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If you’re considering a tour but find yourself thinking, ‘Am I really a tour kind of person?’ you’re probably a bit like me. I often like to travel independently and I like the freedom of being able to do what I want, when I want. But a few years ago I went on a 7-day Paddywagon Tour of Ireland and I had the time of my life- I made awesome friends who I still speak to today.
Topdeck invited me to try one of their tours and so I chose a tour to a place I’ve been dying to go to- Russia. Russia had been on my list for a while but I had absolutely no idea what to expect and I wasn’t sure how I would feel travelling about on my own. So a tour really seemed like the most logical option. When you apply for your Russian visa you have to provide stamped tourist confirmation documents and list all the places you’ll be staying, so it was nice to have Topdeck taking care of all this for me.
I joined part of a longer tour called the Red Star Special in Tallinn, then just stayed for the Vodka & Caviar section through Russia, which takes you through St. Petersburg, Novgorod and Moscow. I spent a total of 10-days on the trip, which I thought might feel like a long time but it went by so quickly.
So is Topdeck any good? Here’s my Topdeck review…
We had a really great gang on the bus and there were no dramas at all- everyone got along just great. Most people were Australian, although we also had Canadian, American, Kiwi and Welsh. Topdeck tours are aimed at 18-30-somethings and before I went on the trip I was worried I’d be in a minority on the older end of the scale (I’m 28) but that wasn’t the case- it was a mixed bunch with quite a few people over the age of 25. There were also a few married couples and a couple on a year-long honeymoon!
The Topdeck bus was comfortable, clean and air-conditioned. The tour leader picks a ‘stopping song’, which they play every time the bus is getting ready to stop for a toilet break or arrives at the next destination. Ours was this:
‘Moscow, Moscow…’ It was so catchy I couldn’t stop singing it all the way through the trip.
There’s Wi-Fi available on the bus, although you have to pay for it as an added extra. I couldn’t seem to connect to it in Russia though.
A couple of the journeys were long, which is to be expected when you’re travelling from one country to another. The longest was our journey across the border travelling from Tallinn in Estonia to St. Petersburg. Victoria our tour leader informed us that the border crossing could take a while depending on how friendly the guards are feeling on the day, but our border crossing was actually quite smooth. On this bus journey we were provided with a massive packed lunch, with everything placed on a table by the side of the road so we could help ourselves before we set off. We definitely weren’t short of snacks for the ride!
Our other really long journey was from Novgorod to Moscow but we made it a little more entertaining by placing bets on what time we would arrive!
There’s a toilet on the bus but really it’s reserved for emergencies, so we had plenty of toilet breaks at gas stations along the way, where we could also buy drinks and snacks.
I should stress that with Topdeck your accommodation can vary according to the destination and tour you are on. For instance, before I met my group in Tallinn the group had been travelling through Norway and Finland where things are a lot more expensive, so they had a cook who prepared home-cooked meals and the accommodation involved bungalows at European campsites.
On the Vodka & Caviar trip, we stayed in hotels and I was actually pleasantly surprised at the standard of accommodation. I thought we’d be in hostels but we were in large hotels with buffets and the usual facilities. Topdeck make sure that girls room with girls and boys room with boys, so you won’t find yourself sharing with a member of the opposite sex.
At Hotel Saint-Petersburg I actually ended up with my own room because there was an odd number of people but all the other times I was sharing with another girl. I actually quite liked having someone to chat to when I woke up in the morning!
On the first leg of the journey the tour leader passed a clip board round with a rooming list on it so we could choose, but in other destinations we were put into pairs. The good thing is it’s all quite flexible, so you won’t always be sharing with the same person but if there’s someone you really get along with, you can request to room with them. Topdeck try to make everything as fair as possible and that’s one of the things I really liked about the trip.
Hotel Saint-Petersburg was massive with a buffet, ATMs and all the usual amenities you’d expect to find in a 3* hotel. The rooms could do with a bit of a refurb but it was perfectly clean and comfortable. St. Petersburg is big, so when we went on nights out into the city, we ordered Ubers or hopped in taxis. Wi-Fi here was fairly decent.
Our Hotel in Novgorod, Hotel Intourist, was fairly central and you could easily walk into town. The dinner and breakfast we had there was good, although the Wi-Fi was sketchy in the rooms, so I had to sit in the lobby to get on Twitter!
In Moscow we stayed on the ‘Izmailovo’ megacomplex, which was actually built for the 1980 summer olympics because there weren’t enough hotel rooms. At one point it was actually the largest hotel in the world. The place is bizarre and totally awesome- it has several massive hotels, tons of restaurants, a supermarket with a BAR inside, karaoke, fast food joints, money changers, bowling…you name it, this place has it. The downside is it’s not located in Moscow city centre, so you have to navigate the Moscow metro, which is all signposted in cyrillic. In the beginning it was all a bit intimidating but then I quickly discovered it was only a few stops away from Red Square on one line, so there were no changes. Easy peasy.
We had quite a few included group meals in the trip- a variety of lunches and dinners. On my first night in Tallinn we had a feast in a medieval restaurant, complete with a sword fight!
For some meal times in Russia we ate out in restaurants, then others we ate at the buffet in the hotel. The food was always tasty and we just paid for any alcohol we’d consumed at the end of the meal. All of our breakfasts were included because we were staying in hotels so we could just pop down to the buffet.
Whenever meals weren’t included, we were allowed to venture off on our own to find food. I quite liked that because it meant I could dine at some restaurants I really wanted to visit and do my own thing. Our local guide gave us some good recommendations and I also looked to the Internet for good places to eat local Russian food. I even took myself out to dinner and splashed out on caviar at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow one night.
In Tallinn we had a walking tour to introduce us to the town but after that we had a full day to explore on our own. The itinerary in Russia was a bit more jam-packed, so we had less free time. The tour leader leaves a colourful board downstairs with each day’s itinerary, so you know what time to meet.
On our first day St. Petersburg there was a bus tour of the city with a visit to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, with some free time to get lunch and explore Nevsky Prospect in the afternoon. I have to admit I was rather hungover after getting a bit over excited on our first night in the city! In the evening there was dinner and a folklore show but I skipped the show in favour of bed!
The following day we had a guided tour of the Hermitage Museum, which is filled with works of art. If I’m really honest museums just aren’t my thing and if I’d been there on my own I would have raced around it but if you’re into history or art, you might get a lot more out of it. We then had some free time to get our own lunch, before an optional trip to the Peterhof Palace. With the optional extras you pay the tour leader in cash in either Euros or Russian Rouble. For me the palace was the best of all the attractions in St. Petersburg because the gardens were just so beautiful and peaceful.
The highlight of St. Petersburg was definitely the evening boat trip on the canal- we took our own alcohol and partied on the boat, before heading to a club in town. It was a really fun evening, from what I can remember!
In Moscow we had two optional extras to choose from- the Bolshoi and the Moscow Circus. The Bolshoi is quite expensive- over a hundred euro, so I opted out of that one and went for the Circus, which was a lot cheaper. In hindsight I wish I had done the ballet and not the circus. I was warned before I bought the ticket that there are animals in the show, which some people find distressing. I have to say I wasn’t prepared for it. Watching tigers being forced to sit back on their hind legs with their paws in the air, or llamas being made to jump over hurdles just wasn’t for me. From what I heard from the others, Swan Lake at the Bolshoi was incredible and if you can afford it, I would urge you to see it just once. It’s quite dressy, so pack a smart outfit if you can!
On day 1 in Moscow we had a walking tour of Red Square, before heading off to get lunch and take some photos in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. You can visit Lenin’s tomb to see his embalmed body, although there is usually quite a line. In the afternoon we were taken on a guided tour of the Kremlin, before making our own way back to the hotel. While the others were at the Bolshoi I went to the Hotel Metropol for dinner, which has an outdoor terrace that overlooks the Bolshoi theatre.
The following day was our last full day in Moscow and since we’d had a big night out after the ballet, I decided to take it easy. Some people had booked the armoury tour as an optional extra but I headed on over to Bar Strelka- a trendy rooftop bar overlooking the water. That evening we had our last dinner together before heading off to the circus.
So What Are the Pros and Cons?
Making awesome friends and memories
Great tour leaders and knowledgeable guides
Included tours of the cities
Don’t have to worry about how to get from one city/country to the next
Several meals are included, which saves money and means you can eat together
Fun, optional nights out
Lots of free time and flexibility to do your own thing
Early starts and some long travel days
The Verdict- is Topdeck good?
Yes. Although I’ve always liked to organise things independently, I’d happily do a Topdeck Tour again. If you’re travelling alone, it’s a great way to meet people and make new friends, so there’s never a dull moment! At the end of my trip I only wished I was continuing onwards to Berlin so I didn’t have to say goodbye to everyone so soon. Some of the walking tours just weren’t my style because I don’t like having to follow a big group, but the great thing is you never feel forced to do anything! It’s nice to do things together but if you want to go off and do your own thing, you can just arrange to meet up at a specific point later.
A final word…
I hope you find this Topdeck review helpful. Traveling to Russia requires a bit more planning than other destinations which is why an organized group tour is great, especially if you’re traveling alone like I was. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Topdeck Russia tour to fellow travelers.
Topdeck provided my tour and flights, which were complimentary for the purposes of a review. I paid for all my own additional expenses. Everything expressed above is my honest opinion!