POST 5 – October 29th 2018 – Travel lifestyle
"Positioning" to Riga
Allegro high speed train 2nd class + Finnair lounge HEL (Schengen) + Finnair HEL-RIX
After my 4 days in St Petersburg, I needed to reach Riga in Latvia. From what I’ve seen so far, Riga seems to be a nice little capital to visit. However, visiting was not (yet) part of the equation here… (Yet – because I will be back for a week end in May to visit for real this city).
I need to go to Riga for a simple reason : I’ve found (or at least read on FlyerTalk) several months ago a good deal to go to Dubai in business class on Air France/KLM, departing the Latvian capital. (For the non-initiated ones : this trick is called in the frequent flyer community « positioning ») While business class tickets to Dubai from Europe typically cost a minimum of 2000 Euros round trip, I paid here a bit less than 1000 Euros, but I could have gone as low as 930 Euros since I decided to include a couple of nice segments and adjustments for a minor surcharge.
When I look for flights, I typically start my search on google flights and enter my departure point and destination. Then if I find the price to be too expensive (which is usually the case J) and when I am flexible, I start adding different departure points in the area (in my case, wanted to depart from LED-St Petersburg, but added also HEL-Helsinki, TLL-Tallinn, RIX- Riga, VNO-Vilnius, SVO-VNO-DME for Moscow airport etc, etc…), and different destinations (in that case DXB for Dubai, but also AUH for Abu Dhabi, MCT for Muscat etc…). Being flexible with dates also helps as mid-week travel tends to be cheaper, especially in premium cabins. I think that Google flight is a good primary screening tool, but for more complex routings, one needs to use different tools, such as Expert Flyer.
Add to the picture the fact I wanted to try different cabins and airlines, and maximize the amount of frequent flyer points I wanted to earn out of this trip and I ended up booking the following itinerary :
- Riga to Paris CDG via Amsterdam onboard Air Baltic and Air France on October 24th
- 24h connection and then Paris CDG – Dubai on Air France
- Return Dubai-Amsterdam on KLM just before Christmas
- Then a 200 days « connection » for Amsterdam to Riga on Air Baltic.
This Business class fare requiring to fly back to departure point, I will enjoy a nice weekend in Riga in May, as the way to get there is included in my ticket. (One also can « drop » this last segment, but I don’t typically do this).
Considering I had 700 Euros of AF/KLM vouchers for different issues I experienced in the past, this trip costed me only 300 Euros. Hardly beatable price-wise, especially considering that you still earn the right number of miles and tier points for future travels. J
I applied this « technique » quite a few times in the past to save some money on premium air travel. Last time was when I went to Oslo from Brussels to be able to fly to Australia in business for much cheaper than if departing Amsterdam or Brussels (we are talking half the price here), so it was definitely worth spending an extra 100 Euros to get to Oslo and « save » almost 2000…)
Now that I found my ticket, I needed to get to Riga. I could have flown on Air Baltic from St Petersburg for about 150 Euros one-way, take a 12 hours bus ride for 30 Euros or take the Allegro train to Helsinki and then a flight to Riga. I choose the latter option as I felt more comfortable. I paid about 40 Euros for a second class ticket to Helsinki airport from St Petersburg, and then used 4500 British Airways miles (also known as « Avios ») + 25 Euros of taxes to book a Finnair flight between Helsinki and Riga.
I booked a Yandex taxi to get from my hotel to the Finlandsky train station and this time, it worked fine. I arrived about 45 min before the train departure time. And this time, there was no lounge to visit, just a very boring waiting room after the security check-point, guarded by several, and not so friendly – security guards. About 30 min before departure, the boarding gate opened and we were allowed to board the train. A small duty-free shop is available after the boarding gate.
Allegro 781 – October 23rd 2018
St Petersburg Finlansky station – 06.40
Helsinki Tikkurila – 10.00
Second class, Car 4, seat 01
4 services operate daily and the train was not full that morning, although I booked second class, I had the pair of seats just for me, and I found those seats to be very comfortable, and can recline. Note that I booked this ticket on the RZD Russian railways website instead than the VR Finnish trains website. Reason for this is that I wanted to select my seat, and the VR website does not allow you to do so for departures out of Russia..
Immigration and customs formalities are carried onboard the train in two steps : Between St Petersburg and Vyborg, the Russian immigration officer will perform the exit check, stamp your passport, and a few minutes later, a Russian customs officer will ask you if you have anything to declare, with a drugs sniffing dog going through the train at the same time. In Vyborg, the last Russian station before the border, the Russian team leaves the train and about 10 minutes later, in Vainikkala, which is the Border town on the Finnish side, the Finnish border patrol and customs board the train, as if you zere entering the Schengen area and the same process begins again. The process is typically over before the train reaches Kouvola but as most of the passengers were holders of a Russian passport (takes longer time to proceed due to finger prints checks etc…), the immigration procedures were finished just when we reached Kouvola.
I was suprised to see that I was NEVER asked for my ticket starting the moment I got into the station. I guess this is maybe because the ticket is liked to your passport number and you are required to show it before getting into the train?
Maybe it was because I booked a second class ticket but there was no service onboard whatsoever. A restaurant car is available for breakfast, but the section is not as wide as what is offered on the Sapsan.
I exited the train at Tikkurila station, just before Helsinki central station as there is a direct and faster connection to Vantaa airport. The Allegro ticket offers free transportation within 80 minutes of arrival in Helsinki region, so there was no need to buy an additional ticket, and I reached the airport 15 minutes later only after I left the Allegro. Very convenient as this new train station arrives directly into the airport !
I used the Finnair priority check-in counter and priority security upstairs as I am a OneWorld Emerald card holder and this entire process could not have been swifter as only a few minutes later I was seated inside the Finnair Schengen lounge.
The lounge was extended since last time I visited some years ago, it now has been extended to the space occupied by the former Priority Pass lounge. I think that Finnair really upped their game recently, wirth newer aircrafts in the fleet and better lounge offerings than in the past. The priority check-in and security channels are also a great example of their wish to improve the experience of premium passengers.
Here below are some of the pictures of the lounge, I personally like the Scandinavian design and love the big tail wing at the entrance !
After some lunch, it was time to go to the boarding gate for my flight to Riga, which was a bus gate due to the fact the aircraft was an ATR 72-500, operated by Norra.
Boarding was swift and when I asked the gate agent if my carry-on should be tagged, he answered… « well… I don’t think that will be necessary… ».
I understood later that the loading of the aircraft was very low today and we will be only 10 passengers on board !
Finnair AY1073 – October 23rd 2018
HEL Helsinki Vantaa – 12.45
RIX Riga – 13.55
ATR 72-500 – Operated by Norra – Economy class – Seat 08A (initially 02D)
The ATR has always been a « bizarre » aircraft to me. The cargo goes in the front and the passengers are loaded in the back… That’s not natural right ? Well, that’s the way it works on the ATR, which means the cockpit is not in direct contact with the cabin crew.
Right after boarding the flight attendant came to me and asked me to move after row 7 as, due to the light loading of the aircraft that day, we had to balance the weight.
We took off on time, under the rain and the service was pretty much uneventful… A glass of blueberry juice and water later, we landed at Riga airport… still under the rain (and lots of wind, hence the bumpy approach)
Since I landed early afternoon in Riga and departed the next morning, I decided to maximize this stay and visit the city in the afternoon (that ended up to be a couple hours visit due to the bad weather that day – see pictures below), and booked an hotel next to the airport for the early departure.
I guess (and hope) the weather will be better during my weekend in May !