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Comparing SPB & Alla Tours in St. Petersburg


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We booked a 2 day Deluxe private tour (group of 4) with SPB in St Petersburg, for June 7 and 8. We also did the Russian Folklore evening option on the first day. We were on the NCL Star.

 

These comments are for those who may be considering booking a private tour vs. SPB's 'group' tour.

 

In the past, we have booked private tours in order to avoid the pitfalls of large tour groups (large buses, 35+ people in the group, stragglers, personalized attention and itinerary, etc). This was some of our rationale for booking a private tour in St Petersburg, given the intensive 2 day itinerary. However, having just experienced this with SPB, and observing their operation first hand, I am not so sure we would pay the extra money for a private SPB tour if we were to do it again.

 

First of all, SPB's maximum group size is only 16 people. They use easily accessible mini buses, not large coaches. This is stated on their website, but it helps to observe the operation in person to see how it works. At most of our stops on the tour, we would encounter other SPB groups. The 16 person groups seemed to be getting in and out of places just as easily as our group of 4 in our mini van.

 

Another point is the 16 person groups used audio headsets. This allows each tour participant to clearly hear the guide at all times. Our small private tour did not have headsets. We frequently had difficulty hearing our guide in crowded situations. (Yes, you will definitely encounter large crowds at the venues!). We also had to wait until all 4 of us were closely gathered around our guide before she could begin speaking. With the audio headsets, the group might not all be together, yet the guide is able to continually address the group.

 

In our small group of 4, we did enjoy the flexibility of shifting around the order of what we saw at venues based on crowds. However, I imagine this would also be the case even with a group of 16.

 

We did have one customization for our itinerary... we went inside the palace at Peterhof, and as a result had to eliminate the hydrofoil ride. I suspect that doing a private tour is the only way to accomplish customized itineraries, so that is one reason why one might be compelled to do the private option vs. the group option.

 

Just wanted to share these comments for those considering a private tour. Happy to answer any questions anyone may have.

 

ps - wanted to add that regardless of the private vs. group tour issue, SPB did a fine job. We really enjoyed our very active 2 days in St Petersburg!

Edited by RJ2002
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i agree,getting 16 of us in and out of places was always very quick, loo breaks quickly done (with 8 men and 8 women) and no real delays.

 

I liked the Audio thing we had, meant i could have a sit down at times or look at something else in a room and still hear stuff and know when we were moving rooms.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just a comment on using Trip Advisor for reviews. I would skip any that are written by "one-post wonders." I am currently at the point where I often only read the ones by people who have written 20+ reviews. There are way too many reviews on TA where the poster joined TA, wrote one review, and never appeared again. Lots of red flags.

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Getting through Russian Immigration was tedious and we could only be thankful that our cruise ship was the only one in port. Our group was an hour late in starting the tour program. The tourist experience in St. Petersburg was outstanding and regardless of which tour operator was selected the vast majority of the tourists have been very positive in their reviews. Our tour guide was a walking encyclopedia and was able to answer our many questions. She explained that tour guides have to pass a qualifying examination to become certified and that certification is issued separately for each individual tourist site. Accordingly, in the Hermitage, our guide was able to give us the art world’s official opinion on the work of a famous painter, not only on its history but also on minutia such as the brushstrokes, use of color, focal point and whatever else that made the painting famous. The information provided at other sites was equally detailed such as pointing out the location and circumstances causing the blood of Alexander II to be spilled at the Cathedral of the Savior, or the reasons for the placements of the tombs of the Romanov czars in the Peter and Paul Fortress, or the nature and quality of the materials in the Amber Room in Catherine Palace, or the source of the water feeding the fountains of Peterhof Palace, or the items in St Isaac’s Cathedral that the Soviets covered up or left exposed in the 1930s to promote their anti-religious agenda, or how and why Rasputin was lured to his death in the cellar of Yusopov Palace. When this wealth of information gained through scholarly training is coupled with the overwhelming visual experience afforded by the impressive sites, historically and architecturally, it is no wonder that tourists are stunned into heaping lavish praise for their tour experience. And rightly so.

P1200756.jpgOne of the “gold-plated” rooms in Catherine Palace.

P1200733.jpgPeter and Paul Fortress is a popular site for weddings.

IMGP0728.jpgNumerous large fountains can be seen at Peterhof Gardens.

 

Before choosing a tour operator for St. Petersburg I had narrowed my search to three potential providers based on past reviews. The promotions of all three appeared suited to my needs. Dancing Bear is a family-operated business with very high ratings offering tours designed more for smaller groups of families or friends who want have a private tour and/or with specific interests in mind. With nobody previously known to me on the cruise I was reluctant to form a new group of non-connected people. I spoke with Dancing Bear’s owner, Julia, on the phone and had a few pleasant exchanges by email before informing her that I would be choosing another provider. Julia was kind enough to say, “I am very sorry for not having you as my client as you would be (at least it seems to me after reading your e-mail) the driving and intellectual force of any small group...” The deciding issue was the optional “extra-curricular” offerings, specifically the evening programs which ranged from canal tours, entertainment with traditional music and dancing, dinner at Catherine palace, a night at the ballet and so on. I was favouring the Russian Experience tour available with TJ Travel and asked SPB Tours whether they had a similar offering. SPB had difficulty grasping what my interest was and in the end their pricing was going to be higher than TJ’s $45 charge. With an interest in learning more about how the people of St Petersburg view their past and present I had asked whether a tour could be structured to have a guide with in-depth knowledge of the Siege of Leningrad. Olga at TJ Travel indicated without hesitation that perhaps a scholar or a member of a veteran’s family might be a possibility. I also asked whether any memorabilia related to the siege could be made available for us to see, maybe medals and documents, and Olga was doubtful about this saying that these materials would be regarded as too precious. The Russian Experience tour required a minimum of 6 people and eventually there were 8 people who registered. Unfortunately, because of an injury sustained during the day, one couple had to drop out and we waited for quite a while for 2 others who may have felt too tired to go on the evening excursion. Four of us were taken to a restaurant where, to our great surprise, we were greeted by Tatyana, owner and manager of TJ Travel, and two senior ladies, whose families were involved with the Siege of Leningrad. Not only that, but the snacks that were advertised as part of the evening’s offerings turned out to be a virtual feast which we could not fully enjoy because we had eaten on the ship in the hour between the end of the day program and the start of the evening outing. The ladies were just a few years old when the Siege of Leningrad started in September 1941. One was evacuated to Siberia to get as far away from the war front as possible and brought back a few years later to find that her parents had been killed. The other survived in St Petersburg but lost many of her close family members They both were classified as children of martyrs and later provided with living accommodations and monetary allowances. Today they continue to volunteer their time to help the surviving veterans of the siege in doing some daily chores and providing companionship. Tonight they were proudly wearing their medals including ones for the 50th and 60th anniversary reunions of fellow-survivors. Both of them look back on the past with fondness because of the comradeship, care and facilities provided by the Soviet state and still refer to St Petersburg as Leningrad. By contrast Tatyana and those of her generation recall tough times in the USSR when parents would go off to work early in the morning, spend their lunch breaks lining up to buy hard-to-get food or basic supplies. The queuing process would be repeated after work such that there was little time left for family togetherness. The dismantling of the Communist system has been welcomed with gladness because of the freedom, availability of goods and range of opportunities. The younger generation have great respect for their elders and can understand why they cherish the Soviet system but times have changed and their separate reflections on the past are vastly different. This outline is but a small summary of our evening’s enlightening encounter after which we went for a stroll on Nevsky Prospekt, reputed to be the best shopping street in Russia. We were out past 11:00 pm and it was still bright because the sun was only just setting.

P1200820.jpgTatyana, owner/operator of TJ Travel and two survivors of the Siege of Leningrad.

P1200822.jpgThe snack turned out to be a feast.

P1200866.jpgA stroll on Nevsky Prospekt at 10:33 pm.

 

I later remarked to Olga and Tatyana that “snack” should not be part of the promotional vocabulary and that it was considerate of them to continue with the tour with only 4 people. They responded that the meal was a special treat specifically to enrich our Russian Experience and they felt it their obligation to fulfill my initial request. It was way much more than we were expecting.

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I really enjoyed your review and photos of your time in SPB, Trevsaq. Thanks for putting in so much effort in providing us with the details of your tour. We felt the same way towards the time we spent in SPB with Alla-Tours. Just as you said, very accommodating and knowledgable tour guides, no request was to much, went out of their way to ensure we received the best experience possible. It was a trip of a lifetime and encountering this level of service from any tour company goes a long way in the memories you take away with you especially in such a "superstar" port like SPB. :)

 

 

Dolfans from Miami

Edited by dolfans0704
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We just returned from our Baltic cruise on "Brilliance of the Seas" on June 20th. From others on our ship, I agree that all tour groups do a great job. I can only speak for Alla tours, as that is what we used. We've done many tours going through recommendations with other cruise critic posters and the tours have all been excellent. This was the first time that we were the contact people for a tour, however. I could not have asked for a better relationship with Alla. Every email was answered in record time. She and her guides met us just as we cleared customs, put us into our groups, and we were off on the tour within 10 minutes! Even with a plan in place, we were still offered options. On the first day, we experienced some traffic, so the guide and driver just rescheduled the day and we were fine! Our guide's English (as was Alla's) was fluent (and my husband wears hearing aids). We felt as if we were seeing St. Petersburg with a family member! I can't imagine a better experience and it was truly the highlight of the cruise.

Kathleen

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Trevsaq, I enjoyed your review and photographs. Was the Russian Experience tour created for your group, or is that a tour that T J Tours advertises? I looked quickly for a Russian Experience tour on the T J website and did not see it.

 

And beyond what you have already described, how is it different from the typical tours offered by T J and its competitors?

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Trevsaq, I enjoyed your review and photographs. Was the Russian Experience tour created for your group, or is that a tour that T J Tours advertises? I looked quickly for a Russian Experience tour on the T J website and did not see it.

 

And beyond what you have already described, how is it different from the typical tours offered by T J and its competitors?

 

Hello Reggiefan: Thanks for your interest. The evening tours are a little difficult to find on TJ's site so here is the link: http://st-petersburg-tours.ru/evening-optional-tours/ To answer your specific questions I found TJ's evening options to be different from the "normal" touristy offerings and I made the suggestion of having a Siege specialist or veteran participate in the Russian Experience tour. So the program that I described was shaped by my input. If it's something that might be of interest you can call it the Russian Experience evening tour that Trev took on the anniversary of St. Petersburg, and Olga should be able to figure out what that was. You can of course suggest your own themes and Olga might be receptive and work with you on possibilities. Other tour providers would also have some programs, perhaps more with a cultural slant, e.g. folk songs, dance, classical music, ballet. As for the daytime tours I had put together a table of comparison for the big three - Alla, SPB and TJ - and a copy is attached.

Alla SPB TJ.pdf

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To RJ2002:

 

How did you enjoy Russian Folklore Evening? We booked the same program with SPB Tours on our 7/9 sailing of the NCL Star.

 

Hi doctor.

 

We enjoyed the Russian Folklore show very much. I have to say that I was a bit apprehensive that it would be too touristy. I was pleasantly, and happily, surprised. It was a very professional production, with a full company of musicians. In fact, there were 2 complete sets of dance troupes.

 

I do have a couple of suggestions. There are apparently 2 performances in the evening. You will likely be attending the first performance, which was at 7pm. They allow folks into the performance hall at 6:15pm. Our SPB guide got us to the theater about 6:10pm, so we were among the first to go inside. Seating at the performance is not assigned, so it is best to go in right away to get as good a seat as possible. (Though, the hall is really not that big, so none of the seats are "bad"). As you walk up the stairs to the lobby, there are tables set up with champagne and vodka shots. Again, I'd recommend downing them quickly ;) and going right in to the theater. There will be an intermission, where they will have canapes and more wine, as well as non-alcoholic options. These canapes probably won't be enough for your dinner. You might want a snack after you return to the ship. There are also souvenirs for sale before the performance, and during the intermission.

 

We went straight from our first day tour to the Folklore show, so we didn't return to the ship until after the show.

 

I hope you enjoy the show as much as we did!

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Our first Baltic cruise was on Jewel of the Seas in July 2005. When I was looking at private tours in St. Petersburg in 2004, the choice then was pretty much between Red October and DenRus - the new kid on the block. We didn't go on a boat ride or visit the subway, but we toured inside the Grand Palace at Peterhof. We were also advised to bring food off the ship for our lunches, as well as enough to share with our guide (and possibly the driver)! DenRus was experimenting with their first budget group tour in 2005, but it was available for only a few Princess ships.

 

Fast forward to June 2013, and I am looking at tours for our 3 days in St. Petersburg in 2014. There are many more tour companies than in 2004, and they have the lunches and extras down pat - in addition to the usual sights. I want to go to Moscow on day 2 of our 3 days in St. Petersburg, and tour St. Petersburg on days 1 and 3. There are no 2-day group tours of St. Petersburg on non-consecutive days, so that requires booking a private tour. When I wrote to Alla and SPB in 2012 regarding a 2013 Baltic cruise that later had to be cancelled - it was Alla who responded that a 2-day tour on non-consecutive days would not be a problem. SPG wasn't quite as enthusiastic about scheduling non-consecutive days of touring. Therefore, I chose Alla for Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2014.

Edited by NancyIL
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Trevsaq, thanks for the quick response. I was wondering whether the Russian Experience itinerary was a daytime offering. I see that it is a night experience. But it certainly offers interesting ideas and a possible option.

 

And this is a heads-up to anyone going to SPB--especially those considering the independent tour companies for a two day itinerary--please check the spreadsheet made by Trevsaq in the response on page 8 of this thread. There is a link for the spreadsheet, which shows in detail for a two day itinerary what the major companies offer and do not offer. It is very well done.

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We are new to Cruise Critic so I don't know if I am doing this right. We are on the Celebrity Eclipse August 17th cruise and have signed up for Meenu's group Grand tour of St. Petersburg. I was asked to post our booking of the Alla tour on Roll Call. Hope this takes care of this request. John & Nancy

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We are new to Cruise Critic so I don't know if I am doing this right. We are on the Celebrity Eclipse August 17th cruise and have signed up for Meenu's group Grand tour of St. Petersburg. I was asked to post our booking of the Alla tour on Roll Call. Hope this takes care of this request. John & Nancy

Welcome to Cruise Critic, John & Nancy! Here is the link to your August 17 Celebrity Eclipse roll call thread: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1697072

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We are new to Cruise Critic so I don't know if I am doing this right. We are on the Celebrity Eclipse August 17th cruise and have signed up for Meenu's group Grand tour of St. Petersburg. I was asked to post our booking of the Alla tour on Roll Call. Hope this takes care of this request. John & Nancy

 

Welcome to our part of the Cruise Critic site. The roll call is a separate section. You have been given the link, so that is where you want to go to speak to people who are on your particular cruise. That is where you can either start a tour or try and join an already formed tour. You can see what others on your cruise are doing.

 

This particular forum is for the ports you will be visiting. If you find you need any info on any or all the ports, this is where you would ask those questions or seek any advice.

 

Do some reading on this forum. there are many threads about each of the ports you will visit. Go to the library and take out whatever books you can find on the Baltics. It is a very exciting, but port intensive cruise. There aren't enough hours in the day to see all there is to see, so you have to prioritize.

Most people do many of the ports themselves as they are very easy. there are also tours from several of the tour companies that you may book St Petersburg with. That's up to you.

 

Again, go to the roll call. Introduce yourself and see what others are doing.

 

Cheers

 

Len

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We are new to Cruise Critic so I don't know if I am doing this right. We are on the Celebrity Eclipse August 17th cruise and have signed up for Meenu's group Grand tour of St. Petersburg. I was asked to post our booking of the Alla tour on Roll Call. Hope this takes care of this request. John & Nancy

 

Hi John & Nancy and welcome to Cruise Critic! Others that have posted are correct in that you need to post this message on your specific roll call for your sailing at http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?p=35123487#post35123487

 

You are thoroughly in for a treat with the Alla Grand Tour! It was excellent and enjoyed our time very much in St. Petersburg. Please send my best to Meenu and enjoy your cruise. :)

Cristina

 

 

Dolfans from Miami

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We are new to Cruise Critic so I don't know if I am doing this right. We are on the Celebrity Eclipse August 17th cruise and have signed up for Meenu's group Grand tour of St. Petersburg. I was asked to post our booking of the Alla tour on Roll Call. Hope this takes care of this request. John & Nancy

 

Hi John and Nancy:

 

Please go http://www.alla-tour.com and sign up for the SPB Grand Tour and ask to be added to Meenu's group. You will have to provide your information to Alla for her to get the visa for your visit. If you have questions please email me at vkb2751 at yahoo dot com. Thank you

 

Meenu

Edited by vkb2751
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I have one silly question, if you don't mind. What is the difference between a Russian chicken and any other chicken??

Cheers

Len

 

Hi Len,

I actually had a lucky chance to eat it . I was invited to Russian restaurant and was advised to order chicken. Let me describe Russian chicken: usually, its been fried whole , under the press, the bones are crushed and the taste is like nothing else I've tried :)

Do you know any Russian restaurant in your area ?

 

I hope you do....

Enjoy.

Kerry

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Had an awesome 2 days on an Alla tour in St Petersburg. One of the best guides ever. Others with different Alla guides also raved about their guides. We were very impressed with the tour quality.

 

Hi Mike

We share your same sentiments with regards to our tour with Alla from a few weeks ago. The entire experience was phenomenal! Our tour guide and driver really knew their stuff and maneuvered through this wonderful city and sites seamlessly! I was quite impressed with the flawless process they have in place to ensure a fantastic and informative tour. I am happy to hear that others shared stellar service as well! :)

 

 

Dolfans from Miami

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Just returned from my Baltic cruise yesterday and we also had a great time on our Alla 3 day private tour of St Petersburg. It was very not when we were there and what we really appreciated was the early admission to the Hermitage (when we left it was packed) and also the fact that there were long lines everywhere, but we by passed those lines and went straight in to the different museums, churches and castles. Great job Alla!

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Had an awesome 2 days on an Alla tour in St Petersburg. One of the best guides ever. Others with different Alla guides also raved about their guides. We were very impressed with the tour quality.

 

That's great to hear, Mike. :)

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