Tuesday, 17 January 2017

How to do Lapland on a Budget & Make it Feel Like Anything But! (Part 1)



Well the time has finally arrived for me to kick off a series of posts all about our Lapland experience. I’ve been overwhelmed with families contacting me saying they’ve already booked or are planning a trip this December based purely on my post detailing how I managed to save over 50% of the price of a day trip by booking it all myself, not only that but we went for 8 days and included a second Country for our family of 7 costing just €1,826! Catch up on that post HERE.

I’ll start by saying most people say it’s a once in a lifetime trip, I can categorically say it’s not as we’re going again in 2018 and quite possibly again and again! As usual I’ll detail all prices that we paid so you can plan your budget accordingly; during this trip we received some services complimentary as usual I’ll tell you exactly what we paid for and what we didn’t giving you an unbiased review regardless of whether we paid or not. 


Excitement Level: OFF THE CHARTS!


Flights:

Using Skyscanner I found a Norwegian flight from Dublin to Helsinki costing €118pp for the 3 hour 10 minute flight. A free carry-on bag per person weighing 10kg is included in the price we also checked in 2 bags costing €24 per 20kg bag return. With Norwegian you can’t check in online it must be done in the airport but it really was no hassle at all. Our flight was at 12pm so we arrived in plenty of time to check in at 10.30am. There was minimal queue at the check in desk, Norwegian staff were so helpful they even took all of the children’s carry-on luggage so they got to walk away swinging their arms.

I just kept our nappy bag for our toddler and a carry on full of food & things to keep the 5 children entertained for the duration of the flight. We were allocated a row of 5 seats together with an additional 2 in front, I was delighted to find that the extra seat in our row was unoccupied so our 2 year old got to stretch out beside me and have a nap.

Stone Travel Tip: You do not need rucksacks to travel to Lapland; we used two large rucksacks as we were afraid dragging a suitcase would be a nightmare. We were wrong while the paths are full of snow they are all compacted down so they're easily navigated with a wheelie suitcase. The same goes for a buggy; you do not need a baby carrier for your back we managed perfectly well with our buggy throughout the whole holiday.

Arrival in Helsinki:



There are a number of ways you can travel the 30 minutes to the train station in Helsinki from the airport such as bus, train, taxi or the way we did by private transfer. There are many companies offering this service a quick google search will return a comprehensive list.

One of most welcome sights after our flight was a gentleman in the arrivals hall in Helsinki holding an iPad with our name typed on the screen. He was our driver from Kovanen who had a VIP minivan waiting outside to whisk us to central Helsinki. 



We received a complimentary return transfer from Kovanen to see what we thought of the service. Our driver was professional and courteous at all times; He even helped load the luggage and the children onto the minivan. Our 5 little ones made short work of the complimentary chocolates and bottles of water on board. 

Free buggies in Helsinki


We also availed of the Kids plus service, for a fee of €30 they provide child seats for young children, they also receive a Kovanen branded teddy to take away with them and my lads loved them. In order to give a fair review of this company we made a separate booking with them for a transfer to the ferry terminal during our stay which we paid for and I’ll tell you more about that in a couple of weeks but rest assured it was every bit as comfortable a journey as our airport transfer.

Helsinki Train Station:

Thumbs Up for Helsinki, everyone - Close enough, Baby!


We arrived at the train station at 6.30pm, our train was departing at 10pm so we had a few hours to get dinner and have a short walk around Helsinki. In Helsinki Train Station you can leave your luggage in lockers downstairs, they have a few different size lockers ranging in price from €4 -€8 for 24 hours. We chose two €6 lockers to stow our luggage for a few hours, don’t worry if you don’t have change there’s a change machine at the door.

With our luggage safely stored we set off in search of a place to eat that would quickly satisfy 5 hungry children, we chose a pizza place just around the corner on Mannerheimintie located downstairs in the same building as Southern Fried Chicken just a few doors down from McDonald’s. I give you all these details so you can avoid the place!

It cost me just under €60 for a pizza and salad buffet including drinks. While they did make fresh pizzas for us the quality of the food just wasn’t good and the salad was either put out very early that morning or the day before. Afterwards we had a short walk around Helsinki looking at the fabulous Christmas windows in the large department stores and spent a little time watching the ice skaters behind the train station.

Helsinki Train Station


VR overnight train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi 
~ The Santa Express:

Next Stop, North Pole!


In my last post I gave you the low down of exactly how to get the best price tickets for the overnight train, it involved me booking a cabin for myself and the children then booking my husband into a shared cabin for a cost of €294 return for the 7 of us. 

The Seating Carraige


We got back to the train station at 9.30pm to wait for our train; we didn’t have to wait long as it arrived 5 minutes later. When you book online you can also print your tickets which is what I did, it gives you the number of your carriage and the number of your bed within that carriage. Make sure you have that to hand as there is nobody around to ask. As with all Finnish transport the train is highly efficient, our train departed the station at exactly 21.52 as scheduled, there was no whistle, bell or anything to signify we were about to leave, so keep that in mind if you want to jump off for a quick photo!



We boarded the train and set ourselves up in our cabins. They are small but doable; you can store your luggage under the bed. We also stored our toddler’s buggy under there too as we brought a small umbrella stroller for him. There’s a sink with bottled water in each cabin. The beds are dressed with duvets and pillows and the top bunks have safety straps for children. The loo was two doors down from us with minuscule a shower, you can upgrade to a cabin that includes a loo for €20 per adult return but to be honest it’s not worth it. There was a knock on our door about 20 minutes after we departed; it was the conductor to check our tickets.

Stone Travel Tip: Be sure to pack everyone's PJ's and Ski Gear at the very top of your bags so you don't have to go rummaging in tiny cabins. Ditto your toiletries.  

Taking the overnight train was a wonderful experience and we’ll more than likely do it again but I wouldn’t do it again with a 2 year old as I’m not used to co sleeping with him so I was half awake all night trying to keep an eye on him in case he fell out of the bed which he did twice but he landed on our coats that I had gathered there in case that happened. See I told you I’m rubbish at co sleeping. 

The Fully Stocked Dining Carriage


My husband got the children to sleep while I went and explored the train ending up in the dining carriage where I enjoyed the peace and a nice cold beer costing €6.90. Unfortunately there wasn’t a children’s carriage with a play area on our train as advertised on their website. 

Magical views from the train


The train stopped numerous times during the night at stations but not one of them was mentioned or any signal given that we were stopping so we could enjoy a night’s sleep (the children not me!). While you can purchase breakfast items on board such as pastries for about €3 each, free porridge is included in the price of your ticket, my advice would be to skip it as it was not nice at all and the coffee costing €2.50 was even worse. 

If you can stock up on pastries & smoothies before you board the train to have for breakfast in your cabin before you disembark. However lots of people brought their own breakfast to the dining carriage and nothing was said to them. 



We were due to arrive in Rovaniemi at 10.40am so we brought the children on a ramble through the train to stretch their legs after breakfast; it was on our walk that we bumped into a different conductor than the night before. She was lovely and stopped us for a chat as she is also a twin and saw my 10 year old identical twin daughters. It was only during this chat that she advised us that the train was over an hour delayed as they had to wait overnight for the driver that were changing shift. 


A short time later there was an announcement which was made in three languages but not English so we were lucky we had been told. My advice would be that if you see any staff chat to them and confirm your arrival time just to be sure.



I had said that I was half awake during the night but do you know what? I got to see some of the most magical scenes whooshing by our window during the small hours of the morning. The dense forests covered in thick snow, the occasional wooden house peeping out through the tall trees looking like something off a greetings card with Christmas trees covered in tiny white lights in their front gardens. Just gorgeous, not to mention the stunning sunrise we got to witness, everywhere we looked it was very surreal just like we were in a movie. 

Nous Arrivé!!


As we pulled into Rovaniemi Station I made sure the children were all suited and booted in their warmest ski gear before we set foot in the snow to experience Lapland first hand. Drop back next week when I tell you where we stayed & how we got on at Santa Village on our Husky and Reindeer safaris. 

Stone Travel Tip: If you don't fancy travelling by train, a budget alternative would be to grab cheap flights to Gatwick & overnight in an airport hotel, the cheapest I found was £30pn for 2+2. There's a direct flight from Gatwick to Rovaniemi but it departs at 5.30am. 

Our way above worked out at €250 less for a family of 7 & worth every minute! 

Drop back next week for the second installment. Tell us, have you been to Lapland? Would you consider it now? 


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*** Disclaimer: As advised above we received free return transfers from Helsinki airport to central Helsinki. As usual all thoughts are my own, I was not asked to write this review. As ever neither free services nor payment would ever sway my opinion. ***
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