I am an experienced traveler – this was my eleventh independent trip to Europe. I traveled solo and used public transportation and walking exclusively to get around.
Money: All three Baltic countries now use the Euro as of 2016. All of the countries I visited except Russia (Ruble) use the Euro, so that made the money situation easy for me. I had a few Euros in my wallet from my last trip when I landed in Europe, but I used my ATM card to get cash as needed everywhere, even in St. Petersburg. (fewer ATMs but you can find them.) I take a hundred or more USD with me in my wallet as an emergency (to change to local currency) in case my ATM card ever fails me, but it never has.
My ATM card does not have a chip in it – it is a pure ATM card not a “debit” card. If your have a debit card, it may have a chip but that will be used if you make purchases, not required to use an ATM in Europe. My credit union charges a 0% currency conversion fee and no per-ATM use fee (ATMs in Europe generally do not charge a use fee, but your credit union or bank might).
But I used credit cards as often as I could, even in St. Petersburg where they were usually accepted even at grocery stores. I had a couple of credit cards with me – all of them had chips. Europeans use Chip and PIN credit cards, but as of 2016 most American cards with chips don’t have PINs, so you’ll usually be asked to sign a receipt like you would in the US, even if the European who paid ahead of you used her PIN and didn’t sign anything. Most merchants are familiar with needing to sign a receipt, but in St. Petersburg some merchants were puzzled that a receipt was printed after I inserted my card and didn’t ask me to sign it – I had to remind them to do so.
I used my Chase Visa card (0% currency conversion fee) with a chip but no PIN most of the time, and it worked almost everywhere, even at many automated machines; no PIN was asked. The only place it did NOT work on this trip was at the train ticket machine in Amsterdam, which asked for a PIN. I used my backup card, a credit union Mastercard with a chip and PIN, for that machine. I always tried the Chase Visa first because it is a rewards card.
Luggage: I also travel with only carry-on luggage that I drag behind me, sometimes for 10-15 minutes between the bus/train station and my hotel. I rarely use taxis when I travel and used none on this trip. I traveled on four planes on this trip and didn’t have to check my bags on any of them. My bigger bag fits vertically in most 737 overhead bins and fine in the larger planes; on the airBaltic prop plane to Vilnius, I had to stow the bigger bag in a secure compartment at the front of the plane, but this was offered at no charge. My camera bag fits under the seat, if need be, of the larger planes.
Trip planning: I used the 2016 Lonely Planet Baltics book (on my Kindle) as my primary guidebook. For St. Petersburg I used a chapter from the Rick Steves Northern European Cruise Ports book as my primary source of information. Of course, I also used the web extensively, mostly Fodor’s and Trip Advisor. I was able to find bus, train and ferry websites for each country easily to check connections between countries ahead of time, so I knew long before I arrived in Europe the frequency and easy of bus/train connections, even though I didn’t book any of them more than a day or two in advance, if that.
Camera gear: I had a bunch of camera gear with me plus a small laptop (for the pictures). I had a portable (but full size) tripod, too – essential for night shots and long exposures. I shot primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II, a full frame DSLR camera. I took three lenses: a 24-105mm (used most of the time), a 17-40mm, and a 70-200mm zoom (plus a 1.4x extender to make it 98-280mm). I also have a Canon Powershot S110 point-and-shoot camera. Yes, all of this is a bit heavy. I didn’t always carry all of the camera gear around, because the camera bag was heavy! Sometimes I carried just the DSLR around my neck with the general purpose 24-105mm lens; sometimes I carried a little bag with my 70-200mm (which I found essential for zooming in on clock towers and statues). Occasionally I’d leave all of it at the hotel and take just the point-and shoot and give myself a break. When taking night shots, though, I’d take the full bag of lenses plus the tripod.
Phone: I traveled with an Android phone – a Moto E 2nd generation international GSM version, and I had T-Mobile USA service that gave me free unlimited data in every country I visited. I could have bought local SIM cards in each country, but because I was visiting so many countries in a short period, having T-Mobile work everywhere as soon as I landed or crossed a border (or bounced between mobile towers in different countries while on the ferry in the Gulf of Finland) was well worth the extra cost for me. (I switched to T-Mobile for just two months for this trip.) I had great T-Mobile reception in every country, almost everywhere, on their roaming partners, and I had 4GLTE connections in most countries. (T-Mobile supposedly limits data speeds to 2G, but that seemed to apply only when you are streaming video or using a lot of data at one time; my phone never seemed slow otherwise.)
T-Mobile charges 20 cents/minute for local calls and for calls back to the US. I didn’t make any local calls on this trip. I made several lengthy calls back to the US to catch up with family, but I used the Google Hangouts Dialer app on my phone to make free calls home, even to landlines, and that worked very well. I already used Google Voice as my primary phone number in the US, anyway, and I was able to set Hangouts Dialer to ring to receive calls on my Google Voice number. Google Voice is free for US residents, and if you get a free Google phone number before leaving the US, you can have people call you on it while traveling like I did.
I used Google Maps on my phone everywhere to navigate by bus and by walking. Before departing for Europe, I created specific Google Maps for each city I’d visit with all points of interest already saved, so while in town I could just bring up that map on my phone and find my way to anywhere I needed to go quickly. This is the first trip on which I have ever navigated solely with my phone, and it worked so well I can’t imagine ever needing a paper map again. Google Maps gave me not only walking directions but public transit directions. I didn’t have to look up a bus schedule (except in Kaunas, which isn’t in Google Maps yet).
Getting around towns: I’m too frugal to take taxis, even Uber. I bought an unlimited transit pass (buses and trams) in almost every city I visited (Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Helsinki, and Amsterdam). Combined with Google Maps telling me which bus or tram to take and how to walk to/from the stops, the unlimited passes were far more useful than on previous trips, where I’d always had to fumble through bus schedules or look things up ahead of time. Google would tell me which bus or tram to take and how to walk to the stop and from the stop at the end. Especially in St. Petersburg, this turned out to be a huge time saver. Having unlimited passes (other than St. Petersburg) meant I could ride the bus even a few blocks to save my feet and not have to ask, “Is that worth a Euro?”
Lodging: I booked most of my hotels with Booking.com, a site I’ve used for years and swear by. I considered using AirBnB (still never used them), but I often have trouble committing to a schedule on any of these trips and like the flexibility to cancel/change near the last minute. You can’t do that so easily with AirBnB without fees. I booked my hotels (free cancellation til a few days before) maybe two months out. I booked separate plane tickets from Amsterdam to Villnius about two months out (airBaltic had a sale – I booked on their website) and about a month out on FinnAir from Helsinki back to Amsterdam at the end. (One-way fares for direct flights on both FinnAir and KLM were very pricey, around $300 USD or even higher; I wound up booking the FinnAir flight for about $210 as an open jaw with a return from Copenhagen to Helsinki a few weeks later that I didn’t use – that was cheaper than just a one-way ticket.)
I took buses and trains to do day trips and travel between cities, but I greatly prefer trains. Unfortunately, there are no good train options between Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. But there are good, cheap, frequent express buses that I used and worked well for me.
Buses, Trains, and Ferries: All of the Baltic countries have local train systems to some extent, but there are no great train connections between countries. Instead, there are frequent, competitive express buses that are comfortable enough (I still prefer trains if they are an option). You actually can get from Riga to Tallinn by train if you really want to, but it is much longer and more complicated (several connections and maybe long layovers) than taking a direct express bus.
You could even consider flying between Baltic capitals; airBaltic has surprisingly competitive fares, though when you consider time between city center to airport in each city, you might not be saving yourself a lot of time. You are not really missing much scenery if you skip the bus ride – the countryside you drive through in the Baltic countries is fairly bland with a lot of trees and a fairly flat landscape, though maybe in the fall you’d see some pretty colors.
There are a lot of ferry companies serving the route between Tallinn and Helsinki. Note that there are different ferry terminals in Helsinki. I chose the Eckerö ferry because it arrived at Helsinki’s west ferry terminal, which was in the same building as the St. Peter Line ferry to St. Petersburg – convenient for me but not necessarily convenient if you just want to visit Helsinki itself (but there are frequent trams from west terminal into Helsinki).
I booked the St. Peter Line ferry – currently the only ferry option – between Helsinki and St. Petersburg directly on their website, about five weeks out. The prices did go up over time as you get closer to departure, and prices vary quite a lot, depending on demand. I booked the “bus” (mini-bus) from Šiauliai to Riga (Ollex) online a few days before, and I booked the Ecolines bus from Riga to Tallinn online a few days before on the Ecolines website (prices for that also varied by demand and seemed to go up closer to departure; prices for competing LuxExpress buses doing the same Riga-Tallinn route seemed to be a few Euros higher.)
I was able to buy local train tickets between cities in Lithuania at the Vilnius train station from agents who spoke English; for the return ticket from Trakai to Vilnius, I bought a ticket from the conductor – normally a surcharge, but the tiny Trakai train station was closed that day. I bought train tickets in Latvia at the Riga station, too, but people were buying tickets on the trains from the conductor. Lithuania has nice, modern trains; Latvia has much older trains. I did not ride any trains in Estonia or Russia (looks like Estonia’s trains are modern too). In Helsinki, I bought a day ticket for the local transit system and that also covered my train fare to the airport. I bought train tickets in the Netherlands from machines. Note that they charge a 0.50 Euro surcharge for using a credit card in the Netherlands at the machine; you can pay in Euro (coins) at many of the machines to avoid the surcharge.