Do you have some vacation time coming up and are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary? Are you fond of nature and long lonely roads, but want to manage without a personal guide and have basic comforts within your reach? Then Finland might be a good option for you. The country boasts varied landscapes, lots of outdoor opportunities and it is big, but sparsely populated. You will have a bit more elbow room than in Colorado, though not as much as you get in Maine and Oregon.
Finland is also on Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 countries to visit this year as it celebrates its 100th birthday. You are almost guaranteed to be part of some of the celebrations.
This roomy Nordic country is well suited for a road trip adventure. You won’t need a car in Helsinki, which has good public transportation, but if you are travelling to experience the great outdoors, having your own wheels will afford you freedom and flexibility.
Imagine driving along a narrow pine-tree covered ridge, flanked on both sides by two of the over 180,000 lakes, or passing red barns and yellow rapeseed fields in the flatter west, or spending hours on backroads in Lapland, meeting only reindeer herds. Take a break by one of the many roadside picnic stops and add an extra touch to your desert by picking some fresh blueberries in the forest. When you tire, wash off the travel dust in a sauna, settle in at a cottage, brave the mosquitoes and watch the sun barely set.
If I have enticed you enough, this is the time to go shopping for your plane ticket. You are likely to arrive at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport, just outside the capital, where you will find several major car rental companies in the corridor between terminals 1 and 2: Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz and Sixt. Don’t worry about the language barrier. The staff will speak English. Young drivers, bear in mind that rental agencies may require you to be at least 19 or 20 years old and may charge anyone younger than 25 an extra fee.
If you are about to hit the road in a new country – or state or city, for that matter – it is always wise to get to know the local driving laws. Here are a few tips about Finland:
- The general speed limit is 50 km/h in built-up areas and 80 km/h outside. On major highways, you can go as fast as 100 km/h in the summertime and on motorways (Finland’s version of the Interstate Highway) no more than 120 km/h.
- If there are no signs telling you otherwise, vehicles arriving from the right have the right-of-way. You are required to stop for pedestrians that intend to cross at a pedestrian crossing.
- Drunk driving is established at a blood-alcohol level of 0.5 permille. Nevertheless, drinking and driving do not belong together, so don’t get behind the wheel if you have a drink.
- You need to keep your headlights on at all times, even in the middle of the day. When it gets dark, switch on your high beams.
- In the event of an accident, call 112.
Finns are generally quite law-abiding and you are unlikely to find yourself in a threatening situation while visiting. But one thing we are not good at is putting our phones down. When the Finnish Road Safety Council polled drivers on their behavior, 79% of women and 85% of men said that they use their phone while driving. Among drivers aged 25 to 34 years old, 37% text behind the wheel. About 40% of those who have used their phone while driving say they have experienced a dangerous situation because of this.
Finnish law prohibits drivers from using a mobile phone without a hands-free device. However, it is always best to completely put your phone away when you get behind the wheel because it’s cognitive distraction that is the real issue. Concentrate on the road and if you need to check your incoming texts or make a call, please pull over to a safe location away from moving traffic.
But let’s go back to the airport for a while. Feeling jet lagged? Finland is seven hours ahead of New York and ten hours ahead of San Francisco. If you expect to arrive tired, it may be better to plan for a day of rest before you hit the road since drowsy driving can produce delayed reaction times similar to that of drunk driving.
So, you are well awake, the rental car agency paperwork is settled and you have your car keys in hand. It is always smart to choose a kind of car you feel comfortable driving. But even so, whatever car you receive will likely be one you’re not familiar with. So take 10-15 minutes to get a feel for the vehicle. Does it have any damages you need to report? How do you activate the wiper blades? How do you work the headlights? If you have any doubts, ask the rental agency staff to explain.
Adjust your rear view and side view mirrors as well as your seat so that you are comfortable and have good visibility. Then you are ready to go. Keep in mind that the car may not handle the way your car does at home. Familiarize yourself with the acceleration and brakes and how the car turns, and be extra cautious during your first minutes of driving.
Defensive driving will lower your accident risk. This is particularly important when you are driving in an unfamiliar place. If you are leaving from the airport in Helsinki, you won’t start in the middle of the city center jumble, but it is still useful to review a map of the area before you head out. Think through where you want to go and how to get there, so you can concentrate on the traffic when you are out of the parking lot. The Helsinki-Vantaa airport is close to the “ring three” road that caps the coastal capital with a semicircle. The major roads north are E12 and E75, while E18 heads east and west. Make any adjustments to your GPS before you start driving.
Now, you only need to enjoy the road. Beware of the moose that are particularly active at dawn and dusk and make sure you remember to stop to sleep even if the sun is up until midnight. Have fun!
Time tends to pass quickly on a holiday and it is usually sad to see it come to an end, but don’t wait until the last minute to return your car. You might just end up in one of our rare traffic jams or on an elaborate detour after making a wrong turn. If you fly back from Helsinki, you need to take your rental car to parking area P3. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to avoid the unnecessary stress of feeling rushed, which could put you at risk for an accident. Why not spend an extra hour or two at the airport, practicing your new Finnish skills with some locals heading back with you on their US adventure?
If you want to visit the Nordic countries of Europe, but Finland is not your cup of tea, don’t worry. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland have very similar driving laws, but expect more crowds in Denmark and southern Sweden. If you head for Iceland, please stay on the asphalt and gravel roads as off-road driving will only upset the fragile vegetation, and – of course – steer away from any volcano eruptions.
About the Author
Eva Nyman grew up in Finland, but has lived in Belgium, France and Hungary. She holds a degree in journalism and communication from the University of Helsinki and has worked as a reporter for ten years. She feeds her fascination with history and current affairs with books and her love of nature with hikes. She’s passionate about traveling, particularly slow journeys, and her dream is to visit every corner of the world.