3 AIRPORTS, 5 LOUNGES, 48 HOURS

Last week, flying from London to Oslo via Helsinki and back I had the chance to re(discover) and experience in less than 48 hours 3 airports and 5 lounges.

Heathrow Airport

In London Heathrow the airline operates from Terminal 3 and because my flight was in the first outbound wave, the airport was not at all busy. The check-in area is in the A area of the terminal (close to Virgin Atlantic check-in) and if you travel Business Class you have a dedicated line and check-in desk. The entire process was smooth and fast with an excellent check-in agent ( a charming, polite and efficient young lady who was the check-in supervisor for Finnair) who gave me, with a genuine smile, all the relevant information about the first leg of my trip: boarding gate and time, the location of fast-track line for security, location of the lounge – everything you need for a good start of flight – pure excellence Finnair!

The fast track line for security wasn’t very fast at all and I ended spending more than 20 minutes in a queue. I know, you will say that that’s Heathrow, but I think you need to add the fact that, being so early (5.30AM), the grumpy security agents didn’t have time for their first coffee.

Finally, I reach the air-side lounge where I had to take a decision: which lounge to go to. One of the questions that gets asked most frequently is “which is the best oneworld lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3?” With 4 lounges to choose from now, it’s a great problem to have. Although some people have completely forgotten that in oneworld and other alliances you can use any lounge if you are travelling in business or first or have the correct status level in their frequent flyer scheme. I could use the British Airways having a Gold Executive Club card, but, based on the advice of the charming lady from check-in I chose Cathay Pacific lounge – and for sure was the best choice!

Located in departures lounge, after security is marked with the sign Lounge C, and can be easily found near to Gate 11. As soon as I stepped out of the lift I received a really genuine warm welcome from the lovely lady at the reception desk. From reception, there is a short corridor that leads to the two lounges and other facilities; loos to the left, showers at the end and the all-important lounges to the right: the Business Class lounge is the second doorway on the right and First Class is, as you might expect, the first. As I walked into the lounge, the first thing that struck me was how large it felt and how there was a sense of openness to the space. The first thing area of the lounge is the renowned Cathay Pacific Noodle Bar. The bar offers a selection of noodle dishes and some dim sum, all cooked to order.

There is a self-service drinks area, which includes a tap for draft beer (handy if you’ve overdone the chilli sauce on your noodles). For those of us who can’t leave home without an array of tech, every table has two UK sockets with USB ports so you can fuel your devices whilst you fill up on food. For the foodies, there is bar-counter seating so you can watch the chef’s as they create your dish. Being early in the morning it was the breakfast service time. For an airport lounge there was an amazing selection. There were hot breakfast options of bacon, sausage, beans, potatoes, scrambled egg & porridge, all of which looked fresh and appetising. As well as the hot food, there was a generous choice of pastries and some cereals. The food area had a great selection of juices & other cold beverages, coffee machines and cold snacks fridge. The snacks fridge held a fantastic range of options, that were appealingly presented in glass preserving jars and offered tempting flavour combinations such as ‘Salami Milano with Pickles’ and ‘Grilled Peach and Chicken Salad’.

I dropped my bags, ordered my dim sum and went up to the bar, which was very well stocked. There is an impressive selection of wines, spirits and beers, and any airport lounge that has a cocktail menu gets extra points for style. Spirits on offer included Absolut & Stolinacha vodka, Bombay Sapphire & Gordon’s gin, Remy Martin VSOP and Bacardi. Whisky lovers can chose from Canadian Club 12 year, Johnny Walker Black label, Jameson Irish, Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. The service at the bar was impeccable and the level of service remained high throughout our visit.

The toilet facilities are shared by the First and Business lounges. They were spotlessly clean and stocked with Aesop soap & moisturiser. It’s not often that that I’m impressed by soap, but the combination of mandarin rind, rosemary leaf & cedar atlas in the Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash was a definite winner.

The lounges at T3 are sensibly placed close to the gates, so when the announcement was made I didn’t have far to walk. As I left the lounge the host said a cheery goodbye as I waited for the lift. All in all, an excellent lounge; next time I fly from Heathrow Terminal 3, I’ll be making a beeline for the Cathay Pacific Lounge to repeat the experience.

Helsinki Airport

My flight landed in the non-Schengen zone of Helsinki airport and around lunch time will be the perfect moment to be there: no Far East flights scheduled for that time which means now crowds lead by colourful flags on top of a stick, no running and screaming while taking selfies. The Non-Schengen area of Helsinki’s airport looks like any decent airports in Europe. I was extremely impressed by it:  is simply gorgeous, with wood floors, great shopping, and free WIFI which is easy to connect to. After one or two quick cigarettes in the smoking area – what a blessing for smokers to find something like that airside – I decided to go to the Finnair Lounge, near Gate 36 in the non-Schengen area.

As you enter the lounge, you’ll turn right if you are flying business class or left if you qualify under one of the metrics: Finnair Plus Platinum and Gold members (+ one guest), and oneworld Emerald cardholders (+ one guest), when the departure flight is operated and marketed by a oneworld airline. The “Premium Lounge” on the left side has upgraded food and beverage as well as a quiet area.

 

I decided to stay in the Business lounge with was almost empty in that moment. Greeting travellers is a modern and funky entrance with friendly staff before you emerge into a space filled with modern lighting and divided into various zones across two levels. I liked the two-level design of the lounge, its modern aesthetics, and its selection of food. The food selection contained a mix of hot and cold items, with soup, starches, chicken, salads, and pastries. Most of the food and beverage options here come self-served, with hot breakfast items available between 6am and 10am daily, followed by a salad and soup bar between 10am and midnight. But for a lounge catering to passengers flying long distances, those salads options prove very basic by international standards…Alcoholic beverages (nothing fancy) were also available as well as soft drinks and coffee but don’t forget that in Scandinavian countries spirits can be served only after 1.00PM in public places (something that I found later in the lounge in Oslo airport). While much of the lounge is geared towards relaxing and unwinding before a long flight, business travellers getting work done are still catered for, with laptop work benches offering runway views…The lounge contains a small kid’s room and newspapers/magazines. Bathrooms are clean, and showers are available upon request. For those with long connection and jetlag some funny private beds are available (actually 2 of them, and both were busy when I was there)

Bottom line: the Finnair Business Class Lounge at Helsinki Non – Schengen zone is worth stopping by if you arrive early for your flight. It’s also unusual that Finnair’s fare-paying business class passengers are relegated to this lower-level lounge, while any elite Oneworld flyer booked even on the cheapest economy ticket is instead invited into the superior Premium Lounge next door. I’d love to see that experience improved for pointy end passengers: whether that’s by opening up the Premium Lounge to business class flyers or improving elements of this ‘Finnair Lounge’ to make the two more comparable.

After more than one hour I decided to go through passport control (very easy and smooth using the electronic gates) and moved to the Schengen area of the airport. Big mistake!!!! A place that some time ago was an elegant airport, now is on the victim’s list of low-cost flights and hen and stag parties. The Schengen area of Helsinki airport remind me of Stansted and Gatwick put together in the pick of a bank holiday with “exclusive” delayed flights to Benidorm, Magaluf and Paphos. After passport control you’re forced directly to narrow lanes crossing a busy shopping centre full of passengers just trying to get through to their planes, blocking the walkways. Even if shopping in the Schengen area of Helsinki airport is no longer of interest to passengers travelling within EU, the whole airport is now packed with people panicking to reach their departure gates in time. They’ve even cut down the seating areas at all the gates, forcing passengers to hang around, wherever they can. Forget the days, when Helsinki airport was a pleasant experience!

I first went to the Business Class Finnair Lounge, located near gate 22. and discovered that was under renovation, with the airline apologising at the entrance for the “eventual inconveniences and discomfort”. This lounge was like a zoo in the afternoons, with insufficient seating for the number of flights and traffic in the afternoon, very poor food and drinks offering served from paperware, space was cut to third , air-conditioning worked poorly and appalling service. Thank God that the WIFI signal was good and I located another lounge in the area which sounded better that the Finnair one: the Almost@Home Lounge.

Next to the Finnair service desk was the Almost@Home Lounge, a lounge used by several airlines, though can also be accessed by Priority Pass members. According to www.ba.com the lounge can be used by Gold and Silver card holders and business class passengers on BA flights. After waiting more than 10 minutes at the reception by the entrance a young lady, obviously disturbed from passing a new level of Candy Crush refused me in a “Nordic polite way” mentioned that my Gold Card is not working here if I am not flying with British Airways in spite of the existence of a huge banner outside the reception mentioning the opposite. But I wasn’t in the mood of arguing so I returned (once again trough passport control) to the lounge in Non-Schengen zone. At the end I learn something from every trip.

Oslo Airport

One of three airports serving the Oslo region, Oslo Airport (OSL) is the second-busiest airport in Scandinavia and the 17th busiest in Europe. Passengers can fly non-stop between Oslo Airport and more than 160 domestic and international destinations. Oslo Airport has two runways and one terminal with two wings. Domestic flights operate from the west wing and international flights operate from the east wing. There are a total of 52 gates. Airport amenities include free WIFI internet, retail stores including duty-free shops, restaurants, bars, banks, ATMs and currency exchanges.

Oslo airport offered a better experience than the one in Helsinki. My flight was around lunch time and despite the fact that the airport was pretty busy I didn’t experienced in the check-in area or departure lounge the claustrophobic feeling given by the Helsinki airport. The terminal is spacious and light, I particularly like the wooden structure of the roof, typical Scandinavian architecture. Is indeed what you expect from an European Airport: new, modern and really elegant. The only problem: no smokers lounge after security check – so be sure that you get your nicotine macchiato before going air-side. Oslo airport is very quiet, on arrival the peace and quiet is instantly noticeable. The architects must have paid a great deal of attention to the acoustics, lovely.

The check-in for Finnair is on the far end left of the check-in area and again the process was smooth and fast, using the priority line at the desk. The guy who was operating the check-in was very friendly and polite but unfortunately, he was not able to give me any information about what I can find and look for after the security checks (passport control, lounge, duty free, smoking areas). He was not very helpful but at least he was charming.

I was quite surprise to see that Finnair doesn’t give you access to the Fast Track for security despite the fact that I was flying business class; can be another cost-cut decision? Fortunately security check was really easy and fast (even if there was a long queue)

On the airside the trendy look continues with lots of wooden accents everywhere and high, airy spaces that let in lots of natural light. But it was detail which didn’t impressed me: the departure area feels like the ultimate interpretation of an outmoded and cynically designed ‘airport shopping experience’: “Let’s funnel them through hectares of over-priced perfume and chocolate and not let them sit down.” I’m a seasoned and stoical traveller who’ll put up with most things, but this was memorably bad. In the 21st century it’s not about the retailing, it’s about the experience. Oslo airport has completely failed to comprehend that.

After doing some “window shopping” in the extended Duty Free and get bored to be amazed by the prices, “Norwegian style” I decided to go to the lounge. If you fly SAS that’s an easy task as you have no less than 3 lounges to choose from. But as a Finnair passenger you have one single choice: OSL Lounge. If the SAS lounge takes Gold and premium cabin passengers,  OSL Lounge serves a plethora of airlines including British Airways, Air Berlin, Finnair, Qatar Airlines and nearly every other airline at Oslo which is not part of the Star Alliance. Despite the number of airlines that use the lounge, along with Priority Pass card holders, the lounge was nearly empty when I visited it around noon in the middle of the week. The lounge is located on the 2nd floor of the Schengen area after security but before passport control. As the lounge takes everybody, I was told to be prepared for a mediocre service and crowded spaces.

But the reality was completely different. The lounge is decorated in a modern Scandinavian style with plenty of wood and interesting lighting with tarmac views and a variety of different seating options. The selection of buffet options at lunch was quite extensive and actually very healthy for what can be a carb heavy affair, when mass catered. For those feeling parch, dive into the self-serve beer or wine on tap or opt for water, coffee, or other local beverages. The lounge offers several seating areas made for groups, couples or those travelling alone. There is also some red recliners that are made for napping for the those who need additional time to sleep.

The OSL lounge can’t be accessed via Priority Pass and I think this helps to keep the numbers down. The catering is decent, there are numerous seating options and the staff are also friendly and proactive in clearing glasses and restocking items. By no means a ground-breaking lounge but perfectly nice to spend a few hours in. The WIFI is free in the whole airport and fast enough for streaming Netflix etc. Certain seats don’t have easy access to power points (those in the bar style areas in particular) but other than that, no complaints from me!

And guess what: if you find the way to OSL Lounge, the best kept secret of Oslo Airport is just under the corner, literally! Premium OSL lounge is not another independent lounge at Oslo Gardemoen Airport, in fact, it’s a part of the OSL lounge that’s much newer and is known to the surprisingly few passengers. The Premium OSL Lounge itself is not brand new, as it was first opened three years ago, the problem here is that the receptionists rarely inform passengers regarding this part of the lounge, so most passengers just ignore the small entrance and stay at the rather dated OSL Lounge.

As soon as you enter, you notice the pleasant and modern design of warm wood tones, muted colours and chrome combined with clear shapes and lines. Scandinavian design implemented in an excellent way. The areas are arranged clearly and comprehensibly, lounge and sitting area, bistro and dining area, work area – all very well arranged and spatially separated from each other. The seating area are capacious and the furniture are modern and full of taste. A small drawback here would be the lack of power socket on each individual seat.

During breakfast hours, they offer exactly the same spread of food and drinks for passengers in both lounges, but food & drink offerings are slightly better after 1:00 pm and some other times during the day.

The ambience and the catering offer of the OSL Lounge is really good. Coffee and a few small things to eat make the start much more pleasant and especially if you know the prices at Scandinavian airports (not only for alcohol), you will appreciate the lounge offer twice. Even with a longer stay you will find space and peace to work or to rest a little.

I always consider each trip a perfect occasion to learn something new. At least for my next trip with Finnair or SAS via Helsinki or Oslo I know how to choose wisely  before my flights!

~ by leonard69 on August 13, 2018.

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