Getting Around Finland

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Getting Around Finland

Finland's a large country and travelling is relatively expensive. Public transportation is well organized and the equipment is always comfortable and often new, and advance bookings are rarely necessary outside the biggest holiday periods. The domestic Journey Planner offers an useful website with integrated timetables for all trains and buses including inter-city and local transport.

By Plane

Flights are the fastest but generally also the most expensive way of getting around. Finnair and some smaller airlines operate regional flights from Helsinki to all over the country, including Kuopio, Pori, Rovaniemi and Ivalo. It's worth booking in advance if possible: on the Helsinki-Oulu sector, the country's busiest, a fully flexible return economy ticket costs a whopping €251 but an advance-purchase non-changeable one-way ticket can go as low as €39, less than a train ticket. You may also be able to get discounted domestic tickets if you fly into Finland on Finnair. Another possibility is Air Baltic which also flies the sector Turku-Oulu for very competitive prices, far less than the train. Additionally, in 2011 Norwegian Air Shuttle started flying from Helsinki to Oulu and Rovaniemi. A shuttle bus (Finnair city bus) operates between Vantaa airport and Helsinki city center in approx. 20 min intervals (40 min trip duration); bus line 615 is a slightly cheaper but slower alternative.

There are two major airlines selling domestic flights:

  • Finnair, the biggest by far. Serves nearly all of the country, with some flights operated by their subsidiary Finncomm.
  • Blue1, a division of SAS, competes with Finnair on the busiest routes.

In addition, Air Baltic, Wingo and Air Åland fill in a few gaps.

By Train

VR (Finnish Railways) operates the fairly extensive railroad network. The train is the method of choice for travel from Helsinki to Tampere, Turku and Lahti, with departures at least once per hour and faster speeds than the bus. The following classes of service are available, with example prices and durations for the popular Helsinki-Tampere service in parenthesis.

  • Pendolino tilting trains (code S), the fastest option (€32, 1:26)
  • InterCity (IC) and InterCity2 (IC2) express trains, with IC surcharge (€26.9, 1:46)
  • Ordinary express (pikajuna, P), with express surcharge, only slow night trains for this connection (€24.6, 2:12-2:16)
  • Local and regional trains (lähiliikennejuna, lähijuna or taajamajuna), no surcharge, quite slow (€21, 2:03)

The trains are generally very comfortable, especially the express services. Pendolino and IC trains have restaurant cars, family cars (IC only, with a playpen for children), power sockets and smoking sections; Pendolinos and Intercity/IC2 trains even offer free (though often very slow) Wi-Fi connectivity. Additional surcharges apply for travel in first class, branded "Business" on some trains, which gets you more spacious seating, newspapers and possibly a snack.

Overnight sleepers are available for long-haul routes and very good value at €11/21/43 for a bed in a three/two/one-bed compartment, but one-bed compartments are only available in first class.

One child under 17 can travel for free with each fare-paying adult, and seniors over 65 years old and students with Finnish student ID (ISIC cards etc not accepted) get 50% off. Groups of 3 or more get 15% off.

Finland participates in the Inter Rail and Eurail systems. Residents of Europe can buy InterRail Finland passes offering 3-8 days of unlimited travel in one month for €109-229 (adult 2nd class), while the Eurail Finland pass for non-residents is €178-320 for 3-10 days. VR's own Holiday Pass (LomaPassi), at €145 for 3 days including up to 4 free seat reservations, is available to all but only valid in summer. You would have to travel a lot to make any of these pay off though; by comparison, a full-fare InterCity return ticket across the entire country from Helsinki to Rovaniemi and back is €162.

Generally, the trains are most crowded at the beginning and end of the weekend, and that means Friday and Sunday evening. Shortly before and at the end of major holidays like Christmas/New Year and Easter, trains are usually very busy. If you try booking for these days at a late time, you may find the seat you reserve may be among the least desirable, that is, facing backwards, without recline, and facing towards and sharing the legroom with other passengers.

While VR's trains may be slick, harsh winter conditions and underinvestment in maintenance mean that delayed trains are not uncommon, with the fancy Pendolinos particularly prone to breaking down. As in the rest of the EU, you'll get a 25% refund if the train is 1-2 hours late and 50% if more.

By Bus

Matkahuolto offers long-distance coach connections to practically all parts of Finland. Bus is also the only way to travel in Lapland, since the rail network doesn't extend to the extreme north.

Buses are generally slightly higher priced than trains, although on routes with direct train competition they can be slightly cheaper. Speeds are usually slower than trains, sometimes very slow (from Helsinki to Oulu), sometimes even faster (from Helsinki to Kotka and Pori). On many routes, though, buses are more frequent, so you may still get to your destination faster than if you wait for the next train.

Unlike the trains, student discounts are available also for foreign students by showing a valid ISIC card at Matkahuolto offices (in every bus station) and getting a Matkahuolto student discount card (€5). There is also BusPass travel pass from Matkahuolto, which offers unlimited travel in specified time, priced at €149 for 7 days and €249 for 14 days.

Onnibus offers a cheaper alternative (ticket prices beginning from €3 on all routes when bought online) for long-distance coaches on routes Helsinki–Turku, Helsinki–Tampere, Tampere–Pori and beginning from the autumn 2012 also Turku–Tampere–Jyväskylä and Jyväskylä–Oulu. Note that the routes in Tampere don't serve the city centre (with exception the Pori route) but instead stop in Hervanta (10km south of city centre), which will be Onnibus' "bus terminal" serving as an interchange station between different routes.

Local transport networks are well-developed in Greater Helsinki, Tampere and Turku. In smaller cities public transport networks are usable on weekdays, but sparse on weekends and during the summer. There are easy-to-use high-tech English route planners with maps to find out how to use local bus services provided by national bus provider Matkahuolto.

Demand responsive transport:

Demand responsive transport (DRT) is a form of public transport, in which the routes are determined based on the customers' needs. You can find the zones where DRT services are available by using the map or address search service.

By Ferry

In summertime, lake cruises are a great way to see the scenery of Finland, although most of them only do circular sightseeing loops and aren't thus particularly useful for getting from point A to point B. Most cruise ships carry 100-200 passengers (book ahead on weekends!), and many are historical steam boats. Popular routes include Turku-Naantali and various routes in and around Saimaa.

By Car

Car rental is possible in Finland but generally expensive, with rates generally upwards of €80/day, although rates go down for longer rentals. Foreign-registered cars can only be used in Finland for a limited time and registering it locally involves paying a substantial tax to equalize the price to Finnish levels. If you opt to buy a car in Finland instead, make sure it has all annual taxes paid and when its next annual inspection is due: the deadline is the same day as the car's first date of use unless the registration form says 00.00.xx in first date of use. In that case the inspection date is determined by the last number of the license plate. All cars must pass emissions testing and precise tests of brakes etc. Police may remove the plates of vehicles that have not passed their annual inspections in time and give you a fine.

Traffic drives on the right, and there are no road tolls in Finnish cities or highways so far. Roads are well maintained and extensive, although expressways are limited to the south of the country. Note that headlights or daytime running lights must be kept on at all times when driving, in and outside cities, whether it's dark or not. Drivers must stay very alert, particularly at dawn and dusk, for wild animals. Collisions with moose (frequently lethal) are common countrywide, deer (mostly survivable) cause numerous collisions in South and South West parts of the country, and semi-domesticated reindeer are a common cause of accidents in Lapland. Bear collisions happen sometimes in eastern parts of the country. VR's overnight car carrier trains are popular for skipping the long slog from Helsinki up to Lapland and getting a good night's sleep instead: a Helsinki-Rovaniemi trip (one way) with car and cabin for 1-3 people starts from €215.

A few unusual or unobvious rules to beware of:

  • Headlights are mandatory even during daylight.
  • Always give way to the right, unless signed otherwise. There is no concept of minor and major road, so this applies even to smaller road on your right. Almost all intersections are explicitly signposted with yield signs (either the stop sign or an inverted triangle). There is no explicit sign on the road that has priority, instead watch out for the back of the yield sign on the other road.
  • Signs use the following shorthand: white numbers are for weekdays (eg. "8-16" means 08:00-16:00), white numbers in parentheses apply on Saturdays and red numbers on Sundays and holidays.
  • In Helsinki, trams always have the right of way. Collisions do a "surprising amount of damage". Don't get into arguments with a vehicle that can't change direction and weighs as much as a small battle tank.
  • A vehicle is required by law to stop at a zebra crossing, if at least one other car has stopped, regardless of whether or not there is a pedestrian (in a similar manner as if there were a stop sign).
  • A car is obliged to stop at a zebra crossing, if the pedestrian intends to cross the road. Most pedestrians "intend" to cross the road only when there is a sufficiently large gap in the traffic. Being polite and stopping anyway can create a dangerous situation, when the car behind on the next lane does not recognize the pedestrian and goes by without stopping. Watch the mirrors and be ready to blow the horn.
  • When crossing the road as a pedestrian at a zebra crossing, do not leave a shadow of a doubt that you will cross the road, and cars will stop. With some practice, this works out smoothly, efficiently and without taking undue risks. By default, drivers will assume that the pedestrian "does not intend to cross the road right now", in other words, cars will not stop.
  • Circular traffic can be rather complex. For example, in one spot, two new lanes are created while the outer lane is suddenly forced to exit. This creates a difficult situation, when the lines are covered by snow.
  • Pedestrians walking on unlighted roads without sidewalk or cycle tracks in the dark are required by law to use safety reflectors. Their use is generally recommended, since the visibility of pedestrians with reflector improves greatly.

Winter driving can be somewhat hazardous, especially for drivers unused to cold weather conditions. Winter tires (M+S) are mandatory from 1 December through the end of February. The most dangerous weather is in fact around the zero degree mark (C), when slippery but near-invisible black ice forms on the roads. Finnish cars often come equipped with an engine block heater (lohkolämmitin) used to preheat the engine and possibly the interior of the car beforehand, and many parking places have electric outlets to feed them. Liikenneturva, the Finnish road safety agency, maintains a Tips for winter driving page in English. Note that especially in the Helsinki area, the majority of cars are equipped with steel-studded tires that allow more dynamic driving and shorter braking distances on frozen surfaces than conventional traction tires (M+S), as used in other European countries.

Finnish speeding tickets are based on your income, so be careful: a Nokia VP who'd cashed in some stock options the previous year was once hit for US$204,000! Fortunately, the police have no access to tax records outside Finland and will just fine non-residents a flat €100-200 instead. Speed limits are 50 km/h in towns, 80-100 km/h outside towns and usually 120 km/h on freeways. From around mid-october to april, speedlimits on freeways are lowered to 100 km/h and most 100 km/h limits are lowered to 80 km/h.

Software for GPS navigators that warns of fixed safety cameras is legal and installed by default in many mobile phones. Warning signs before fixed cameras are required by law.

A blood alcohol level of over 0.05% is considered drunk driving and 0.12% as aggrevated drunk driving, so think twice before drinking that second beer. Finnish police strictly enforce this by random roadblocks and sobriety tests.

If you are driving at night when the gas stations are closed (they usually close at 9 PM), always remember to bring some money for gas. Automated gas pumps in Finland in rare occasions do not accept foreign visa/credit cards, but you can pay with Euro notes. In the sparsely-populated areas of the country, distances of 50 km and more between gas stations are not unheard of, so don't gamble unnecessarily with those last litres of fuel.

By Taxi

Finnish taxis are heavily regulated by the government, so they're comfortable, safe and expensive. No matter where you go in the country, the starting fee is fixed at €5.50, rising up to €8.60 at night and on Sundays. The per-kilometer charge starts at €1.43/km for 1 or 2 passengers, rising up to €2,01/km for 7 or 8 passenger minivans. A 20-25 km journey (say, airport to central Helsinki) can thus easily cost €30-40.

Taxis can come in any color or shape, but they will always have a yellow "TAXI" sign (sometimes spelled "TAKSI") on the roof. Hailing cabs off the street is difficult to impossible, so either find a taxi rank or order by phone (Any pub or restaurant will help you on this - expect to pay 2 euros for the call). Taxi companies around the country can be found at the Taksiliitto site.

In the Helsinki city center, long queues at the taxi stops can be expected on Friday and Saturday nights. It is not uncommon to share a taxi with strangers, if going towards the same general direction.

Using of unofficial "taxis" is to be avoided. You might lose your wallet/purse/phone. This despite Helsinki being maybe one of the safest capitals in Europe.

By Thumb

Hitchhiking is possible, albeit unusual, in Finland, as the harsh climate and sparse traffic don't exactly encourage standing around and waiting for cars. The most difficult task is getting out of Helsinki. Summer offers long light hours, but in the fall/spring you should plan your time. The highway between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg has a very high percentage of Russian drivers. See Hitchhiking Club Finland liftari.org or the Finland article on Hitchwiki for further details if interested.

By Bicycle

Most Finnish cities have good bike paths especially outside the centres, and taking a bike can be a quick, healthy and environmentally friendly method of getting around locally.

The roads are generally paved well, although gravel roads are sometimes unavoidable. As long as you don't go off-road, you will not need suspension or grooved tyres.

Because of the long distances, bicycle tourists are advised to plan well and be prepared to use public transport for the less interesting stretches. Long-distance coaches are well-equipped to take bicycles on board, trains take bicycles if there is enough space. Ferries take bikes for free or a minimal charge.

Due to the relatively gentle topographic relief, too hilly terrain is rarely a problem, but in the cold months, windchill requires more protection against cold than in walking.

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