If you have the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries on your bucket list, like I do, you are looking at one of the most complex and lengthiest road trips on air planes, trains, buses, ferries and rental cars. You are crossing from EU countries into non-EU countries passing immigration check-points; Russia requires a tourist visa and Sweden has travel restrictions due to the refugee crisis. Taking a cruise would be the easiest and perhaps the safest way to see it all, but you know me, I don’t like it the easy way, a cruise gives me no work when everything is organized. The cheapest cruise only includes 4 countries in 7 days and starts from $1,000 per person not including airfare, and as we all know, you won’t see much of Europe by taking a cruise.
Time is the most important thing on a vacation so when you are traveling you need to plan it smart while staying on a budget. Distance is pretty big here so you don’t want to take the same road or ferry twice.
Here are some travel tips for you:
Since hotels are very expensive in Nordic countries I prefer taking the night trains or ferries so we are traveling while sleeping, waking up in the next city. Just like anybody else, I would like a nice hotel room with comfortable beds and room service but Scandinavia is too expensive for me. I solved that problem by booking a night train and ferry and killed two birds by one stone, we are traveling while sleeping! These trains have sleeping compartments, dining compartments and shared showers in each wagon but if you can afford a luxury cabin you will get your own private bathroom and living room with a turn down service!
The Grand Express is the most popular train in Russia, which is a luxury night train. It takes 8 hours to get to St. Petersburg from Moscow but you are traveling at night, sleeping comfortably. Mostly tourists take it because it is considered to be a “one of a lifetime” experience and I decided to do the same. Luxury cabins are air-conditioned cabins which consist of a bedroom, a bathroom with hair dryer and a separate living room equipped with flat screen TVs, DVD player and a mini bar. The cabins are nicely decorated with paintings on the wall. Uniformed cabin attendants bring you towels, bathrobes with slippers, toiletries, newspapers, fruit plates, snacks, supper, chai, water. They serve your meals in the cabin and set you up for free transportation within your arrival city. All passengers have free wifi and breakfast included. Standard cabins don’t come with sheets but you can rent them and if you wish to shower you can use one of the shared bathrooms in each wagon for a couple of euros. There is chai at the end of each wagon.
There are other fast trains in Russia as well, also consider the bullet train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki or Allegro.
Long distance buses are available between countries and I rate them with 5 stars because of comfort and luxury but I can’t shower and sleep on a bus, so for rides over 5 hours I consider other public transportation. For international buses check out Lux Express and book your seats online, tickets start from 3 Euro per person. We will be taking this bus from Tallinn to Riga, riding approximately for 4 1/2 hours.
Ferries: This is the easiest and cheapest way to travel around here; ferries are very similar to cruise liners, equipped with casinos and restaurants, pool, spa and duty free shopping arcades. For overnight ferries book a cabin and take a good night rest, wake up in another country and have a nice breakfast onboard before hitting the city.
You are going to love Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga because these ports are in downtown so if you are only there for a day you may want to rent a luggage locker for a couple of euros before boarding the next ferry or bus that takes you to your next destination. If you are staying in the city, consider booking a hotel in downtown to walk less with luggages and stay close to everything. PLEASE NOTE THAT IF YOU ARE TAKING A FERRY TO ST. PETERSBURG, YOU CAN NOW TAKE ADVANTAGE OF VISA FREE TRAVEL FOR UP TO 2 DAYS!!! That is a big deal because a Russian tourist visa for American citizens is $160 per person and requires a lot of paperwork from invitation letters to mandatory health insurance with a coverage of over $35K Euros.
Rental cars: This is going to be the hardest task, I really don’t recommend it; it is doable but takes a lot of hassle and time if you are going to cross from EU to non-EU countries. I read blogs about crossing from Estonia to Russia can take as many as 24 hours and as “short” as 12 hours if you purchase a rapid pass. I kid you not! If you must rent a car in the EU consider dropping it off before entering Russia but you will be fine everywhere else. You can take your rental car on a ferry but that may get expensive when you are visiting a few countries taking multiple ferries and you still need to return the rental car in the same country. Some countries accept your American driver’s license, some don’t so if you insist on driving then you need to get an international license for this trip, which will only be good for a year. Norway and Russia are not in the EU but every country has rules on taking their rental cars out, some allow it, some don’t and if they do allow it, it comes with restrictions and extra costs. One way rentals are possible for a surcharge but forget about dropping a car off in a different country, even if the countries are close to each other.
EU countries don’t want to you to drive to Russia but Russia allows you to take the rental car to EU countries as long as you buy a comprehensive car insurance and pay an additional fee. Russia prohibits you to drive through certain formal member states, like Belarus, so if that is the case you can forget about driving from Moscow to Riga because you would need to cross there. Keep in mind that it is not much to see between St. Petersburg and Moscow and the drive takes over 8 hours (non-stop); basically you are wasting a full day on driving when you could get an air ticket for $40 one way (with taxes included) on Aeroflot. Just my 2 cents.
Moscow, St. Peter’s Basilica
Sweden has similar restrictions; most rental car companies don’t let you take the car out of the country, except Sixt and Hertz, where you need to pay an extra fee; they call it a license, I call it a rip-off; they just want to get more money out of you. In Europe there is no such thing as a “license” but there is a difference between insurance policies and how countries accept foreign insurances. The are countries with higher car related crime rates but other factors, like theft (in Poland) and vandalism (in Sweden) also factor in the insurance policies.
Keep in mind that you have to pay toll on most roads, tunnels and bridges in Scandinavia. Roads are toll-free in Denmark with the exception of two toll bridges, the Øresund is 48 Euro one way while the Storebælt is 18 Euro for a minicar, pretty hefty I say.
Metro in Moscow: Well, I won’t say a word, just look at the photos below, you might think you are in a museum…No, that is how the metro stations look like in Moscow 🙂
Images: Smarttravel, Autocarhire, Latvia-Florida, Ulkotours, Ilacnet, Theculturemap, Erlangfactory, Twistedsifter, RealRussia, Russiantrains, Travelukr, Travelfree, Luxexpress, Simplonpc, Cruisingtalk, nwgw, baltictravelcompany, hiconsumption, architecturaldigest, Grand Express