Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finland 2010, Part V: And now, the hockey part

(In this fifth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the other planning, now that the overland European rail segments are complete. And, we get team news.)

The planning is complete for the land portion of this Grand Adventure. The air portion is secured, save for seat assignments on the Helsinki-Paris segment on the return (since the flight is an Air France codeshare, {actually, it's a Finnair flight} we are bound by the rules of Air France, who do not pre-assign seats on flights within Europe). I still think that one of us will be waiting for the other one at Charles deGaulle when we land. But, that's just me, I guess.

We then turn our attention to the games themselves, as the Wild post a brief video showing the inside of Helsinki's Hartwall Areena, the site for the two NHL regular-season games between the Wild and the Carolina Hurricanes. Hartwall is large by European standards, but in the NHL, this arena would stand some expansion. Especially if the team was actually GOOD.

We also hear that Pierre-Marc Bouchard is healing well from his concussion, and is skating in open scrimmages in and around his native Montreal. That is another good sign for a team which, quite frankly, could have used a few down the stretch last season. Also, as summer drags on, the good news continues as the Wild have their developmental camp at the 'X', one which hopefully will bear fruit, in the form of young, hungry NHL-quality players. And soon, as the roster turnover continues, and the mistakes of the former regime are, one by one, politely shown the door.

We call our travel advisor about the game in Tampere. We are, indeed, hoping that the trip from Helsinki to Tampere (115 miles, or the distance from the 'X' to Willmar, Minnesota) will be by 220 KPH (135 MPH) 'Pendolino' tilt train, especially since the arena where Ilves Tampere plays is less than 2 KM (1.2 miles) from the train station. No suck luck; the trip is billed as a motor coach excursion.

"Oh, well," I kind of resignfully tell him. "Yeah, we'll do it anyway."

So, it will be off to Tampere we go on that Monday, Oct. 4, leaving around 2 PM Finnish time (6:00 AM at home) for a 7:00 PM Finnish time start (again, 11:00 AM in Minnesota). The trip is billed to return to the hotel at about 12:30 AM, so it will make for a long, long day. That will be a real jet-lag day for the rest of the group, who will have just landed the night before, after their all-air journeys from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

(Here's hoping everyone isn't too grouchy...)

Now we begin looking almost daily at exchange rates between the US dollar and the Euro, as we will need spending money while we're there, and there is no point giving the banks any more than we need to, in order to get this done. The Yo-Yo nature of currency exchange shows that it's up one week, and down the next. "We have to get this right," I tell my wife, "or otherwise we could be paying upwards of $100 more than we need to, for the same amount of money."

"That's your department, dear," she replied.

(to be continued)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Finland IV: Therese, Therese

(In this fourth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at language problems and a Swedish railway employee patiently willing to help me out.)

While all the credit card mess (from Part III of this series) was being cleaned up, I proceeded to reserve the rest of my rail-and-sail trip from London to Finland . The easiest part was the next part; now that I had the overnight rail (from Cologne to Copenhagen) e-ticketed, I proceeded to work on the Viking Line ferry from Stockholm to Mikko Koivu's hometown of Turku, Finland.

Turku is one of Finland's oldest cities, being also one of its' major ports: people have been living here for over 700 years. The fifth largest city in Finland (pop. 176,401), 3 million people pass thru Turku annually, en route for the Ă‚land islands or all the way across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. Turku is also where the 225,282-ton Royal Caribbean Lines mega-liner Oasis of the Seas was built, as well. Needless to say, this city has a LOT of history behind it, being Finland's first capital (the capital was moved to Helsinki in the 1800's, by the Russians).

Since the general sales agent for Viking Line ferries in North America is located in south Minneapolis, a couple of local phone calls (and two e-mails across town) was all it took to secure berths, buffets and passage, again all at a significant discount over standard rates by booking early. There was also a more practical side, as well; the Stockholm-Turku ferry of rival Silja Line was completely booked out as a charter for the night of October 2nd, so we HAD to book early, in order to make this all work correctly. Otherwise, we would have been marooned in Stockholm, with no way to continue on until the next day, at least.

So, with the train to Copenhagen ticketed, the ferry to Finland reserved, I then turned to the Swedish Railways website in order to reserve space on their X2000 high-speed tilt train from Copenhagen to Stockholm. The reserving of the train was easy enough; Swedish Railways (Statens Jarnvagar, or SJ) has online booking and ticketing, like most everyone else does; the big difference is, although you can book space 90 days in advance, SJ does not allow ticketing until 60 days prior to departure (reason being that SJ does do some business with Finland in the far north, and the Finns do nothing with their trains more than 60 days out).

When I received my reservation confirmation, it wasn't what I had hoped. I had hoped that, like most other European railways, the SJ computer would put me again in a 1 + 1 'Club Duo' situation, with two seats facing each other with a table between us, and nobody next to us (we don't speak Swedish, either, except if 'Ya, sure, you betcha' counts), like on Thalys between Paris and Cologne.

It didn't. We were placed at a table for four, which means if we talked at all, our seatmates would probably not understand anything we were saying. Not exactly the best way to spend the afternoon crossing Sweden, dont'cha know. We were very uncomfortable with the results.

Needless to say, damage control was in order. Immediate e-mails were dispatched to Stockholm, wondering if this oversight could be corrected? We had purchased deeply-discounted non-refundable, non-exchangeable tickets, which meant our tickets would be invalid for any other Swedish train but the specific one we had booked. But changing seats on the same train, same date, so that two people could sit together on a fall Saturday afternoon? They'd have to go for it. 'I gotta try', I thought.

This is where the language barriers come into play. I don't speak Swedish. My wife? No, not a word. SJ does have English-speaking customer services staff, but their command of English, while very good for a non-mother-tongue, is difficult when you are trying to talk in terms both sides would understand. And, while an absolute God-send, Google Translate can only go so far. So now, with a frustrating, 5:19 ride (from Copenhagen to Stockholm) ahead of me, now what do I do?

Enter Therese.

Therese is a very kind, understanding lady on the English-language desk at SJ's Customer Services department in Stockholm. She also understood that we would be better off by ourselves, in a 'Club Duo' situation, rather than have a multi-cultural nightmare occur on the pride of the Swedish long-haul railway fleet. She rebooked the reservation, in order to get us the 1 + 1 seating we desired, and then came back later and e-mailed me our tickets, after the 60th day prior to departure had passed, just before she went happily on vacation.

Therese was very happy to explain that we would now have seats in a 1 + 1 situation, that the changes had been made so that the train conductor wouldn't 'go postal' the second that he/she saw the tickets (the old space was released for re-sale, after the new space was booked) and that all would be well on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm.

Having settled the Swedish railway segment, all there was to do was wait for the Finnish Railways 'Boat Train' to open for reservation. Again, the e-ticket route was the way to go, as we will have less than one hour from the time the ferry is scheduled to dock at Turku Harbor (or Satama, in Finnish) until the Boat Train leaves 110 yards (100 meters) away, and the Turku Satama railway station has no automated ticket machines on site.

So now, we are all set. Every segment has been booked, paid for, and ticketed. We are finally ready to depart on the Grand Adventure, until...

(to be continued)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Finland III: The Bankers step in and say, 'No!'

(In this third installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at some of the obstacles preparing for a trip like this can mean, especially when you do it yourself, and how to avoid them.)

It is the morning of July 1st. The 'Free-Agent Frenzy' is gearing up on TSN, and I am bound and determined to not only sit thru that, but get most all of this trip booked before I sit down and watch the rest of the NHL get better, while the Minnesota Wild just sit there, like they always have, never content enough in free agency to do anything early in the first day. (Not that they don't ever do anything day 1; it's just that they never get it done 'til early evening, or later.)

It's 8:30 AM. I start with the easiest segment, the one which has been on sale for 30 days already, the Eurostar train from London St. Pancras (departing at 5:25 AM) to Paris Gare du Nord. Easy. Standard class booking (at 1/3rd of the cost of First Class) at a £39/seat rate. Easy. Get the seats I want, easy. Everything about Eurostar seems almost too easy. We'll see. But onwards...

Next, to book Thalys from Paris to Cologne. Since they are both members of Railteam (Europe's association of high-speed rail operators) they are bound by similar policies in booking, etc., so they, also, have had seats on sale for 30 days, and feature a very easy process to book. I can't resist a €69 each rate for first class so we book two seats ('Club duo') on a late afternoon departure.

While I was taking a break after those two were completed to get set up for the rest of the day, I get a very strange call from my credit card company. It went something like this:

Me: "Hello."
Other end: "Uh, sir, this is the fraud division of (credit card) and we would like to discuss your account with you."
Me: "What about?"
They: "Uh, we think there are some fraudulent charges on your account."
Me: "Like what?"
They: "Well, there's this one from Thalys..."
Me: "You mean the one I just made less than 30 minutes ago?"
They: "Yes, that one. We'd like to know the reason that charge was made."

Mind you, I am getting really annoyed at this point. Everything that I have planned might just go straight to hell at this point...or worse.

Me: "Maybe I'm travelling in Europe, or maybe it's none of your business."
They: "Sir, you don't understand..."
Me: "And, I don't have to, either. As long as the charge is legitimate, I sure as hell don't need YOU to tell me how to spend my money."
They: "So this charge is something you actually did?"
Me: "Yes, but I still don't know why it's any business of YOURS."
They: "This is the fraud division, sir. We're just trying to stop any fraudulent charges on your account."
Me: "Believe me, this is a legitimate charge. I'm trying to plan a trip to Europe, but some credit card company calls me, and interrupts me, while I am trying to get this done, and keeps trying to stop me from using my card, for my own legitimate purposes."

(Think I'm irritated at this point, folks?)

They: "We're sorry to have bothered you, sir. Could we have your e-mail address?"
Me: "No, you already have it on file. You certainly don't need it again, unless you are going to SPAM me to death, which you're going to do, aren't you?"
They: "No, we just want it..."
Me: "...and it's already on the account. Good-bye."

(Hang up.)

I need to take a break and re-focus, so I sit down just in time to see TSN's Bob McKenzie working his BlackBerry for the first of many, many times that day. As I sat there, I became so irritated at the credit card company for what they did, that I was absolutely seething as the Wild were NOT involved in signing after signing. I took the rest of the afternoon off from trip planning (it was getting harder to do anyhow, as we were also having a new furnace installed that day) and watched, as some of the best players in hockey passed on being appreciated by myself and other Wild fans (and, some of the former Wild be signed away by other teams as well). It was getting to be a long, hot afternoon (we hadn't air conditioning for four days in mid-summer) but the new furnace was finally installed, tested, and deemed done. Finally, we could turn on the air conditioning and cool the house down, for the first time in days. Meanwhile, the Wild were busy signing the ex-Moorhead Spud, St. Cloud State Husky, and Carolina Hurricane, Matt Cullen, to a 3-year contract. The house was cooling down, and fortunately, so was I, after the 'credit card follies' of the morning.

The next train to book was a key train: Deutsche Bahn's 'CityNightLine' train from Cologne to Copenhagen, the third step of the process, en route to Helsinki. Again, another advance purchase, deeply discounted fare saves the Euros, as the two of us book into a deluxe bedroom for only €298 for this overnight segment. I'm feeling better about this trip as the day ends, the Cullen signing is announced, and I think all is right with the world. At least for now.

The next day, I find out while shopping that I need cash, so I go to my bank's ATM. My card will not work, no matter what I do. So, I think back and find that yet another card issuer has shut down my account, due to supposedly 'fraudulent activity' on my account. This time I am, to say the least, incensed. Another round of 'We think you have some fraudulent activity on your account' and this time, they want me to go to a 'banking store' (their phrase, not mine) and see a banker to verify my identity and that of my card! Unbelievably, I actually go thru this farce, only to be asked again 'why are you making these charges?' and the whole demeaning process is repeated, for a second time, with a different credit card company.

Moral of the story: Call your credit card company (or e-mail them), before you make ANY charges from overseas companies of ANY kind. Since most overseas charges don't fit their 'profile' (since, of course, it's not purchased in the USA), they will not hesitate to shut your card down, if you do not call them before the charges hit your account.

(to be continued)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Finland II: Deals to be had

(In part two of this series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, we look at pricing, funding and planning the trip.)

Never is all as it seems when planning international travel. Ever. Large corporations will tell you that, small families from different countries will tell you that. Never, ever accept full price when dealing with transcontinental (or, in this case, intercontinental) travel. Timing is everything is cases like this.

And, thanks to some Greek pensioners, we caught some great timing. How so? Read on...

It is now mid-May, and my wife and I are hemming and hawing over whether or not we can go to Finland. We go back and forth, pointing out to each other the pros (we actually have something to go there FOR; there will be others, as it's a tour group) and the cons (individual travel where we would be stuck in a foreign country where no one knows the English language, etc.) of such an undertaking. My wife opined that it would be fun to see more than just Finland while we're over in Europe: point taken! She was right! It would be fun to enjoy more of Europe than you would see from a tour bus for six days.

Haven't you wanted a croissant, from where they were first made? A Danish from Denmark? Shepherd's Pie from Britain? A real Swedish meatball? Real German pilsner beer, fresh from the tap, not carried across the North Atlantic in some cargo hold? Borscht from next to the Borscht Belt (the real one, not the one in NY State)? All the sights, the sounds, the experiences... all out there, waiting for those who are willing to explore. And, at the end, some good ol' NHL hockey, to boot. You can't pass THAT up, I thought.

Then, thanks to the Greeks, the Euro drops precipitously, making an international flight to London (Heathrow) and home directly from Helsinki to Minneapolis/St. Paul under $1,000 each (taxes and fees included). Much better than the rates quoted to us previously (see Part I for that info.) I am almost cheering on the rioters in Athens on CNN, as the Euro keeps on sliding downward in relation to the U.S. dollar. I feel much better about this trip now, and more importantly, so does my wife. Now, at that moment, was the time to book!

Why London? Our decision was partially based on the fact, that our first night in Europe should be somewhere where we could actually get our feet under us after a 8 hour, 20 minute flight. Due to the late hour of departure from the USA (9:40 PM, Central Time) we would be tired going into the flight, and then the Trans-Atlantic ordeal, Her Majesty's Customs, and getting into the city itself will probably take care of any starch in our systems, once we get there.

So now, we are looking at the news every day, also working online sites for a cheap airfare to Europe somewhere, while reading how easy it is to book European travel online at websites such as the highly-recommended, who expounds the bravado of booking your own travel online, through six different reservation systems, while travelling through seven different countries, en route to Helsinki. Thru a number of websites, a plan is formulated: travel via train from London to Stockholm, via Paris, Cologne and Copenhagen; a ferry across the Baltic Sea to Mikko Koivu's hometown of Turku, Finland; and a Finnish Railways 'Boat Train' from Turku Satama (Harbor) to Helsinki. Total travel time, London to Helsinki, including all transfers: 51 1/2 hours. Not bad considering you are travelling almost the same distance (1946 miles, or 3139 kilometers) as Twin Cities to Vancouver, BC (via Amtrak).

And even in the train travel, we are finding early booking discounts of upwards of 50%, especially on the two overnight segments: the Deutsche Bahn CityNightLine train, which we will utilize as a 'hotel on wheels' from Cologne to Copenhagen, and the Viking Line ferry 'M/S Amorella', which will be our overnight accomodation on the second night from Stockholm to Turku. Now, can I book all this while the rates are still low in relation to the US Dollar?

That's where the funding comes in. In Part I, you may remember that I had mentioned the starting of a savings account. Yeah, that one. Here's where it starts coming in, the saving, the lack of decent road trips last season (which helped), the deal-searching, the pouring thru numerous timetables, websites, and some good old-fashioned calling, both near (to South Minneapolis) and far (to Stockholm). All in search of a good deal. And, they're out there, until...

(to be continued)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Finland 2010, Part I: The dream begins

(This is the first of a series of blog entries on my upcoming trip to Helsinki, Finland, for the 2010 NHL Premiere games featuring the Minnesota Wild vs. the Carolina Hurricanes. I will be doing these on a (hopefully) weekly basis throughout August and September, leading up to the departure date for Europe. Comments, as always, welcomed and encouraged. Enjoy!)

Ever had a dream to travel somewhere really exotic? Somewhere that the world would be all anew and vibrant? Somewhere that really would surprise you, in a good way, with new places to see, new things to do and new experiences to share with the friends 'back home'?

Welcome to my world, folks. For the next two months, leading up to departure day for the 'Old Country', I will be giving you background information on this Minnesota Wild fan's trip to Helsinki, Finland, for the 2010 'NHL Premiere' games vs. the Carolina Hurricanes at Helsinki's Hartwall Areena. (No, I didn't mis-spell 'arena'. That's how the Finns spell it. Don't blame me.)

When the NHL announced that the Wild were participating in this back in late January (at least, that's when I first heard about it) my brain immediately went into another level. I asked myself: "What would it be like to actually GO over there to see that?"

That's when the practical side of me said: "You don't speak Finnish, WRT."

Fanatical side: "Details, details, that can all be worked out in the end..."

Practical: "And, it will cost a small fortune. Europe isn't cheap for Americans."

Fanatical: "If I start saving now, and put enough away fast enough, it will not only be bought, but paid for, before departure day."

Practical: "You haven't had a savings account for years, except for retirement."

Fanatical: "But just think of all the possibilities! All the cool stuff you can DO over there! All the places you'll GO!"

Practical: "OK, cool it with the Dr. Seuss. You're creeping me out."

Fanatical: "Sorry."

Practical: "Well, it's worth looking into, at least. If you can save for it, and get your wife to go along, you might just be able to pull this off. Europe is a lot more tourist-friendly now than in the past. And, you two might just enjoy all the new things along the way."

Fanatical: "So?"

Practical: "Look into it."

Looking into it further, we decided that the language barriers would be somewhat formidable, especially in Finland, where everything seems (at first, uneducated glance, anyways) like there's about 2 or 3 extra consonants to most descriptive words. We decided there's definitely 'safety in numbers', especially when those numbers actually include a few tour guides, who can actually SPEAK Finnish. So, we decided to break from our usual 'do our own thing' practice, and actually join the 'Official Wild Road Tour' group, for the first time ever.

Moving ahead to April, they announce the costs for the trip packages: $2,013 for the land portion (the part on the ground in Finland, you make your own way there), or a relatively whopping $3,217 when the airfare is thrown in (per person, double occupancy, or PPDO).

At least, that's what the brochures said. Well, when we did some more intensive digging, we found...

(To be continued)