On Getting There and Finnair

Planes, ferries, buses, shuttles, and my own two feet got me first to Helsinki, and then to various locations on the Greek island of Crete during the past sixteen days. It was a hella good trip. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share the highlights of Chania, Heraklion, Rethymno, Sfakia Chora, and Loutro with you, along with some insights and tips. Of course you get to see photos too. It’s hard to take a bad picture in any of those places, and may I say, Android phones rock the photo scene.

In Dallas, we have two major airports. Love Field used to be a tiny regional airport. It’s famous for being the place where JFK landed on what would be one of his final days on this earth. It’s close to the center of the city, and has grown considerably over the past thirty years I’ve been flying in and out of it. Southwest Airlines has its hub there.

Pro Tip: If it’s raining monsoon-style as it can here in Texas, don’t park on the lower levels of the garage at Love. They are notorious for flooding. I picked up my husband during a recent downpour, and sure enough, the drains were merrily belching water up over a foot high, as if they were realizing their secret aspirations of becoming glorious fountains.

DFW is the other big airport, and it’s massive. Every time we go there, I marvel at the clever design of the place. Swooping curved exits take you to one of five terminals, or to the two major exits, north and south. While it can be intimidating the first few times you go to pick someone up or be dropped off, there’s lots of signage to get you back where you need to go. Okay, yes, you may go around a few times, but I stand firm in my opinion that the design is fantastic.

My husband and I are old pros at this airport now, thanks to the travelling ways of our kids and friends. Terminal D holds the international flights, and that’s where we headed for the first leg of my journey, an 11-hour overnight long haul via Finnair to Helsinki. As I like to do (my family teases me about this), I got there three hours early. I enjoy airports, sitting and watching all the people coming and going, and hate feeling rushed. I can tell you exactly where this predilection for arriving early came from too; my father’s love of being the last person to board, having the doors of an aircraft held for him. I have a vivid sense memory of running over those grey squares of airline carpeting to keep up with his long stride, my suitcase bumping my knees as we moved past dawdlers (this was before the genius person who put wheels on suitcases**), and the knot that formed in my gut as I contemplated being left behind, of being TOO LATE. Ugh. No, thank you. Here I am, enjoying the airport!

I am not getting paid to shill for Finnair, but can wholeheartedly recommend it for any long haul you want to take. I’d now pick it over any other airlines I’ve travelled as an economy-class traveler. My best long-distance trip ever remains the first-class journey to and from Buenos Aires that our oldest son scored for us when he worked for Delta, but as flying economy class goes, Finnair beats anything else by a mile. Or a kilometer.*

“Why?” you ask. Oh, please let me tell you. First, the flight attendants are all ruthlessly efficient with their taller-than-you stature, and stylish blue uniforms and gloves, yet remain charming. “Hei!” they cry in welcome, or “Moy moy!” I felt taken care of instantly.

My seat was broad enough for my behind, with room to spare, and there was enough leg room for me to easily cross my legs or stretch them out completely under the seat in front of me. A lovely pillow and blanket were placed on each seat, and every seat has a built-in screen where you can see flight details or watch movies. They also provided good earbuds and a bottle of water. The jet I flew on was a 3-3-3 seat configuration. While I was lucky enough to have a vacant middle seat both coming and going, I wouldn’t have felt cramped if it had been filled. My second legs on Finnair from Helsinki to Chania were completely full, four-hour regional flights in a slightly older plane, but there was still plenty of seat and leg room. Being a planner, I really liked the moving timeline that showed exactly when we were going to be fed, and when we could expect to land that appeared on the screens.

I ordered special lactose-free meals, and got two excellent hot ones in flight, along with my choice of water or blueberry juice, coffee, or tea. The blueberry juice was great. All of my Finnair flights were on time or early to their destinations, even with a gate change on the first leg.

As we descended, I noticed that the fall had begun in Finland. Plenty of golds and reds were sprinkled in the thick forests we flew over. Helsinki airport is exactly how you’d imagine it to be. Lots of blonde wood, clean lines, and chrome. Think Ikea with planes, and you have it exactly. We deplaned and walked a good distance to the passport check. I was surprised that we were going through it here, and not Greece. The men at passport control were pretty thorough with the questioning, but polite about it. I got to thinking that Helsinki is only about two hundred and fifty miles away from St. Petersburg as I waited for my next plane and was surprised there were no obvious armed guards anywhere. It’s a great airport, which I would be very glad of on my return journey when I spent 12 hours there. I enjoyed wandering around on my current 3-hour layover. Trying to read Finnish is a treat. I had an excellent baguette with salmon and a coffee before my next flight. It was fun paying for them in Euros. I did my first exchange to get small bills in exchange for bigger ones, which was to become a theme for the next two weeks.

PRO TIP: No one in Greece likes big bills like 100s and 50s. They even sigh a bit over a 20. The good news for you, Dear Traveller, is that’s because nothing costs much in Greece. So when you get your money changed, get as many Euros in 5s and 10s as the bank will put up with getting for you.

The second flight loaded promptly and efficiently, and I had very nice seat-mates who’d brought along sandwiches made with dark rye bread and pickles. They changed seats with me so I could sit at the window. After a beautiful long-ish flight over lots of mountains and green countryside, we hit the coastline of Greece just as the sun set, turning the sea to molten gold.

Landing in Chania, we deplaned down the old-fashioned stairs on both ends of the plane, and then got on a bus that drove us the short distance to the terminal. And then I just… walked out of the airport with my carryon bags. No checks of anything, and sadly, no Greek stamp for my passport. Look up the Schengen Agreement as to why this is so. It’s a pretty cool policy of the EU.

The airport isn’t very big. I asked where the bus station was in Greek and received the first of many frowns, and a correction of my pronunciation before being given directions. This was consistent throughout my stay. Either I am rotten at actually speaking Greek, or Crete has their own dialect of it that doesn’t match Duolingo. Nonetheless, I found the little kiosk, paid the man the 2.30 in euros for the bus ride to Chania town, about a 25-minute trip. The sun had set completely, and I felt utter peace as I breathed in the night air and saw a different version of stars in the velvet black sky. It was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and the sea breeze eddied around the dozen or so people waiting.

A big, white motorcoach with tinted windows came, and we loaded bags underneath and then climbed aboard. As I was to learn, they have got the bus and ferry thing down to a science on Crete, and we left exactly on time. The buses are very comfortable to ride, and many have Greek music playing over the loudspeaker.

I will say this: I am glad I am not a bus driver on Crete. The roads become increasingly narrow as one gets to the center of the town, and it would appear that motorcycles don’t need to stop for anyone or anything. Pedestrians also tend to have an outrageous amount of trust that the bus will stop for them.

My only concern about the entire trip to Crete was finding my hotel after reaching the bus station in the middle of Chania town. This is even though I had picked it for its near proximity, and had stared at city maps before going. I was getting there alone at night, after travelling for nearly 20 hours straight.

I needn’t have worried. My swim friends, Barbara, Phyllis, and Dianne were there to greet me. How lovely of them. Turns out I picked well, the walk was less than a football field to the hotel, my wheeled suitcase** trundling along on the rough sidewalks made of stone and cobbles to the front entrance of the Alena hotel, our home for the next two nights in beautiful, ancient, surprising Chania.

*mathing the conversion of mile to kilometer while travelling in Europe was a bit tricky for me. I was just grateful that the Euro was almost exactly equal to a dollar when I did this trip.

**did the person who invented these get a medal? They should have.