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Tips for organizing group travel in St. Petersburg

Before planning a group tour to St. Petersburg, it's worth considering the following tips and recommendations, which are based on feedback from travel groups as well as our local experts' in-depth knowledge of St. Petersburg specifics and many years of experience organizing group travel in the city.

Tips for organizing group travel in St. Petersburg

The tips below should be helpful both in making arrangements for a travel group to St. Petersburg, and in giving advice and orientation to group members. In fact, we strongly recommend that the organizer for any travel group finds the time either before departure or on arrival in St. Petersburg to hold a short presentation or orientation session with the group in order to impart vital information about the city and travelling in Russia. As a rule, travelers in an organized group are much less likely to have done significant research of their own before travelling, and so may well have gaps in their knowledge or inaccurate expectations.

Choosing a hotel

At Saint-Petersburg.Com, we can provide you with considerable assistance in finding a suitable St. Petersburg hotel for your group, and in negotiating the best possible rates on your behalf. You can also find our recommendations for the best St. Petersburg hotels for travel groups here. Whether you choose to consult with us or not, there are a few specific aspects of hotel accommodation for groups in St. Petersburg that bear consideration.

1. Calculating price: When calculating and comparing the prices of hotel accommodation for your group, you should always remember to check whether the following are included in the quoted rate or not:

  • Porter services for your group on arrival and departure
  • Breakfast
  • Visa registration

2. Parking: If your group is more than five people, you will almost certainly need to check that there is space near the hotel for buses to park conveniently. Not all St. Petersburg hotels, especially in the city centre, have the necessary facilities for a full-size bus to park legally within a comfortably accessible distance of the hotel entrance. This can cause considerable difficulty and discomfort for your group, especially if not all of them are young and active.

3. Internet: Your group will probably expect to have Internet access at their hotel free-of-charge. While this increasingly the case in most St. Petersburg hotels, it is far from guaranteed, and there is a danger that wifi coverage will be poor (in cheaper and smaller hotels) or very expensive to use (even in some of the city's best 4-star and 5-star hotels). Particularly if you are making arrangements for a business group, it definitely pays to check before booking.

Arrivals and transfers

Whether a group arrives in St. Petersburg by plane, train, boat (river or sea) or bus, the first impressions of the city and of the quality of organization make a huge difference to visitors' overall enjoyment of their trip. Any mishaps or mistakes at this stage can cast a cloud over the whole tour, so its extremely important to make sure the first meeting goes smoothly.

In our experience a few simple steps can be taken to minimize the risk of unnecessary inconvenience:

1. Welcome boards: If your group is being met by a driver or representative of the welcoming party, ensure that the group know in advance what will be written on the welcome board (name of the group, the travel agency, etc.). Ensure that this is clearly agreed with the welcoming party beforehand.

2. Contact with the welcoming party: In case there are any delays or other problems, ensure that the responsible person traveling with the group (the group leader) has exchanged mobile phone numbers with the welcoming party representative. The group leader should also not forget to turn their phone on as soon as they land, and immediately check that they are getting network coverage.

3. Migration Cards: The group leader should reiterate to all the group before they go through Russian immigration the importance of their Migration Cards. It is vital these documents are not lost during the visit, so group members should be urged to keep them secured along with their passport. If you are not arriving by air, then group members may have to fill out their Migration Cards themselves, in which case it is worth having a few extra pens with you.

4. Assistance with luggage: Unless specifically arranged in advance, the welcoming party (tour guide or driver) should not be expected to help group members carry their luggage. Finding porters at transport terminals can take time (and extended negotiations), so if you think your group will need assistance with luggage, you should be sure to make us or the welcoming party aware of this in advance. If your group is staying in a hotel, then assistance with luggage will almost certainly be provided by hotel staff, but again it pays to confirm this in advance. It is customary to give a small tip to hotel staff who assist with luggage.

5. Check-in and registration: The check-in procedure will vary from hotel to hotel, but it is always useful if the group leader has a few copies of a rooming list (a list of group members and the rooms they will be occupying). In order for their visas to be registered, group members will have to entrust their passports (and Migration Cards) to the hotel's reception staff for a short period. It is best if the group leader takes responsibility for gathering all passports, handing them over to the reception staff, and arranging to pick them up and redistribute them to the group.

6. Contact details for hotel staff: Particularly with larger groups, it is always helpful if the hotel staff are able to contact the group leader and/or the welcoming party representative (if the group will have the same guide throughout their stay). Mobile phone numbers can be provided to the reception staff at check-in.

Arranging visas for groups

The citizens of most countries still need a visa to enter the Russian Federation, and visas must be obtained from a Russian consular department or visa center before departure. For full information on who does and doesn't need a Russian visa, and how they can be obtained, please read our Russian visa guide. Below, however, are few issues connected to visas that are particularly important when arranging group travel.

1. Visa-free ferry tours: If you are looking to bring a travel group to St. Petersburg for a few days only, it is possible to visit the city visa-free for up to 72 hours, provided that you arrive from Helsinki and depart for Helsinki or Tallinn by St. Peter Line ferry. This is a great opportunity to see St. Petersburg in combination with its northern neighbours, and with none of the hassle involved with obtaining visas.

2. Visa support: This is the generic term for the documents required to apply for a Russian visa. The vast majority of travel groups will be applying for Russian Tourist Visas, valid for up to 30 days, so visa support in this case means a Tourist Voucher and Tourist Confirmation, official forms that confirm you have accommodation booked for your stay in Russia. For most nationalities, faxed or scanned copies of these documents are sufficient to apply for a Russian Visa, but some in some Asian and African countries you will be asked to provide the original documents, so check with your nearest Russian consular department before you begin the application process.

Nearly all hotels will nowadays provide these documents when you book accommodation. If you book with SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM, we also provide visa support free-of-charge for all our clients, and offer the advantage of providing visa support documents that cover your whole stay in Russia, whether or not you remain in the same accommodation, or even the same city, for the whole period.

3. Requirements for Russian visas: If members of your group are of different nationalities, you will need to confirm that the same visa regulations apply for all, and that all members of your group can obtain Russian visas in the country where they are applying (the normal rule is that you have to be officially resident in a country for at least three or six months in order to apply for a Russian visa there). The other vital requirements are that all passports be valid for at least six months after the proposed departure date of your group from Russia, and that all passports have at least two blank pages.

4. Applying in person for Russian visas: Unfortunately, due to new regulations introduced in December 2014, citizens of the United Kingdom and of Denmark must now visit their nearest Russian visa center in person, where they will have to give their fingerprints in order to apply for a Russian visa. In other words, you can no longer submit applications on behalf of group members or use an agency to obtain Russian visas for your group.

Money and currency questions

Travellers who have not visited Russia before, or have not visited the country for a few years, are almost certain to have questions about money and currency. Below are a few simple tips you can give to the members of your group to make sure they have minimal trouble obtaining and using money while in St. Petersburg.

1. Valid currency: It is now well over a decade since it has been possible for travelers to pay for anything in Russia in any currency other than rubles. Nonetheless, many travelers still expect to be able to pay in dollars or euros, so it is worth reiterating to your group that this is never possible.

2. Using credit and debit cards: Withdrawing cash from an ATM with your credit or debit card is now easy to do anywhere in St. Petersburg and throughout Russia, and is normally the simplest way for travelers to get rubles. Paying by card, however, is not always as straightforward. Hotels, supermarkets and large stores, and major restaurants, cafes and bars should all accept card payments. However, smaller establishments in many cases still do not, and this becomes increasingly true when you travel out of major cities. Even when an establishment advertises card payments, the system may not always work, so it is worth advising members of your group always to carry some cash just in case. They should also know that it may be necessary to show a passport to confirm identification when paying by card.

3. Exchanging currency: It is possible to buy rubles in currency exchange offices all over the world, so members of your group that prefer to carry cash may wish to buy some of the Russian currency before they depart. However, the retail exchange market in Russia is one of the most competitive in the world, so exchange rates are nearly always more attractive at Russian exchange offices. While the number of exchange offices has decreased in recent years, there are still several that are easy to find in the city centre, and all major banks also offer exchange services. While it is theoretically possible to exchange almost any currency in St. Petersburg, the vast majority of exchange offices deal only with Euros and US Dollars, and these are the currencies for which attractive rates will be available. When exchanging currency, you will again have to show your passport.

Tipping

Members of your group may well have questions about the customs for tipping in Russia. While there are really no hard-and-fast rules, the following advice should prove helpful:

1. Tipping in restaurants: Tipping is not universal in Russia but if you are in an establishment where there is table service it is increasingly the norm, especially in the sort of restaurants and bars that foreign travellers are likely to visit. A tip of 10-15% is standard, and leaving less or not tipping will be interpreted as a sign of dissatisfaction with the service. Tips should always be left in cash, as there is not normally the option to add a tip to the bill when paying by card. An automatic service charge in the French manner is almost unheard of in Russia. If you are expecting change, then be sure to leave the folder with the bill and your money on the table, rather than handing it to your waiter or waitress, as this may be read as a sign that you are leaving them the whole sum.

2. Tipping drivers: If you are taking a taxi or transfer, then tipping the driver is never essential, but is certainly a welcome way of showing your appreciation for good service (this does not apply, of course, if you agree a price for a journey directly with the driver). If, with a pre-arranged transfer or hotel taxi, you are paying a fixed fee for the journey, then an extra 10% tip is more than sufficient. If you are using a taxi with a meter, then rounding up to the nearest hundred rubles is common practice. If you wish to tip the driver who is transporting your group, whether to/from the airport or on excursions, it is best if this is done once via the group leader, either at the end of the journey or on the final day if you have the same driver for more than one day of your visit.

3. Tipping guides: As tour guides work almost exclusively with foreign travelers, they have become used to receiving tips. Not leaving a tip with your tour guide will be seen as a sign of dissatisfaction with the service you receive. However, a tip to your guide is more like a present than a purely financial consideration, and the amount you leave as a tip can vary considerably. If you are working with the same guide for several days, you are best off waiting till the end of the visit and gathering together contributions from the whole group to present to the guide as a single token of their appreciation. If you have a particularly good relationship with the guide, you may even feel that an actual gift is a better way to show your appreciation than simply money (this may particularly be the case with elite guides whose rates mean that they are unlikely to be in need of the extra cash).

Languages and communication

It is useful for you and your group to have realistic expectations for how easy it will be to communicate with locals in St. Petersburg. This is especially important for the untimetabled periods of your visit, when the group is around town and not in the company of a tour guide or interpreter.

1. Foreign languages in the general population: While nearly all Russians study a foreign language at school and university (English in most cases), the standard of education has traditionally not been high. The situation is improving all the time, but even so you can still not expect Russian adults to have any more than a basic knowledge of English, and other second languages are much rarer. On the street, on public transport, or in the majority of shops, you should not expect to be able to communicate freely unless you speak Russian.

2. Foreign languages in hotels: As you would expect, the vast majority of hotels in St. Petersburg ensure that they have staff who can communicate fluently in foreign languages. However, you should bear in mind that the range of languages and the number of staff who speak a foreign language will vary considerably. In 5-star hotels, for example, you can expect nearly all the staff, including wait staff and cleaning staff, to speak reasonable English, and other European languages such as German, French and Spanish to be spoken by at least one or two of the staff at reception. At lower-cost hotels, it may well be the case that only reception staff speak English, and that service in other languages is not available. The cheapest hotels in the city are often designed to cater only to Russian travelers, and have no facilities to serve non-Russian speaking guests. This is one of many reasons why it may not be advisable to go for the very cheapest accommodation options for your group.

3. Languages for sightseeing: Some travel organizers are tempted, as a way of economizing, to book guided tours in Russian and then let the group leader translate into the group's language. While this may occasionally be the only way to conduct a tour (if your group's native language is rare enough in Russia not to be spoken by any tour guides), it is rarely a satisfactory arrangement, entailing considerable delays, obliging the tour guide to limit the information they can pass on to the group, and significantly decreasing the chances that the group will be enthused and entertained by the tour. If this situation can be avoided, we strongly advise doing so.

4. Languages in restaurants: You should always confirm in advance if the restaurant you wish to book for your group can serve non-Russian speakers. Many St. Petersburg restaurants do have menus in English (other languages are a rarity), but wait staff guaranteed to speak English or other foreign languages are much less common. To find out where your group can get full service in English or other languages, you can consult with our staff or contact restaurants that spark your interest directly by phone.

Safety and crime

St. Petersburg is on the whole a safe city for visitors, particularly in terms of crimes against tourists. However, first-time visitors to St. Petersburg (and Russia in general) often feel less secure than they do in other big European cities, despite the lack of any tangible risk. To reassure members of your group, it is worth stressing that levels of street crime are in fact exceptionally low, and also suggesting a few simple precautions to minimize the risk of any of your group falling victim to criminals.

1. Beware of pickpockets: The incidence of pickpocketing in St. Petersburg has decreased dramatically in the last few years, but if anyone is in danger of being targeted it is groups of foreign tourists, particularly on public transport or in crowds near major visitor attractions. The main preventative measure you can take is to ensure that all valuables (especially smart phones, passports and large sums of money) are carefully secured in a fastened inside pocket. If you are carrying a bag or camera, make sure that when in crowds you keep it in front of you and hold on tightly. If you do feel that you are being surrounded and restrained by people in the crowd (the traditional technique for this type of theft in St. Petersburg), keep a hold of your belongings and make plenty of noise.

2. Caution with alcohol: The vast majority of victims of crime among foreign travellers in St. Petersburg are young visitors (especially young men) who have drunk too much. St. Petersburg has a very active nightlife scene, particularly in summer, and the local youth are generally very friendly and open to new people. However, being drunk in public, especially when on your own, not only makes you a conspicuous target for robbery or worse, it can also get you into serious trouble with the local police. If members of your group are planning to go out late in the evening, it is best to ensure that they stay together, and that they arrange in advance for a respectable taxi home (either via your hotel or from a reputable cab company).

4. Reporting crime: If any members of your group are robbed during their visit, you will almost certainly need to inform the police for insurance purposes at least. You can do this at any police precinct in the city, but you will need someone who speaks Russian to help you. You can ask at your hotel for assistance, ask your tour guide (although you should not expect this type of assistance without extra payment) or, if you book group travel with SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM, contact us by phone (+7-812-380-2478) or email for assistance.

Health and medicine

When making travel arrangements for a group in St. Petersburg, you automatically assume some of the responsibility for their health and wellbeing during their visit. Unfortunately, simply ensuring that all the group has valid travel insurance is not always enough. Here are a few suggestions for advice you can give to your group and preparations you can make as an organizer to minimize the risk of discomfort or difficulty for the travellers in your group. Extra attention should, of course, be paid to matters of healthcare and medicine if you are arranging travel for more elderly travellers or other at-risk groups.

1. Travel insurance: All visitors to Russia should have valid travel insurance for their trip. In most cases, this is a necessity in order to obtain a visa, but even if not (some countries, such as the UK, have reciprocal arrangements in place that technically invalidate the requirement) it is still highly recommended. It also pays to look carefully at what exactly is covered by individual insurance policies. The cheaper, non-specialist forms of travel insurance most commonly expect the traveler to pay for medical care while abroad, and then claim back for all or part of their expenses once they have returned home. In Russia, where the healthcare system is a dysfunctional hybrid of state and private services, this type of insurance works fine if you merely need to visit a doctor and buy medication, but can leave the traveler seriously out of pocket if they are hospitalized or require other more extensive medical treatment.

As a travel organizer for a group, you will need to decide whether to arrange insurance for the group yourself, or leave the group to rely on their own individual policies. If you are organizing higher-cost, more luxurious travel for your group and wish to ensure that any health problems can be dealt with with minimal discomfort or risk of exposure for your clients to the more unsavoury parts of the Russian state healthcare system, you will need to arrange policies that cover care provided by one of the two or three top private hospitals/medical centres in St. Petersburg.

2. Getting medical treatment: If one of your group does fall ill or is injured during their visit to St. Petersburg, then depending on the seriousness of the complaint and the type of insurance they have, you will have a variety of options as to how to get medical treatment. If insurance gives them access to a good private hospital, then this should always be your first recourse no matter what the complaint. If you are staying at large hotel (5-star and some 4-star) with its own doctor, then more minor complaints can be addressed to them and it makes sense to consult with them even on more serious matters for recommendations where to go for more extensive care. If you do have to call the state ambulance service in emergency, you will have no choice as to where the traveler is taken, and your main concern should be to find a Russian-speaker who can help you to ensure the patient is receiving reasonable care and understands what is happening. This could be your tour guide (although you should expect to pay extra for their time) or, if you book group travel through SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM, you can contact our office by phone (+7-812-380-2478) or email to find out how our staff can help.

3. Medication: Pharmacists are almost as common as convenience stores in St. Petersburg, and many are open 24-hour, so finding basic medication should be no problem. Most pharmacists are very lax about checking prescriptions, however, and this has lead to the Russian Government banning numerous medicines (particularly antidepressants and more powerful pain medication) that are widely available in Europe and North America. Members of your travel group should be made aware before departure both that they may have problems finding needed medication in Russia, and that they may have problems bringing their prescription medication into Russia if checked at customs. If you are booking group travel with SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM, you can send us a list of prescriptions for your group, and we will check for you whether or not the medications are legal and/or easily available in St. Petersburg.

4. Drinking water: Water purification has supposedly improved considerably in recent years in St. Petersburg, and much of the city's water supply is now clean at source. Nonetheless, the network of water pipes throughout the city is exceptionally antiquated. This leads both to discolored water coming from the taps in many buildings (this may be the case in some rental apartments and less expensive hotels) and also to quite high concentrations of heavy metals in tap water. For this reason, travelers are always advised only to drink bottled water, which is cheap and readily available in all convenience stores, and you should make sure that your group is aware of this.

5. Inoculations: There are no specific inoculations or vaccinations recommended to travelers visiting St. Petersburg. However, if you are visiting the countryside around St. Petersburg in summer for any type of outdoor activities, it is worth considering getting vaccinations against tick-borne encephalitis, as encephalitic ticks are increasingly common across Northern Russia and Scandinavia, and any of your group bitten by a tick during their visit will require urgent medical attention.

Travelling by train

Russian trains generally hold a certain romantic fascination for travellers, and if you are organizing a group tour that combines St. Petersburg with Moscow (or any other city in European Russia), train travel is likely to be the preferred option for transporting your group.

1. High-speed trains: There are now high-speed services between St. Petersburg and Moscow ("Sapsan") and between Helsinki and St. Petersburg ("Allegro"). These are modern, German-built express trains providing comfortable and speedy transit between cities in two classes. The difference between classes is mainly in that first class offers larger, more widely-spaced seats. Tickets are relatively expensive, and the other disadvantage of high-speed trains is that all services run during the day, which means that time on your itinerary for sightseeing is reduced by half a day at least.

2. Overnight trains: The overnight train service between St. Petersburg and Moscow is probably the best way to transfer your group from one city to the other. Not only is there considerable romanticism and charm connected with Russian sleeper trains, enough to make this a genuine travel experience in its own right, it is also a good way to save time (by not taking half a day out of your itinerary for travelling) and money (by saving on one night's accommodation). You will want to ensure, however, that the train you book is one of the more luxurious "specials", rather than a more basic, slower train (there are very few of the latter now running between Moscow and St. Petersburg), and you will have to decide whether to book first-class or second-class berths for your group. The main difference is that in first-class carriages, the compartments have only two berths, while in second-class carriages there are four people to a compartment. Price-wise, second-class tickets are nearly always 20-30% cheaper than tickets on high-speed trains, while first-class tickets are about 20-30% more expensive. Third-class open carriages are increasingly rare on the Moscow-St. Petersburg route, and are definitely not recommended for foreign travelers unless your group is on an exceptionally tight budget. At SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM we are always happy to provide advice and assistance booking train tickets.

3. Suburban trains: There are suburban train services that run throughout the Leningrad Region, including to major visitor attractions such as Tsarskoye Selo and Petergof. However, we would not generally recommend this as a way of travelling for foreign visitors, as the trains are very basic, can be extremely hot and crowded in summer, and are usually considerably slower than road transport. The possible exception is the express train to Vyborg, which is probably the best way to reach the city if you are considering it for a day trip.

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