By Jim Ferri
If you were traveling in Europe last year $100 would have bought you approximately €73. Today you’ll get more than €91, a 25% increase in value of the dollar.
There’s no doubt that throughout Europe American travelers are now seeing some great deals. From the Mediterranean to the Artic Circle, Americans are enjoying a 25% discount on their travel. There are bargains galore.
But the question is where do you get the best overall value?
The answer: Scandinavia.
Since Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have always been more expensive than the rest of Europe, getting a 25% discount in Scandinavia now provides your best travel value. It’s like getting that dream car, dress, boat or whatever at a bargain price – it’s a better value than the less costly models.
But there are ways to cut your costs even more while traveling through Scandinavia. You’ll see them below along with some additional tips to save even more.
Get a Rail Pass
The number one rule is to get a rail pass – it has a lot of value and there’s no better way to see Scandinavia.
Rail Europe, aka EurailPass, offers a Scandinavia Pass that provides unlimited travel on the national rail networks of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, from the Arctic Circle all the way south to the German border.
You have your choice of four, five, six, eight or 10 days within a two-month period and travel does not need to be on consecutive days. Cost of a pass ranges from $282 for 4 days of second-class train travel to $476 (for 10 days). At the present time Eurail also has a promotion adding an additional day onto each pass, which makes it an even better value.
Eurail’s Global Pass, which is more expensive and covers train travel all over Europe, is also valid in Scandinavia.
Travel with the Right Credit Card
You often don’t realize how exchange fees have eaten up your budget until you get your credit card bill. There’s an easy fix for that: get a card that doesn’t charge you for exchange fees. There are plenty of them around today since many card companies tout the waiving of foreign exchange fees as a card benefit.
And when using your card always be billed only in the local currency – letting your credit card company do the conversion back home is a lot less expensive than having it done tableside.
Be aware also that only Finland and Denmark use the euro (€); Sweden’s currency is the Swedish Krona (SEK), Norway’s the Norwegian Krone (NOK).
Snag a Hotel Deal
Hotels in Scandinavia need not be expensive, especially if you don’t stay at one of the large international chains, although Best Western is an exception since it’s really an association of individual hotels, not a chain per se.
You’ll find some local chains to be less costly. In Denmark the two-star Cabinn Hotel group offers good rates for modern and clean rooms, although they are quite small (only a bit over 100sq ft). Its property in Copenhagen, three blocks from Tivoli Gardens and the train station, is only $98 per night, including the onerous 25% VAT charge (standard in Scandinavia except in Finland where it’s 24%).
Since most are clean and efficient booking even a two- or three-star hotel can give you a decent room. You can find some good deals on such sites as hotels.com and booking.com.
It’s also worthwhile to always check a hotel’s website to see if it provides an even better rate. Just be certain the rate you’re quoted includes the VAT.
Buy a City Pass
Although the cost of a city pass may at first look expensive, if you do a lot of sightseeing they’ll often pay for themselves after visiting only a few attractions. They all provide entry to various museums and attractions as well as unlimited free public transportation (one of their best features).
The rates stated below for each card is for a two-day pass. You can also purchase one- or three-day passes.
- Denmark: the Copenhagen Card (€67/$72) provides free admission to 72 museums and attractions; free public transport by bus, train and Metro (including the airport); and discounts on restaurants, car hire and sights. You can also bring along two children under 10 for free. Buy the card online or upon arrival at the airport.
- Norway: the Oslo Pass (470 NOK/$59) gives you free entry to more than 30 museums and attractions; free travel on all public transport; free walking tours; and discounts in restaurants, etc.
Sweden: the Stockholm Card (675 SEK/$79) provides free admission to more than 75 museums and attractions, free travel on public transport, a free guided walking tour through Old Town, a free guided bicycling sightseeing tour, etc.
- Finland: the Helsinki Card (€51/$56) entitles you to free public transportation, a sightseeing tour by bus or boat, and discounts in restaurants, shops, tours, sauna and concerts.
There’s No Reason to Starve Yourself
Being on a budget in the Nordic countries doesn’t mean you have to forego a good meal, especially since restaurant costs have dropped 25% and additional discounts are often given with city cards.
Here are a few good alternatives I experienced not long ago, with costs transposed into 2015 prices (all include taxes and service charges):
- At the popular harbor-side food stands in Helsinki’s Market Square I enjoyed a delicious lunch of reindeer meatballs, wurst, potatoes and a beer ($12)
- At a nice, upscale restaurant in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens I was served a very good sampler plate of four entrees (more than I could finish), with wine (less than $33)
- In Oslo, for lunch I enjoyed a good sandwich and drink at a popular café on Aker Brygge, a hip area of restaurants and shops along the harbor (less than $8)
- At the quite good pasta-restaurant Vapiano in Oslo, I had a good pasta meal with wine ($29)
- In Bergen I had a very good dinner of venison along with half a carafe of good wine at Holberg-Stuen, a popular local restaurant ($50)
If you’re on a strict budget in Helsinki visit the food floor in the upscale Stockmann department store. Its very good lower-level food department has some good food to take away (perhaps for a picnic on the nearby Esplanadi)
Some Additional Tips
Since there is no train between Helsinki and Stockholm, you must take the 16-hour ferry trip from Helsinki (or Turku) to Stockholm. Your Eurail pass entitles you to a discount on the tickets.
On the Silja Line between Helsinki and Stockholm you’ll receive a 20% discount in high season, 40% in the low. On the Viking line ferries you’re given a 50% discount on deck prices. Check whether you need to book a cabin for the crossing, however.
If you want to see one of Norway’s magnificent fjords – and have an incredible train journey en route – book the “Norway in a Nutshell” Flam railway tour. You leave Bergen in the morning by train, connect with a bus that takes you to the ferry for a cruise up the the Aurlands Fjord, and then take the Flam Railroad, one of the most spectacular train rides in the world, after which you connect with another train for the trip to Oslo.
To minimize travel time you may want to replicate my Scandinavian trip by starting your journey in Helsinki (perhaps following a no-visa tour of nearby St. Petersburg) and instead of going directly to Stockholm fly instead to Bergen, Norway (approximately $120).
From Bergen you can connect with the Norway in a Nutshell tour, visit Oslo and then Stockholm before continuing on to Copenhagen. You’ll then avoid long train rides (with several changes) from Bergen or Oslo to Copenhagen (up to 15 hours from Oslo with several changes).
The train between Stockholm and Copenhagen, on the other hand, only takes a comfortable 5 hours or so. Leave early in the morning and you’ll be in Copenhagen for lunch.
Regardless of the route you choose you’ll see some beautiful scenery.
If you go:
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