This series is getting closer to its conclusion, and one more subject I would like to touch upon is transportation. We’ll talk a bit about cars but not much; there is a lot that I could say about cars in Finland and that could fill several posts; mostly this is about public transport. (And yeah it took me over half a year to get around to finishing this, sorry.)

Europe is often lauded for having great public transit systems, particularly as compared to Russia or the US. While this is generally true, Finland is one of the few countries that are a bit different in that regard.

The thing that’s important to keep in mind about Finland is that it’s basically one big village (Helsinki region excluded). The cities are small; Vaasa with its population of 65,000 wouldn’t be even taken seriously as a city in Russia. Distances are big; nowhere as big as in Russia or the US, they’re still quite big compared to most of Europe. And the overall population density is low, lower than in most parts of Russia that aren’t frozen wasteland.

Overall Finland copes with this state of events really well. The stores and services and cultural events and so on in a city of 65,000 here would rival cities an order of magnitude as big in many countries. But the one area where the low population density becomes painfully obvious is transportation. Public transport in Finland is poor to non-existent, practically demanding you to buy a car, which nearly everyone does.

The one exception to the rule is the capital region. Helsinki with its satellite cities indeed has a great public transport network, with suburban trains, single metro line (recently finally extended westwards into Espoo) and trams in the inner city. There it is quite possible to live without a car without that significantly affecting your quality of life. But I’m sure you can find other accounts of Helsinki public transport online. Tampere might be a bit better too (they’re also building a tram these days), but as always, I will be mainly talking about Vaasa, and pretty much all of that can be transferred to all mid-sized Finnish cities.

Walking and biking

Walking is not always feasible, but when it is, it’s often a perfectly good choice.

Foot/bike track along Onkilahti bay in Vaasa

While Finnish cities tend to stretch into suburbia areas, sometimes rather vast ones, they are not only meant exclusively for car use (unlike the US). All streets of any importance will have sidewalks. For safety they often cross major roads, even not especially busy ones, via underpasses. These always have very shallow ramps, not steps, and never present any difficulties for baby prams or wheelchairs or whatnot. Actual pedestrian crossings pretty much always have traffic lights, if there is any significant traffic. In general it’s rather hard to get yourself killed as a pedestrian.

Walking can be quite nice too, as you usually can walk not only along streets, but also through parks, patches of forest, along bodies of water, and sometimes just on some shortcut tracks linking two city districts. In some places such tracks form pretty much their own network mostly orthogonal to streets and roads. Such tracks through parks or forests, when unpaved, are typically still covered with gravel, so there isn’t usually any mud.

Of course things are a bit different in winter. Standard winter maintenance for sidewalks and pedestrian tracks in Finland consists of speading crushed rock (3-5 mm wide) on them, so that they won’t be slippery. Snow is plowed of course but the tracks are still kept under a layer of packed snow, not cleaned to the ground. Road salt is never used on sidewalks. Crushed rock makes them mostly not slippery, but is not without its own problems. It tends to get into cracks of your footwear soles (and to fall out indoors and stepping on it then is NOT fun). In spring, when the snow melts, there is usually a thick layer of crushed rock remaining, which is annoying to walk on and, once dry, begins to spread around large quantities of dust. This is pretty much the only occcasion when air in Finland might be less than perfect. Eventually rocks gets scooped up with machinery (and recycled in the next winter) but they’re in no hurry to do that.

A very slushy day in Vaasa

Sometimes, of course, winter just gets better of the city services. After heavy night snowfall it usually takes a while for them to plow all sidewalks. And when the thaw comes, snow turns into nasty slush, although thankfully it’s still not really muddy. The slush will refreeze overnight, sometimes turning sidewalks into basically skate rinks. So in the winter/early spring season you might not enjoy walking that much.

The other factor, of course, is distance. Living in the city center, you usually can walk anywhere with ease, but even so going into large stores for example can be problematic. Your job might not necessarily be in the center either. In my case it was, but I picked an apartment 3 km away, so I can enjoy a nice walk wherever possible, picking one of several possible routes.

Biking might actually be a great alternative at the city distances. It’s not quite as popular in Finland as in Denmark or the Netherlands, but sometimes seems to come pretty close. Most sidewalks and tracks are wide and usable by bikes and are marked with a “combined pedestrian/bike track” sign, so you can bike there legally. In some places, particularly in the center, it theoretically isn’t but this doesn’t stop anybody 🙂  In any case there’s hardly ever any need to bike on actual streets next to cars, apart from very quiet residential streets. Residential buildings, most if not all, have bike storage rooms/sheds, so you can just put your bike here instead of dragging it into your apartment. There are very often bike parking places where you can zip up your bike with a lock. The latter you probably should do, bike theft is one of the few kinds of actual crime in Finland.

Bike parking at Vaasa central square

Bikes are used in winter too, although not as commonly. You can buy studded bike tires for slippery conditions, although it seems most people don’t bother. Biking rarely gets you dirty, or, with the distances and speeds expected in the city, sweaty. People do it in their ordinary clothes mostly, rarely bothering even with a helmet (it is not legally required).

I got my bike myself rather recently, from a colleague, who got one from a bike shed in his building that was being emptied of abandoned bikes. So far I haven’t been using that all that much; I can bike but I never did it seriously before, so I’m not in a particularly good shape and I’m kind of wary of not knowing much about bike maintenance and not having relevant tools.  I still want to try it more often, and I want to buy a bike rack for the car at some point in future so I could travel around with it as well. A decent new bike costs upwards of 400-500€, but you can also buy a used one, or buy some shitty supermarket model which would still work if you don’t expect too much from it.

Car

So you want to use a car, huh. Well you’re not alone. Cars are extremely popular in Finland outside of the biggest cities. Pretty much every family has one. A car is nice to have for going to supermarkets etc., and is basically a requirement if you have any outdoor hobbies that require you to leave the city (like hiking).

You can keep your foreign driving license (if it’s not from a too exotic country) for up to 2 years upon moving to Finland. After 6 months you can exchange it for a Finnish one, for a small fee and after passing a basic medical checkup but you do not have to pass any exams. I have yet to exchange my driving license. Obtaining a driving license in Finland is fairly difficult and very costly (used to be up to 2000€ I believe, but this summer the regulations were eased somewhat so it’s cheaper now), although the driving education quality is supposedly pretty good.

Driving a car in Finland has, of course, some nuances to it but generally is pretty easy and straightforward. The road network is dense (relative to the population density), the roads are well designed pretty well maintained (many Finns would not agree but then they just haven’t seen Russian roads), and the traffic is usually light outside of major cities and a few major highways.

You can move into Finland with your own car, but you’d better consider whether this is a good idea. If you’re moving from outside EU/EEA at least, you are allowed keep your old car registration from your home country for 6 months at most. After that you either have to leave the car outside Finland permanently, or officially import it into Finland and re-register there. You’ll have to do quite a few things: fill in papers for customs, have the vehicle inspection done for it, possibly measure CO2 levels, and most importantly, pay the car tax on it. Car tax (autovero) is levied on all cars on their first registration in Finland. If you buy a new car it is just included in its price, but for importing a car you need to pay this tax out of pocket. The tax is significant (might be about 30% of the value of the car in general, CO2-dependent); it is after all a relatively major income source for the Finnish state budget. One last thing that you might want to keep in mind is that a history of car ownership is very easy to trace in Finland, and a car that was imported from abroad (particularly from somewhere like Russia) with no known history beyond that point would be naturally at a disadvantage there.

My old Renault Sandero, shortly before being sold in Russia

I decided to sell my previous car in Russia and buy a new one in Finland, although I’m still not entirely sure it was the right choice. In this case you’ll have to keep in mind that if you intend to deposit money from your car sale into a Finnish bank account, you’ll generally have to provide documents confirming the legality of the income source. A car sale agreement will do fine, but it’ll have to be translated into Finnish, Swedish or English.

A car in Finland can be bought new or used, in a car dealership or from a private person. You probably don’t really need a particularly cool and fancy car; the average age of a car in Finland is 12 years, and most people are happy enough driving these things. Like everywhere else in the world, you can get generally better offers for used cars from private people, but buying a car in this way is more time consuming and not risk-free. The biggest website by far to look for car ads is Nettiauto. An used car can be bought very cheap (less than 1000€ in some cases); one thing you really want to keep in mind is vehicle inspection date (katsastus). Vehicle inspection is done yearly (for old enough cars at least) and is quite thorough. If the car passed its inspection recently, then 1) you can be sure there are no immediately fatal problems with it 2) you’re spared from the necessity of passing this inspection yourself later and possibly getting an unpleasant surprise.

Buying a car (a new or a used one) in a car dealership is very easy. You can get a car loan (financing, rahoitus) and insurance on the spot. For a car bought using financing you’ll need to have comprehensive insurance (superkasko). Getting a loan as a recent immigrant is also not a problem, if you have an income source and some downpayment. Keep in mind that if your car is bought using a loan and you haven’t paid it out, then legally the owner (omistaja) of the car is the bank or other institution that gave you a loan, and you’re a “holder”/”user” (haltija). For almost all practical purposes there are no differences. But of course as a “holder” you cannot sell this car to someone else, and you might need a power of attorney paper (valtakirja) to drive this car abroad (possibly excluding Nordic countries). This paper needs to be ordered separately from the bank and will cost a bit of money. (You should also get a technical certificate (from Trafi, 2.70€ or so) and a green card (from your insurance company, free) when going abroad in any case, and also check insurance policies on that.)

Car dealership will usually take care of car registration for you. If you buy a car from a private person, you’ll have to do it yourself at Trafi website, but this is not very difficult either. Cars get license plates on first registration, and these are normally not changed throughout the life of the car. Generally you can just go to a car dealership and drive a car out in a half an hour or so, if the car is actually present there. In my case it had to be ordered and that took a bit of time. One thing you do have to do soon afterwards is paying the yearly vehicle tax; you need to do that in 1.5 months within the car passing to you I think. It can be paid online though Trafi website, and I think you get an invoice in the mail too.

A freshly bought Dacia Duster in the Ostrobothnian plains

I bought a car in April, in the ArtonAuto dealership in Tervajoki near Vaasa, a Dacia Duster, 4×4, bluish dark gray, 1.2 L turbo gasoline engine, in the best trim there is. I bought a new car as I’ve always been uneasy with used ones, and had an excellent experience with my previous car which I also bought new. The Duster is a pretty nice car, I clocked about 17,000 km on it by now. Some of the prices you might want to note:

  • Actual car price: 23,300€ (including delivery and options (the only option I installed was a towing hook))
  • Loan conditions: OP bank, 2.98%, 5 years, 4000€ downpayment, about 360€/mo installment
  • Insurance: OP insurance, 1040€/year, of that about a half is mandatory third-party insurance and a half is comprehensive insurance
  • Vehicle tax: about 220€/year

The car, of course, was pretty expensive (30-35% more expensive than it would have been in Russia), mostly due to car tax.

I had an accident happen with the car in September. Not an actual road incident, but due to a strong gale a metal construction from a nearby flower shop (closed for the winter) fell on my parked car, and on four others as well. The car got its rear window shattered, the windshield scratched a bit, and its body scratched a lot all over; most of body panels got some scratches on them, there were a few small dents as well. Naturally I made an insurance claim. Processing it was a little slow, but in 1.5 months I got my car into repairs, and in 11 more days it looked as good as new. The repair bill was hefty 7225.98€, fully paid by the insurance. The owner of the metal construction actually had his liability insured, so my insurance company contacted his insurance company and got it to pay, all transparent for me. I also got paid 164.78€ compensation for the time the car was in the repairs. Generally it all was a really good experience, I’ll certainly write more about it later.

My Duster damaged in the accident, with rear window shattered and deep scratched on bodywork visible

Roads in Finland are free, but parking often isn’t. I live in a building a bit away from the center of Vaasa, built on a pretty big lot, and a parking spot there is free for me. Buildings in the center have paid parking spots. The cost is usually pretty small but if there is a shortage of parking spots, you’ll have to be put on a waiting list. Parking in city center is also paid; it costs 10€/day, 80€/month on an underground parking at the central square where I work. There are cheaper ones a bit away, and in practice I park at a big free parking lot at the former bus station about 1 km from work.

Gas in Finland is expensive, at 1.45-1.65€ per a liter of 95 gas (it fluctuates a bit depending on god knows what). Diesel fuel is somewhat cheaper and mileage of modern diesel engines is better, but the annual vehicle tax on diesel cars is several times greater, so it usually makes sense to buy diesel if you drive a lot. I have a gasoline car although maybe a diesel could have been a better option for me.

Traffic rules have some nuances for it but are generally familiar for someone from any European country including Russia. Traffic jams are rare to nonexistent in all but the biggest cities, and are very tame even there. Winter driving might be a bit more challenging. Only the biggest roads are kept ice-free with salting; most smaller ones and city streets are plowed of course but still have some packed snow or even ice remaining on them. Winter tires are crucial in winter season (legally required from December to February in fact), and it’s far better to use studded tires than friction tires. Tire change may cost up to 100€ or even a bit more if you have to change tires on the same rims, and 20-30€ for just changing complete wheels with rims and tires, so you might want to consider buying a second set of rims, not just tires. It is also very common to install an engine block heater in your car to have it heated up already for when you’re going somewhere; sockets for these are pretty ubiqutous on parking lots. This costs 500€ or so, and I haven’t done this yet for my own car.

Typical winter road in South Ostrothnia (Road 3 in Kurikka)

Car maintenance I haven’t done yet, so I cannot tell you how much this costs. A hundred, two hundred perhaps? Many Finns can do basic (or sometimes more than basic) maintenance for their cars like changing oil. That can save one a lot of money, and may be pretty fun if you’re into that sort of thing. But of course you need a garage to do something like that, and in an apartment building there usually isn’t a proper one.

City buses

I grew up in Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.3 million, and then lived in St. Petersburg, a city of over 5 million, and both had quite extensive and usable public transport networks. Sure, some buses and trams were pretty old and shitty, and new metro stations are being built really really slowly, and you’re usually on your own at night. Many people in Russia prefer to buy a car at first opportunity and just drive everywhere, despite congestion, parking difficulties and the general Soviet-era city planning that did not favor cars at all. Nonetheless the majority of people in Russian cities still use public transport for commuting to work and for other purposes, and while I got my first car in 2013 in practice I often preferred to use public transport too.

Such lifestyle is not really possible in Vaasa. The city has a network of city buses, but it is very barebones and in practice the service is just enough so you can survive with it, but it’ll make you really really wish you had a car. (It goes without saying that there are no other modes of public transport. Trams, metro and suburban trains exist only in Helsinki and its vicinity; the city of Tampere is also currently building a tram but all other Finnish cities are limited to buses).

One of the fancier bus stops in Vaasa

Public transport in Vaasa is operated by a company named Wasa Citybus, formerly known as Vaasan Paikallisliikenne. This is a privately owned company subcontracted by the municipality to provide bus services. They own 25 buses, operate 17 routes, and employ 30 drivers (according to their website). This alone might give you a hint of the modest scale of the entire operation. 17 routes actually refer to the “winter timetable”, which is in force not just in winter but from mid-August to early June. Summer timetable, with students on their holiday breaks and most people having their summer holidays as well, is greatly reduced, with barely half of that routes operating, and the number of departures of remaining routes significantly reduced. Weekend service is very poor as well; weekend service in summer is a double whammy: just four skeleton routes, and on Sundays particularly just a few departures per day. Not to say even winter workday schedule is anything to boast about; there’s just one, at best sometimes two departures in an hour for a single route. Although many routes partially overlap so you might have some more choice there.

Virtually all routes are arranged into a star-like topology. This is to say, virtually all of them either start at Tori, or go through it in the middle of their route. (Tori is the central square of Vaasa, the natural centerpoint of the city; traditionally there’s a tori in every Finnish city.) So they’re more or less usable if you want to go from your home to the center for work for example, but if you don’t work in the center, or maybe want to visit a friend or something, you often will have to change buses at Tori, possibly with a big wait in between, so in practice given the already sparse timetable effective travel times between two points of the city may be up to two hours, provided there’s bus service at all. This is of course rather ridiculous, given the modest size of the town itself. In fact in two hours you could walk across it in most directions, provided you like walking of course.

The problem, of course, might be alleviated by not having to use buses much. Most white collar jobs are in the city center, and universities are in Palosaari (which is within reasonable walking distance from city center too). So living in center as an office worker or in Palosaari as a university student or a researcher could mean just walking to work. Still, what about shopping? There are grocery stores around the city, and two mid-sized malls and a supermarket (K-Citymarket) at Tori, still, most big supermarkets/furnuture/electronics/gardening/outdoors/etc. stores in Vaasa are located in Kivihaka area, east of the center. And yes, this is one of the places where bus services are sparse, it’s too far to walk from most of the city areas, and even if you bike there carrying heavy stuff by bike is awkward.

Vaasa city bus at Tori stop

You’d think that given all that buses will at least be reliable but nooo. Even though they have a fixed timetable and traffic is usually a non-issue in a city of that size, very often they are late a few minutes. Also the internal stop display is usually not working correctly so you’d better know well by heart where to get off. Also while there is a website that ostensibly shows current bus locations, reittiopas.vaasa.fi, in practice about half of buses are usually missing from it (although it works alright for its main purpose, journey planning between point A and point B…  wish they had an app though).

All that said, of course there are some good things about Vaasa buses too. The buses themselves are actually very nice. Almost all of them are brand new Scanias, working on biogas from Stormossen recycling plant, with low floors, nice layouts, and usually extremely clean (sometimes less so in the muddier parts of winter/spring but still alright). Usually there are enough seats for everyone. And it’s rare that someone actually has to be standing, and even having a stranger sit next to you is a good smalltalk topic for the next day (Finns normally just don’t do that whenever they can.)

Prices are generally reasonable, if you buy a bus card. You can do this at a place called Studio Ticket in Rewell Center mall, at Wasa Citibus office and a few other locations. It costs a few euros, I don’t remember well. You can load it up online or at R-Kioski stores, and a single trip would cost you 1.33€. Or if you load it up enough, you can buy an unlimited 30 day pass for 35€. Buying a card requires some form of ID, and I’m not sure they can sell it to non-residents (without a valid Finnish personal number) but maybe they can. Without a card you’ll have to pay by cash (one of the few times you might need cash in Finland), and that would be a lot more expensive, 3.20€ per single trip. That price seems to be an oddity in Vaasa, single trips by cash in other cities generally cost less. For students prices are significantly reduced (1€/single trip by card for example), and even more so for children (0.80€/single trip by card).

Using a bus is straightforward but you have to signal it explicitly both to pick you up and to drop you off. You have to wave at it with your hand when it’s approaching your stop. Buses are always entered through a front door (unless you’re carrying a baby pram — in which case bus trips are free outside of workday rush hours anyway), and you pay the driver upon entrance, either with cash or by putting a bus card against the reader. It is customary to greet the driver (“hei”) and, to a lesser extent, to say thanks and/or bye or at least wave at him when you get off; this is something that was hard to get used to for me, as in Russia people do not really acknowledge driver’s existence even in cases they have to pay him. There are red STOP buttons all over the bus, you have to press one of these (in due time) to signal you’re leaving at the next stop. Pressing a button rings a bell and lights up a sign on the ceiling so if someone else did this already you don’t need to do this again. Buses will always stop at Tori and at their terminus station so you don’t have to press a button there. You can leave the bus through any door you want.

Vaasa city bus interior

It is very common in Finland for buses to have a zone-based pricing system. The entire city proper is normally “zone A”, but there might be  more zone belts in the suburbs, and travelling between zones costs more than within one zone. Technically this is true in Vaasa as well, there are zones B (Helsingby, Veikars) and C (Laihia, Vähäkyrö), but suburban bus service is so sparse you’re in practice extremely unlikely to use that, except maybe in some emergency, so I cannot tell much about it except that in Vaasa bus cards are only valid within zone A. There are usually a few buses in the morning and a few in the evening on workdays, tailored to normal work hours, and that’s it. In practice if you live in one of these places you don’t have much other choice than to buy a car.

Smedsby (a. k. a. Sepänkylä), the center of Korsholm Municipality (that mostly surrounds Vaasa on all sides), is also somewhat peculiar in that regard, as geographically it’s completely contiguous with Vaasa’s own built-up areas (to the east of Kivihaka/Asevelikylä/Purola areas), and has rather significant population, but legally it’s a completely different municipality with its own rules. At least until 2020, they’re going to merge with Vaasa on that year. There’s one Vaasa city bus (route 6) going there but its schedule is more sparse than usual (about one departure in 1.5 hours) and the bus card is not valid on it, even though Smedsby itself is in the same zone A as Vaasa itself.

Other than that the trunk lines are routes 1 and 2 to the north (Palosaari, Vöyrinkaupunki, Vetokannas, Isolahti, Gerby, Västervik) and 7 and 9 to the south and southeast (Hietalahti, Suvilahti, Melaniemi, Huutoniemi, Ristinummi, Vanha Vaasa). There are routes going to the airport and to the ferry harbor, the latter I believe are are tailored to ferry departures, but still I wouldn’t really rely on them. Some routes stop by the railway station, but it’s pretty close to Tori so it’s not difficult to walk there from Tori if you have to.

Taxis

Like any labor-intensive thing in Finland, taxis are pretty expensive. You’re probably not going to use them regularly, but they can be handy e. g. for returning back from a bar or for going to the airport. They also used to be fairly stricted regulated, and e. g. Uber which tried to start operating in Finland at some point was declared illegal. This changed with the reform that came in force in July 2018, which greatly deregulated taxis. While the same Uber immediately started working on launching in Finland again, in a place like Vaasa not much has really changed so far. This is a pretty small city after all and is of no real interest to the likes of Uber.

Taxis in Vaasa and the neighboring rural Korsholm municipality are operated by a company named, appropriately enough, TaksiVaasa. They can be called by phone (the phone call itself costs some money!), with an app or by just walking up to one in an area where they queue to wait passengers, marked with a “taxi” sign (e. g. near the railway station or the church). The app in question is Valopilkku, which means “light at the end of the tunnel” I think. Its sole purpose is just calling a taxi to your location; it does not handle payments, does not have driver ratings and so on. It however works across most of the country (basically all towns of any size at least), with all local taxi providers, and you don’t need to know their numbers or anything else.

Although taxi pricing has been deregulated, as of this writing I’m still seeing the exact some prices in all taxi companies over the country I check. These are:

  • 5.90€/ride (during 6-20 on workdays, 6-16 Saturdays)
  • or 9.00€/ride (outside these hours)
  • +1.60-2.23€/km depending on the number of passengers

So, again, reasonably affordable for most everyone but you would definitely not want to make it your daily commute. Going to/from airport in Vaasa costs 16-25€.

Taxis are pretty much always nice, clean and air-conditioned. And, very conveniently, you can pay by card on board.

Trains

As I said before, suburban trains in Finland are limited to Helsinki area (defined rather widely; they go all the way to Tampere and Kouvola (the latter is not a direct train from Helsinki though) so we won’t discuss them here. In places like Vaasa rail passenger service is limited to long-distance trains.

Vaasa railway station, with an InterCity train. Immediately to the right is also a bus station

All major Finnish cities have passenger trains, and a number of smaller ones do as well. The biggest city without passenger service is Porvoo, which is the 21st biggest city in Finland. All long-distance trains are operated by VR, the Finnish State Railways company. All regularly operated trains are clean, comportable and appear modern enough, speeds are very nice and ticket prices are reasonable. In practice a train is usually the most convenient way to travel between major cities, if you won’t need your car there.

The biggest catch however is that trains are very often late. VR is quite infamous for that among the Finns themselves, to the degree of being the target of memes and parody songs. My theory is that it happens as a result of relatively high speeds (compared to e. g. Russia) and mostly single track railways, which results in both tighter margin for error and possibilities of a single delay cascading through other trains on the same track. It is common enough (happens maybe on 1/4-1/3 of all trips) that you definitely should allow in your plans for at least half an hour of reserve time in case of a late train. (At least trains may wait for each other when there is a big transfer station.)

Don’t expect to get to a small city or a rural station by train. Spur lines to minor cities (e. g. to Nykarleby, Jakobstad, Raahe — along the west coast between Seinäjoki and Oulu) are generally either dismantled long ago or at least have no passenger traffic anymore. And on many lines trains don’t really stop at smaller stations anymore. For example there’s just one stop between Tampere and Seinäjoki (Parkano), and just one stop between Seinäjoki and Vaasa (Tervajoki). Presumably this is done to keep train speeds higher. This seems to become less true the farther from Helsinki you go. There are also a few relatively remote, low speed lines where there actually are a lot of small stops (like Jyväskylä-Seinäjoki line or lines to Hanko, Savonlinna and Nurmes). These are normally served by “rail buses”, single car diesel trains. Not to be confused with actual buses operated by VR; they have some between Vaasa and Seinäjoki for example, to keep serving stations they’re still obligated to, but don’t want to have trains stop there.

Vaasa railway station building

Regular lines mostly have two kinds of trains, Pendolino and InterCity. The first is an electric multiple unit train, the second is hauled by a locomotive. Pendolino cars are single floor, and InterCity are double floor. Other than that there’s at the moment pretty much no practical differences between them (in comfort, speed or prices). Comfort in particular includes toilets, trainwide free Wi-Fi, a socket next to every seat, and a reasonably priced restaurant car. Prices for a single one-way trip between Helsinki and Vaasa are normally about 40-45€, but if you buy early enough you can catch a “saver ticket”, 2x cheaper. Tickets can be bought online, through VR mobile app, or with a ticket machine on stations. Very few railways stations now have a ticket selling point with an actual person, for example, Vaasa doesn’t. In fact railway stations often do not have many services at all, and even waiting rooms might be surprisingly small or non-existent. The ticket inspector will walk through the train and check your ticket soon after boarding. You can have it printed out or just open it on your phone display. Note that tickets are not personalized in any way, so no one’s going to check your ID or anything (at least for regular or “saver” single tickets).

Sleeping cars for overnight trips do exist in Finland but are rare, since the country is mostly not that big. These are limited to trains to the north of the country, where Oulu, Rovaniemi, Kemijärvi and Kolari are the terminal stations. Such cars have pretty comfortable two-bed compartments with own bathroom and a shower (although the latter was in my experience pretty unreliable). The same kind of trains also have special cars to transport actual cars. You just roll on your car in Helsinki, go sleep in a train, and roll it off in Lapland in the morning. That’s an insanely comfortable feature as you might imagine — and of course not cheap. A trip with own car from Helsinki to Kolari and back may set you back 400-480€. However prices grow less steeply with more passengers (e. g. for two people it will be aroung 520-600€), and considering that driving that distance by car (800-950 km) and back may by itself cost 150-200€ in fuel prices alone, and then add price of staying at a hotel for two nights, and then you basically save yourself two full days (becase when you’re driving 800-950 km in a single day there’s not much else you’re going to do on that day), this begins to seem like an attractive alternative. Of course you cannot just load your car on any station though. Most of the trains of this kind go from Helsinki (and the car loading terminal is at Pasila station), and a few also from Tampere and Turku. For someone living in Vaasa there isn’t really any practical possibility to use such a train.

There are two long-distance trains between Finland and Russia, Lev Tolstoy going to Moscow (a pretty regular sleeping train operated by Russian Railways) and Allegro going to St. Petersburg (rather similar to Pendolinos, in fact this is a newer Pendolino). Of course you need a valid travel document to board them; both Russian and Finnish citizens require a passport and a visa or a residence permit to enter the other country. Allegro is a little pricey but is extremely convenient for moving between St. Petersburg in Finland, with multiple departures every day and a trip taking some 3.5 hours. You then can transfer to an internal Finnish train, in Helsinki or more often at the Tikkurila station, which most of trains going from Helsinki (apart from Turku-bound ones) go through. There are currently no passenger trains to Russian Karelia or to Sweden, and no plans to introduce them.

Long-distance buses

Long-distance buses are an alternative to trains, or sometimes the only public transport option for many routes. They’re cheaper but generally somewhat (or a lot) slower.

Bus station in Lahti

There are many bus companies in various regions of Finland. One of the particularly popular and cheap ones that operates across most of Finland and rose to prominence in recent years is Onnibus. There are many others, some major, like Savonlinja, Satakunnan Liikenne or Pohjolan Liikenne, and some minor, dozens if not hundreds. Buses can be searched for via Matkahuolto website. In some cases you can also buy tickets there; otherwise you’ll have to do it on board of the bus, which generally would require cash. Finnish long-distance buses should all be reasonably comfortable (in so far as long bus trips can be comfortable), with nice interiors, luggage space, air conditioning and sometimes such amenities as toilets, Wi-Fi or wall sockets.

In bigger cities the bus station should be somewhere close to the railway station. They are generally called Matkakeskus (Finn. Travel center). In some cities including Vaasa the older bus station has been shut down specifically so that the new one would be next to the railway station, for easier transfer. In smaller towns buses may depart from the local tori (central square). For small villages located not directly on a road, the bus may just stop at a crossroads, and there would be a few kilometers walk to the village. Such stops may be marked as “th” or “tiehaara” (Finn. crossroads). Keep in mind that the existence of a bus stop somewhere does not mean the existence of any bus service! Backcountry buses have been cut down greatly across the country. Sometimes there are buses but just maybe once a week or so. In general if you want to go by bus to a place other than a major city, you’d better know what you’re doing.

Airports and seaports

Finland has a quite wide network of airports, for the country of its size. The national air carrier is Finnair, a pretty great airline by most accounts, and it operates both domestic and international flights. While air travel within the country is more expensive than trains or buses, it is the fastest way to reach Lapland (which has surprisingly many airports for its population size), or might be convenient if you’re not located in the capital area and need to first have a connecting flight to Helsinki to fly somewhere abroad. While the Helsinki-Vantaa airport (located, as its name suggests, in Vantaa, a satellite city to Helsinki) is huge and has flights departing all over the world, airports in cities like Vaasa are quite small and in best case might have one or two destinations other than Helsinki, typically also in Nordic countries (e. g. you currently can fly from Vaasa to Stockholm, and from Oulu to Luleå (North Sweden) or Tromsø (North Norway). Airports usually have car rental company offices in them.

Helsinki-Tallinn ferry at Helsinki West Harbor. Vaasa ferry is significantly smaller

Somewhat unusually in the 21st century, sea travel remains important to Finland. Geographically Finland is nearly an island; its land connection to Scandinavia is pretty far up north, and east of it is Russia, which is difficult for Europeans to enter. Therefore Finland has more direct connections to Sweden and Estonia in the form of huge ferries, departing from Helsinki and Turku. Several companies operate those. Estonia trips (Helsinki-Tallinn) are pretty cheap and quick (two hours one way for the fastest ferries) and are widely known as the way to shop for some cheap booze; alcohol in Estonia is a lot cheaper than in Finland, and as both Finland and Estonia are EU countries it is allowed to bring quite a lot of it across the border. Ferries to Sweden (via Åland Islands) are better known for drinking on the ferries themselves. Both Estonia and Sweden ferries are excellent options for car travel to the rest of Europe.

In Vaasa in particular there is also a ferry to Sweden, to the city of Umeå — the Wasa Express, operated by Wasaline. It exists because Vaasa is located at the coast of the Kvarken Strait, the narrowest part of the Baltic Sea. The ferry thus is relatively fast, but it is fairly expensive and the timetable is not particularly practical, so I’ve never actually used it yet while living in Vaasa (although I travelled on it once last year, on a big tourist trip).

There are also ferries to Russia (St. Petersburg, of course) and Germany, but these are also a lot more obscure and less popular. These depart from Helsinki.

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