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Russian Cruises: A Guide

There are several types of cruises you can take in your exploration of Russia. There are cultural show-stopping river cruises down the Volga, icy exploration of Russia’s East and Kamchatka coastline, or even the option to spend a few days crossing Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. 

Visiting Russia: Getting there and back again 

Firstly, if you plan on visiting Russia aside from the exact Cruise experience you are on, you will need a tourist visa, which can cover your visit for up to 90 days. Visas are included as part of our cruises so you don’t need to worry. If you have arranged your cruise elsewhere we may still be able to organise the visa for you – the process can be a little tricky to navigate successfully. The visa will need to be applied for in advance, therefore, if you have not booked with us, we advise organising the visa as soon as you have booked your trip.

Secondly, it will also be necessary to plan flights to your starting destination and departing from the end point of the cruise. These are usually different locations. For example, if you were cruising down the Volga River you will probably start in St Petersburg, and fly from your location to Pulkovo Airport, but then your return flight may well be best booked out of Moscow city. 

Choosing a cruise company

First and foremost, try not to get distracted by pretty pictures of interiors of cabins. Ideally, you won’t be spending much time there anyway as you’ll be on excursions or on deck taking in the scenery. Look first and foremost at the itinerary on offer. Avoid any cruise packages that give you only one day in your dream destinations. Many cruises dock in certain cities overnight, which gives you the chance to really explore that location over two days. 

Disembarking at your destination

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Becoming a cruise passenger in Russia gives you a type of automatic visa to be present on the boat for the duration of the cruise, and ‘shore leave’ to visit the destinations you dock at.  Once you are given permission to disembark, getting through the dock migration is usually quick and painless. You will need your passport and ‘shore leave’ certificate. You receive a stamp in your passport and are usually given a receipt. You must keep the receipt safe as you’ll need to hand it back to immigration when you go back to the ship. There is a short queue for security clearance on returning to the ship.

Do I need cash for excursions?

While on the ship, money is not really an issue with most cruises operating on a billing basis. In most locations, it is very easy to simply use your credit card to pay for things and so getting local currency (Roubles) is not vital. However, it is polite to ‘tip’ in Russia, and this is usually done in cash and given directly to the server or driver etc. Tipping is usually between 5-10% of your bill.

Food on Russian cruise ships

Many cruise operators do not openly offer details of the food on offer on the cruises. Most travellers would be excited to try out traditional Russian dishes featuring pickles, stewed fruits, borscht and oily fish. If you have specific dietary requirements, such as gluten free or vegan options, you will be pleased to know that Russia is slowly catching up with the rest of the Europe in terms of food on offer. However, you will want to check with the cruise provider about what sort of food is available. 

As an added bonus, It is usual to get a glass of wine or a shot of vodka with meals. Many cruise ships even offer a sparkling wine with breakfast, just to really make you feel on holiday.

St Petersburg cruises

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It is well worth starting a cruise in the far West of Russia, especially in St Petersburg: the ‘Venice of the North’. It is important to have a cruise that offers more than one day in St Petersburg, or even better, to fly into Pulkovo and have a few days in the city, before embarking on your cruise towards Moscow. The best time to visit is in the summer, as there you can experience the ‘White Nights’ of summer, although be aware that this is also when most cruises occur so it will likely be busy. There are still cruises available outside of the summer season; the upside, there will be less tourists and you may feel more like a regular Russian, the downside, there will be less choice and different climate conditions to contend with.

Volga cruises

Sailing along the Volga River is not only a great way to ensure you visit St Petersburg and Moscow, you also get the chance to take in smaller towns and points of interest along the way. It will give you a chance to see more of Russia than your average tourist visit. If you can afford it, get a cabin with a balcony so you can watch the scenery as you sail. The tempo of a cruise down the Volga is relaxing, but there is also entertainment, such as Russian dancing shows and plenty of excursions to choose from. Cruising offers that perfect mix of busy, but not rushed. 

You can usually take a tour in each small location. It may be good to find out the capacity for those tours as good cruise companies will offer multiple limited capacity groups, so you do not find yourself stuck in a huge crowd. You can of course choose to explore on your own if you are armed with a guide from Lonely Planet. There is always plenty of opportunity to buy tourist souvenirs.

Lake Baikal cruises

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The pearl of Russia, come aboard a Lake Baikal cruise and go beyond the reach of the day-trippers to the wildest corners of its majestic islands, hidden wildlife havens, and sacred cultural sites. In Southern Siberia, it is possible to cruise on Lake Baikal for a few days. The lake is a highly popular Russian tourist destination and is the largest and oldest freshwater Lake in the world. Cruising on Lake Baikal is only possible in the Summer, as for most of the year the lake is frozen over. 

Lake Baikal cruises typically last between 3-6 days. In that time, you will be able to take in Peschanaya Bay, famous for its long sandy beaches and clear shallow water, the Baikal National Park and all its wildlife, and even Olkhon Island with its ancient and sacred shamanic ritual places. 

How fit do I need to be for a Lake Baikal cruise? 

You do have to be fairly active for a Baikal cruise to get the most out of walking the wild landscapes. It would be more accurate to describe these as ‘adventure cruises’. Therefore, you’ll need to be equipped with good walking shoes and of course a fantastic camera. Fishing is a favourite sport for many locals and visitors to the lake, and many cruise ships will have the equipment available for rental. 

Now is the time to visit Lake Baikal as more and more people learn about its incredible wildlife and history, cruises on the lake are increasing in price. Currently, they are very good value for money, but we predict that with more travel influencers showing up in Siberia, it won’t be long before this becomes a more expensive and sought-after destination.

Far East Russian cruises

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These cruises suit people who are looking for true adventure, rarely explored, wild landscapes of natural Arctic beauty that offer a true sense of unseen wilderness. 

The cruise region here stretches from the Japanese Sea of Okhotsk, up the coastline of Kamchatka, Chukotka and remote Siberian islands, across the Bering Sea to the coasts of Alaska. Did you know that only 2 km separate America and Russia at the Bering Strait? Truly this is where East meets West. These areas are remote and uninhabited until relatively recently. Millenia have stood still here, allowing the most truly organic and natural landscapes likely to be seen in the modern world.  

That is not to say there isn’t history. Prehistoric settlements of Inuit peoples have fished this land for tens of thousands of years and there are abandoned villages, fossils and even petrified forests to mark the passing of eons. The natural history of the Pacific Ring of Fire has left its mark in the form of mineral rich volcanic islands, where wildlife exists, unimpeded by human activity. Polar bears, arctic foxes, seals, sea lions and even snow monkeys enjoy the natural habitat in this region. Of course there are also many rare bird species to spot. You will be kept busy on the observation deck and in excursions on a cruise such as this.

How long are Far East Russian cruises?

These cruises are often much longer than inland Russian cruises, taking two to four weeks to traverse over open waters. You will often find that you start and end in different countries and so you must be aware of visas needed for travel in different locations. For Japan, you do not usually need a visa if your stay is less than 90 days, you will need evidence of a return flight ticket, or in this case, a cruise ticket. These restrictions are subject to change in light of international events. In the USA, for tours that end at Alaska, you will need to apply for an ESTA visa in accordance with your own country’s guidelines. Often your cruise provider can arrange these visas within the cruise package, so it is worth contacting them first.

What time of year is best to go on a Far East Russian cruise?

These cruises tend to operate in the late Spring and Summer months, as the winter makes for difficult exploration of this area. Having said that, it will not always be warm, and so it is advisable to pack sturdy walking boots and other waterproof clothing that can brave the elements.

Further Assistance

Real Russia have over 15 years’ experience in the travel industry. Whetehr you are looking for visas, trains, tours or simply have questions before your trip, we are on hand to help.

If you require further help, please see our cruise-related FAQ page for more information or contact our team directly.