Posts tagged Helsinki
What do you know about Helsinki? I know a little bit about it, I did a mileage run there in 2008. And I know that it is the home of Rovio, the company that created the very addictive and incredibly popular Angry Birds game. (Admit it, you own Angry Birds and have held your smartphone under the desk, playing the game, during an incredibly dull business meeting! :-)) I learned some more about Helsinki when I read the February 15 issue of American Way, the monthly magazine from American Airlines.
Every month American Way features an article by Gerard J. Arpey, the Chairman & CEO, of American Airlines. His articles are usually positive and upbeat, highlighting a new service that American is offering, or information about a new member of the oneworld alliance. If AA is offering service to a new destination, the article will mention museums, restaurants, etc. Of course, keeping with the positive tone, he does not write about an increase in fees for carry-on luggage or labor strife with the unions.
Arpey’s column in the February 15, 2011 American Way is called Over the Top and talks about American’s new nonstop service from Chicago to Helsinki, Finland. The article does not focus on Helsinki’s restaurants or museums. Instead he brought up several points that I was not aware of that I found to be quite interesting.
I know that Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is the headquarters of Finnair, a member of the oneworld alliance. Arpey added something I did not know. “Many people don’t realize that Helsinki’s northern location — more specifically, its proximity to the North Pole — makes it a great connecting point from North America to India and much of Asia.” He’s right, I did not realize that. It’s something that does not make sense when looking at a flat map of the world, but makes total sense when you look at a globe that accurately reflects our round planet.
He goes on to say “Even those of us who rely on geography in our careers need to be reminded occasionally that our planet is indeed round — and thus the shortest distance between some points we’re used to seeing on two-dimensional maps is not left to right or right to left but rather up and down. In fact, one of Finnair’s many points of pride is the fact that way back in 1983, it introduced the first nonstop service from Europe to Japan, flying north over the polar-ice-cap region and then down the Bering Strait to Tokyo.” Another interesting fact; I would have guessed that a larger airline, maybe JAL or British Airways or Lufthansa would have been the first to offer service on that route; Finnair did not occur to me.
Arpey goes on to explain that the end of the Cold War has made it easier for airlines to offer over-the-pole service. “For most of our history, we were not allowed to fly over what was then the Soviet Union. But the end of the Cold War and the subsequent liberalization of various aviation agreements have increased our access to Russian airspace. Today we frequently fly through the polar region, most often when flying from Chicago to Shanghai, from Chicago to Beijing and from Delhi to Chicago.”
That makes sense. But I did not realize that over-the-pole routes only work well in one direction. “We are more likely to take a polar route flying from North America to Asia than on the return trip back to North America. That may seem odd to some, since the number of miles between two points obviously doesn’t change. But wind makes a big difference, and while there is relatively little wind over the Arctic Ocean, there is often a strong tailwind blowing from Asia toward North America, making a more southerly route on the return trip more advantageous.”
Here is a trivia question: does an airplane actually fly over the North Pole when taking a polar route? The answer surprised me. “By the way, because of the limitations of older navigation systems, none of the polar routes we fly crosses exactly over the North Pole. At the Pole, an airplane’s compass changes from a due-north heading to due south, and that change of course could potentially lead to problems with earlier-generation autopilot systems. Fortunately, that is not an issue with the latest generation of long-haul aircraft, such as the Boeing 777s we fly, whose source of navigation is the extremely precise Global Positioning System (GPS). Nonetheless, to make polar flying equally effortless for both the new generation and the previous generations of aircraft, none of the approved civil polar routes comes closer than about 60 nautical miles from the Pole.”
Whoever wrote this article (I suspect someone puts these together for Mr. Arpey to review and approve) deserves to be commended. He or she broke the mold and wrote an article unlike any other I had seen in American Way. I found this article to be much more interesting than most of Arpey’s article, and hope you did too!
I arrived at the airport and picked up my bag, checked in for my flight, and had a quick breakfast.
Then I remembered one of the advantages of having Platinum status with American Airlines. American and Finnair are both part of the oneworld alliance of airlines that includes American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Malev, Qantas, and Royal Jordanian. Since I have Platinum status on American, I can use the lounge of any of those airlines as long as I am flying that day on an international ticket. (If I had Gold status, the fact that I have an Admiral’s Club membership would not matter, I would not have access to those lounges.) So, I visited the Finnair Lounge.
The representative at the desk had to make a call to verify that I really was allowed in, but once she did she allowed me in. I had a glass of orange juice, coffee, and cheese, meat slices, and crackers. A good snack while I used their computer to check my e-mail. After relaxing, I went to the gate for my flight to Paris.
My flight from Frankfurt had stopped at the far end of the airport and I had to take a bus to the terminal. At least my Paris flight would depart from the terminal. The aircraft was an Airbus A-319 and had something I had never seen before: an all-female crew, the flight attendants and the cockpit crew were all female.
I boarded the plane and fell asleep immediately after take-off. I slept until they woke me to prepare for landing at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport. As we approached the airport I looked out the window to the right and saw the Eiffel Tower rising majestically from the Paris haze. Oh how I wish I could have gotten to my camera to take a picture of that view!
I had a one-hour forty-minute layover in Paris. I assumed the was more than enough time to transfer from one international flight to another. How wrong I was!
When I walked off the jetway there were two ladies holding signs, “American Airlines Dallas” and “American Airlines Miami,” and saying “wait here if you are taking either of these flights.”
There must have been 30 of us taking the Dallas flight. As I stood waiting for the other passengers to get off the plane, I decided I would take a picture of the airport. You can see that picture below. Nothing very exciting or top secret about it, but as soon as I took the shot, a member of airport security came up to me and said, “Monsieur, please put your camera away, you do not have permission to take pictures of the airport.”
What????? I can’t take a picture of an airport???? I had never heard of anything so absurd: this isn’t a photo of a top secret military base, the French President’s plane isn’t in the shot. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but also realized this was not the time to see if they were joking or not.
So, with a quick “Pas de probleme” I put the camera away. Enjoy the photo, there may not be another one like it anywhere else! haha!
When everyone had gotten off the plane we set off for our Dallas flight. It seemed like the lady leading our group received a bonus if she could get us where we were going as soon as possible. Many of us had a hard time keeping up with her as we marched like little chicks trying to follow the momma hen back to the barn.
I tried to follow our route, but frankly could not. Normally, if you change from one terminal to another you see signs saying “Terminal 2″ with an arrow pointing the way, or something similar. I never saw anything like that.
Eventually we ended up at the other terminal. I thought we could go directly to our gate, but instead we had to check in to get our boarding passes. By now I had little more than an hour until my Dallas flight left, and the line I was on was very long and not moving.
After 15 minutes I remembered that I was Platinum and this meant I did not have to stand on the very long check in line for coach, I could go to the much shorter First Class line and check in there! (Love those Platinum benefits!)
The first stop was a security check in where I had to answer the standard questions: “Did you pack your bag? Has anyone you don’t know given you anything to take on the plane?” And so on. We have not asked those questions in the US for a few years, I did not know anyone was still asking them. The representative seemed a bit puzzled that I was on an international flight but had not checked any luggage, she kept asking me if I was sure I had not checked bags in Helsinki. After a few minutes of this she decided I was not a threat and let me go.
Now I had to go to the American Airlines counter to get my boarding pass. The American clerk also seemed puzzled by my lack of luggage, but did not make a big deal out of it. After that I cleared through the X-ray machine and was on my way to my gate.
The flight departed from gate 45. I saw a sign for the high-numbered gates and went that way. I have to admit, I was not impressed by Charles de Gaulle airport, it did not appear to have the best design in the world.
I walked towards gate 45 and saw a wall after gate 37. An arrow pointed up and to the right to get to 45. I had to go up a flight of stairs, walk through a restaurant, then back down the stairs, to get to my gate. No problem for me, but what would a parent with several young children do?
I eventually got to the gate and found that the flight would be completely full: an earlier flight to JFK in New York had been canceled and many of those passengers had been rebooked on my flight. After the First Class passengers boarded I got on the plane (another Platinum benefit!). The early boarding gave me the space in the overhead compartment for my coat and bag. I had an exit row seat which gave me plenty of leg room (another Platinum benefit!).
I had a smooth flight to Dallas: once they served the meal I fell asleep and slept most of the way to Dallas.
Once I arrived in Dallas I quickly cleared Customs (and finally got my passport stamped!) My Austin flight was from Terminal A: I took the train to that terminal and headed straight for the Admirals Club.
The ACs in terminals A, B, and C are virtually the same except for one thing: the showers. Terminal A has what we call “the car wash shower.” Water not only comes from the hand-held nozzle and from above, but also from the side! It is a very relaxing treat after a long flight.
After my shower I left for my Austin flight. Everything went smoothly with that and my return to Austin. I was home, very very tired, but home, by 7:30 that night.
Looking back, I wish I had planned my time in Helsinki better. I spent too much time walking around. And, I am not in my 20s any more, that long overnight stay may have been a bit much.
But I got home safely, 26,708 miles have posted to my account, and all is well.
I wanted to get my bearings, so my first stop was the train station, very easy to find since the Finnair bus had left me across the street.
I walked into the waiting room and was glad to see a bank of computers connected to the internet. The cost was one hour for two Euros: put the money into a vending machine and get a ticket with a username and password, then log on. The ticket was good for up to three days, I took advantage of this to send messages home to let friends and family know that I had arrived safely.
Considering my far north location and the time of year, the weather was surprisingly mild: it never went below freezing while I was in Helsinki.
Now it was time for food!
I had done a search of restaurants on the Helsinki Tourist & Convention Bureau website and had found one restaurant that looked promising. I set off down the main street, Mannerheimintie. I used the street signs on the corners, but soon found that they did not list the names of the streets, they listed directions to local landmarks, such as the post office, train station, etc. And to make it more confusing, they are in two languages, Finnish and Swedish.
The street signs are actually posted on the buildings: great for walkers, but it must be very difficult for drivers to see them.
I found the restaurant I was looking for, but it was closed for a private event. So, back downtown.
I knew I had to buy some souvenirs for Mrs. Happy Flier so I went to a local department store. Or at least I tried to. I got there a few minutes before 4 p.m. and saw everyone leaving. I did not know that Helsinki has strict blue laws: everything, other than restaurants, bars, and movie theaters, closes at 4 p.m. on Saturday and does not reopen until Monday. So, I was out of luck on the souvenirs.
I decided to head to the Arctic Ice Bar. Perhaps you’ve read about a place like this: everything in the bar, including the bar and the tables is made of ice. We don’t have anything like this in Central Texas, so I knew I had to go there.
First problem is that it is hard to find. It’s at Yliopistonkatu 5, but is actually in the rear area of the La Bodega Restaurant. So, that’s what you have to look for. Enter La Bodega and tell the hostess you want to visit the Arctic Ice Bar.
They’ll take you through the Mexican restaurant to the Bar. The cost is ten Euros to get in the bar and have one drink. Before you enter the Bar, they’ll give you an overcoat; the temperature in the Bar is only 20 degrees F and the overcoat will come in handy.
The Bar is small, maybe 150 square feet. Its maximum capacity is only 10 people. I went in, the only other people were a couple visiting from Estonia. You choose among 5 different vodka drinks: these are strong! Finish your drink and you are done. You’ll be in and out in less than 15 minutes. But it makes for some interesting photos.
I walked around the downtown area looking for a place to eat. I was surprised at how many all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets I saw. Even more surprising was how many Tex-Mex restaurants I saw. I am sure these are all fine establishments, but I just couldn’t see flying almost 7,000 miles from Texas to Finland to eat a burrito! So I passed on these.
I had been concerned about a possible language barrier while in Helsinki, but that was not an issue. Everyone I spoke to either spoke English, or was with someone who did.
The Euro vs. the Dollar, the battle is over
I continued my search for a restaurant; fortunately they are all over the place in downtown Helsinki. I went up to one and looked at the menu in the window; it featured a wide variety of appetizers and entrees, and even had listings in English! The appetizers were $13 to $20 each, pretty expensive!
But wait! Those prices aren’t in Dollars, they are in Euros! The appetizers were $19.50 to $30 each! And the entrees were 20 to 35 Euros each! ($30-$50) I was hungry, but not so hungry that I would pay $70 for dinner.
I kept walking and checking prices, but they all seemed to be in the same price range. Finally, I broke down and got something to eat at (and I really hate admitting this) McDonald’s. A chicken sandwich, small fries, and small Coke cost $13.50! Helsinki will remain expensive as long as the Dollar remains weak against the Euro.
I’ve eaten, I’ve visited the Ice Bar, but I haven’t gambled yet! The Grand Casino Helsinki is located a just few blocks from the train station. If you have ever been to a fancy casino in Las Vegas, you’ll be disappointed by the Grand Casino. It is not nearly as large or oppulent as the Vegas casinos. It’s much smaller, but still nice, perhaps similar to some of the riverboat casinos.
I had to show my passport and have my picture taken to get into the casino. It offers the normal casino highlights: slot machines, Texas Hold ‘Em, Blackjack, etc. I hit the slots, lost a little bit of money, and left. At 6:30 in the evening. the casino was not very crowded, perhaps it would have been later in the evening.
I left and visited a bar that a FlyerTalk friend had recommended, U. Kaleva, located at 3 Kalavenkatu. Although the bar is less than a block off the main street it has the feel of a neighborhood bar: small, not very fancy, and you get the feeling that everyone in the bar knows everyone else. Even at the early time of 7 p.m. the bar was standing-room-only. This was not a singles bar, this was a place where everyone went to share good times with each other.
I had a couple of beers, enjoying the feel of the place, and left.
I went down the street and found Baxters, a combination bar and restaurant. I found a place near the bar and sat and watched the show. Even though I can’t speak a word of Finnish, it was real easy to watch the universal rituals that were going on between the young men and women who were there.
I still had several hours until the 5 a.m. bus from the train station to Vantaa airport, so I relaxed and enjoyed the excellent Finnish beer. My favorite was Koff, brewed in Finland. I enjoyed my time at Baxters, but when I noticed it had taken me almost two hours to finish a beer, I knew it was time to leave.
I was hungry again and looked elsewhere for a restaurant, I did not want to return to McDonalds. I walked around many of the downtown streets, but never found an affordable restaurant. Unfortunately, I ended up at Southern Fried Chicken for another $13 sampling of Helsinki’s fast food.
I went back to Baxters but could not get in, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. As I walked around I saw that was the normal situation at all the clubs. Helsinki has a lively nightlife in the downtown area, and every club I saw had a long line waiting to get in.
Another beer at U. Kaleva and I was ready to head home. I had not slept well on the flight over, and my internal clock was now totally out of whack.
So, I spent my last few hours in Helsinki walking through downtown. I’ll admit I went back to McDonalds for a hot chocolate at 3 a.m.
At 4:30 I was back at the train station, at 5 a.m. I boarded the bus for the ride back to the airport
Friday, February 8, started clear and cool. I was glad it was cool since I was wearing a winter coat for Helsinki and did not want to wear it at the Austin airport while it was 84 degrees.
I got to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, checked in, got my boarding passes, and went to the Admirals Club. The Austin AC was selected as the best Admiral’s Club in 2007. The secret is not the location or the services it offers, its hidden secret is the great staff, they are extremely helpful.
I had a smooth flight to Dallas, arriving on time in Terminal A. I took the SkyLink to Terminal D. Terminal D is the newest terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and is my favorite because it does not look like a standard airline terminal. It has a lot of open space and is much less crowded than the rest of DFW, with a lot of natural light; it’s a a beautiful terminal.
I went to the Admirals Club and met with three other people from Flyer Talk who were doing mileage runs. They were all going to Germany, taking advantage of the low fare to Frankfurt.
After a beverage or two, we headed to the gate for American Airlines flight 70, non-stop from DFW to Frankfurt. We were on a Boeing 777 (or “triple seven” as it is known). I’ve always enjoyed this plane because each coach seat has its own television screen with 12 separate entertainment channels. I would have taken advantage of this except for the fact that I fell asleep right after the meal.
Nine hours after we left Dallas we arrived in Frankfurt. Our first destination was the Admiral’s Club. It is located outside of the security area at this airport, so we had to clear customs to get there. My discussion with the customs agent was very quick.
“How long will you be in Germany?
“Three hours, I am flying to Helsinki in a few hours.”
“How long will you be in Finland?”
“Until tomorrow morning.” At that point he let me through without even stamping my passport.
We went to the AC: it’s smaller than most of the clubs in the USA, but also seemed a more luxurious with very nice wood paneling. Also, it offered complimentary alcoholic beverages. All overseas ACs offer this, no clubs in the USA do so.
I took advantage of the time to shower and shave at the AC, and change into fresh clothes. After a quick meal, I said good-bye to my Flyer Talk friends and headed over to the other terminal for my flight to Helsinki.
I took a train, very similar to the SkyLink at DFW, to the other terminal. Clearing security was quick and easy. I got to the gate, but did not see an airplane. In fact, I didn’t even see a ramp for getting to a plane.
When they announced it was time to board the flight and we still had no airplane, I started to get concerned. But I soon found the reason: this wasn’t a real gate, it was a bus stop! We left the terminal and got on a bus to the other side of the airport where our plane, a Finnair Airbus A-319, was waiting for us. A quick trip up the steps to the plane and I took my seat.
It was a 3-hour flight to Helsinki. Finnair has a television camera in the nose of the plane and shows the take-off from that view, I wish more American airlines did this! The only other time I have seen this was on Japan Air Lines.
Shortly after take-off they served a meal, something we normally don’t see on flights in the USA. They served meatballs in gravy with mashed potatoes and broccoli. It reminded me of the type of meal we used to see on almost all flights in the USA meals that are now nothing more than fond memories.
After the meal I fell asleep and stayed asleep until the flight attendant woke me to prepare for our landing at Helsinki’s Vantaa International Airport. I looked out the window as the plane descended into the clouds and stayed in them. This was a pure instrument landing, I did not see the ground until two seconds before we touched down!
The plane parked at the far end of the airport where we boarded a bus to the terminal. It was cold as we walked to the bus, but not below freezing.
I got to the terminal and had to clear customs. I saw a sign for “Non-EU Citizens” and went through that door. There were two more doors, one labeled “Something to declare,” the other “Nothing to declare.” I went through the latter and passed right into the terminal. No customs official spoke to me, and again, my passport was not stamped.
Vantaa airport offers a service that used to be very common at American airports, but is no longer permitted: they will store your bags for you. I visited the customer service desk and left my roller-bag with them: they would hold it for five Euros per day. Not a bad deal, certainly worth paying so that I would not have to drag the bag around town with me.
I took the Finnair bus to downtown Helsinki. Payment was easy, they accepted cash and credit cards. This is a great buy, 5.2 Euros for the 30-minute ride into town. A half hour later I got off the bus across the street from the Helsinki railroad station in the middle of downtown. The great experience had begun!
I’m back home after a very long weekend. Left home on Friday, got to Helsinki at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon. Spent the next 14 hours in Helsinki.
Flew out of there at 7:30 Sunday morning, and was home by 7:30 Sunday night, after stops in Paris and Dallas.
What a weekend! Will post more details and photos in the next few days.
Just a few hours to go until I begin my first international mileage run! Hard to believe this day has finally arrived.
First flight will be Austin to Dallas, leaving AUS at 12:25 p.m., arriving DFW at 1:25. I’ll have approximately one hour in Dallas, then take the 9½ hour flight to Frankfurt. That flight will be on a Boeing 777, arriving FRA at 7:10 Saturday morning. I’ll have a 3.5 hour layover in FRA, then take a Finnair Airbus A-319 to Helsinki, arriving at 2:10 Saturday afternoon.
I’d like to take a lot of photos of the sights in Helsinki, but don’t know how much opportunity I will have. Sunset is 4:45 p.m., and the latest weather forecast calls for showers, with a high of 38, a low of 36.
Several mileage runners on Flyer Talk are taking advantage of the low fares to Frankfurt and are flying in on Friday and making a three-day weekend out of it; they have already arranged to meet for dinner on Saturday night. I’ve been trading e-mails with one couple from New York City that will be sitting two rows in front of me on the DFW-FRA flight. Years ago travelers in NYC could fly direct to Europe from JFK. Now, they have to fly to Texas to take a flight to Europe! Oh well, they are doing a mileage run and will appreciate the extra miles