Darren writes about the budget challenges we have faced while traveling in Scandinavia and our tips on how to save money.
Scandinavia is one of the most beautiful areas in the world. It is also one of the most expensive places to visit. We knew it would be a challenge to travel here and stay on budget, so we employed several strategies to enjoy our visit while not breaking the bank. We have completed three weeks of travel in this area and have been able to stay on budget. This article provides some tips of what has worked for us and could be applicable to any trip in a high-cost area.
On this latest portion of our around-the-world journey, we started in Riga, Latvia. We are defining Scandinavia to include Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark for purposes of discussion in this story. Our travels through Scandinavia have taken us to the cities of Helsinki, Stockholm, Kiruna, Bodø, Trondheim, Oslo and Copenhagen.
Tip #1 – Determine Our Budget Ahead of Time
It is great to be serendipitous. But, it is not the best way to save money when traveling. What we have found is that we can maintain our spending discipline as long as we splurge every couple of days. Our time in Scandinavia included six days of camping that offset some of the more expensive days. While camping is definitely not for everyone, there are still ways to save money. For example, we might stay in a hostel, but then dine out at a nice restaurant that night. Or, we might stay in a four-star hotel, but purchase breakfast and lunch at the local supermarket (see Tip #4). For this trip, we determined a budget ahead of time by setting a reasonable daily rate, adding up to a total amount for each week. The budget has kept us “honest” and prevented us from getting too far off course during our time here.
Tip #2 – Pace Ourselves
In general, we have found that the faster we move, the more money we spend. Including many destinations in a short period of time results in more transportation costs, for example. Another obvious example is that flying can be more expensive than taking the bus. There are hidden costs with flying, including transportation to/from the airport and charges for checked luggage. When we travel at a slower pace, we get a better feel for a place. We actually see the countryside by going overland and gain a greater understanding of the culture. So typically we try to go to only two places in a given week.
Tip #3 – Lodging: Location, Location, Location
Booking hotels takes time and research but it pays off with savings in the long-run. We tend to look for something that is centrally located (so we can walk to at least some of the attractions) but that is also near a tram, bus or subway stop (just in case we need to use public transportation). We also book hotels with free Wi-Fi because with it, we can find nearby restaurants/attractions, grocery stores, etc. (see Tip #9).
There are many great hotel booking engines out there. Most of our hotels were booked with Booking.com. One reason is because it is global in scope, so we can make and access all of our reservations in one place. During the reservation process, we looked at hotels only in a certain price range and that had Wi-Fi, and then sorted these results by review score. While viewing the details, we checked on whether the Wi-Fi was free and if breakfast was included. Once we narrowed it down to three hotel options, we double-checked them against Trip Advisor and any guidebooks we had purchased. Finally, if the hotel is part of a chain, we checked its own website to determine if it was cheaper. In a couple of cases, it was, so we booked the hotel there.
We also book hostels once in a while. If the mention of a hostel conjures up visions of dorm rooms and shared baths, they have changed during the past few years. Many hostels now have private rooms with en suite baths. In fact, some of the nicest places we have stayed in have been in hostels. We recently spent a night in a private room at Bodø Vandrerhjem Hostel. It was cheap, clean and well-run. They offered free breakfast, let us leave our bags for the day, gave us good recommendations on what to see during our short stay and even let us use the kitchen after we had checked out, so we could cook dinner before we boarded our overnight train to Trondheim.
|Where we Stayed by City|
|Helsinki, Finland||Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka (b)|
|Stockholm, Sweden||Rex Petit (b)|
|Kiruna, Sweden||Arctic Eden (b)|
|Bodø, Norway||Bodø Vandrerhjem Hostel (b)|
|Trondheim, Norway||Clarion Collection Hotel Bakeriet (b, d)|
|Oslo, Norway||Comfort Hotel Børsparken (b)|
|Copenhagen, Denmark||Copenhagen B&B (b)|
(b) = serves free breakfast
(d) = serves free dinner
Full Disclosure: We paid full price for all these rooms and we are not receiving any compensation for their mention here.
Tip #4 – Food – A Huge Opportunity
Food is a major budget challenge. For example, a Big Mac Combo Meal in Oslo is the equivalent of $14.60 USD. We tried to control our food costs in several ways. As was mentioned in Tip #3, we looked for hotels that offer free breakfast. Most breakfasts are buffet so we made sure we take full advantage of this in the morning!
For lunch, we typically purchased food at a grocery store. We have enjoyed shopping and seeing the type of food that is available. If the weather is nice we have even picnicked in a park with our purchases. We also bought food for our train and ferry travel days since it is typically expensive on board. Most supermarkets and convenience stores have prepared food (sandwiches and salads), as well as items that are ready-to-eat (bananas, yogurt, bread, cheese and meat).
Dinner was the most challenging meal to budget. One of the hotels we stayed in actually had an evening buffet included so we ate dinner there. Otherwise, we tried to find cafeterias or take away places. Occasionally, we resorted to using McDonalds to get a cheap meal. In the U.S. McDonald’s has its value menu. Here, we found out that McDonald’s in Scandinavia has similar items but they are not always on their menu. For example, we purchased a cheeseburger for the equivalent of $1.50 USD in Oslo. All we had to do is ask!
When staying at a hostel, we bought the ingredients for a simple meal (pasta is our “old standby”) and used their kitchen. Once or twice a week, we did splurge and had a nice lunch or dinner, trying to sample the local specialties if possible. For example, in Helsinki we tried Reindeer Stroganoff, which was delicious!
Tip #5 – Transportation Can Add Up
We like to book our transportation in advance. We also tend to use overnight trains and ferries while in Europe. Trains and ferries are the same price or lower than flights, plus, we save the cost of a hotel for that night! Realizing that we do not sleep as well as we would in a hotel, we try not to schedule more than one overnight train or ferry a week. We are scheduled to take three overnight trains and three overnight ferries while in Europe.
In Norway, we were able to pay economy fares on the trains by booking 60 to 90 days in advance, saving us significant cost. Unfortunately, their Internet site did not accept our U.S. credit card so we called them, using Skype, when we were in Bangkok, Thailand to obtain the cheap fare. The Swedish train website worked with U.S. credit cards so we purchased those e-tickets in advance and then printed them at the hotel right before the trip.
For local transportation around town, see Tip #8.
Tip #6 – Research Attractions
There are many great places to see in Scandinavia but there is no way we could afford to pay the admission costs for everything. This is where some tough choices come into play. As we reached each city, we started out by looking for free attractions, either by Google search or by reading tourist materials. We looked for self-guided walking tours, parks and free admission days at museums. For example, we found out that the Nobel Museum in Stockholm was free on Friday nights (normal price is the equivalent of $12.00 USD each for adults), so we timed our visit to take advantage of this time.
Otherwise, we prioritized our sightseeing to include just one or two paid items per day. To do this, we checked our guidebook and Trip Advisor to determine what looked good and matched our interests. In Helsinki, we found the open air museum this way. In Stockholm, we visited the Vasa Museum and it was fantastic. The price was the equivalent of $16.00 USD apiece for adults. But, it was the highlight of our time there. Afterwards, we took a walk on Djurgarden Island for free.
Tip #7 – Guidebooks are Still a Great Resource
The Internet is a great resource. However, the amount of information that is returned and the dubious nature of some sources can reduce its value. At times, spending a little money is the best way to save a lot of money. Guidebooks are written by professionals and updated often. We like the Lonely Planet series, which favors budget travel.
We purchased chapters, corresponding to our destinations, on their website. These can be downloaded in PDF format for around $4.95 USD each. It helped with our research as we formulated our itinerary and plans. We then downloaded them to our smart phones and used our Kindle application to access them on the go. We easily saved the cost of the book by reading their recommendations. Plus, we learned more about the history, people, culture and food by using a guidebook (as these topics are often minimal in other sources).
Tip #8 – And We’re Walking
We have often joked that we have a “three kilometer (two mile)” rule here in Europe. If it is less than that distance from our arrival point in a city to our hotel, then we walk. Having rolling duffle bags and comfortable day packs have helped with this. It has gotten expensive when walking is not an option. In Stockholm, our overnight ferry docked about five kilometers (three miles) from our hotel, making it too far to walk with our bags. So we needed to take the metro instead. It ended up costing us the equivalent of over $10.00 USD for the two of us to ride the metro for five stops! Needless to say, we only walked around Stockholm for the rest of the time we were there!
We tend to walk all over when we are sightseeing. In the cities we have visited we found it to be a great way to experience things and stay in shape at the same time. In Trondheim, we stumbled upon a lively food market and had fun exploring the stalls (and this was free!). If you are not a walker, make sure you understand and budget the costs of public transportation and research the cost / benefits of day passes vs. individual tickets in specific cities.
Tip #9 – Keep up-to-date on the Road
We find it to be helpful to have some way of connecting to the Internet when on the road. During our time we have used our smart phones, with Wi-Fi, to map our way to the next hotel, find restaurants and locate the best attractions. We checked the weather on-line to determine the best time to sightsee over several days in a given city. Finally, we used our devices to convert and track our daily expenses (see Tip #1).
Tip #10 – Watch out for ATM and Credit Cards Fees
Even with all the budget tips above, there are gotchas with using ATMs and credit cards in other countries. It can cost up to $5.00 USD to make an ATM withdrawal and many credit cards charge foreign transaction fees (up to 3%) on charges made abroad. It is always a good idea to call your bank and credit card company to determine the cost of using your card abroad before traveling.
For us, we researched the options before we left home and chose Schwab for our cash (ATM) account. It has a no-fee ATM card, which means we can withdraw as much foreign cash as we need with no transaction charge. There are many credit cards that now offer zero foreign transaction fees. We chose Capital One, because it not only has no foreign transaction fee, but allows us to earn points to use as credit against our charged travel. For example, we just redeemed the total of our previous charges for a free night at our hotel in Kiruna. So this helped us to stay on budget as well!
The tips presented above have helped us stay on budget in one of the most-expensive places in the world. We hope that they can be applicable to you as well for your next trip. If you have other budget / money-savings ideas from the road to share, please add a comment to this article.
Apps/Websites that We use to Save Money
- Booking.com – Used to book hotels globally. (a, w)
- Tripadvisor.com – Ranks lodging, attractions and restaurants by city. Very helpful. (a, w)
- Yelp.com – Similar to Trip Advisor. However, Yelps search engine allows you to specify your price range (and cuisine if you are searching for restaurants). (a, w)
- Foursquare.com – Similar to Tripadvisor and Yelp. However, Foursquare also has a point system where you compete with your friends. (a, w)
- Lonelyplanet.com/Thorntree – A bulletin board system that allows travelers ask questions of other travelers. A record of conversation is maintained for others to view. (w)
- Kayak.com – For the times we do fly, this is a great search engine for finding cheap flights. (a, w)
(a) = iPhone/Android application
(w) = website