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How to vacation in Scandinavia on a budget

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Spend time wandering around Bryggen in Bergen, Norway. The UNESCO World Heritage site includes an old Hanseatic wharf and series of ancient wooden structures along the waterfront. (Dreamstime)

While weighing the destination options for traveling on a dime, Scandinavia, the pricey region in Northern Europe, is an unlikely contender. However, budget airlines continue to lure international visitors with free stopovers and cheap connecting flights. Once you've landed, though, you'll quickly find some of the steepest prices in the world, thanks to high levels of taxation that help provide an enviable quality of life for its citizens. (Most of the Scandinavian countries appear in the top 10 of the United Nations World Happiness Report.) So, how do you travel to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and/or Sweden without blowing a hole in your pocket? Here are some tips for how to experience these beautiful, happy and, yes, expensive countries with as little sticker shock as possible.

INVEST IN A GOOD GUIDEBOOK

The first trick for saving money while traveling internationally is to avoid racking up a large phone bill. That means, you must prevent roaming fees and keep cellular data turned off when out and about exploring. Given this, having and using a good guidebook as your main travel tool is essential. The most popular guidebook series is from Lonely Planet — an especially good choice for young budget travelers since they are the original publishers of "Europe on a Shoestring." Other options include Rough Guides, The Savvy Backpacker and Rick Steves' Europe. These guidebooks will help you pick the best activities, including walking tours, parks, restaurants and bars for all budgets. They'll also include maps and heaps of history and local insider knowledge. Plus, reading a guidebook can keep you busy when you're sipping tea at a cafe, riding a ferry, waiting in line, or sitting in a square watching the world go by. Keep in mind that guidebooks tend to be updated every few years, so it doesn't hurt to fact-check with a local — a great way to spark a conversation and get the real scoop.

SKIP THE RENTAL CAR (AND BOOK EARLY)

Once you've found a good deal for your round-trip airfare (here's a guide to Europe's budget airlines), it's time to book your regional or in-country transportation. Renting a car is going to cost a pretty penny in any Scandinavian country — not only for the wheels, but also for the exorbitant price of fuel, frequent tolls and parking fees. Instead, use the region's great public transportation systems, which include a range of affordable ferries, trains and buses. It's best to book early and be flexible on your travel dates to get the best prices.

Taking a ferry between cities is possible via DFDS Seaways, but these routes can get lengthy (Copenhagen to Oslo is about 18 hours). In Norway, you'll have the option of visiting the Norwegian fjords and coastline by Hurtigruten, which offers ferry and cruise lines to several main ports and small, off-the-beaten-path towns. Certain stops are shorter, while others offer more time to experience the area. (More on cruise options below.)

As for trains, we recommend obtaining a Eurail Scandinavia Pass that lets you explore Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. (To see Iceland, jump on a cheap flight.) The best part for budget travelers: If you take an overnight train, there's no need to pay for a hotel. You can either prebook these online — you'll find lower prices the earlier you purchase — or buy them directly from the stations.

The bus is an even more cost-effective mode of transportation, and Scandinavian companies are known to offer clean and comfortable buses that come with bathrooms and free Wi-Fi (don't forget about your guidebook though). They also are known for being on time, even during the winter when the weather is unpredictable. You can book ahead through several companies that offer key routes. For instance Swebus's route between Copenhagen and Oslo is likely to be a bit cheaper if you're able to travel between Monday and Thursday.

Also take advantage of public transportation options to get to and from the airport, as well as interesting neighborhoods further away from the city center. Meanwhile, cyclists will be in heaven: Major cities in Scandinavia offer bike-share programs and rentals, plus bike lanes that are often better tended to than the streets. For wayfarers armed with a good camera, nothing beats exploring a city by foot.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE CITY CULTURE

While you're spending time in Scandinavia's great cities, you should enjoy the freebies. Many museums, markets, concerts, free outdoor gyms, castles, cathedrals and UNESCO World Heritage sites come without a price tag. A few examples:

  • Visit Oslo's National Gallery on Sundays when it offers free admission.
  • Join a walking tour with Free Tour Stockholm, which provides three free tours per day.
  • Visit all of Helsinki's museums, which offer free entry at particular times on certain weekdays.
  • Walk around Copenhagen's massive royal library called Black Diamond (it's the biggest library of the Nordic countries). Many events and classical concerts are held here as well.
  • Head to Reykjavik's flea market called Kolaportið. Here, you can find some unusual delicacies in the food section, such as shark or whale meat.
  • Enjoy free parks, gardens, and public art spaces, like Helsinki's Central Park, Oslo's Vigeland Sculpture Park, and Copenhagen's Botanical Garden.
  • Spend time wandering around Bryggen in Bergen. The UNESCO World Heritage site includes an old Hanseatic wharf and series of ancient wooden structures along the waterfront (always free).
  • Learn about Swedish design and architecture at the Architecture and Design Centre (free every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m.).
  • Instead of going to an opera at Oslo's Opera House, climb its roof for free and enjoy the panoramic views of Oslo and the fjord.
  • There are a number of cathedrals in several Scandinavian cities that often offer free concerts and choral performances.

It's also worth checking out the cost-benefit ratio of a city pass, if you're visiting one place for more than a few days. For example, the Oslo Pass gives you free admission to 30 museums and attractions; free travel on all public transport; free entry to outdoor swimming pools; free walking tours; discounts on sightseeing, concert tickets, and ski rentals; and special offers in restaurants, shops, entertainment and leisure venues.

ESCAPE THE CAPITAL CITIES FOR NATURE

Once you've explored all the great capital cities (and free activities), the best way to save money is to get out of the cities and head into nature. Explore the vast countryside, especially during the spring, summer, and autumn months. Skip the expensive organized tours and excursions. Instead, take the local bus and walk the trails for free. You don't have to pay anything to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Scandinavia's forests, mountains, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, wildlife and Northern Lights. After your adventures, stay in smaller cities and towns that are less accustomed to tourists, especially away from the cruise ports. Here, you'll find that the prices are much more affordable.

CONSIDER HOMESTAYS, HOSTELS AND SHARED KITCHENS.

One of the best ways to save on accommodations is to opt for homestays (great for families and large groups) or private rooms in international hostels (for singles or couples). Rates are likely to be cheaper than a traditional hotel, and they'll offer kitchens (shared or private) where you can cook your own meals. It's easy to pick up supplies from the market and make your own food or pack a picnic before you hit the streets. Hostels also provide fun common areas for enjoying a store-bought drink and mingling with fellow travelers before you head out for the night.

That being said, if you love staying at hotels, Scandinavian properties tend to put out impressive displays for breakfast (often included in the rate), so it may be worth the cost if you plan on having a big meal to start your day. Another plus: Some hotels in the mountains will let guests pack a lunch from the breakfast buffet. It's also wise to check if your hotel comes with an empty fridge for storing food and drinks.

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No matter where you stay, you can ask your hotel or homestay host for tips and directions to the best family-run restaurants and affordable food establishments, like cafes and bars, which usually offer filling meals at reasonable prices. If you're itching to experience some of the best New Nordic cuisine restaurants, but can't afford a meal, call the restaurant and see if it's possible to come in for a drink and an appetizer at the bar. Or, just pop in early before the evening rush and ask for a bar seat in person. You'll be able to experience some of the best restaurants in the world with just a fraction of the cost.

TAKE A SCANDINAVIAN CRUISE

Booking an all-inclusive cruise through Scandinavia can be a great way to experience several port cities and the scenery without having to pay for hotels and meals. There are plenty of luxury cruises that make their way through the Scandinavian countries, but picking a budget option can be smart, especially for families.

Norwegian Jade travels through the country's western fjords and offers 15 different eating and drinking venues, plus scores of activities for children, including several pools. Parents will love the unique ports of call, like the beautiful Art Nouveau town of Ålesund, as well as the scenery while cruising past waterfalls in the UNESCO-listed Geirangerfjord.

Another budget option is Authentic Scandinavia, which offers a short four-day cruise through Copenhagen and Oslo with detours to natural attractions. Possible additions include cities like Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallin.

BRING A REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE AND COFFEE MUG

No need to buy expensive bottled water — tap water in Scandinavia is not only safe, but also tastes excellent. These countries have strict daily quality controls, ensuring water is safe to drink and free of chlorine, calcium and nitrates. For instance, 95 percent of all water in Iceland is sourced from springs in the ground and never comes in contact with pollution. You'll save money by refilling your bottle straight from the faucet, feel good about not creating any waste, and stay hydrated and healthy on your trip.

It also makes sense to bring a reusable coffee thermos or mug. You can fill up on your hotel's free coffee and tea and also get discounts at cafes when using your own mug. While you're at it, you might as well pack some energy bars and nuts from home to keep you satiated. If you've had a big breakfast at your hotel, you can snack on these items instead of paying for a big lunch.

At Oyster.com our special investigators visit, photograph, review and rate each hotel. We uncover the truth, before it's "uh-oh" time.

(c)2018 Oyster.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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