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After working in the travel industry for a while, you get to notice trends and general travel patterns. Much like fashion trends, a country will grow in popularity exponentially as more people visit and share their experiences, which in turn motivates others to visit. Pretty simple.
An area which I have found to grow in popularity in the last few years is Scandinavia. Perhaps some of it has to do with safety concerns in mainland Europe, whereas Scandinavia has maintained a nice little bubble, or at least an illusion of one. Relatively recent factors, like the low-cost carrier Norwegian Airlines (who are doing a pretty effective job of smoking the competition), are making it a lot cheaper to explore this part of the world. However, most destinations are still notoriously expensive for day to day living.
Forget places like Thailand, where you can quite happily stuff yourself while enjoying a couple of beers for less than £10. In Norway, you may need a second mortgage if you want to enjoy a glass of wine with your meal! (OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea..) However, there are some great cost effective destinations where you can save your money (and allow you to then spend it on that extra pint!). Please note that I’m not looking at the backpacker ultimate money-saving holiday (though summer Scandinavia does lend itself to some great camping options), but more of getting value for money on the comfort side. I’m going to run through a few of my personal favourites…
Iceland is like that little sibling who can get away with anything…and knows it. Tourism growth is happening fast, prices are up year on year, and there are no signs of slowing.
However, it is a beautiful destination, with some breath-taking scenery and well worth a visit. There are a few ways to make the most of your money here.
The easiest way is to do a short and sweet city break. If you are looking for a cheap fair to the States, breaking up the journey for a night or two in Iceland can save quite a bit. There are as few airlines that offer this route, but WOW air offer the best savings.
Reykjavik has a lot to offer in its vicinity, and offer a good selection of simple but comfortable hotels, such as the Fron or Centerhotels. Apartments, like Kvosin are also great options, as you can save money doing some self-catering.
I would suggest hiring a car if you are interested in seeing some of the surrounding natural wonders. Although it is possible to do quite cheap day tours to visit places like the Golden Circle or Blue Lagoon, these are massive coach tours which makes you feel a bit like cattle as you are herded from one sight to the next. All of the natural wonders are accessible by your own car, which means you can explore at your own leisure. If you travel in the lighter months (between May and August) I would always suggest exploring these areas in the evening. You’ll avoid all the coach tours, and enjoy the natural wonders without hordes of people. If you do book onto tours like whale watching, or Northern Lights hunting in the winter, be sure to book these earlier on in your trip, as you can rebook for free if you get unlucky spotting the natural phenomena. Be aware that if you visit the Blue Lagoon on your own, you will need to book an entry ticket in advance, as it has become too popular to get tickets on the door. If you are looking to stay more than two or three nights, Reykjavik does become rather pricey.
Getting out of the city and into the countryside is a great way to save money and get away from the masses. There are loads of B&Bs and guesthouses dotted throughout the county. Although, if you are traveling during the peak summer months, always make sure to book in advance as the properties are very small and get booked out quickly. The smaller guesthouses can be difficult (nigh on impossible) to find contact details for, and so it can take forever to put together a multi-centre trip. I would always recommend looking at local ground handlers like ‘Hey Iceland’. They have multiple itinerary options, accommodation contacts and even car hire which they are able to organise for you. However, be aware that they will not give you the exact properties you will be staying at until after you’ve booked! I know this is rather strange (paying for something when you don’t exactly know what it is does seem ridiculous), but this is due to the fact that it takes a while to get confirmations out of the little guesthouses, some of which may be booked out by the time they re-check the availability. Rest assured that all the B&Bs will be of a similar standard and area, but nonetheless, I know this concept can be unnerving!
Moving onto arguably the most expensive country in Scandinavia, Norway can be cheap to get to, but very expensive when you’re there. Even the locals hop over to Sweden to buy their groceries (seriously, around 30% of the country does this!) With such high taxes, you can easily spend over £30 for a meal. Without pulling a similar stunt, and buying your food across the border (rather impractical for a holiday), there isn’t a way around food prices. However, there are some ways to be smart with your money.
The Lofoten Islands are a great destination if you are wanting to experience some of the rugged landscape outside of the capital – Which you definitely should: the Norwegian countryside is stunning.
Of all the Scandic countries I’ve been to, Norway is my personal favourite, and the Lofotens are absolutely spectacular! Even if you’re not that much of an outdoor person, I guarantee you can still appreciate the breath-taking fjord scenery.
The Lofotens are one of the more difficult places in Norway to get to, but absolutely worth it! You can either fly to Bodo or Narvik via Oslo. Neither are much to write home about, but are good places to break up the journey. From Narvik, you can pick up a car and drive, whereas from Bodo, you can take a lovely scenic 30 minute flight over to Leknes or Svolvear. This is wonderfully scenic experience in itself, in a tiny twin engine prop plane, where the service includes the air steward walking 4 steps down the aisle to hand out little chocolates!
The Lofotens are full of charming rorbuers (converted fisherman’s cabins), which usually provide good kitchen facilities. My personal favourite was the Eliassen Rorbuer down in Hamnoy. Located on a tiny island connected by winding bridges, Eliassen has very well priced cabins overlooking the clear waters towards the beautiful Olstinden mountain. Summer is high season for this part of the world (the midnight sun season is a beautiful time of year, but travelling in the shoulder seasons does help lower the price) so look at October and April instead.
Staying in self-catered accommodation is an easy way to save money in Norway. Even if groceries are more expensive than back home, they are much cheaper than any of the restaurants you might visit. If you don’t fancy going teetotal, definitely pick up some alcohol in the duty free at the airport!
If you are more interested in a winter trip, Tromso is easily the most accessible place to visit. With direct flights from Gatwick, and a good choice of well priced hotels, Tromso is a great destination to do as a weekend break. Being above the Arctic Circle, it is also a great place to catch the Northern Lights!
I always get asked when the best time to see the Northern Lights is. Now, if I knew what dates the lights would make a good appearance, I’d be a billionaire. Unfortunately, I am not psychic, so this is the best advice I can give:
You need three things to see the Northern Lights – darkness, clear skies and strong solar activity.
Two out of those three cannot be predicted far in advance, but the further north you are, the less strong the solar activity has to be for you to see it.
You can also guarantee long hours of darkness in the winter months (in the depths of January, the sun doesn’t even get above the horizon!). From as early as September right through to April, Northern Norway experiences long hours of darkness. However, do bear in mind that if you’re after that picturesque ‘winter wonderland’ scenery, you’ll have to wait, as they don’t receive enough snowfall until at least December.
If Northern Lights are your main priority, definitely go early in the season (September-November). This time of year is much cheaper, and better for the Northern Lights, as there tends to be less cloud cover before the snow season.
Even though Tromso is in a great location, it is still technically a city (has an Arctic Cathedral and everything!), so it’s best to book onto an excursion to get away from the light pollution. There are plenty of cheap large group excursions to choose from. However, again, if the Northern Lights are high up on your bucket list, it’s worth it to pay a bit more for a decent small group tour, as you will have far more flexibility (you may even need your passport if the chase takes you across the border!)
Lower standards hotels aren’t always the best value for money. The Clarion hotels are a chain that can be found throughout Scandinavia, and are mostly of a 4* standard. If it is a Clarion Collection hotel, they offer a complimentary buffet evening meal. As I mentioned before, eating out in Norway costs an arm and a leg, so getting free food is a big plus! Some of the hotels even offer free waffles!
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, the islands of Svalbard are almost a different world. With a population of just over 2,600 (almost all of which live in the capital Longyearbyen), Svalbard offers a real experience of remote arctic living. Full of old mining settlements, Russian ghost towns and polar bears, it is an incredible place to explore.
The easiest way to get there is by plane (usually via Oslo with a touchdown in Tromso), so it’s great to add it onto a trip on the mainland.
The hotels are very basic, but they do a great job of embracing the local culture and environment. My favourite collection of properties up there are the Basecamp Explorer Arctic hotels. They run 5 Eco-lodges and hotels on the main island, Spitsbergen. Global warming is obviously a threat they are experiencing first hand, so environmentally friendly tourism is of huge importance. Their first hotel was set up with driftwood, tar paper and recycled materials, and they have continued to expand along the same lines. My favourite hotel of theirs is the Isfjord Radio, which can only be accessed by snowmobile or boat (there is only 46km of road on all the islands, so travelling by car isn’t much of an option!) The property was originally a functioning radio station back in the 1930s. Now it’s the northern-most hotel, surrounded by breath-taking natural beauty. They commonly have polar bear visitors as the bears migrate across the pack ice, which is an amazing sight, as no one is legally allowed to operate polar bear based sightseeing excursions (which is in my opinion much better than the bus loads they cart around in places like Churchill).
What’s more, you get to enjoy a drink at a reasonable price, as there is no tax on alcohol (alcohol is actually cheaper than food, which is probably not the best combination, but oh well…)