Norway and Finland – Getting There, Around and Back

All aboard for the next train out of Flam, Norway!

Getting around is part of the fun of a visit to Norway and Finland. Our trip gave us a chance to check out just about every mode of transportation and many brands, from United Airlines to the Gjene ferry. Here’s the wrap-up:

  • 1 leg on US Airways (Phoenix to Chicago)
  • 1 leg on Scandinavian Airlines (Chicago to Stockholm Arlanda)
  • 7 legs on Norwegian Air Shuttle (Arlanda, Oslo, Tromso, Bergen, Helsinki – see my review)
  • 2 legs on United Airlines (Stockholm to Newark, Newark to Phoenix)
  • Round trip on the VR train (Helsinki to Turku)
  • 1 leg on a boat from Memurubu to Gjende (Jotunheimen, Norway)
  • Round trip on ferry to Suomenlinna (Helsinki)
  • A few hundred miles of driving in Norway
The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is the surprise of the bunch; nice planes, good service, good on-time performance and a very nice bit of regional flair.

The VR train was less of a surprise since European rail service has a good reputation. The VR exceeded our expectations, though. Watch for a full review here.

United Airlines wasn’t much of a revelation overall. But somehow, I got us seats in Economy Plus for the flight from Newark to Phoenix. That extra few inches of legroom was a nice surprise. If you have a few extra bucks or enough air miles for the upgrade, I’d highly recommend United Airlines Economy Plus. I was more than a bit surprised by the satellite TV in every seat. Had I not been hip-deep in a re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire, I would’ve thrown out $7 for the 4+-hour flight … especially since Goal TV is one of the stations. United Airlines seems to be in the middle of some real improvements for domestic flights.


Scandinavian Airlines Review: O’hare to Arlanda

 Scandinavian Airlines review
Our ride to Stockholm.

My flight to Stockholm marked two firsts for me: my first flight on an Airbus A330, and my first flight on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). And I was eager to write a Scandinavian Airlines review.

I boarded the SAS flight at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I found a very friendly cabin crew -- and a sweltering-hot cabin. That’s coming from a longtime Phoenix resident, so take that seriously. We were airborne for a good 30 minutes before the cabin cooled down. I didn’t see any of the air nozzles that are common in most aircraft. This may be a quirk of the A330: I found other flyers who said the same thing about the Airbus A330 (this one, for example).

The economy class seating seemed more cramped than I recall on other airlines’ long-haul flights – Asiana, IcelandAir and Qantas all seemed to have more room. Most of the cabin was arranged in a two-four-two configuration. But our economy-class seats were where the fuselage narrows, so there were just three seats in the middle row.

 Scandinavian Airlines review
The cheap seats of the SAS Airbus A330.

I’d hoped that Scandinavian Airlines would have something really cool on its A330 that Qantas and Asiana have on their 747s and 777s: a water fountain. Several times during those even-longer flights, I refilled my water bottle and kept dehydration at bay. The Scandinavian Airlines flight attendants looked puzzled when I asked, but they did have a "do-it-yourself" water station aft. Once I figured out that it was there, I drank my fill (it would be nice to know about amenities like that -- maybe mention it in the in-flight magazines?).

The A330 did have something cool of its own, though – cameras facing forward and downward. You could select them from the on-demand entertainment system. The resolution was a little low, but it was nice for a look outside.

Now, about Scandinavian Airlines itself – its social media team is very responsive, and the cabin crew seemed to take a great deal of pride in the airline. I overheard one flight attendant answering a passenger’s question about the chicken-and-rice meal they were serving: "It’s excellent -- it’s SAS!" There was a certain charm in that answer. And it was a fairly tasty meal.

This was only my third flight on an airline with a Scandinavian flavor. IcelandAir did a better job at showcasing its roots – the most visible manifestations were the Icelandic language program in the on-demand entertainment system, the Icelandic phrases with translations on the headrests and the Icelandic-branded bottled water waiting on each seat. It would’ve been fun to learn a bit of a Scandinavian language en-route; maybe I just didn’t find it.

 Scandinavian Airlines review
Down the jetway.

Speaking of water, SAS had a bottle at each seat along with a pillow and blanket. They skipped the amenity kit you’ll find on Asiana and Qantas flights.

Boarding was quick and efficient – typical of twin-aisle jets.

SkyTrax rates SAS as a three-star airline. That’s a fair assessment, and one I can echo in my  Scandinavian Airlines review. Other than a hot (at first) cabin, I have no complaints. SAS just lacks a certain flair and sense of place that I see in other national flag carriers.


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Norwegian Air Shuttle – Review and More

Norwegian Air Shuttle
Greta Garbo graces the tail of this Norwegian Air Shuttle 737-800.

Norwegian Air Shuttle and I became very good friends during my trip to Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Norwegian Air Shuttle specializes in budget air travel – like a Scandinavian Southwest Airlines with assigned seating. My wife handled the bookings. Knowing that I like sampling different airlines, she looked into Finnair for some flights. But she found Norwegian Air was the way to go for cheap air travel. Its fares were sometimes half the price of its competitors. She booked us on flights from Stockholm to Oslo to Tromsø to Bergen to Helsinki.

Like Southwest, Norwegian Air Shuttle runs a fleet of 737s, most of which are the new 800 model (including a few with the cool new Sky interior based on the 787). The airline has a neat shtick to put a regional stamp on its fleet: Most of its aircraft have the image and name of a Scandinavian who, in some way, made a mark on the world. Think Greta Garbo, Anders Celsius, Edvard Munch and Edvard Grieg, to name just a few that you should recognize. Nice way to add some history to the air travel experience.

Norwegian Air Shuttle
The Boeing Sky interior – more headroom and a sleek look for this Norwegian Air 737.

Its niche is cheap air travel, so be ready to pay for every extra on a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight: checked baggage, meals, even water. But here’s what else you can count on based on my flights:

  • You’ll get where you’re going on-time. I can’t remember a single late flight in the bunch.
  • You’ll board and disembark more quickly than you’d believe. Norwegian Air boards from the main door and from the rear.
  • The cabin crews are pleasant. Not a scowl or ill temper on any of my flights.
  • The flights all have free wi-fi. But you’ll need a European SIM card in your phone to get anything out of it. I wasn’t able to make it work with my U.S. SIM card.

The word is that intercontinental flights are on the horizon for Norwegian Air using several of the 787s the airline has on order. Where will they fly? Well, New York and Bangkok, for sure. But I’d bet that Denver International Airport would push to land Norwegian Air. Denver’s population is pretty outdoorsy, and it’s a United Airlines hub. So it could draw from other regions to get people headed to Oslo to dive into the many outdoor adventures that await in Norway. Meanwhile, I’d bet all my US Airways Dividend Miles that the staff of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (my hometown airport) hasn’t even considered a bid to lure a few weekly visits from Norwegian Air Shuttle’s Dreamliners.

Norwegian’s CEO is quoted in the in-flight magazine as aiming to make the intercontinental air travel affordable through the Dreamliner’s low operating costs and fuel efficiency. That could open Norway as a tourist destination for a U.S. airport smart enough to make itself attractive. And with the right price and level of service, Norwegian Air Shuttle could compete with Scandinavian Airlines as a major player in getting travelers to Norway – and to Sweden, Denmark and Finland, too.


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