Ted Hewlett, Nashville, Tennessee
As many of you would know, if you're looking at this site, privately arranged tours are definitely the way to travel when on cruise ship. After taking a couple ship tours, we decided we'd likely never again want to be herded around in a large group, often not being able to hear the guide, not being given enough time to look or shop - because someone in the group has been lagging behind, visiting just the same tourist areas that everyone else goes to, and often, being taken to places of business that the cruise ship has 'arrangements' with.
With my wife in the travel business, we have traveled extensively and either arranged for our own (just the two of us) or more often large groups to destinations in French Polynesia, Greek Isles - twice, Israel, Egypt, Mediterranean region, Scandinavian countries, and Russia. Over the years we have worked with many private operators with scores of travelers. With proper research, you can find good tour operators, and only once did we feel we didn't get quite what we had expected.
Prior (about a year) to visiting St. Petersburg I began a search for who we would use for our tours. In all I contacted five or six companies all of which had very nicely designed web sites, good reviews and fairly comparable prices for what we were wanting. Alex's Tours was one of the companies and as emails were exchanged with different people, I got a sense of honesty and genuine concern from Alex to make our visit memorable. Other operators were very good in their presentations and offers, some were a little 'pushy' to get us to sign up with them; many made a point that they were the 'largest' or offered more tours to more people than any others and so on. With Alex's Tours, Alex was always the one to do the correspondence and I was never pressured into a decision. At one point, my wife was thinking of choosing another company that had a bigger, more impressive web site, and when I told Alex he replied that he wanted us to be happy and satisfied and if we chose someone else he was fine with it.
Fortunately, we realized what an honest person he was and booked with him. He made suggestions for tour operators at other ports we'd be visiting with no expectation of remuneration - just a willingness to help. We stayed in close contact with him right up until the day we arrived. and always our messages and questions were addressed. (When you are responsible for great tours for up to 50 people, it's hard not to worry a little about who you choose)!
Of all the guides we could have been given, we certainly must have had the absolute best in all of Russia. Lana was a delightful person, was willing to adjust and schedule things to our wishes, easy to talk with and understand. She was very knowledgeable and kept things moving along smoothly for both days we had her. She was the one that really made the trip so special. The driver was equally good at his responsibility of maneuvering throughout the city in the best and quickest routes. The vehicle was very clean and comfortable and the driver stayed close to it when we were touring so there was never a worry about the safety of things left on the bus. The meals we had arranged for us were very well priced and enjoyable - very clean restaurants with excellent service. The potentially negative part of large crowds in the Hermitage, Peterhof, Catherine's Palace were dealt with very well and waiting in lines for admission/entrance was, for the most part, non existent. The smallest details were all taken care of. This was definitely five star service and I'd have no hesitation to book with him again.
This is not a paid for recommendation, nothing was discounted or given back for a good review, but it was the very best, bar none, of all the tours we've ever been a part of. Each of the others on the tour (total of 16) without exception expressed the same opinion and all are very well traveled people.
Should you be looking for a tour company in St. Petersburg, or need assistance with any other port in the region, you will not be in any way disappointed with this company - by far and away, the very best.
Ted Hewlett, Nashville, Tennessee