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Navigating the seas to Russia

Want to visit Russia? It may not be the easiest place to go, but with a little planning the opportunities are limitless.


View Baltic Capital Cities on darrenesl's travel map.

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The next stop on the itinerary is St. Petersburg, Russia. Growing up during the Cold War, Russia has always been on my must-visit list. Traveling to Russia can be a challenge. There are hurdles in place that one must overcome in order to enter the country for those coming from the United States, there are two basic options.

The first is to obtain a visa.
Entry Visas: To enter Russia for any purpose, a U.S. citizen must possess a valid U.S. passport and a bona fide visa issued by a Russian Embassy or Consulate. It is impossible to obtain an entry visa upon arrival, so travelers must apply for their visas well in advance.

The second available option is through a tour company if you are on a cruise ship.
Cruise ship passengers can currently visit Russia on visa-waiver scheme provided the stop in the port of call doesn't exceed 72 hours and tourists stay overnight on board the cruise ship. Cruise passengers may disembark from the ship without a tourist visa if they participate on tours organized by cruise companies.

The steps to obtaining a via in Russia can be quite lengthy and require a trip to either San Francisco or Washington D.C. The costs is approximately $300USD give or take a bit depending on whether you are wanting to expedite the process or if you have the patience to let the process run its own course.

Our original plan was to get a Russian visa and experience the country on our own; however after weighing the pros and cons of the overall process, we decided to go the route of the organized tour. While the cruise ship always offers shore excursions, the inflated prices and the cattle car experience that is often provided on these tours is not for me.

Looking at other options there are 2 major companies that many past visitors have reviewed and numerous smaller companies that offer similar 1, 2, and 3 day tours in St. Petersburg. Looking at the two major companies, SPB tours is one option and Alla Tours is the other. Both offer similar tours with the groups being maxed out at 16 people, still too big for my taste. So we reached out to both requesting a private tour for six people for two days with a one day trip to Moscow with a group of 16 people in between the two private days.

Alla Tours was by far and beyond the better of the two companies when it came to response, personalized customer service and overall pricing. Because of the high level of service, we decided to go with Alla. Here is a look at what we will be seeing.

22 June 2016 Day 1
8:30 Meet at the ship. City highlights drive tour with short walks and picture stops.
Subway ride.
10:00 - 11:30 Excursion in Yusupov palace incl. Gregory Rasputin exposition
11:30 - 12:00 Travel to Peterhof via hydrofoil.
12:00 - 13:30 Tour of the Lower Fountain Park and Upper gardens.
Lunch time
13:30 - 14:30 Travel to Tsars Village (Tsarskoe Selo)
14:30 - 16:00 Excursion in Catherine palace incl. Amber room and walk through the park
16:00 - 17:00 Travel back to the city
Payment for the tour
17:30 Onboard
19:00 Optional evening program

23 June 2016 Day 2

6:00 Meeting on the pier
6:00 - 6:25 Transfer to the train station.
6:45 - 10:40 Sapsan train to Moscow.
11:00 - 14:30 City introduction tour incl. KGB headquarters.
14:30 - 15:30 Lunch in a local restaurant
15:30 - 17:30 Excursion to the world famous State Tretyakov gallery
17:30 - 18:30 Continuation of city introduction tour with picture stops.
18:30 - 19:00 Tour of subway stations
19:00 - 19:15 Transfer to the train station.
19:45 - 23:30 Travel back to St Petersburg by train.
00:00 Onboard

24 June 2016 Day 3
7:30 Meet at the ship
8:30 - 9:30 Boat ride: City tour from the water angle
9:30 - 12:30 Excursion in Hermitage museum (early entry)
12:30 - 13:30 Lunch time
13:30 - 14:30 Excursion in Church on the Blood
14:30 - 15:30 Excursion in St. Peter and Paul Fortress incl. inside visit to Cathedral
15:30 - 16:30 Excursion in Saint Isaac Cathedral
17:00 Onboard

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Choosing to go to Moscow was a no-brainer for us. The opportunity to see the city that plays such a prominent role in history is one that we just couldn’t miss. One drawback is that the Kremlin is closed on Thursday’s, however a trip to the Tretyakov gallery will help make up for not being able to enter the storied Kremlin.

The great thing about taking a private tour with Alla in St. Petersburg is that we can adjust our schedule as we desire, If we see something we want to go to or would like some more time at a particular attraction, we have that ability.

Have you been to St. Petersburg? Let us know the destinations you loved and any stops we should avoid. We want to hear from you share your comments with us below.

Posted by darrenesl 11:16 Archived in Russia Tagged churches moscow cities st. vacation city cruise holiday petersburg silhouette baltic capitals planning cruising celebrity darrenesl tljohnson tlwforgiven darren_johnson terri_johnson family_vacation 2016 Comments (2)

Taking the Plunge

There comes a time when it gets real, that time has now arrived.


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There is a knot in the stomach, palms are sweaty, it is hard to concentrate and wonderment surrounds. That is the experience that surrounds the moment of no return, that moment when dreams become reality, when there can be no turning back. That is the moment when you actually purchase your airline tickets for the journey.

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Deciding to fly into Warsaw, Poland may have been the easiest part of the decision. What proved to be much more difficult was determining when and where to buy the tickets for our trip. You may wonder why Poland was an easy decision? When we first started discussing a trip to Eastern Europe (Yes, I know it is actually Central Europe, but as an 80's youth, when communism and the cold-war still existed, it was Eastern Europe to millions of Americans, myself included), we looked at tickets to Hungry, Croatia, Czech Republic, and some of the larger Western European countries. The average RT flight from Los Angeles (LAX), California, to the destination cities that I looked at were $1,500USD for airfare in June 2014. However, as we continued looking at the map we decided to check Poland for flights, sure enough $987USD.

Once we discovered the difference in prices, the decision was made. We will fly into Poland and travel via train from there. The whole process seems easy enough, where does the previously mentioned angst come from you ask? Let me tell you, curses on that little "roaming gnome," I mean really does anybody know what he does for Travelocity? Or Hotwire, Kayak, WebJet, Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline, these companies quickly became a thorn in my side.

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All of the companies have handy fare alerts that will tell you when the prices are going up or down, and it is as bad as watching the stock market rise and fall hourly. Really, how often can the airfare rise and fall during a single day? And Orbitz, well, they have all these great fares, but a "this fare is no longer available comes up on all of their lowest flights," what's that all about?

Information abounds about where to get you tickets and when to buy them. We researched and continued to watch the numbers rise, rise some more, and fall a bit. Again, they fluctuate, day-in and day-out. Eventually, you have to take that step and we did. Finding a $1000USD fare among the prices of several others that had now risen to $1100+, it was time to jump.

Yes, I hit that purchase now button and won't be looking back. We will be traveling on Lufthansa from LAX to WAW. That's right it is now official Eastern Europe 2014 is no longer a dream but a reality for Terri and I!

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The stress of choosing a flight is gone, now it is time to plan some activities!

Posted by darrenesl 14:03 Archived in USA Tagged travel vacation eastern austria poland holiday air hungary croatia europe czech republic planning airlines fare Comments (1)

The Planning Stages

Research, Research, Research -- What is important to you?

The research for our trip has begun, as well as the first reservations on where to stay and how we are going to travel. We always begin with a bang and try to have our trips paid off before we go with only the daily activities needing to be paid for upon arrival. The internet has become a travelers best friend and I love the hours of research that become part of my travels.

Living in San Diego, we have decided to fly Los Angeles to Warsaw, Poland as the air travel will be under $1000USD per person as opposed to $1200-1400USD flying into Hungary or Croatia. As a result of the addition of Poland to our trip, we have decided on 21days for this excursion. Look to our last post to see more and also below.

1. Warsaw - 2 days
2. Krakow - 3 - days
3. Budapest - 2- days
4. Zagreb - 2 days
5. Split/Dubrovnik - 4 days
6. Vienna - 3 days
7. Prague - 3 days
8. Warsaw - 2 days

You can follow along with the planning and trip, and many holidays leading up to this event on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/MrDarrenesl/ where I will post videos of what is going on and the thought process leading up to the trip. For now, as always, we look forward to your thoughts and ideas on how to make this trip a success!

Posted by darrenesl 15:36 Archived in USA Tagged travel vacation eastern austria poland holiday hungary croatia europe czech republic planning Comments (0)

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