

We flew into Helsinki to visit a friend the day before catching the ferry. We headed to the ferry port two hours before our departure from Helsinki. 

As part of the check-in process at the port, you’ll need to present your passport and show proof of having paid accommodations in St. Petersburg. While you can book a hotel via the ferry line website, we just presented our hotel-booking printout from Expedia (

We had booked a room at the Cronwell Inn Stremyannaya (18, Stremyannaya Str., Saint Petersburg, 191025, Russia; phone +7 812 406  04 50,, near Nevsky Prospekt, for $162 for two nights plus a registration fee of RUB350 (near $6) per guest.

From what I had read online about the visa-free rule, I got the impression that showing proof of a prepaid hotel reservation was ideal, so I purposely chose the pay-in-advance option on Expedia.

For the overnight ferry crossing in each direction, we chose a private cabin with a window. Our crossings in both directions were smooth, and the ship was quiet while sailing. There was a mix of tour groups and individual passengers on board.

On the ferry were restaurants, a casino, shopping and entertainment. As for meals, we didn’t pay for a package in advance and bought food and drinks on board as needed.

St. Peter Line issued boarding cards for the ferry that doubled as our cabin-key cards. They also issued “Arrival” and “Departure” cards, which we needed in order to pass through Immigration control in Russia. 

Upon arriving at the St. Petersburg port, it’s important to line up early at the ferry exit area in order to save time. It took about an hour for us to clear Russian Immigration. Migration cards with our details were printed out and attached to our passports. After our passports were stamped, we could enter the country. 

A shuttle van was waiting outside and, once it was filled up, we were transported to one of the city-center stops. The return shuttle operated on a schedule, departing from the same stops.

Overall, we had an amazing first trip to Russia. I had created our itinerary in advance, planning what we would do each day (with some flexibility). Our “guides” were the ebooks I had purchased and downloaded to my phone: “Rick Steves Snapshot — St. Petersburg, Helsinki & Tallinn” and “Lonely Planet — St Petersburg” (PDF edition). We also used apps from Google Maps, TripAdvisor and Google Translate.

Our visit included stops at the State Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Fortress, Orthodox churches, the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines and the Fabergé Museum, plus an ice hockey game, with lots (and lots) of walking (and eating) each day.

We either walked or took the cheap and simple-to-use Metro everywhere. Unfortunately, the Metro network isn’t so comprehensive, and walking distances can be extremely long between sites and stops, so some visitors may prefer taking taxis.

I didn’t buy any tickets to sites or museums in advance, other than the ice hockey tickets that I bought online when I realized the game was almost sold out. 

Many museums had self-service kiosks that allowed us to choose a button marked “English,” making it easy for us to buy admission tickets with a credit card. (We had notified our bank that we’d be traveling in Russia. All of our transactions were processed successfully.)

I understand the Hermitage can be extremely busy during the summer, but during our late-September visit it wasn’t crowded at all, and neither the city nor the ferry were overflowing with tourists at that time of year. 

In the end, we had almost three full days to explore the sites of this magnificent city.

I do have one warning. We were told that the 72-hour visa-free rule for visiting St. Petersburg is a bit of a loophole, one that could be closed at any time, so there is a risk that something could change between the time you book the ferry and when you take your trip. 



*According to the US Embassy in Moscow, as long as they are on a guided tour, passengers on any international cruise can get the 72-hour visa exception at any Russian port.