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Europe is reopening again with its entry rules changing rapidly and its mask mandates dropping left and right. I never thought I’d be away from the continent for so long, but after not traveling to Europe since fall of 2019, it was worth the wait!
I just returned from Finland, whose borders recently opened to fully vaccinated travelers, and here’s how my week-long trip went.
Booking the Flights
The trip to Finland was fueled by a nationwide airfare sale to Europe from American Airlines. I shared the deal with a few friends, and a girls’ trip consisting of four female travelers was born.
The four of us departed from three different U.S. cities, and everyone was able to score the same deal. We each paid about $275 for round-trip flights to Helsinki, Finland (HEL), operated by American Airlines and Finnair.
The itinerary consisted of one layover in each direction: in Chicago (ORD) on the outbound (for everyone in the group) and then in either Miami (MIA) or in Los Angeles (LAX) on the return (depending on the final destination).
I flew out of Salt Lake City (SLC) and returned to Denver (DEN) to stay with a friend (who was also on this trip) for another two nights, and our overnight layover was in Los Angeles.
When we checked in for a domestic flight for Denver, American was looking for volunteers to give up their seats on the direct flight and catch an alternative flight to Denver. Because we had just spent the night at an airport hotel, I felt refreshed enough and offered to volunteer.
In the end, I scored $1,100 worth of American Airlines vouchers for taking a flight with a layover in Phoenix (PHX) that put me in Denver five hours later than the originally scheduled flight. Not a bad haul for such an inexpensive ticket to Finland to begin with.
We also booked one internal flight from Ivalo (IVL) back to Helsinki, but no award seats were available on our date, so we paid cash.
Booking Accommodations in Finland
We didn’t use hotel points to lock down accommodations in Finland. Instead, we spent one night on a 12-hour train heading north, three nights in an apartment that fit all four of us (reserved on Booking.com), two nights at a non-chain hotel next to a national park and one night at the Hotel Indigo in Helsinki before returning home.
What We Did in Finland / Our Itinerary
Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and it’s where most people begin their trip to the Nordic country. Our group wasn’t an exception, and we flew into Helsinki on our flight from the U.S.
We arrived in the late afternoon, took a train from the airport to the Helsinki Central Station where we stored our luggage in a locker and set off to explore the city. We tried salmon soup, walked to the Helsinki Cathedral, checked out a beer bar and had dinner before boarding an overnight VR train to Rovaniemi.
The double-decker train that travels to Lapland is officially known as the Santa Claus Express. We booked two double sleeper cabins and woke up in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland and the official home of Santa Claus.
Rovaniemi turned out to be a gem with lots to do in the area. We didn’t waste any time and dove in head first right after getting off the train.
On the day of arrival, we spent the afternoon visiting the Raitola Reindeer & Husky Farm for a reindeer safari. We learned that there are more reindeer in Lapland than people, interacted with the animals in person, fed them and took a ride in a reindeer-drawn sled across a snow-covered forest. It was magical. We even got a reindeer driver’s license. (Santa, if you’re reading this, give me a call next Christmas.)
On Day 2 in Rovaniemi, we did something that completely justified braving the cold and traveling to Finland in the winter—we went on an icebreaker excursion!
The Gulf of Bothnia is the northernmost arm of the Baltic Sea, which means it completely freezes in the winter. So, we went on a tour of the icy waters aboard Sampo, a decommissioned ice breaker that’s now used for tourism purposes out of Kemi, Finland.
After cruising for an hour, the vessel made a stop that enabled visitors to float among the just-broken ice water while wearing a dry suit. Yes, you read this right. We floated in the freezing waters of the Gulf of Bothnia as if we swam in the Caribbean waters somewhere off Grand Cayman.
Passengers were divided into groups and were given about 15 minutes of floating time each. Our group was last, so we walked around the ship on the frozen gulf while waiting for our turn. Memories of a lifetime were made that day.
On Day 3, we visited the Santa Claus Village right outside of Rovaniemi, where the man, the myth, the legend himself lives year-round.
We crossed the Arctic Circle and met Santa (no photos allowed). We also sent postcards stamped with a special postmark from the Santa Claus Main Post Office. The village was the most touristy experience we had in Finland, but it was still good to see where Santa lives.
Kakslauttanen / Saariselka
After Rovaniemi, we took a bus even more north to Kakslauttanen. We stayed for two nights at the Suomen Latu Kiilopaa, a ski lodge-style hotel right outside the Urho Kekkonen National Park.
The wilderness area right outside the front door of the hotel is full of cross-country ski tracks, snowshoeing and fat bike trails for all levels. It’s a great place to get in touch with nature, which we did on both cross-country skis and snowshoes.
Suomen Latu Kiilopaa is equipped with a regular sauna and a smoke sauna (accompanied by a cold natural pool right outside). If you think that I didn’t take a dip in the freezing water, you don’t know me very well.
The hotel is also not too far from Saariselka Ski & Sport Resort, easily accessible by bus, where we spent an afternoon tobogganing down the longest sled run in Finland.
I’m not much of a skier, but my three friends rented skis and a snowboard while I enjoyed a hot cocoa and a reindeer stew at the slope restaurant.
Because our flight to the States was departing from Helsinki, the group flew back from Ivalo the evening before and spent another half-day in the city. We had breakfast at Cafe Regatta, checked out the Sibelius Monument and ate some smoked salmon and caviar sandwiches at the Old Market Hall before heading to the airport.
Like many European countries, Finland is well-connected by public transportation. We chose not to try our luck on snowy roads in a rental car, so we opted for trains and buses (and reindeer sleds) instead.
Here’s how much we spent on transportation in Finland.
- Nigh train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi: €99.50 ($111)
- Bus from Rovaniemi to Suomen Latu Kiilopaa (dropped off in front of the hotel): €39.90 ($44)
- Bus from Suomen Latu Kiilopaa to Saariselka Ski Resort (round-trip): €5 ($6)
- Bus from Suomen Latu Kiilopaa (picked up in front of the hotel) to Ivalo Airport: €15 ($17)
- One-way flight from Ivalo to Helsinki (including a checked bag): €145.80 ($165)
We could have booked the Santa Claus Express for half the price had we reserved our cabins in advance. However, because of COVID-19-related uncertainties, we didn’t commit to booking nonrefundable components of the trip until about a month before departure.
COVID-19 Travel Restrictions
Several days prior to our departure for Finland, the country updated its entry rules and dropped COVID-19 testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers. The last booster had to be administered at most 270 days before arrival, and older boosters weren’t accepted at check-in for the flight.
We got lucky because the previous rules required a PCR or an antigen test within 48 hours of arrival in Finland, which would’ve been difficult to achieve before departure.
While in the country, not a single restaurant or hotel asked us to show proof of vaccination, and mask wearing was optional.
On the way back to the United States, we had to test a day before our U.S.-bound flight. Everyone in the group used proctored eMed tests to avoid looking for a clinic in Helsinki on our final day.
Although I didn’t use any points or miles for any part of this trip, an inexpensive airfare and the ability to split lodging costs among friends made it more affordable. Keep in mind that Scandinavia as a whole is pricey, which means that food and activities were still a big part of our budget.
A number of European countries have loosened or lifted COVID-19 restrictions altogether, including Finland. With updated entry rules, travel in Europe has gotten that much closer to normal again.
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