Help Me Pick a Layover
August 23, 2017 8:11 PM   Subscribe

On way to Rome from New York with points. Layovers are Helsinki (7 hours) vs. London (12 hours). Time of Year is mid-November. Travel Pros here and bags will be checked through to destination. Assume number of points and difference in fees. We like cities and something different (unique food, art, ways of life)

Helsinki Pros:
-Neither of us have been to Scandanavia
-Seems transport is cheaper
-Airport is closer to airport
-Use Euro (going to Rome afterwards)
-City more compact
-Arrive in Rome earlier

Helsinki Cons:
-Winter already?
-Really short period
-Never really been on list of cities to go to

London Pros:
-Much longer layover
-Can see friends for lunch
-Don't feel need to see whole city (been two times each)

London Cons:
-Seems like airport is much more complicated (heathrow) in terms of customs, etc
-More expensive to get to best locations (prefer central adjacent residential neighborhoods)
-Perhaps require taking out pounds
-Arrive in Rome later

-Finnish air each way vs. American and BA
posted by sandmanwv to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
For traffic purposes, I'd go with Helsinki. It's a much smaller airport, less shit to go wrong, they're well capable of dealing with weather. I would assume it would be a much calmer experience all around.

I don't know that I would leave the airport, though I think it is fairly feasible, but it's a nice airy space and there will be sufficient services. It's been over 20 years since I've been there or flown Finnair but the service was top-notch for both.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:13 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I recommend going to London. 12 hours is plenty of time to get in to the city via the train without being in a panicky rush. (I've done a 12 hour layover there twice, and did exactly that.) You can spend 8 or so hours in the city. Because you're already a bit familiar with London, that will be plenty of time for you to actually have a visit to specific places/people you want to see.

With 7 hours in helsinki, assume that you'll be in the city for about 4 hours, which is a meaningless amount of time for a place you've never been to before. You won't leave feeling like you've "seen helsinki", whereas in London, at minimum, you'll have a visit with a friend.

(I wouldn't worry about the Euro thing, you can easily spend a day in London just using your credit/debit cards.)
posted by Kololo at 9:41 PM on August 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I see Lyn Never beat me a little re the choice of airlines. You don't say whether you will be in business class or up the back, but in business class at least, I would prefer Finnair to the other two.
I know both cities reasonably well. Go to Helsinki! You may have time to get out to Suomenlinna, which is beautiful even in December.
posted by Logophiliac at 9:44 PM on August 23, 2017

There is basically nothing worth doing in Helsinki in half a day. Seriously. Transport will be more difficult in London unless you take a cab (and you should) and yeah, LHR sucks ass and I hope you don't check your luggage, but at least you'll get a decent meal somewhere in the city, maybe you can check out Victoria & Albert Museum (free admission) or just wonder about the river bank and find a good pub to relax in. Pay with a card (ideally one that has no foreign transaction fees, but even if it does how worried are you about 2%?) and don't worry about currencies when it comes to one lunch or dinner, that's really a non-issue these days.

Also: really, there are no flights with less of a layover to a destination as popular as Rome?
posted by halogen at 9:47 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

It gets dark at about 4:30 in the afternoon in Northern Europe in November, 5:00 at the latest. So plan for that get your sightseeing done early.
posted by Oyéah at 9:54 PM on August 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Richard Ayoade TV show "Travel Man" has you covered for a short trip to Helsinki. (YTL: 25 minutes-- speed it up to 1.25x).

Why not go to a Burger King Sauna with Paul Rudd? (YTL 4 min.)

Actually, I bet a sauna between flights would be amazing. Burger King, less so. Paul Rudd is obviously amazing anytime.

posted by Sunburnt at 10:12 PM on August 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

It is trivial to get into London from Heathrow on the tube, and even if the weather is bad you could go, say, straight to the British Museum and spend a lovely day.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:12 PM on August 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you're willing to put in some significant effort when you book with points, you might be able to achieve a longer layover in either city, in case that helps. In late 2015, I learned a ton about AA's partner award flight rules.

At that time, I think a single one-way award flight was allowed to include up to 5 segments between origin and destination. And, a "layover" was defined as anything under 24 hours if your next leg was in transit to another country (as compared to a "stopover" which is over 24 hours). I don't know if I'm recalling this correctly, or whether it's still true, but worth checking.

The trick was to identify award space on each leg of the trip independently, to find later connecting flights with the "low" priced award space. The flight search didn't turn these up because they were a "bad" routing if you're trying to minimize total trip time. But I was able to call in and ask them to book a specific series of flights that conformed to their fare rules and had the required award space. I booked a series of ~23 hour layovers in multiple international cities, all on a single award.

Now that I've typed all this, I'm realizing that this all took place using Delta partner awards, but I did a very similar process going in my outbound direction using AA partners.
posted by reeddavid at 10:33 PM on August 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

would definitely choose London. With the Heathrow Express to have the most efficient from/to Heathrow trip (15 mins to/from Paddington), and from Paddington you can get anywhere else easily. Money-wise since credit cards are accepted everywhere there is no advantage/disadvantage to choosing a euro-based country. London has Uber if you need to take a car anywhere.

also, btw, if you visit Helsinki you will still not have visited Scandinavia ;)
posted by alchemist at 12:18 AM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you do decide for Helsinki, I can recommend Olo restaurant. It's Michelin starred, and the food is delicious and entertaining (lots of small courses with 'experiential' presentation; things like bottled smoke to sniff before eating something, that sort of thing). Probably best if you like fish, because there's a lot of cooking with fish in the Finnish cuisine. Other things I liked in Helsinki: the Rock Church; wandering round the 'design district' (there's a free map with lists of shops and cafes, and I also liked looking at the local architecture); and having a sauna.

A shorter stop doesn't seem so bad to me - I'd worry a 12 hour layover would be too tiring. And I found Helsinki much calmer than London.

Helsinki activities are quite time-dependent - a lot closes at 5-6pm, except for restaurants.

I do love London, though, there's so many amazing museums. I'd make a beeline for the Tate Modern and check out their new extension / the 'tanks'. And then you'd be near to the Borough Market area, where there are plenty of food and pub options, and walks along & across the river.
posted by yesbut at 2:09 AM on August 24, 2017

There's a Yotel in Heathrow terminal 4 that rents rooms on an hourly (or at least less than a full day/night) basis. You could get a shower and a nap for a couple of hours to be a bit more refreshed, and still have time to catch the Heathrow Express into London for a bit.
posted by penguinicity at 2:46 AM on August 24, 2017

For me, the chance for real face time with far away friends would trump most of the other factors.
posted by bimbam at 3:30 AM on August 24, 2017

I've spent a 7 hour transfer in Helsinki in October, and I remember it pretty fondly, so you'd definitely be fine doing that. And it is a new experience.

But London's also a great place to visit, and flying into Heathrow Terminal 3 is not too bad, and neither's Terminal 5. Definitely get the Heathrow Express into Paddington, and buy your tickets now to save significant money on that. If you have contactless credit cards (or Apple Pay/Google Pay), you won't need to use any cash: I get through about £20 a month in cash, I guess. And if you get a sunny day, it doesn't matter that it's November, you can hang out by the river or in Hyde Park on your way between sights and meals.
posted by ambrosen at 3:39 AM on August 24, 2017

The layover is by design, especially with points. Could do 2hours.

Reeddavid, not sure why I forgot about that!

Not to change question, but let's change it to 22-24 hours, with an overnight stay?
posted by sandmanwv at 3:45 AM on August 24, 2017

There shouldn't be any snow in mid-November in HKI - just chilly (that sea wind can be pretty brutal though, not gonna lie). Getting from the airport downtown by train takes about half an hour.

There's stuff like the modern art museum, Kiasma as well as Ateneum, the finnish national gallery within a 2 min walk from the main train station (pretty much literally across the street). There's a bunch of restaurants and coffee shops scattered about. Helsinki airport is *small* and pretty quiet compared to Heathrow. Ohh, and Helsinki is hella chill to explore on foot - its that small (and the public transport - trams, busses, subway are all really easy to navigate).
posted by speakeasy at 3:50 AM on August 24, 2017

Helsinki for sure! Finnair's going to be able to deal with winter weather better should snow be an issue and seems quite designy/quirky; it's quite out of the way/a hassle to add onto future European trips; saunas!

Also, how much do you like flying? For me I'd definitely choose Finnair if you are on their A350, and if you are at the pointy end of the plane you will love Finnair's new business class seats if flying in BA's 80+-passenger business cabin on some of their high-density 747s seems unpleasant (though flying with a friend in those face-to-face buddy seats could be a laugh?). JFK-LHR is quite quick for an overnight - just a hair over seven hours sometimes - but JFK-HEL is over an hour longer - more time to savor breakfast, maybe? HEL-FCO is also an hour longer than LHR-FCO too.

Final thought: use your points to fly your friend in London to Rome!
posted by mdonley at 4:59 AM on August 24, 2017

"When a person is tired of London, (s)he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford"
- Sam Johnson
posted by lungtaworld at 5:58 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

One thing to keep in mind - how are you at sleeping on planes, and/or operating on little sleep after getting off the plane? If you're not good at it, you're not going to want to do much of anything on the layover. (I am not good at sleeping on planes and have some great memories of napping on a canal boat in Amsterdam, and also in the Amsterdam airport.) Personally I'd just want to get to my final destination as soon as possible. But you may be better at this than me. And as has been pointed out, JFK-LHR is short as transatlantics go. (I'm considering booking a Boston-Dublin flight post-Christmas, which will be even worse...)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:01 AM on August 24, 2017

A few thoughts -
1) Assuming you get into LHR early (Has to be 6 am for a 12 hour layover) immigration even with "fast pass" can be a hell gate. I've spend two hours with a fast pass to get into the lounge to shower up. That said the BA arrivals lounge is great and will press your clothes and give you a shower quickly. It is after immigration
2)Hel has an arrivals lounge but IIRC it is before immigration - so don't make that mistake.
3) BA vs Finnair - honestly both of them kind of suck relative to other (non-American carriers) I'm not sure if Finnair is 100% lie-flat between the states and HEL these days. I would make sure that is the case or that at least your flight is. In '15 I got stuck on a cradle seat and it sucked
4) HEL to town = just take a taxi. Its relatively simple, and I've not run into traffic. LHR to town = Heathrow Express or the tube depending on where you want to go. A cab sucks. That in my mind is a vote for HEL. But personal choice.
5) You'll only have about 3 hours or so to HEL - weirdly the problem is there is not one absolute must see sight so hard to tell what your would do other than have lunch or something. London - what you can actually do is much more obvious.

So the logistics of HEL will be easier, but London isn't actually bad. The airport experience at HEL is much better, especially the checking back in on the out bound. But Helsinki itself - I think its charms are a bit subtler and probably require an overnight to get any sense of the place, whereas 6 hours in London I can think of plenty of pleasant things to do and you've already been there so the learning curve is shallower.
posted by JPD at 8:18 AM on August 24, 2017

I've queued anywhere from 5 mins to 1.5 hrs at LHR immigration (as EU passport holder). And for some reason even with prebooked Heathrow express tickets it still seems to take surprisingly long to get to Paddington - got to make your way through the airport terminal, if you arrive at T5 train takes an extra 10 mins and I always just miss a connection and find myself waiting around for those 15 mins.

If you're getting on a short haul flight from LHR towards the end of the day beware that these flights can be quite delayed or get cancelled not infrequently. Over the last 2 years I've spent the night in a Heathrow airport hotels on three separate occasions because my flight got cancelled. And yes, you get rebooked but there is a very good chance you won't be on the first flight the next day. More the 2nd or 3rd. In your case that means a day less in Rome. Also, the UK does not do winter weather well, generally causes chaos and flight cancellations.

I absolutely adore London but I'd pick Helsinki because the chances of circumstances conspiring against you and disrupting your onward travel are much lower and whilst very compact it has enough to offer for the amount of time you're planning to spend.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:06 AM on August 24, 2017

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