Classy, Cozy, Sleek—a Low-Stress Smorgasboard
With some planning you can afford to see Norway's towns and fjords.
Scandinavia, home of sleepy isles, big-city beauty, fantastic fjords...and humbling costs. While you may not have a Viking’s plunder to pay for your vacation—particularly with the unfavorable exchange rate for Americans—a Scandinavian trip can still be reasonable, even for a budget traveler.
Whether your destination is Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, there are ways to save money. Transportation passes, groceries, alternative accommodations, and admissions are affordable—about what you’d pay in England or Italy. The great scenery is free.
There are some simple ways to stay within your budget in Scandinavia. Stay where the locals do—at youth hostels, private homes, and campgrounds. Compare the best deals for train and car travel before you go. With a little bit of planning, the only bite you’ll feel is from the icy breeze coming off a glacier.
Go in Summer
Winter is a bad time to explore Scandinavia—business travelers drive hotel prices way up and some hostels are closed for the season. And like a bear, Scandinavia’s metabolism goes down and many sights and accommodations are open on a limited schedule or closed entirely. Winter weather can be cold and dreary, and nighttime will draw the shades on your sightseeing well before dinner.
Summer is a great time to go. Scandinavia bustles and glistens under the July and August sun; it’s the height of the tourist season, when all the sightseeing attractions are in full swing. Many places don’t kick into gear until midsummer—around June 20—when Scandinavian schools let out. Most local industries take July off, and the British and central Europeans tend to visit Scandinavia in August. You’ll notice crowds during these times, but up here “crowds” mean fun and action rather than congestion and extra expense. Things quiet down when the local kids go back to school around August 20. Shoulder-season travel—in late May, early June, and September—lacks the vitality of summer but offers good weather and minimal crowds.
By Train or by Car?
One of the great Nordic bargains, the Scanrail pass is your best deal for a train trip focusing on Scandinavia (you can find out more about those sold in the U.S. at www.ricksteves.com/rail). More restrictive 5-days-out-of-15 or 21-consecutive-day variations are also available for a similar price at any major train station in Scandinavia (www.scanrail.com).
If your trip extends south of Scandinavia, consider the flexible Eurail Selectpass, which allows you to choose three, four, or five adjoining countries connected by land or ferry (for instance, Germany-Sweden-Finland). A more expensive Eurailpass is a good value only for those spending more time traveling throughout Europe.
Railpasses also give you extra money-saving bonuses, such as free or discounted use of many boats (including Stockholm to Finland), although certain trips require additional supplements. Consider, too, the efficiency of night travel—a bed in a compartment on a night train is a good value in Scandinavia. Beyond the cost of your ticket or pass, you’ll pay about $25 for a bed in a triple, $40 for a bed in a double, or $100 for a single.
Car rental is usually cheapest when arranged (well in advance) in the U. S., rather than in Scandinavia. You’ll want a weekly rate with unlimited mileage. Each major rental agency has an office in the Copenhagen airport. Comparison-shop online or through your travel agent. Also, a combination option—the Scanrail ’n’ Drive pass—offers a flexible, economical way to mix rail and car rental, and is handy if you plan to explore Sweden’s Glass Country or the Norwegian mountains and fjords.
Bring your own sheet or sleeping bag and offer to provide it in low-priced establishments. This can save $10 per person per night, especially in rural areas. Families can get a price break; normally a child can sleep free or for very little in Mom and Dad’s room. To get the most sleep for your dollar, bring your own night shades to keep out the early morning sun.
Hotels are expensive ($80–$200 doubles), with some exceptions. Business-class hotels drop prices to attract tourists with late-summer and weekend rates. Some chains such as Rainbow Hotels in Norway offer discounts (about $60) per night if you purchase a Skanplus discount card from them (about $15, available at www.skanplus.com). You need to ask about these—receptionists don’t volunteer the information.
Scandinavian hostels, Europe’s finest, are open to travelers of all ages. Buy a hostel membership card before you leave home ($28 a year, free if you’re under 18 and $15 if you’re over 54; contact Hostelling International at 301-495-1240 or visit www.hiayh.org). Those without hostel cards are admitted for a $7-per-night guest membership fee. Bring bedsheets from home or plan on renting them for about $6 per stay. You’ll see Volvos in hostel parking lots, because Scandinavians know that hostels provide the best (and usually the only) $20 beds in town.
Throughout Scandinavia, people rent out rooms in their homes to travelers for around $50 per double (or about $75 for a double with private bath). While some put out a “Værelse, Rom, Rum,” or “Hus Rum” sign, most operate solely through the local tourist information office (which occasionally keeps these B&Bs a secret until all hotel rooms are taken). You’ll get your own key to a clean, comfortable but usually simple private room (sometimes without a sink), with free access to the family shower and WC (unless the room has a private bath).
The best budget option—camping—is the middle-class Scandinavian family way to travel: safe, great social fun, and no reservation problems. Campgrounds are practical, comfortable, and cheap (about $6–$7 per person with camping card, available on the spot). Most provide huts (hytter) for campers with no gear. Huts normally sleep four to six in bunk beds, come with blankets and a kitchenette, and charge one fee (around $50, plus extra if you need sheets). If you’re driving late with no place to stay, find a campground and try to grab a hut.
Discounts, if You Know to Ask
In keeping with its liberal orientation, Scandinavia is Europe’s most generous corner when it comes to youth, student, senior, and family discounts. If you are any of the above, always mention it. Students should travel with an ISIC (International Student Identity Card, normally available at university foreign study offices in North America; www.isic.org). Spouses often pay half price when doing things as a couple. Children usually sleep and sightsee for half price or free.
Every kroner you spend is about half taxes—you’re subsidizing the cradle-to-grave good lives of Europe’s wealthiest people. This far north there simply aren’t any lousy or cheap alternatives to classy, cozy, sleek Scandinavia. But with a few extra cost-saving options in mind, Scandinavia can still be a low-stress smorgasbord.