I wasn’t planning on writing this trip report. Indeed, I rarely write trip reports, largely because they’re a hassle and most products have been reviewed too many times. However, this trip turned into a delightful series of unfortunate events (comically so), so I thought it’d be a fun read. The trip starts out well, but ends… poorly.
Note: I’m writing this while tired and on a bus… give me a break for any mistakes 😉
There’s been an excellent fare for ~$450 for a round-trip between Toronto and Tallinn, Estonia. It’s currently my university reading week, so I thought that’d be a fun, cheap trip. The plan was to fly to Tallinn, spend a couple days, then take the bus to Tartu, a university town 2.5 hours away from Tallinn. I’d then fly from Tartu to Helsinki, spend a couple days there, and then ferry back to Tallinn to catch my return flight.
Toronto – Amsterdam – Tallinn – Tartu
This trip was quite smooth. I arrived in Toronto the night previous to my flight from Kingston via Megabus, that I purchased for $50 but was getting a $25 rebate from a secret shopper program for. I stayed at the InterContinental Toronto Centre on a Best Rate Guarantee (BRG) night for free.
The InterContinental Toronto Centre is centrally located, right by Union Station. It’s a large conference hotel. The room I had, the Feature King Room, was nicely decorated, but a bit sterile.
My BRG rate included breakfast. Further, I am an Ambassador with IHG. When I checked in, they had no record of the included breakfast, and refused to upgrade me on the BRG (even though upgrades on BRG stays are not excluded from the Ambassador program). I was able to get them to eventually give me breakfast, but they were firm on the no-upgrade. Oh well, it’s free.
The next day, I took the Union Express to Pearson Airport for the first time. It was a very quick trip, but rather expensive for a short trip. Further, the “Student Rate” only applies if you’re 19 or under, which is silly. If you’re going to call it a “Student Rate”, it should apply to all students. Otherwise, call it a “Youth Rate”. Whatever. The train was completely empty. I spoke with a conductor, who said it’s almost always empty, and was concerned with the long-term potential of the train.
Once at the airport, I checked out both the KLM lounge and the Plaza Premium lounge (which I’ve used before). Both lounges are nice. For drinks, I’d say go to the KLM lounge, and for food, to the Plaza Premium lounge, which also has a shower. Fortunately, I was upgraded to Business Class!
KLM operates a Boeing 747 to Toronto, which has the upper deck, where I was seated. They’ve installed the new Business Class seats, which are quite comfortable, if not a little awkward if travelling alone. All-in-all, it was a decent flight, that I slept through most of. Food was good, service was fine (but harsh, as the Dutch tend to be), but the entertainment system was lacking in content. We landed on-time in Amsterdam, for me to make my connection on Estonian Airlines to Tallinn.
Estonian Airlines was perfectly fine. It seemed like any domestic US/Canada flight that you might take. Just water and pop for the drink service, and we landed on-time in Tallinn.
I was staying at the Four Sisters Hotel in Tallinn. This hotel is located at the northern tip of the Old Town. It’s a Relais & Chateaux property, and has a luxury cabin-in-the-woods décor. All in all, it was fine, with good (included) breakfast, and the rate was under $100, which is always nice for a five-star property. Further, the location was perfect, just outside the busy tourist part of the Old Town, but within walking distance of everywhere you might wish to go.
Tallinn has one of Europe’s oldest surviving medieval towns. It’s huge, and takes a good two-three hours to fully walk. It’s incredibly charming, and has some amazing restaurants (I love pickled herring!). However, I thought Tallinn would be very cheap. It wasn’t, even for “local” foods. Tallinn prices are equivalent to Toronto prices.
While in Tallinn, there was a huge tribute to the victims of the Metrojet crash. Tallinn is right beside St. Petersburg, with a large Russian population. There were people weeping, and photos of individuals who perished on the plane. I’ve never witnessed such grief before, and seeing this has had a strange impact on me. I’ve been thinking a lot about plane crashes, randomly crying, etc. It’s odd. I think, perhaps, because I travel so much, actually seeing those grieving the deaths of crash victims has been profoundly impactful.
After a couple days in Tallinn, I took the bus to Tartu. The bus was cheap, clean, and efficient. Once in Tartu, I stayed at the Hotel Antonius. Very “meh” property. It’s an old property, with stiff service. Further, my room had two stupid design flaws: (1) there were huge windows facing a busy street from my bed through to the washroom. When showering, even if I closed the drapes, the reflection of the mirror of me showering could be seen on the street, and; (2) the shower had no partition. The bathroom had marble floors, and the shower was literally just a shower head on the wall, with a small curtain to divide the shower and toilet. When you showered, the entire bathroom got soaked, and with marble floors, was a safety hazard.
Tartu is a boring place, and I would not recommend it. It’s maybe a four hour city, and I was dumb and scheduled 24 hours there. You can wander around the University of Tartu, which is quite nice. Otherwise, the city is full of rather dull Russian architecture.
Tartu has a very small airport, that runs once-daily flights on Finnair to Helsinki. Note that you can purchase a “Youth Fare” from the Finnair website for about 50% of the normal fare. You cannot get this discounted fare anywhere else.
The flight was unremarkable, however, the security at Tartu was nuts. They have one security station, and they spent five minutes clearing each person. They did a chemical check on every single one of my asthma puffers and liquids/gels. They put everyone’s stuff through the X-ray twice, and asked me questions about my bag. Very weird and inefficient experience, however, that’s probably the second most intense security I’ve gone through (besides the security for the MCAT test).
In Helsinki, I was staying at the Hotel Indigo, with one night free on a BRG, and the second night at a lower rate. It’s a great little hotel that’s centrally located with very kind staff and a good restaurant.
Helsinki is OK. It feels a lot like Toronto, but slightly more charming. Food was really good, but prices were absolutely insane. I’ve been to some of the most expensive cities in the world (ex. Moscow, London, NYC, Sydney, Tokyo, Paris, etc.), and I’ve travelled thoroughly throughout Scandinavia, but Helsinki remains the most expensive-feeling places I’ve been to. Think 7 EUR taxi starting fee. Or 10 EUR for a beer at a scuzzy-looking pub. Further, there isn’t that much to do. I’d say it’s a one-day city.
On my last day in Helsinki, I was planning to go back to Tallinn to spend the night, then catch my flight home. However, I checked my reservation, and my flights were cancelled. I then looked on the Estonian Airlines website:
Estonian Airlines, my first carrier, went bankrupt that day. I gotta say, flight cancellation due to bankruptcy is a new one for me. Unfortunately, as I learned, bankruptcy is not a covered reason under the Amex Platinum insurance policy for trip delay.
I called KLM, my ticketing carrier, looking for options home. They couldn’t get me out of Tallinn, as all replacement flights were overbooked. Great. So I said just let me leave from Helsinki, and I’ll abandon my final night in Tallinn. So after a lot of time typing, they rescheduled me on Helsinki – Amsterdam – Atlanta – Toronto. I wouldn’t make a bus home to Kingston on time that night, so I spent 4,000 SPG points to stay at the Four Points Toronto Airport.
All the flights went fine. KLM international economy is surprisingly nice, with legroom equivalent to Delta Economy Comfort. Once I landed in Atlanta, where my connection time was short, I was unable to get my boarding pass to Toronto. Turns out that KLM ticketed my trip, but forgot to make a reservation (huh?). I cut it within 10 minutes of the gate closing, but they were able to make me a reservation, force check-in, and get me a boarding pass.
So far, I have had a bankrupt airline, a missing reservation, and this morning, the hotel fire alarm went off. I really needed the sleep! However, I couldn’t help but laugh – for my return, that which could go wrong, went wrong. I’m currently on the bus home writing this, surprised it wasn’t cancelled, but unfortunately aware that my luck will somehow turn, consistent with my return journey, and I’ll be stuck in some middle-of-nowhere Ontario village for the night… wish me luck!