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Bristol - Heathrow - Oslo - Longyearbyen

The start of another trip

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.


Back in February, I was browsing through Facebook while on a ferry back from France, when I came across an advert for a photography cruise to Svalbard. By the end of the day, I had booked it. This has to be one of my most exciting – and expensive – impulse buys. Follow my blog to read all about it.

Sunday 23rd July 2023

Home - Heathrow

I am desperately trying not to sleep in the car on the way up to Heathrow, as we are planning on a very early night tonight, ready for the flight tomorrow morning.

Premier Inn

We are delighted when we discover that we have two large beds in the room. Usually, their twin rooms are one proper double bed, plus one converted sofa bed – the latter being rather uncomfortable, Here we have a proper bed each.


Another good thing about the room is that it has air conditioning, something that is not the norm in Premier Inns.

Thyme Restaurant
We have time for a quick freshen-up and change before going for dinner at 17:45. There are a number of children in the restaurant, which is only to be expected this early in the evening, but I am delighted to find that they are all very well behaved, and no trouble at all. It is uncomfortably hot in the restaurant, however, which is disappointing after the lovely air-conditioned rooms

While David has his usual steak and ale pie, I choose the hoisin noodles with three added jumbo prawns. What a disappointment. The sauce is very thin and pretty tasteless, and the prawns are overcooked and tough.



The dessert of tiramisu is not much better, with very little taste of coffee, and instead of sponge fingers, they have used chocolate cake.

After dinner we go straight to bed at 19:45. My idea earlier of not sleeping in the car on the way here worked, as I go straight into a deep sleep. I wake at 22:15, however, and am too excited to be able to go back to sleep for the rest of the night.

At some stage in the night, I receive a text message from SAS explaining that the flight is full, and they are allowing passengers to check in their carry-on free of charge. No thanks, I have packed everything I need in the hand luggage in case the main bags do not arrive, such as thermal underwear and a spare set of clothing, plus, of course, the camera gear and medical stuff that has to be with us at all times. I hope there will not be any problems at check-in tomorrow.


Monday 24th July 2023

After just 2.5 hours of sleep last night, I feel pretty tired this morning. We arrive at the car park at 04:30 for our meet-and-greet parking, where someone is waiting to take our car away (who will then bring it back to the same place when we arrive home after the trip).

Special Assistance

I use the usual call button to summons someone to collect me in a wheelchair from the car park. No reply. I try again. Still no reply. David tries the telephone number on the help sign. He receives a recorded message stating that “The office is now closed”. No mention of what time the office does open and what to do meanwhile. I guess you are not supposed to be disabled at this time in the morning.


I walk from the car park to the check-in, which thankfully I am able to do. There is, however, absolute chaos here, with lots of people standing around, waiting. I ascertain that there are two long queues next to each other, one for checking in to United Airlines, and the other for people waiting to print their own bag tags. We join the latter, but it moves at a snail's pace, and no one seems to really know what is going on. The self-service bag-drop machines are not just for our flight, but for several different airlines, adding to the chaos. The lady in front of us is flying to Delhi in seven hours' time, and doesn't understand the instructions on the machine. There also doesn't seem to be a clear queueing system, with one long line snaking around the corner, but then, right at the bit where the self-check-in machines are, people are jumping the queue by entering from two other sides. Once we've finally managed to print and attach our tags, we join another line for the actual bag drop. We are travelling in the SAS Plus cabin today, and the sign at the head of our queue quite clearly states that it is for such passengers only, but others still join. Several get turned away once they get to the counter, but there is no-one to supervise the queues. Total shambles. By the time we reach the counter, we have queued for over 40 minutes. One of the reasons I book special assistance, is because I cannot stand for long periods of time. Today proves just that, as, by the time I reach the Special Assistance area (which is open by now, obviously 05:00 is the time from which you are allowed to be disabled), my back is extremely painful.

Halfway there in the queue

Thankfully no one mentions anything about checking in hand luggage, in fact, they don't even look at the carry-on bags, so I worried about nothing. As a photographer, the weight of the cabin bags is always a concern – I am wearing one of my cameras around my neck to lighten the load in the bags. I have also packed four lenses in the checked-in luggage, and Big Bertha (my 600mm lens), has her own hard case, of course. We have to take her to the Oversized Luggage counter in order to check her in.

In the Special Assistance Area, waiting to be pushed around

Once I have been put in a wheelchair and allocated a pusher, we are off to immigration and security. Here there are self-service machines again, where you just scan your boarding cards, but the turnstiles are too narrow for wheelchairs, so we have to wait to be manually checked. This is another slow queue. At security I temporarily abandon the wheelchair and walk through, setting off the X-ray machine. The scanner also detects something, so I am manually searched. The security guard insists I should have taken my concealed money belt off and put it through the scanner – which is odd as I have passed through Heathrow over a hundred times before and never once been asked to remove the belt from under my clothing. This is one of the many things I hate about flying – everything is always such a palaver, and just as you think you know what you're doing, they change the rules.

From there I am pushed through to the Airside Special Assistance Area. That is one disadvantage of booking a wheelchair, the waiting area is often far away from any food outlets - they don't seem to realise that disabled people may want to eat too. David goes off to get a sandwich and a drink for me.

As we are waiting for the next stage, a smart-looking middle-aged black man arrives in a wheelchair with a pusher, apparently having been separated from his family. The staff ask him time and time again if he can walk, and tell him to get out of the chair. It is pretty obvious after the first question that he is at best non-verbal – his face is completely emotionless and he makes no effort to move. Eventually, his family arrives and explain that he cannot walk, nor talk.

The assistant who comes to collect me has zero personality, and my attempts at communication fall on stony ground. I am parked inside the gate while we wait for the crew to arrive. Another chap soon joins us, a big guy with full sleeve tattoos that extend onto his hands, as well as on his neck. He also has several large piercings, but he certainly has way more personality than the chap who wheeled me here, and we soon start chatting. When I tell him we are going to Svalbard, his face lights up – not only does he know where it is, he knows all about the Treaty and visa-free entry. He is the first person we have met who has shown any knowledge about Svalbard, which just proves, yet again, that you should not judge a book by its cover.

SAS Plus Flight from London Heathrow To Oslo Gardemoen

The plane fills up fairly quickly, the doors are closed, and we are ready to go when the captain comes on the tannoy to announce that we will be delayed for push-off as a result of a faulty tow-tug, so we are waiting for a new one to arrive. The delay is only just about five minutes, before we are on our way.

We are in seats 2E and F, and are surrounded by a big group of pretty rough and raucous Welshmen who are off to Norway fishing. A couple of them have real potty-mouths, which feels very disrespectful as there are children across the aisle. They are also very loud, and twice the steward has to ask them to be quiet during the announcements. Despite their noisiness, and the fact that the chap in front of me leans forward when he talks to his mates, then throws himself back in the seat afterwards, crushing my knee each time, I spend most of the flight dozing, waking only for the breakfast. The meal service consists of a piping hot bread roll, ice cold and rock hard butter, strawberry jam, a thin slice of Norvegia cheese, a whole baby Camembert, yogurt with muesli, and an apple, elderflower, and ginger juice (which David thinks is delicious, me less so).

Having received the text earlier today to warn that the flight is full, I am delighted to find that the only free seat is next to us, so David can move over to give us both a little bit of extra room. The plane is thankfully not as cramped as some, with adequate space for my legs – until the person in front throws himself back, of course.


Where the tunnel meets the plane, a nice young man (with plenty of personality) meets me with a wheelchair. At the top of the ramp, we are stuck, as the end of the tunnel is closed off by a locked door, and the lift is out of action. After a few minutes, the foot passengers are told to use the escalator on the right rather than the ramp on which they are queuing. More chaos. We go in the lift, which is now suddenly operational, but is so small there is no room for David, who meets us at the top. From there, we go down a long, narrow corridor before we reach Immigration. A number of ropes create a snaking line, which we bypass to use the Special Assistance counter... which is closed. The wheelchair assistant moves me to the front of the 'normal' queue, and is almost immediately told off by a jobsworth who is overseeing the area, claiming that some people have waited for two hours! With only three counters open, and each person asked a number of questions about why and where they are visiting, as well as being asked to show their return ticket and itinerary of their trip, I can understand why it is taking so long. With a Norwegian passport, I sail through, and David doesn't take much longer, although he does get a stamp in his passport.


Despite the Svalbard archipelago belonging to Norway, even Norwegians need to show their passport when travelling to the islands. That's because Norway is part of the European Schengen area, while the Svalbard archipelago is not. We are technically just transiting through Norway proper. A strange concept.

From there, we go straight to the gate for the next flight, with plenty of time to spare, in fact, the passengers for the previous flight (to Edinburgh) are still there, which initially confuses me a little.

SAS Plus flight from Oslo Gardemoen to Longyerbyen

When it is our turn to board, the girl at the check-in comes over to ask if I can walk. Apparently, she has phoned for assistance for me, but no one has arrived, and she needs to start the boarding if they are to have time to check passports. Just as I get to the desk, a lady from assistance arrives, but without a wheelchair. I decide it is much easier for me to walk down the ramp to the plane than it is for her to fetch a chair.

We are in row 4 this time, E&F, and while the flight is not completely full, the seat next to us is not the empty one, unfortunately. One good thing is that I am right above the luggage loading chute, so from my seat, I can see the bags going onboard. It is with great relief that I spot all four of our cases. The SAS app on my phone also gives me the opportunity to track where our checked-in luggage is, so I have been able to follow it along from London to here, and know that it has been scanned at Gardemoen.


David's bag on the left, Big Bertha on the right

The captain announces that we will be delayed, albeit only a few minutes, as we are waiting for the last few items of luggage from a connecting flight to be loaded.

The children in the seat behind me are super-excited about flying and delightedly exclaim 'Look daddy, we are reversing' and squeal with excitement when we take off. Unfortunately, the same kids are this excited throughout the flight, which seems to involve a lot of kicking the back of my seat.

In-flight meal
This has to be the most exotic in-flight meal I've ever had, and is absolutely delicious.


Again I sleep on and off, but wake up as we approach Svalbard, with some amazing views of Spitzbergen from the plane.

Svalbard has ove 2,100 glaciers



Longyearbyen Airport

As I am about to disembark, I am informed by the air stewardess that there is not a wheelchair available as they are all in use (the airport only has one or two). I can walk anyway, so it is not a problem. Access from the plane is via steps, which have a stairlift attached. I can't remember ever seeing that before – usually, they take disabled passengers up in the lift used to stock food on the plane, through the door opposite the passenger entrance.

The wheelchair meets me halfway across the tarmac, and I decide to make use of it, just in case there is a long wait for luggage. As it turns out, it is not really necessary, but she is a delightful girl and very helpful.


Longyearbyen is a long way from pretty much everywhere

Svalbard is nearer the North Pole than Oslo



As there are no taxis at the rank, we get on the bus instead, which is almost full, so I grab the back seat while David puts the bags in the storage compartment underneath. When his vehicle is full, the driver comes on board to sell tickets – this system seems to work really well, as he is able to assist with loading the luggage too. The bus stops at every hotel along the way – ours is the third stop.


Radisson Blu Polar Hotel

A lot of people get off here. We struggle a bit with our three rolling bags, Big Bertha, a backpack, two messenger bags, and a small camera bag between the two of us, so end up right at the back of the queue for checking in.

Radisson Blu entrance

Reception area at the back on the right

Retro furniture in the lobby

A stuffed polar bear in reception, shot in 1992 due to illness

Thankfully our room is on the same level as the reception, and not too far down the corridor, so reasonably easy to drag all the luggage. The room consists of two single beds pushed together, with individual bedding. Yay! I have never understood the concept of a double quilt, in most relationships there is usually one person who ends up uncovered during the night because the other one is hogging the covers. I am that hogger, so David is the one who ends up exposed and cold, but thankfully, with a single quilt each, this will not be a problem tonight.


David goes off for a recce to see what is around while I try to find out where I put things in my bag. He comes back with cider, crisps (my favourite from my childhood), and chocolate.


In Norway, the sale of alcohol is regulated by the government, and is only available in shops known as Vinmonopolet (directly translated: wine monopoly). The shops are plain (ie no advertising on the outside to suggest what they sell), as is the packaging the bottles come in. What you might call a brown-paper-bag-jobbie. As my friend John pointed out, brown paper bags are also good for people who hyperventilate – which is often what happens when you see the price of alcohol in Norway. Alcohol is even further restricted here on Svalbard, with permanent residents having a monthly quota and having to have their ration card stamped each time they buy some; and visitors, such as David, having to show proof of an onward ticket before being allowed to buy alcohol.

Image of a Svalbard ration card from the internet


We enjoy a couple of ciders from Vinmonopolet before going down to Barentz Gastropub which is part of the hotel. There is a buzzing atmosphere when we arrive, with lots of people coming and going. With the good weather and mild temperature, the outdoor seating area is popular (and full). It seems to be a favoured meeting place for youngsters of all nationalities. With Svalbard being a visa-free destination, it attracts people from all over the world - it is said that there are people from 53 different countries living and working here. I am guessing (from overhearing parts of conversations) that these kids work on cruise ships. Not only is Svalbard a popular cruise destination, but this hotel (as well as a couple of others here in Longyearbyen) is also owned by Hurtigruten ( a large Norwegian cruise company).


The bar stocks a selection of ciders, and while David thinks any other flavour than apple is a sacrilege, I am rather partial to the flavoured ciders, and order a Rekordelig mango and raspberry.


The menu focusses mainly on burgers and pizzas (maybe a reflection of its mainly younger clientele?), as well as a couple of specials each day. We both choose reindeer stew. It comes served with creamed potatoes and lingonberries, and is absolutely delicious. Sorry, Rudolph.

Those little red things are NOT baby red noses, but lingonberries

There are stuffed bears everywhere in this town

After another drink, we retire to the room for an early night. It's been a long and tiring day, we've been up since 03:15, and while travel isn't physically tiring as such, I find the queueing, security checks, and general airport bureaucracy wearing.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:33 Archived in Svalbard Tagged oslo flight airport dinner alcohol sas passport luggage svalbard longyearbyen heathrow cider wheelchair polar_bear hurtigruten airport_security radisson big_bertha premier_inn check_in gardemoen special_assistance thyme_restaurant passport_control bag_drop sas_plus palaver disabled_passenger in_flight_meal passport_stamp disembarkation flybussen radisson_blu radisson_blu_polar_hotel stuffed_polar_bear twin_bewds paprika_crisps rekorderlig vinmonopol ration_card reindeer_stew lingonberries airport_bureaucracy

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Quite a journey but well worth it :) I experienced very long queues at Oslo airport when I transited there en route to Tromso, while EU residents got to go through a much faster channel. When they started letting people with a connection to Bergen through the fast lane I asked if I could use it too and was allowed to even though my Tromso flight was 30 minutes later than the Bergen one. I have no idea how long I'd have waited if I'd stayed in the other queue but it would have been well over an hour for sure!

by ToonSarah

Thanks, Sarah, the flight is my least favourite part of any trip.

by Grete Howard

Quite interesting to read and what a travel hassle to get there in the first place. Nice to read you made it. I am much interested in Svalbard and hope to visit it one day myself. Loved the reading! :)

by Ils1976

Thank you for your comment Ils, you really should try to make it to Svalbard, it's an amazing place, like nowhere else I have been. ♥

by Grete Howard

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