How to travel cheaply in high-priced Scandinavia
Budget travelers will have to work hard in Scandinavia; think camping and grocery stores instead of hotels and restaurants. And leave Norway for a richer time of life.
The New York Times
It was my first full day in Oslo and I thought that I had found a rare bargain: a six-pack of Carlsberg beer for under $5 (or 27.40 Norwegian kroner) at the Kiwi Minipris supermarket! Even for a mass-produced pilsner, it was a surprising deal for Norway, where just about everything costs more than you'd expect. And by more, I don't mean by increments of 10 or 15 percent, but by multiples of two or three or four.
Or six. My jaw dropped when I realized that five-dollar figure was the price for just one can. That's right: a six-pack of mediocre beer, unrefrigerated, at a supermarket, was nearly $30.
Scandinavia presents a whole new challenge for budget travelers. Sure, flashy Asian cities can be pricey, but that can be offset by venturing into smaller towns. And while London has won a number of "world's most expensive" titles, a curry dinner in an immigrant neighborhood there is usually affordable. In Scandinavia, shocking prices are not just a downtown phenomenon, but extend across urban areas and even into the countryside, which spreads over a vast and often sparsely populated terrain.
Not that you shouldn't go. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland (which is not included in all definitions of Scandinavia, but will be here) have much to offer, especially during the summer: fjords, fishing, wide-open spaces for hiking and camping, not to mention clean and culture-rich cities, dramatic evidence of a Viking past and — in Lapland — the richness of the indigenous Sami present. There are also festivals galore to celebrate the almost (and in some places actual) nonstop daylight. All this in a region where everything seems to work efficiently and nearly everyone speaks solid English.
But prices do mean that unless money is no object, you'll need to modify expectations. I spent this past June and July traveling the region and had to rethink what budget travel really meant. Tallying up the eight weeks I was in Scandinavia, I spent an average of $125 a day, but the costs in each country varied widely. Here are some lessons.
Choose your route carefully
Norway is both Scandinavia's most beautiful and expensive country. By far, and by far. The fjords — glacier-formed waterways that cut into the mountainous western coastline — are as thrilling as any landscape you might see unless your name is Curiosity and you're currently on Mars. The rest of the countryside is hardly less captivating. My friend Kaia Tetlie, who is from the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, told me that she often fakes her oohs and ahhs when visiting other countries' supposedly stunning natural treasures, since they inevitably pale in comparison to those at home. After I spent a few days touring the islands with her and her friends, this made complete sense.
But Norway's prices are unforgiving. In Oslo, the owner of a cafe filled with Somali men watching a soccer game explained that his location in the immigrant neighborhood of Gronland allowed him to keep his coffee prices low. How low? I paid 26 kroner, about $4.50, for a cup.
Downgrading from budget traveler to backpacker isn't an escape. On my first night in Norway I paid 259 kroner, or $45, to stay in a rundown Oslo hostel whose online user reviews prominently mention bedbugs. After arriving I set out to find dinner, eventually sitting at a counter where I was served a mediocre shawarma doused with gloppy orange sauce for $12, including soda. So you'll go to the grocery store and like it. Or at least put up with it.
Norway is the extreme Scandinavian case, though — the only country I've ever been in where I suffered from constant, low-grade budget anxiety. On the opposite end is Sweden, which, if you come directly from Norway, feels like you've entered a 173,300-square-mile Costco.
"Oh, you're going to the cheap country," said one of Kaia's friends as I left Lofoten on my way across the border to Kiruna in north Sweden. The border crossing was made especially dramatic by my last Norwegian meal, a burger and fries combo at a fast-food joint for $23. Once across the border, that same meal might cost around $10; not free, to be sure, but not vertigo-inducing. The price differentials, by the way, extend virtually across the board. I asked a pharmacist who sold me a $6 nail clipper (!) in Oslo how anyone could survive in such a country.
"It's easy," he said. "We buy everything in Sweden."
Denmark and Finland fall somewhere in between — pricey, but not to the point of absurdity. But although Denmark has Copenhagen, perhaps the region's most charming city, it's not a place to spend a month. When I asked several Danes where to go to enjoy nature after a week in their capital, the near universal answer was "Sweden." Finland is a bit of a different animal — culturally and linguistically distinct from its fellow Nordic countries, its land covered in lakes and its people obsessed with saunas.
My advice: If you're young and have a long list of places you've never visited, skip Norway and come back after you make your first million (or $100,000, at least) so you can enjoy it. Maybe fly to Copenhagen, hop over to Sweden, make it to Finland if you have time. If you're not worried about spending money and have long dreamed of seeing Norway's fjords and the dramatic coastline and alpine splendor, go for it. But be ready. And base yourself in the lovely second city of Bergen; do not pass Oslo, do not spend $200 on dinner.
Bring a tent; join the crowd
In Europe, a simple hotel room for $60 or $70 a night — not luxurious but with personality and friendly staff — is my sweet spot. Scandinavia, alas, is largely free of such deals. Hostels are also far from a bargain.
That leaves few options. For those who have been reluctant to rent someone's home (or a room therein) through Airbnb and other online agencies, Scandinavian hotel prices might help push you over the edge; I stayed in two lovely apartments in Copenhagen for less than $100 a night each.
But the Scandinavians themselves have another idea: camping. For many families, that means driving off in campers and setting up shop, for a week or longer, at campsites that often offer enough activities to be self-contained family camps.
Short-term RV rentals, though, can also be expensive. Luckily, many campsites rent cabins. My parents and I rented one at Boyum Camping with a bedroom for them and a sleeping loft for me for 570 Norwegian kroner, or $99 a night. The campsite was a beautiful, fjord-side walk of about a mile to the town of Mundal, our actual destination.
The final option for frugal travelers is to set up a tent in the RV metropolises as I did a few times, enabling me to experience a very typical Scandinavian summer community, often complete with miniature golf courses, rock-climbing walls and on-site bars and restaurants. (Not to mention bathroom and shower facilities.)
Though interesting to witness, many of the additional services are largely wasted on foreigners, who want to see the country, not escape from it. Certain entertainments can also occasionally intrude, like the teenage girl band loudly performing covers like "Cotton Fields" after 11 p.m. in the Mollstorps campground on the island of Oland in Sweden. (Girls, nice choice, but it's "When I was a little bitty baby ... " not "When I was a little pretty baby ... ")
For those into roughing it, liberal camping laws throughout Scandinavia allow you to set up a tent just about anywhere you want in the countryside. Those laws do not allow for camping in most city parks, however, a fact I was unaware of when I set up shop in a meticulously groomed park across from the Kalmar Castle in Sweden. (Nothing happened, but the local tourist office told me later that I could have been asked to leave.)
If only a hotel room will do, there are deals to be found, but they require effort — or dumb luck. After the night spent listening to "Cotton Fields," I moved into a Church of Sweden-owned guesthouse called Gyngegarden, where 390 kronor, or $56, paid for a basic but very homey room with a shared bathroom, run by a volunteer family from the church. (I had spotted its "room for rent" sign while biking around Oland.)
Negotiating for lower prices also works. When I was looking for a place to stay in Lapland, in far northern Finland, I sent emails to various hotels asking whether discounts might be available for four-day stays. The most tempting offer was an upgrade to a kitchen-equipped suite in the small but welcoming and artfully decorated Villa Lanca, for 55 euros ($66) a night. I'm sure a Finn could have done better; in Norway, Kaia was able to negotiate about 50 percent off a room for our group in a small Lofoten Islands town.
Say goodbye to waiters
In much of Scandinavia, restaurant culture isn't as pervasive as it is, say, in countries like Spain and Italy. And that's a good thing, because eating out is mighty expensive. Prices do come down in places where you order at the counter, like the very pleasant bar/cafe Dyrehaven in Copenhagen (open-face sandwiches and other lunch entrees from 55 kroner — $9 — and up). But not all that much.
Again, Norway is the most difficult place to eat. In Oslo I was directed to Punjab Tandoori in the Gronland neighborhood for what turned out to be the cheapest meal I found there. The 69 kroner ($12) daily special was a couple of scrawny pieces of chicken on rice and an (admittedly delicious) piece of naan. And there is no Scandinavian equivalent to happy hours with free food. Luckily, trendy New Nordic cuisine aside (you can't afford it anyway), you didn't come to Scandinavia to eat. So pigging out at free hotel breakfast buffets, and supplementing with food from markets and bakeries, works just fine. It helps if you like dense, dark bread, salmon and herring, and my new favorite, Norwegian brown cheese, a soft but sliceable staple with more than a hint of caramel. Also worth considering: the purchase of a small, disposable barbecue that allows for grilling on the beach.
Seek refuge in museums
I'm a finicky museum-goer, bored within 10 minutes unless something delights or surprises me.
But not only did Scandinavia's museums generally provide just the kind of twists I like, but their entry fees are halfway reasonable. At the free National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, what would otherwise be a very long slog through the prehistory and history of Denmark is accented with "Shaped by Time" a series of works by contemporary Danish artists. The most memorable is the Haraldskaer Mermaid, by Mille Rude, a "skeleton" of a mermaid displayed as if it had been excavated and described as if it were real.
The Bornholm Art Museum, on the Danish island of Bornholm (entry 70 Danish kroner, or $12), got me with its ultra-local focus on artists who had been born on or worked on the island, including many who had painted the landscapes through which I had just been biking. In Sweden I was captivated by the thousands of objects salvaged from the Kronan, a warship that sank off the coast of Oland in 1676, on display in the Kalmar Lans Museum (80 Swedish kronor, or $14). And the exhibition on Helene Schjerfbeck at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki (12 euros, or $14.50) managed not only to hold my interest but intrigue me by displaying the artists' studies alongside the final work.
Make the most of free thrills
A sure way to keep costs down is to seek out free activities or just spend your time strolling and people-watching. Scandinavia disappoints in neither category. Being outside, whether on a bike, on a hiking trail or at the beach (though not often in the chilly water) is always enjoyable and usually free. (You don't even always have to pay to rent a bicycle; in Copenhagen, both of my Airbnb hosts lent me theirs.)
I spent less time away from towns and cities in Sweden, but that doesn't mean it wasn't full of free thrills, especially at the Hova Riddarvecka, a free medieval festival in the small town of Hova where jesters juggled and goofballed their way into the hearts of impossibly blond children assembled before them.
But the best views were of a baffling Swedish fashion trend: American flag patterns on young people. A teenager whose Chuck Taylor-style shoes were American flag patterned, a tourist information worker whose earrings were starred and striped, a boy with full-on American flag pants, stars on one leg, stripes on the other. Why?
"I don't know," one person said.
"I like it," said another.
Be polite but persistent
Scandinavia is not an unfriendly place, but it is not overtly friendly either, meaning that striking up conversations with strangers is not quite as easy as it is in, say, Rome or the Caribbean or New York City. Pretty much no one says hello when you walk by, or even if you are the only two people waiting at a bus stop. I did occasionally get a grunt if I crossed paths with someone on an isolated hiking trail.
There's also a lot of empty space, which, while great for campers, seems to lend itself to family getaways or group hiking trips more than to social encounters. That makes traveling alone a bit more lonely than it is in places like Turkey or Lebanon, where you might be invited to someone's house within minutes of being introduced, despite not speaking the same language.
Still, persistence pays off. In Hova, I camped in a field near a pedestrian path. One evening, as I was downloading photographs, I decided to sit outside my tent, thinking that maybe someone would stop by to talk. I felt pathetic, but it worked. A few people said hi, and finally a graying-blond farmer named Lennart stopped to ask what I was doing. Soon he was talking about a $30,000 private hunting safari he had taken to South Africa, embellishing the story with photos on his phone. (He turned out to be not just a farmer, but a landlord of several buildings in town.) And then he invited me to come along to a friend's house on the condition that I pretend to be an old friend, perhaps because consorting with strangers was so un-Scandinavian.
Instinct suggested that this guy was not a murderer and I went. His friends, Hans and Mia, were half-drunk and sitting on the porch talking to another friend when we arrived. Hans led me to the liquor cabinet, announcing, "The bar is free!" Soon we were in the basement — a combined shrine to Scandinavian design and Elvis Presley — listening to 45s of the king and some of his Swedish contemporaries.
So yes, Scandinavia is expensive and its society harder to crack. But any part of the world where one second you are a lonely guy in a tent and the next you're drinking whiskey and listening to Elvis with a rich farmer can't be half bad.