Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Love Layovers!

I know that in the world of flying, we all just want to get where we're going, but I'm going to take some time out today to remind all of you travelers that the journey is as important as the destination.  Case in point, my advice to take a long layover on a European journey.

I may as well do a commercial for Finnair here, but bear with me.  I've spent a lot of time reading about travel and watching it on television.  Face it, I love to go.  One of the shows that I've watched over the years is Anthony Bourdain's The Layover.  I wondered when I was booking this trip, if that was really a good idea.  I began to look into it for my trip to Switzerland, and I found Finnair.  They offered a great rate from JFK Airport to Geneva, Switzerland with a long layover in Helsinki, Finland on the way.  I'd never been to Helsinki, so I decided to give it a try.  For many years, I've flown exclusively on airlines based in the United States, and thought that I should check out another country's airline.

So, I booked my flights, got a great deal, and opted for the layovers.  On the way over, we had an eight hour day during the day to look around.  I checked my travel bible for Europe, The Eyewitness Guide to Europe, and found some things that I thought would be cool to go and see.  Guides like Insight and Eyewitness, and to some degree Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, will tell you a little bit about the area.  My guide told me that Helsinki was very westernized and many people there spoke English and liked to practice their English.  That sounded good.  It was one less language to worry about  on a trip that didn't involve any translators.

I ordered some free travel materials from Finland and Helsinki to learn more about my layover.  What I found out was that they had set up Helsinki to impress new tourists, so that the layovers would bring repeat customers.  They have a bus that goes from the airport to the city center and back every twenty to thirty minutes.  This brings the tourists to the best of the attractions with no stops and for very little money.  The bus stops right outside the terminal at the airport, and it is on the airport map so that all of us tourists can find it easily.  We hopped on the bus and went straight downtown.  The bus driver did speak English.  He spoke it better than some Americans I know.

So I took the trip with the layover in Helsinki.  What can I say?  First, the people at Finnair are great.  They sent me all the information that I needed to know about flying on their airline two weeks in advance of my trip.  They gave me several different phone numbers that I could call if I had any questions.  That was a first for me.

Flying on Finnair was equally terrific.  We each had personal televisions that we could watch pretty much anything on or listen to music or just see where the plane was.  They had good meals, yes there was more than one.  The staff was pleasant and friendly.  Everyone spoke a plethora of languages to help out all the travelers.  The seating was spacious for economy class and the seats were comfortable.  It could not have been a more pleasant flight.  Take that national airlines of the USA.

Once we got to Helsinki, the airport was small, the customs people were friendly, and the whole experience was easy to navigate.  We caught the bus and headed downtown to see what we could see in about six hours.  The day was beautiful, and we were looking forward to a little adventure.  Let the layover begin.

There's more than one town square in Helsinki.  We took the bus to the center of town, just like I'd read about.  We got off at the train station, and the driver made sure that we knew when we had to get back in order to catch our flight on time.  The train station is the centerpiece of that part of town with the clock tower and a  town square there.  From there we headed out to see what we could see.

We went to the Helsinki Cathedral.  This is on another square, elevated many steps up onto a hill.  The cathedral is the largest Lutheran Cathedral in the country, I believe.  In the square in front of it there is a statue of Tsar Alexander II.  He was the last tsar to rule Finland.  The Lutheran Cathedral was built shortly after that period in history.  The inside is beautiful.  You can go in and look around all you want.

We looked around the inside of the cathedral, stopped and the gift shop which was in a little building next to it, listened to the street performers in the square below, and looked around for our next sight to see.  From the top of the cathedral steps we saw the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, so we walked over to see it.

Helsinki's Russian Orthodox Cathedral is the largest of it's kind in that country, dating back to the time of the tsars and the several decades that they ruled the country.  The inside is ornate and amazing to look at.  The cathedral still gets a lot of use today.  Just  because Russia no longer rules doesn't mean that there are no Orthodox believers left by a long shot.  When we were there, it was quite crowded.

Barely across the street from the Russian Cathedral was the waterfront.  There we not only saw old wooden ships that were for rent, but cruise ships, fishing vessels, and sight seeing boats of all kinds.  We opted not to take a boat trip due to our limited time.

Instead, we went to the market place that was on the docks and the waterfront.  There we saw all the native handicrafts, clothing, and art.  We learned a lot about how intertwined Russian and Finnish traditions are.  They had woolens and wood carved totems, but they also had lacquer boxes and nesting dolls.  It was educational, beautiful and fun.

After that we wandered.  We found great shops, little museums, fabulous architecture, and old grand hotels.  It was a beautiful old town, and I'm glad I got to take a look at it.  We learned a lot about Helsinki in just a few hours.  We learned that like most of Europe, if you need a taxi, go to a stand.  We learned that they have street trams in Helsinki rather that subways.  We learned that they still have pay toilets with attendants for the tourists.  We also found out that they have an amusement park right there in the city.  That also is not uncommon in Europe.

So, we went into the unknown.  I didn't know much about Finland or Helsinki.  We found out that it was more European than we thought it would be, but that was great.  We also found out that they have a taste for American things there, that reminded me a little bit of Russia back in the 1990's.  I saw over ten McDonald's while we were there.  I saw several Subway sandwich shops while I was there.  I saw many American stores and restaurants while I was there, including a gigantic Toys R Us.  On the trip back we stayed overnight, and I discovered that they had four Holiday Inns.  Once I learned that, the concept that they spoke English very well didn't seem so exotic.

So, we took the time and saw something along the way.  Sometimes it looked just like the USA, like when we passed the rest area with the McDonald's on the way back to the airport.  It was a unique experience, and the Finns have placed it out there as an option to get people to come back and visit them.  Would I do it again, as a vacation location?  Would I go to Finland?  Yes.  Mission accomplished for Finland.  I like their country and would gladly go back, but they did have to show it to me and get my undivided attention for a while.

Finnair has been going for ninety years, and I wish them 90+ more.  By the time we reach middle age, like I have, the one thing we tend to have is time.  This was a trip where I took some extra time, I saved $300 per ticket, and saw some amazing things.  I found an airline that I would fly again and again, and that I would recommend to everyone I know.  I got a glimpse of a country that I'd never really thought about, and I liked it a lot.  I met friendly kind people, and had a great experience.  All on a layover, just like Anthony Bourdain says.  It's a great idea, it saves money and it adds to the adventure.  So, sleep on the plane.  There's nothing to see over the Atlantic Ocean at night anyway.  Enjoy your layover for once.  Enjoy!

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