I was travelling with a group of 5 friends and we decided to book a guide for St Petersburg because we only had 2 days to see everything. We are all well-travelled professionals who generally do not use tour guides when we travel, but have used a handful of excellent ones in the past.
Booking process: Excellent. Working with Lydia to arrange our tour was easy. She accommodated our last-minute request for a guide, was responsive to our requests and communicated in excellent English. We arranged everything over email and sent in a small deposit electronically. We paid by credit card on arrival.
Tour content & quality: Disappointing. We chose Ulko Tours for the raving reviews about personalized service and responsive guides. Our guide, Natalya (sp?), was knowledgeable, but lacked many qualities of a good guide. It appeared she memorized the content of the tour, and while she could recite the facts, she did not understand anything we said to her. Because of her inability to converse, we felt she was only minimally better than purchasing audio tours. She was not friendly or engaging; she never asked us where we were from and I'm not sure she knew our names. Natalya seemed more concerned with getting us through the itinerary than with our comfort (e.g. she kept us in the hot sun, never communicated the distances we had to travel to allow us to make decisions about walking or using public transport, etc). We hoped our guide would be like a 6th friend with insider tips on the city, extra insight into the sights and the ability to join our conversation, but we were disappointed on all counts.
Tour operations: Good. Regardless of the quality of our guide, we felt the tour was valuable because we were able to skip the long lines at each destination (Church on Spilled Blood, St. Peter & Paul Cathedral & Fortress, Hermitage, Catherine's Palace, Peterhof Gardens and Palace). We saw everything we wanted to see, and if we had had to figure out our own transport and entrance to all of these places we would have given up long before we saw everything. It was valuable to have someone to follow through the massive palaces, parks and museums, which would have been overwhelming on our own. I rate this element "good" rather than "excellent" because we had hoped our guide would provide restaurant recommendations, help us order authentic food for lunch, and help us navigate the city efficiently. Instead, we had 20 minute lunch breaks at the museum cafeterias and wasted a lot of time walking to places we could have easily taken a subway to.
In short, I would definitely recommend using a private guide for St Petersburg, but do as much due diligence as possible on your guide before you select a provider.
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