This might read as a lot of negatives, but we still met some really cool people, which definitely made the issues seem less severe at the time - it was mainly frustrations rather than problems.
We are both keen to go back to Russia, but it is made difficult by the fact you really need to have a "sponsor" to get a visitors visa - which basically means joining a tour, so getting time to yourself for exploring is next to impossible.
- You will have a local guide the entire time you are in Russia. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Bear in mind that they are REQUIRED to talk pretty much constantly while within the city limits, and can be reported if they are seen by another local guide. So take an ipod or similar if you want to really zone out. The strong accents they have can make it easier to ignore them than you would think though.
- A lesson we knew before we left and forgot: If you are taken to a store for souvenirs, dont bother buying from there. It will likely be the most expensive place you see anything you are looking at. However, the one we visited in St Petersburg gave out free vodka and bread, which was wonderful when lunch was delayed by 2 hours for no apparent reason other than our tour guide talking too much.
- We were granted next to no free time in 8 days. A couple of hours each day in St Petersburg, about the same in Novgorod and 45 minutes(ish) at a time in Moscow. This definitely made it difficult to do much exploring!
- The local guides will likely make you a bit scared of the Metro systems. This will exacerbate your inability to go exploring without them.
- The provided meals (and there were a lot of them) were ok, but not fantastic, and in a lot of cases, the quantities were much smaller than we had been used to in Europe. If you find a supermarket or petrol station, stock up on snacks – but bear in mind that the potato chip packets colouring bear no resemblance to what you see anywhere else in the world, and the pictures are not always accurate!
- It can be difficult to get food allergies fully catered to. This is mentioned in the TopDeck brochure, so didn’t come as a surprise – just be aware that if you really are allergic to something, there may be no food available to you at several provided meals.
- All three hotels we stayed in had hot water pipes in the bathroom. In winter, I assume these are wonderful, but in summer they made the rooms swelteringly hot. I think in 7 nights, we didn’t spend a single one with blankets on our beds! They do, of course, make washing undergarments a very quick process, although said laundry may end up a bit cardboard like.
- Take a spare roll of toilet paper in to Russia with you. And then put your “do not disturb” sign up. (the spare roll of loo paper should stop you running out on your 3 night stays if your room is not serviced. And they dont always pay attention to the sign either) One girl in our tour group had her toilet bag unpacked and 50 pound stolen from it.
- Our official Top Deck guide was unenthusiastic to say the least. He openly admitted he did not like doing the Scandi tours, and was only still working for Top Deck for the contacts in preparation for his next adventure. The information he released to us was last-minute and often contradictory to what we had been told 5 minutes earlier. Communication was poor, and we are unsure how much that was due to having to rely on decisions made by the local guide and how much was simply our guide being useless. From what we gathered from people who had been on the long tour, it may have been our guide.
- While our Ballet tickets were half what was suggested in the “Optionals” list (about 40 Euro as opposed to the 70 we were expecting), making them seem like great value, our local guide organised for us to see a ballet school rather than a ballet company, and the difference was obvious. The performance we saw of the Nutcracker was clunky – Mark and I agreed afterwards that we would have been far better off to see the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Unfortunately, we did not find out until we were at the Ballet that this was not a professional company.
- The circus was good fun. It did, however, involve performing animals, which can make some people uncomfortable. Definitely better entertainment value than the ballet.
- Dont bother buying a photography pass at the cultural show. Our group sat right up in the top section, and so long as you take photos without a flash, no-one will notice.
- Intourist, who provide the local guides and make the bulk bookings, take a cut on EVERYTHING. And its a substantial cut. Our Ballet tickets were 1000 Rubles, while most of the rest of the tour group (sitting a few rows back) had 800 Ruble tickets. At proper exchange rates, ours were about 25 Euro. Everyone paid 40 Euro to the tour guide for the tickets.
- If you want to do the Kremlin museums (the Armoury), its worth considering doing them yourself rather than with the tour as an optional. This is simply because it then allows you to set your own time that you go, and spend only the time you want inside, which could leave you with a good chunk more free time that day - allowing a decent time to head out and explore other things like the Dostoyovksy museum, and Victory Park
- Always ensure you take a bag EACH that can be carried over one shoulder and looks like a handbag. Backpacks are not allowed into the Kremlin, or Armoury, and the check-in is small, with a long queue, and you may not have a lot of time to fetch your bag at the end of the visits to these locations. In Moscow, we were out all day, with no backpacks - so my handbag had to carry our water bottles, camera, wallets and warm clothes on the days the weather wasn't so great.
- Tap water is recommended as not drinkable in Russia. In fact, we were told to go so far as not even brushing our teeth in tap water. Thankfully, bottled water is not expensive, even if it feels wrong to be constantly throwing out plastic bottles.