http://www.turunnevatours.fi/ will do eveything for you, including visa, transport, hotel, tours etc. all for about €160. The earlier you sort it, the cheaper it is (visa processing cost). I have used them a few times and its always a good laugh.
Gavin also put me in touch with a local student from St P who showed us around. She did a good job and speaks excellent English and I think we gave her €50 for 5hrs of touring and she saved us that alone in traveling costs. I can pass on her details if you PM me. She even got my father a 'student' ticket for the train to Pushkin. Quality!
I travelled there many times, for business and leasure. Taking the train is certainly the most conveniable option and comes at a decent price. Flights are not much faster, especially if you got to the city center, but much more expensive.
Assuming that you do it yourself then the following applies:
1) No matter what any hostel, hotel, agency outside of Finland says... From Finland you do not need any form of invitation, there is no need for the hostel or whatever to be involved in the process. (this is a situation unique to Finland!)
2) You do still need a visa!
3) Visas can be got by queuing at the embassy, but it is a lot easier to go through an agent. I always use the agency on the same street as the embassy, near the Silja line terminal. Just get on tram 3 till you see the big ferry terminal. The place is on your right just up the hill about 30 meters. An agent costs a little more, but you will earn more per hour than the cost of waiting! Visa cost depends upon nationality, IIRC the agent charges about $15 for the transaction.
4) You are, IIRC, American and so will need to get medical insurance. The agent can arrange that for you at a very nominal sum (also the cover is nominal!). If you have private cover already it will almost certainly NOT be acceptable to the Embassy, although it may actually cover you in practice in Russia. (reality bites, in almost all cases of need, you come back home!)
5) I prefer to travel to Saint Petersburg by bus.
There are two reasons. Firstly it is cheaper and secondly the times are much more convenient. There are many departures through the day. My preference is to travel over through the night, arriving after a good sleep, in the centre, usually near the Hotel Europa in good time for breakfast and heading to the apartment. (we will come to that in a second!). On the return I like to come back in the mid afternoon; given time differences, I am back in Helsinki in the early evening with plenty of time to get the train or bus back home. The train times, whilst nominally shorter will eat into your holiday time in a way that buses do not. I have of course used both modes
6) When you are in SPb, you MUST register your visa within 3 days of arrival. It used to be three days excluding weekends, that is no longer the case. You can do it yourself at the Ovir office next to the Gostcinny Dvor shopping arcade, but it will take most of a day. There are agencies who will do this, your hostel may well do it for you. Cost will be nominal through your hotel or hostel, or about $30 if you have to go through a registrations agent. An efficient agent there is Ost-West Contakt, google for address but on Nevski Prospekt.
7) WHy a hostel?
If there are two or more of you and especially if you are staying longer than a couple of nights then you will be better off in an apartment. PM me for details. Hostels are very often not very nice, apartments may not be what you have here, but will be much better than a hostel! You should be able to get something OK for around the $50 per night mark.
connects to the hostel. You need to be on the main part of the city. Within walking distance of Nevsky, most hostels are across one of the bridges. This means that at night you will be stranded in the city between about 1:30 and 6:00 in the morning as the bridges raise to allow shipping traffic. If you have an apartment you can specify the location, or at least ensure its viability! If travelling in February, this may not be an issue as the river is frozen, hence no river traffic or brifdge raising. Still worth remembering though as almost all the fun stuff is concentrated near to the Nevski area.
BTW Neil, whilst I am sure that the student was very nice, for the money you gave her she should have been! OTOH it can be difficult for an irregular vistor to get a sensible price for such services and you could have paid more.
Yeah Andrew, I noticed that for a UK citizen, it is about €7, or if you are a Finn, its about €15. And I think the not needing invitation must apply to Finnish citizens only and be due to historical reasons.
Nobody applying for a visa from Finland needs an invitation! I have travelled with groups and individuals from many countries and invites just are not required. However, those that happily charge money for them will just as happily take your money if you ask for an invitation.
Our wee fellowship consists of 1 finn, 2 americans, and 1 french person, so I guess the americans and the french person need to obtain visas. I think we'll try that visa office for the arrangements.
The group, as a whole, is in the backpacker/student budget range, and because of that, I was assuming that hostels were the best bet. But apartments do sound like a much better choice, esp when factoring in some of the food savings.
It is just that NONE of you need an invitation from any hostel, hotel, individual or business as long as you apply for the visa in Helsinki. That is something for those travelling to Russia from countries other than Finland
The train would always be my choice, but note that the train now goes to the new station WAY outside the centre.
You can get a tourist visa very easily. If you're not doing the package thing, then RTT travel http://www.rtt-matkapalvelut.fi/eng-index.html will sort you out (maybe they even do packages). They specialise in Russian travel, and have always made my business trips easier...
As Neil said, I'd recommend getting help from someonel like my friend there. You can PM either Neil or I for her details, if you're interested.
The cheapest bus service I know of is informally referred to as "Vodka tourist" bus service. It is not the most comfortable or pleasant ride, but it is the CHEAPEST I have found till now.
The service is run and used almost exclusively by Russians. It is called "Vodka Tourist" because it carries Russians who want to sell their vodka and tobacco in Helsinki for a good profit. This also means that they often try to smuggle in alcohol.
The customs is well aware of this fact. Therefore, people travelling on vodka tourist buses are sometimes checked quite thoroughly at the border. Also, another nuisance is the movies that you have to watch. Basically some hollywood blockbuster (not released even in US cinema halls, but available in Russia on DVD), and they are dubbed in Russian. The Russians enjoy the movie during the long ride, but I have generally had a bad time during the show.
A one way ticket from HEL to StP costs 10 euros. Same for the return ticket, but ask for a one way ticket. (They are hardly tickets...basically you just pay the driver and he lets you in his bus). The journey lasts from 7 to 10 hours, depending on delays at the border.
Buses from Helsinki leave between 11 and noon every day from Kamppi. Buses from StP leave about 7 pm everyday. There are lots of private companies running on this route, so finding a seat is no problem. You can also try some bargaining, if you wish.
Give it a try if you feel you are adventurous enough!
The train to SPb is about IIRC 12Euro, but it is a long journey. Frankly I would not bother. Paying to get to Tallinn and then a 10 hour journey instead of 6-8 hours by train/bus from Helsinki. It might be nice to do though on the way back. The station for Tallinn in I think Moskow staion, in the centre of Saint Pete and easy to find, make trip back from Saint Pete to Tallinn then have a day here and off home over night from Tallinn on the Tallinnk boat. You get a free cabin on the night boat and it costs just 12Euro.
I have never taken the cheapest buses and have never been delayed at the border. I would not say I am a regular traveler to Saint Petersburg these days, but I have made many trips by both train and bus. The best compromise for the bus is to take the one from Lasipalatsi. As I said, it goes overnight leaving just after 23:00, also at 15:00 I think, but never used it. The firm is I think, the Finnish end of Eurolines, can't remember the name but you book it at the bus station at Lasipalatsi. It is not any kind of adventure, just a bloody bus!
There is a firm, I do not know the name, the buses are purple though , coming back from SPb, that charges 15Euro, they have films sometimes, I quite enjoy them. I think they show what the driver or his mate have just bought down at the rynok. That one returns at night, starting at about 21:00, but not from the centre of Saint Pete.
I thnk those who suggest the train are not travelling for leisure reasons. The train is much better suited to those folk than leisure travellers, if for no other reason than timing. If you also now have to get off outside the city centre, then that will be no fun for first timers to Russia with no language, unless you are being met, which may happen with an apartment, but not with a hostel...
As I noted before, the bus will drop you off right in the city centre on a street called Italyanskaya, just behind Nevski and if you are renting an apartment within a very short walk from the places where you SHOULD be staying. The agent will certainly meet you there.
going by bus is much more fun, especially with many Finns.
On the way to St Petersburg, you will get to know how they feel about Karjala. (one or two of them might consider coming back with their gun next time to get grandma's home back ...
And on their way back to Finland - well, I have never seen so many people looking so happy after crossing a border. (NOT only because of the vodka bottles they brought as matkamuistoja)