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Baltic Cruise info, and general cruise shopping tips
Old 05-18-2017, 11:13 AM   #1
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Baltic Cruise info, and general cruise shopping tips

I'm strongly considering a Baltic cruise next year. I've done a couple cruises before, and have a good idea of the basics, and which ports I'd want to include--St Petersburg and Tallinn for sure, Helsinki and Stockholm likely. I've been to Stockholm before, the only reason it's not on my must-have list.

My son would almost certainly go with me, and since he is working we can't go for too long. Also, I'm probably going to want to do a marathon in the area before the cruise, so once I decide which one, that locks me in on a date and I lose flexibility to take advantage of last minute deals.

I'm not a big fan of the mega ships but could live with it. A smaller ship would be nicer but not at a huge premium. I'd rather not be herded around, especially disembarking at ports. I don't need fine dining and I've never been too keen on shows and other ship entertainment. Really, I'm viewing the ship as a relatively cheap place to sleep and eat in Scandinavia, and a convenient and relaxing way to travel between places. I'm more interested in exploring the port cities than to have a luxurious cruise experience, though of course I don't want a poor cruise either.

A lot of the big ship cruises are pretty long (9 days or more), in part because of the extra sailing to Copenhagen and usually including the Berlin area port. While that might be interesting, I'd be fine with limiting the stops to the four places listed above. I don't really know what his time limitation is, but by the time we include flying and a day or two for a race, we're looking at 2 weeks for that kind of trip, so I know we don't want to get into the 12 day cruises.

I looked a bit at some of the ferries in the area, but I'm getting the impression there are fewer, if any, nights on a ship so you pay for expensive hotels, so I'm not sure we'd come out better that way.

So, to my questions:

- Advice on a shorter cruise that cover more of the eastern ports and less sailing time?

- Best Baltic cruise lines, for a reasonable price? I'm talking like the $1000ish per person range, knowing that shore excursions will drive that up. At first glance, I'm leaning toward NCL, which I've sailed on before in Alaska, but I haven't looked closely at what they include for the price vs what others do. Are there good smaller ships to consider that aren't a whole lot more?

- What's the best way to book a cruise? Are there discount sites, or do you go to the cruise line directly? Repeating myself, I'm not likely to have the flexibility for last minute deals.

- What are the review sites? CruiseCritic.com, others?

Other tips welcome, but hopefully you've read my wants and needs and won't recommend some ship because of the fabulous shows and top notch dining that you enjoyed, price be damned. I'm more of a Rick Steeves type traveler, if that gives you an idea.
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Old 05-18-2017, 01:42 PM   #2
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. Royal Carribean has the Splendor of the Seas doing baltic. That is one of their smaller ships but still very nice . I know Nemo uses Pullmantur cruises which is basically older ships from RCL and Celebrity that have been redone Their cruises tend to be cheap but Nemo enjoys them and he likes basic cruising .Cruise Critic is the main information site for info on cruises .If you go to Vacations to go and put in Baltic , the length and the dates you will get all the cruises that are available .
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Old 05-18-2017, 03:07 PM   #3
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The missus did a Baltic cruise with her family a couple years ago on Holland America. They got a great deal at $800CDN pp for 12 nights. Not sure if they have a shorter cruise you are looking for but I think the line is a good fit. Her cruise had 3 overnights (including Copenhagen and Stockholm) which she though was a bonus because of how expensive the Scandinavian countries are. She thought Holland America was good though it did skew towards an older demographic so things were pretty quiet at night without a lot of entertainment at night. Food was good though.
The missus has also cruised NCL but not in the Baltic. Says it's more casual (ie freestyle cruising) and basic with add-on fees for various things (eg. specialty restos with better menu items, etc).

I want to go on a Baltic cruise with the missus but I'm pretty loyal to X and RCI and their prices are seemingly on the higher end.

Best way to book a cruise IMO is through a big travel agent that specializes in cruises as they likely have more leverage to potentially provide perks like on board credits and slight room category upgrades and know of upcoming sales/deals. No value in going through the cruise lines directly IMO. You can also use something like Cruise Compete where you submit your cruise parameters and TA's come back with competing offers for your booking. We submitted a request a couple of times to get a feel of it but never booked using it though.
You'll likely also see prices fluctuate once within the ~60-90 day final payment date for the cruise.

Best side for cruise info IMO is CruiseCritic though there are some other good sites for other cruise related info like what ships are in port that day, previous cruise daily itinerary sheets, etc. I think you'll get the most bang for you buck info-wise posting in the cruise line specific forums or the actual roll call forums for your specific cruise once you book.
Flyertalk also has a cruising forum but it pales in comparison to CC particular once you stray from the mainstream lines.
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Old 05-18-2017, 03:34 PM   #4
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I have no experience with cruises so I can't speak to that, but I did travel to Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm and Copenhagen last September and I am going again this September.

I found it pretty easy to travel around by way of the overnight ferries, Tallink Silja line between Stockholm and Helsinki, and Tallinn and Stockholm. The ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn only takes 2 hours. We found a nice budget hotel chain, Omena in Helsinki and will stay there again. In Tallinn we stayed at the Tallinn Seaport Hotel which was across the street from the ferry dock and not sleazy and we will stay there again. In Stockholm we stayed at the Ibis Styles Ulriksdal which was 3 train stops from the main station. Out of the 4 cities we visited on that trip Helsinki and Copenhagen were my favorites.

If St. Petersburg is a must see than a cruise ship may be easier due to the Visa requirements for Russia. I think that can take a long time to process.
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Old 05-18-2017, 03:39 PM   #5
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Having been on 2 cruises ( a newbie really ). I have realized what I would LOVE is for a cruise ship to stay at a port for a couple of days when at good locations, so you can go off and see a museum or two, perhaps missing supper and then go back to the ship in the evening or night.

This thing of stop for 8 hours, rush to a tour site, 1.5 hours there, then rush back does not leave time to savor the flavor of the country.
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Old 05-18-2017, 04:03 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by RunningBum View Post
...
- What's the best way to book a cruise? Are there discount sites, or do you go to the cruise line directly? Repeating myself, I'm not likely to have the flexibility for last minute deals.
...
We are not cruise people, but in the Galapagos there is no option. Here is what I did.

I researched the ship operators. All of the travel agencies are selling the same boats and taking a markup. My theory was that my best chance for a discount was to go direct. I then emailed the operator we were most interested in and it went like this:
me/early November (paraphrased): "My wife and I are planning a Galapagos trip for early next year, around the end of January/early February and I am contacting operators to find out what kind of deals might be available."

them: "Blah, blah, blah, .. 10% discount, blah, blah, blah ... "

me: "Thanks but I'm looking for a much better discount than that. I guess I'll just wait until January and ask again."

them (verbatim): "Let me check with our Sales Manager and see if there is anything more we can do for you. I plan to get back to you tomorrow."

them: "40% discount for run of the ship, inside cabin, free upgrade if available."

Conclusion: We negotiated a small upcharge to ensure an outside cabin and did the deal.
YMMV, as this was a 2010 sailing and the industry was hungry. But I still think the best route to buying anything like this is to negotiate with the actual seller and not with an agent. The smaller the operator, the better chance to get a special deal. The hungrier the operator, the better the deal.

Baltic operators might be hungry due to the political uncertainty in the region. I'd check trade press, chat rooms, etc. and try to understand how the operators are feeling. I would also make it clear that you are considering several operators even if you have fallen in love with the one you're negotiating with and aren't considering anyone else. They don't need to know that.
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Old 05-18-2017, 04:51 PM   #7
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First of all, travel throughout Scandiunavia is deadly expensive when you're on the ground. 2 burgers, fries and Cokes at TGI Fridays was $60. By ship is the only way to go.

VacationsToGo.com has virtually every cruise in the world in their elaborate computer system, and that's where we start. I would suggest you go there and do your search by Cruise Regions--and then filter it for the specific month you want to go (June-July or July-August). Click on "Our Starting Price" to get the lowest price cruises--which happen to be the shorter 9 day cruises. Note down the details of the cruise you wish to go on.

We found Ann Kent at Avoya Travel--the other huge cruise specialists--and have been using her services recently. On a later cruise to Greek Isles & Turkey, they'd have been paying us to go if she came up with more freebies. She's fantastic.
https://www.avoyatravel.com/About/IA...T.mc_n=aid4517

While our experience with Norwegian was not optimal, they're using a newer ship in the Baltics now, and new management at Norwegian is shaking things up for the better. They'd be just fine with their 9 day itinerary--up through September 1st. The rains and cold weather come in about then.

The Baltic cruises are simply trips of a lifetime. We loved our 2 days spent in St. Petersburg with an independent tour operation researched on TripAdvisor.com. We paid no deposits, and we settled up at the end of the second day. They even advanced us Russian Rubles if we wanted to buy gifts, etc.--and were fantastic.

We went into Copenhagen 4 days early, and really enjoyed the city. Upon getting off the ship, we flew over to Oslo for a day and then picked up the Norway in a Nutshell train to fast ferry over to Bergen, Norway. And we flew home from there really cheap on Norwegian Air Shuttle to Orlando (thru Oslo).

As very experienced ocean cruisers, we found the Baltic cruises to be a must do for any world traveler. And after our 3rd European cruise in less than 2 years, we really don't care to go on any more Caribbean or Mexican cruises.
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Old 05-18-2017, 05:05 PM   #8
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First of all, travel throughout Scandiunavia is deadly expensive when you're on the ground. 2 burgers, fries and Cokes at TGI Fridays was $60. By ship is the only way to go.
Pullmyfinger seems to say otherwise above.
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Old 05-18-2017, 05:20 PM   #9
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Pullmyfinger seems to say otherwise above.
I do agree that Scandinavia is very expensive, but we are pretty budget travelers. We stay in modest hotels that seem to be frequented by Europeans, get some of our meals from grocery stores (pastries & yogurt for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch), we don't drink alcohol,we are vegetarians, and we don't buy souvenirs. We book our train trips and ferries ahead of time for better rates and we are not staying in a cabin on the ferry with a window. Not everyone is comfortable traveling like this. Out of the 4 cities that we visited on last years trip, of course Tallinn was much less expensive. This year we are also going to Oslo, not looking forward to the prices there.
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Old 05-18-2017, 08:55 PM   #10
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We flew into Copenhagen and spent 5 days there before taking train to Stockholm and doing RC Splendor of the Seas Stockholm-Helsinki-St Petersburg- Tallinn-Riga-Stockholm and ended with 5 days in Stockholm. We did this July 2015.

It was a great trip. I might have been happier with a smaller ship as much of the activity available on the fairly large SofS was lost on me. We had a fabulous guide for the 2 full days in St Petersburg which made that the best part of the trip. Helsinki was the least interesting city but only a day there. I would have liked more time in Riga and Tallinn. We are fairly budget minced travelers and found it pretty easy to stretch dollars in both Stockholm and Copenhagen. Smallish mid-range hotels that had excellent breakfasts. Found Denmark and Sweden less expensive than the UK where DW was born and we spend a fair amount of time as she still has family there. We will definitely go back again but are less likely to do it as a cruise and more likely to spend more time in each city and use the ferries as described by others.
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Old 05-19-2017, 10:18 AM   #11
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St Petersburg does not require a visa if you go on a cruise line sanctioned excursion with an approved Russian tour guide. If you plan to sight see on your own, you'll need a visa.
We're leaving on a Celebrity Baltic cruise next month, but also enjoy the cruise experience, so we're splurging on a suite for this cruise.
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Old 05-19-2017, 10:40 AM   #12
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I found in another thread that you don't have to use the cruise excursion, as long as it is with an approved tour guide. https://www.denrus.ru/excursions/sai...tersburg-tour/ was the one recommended. At some point I'll look closer at this to make sure.


Thanks for all the feedback, keep it coming!
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Old 05-19-2017, 11:17 AM   #13
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I found in another thread that you don't have to use the cruise excursion, as long as it is with an approved tour guide. https://www.denrus.ru/excursions/sai...tersburg-tour/ was the one recommended. At some point I'll look closer at this to make sure.


Thanks for all the feedback, keep it coming!
We used Denrus during our Baltic cruise, and they were terrific. We took their two day tour, plus a ballet performance add-on in the PM of Day one. The hardest part of touring with a private tour operator vs cruise operator was the need to 'sneak' off the ship in the midst of the cruise excursion groups, in order to get through customs in the early AM. It was stressful. It may be less of an issue today with the new, more tourist oriented cruise terminal. When we went, there was just one customs desk, with a long slow line to clear it.

This was a non-issue on Day Two, BTW. We just walked through and off with no problem/lines.

I loved our Baltic Cruise, and I know I give a lot of referrals for Rick Steves travel books, but his Scandinavia tour book is geared specifically to Baltic cruises, and it is terrific. We walked off the ship on our own in every port (other than Russia's St. Petersburg, where we took a private tour for Visa reasons), and used his book to take terrific self-guided walking tours to the majority of the points of interest, to determine with sights to see (and when) and to find great eateries in every price point. I remember most vividly the books recommendation to walk downstairs into the basement of the otherwise out-of-this-world expensive Nordiska dept store in Stockholm, Sweden, where we would find uber-affordable designer Merimekko . . . paper napkins. What fun to find something we could afford and bring home to friends in otherwise un-affordable Stockholm. Good memories.
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Old 05-19-2017, 11:35 AM   #14
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Rick Steves also has a Northern European Cruise Ports book which seems even more targeted towards a Baltic cruise, might that be the one you used? Or maybe it's a newer version of Scandinavia specifically geared toward cruisers?
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Old 05-19-2017, 01:38 PM   #15
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There are more than 50 St. Petersburg tour operations taking cruise ship customers throughout the area. And they all do a great job.

What's nice is that these operations are using 15 passenger Mercedes vans that can make it down alleys and back streets. They get you into the Hermitage and other great travel sights earlier than the full size buses that cruise lines' tours use. That way, lines are avoided.
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Old 05-19-2017, 01:59 PM   #16
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I do agree that Scandinavia is very expensive, but we are pretty budget travelers. We stay in modest hotels that seem to be frequented by Europeans, get some of our meals from grocery stores (pastries & yogurt for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch), we don't drink alcohol,we are vegetarians, and we don't buy souvenirs. We book our train trips and ferries ahead of time for better rates and we are not staying in a cabin on the ferry with a window. Not everyone is comfortable traveling like this. Out of the 4 cities that we visited on last years trip, of course Tallinn was much less expensive. This year we are also going to Oslo, not looking forward to the prices there.
In Norway, there are hotels which will also include buffet breakfasts and dinner.

Not the best quality food but it saves money, better than fast food.

And actually, the hotel chain (name escapes me) has hotels with some of the best locations in Oslo, Bergen and Alesund. Good quality hotels too.

Found good rates for these on booking.com.
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Old 05-19-2017, 09:20 PM   #17
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Rick Steves also has a Northern European Cruise Ports book which seems even more targeted towards a Baltic cruise, might that be the one you used? Or maybe it's a newer version of Scandinavia specifically geared toward cruisers?
I have the Rick Steves Scandinavia book and while it is not targeted specifically to cruisers it has information about where the ferries and cruise ships dock. I highly recommend this book whether you are traveling on your own or taking a cruise. It also has a section on Tallinn and St. Petersburg.
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Old 05-19-2017, 09:30 PM   #18
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Helsinki was the least interesting city but only a day there.
I just have to put in a plug for Helsinki. If you have good weather I highly recommend taking the short but beautiful ferry ride to the Suomenlinna Fortress. It is a world heritiage site and it is stunning! Helsinki was such a pleasant surprise for me. I loved the beautiful buildings, nice pedestrian streets and the Russian flavor of the city. Last fall when we went there for the first time we only spent 1 night there before heading off to Tallinn, this upcoming trip we will spend 3 nights there. I saw the tour buses dropping people off at the sites but I think this city is best appreciated while walking. IMHO this city is quite underrated.
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Old 05-20-2017, 06:58 AM   #19
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Another +1 for Helsinki - good beer good coffee nice people - just walk around and enjoy.

You will be greeted with "Hey" most of the time which is really Hei or hello in Finnish - at first I thought they were just being English friendly!
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Old 05-25-2017, 10:06 AM   #20
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DW and I did a Baltic Sea cruise in 2010 with Cruise West (no longer in business). We enjoyed it a lot. I was the "guest blogger" for that cruise and you can find my writeup here

I do recommend a small-ship cruise, even though it is more expensive than the floating cities - you'll have a much more personal experience.
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