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Reviewed: Finnair from Europe via Asia on the "Reindeer Route"

By John Walton     Filed under: Singapore, Finnair, Helsinki, Airbus A340, Kangaroo Route, angled lie-flat seats, Reindeer Route

With the Qantas-Emirates tie-up due in April, Australians who don't want to fly to Europe via Dubai, or who will be left with Emirates' uncompetitive angled lie-flat seats on the 14+ hour flight to the Gulf, are hunting for other options.

The only remaining Europe-bound non-Emirates arrangement Qantas is keeping (having dumped Cathay and Air France) is Finnair to Helsinki -- as a codeshare with QF flight numbers for your extra bonus points -- and then on to Europe.

Don't worry, the geography works, as we explain in our guide to Finnair's Reindeer Route

With budget-pleasing combination fares including economy/premium economy to Asia and business on the longer leg to Helsinki, is the Reindeer Route worth it for Australians?

I harnessed up Rudolph and tested it out between Paris, one of the codeshare destinations cut by Qantas, and Singapore (where you'd transfer to a Qantas plane on the Reindeer Route). 

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport

I arrived at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport three hours before my flight. That was my first mistake: since I was taking two connecting trains to the airport, I'd left myself some time for the timetable to go wrong. Unfortunately, Finnair's outsourced desks at CDG don't open until two hours before check-in, so I had to cool my heels in the miserable concrete jungle that is de Gaulle.

Check-in was about as expected from contract staffers in Paris: neither charm nor efficiency. I had to ask for a business class priority tag to be put on my bag, and the staffer didn't stick the peel-off mini-labels to my bag until I suggested it -- those are the labels that identify your bag if the tag gets ripped off by baggage machinery.

The Finnair lounge in Paris is the lackluster Salon Air France, which is before security. (Since I flew, Finnair has shifted its passengers to the Sheltair lounge, so I won't spend too much time telling you how unimpressed I was by the AF lounge.)

Salon Air France is an open-plan lounge that's also open to the wider terminal -- no quiet haven here -- with low, exposed concrete ceilings and adverts plastered across the place.

Departures are displayed on a TV which I'd swear has been there since the 1980s:

It's also not a oneworld lounge, which means you can't use your Qantas or other oneworld frequent flyer card to get in when flying in economy.

And since it's before security, you end up having to queue for ages for passport control security -- again, I was expecting an inefficient scrum in Paris and that's what I got, despite the priority lane.

Rating: two unimpressed stars out of five for the Paris experience.

Paris to Helsinki

Onboard the Finnair A321 I encountered my first smile of the day, from the very efficient cabin manager in her chic black-and-white Finnair uniform.

I was a few rows back in seat 5A, and with the middle seat unoccupied in the usual "Eurobusiness" layout and no seatmate in 5C, I stowed my small carry-on bag underneath the middle seat.

The seats are the new thinner style that you'll find in a lot of economy classes -- comfortable for economy, but disappointing in business. Finnair's (and Qantas') oneworld partner British Airways uses a convertible seat for its European business cabins that at least gives you a bit of extra seat width, and it's set further apart in legroom.

The food on board was okay for European business or international economy: a bread roll, a single lonely piece of vegetable sushi on its own rather large tray, and a Korean beef bulgogi with white rice.

Finnair's business class champagne is the same you'll find in Qantas' temporary first lounge in Singapore: Joseph Perrier. It's drinkable but nothing to write home about -- certainly not up to the Laurent-Perrier on board Qantas, or even the Taittinger that's a step below the L-P.

I absolutely adored Finnair's chic, 20s-style champagne glasses (and there are similar, shorter versions for wine) -- they're whimsical, retro and stylish. A+.

The three-hour flight was otherwise uneventful: with no entertainment (a minus) I ended up listening to some appropriately Finnish Sibelius on my iPod and enjoying the view of the Swedish islands and the Baltic Sea once I'd finished lunch.

On arrival in Helsinki, we disappointingly ended up at a remote stand and had to walk down the stairs to a bus. One of the very few reasons to fly business class within Europe is to be first off the plane, so the bus trundle around to the back of the airport (about as far as you can get from the long-haul gates used for my Singapore flight) was a pain despite a few seconds of Helsinki sunshine.

Rating: three average Eurobusiness stars out of five for the Paris-Helsinki leg

Helsinki Airport

Helsinki is one of Europe's best airports for transiting. A stylish modern building, super-fast and super-simple free wifi, recharging points (and wireless charging units available), heaps of seating and friendly, English-speaking staff make it my pick for connections.

Pick up some unusual gifts too: Moomin merchandise for a small person in your life, unusual Finnish cordials, quirky cult Marimekko design house pressies and the usual range of high-tech gizmos -- with a focus on kit from local heroes Nokia.

Domestic and Schengen Zone flights are intermingled near security, while it's a couple of minutes' walk further through the terminal and through the queueless passport control to get to the Non-Schengen area, which is for flights further afield and to European countries that aren't in the Schengen Zone (like the UK or Russia).

Rating: five connected and efficient stars out of five for Helsinki Airport

Finnair Non-Schengen Lounge

If you're heading to Asia, the UK or anywhere else long-distance from Helsinki, you'll be using the Non-Schengen lounge after passport control. (The rest of Europe is treated as a domestic flight thanks to the Schengen agreement.)

Finnair business class passengers, oneworld Emerald and Sapphire frequent flyers and their Qantas Gold and Platinum cardholder equivalents are allowed in. It's also a Priority Pass lounge -- voted the Priority Pass lounge of the year 2011 -- so if you have one of those black cards then you're welcome inside.

Since the lounge has won numerous plaudits and awards, I was keen to see how it matched up to other international options you'd find on your journey, especially after the quirky Finnish spa and sauna were removed recently.

The lounge's layout is essentially one large room, with modern Nordic design influences accented with Finnair blue.

To the left as you walk in is the buffet zone, with a dining area in the centre and business desks hard to the right.

Upstairs on the far side of the lounge is the relaxed seating, with reclining chairs and a view over the tarmac, and a spillover dining area.

I was disappointed with the food and drink in the lounge, which was sparse and unimaginative compared with other oneworld airline business class lounges.

On the food side, it was salad, plus a bowl of warm chicken satays, soup and, later, a chafing dish of overcooked meat.

Drinks, too, were on the stingy side: there's no sparkling wine or champagne unless you pay through the nose for some mediocre Mumm Cordon Rouge. Given that you get a reasonable Joseph Perrier on board, it's a bizarre policy that comes across as cheap.

It's no Qantas International Business lounge in Sydney, that's for sure.

Rating: three disappointed stars out of five for the lounge

Helsinki to Singapore

I boarded relatively early to get myself settled in, and was welcomed cheerfully on board and shown to my seat, 5L in the last row on the right hand side. (Yes, L. Finnair's business class goes AC, DH, JL.)

The seats are angled lie-flat sleepers, in a deep blue surrounded by grey and white. It's a little sterile, but clean and efficient in presentation.

Legroom is fine in seat mode, and it's plenty wide enough (especially if you drop the armrest).

But when reclined the angle is pretty steep and the foot end of the slope droops slightly, which makes it a real pain in the knees if you sleep in any other position but on your back.

It's not a particularly comfortable way to sleep for eight or ten hours, but compared with Emirates' narrower Boeing 777 angled lie-flat seat Finnair wins slightly.

The entertainment screen feels no bigger than other airlines' economy offerings, which is a drawback on 12-hour flights like this one. There's a decent range of international films, but I was disappointed in the lack of decent documentaries or anything interesting about Finland. Headphones are a standard set of noise-cancellers.

Amenity kits, too, are greenwashing gone mad, with socks and an eyemask in a paper bag, with everything extra handed out by the crew or left for you in the lavatories.

Dinner was fresh, tasty and well-prepared, with a delicious sweet potato soup that came with a healthy handful of fresh herbs, mediterranean tortellini in pesto cream sauce, a light salad and a cheese plate. A small cake followed. Nothing was worldshatteringly gourmet, but it really hit the spot and was remarkably well presented and carefully reheated.

The wine, too, was solid if not special. Italian Chardonnay and German Riesling, French Médoc and Italian Valpolicella, an interesting Austrian Beerenauslese dessert wine, plus a Niepoort Colheita tawny. Try the Finnish Cloudberry liqueur if you like a nightcap — it's an unusual treat.

I was thrilled to see Finnair's fabulous glassware again, and it proved to be remarkably stable even through some turbulence.

I dozed uncomfortably throughout the night, waking up frequently to try to shift position to something better on the angled slope. Fortunately, I'd packed a pair of cotton PJs in my hand-luggage, since I knew the seats were on an angle, so I didn't slide perpetually downwards in smoother suit trousers.

Breakfast ten hours later was surprisingly good: vegetable crepes with bratwursts, fava beans in tomato sauce, fruit, muesli and yoghurt. A surprise slice of cheese and a perfectly flaky croissant (amazingly so — I've never had such a good one in the air) rounded out the meal.

On arrival in Singapore, it was a long humid hike through the old T1 (also used by Qantas and British Airways) to the baggage claim, and a frustrating wait for my priority-tagged luggage.

Rating: two tired stars out of five for the Helsinki to Singapore leg

Overall

Finnair's concept is great, but the execution isn't yet there.

It's a big plus if you prefer connecting through Asia than Dubai, you don't like Emirates' 777 beds, you fancy a split-fare ticket and you want to still earn your Qantas points.

But the angled lie-flat seats from Singapore, the Eurobusiness seating, and the nickel-and-diming at the Helsinki long-haul lounge are all fairly significant minuses.

The Hong Kong and Bangkok to Helsinki legs use significantly better seats in Finnair's Airbus A330, though — and flying via HKG also means you get to lay over in Cathay's fantastic lounges.

I'd consider the Reindeer Route again via Hong Kong or Bangkok, but you can do better than the Singapore leg.

Rating: three must-try-harder stars out of five.

John Walton was a guest of Finnair.

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About John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

 

Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 10/1/13 by russell

Those internet speeds are incredible. At an airport no less.

1 on 15/1/13 by John

I quite agree, russell! Lightning fast, and it stretches completely throughout the airport — out to the bus stop into town! I think "best in the world" is fully deserved on that one.

2 on 10/1/13 by AusFlyer

I think good on them for offering a green amenity kit. The only items I really use are the eye mask, socks and ear plugs. The rest just gets left on the plane as rubbish and I'm sure that is the case for alot of people. Can you imagine the number of plastic tubes and amenity bags that get left behind by passengers all over the world? 

Singapore Airlines do a similar thing where in Business Class you only get the essentials and if you want moisturiser or shaving kits then they are available in the toilets. 

1 on 15/1/13 by John

I think there's a happy medium to be borne here — perhaps a recycled case? Or your choice of a snazzy Marimekko print washbag if you'd like one?

If the answer's no, I think they need to do a better job with consistency of provision — enough toothbrushes for all, that kind of thing.

3 on 10/1/13 by Agfox

Interesting review, thanks, John. I assume there were alternatives to your meals on the Helsinki-Singapore flight but were there any light snacks etc. that you could request from cabin staff or help yourself to if you felt hungry between dinner & breakfast?

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Yes indeed at dinner — the menu choice was sea bass in lemon butter on a bed of stewed fennel (looked delicious as it went past), grilled spring chicken with port wine sauce and chèvre risotto (looked unfortunately like airline chicken), or my tortellini. 

Breakfast was the crepes/bratwursts, muesli and fruit. No particular veggie choice.

There was no BA-style "raid the kitchen" snack offering, but I saw the crew bringing out a variety of desserts for people at various times throughout the flight.

4 on 10/1/13 by Alex

Thanks for reviewing this! I fly to Helsinki via Singapore regularly, and agree with your comments. Staff are friendly and helpful, but the planes they use on the Singapore leg are terrible (they seem to fly two of the 340's, a newer one that you flew and a slightly older one which is older), the entertainment is rubbish (they've had the same movies and tv shows since early November, which makes travelling with an iPad necessary). They have a snack bar, but its fairly average. I usually just have a light meal, take a sleeping pill and try to get some sleep as there's not much else to do.

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Cheers Alex. I agree with you about the A340s — I had the same style (possibly even the same plane) both ways, so I can't speak to the other one, but angled lie-flat is a problem.

I also agree with you on the entertainment. There's so much that's fascinating about Finnish culture that it's a shame not to feature much of it on the plane. 

5 on 11/1/13 by ollie

How do you go about booking a mixed class fare? There doesn't seem to be any mention of it on their website. 

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Hi ollie — I seem to recall that this is one where you need to use a travel agent. (I know, that's pretty daft.)

6 on 11/1/13 by spinoza

Thanks for the review. That seat looks even worse than Skybed 1, which I try to avoid where possible. When the CX reverse herringbone or the Skybed 2 is available on pretty similar to get to Europe, its hard for me to imagine choosing a seat like that. Is there a review for Finnair's HKG to Helsinki business class seat?

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Cheers spinoza. It's pretty much on a par with Skybed Mk I, although a little better padded but a little narrower.

I'm hoping that we'll be able to feature the HKG-HEL business class seat — that one looks to be much more of a keeper.

7 on 11/1/13 by leegale

I flew both options and will attest the Qantas 747 to Singapore & Finnair A340 to Helsinki flights are definitely not the choice over the Finnair A330 to Hong Kong (old config) and Cathay A330 to Sydney. Comparing the Finnair old config to the Catthy new config business class seats couldn't be a more stark difference.

1 on 15/1/13 by John

leegale, I'm confused — Finnair's A330 to Hong Kong is the new config, and the old config doesn't fly to Hong Kong...

8 on 11/1/13 by allysonm

Dear John,

Please excusemy lack of  understanding the Qantas FF programme but can't you still accumulate FF points and status credit points with such One World partners as BA? Or are the extra bonus points you mentioned a aprt of the programme rules re which I haven't aquired as much understanding as I need to as yet. Thank you for your imformative, and entertaining, article. Allyson

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Hi Allyson, and thanks for your kind words! 

You can absolutely accumulate QFF points with oneworld partners like BA and Finnair. A useful bonus with oneworld partners is that you also get cabin bonuses if you're Silver or above. Have a look at the airline partners section of the Qantas Frequent Flyer website for more.

9 on 12/1/13 by ukauflyer

Im surprised to hear such a poor review of AY, as a frequent traveller UK to AU I often use AY and have yet to have a bad experience.

I admit tthe A340s and some A330s still have the old J seating.Maybe a review of the new J seating, and a greater focus on the brilliant cabin crew would show AY in a better light.

Also the HEL hub is brilliant, 35-45 min conx  - seriously brilliant!

and compare the fare BA/QF/CX to AY its a no brainer

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Thanks for your thoughts, ukauflyer. I'm glad you like the airline — I think Finnair is one of the most innovative players in the market and I'm always interested to see what they're doing.

The real problem is, as you highlight, the old business class seating (and, moreover, spending several hours in Eurobusiness once you pass Helsinki).

I found Finnair's cabin crew stolidly Finnish — very pleasant, efficient, but lacking in either the personal chumminess of Qantas crews, the mumsiness of older QF/BA crews or the chattiness of Cathay. Nothing at all wrong with the service, but it didn't blow me away.

I absolutely agree with you about Helsinki. It's hard to find a better connection in Europe.

10 on 12/1/13 by NordicNonBlond

Thanks for report!

If you fly Finnair through BKK you can get the new J cabin on their A333, unfortunately A333 can't make the HEL-SIN leg.

Yes their  Ultima Thule glass ware in J looks great, it was originally designed in 1968  for their JFK route. You can find the classes in tax free shops at HEL, also Finnair's online shop sells them.

1 on 15/1/13 by John

Thanks NordicNonBlond. I'll be keeping an eye out on the best options for Finnair once the Qantas schedule changes hit Singapore — Bangkok and Hong Kong may well be a better option then.

I shall have to get myself some of those glasses! They're just brilliant.

11 on 13/1/13 by Rob

Have just been to Dubai. If they thin for one minute they are up to scratch when it comes to levels of service and infrastructure, ready to handle all the thousands of Australians that are coming, then they are in dremland. It's over-rated, it's appallng service, it's expensive and the infrastructure is years behind where it needs to be. I think QF will regreat this decision, I for one have no intnetion of going through the UAE ever again. Appallng plae, appalling people. 

12 on 14/1/13 by nixjet

It's a good review however the big kicker is the substanial price differential between what you would pay on Qantas, BA, Emirates or Cathay compared to what Finnair charge.

I did the reindeer-route through BKK into CPH via HEL.  I JQ'd J class into MEL-SIN for a few days then hopped across, again with JQ to BKK to pickup AY to CPH via HEL.  I got full QFF and SC earn at my QP rate at over half the price.  The Finnair product is a very good mid-range option.  Service abrupt but efficient (there's a nice line somewhere in their material about scandinavians not being ones to pepper dialogue with unecessary small-talk - they say what needs to be said and thats it!)

You can sleep quite comfortably on their business product, too.

Mixed fares are no drama.

13 on 15/1/13 by GoldenClub

I flew J class Bkk to Zrh via Hel in September 2012. I chose Finnair because I wanted to visit Hel anyway, but their price was also the best for J class via Bkk.  

Agree with nixjet that this is a solid mid-range product. The services doesn't have the flair of a Singapore or Malaysia but out of Bkk there was Thai crew whose service made that leg very pleasant. Single seat was a real boon as a solo traveller, if a little narrow (and slightly grubby).

Food out of Bkk was very good but, suprisingly, was not as good out of Hel. I think they really should focus on improving their food offering while waiting for their new A350 planes to enter service. There is no excuse for a limp salad or stale bread roll in J class these days.

While the short flight time from Asia to Hel is a bonus, the drawback of Finnair is the quality of the product in their regional J class. Moving from intercontinental lie flat product to a regular economy seat (with middle blocked off) for the last three hours did make me wonder whethe I would have been better off flying direct from Bkk to Zrh on a longer flight in a much more comfortable seat.

Helsinki is a great city so the free stop over opportunity is great, but if it's not really on your agenda I would say -until Finnair upgrades its regional prodcut- spending a couple of hundred dollars more to fly direct to your mainland European desitination might be the way to go.

On another note, I found the lounges very pleasantly designed but quite small by comparison to Qantas domestic and international lounges. Granted, Finnland has a much smaller population, but if they want to become a major gateway to Asia they will need to increase the size of their lounges.

I think the new collaboration with Marimekko is a real step forward in terms of cabin ambience and service which probably would have resulted in a more positive review if it had been available when I flew - these small touches can make a difference to the vibe of the flight.

14 on 31/1/13 by Celestarsyd

John - can you confirm the A330 schedule between HKG and HEL? The Finnair website shows this as an A340 service for at least the 2 weeks in early/mid May block I have been looking at online. I'm searching for a decently priced Oneworld Business Class fare Hong Kong to London,  Finnair via HEL is obviously dramatically cheaper than direct with Cathay or BA. Having said that the A340 business angled seating is a deal-breaker.

1 on 31/1/13 by John

I've no insider info, but @finnair are very responsive on Twitter — I suggest you ask.

15 on 19/3/13 by Kerwyn

Booked to fly SYD-xHKG-xHEL-BUD  June 2013 - operated by an A340 there and back. Confirmed in Matrix.

 

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