f you think of Scandinavia, you might think that it is expensive, even prohibitively expensive. Nonetheless after our honeymoon in Iceland, we really wanted to see the rest of Scandinavia but preferably without slaughtering our piggy bank. Miraculously we have managed to keep a whole month of touring in Scandinavia very affordable.
We travelled a whole month through Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Drove 8357 kilometers (!) with our rental car and covered quite a few extra kilometers by ferry. We skirted around fjords, passed glaciers and followed dramatical coastlines and ascended snowy mountains on winding little roads. We got the know the land of the Vikings and the land of the Laps and saw more crystal-clear water than you could imagine seeing in a lifetime. We camped in the wild, surrounded by moose and were visited by Shetland ponies, had views on beautiful lakes and fjords and all this in the strangely appealing light of the midnight sun turning everything into a waking dream. Yes, it really never gets dark up north as the sun stays above the horizon at all times, which is pretty disorienting in the beginning. We spotted snow owls, dolphins, moose, reindeer, seals, sea eagles etc… all in the wild. We ate more of the strangely Scandinavian speciality – the hot dog – than we would ever want to, but compensated it with a cornucopia of fresh salmon, herring, salted cod and other local gifts of the sea. In short it was a month to inspire fairytales, even Hans Christian Andersen would have been jealous.
In experiences we clearly did not have to settle for less, but budget wise we had to seriously cut our costs. So the main question is: how did we visit Scandinavia without breaking the bank?
For this amazing adventure of 30 days, we have spent 60 EUR a day, and this for two persons. Yes, that is 30 EUR a person per day. You could even do it more cheaply, but we enjoy eating out too much, and drove a little too many kilometers. And the latter two were the biggest expenses: fuel for us and for the car. Hitch hiking your way through Scandinavia could make it even cheaper, but we thought it would be a little too tiring for us “old” backpackers (for more info on hitchhiking Scandinavia, click here).
So how did we do Scandinavia on the cheap? Here are some of our tips:
TIP 1 – RENT A CHEAP CAR
As we have mentioned before (click here), we use www.vroomvroomvroom.com or www.kayak.com to not only find the cheapest rental agency but also the cheapest location and dates for renting a car. Thanks to trying different dates and locations, we have located crazy deals for Scandinavia in Copenhagen, Denmark, so that is were we decided to rent a car.
This way we managed to rent a “beautiful” Citroën Cactus for the legendary price of… wait for it… 283 EUR for a whole month. Fell of your chair? No worries, even the Avis people fell of their chairs when they saw how cheaply we rented. In principle we would have had a lower class car, but the branch office in question never has those, so you are guaranteed a free upgrade.
A big plus of renting our car in Denmark: this way we also got to visit Kopenhagen after our month long road trip, cross the famous bridge to Malmö, drive through the beautiful south of Sweden, including the absolutely stunning Bohuslan coast, and visit Gothenburg (click here for the blog on Sweden). Win, win win!
We also found a super cheap flight to Denmark from Eindhoven (just across the border from Belgium), instead of an expensive flight from Belgium to Norway. Another reason to rent a car in Denmark and drive through the south of Sweden to Norway. On top of that, if we had rented in Norway itself, the rental price of the car would have been higher than our total travel budget for the whole month !!!
You could of course drive all the way with your own car if you live nearby in Europe, but considering the price we rented at, it was way definitely cheaper than if we had driven all the way from Belgium.
- Date – It is also worth playing around with the dates as it is often cheaper to rent a car on certain dates or for certain lengths of time (e.g. renting for a week is often significantly cheaper than for five days and you can always return it early).
- Location – Car rental agencies often have inexplicable price differences between the different locations of their branch offices within a city (e.g. city, train station or airport). The price difference can easily mount up to 20 € a day.
- With vroomvroomvroom you sometimes have the option to zoom out from your preferred rental location to see nearby cheaper places you might not even have considered.
- Insurance – Always check the included level of insurance and the standard excess amounts. You might be making fake savings if your renting price is low, but you are very poorly insured.
- Also an interesting idea is checking whether online rental car insurance policies (e.g. vroomvroomvroom usually has a suggestion) aren’t a better pick than those offered by the car rental agency.
- Fuel – If you are driving thousands of kilometers, check the type of fuel and fuel efficiency of the car you are about to rent. A cheaper car with terrible fuel efficiency might be more expensive in the end. Diesel is somewhat cheaper than petrol in Scandinavia. Do realise however that in the end you may be allocated a “similar” car with a different fuel efficiency.
Therefore, before you book you could call the branch office to get more information on which cars they actually have in a certain “class” and what your chances are of being “upgraded” which is not always a good thing when it comes to fuel cost.
- Kilometer allowance – Check whether the kilometers are unlimited or limited to a few hundred kilometers a day. If they are limited, check whether you will be able to make it and, if need be, how much it costs (tax included!) to pay for the extra kilometers.
TIP 2 – FREE CAMPING
This is going to save you the most (together with renting a cheap car). Hotels are really expensive here, even hostels and campgrounds can be painful to pay if you are travelling on a modest budget. You can sometimes rent cabins along the roads or through the tourist information centre, or try your luck on airbnb. But we wanted to reduce our accommodation costs to… ZERO Euros, and then there aren’t that many options left. Unless you try couchsurfing, but for that to work there should at least be houses and available couches nearby the places you are going. And as far as we know you still can’t couchsurf in Ikea. Which, however, would be a genius idea!!
But how can you camp for free? Well in Sweden, Norway and Finland you have wild camping rights, even on private property within certain limits. This and other roaming rights or public acces rights (“Allemannsretten”) will help you travel on a budget in Scandinavia. So why would you pay for a piece of gras on an official camping ground when you can camp alone and for free in an idyllic spot?
There are of course some rules connected to wild camping, basically you should not bother other people, destroy the surroundings or overstay your welcome. But as a rule of thumb, as long as you stay over 150 meters from a house, are not on agricultural land that is clearly in use, not on fenced land or on a private garden, not in a protected area, and see no “camping prohibited” signs, you have found yourself a free campsite!
For the actual details concerning the roaming rights, such as whether you can build a campfire, gather firewood, eat berries, make latrines, pick mushrooms, etc take a look at sites such as:
We never had any problems wild camping, even at the edges of towns, and we have seen hundreds of people do the same. Considering how lightly populated these countries are, finding a spot is hardly ever a problem. And there is always a gas station somewhere along the road where you can do your morning ablutions.
TIP 3 – SHOWERING CHEAPLY
Of course, if you camp in the wild, you don’t have the same facilities as on a paying camping ground, and then we mainly mean showers. This wasn’t as big a problem as we had expected. There are many places where you can find a shower, sometimes for free or for a small fee. Where? Gasstations (for truck drivers), marina’s (and with all that water, there are quite a few of those along the way) and many official camping grounds have coin operated showers which you can use as a visitor. Don’t forget to ask around if you don’t know whether the shower is for public use! You definitely do not want to be pulled out from under a shower, butt-naked with foam in your hair.
TIP 4 – SCOUTS CAMPING GROUNDS
If you would like to have a campsite with some facilities, that is still cheap? Search on the internet or ask around for local scouts campgrounds. Scout groups often offer the opportunity to sleep on their campground and use their toilet and showering facilities for a small fee (usually around 5 to 7 EUR per person). We ran into a few, but still decided to go for the free wild camping option.
TIP 5 – FREE INTERNET
Free fast internet is available in lots of places, especially if you are not ashamed to blatantly use every shops internet without buying there. Good free internet is available from: gasstations, Ikea, Mac Donalds, in marinas, libraries, shopping malls, big supermarkets, tourist information centres etc. Sometimes you have to sign in, but that is usually a breeze. If the internet is difficult to sign into or a bit slow, move along as there will probably be another one nearby. Even in the remoter areas it usually wasn’t too difficult to locate a free connection. Therefore you don’t really need to buy a local sim card.
TIP 6 – MAKE FULL USE OF SCANDINAVIA’S PRIDE & JOY: IKEA
Ikea is not only a refuge for cheap comfort at home, but also a refuge for weary travellers in Scandinavia:
- The food in the Ikea store is pretty cheap compared to most Scandinavian supermarkets.
- If you’d like some “restaurant food”, Ikea restaurant can’t be beat for cheap meals (especially when there is a promotion). Swedish meatballs with potatismos (mashed potatoes) always goes down well!
- Free fast internet! Pretty great for calling home, planning your trip and posting blogs.
- You can buy cheap camping stuff, such as pillows, cutlery and the like.
- During weekdays you get free coffee if you have an Ikea family card. The card also gives you acces to some other great deals, so don’t forget to apply for one in your local Ikea store or on the Ikea website of your country (click here).
- In Norway and Sweden, Ikea is especially useful for visiting the big cities such as Oslo, Bergen, Stockholm and Gothenburg. In these cities you pay a fortune for parking and often all roads leading into the city centre are toll roads. So to save you from these two costs, you just park on the Ikea parking and take their free shuttle bus into the city centre. Make sure you get back in time! Also check how you can reach the Ikea without paying the city tolls. In Norway you can even charge your electrical car for free on Ikea parking-lots during your city or Ikea visit.
- And last but definitely not least! You can camp overnight for free on their massive parking lots! While this might not be official Ikea policy, we have seen lots of other people camp on every Ikea parking lot we have stayed at in Scandinavia.
TIP 7 – SHOP AROUND FOR FUEL
- Within one country the price of fuel can vary a lot from one gasstation to the next. Especially in super expensive Norway the difference can easily amount to 10 EUR for a full tank. Only a few kilometers further the prices can be completely different. Considering that in Norway diesel already costs on average around 1.5 EUR/L and petrol around 1.7 EUR/L and considering the number of full tanks you will need to cross the vast distances here, shopping around for fuel will amount to quite some savings. Don’t go all overboard though, a few Kroner won’t make a big difference. Once you have found a price you like, just fill it up!
- The rule of thumb we established was that the outer edges of “bigger” towns and cities that are well connected with the outside world (such as ports) are the best places to look for cheap fuel. The city center gasstations are always more expensive and in the countryside they pretty much can ask what they want due to lack of competition.
- Furthermore, having a diesel car (as we did) also helps, diesel is in general about 0,20 EUR cheaper per liter.
- Finally, If you are crossing borders between Scandinavian countries, fill up your car in the cheapest country before you cross the border. Prices as we experienced them at the time, for diesel from most expensive to cheapest: Norway > Finland > Sweden > Denmark. Especially Norway is easily around 0,20 EUR per liter more expensive than its neighbours.
TIP 8 – CHECK FOR TOLL ROADS & COMPARE THE DIFFERENT ROUTE OPTIONS
Especially in Norway there are a lot of toll roads, ferries, toll tunnels and toll bridges. The ferry always has to be paid before you board, but other tolls are usually charged by camera recognition of your license plate. However, it is often not clear when you will end up on a toll paying infrastructure and how much it will cost you (it is often too late to turn back). So we would advise you to check where all the toll roads are if you don’t want to be surprised by a nasty surcharge (some are quite hefty). There are some national websites that are somewhat useful such as autopass, but we preferred looking for the cheapest route on www.viamichelin.com. For ferry times and prices in Norway check here.
This way you can sometimes evade the tolls and get to know some really spectacular alternative roads. Do make sure however that you don’t end up at an even more expensive ferry or burn through more fuel driving around the toll road than you might save. Don’t forget that some of the toll roads and ferries are very scenic, which also has to be taken into the equation.
According to hearsay, many foreigners, especially those driving rental cars, never get the automatic toll charges billed to their address. The Norwegian government therefore advises you to register you license plate on the internet to make sure they can charge you. We didn’t know and probably still wouldn’t have…
Now, many months later we still have not received any bills from the Norwegian toll roads, except for the (separately managed) Oslo ring road (2,60 EUR). However, this seems to comply with what other tourists experienced. So there might be some truth to the hearsay! We will let you know if we ever get the full bill.
TIP 9 – WATCH YOUR SPEED
In Scandinavia, it is far from clear what the speed limit is at any given time. And fines are high. So try to watch your speed at all times, especially in Norway!
This is further complicated as the speed limit might change 5 times in a one kilometer stretch, even in rural areas. Furthermore, in Norway speed limits are in general very low and there are very few roads over 80 km/h. Also be aware that the Norwegians love to put their speed cameras at the bottom of a slope, so always break to not exceed the limit when descending. As you might have guessed, you really don’t want to be fined for speeding in Norway. We have heard somebody say that the fines start at around 400 EUR and rise spectacularly after that. If they really deem your speeding excessive you can even get jail time…
TIP 10 – EAT HOTDOGS
This unexpectedly Scandinavian speciality is usually pretty affordable and available everywhere. In Ikea they even go for the super low price of around 0,50 EUR. While they are extremely popular in every Scandinavian country (and quite a few other countries of course), we still think Iceland has the best hot dogs in the world!
TIP 11 – CROSS-BORDER SHOPPING
The prices of groceries also vary considerably when you cross borders. Especially Norway and Denmark are very expensive places to shop for food! So buy all your stuff in Sweden when you are heading to Norway or Denmark. The price difference between Sweden and (Northern) Finland was less marked, but we felt Sweden was still somewhat cheaper. A somewhat useful site for shopping price comparisons is www.numbeo.com.
If you are coming from other European countries (especially cheap and relatively nearby Germany), consider stocking up there. We brought a lot of cheap non-perishable food with us from Belgium, and only paid a little more for the extra weight, which was still cheaper than buying it in Sweden. Most of our fresh produce we bought in Sweden. However, not everything is more expensive in Norway and buying too much perishable food for a road trip is not a good idea (as we learned the hard way when our car suddenly started to smell).
If you do have to shop in Norway, there usually is a soon to be expired section in Norwegian supermarkets and they do offer some ok deals, especially on local products such as salmon, but don’t expect miracles. It is sometimes cheaper to buy food in one of the ethnic food stores run by a.o. the Somali and Indian community. Or buy food at Ikea (cf. supra)!
TIP 12 – FREE WATER
We did not pay a cent for water in Scandinavia! You never have to be worried when drinking tap water, which is some of the best in the world. We bought a 15 liter expandable plastic water container, which we refilled whenever we had the chance (which is often) at for instance gas stations, marinas, rest stops etc… We also refilled it at mountain streams and icy cold waterfalls, it doesn’t get more refreshing than that.
TIP 13 – FORGET ABOUT DRINKING ALCOHOL
Alcohol is just too expensive in Scandinavia. Bars are extremely expensive, think easily 10 EUR for a beer. And the government alcohol emporiums have very limited hours, make you feel like a bum for being there and yes they are way too expensive too.
So bring your own, although the amount you are legally allowed to import is very limited in Norway. Or just try teetotaling as we did.
PS. We have been told that in Norway the only little plus is that if you are willing to shell out a lot of money for a great bottle of wine, these are sometimes relatively cheaper than in other European countries as the high Norwegian alcohol tax is a flat tax.
TIP 14 – TAKE THE LONG FERRY OPTION WHEN GOING TO THE LOFOTEN
A lot of people pay good money to cruise past the islands of the Lofoten. But you can do it for no extra cost when taking the Bodo to Lofoten ferry. Most ferries go straight from Bodo to Moskenes (about 3-4 hours). However, some ferries take the Bodo-Rost-Vaeroy-Moskenes route (about 7 hours) during which you get to be out on the open sea, cruise through the Rost archipelago, sail past the impressive Vaeroy island, and then cross the Moskenes maelstrom or Moskstraumen. We absolutely loved it! We relaxed in the very comfortable ferry, took in the amazing views and snapped some great pictures. Don’t pass up the opportunity to take this trip!
Tip 15 – PARKING
In Scandinavia costs for parking and allowed number of consecutive hours can vary wildly. Look carefully for signs and read the parking meters, to avoid getting a fine.
- If a sign has a time in black, a time in black between brackets and, as the case may be, a time in red, for example 8-16, (10-14), 12-14. Then the first term is the period that applies during weekdays, the second on Saturdays and, if applicable, the red one is for Sunday. These are the periods in which you will have to pay (“mot avgift”) or put up your parking disc or it is forbidden to park (“parking forbudt”) as per the other instructions on the sign.
- Even if you have to pay, there often is a limited number of consecutive hours indicated. For instance “max 9 timer mot avgift” – paying parking for a maximum of 9 consecutive hours. “30 min Avgift” – paying parking for a maximum of 30 minutes. Or just “2 tim” if there are no other instructions this should mean a maximum of two hours with a parking disc.
- “Kun for Beboere”, or something similar, means it is only for registered inhabitants that have a parking card for that area. If something is “med till stand” or “med P-Kort”, it means you need a special permit to park there.
- Of course at night parking in cities becomes much cheaper, so visiting cities and towns in the evening is a good way to cut costs.
This might be very confusing at first so ask a local (they almost all speak English) until you get the hang of it.
If you want an (approximate) overview of parking costs in a city you are heading to, you can start with checking www.parkopedia.com.
Was it easy to travel on a budget in Scandinavia? Definitely not!! A month of camping, doing research on cheaper travelling options, and carefully monitoring our budget was definitely though to do here. Especially as we like to try the local delicacies. We did visit a few (modest) restaurants at lunch time, but the food cost can be even lower if you refrain from doing that. If you also would like to visit a restaurant, go for lunch which is significantly cheaper. Especially in the cities the fun was severely limited as you can’t sit in the sun on a terrace with a glass of wine without overspending. Therefore, we have never spent more than a day in the cities and definitely have to go back for city trips on a more generous budget in the future.
To be honest, camping for a whole month has proven to no longer be an easy thing to do, we were pretty exhausted at the end. In short, we are getting old :-). We both even lost quite some weight, which is very uncharacteristic for our travelling style. In short, we are very happy we did it, but it was more of a once in a lifetime challenge. Thank God for cheap travelling in Asia…
TOTAL COSTS OF 30 DAYS ON THE ROAD IN SCANDINAVIA
- Accommodation: 0 €
- Rental car: 283,6 €
- Fuel cost (Diesel): 469 € – (very fuel efficient car 4l/100 km or 25 KM/l)
- Ferry costs: 263,5 € (The ferry to the Lofoten was by far the most expensive one at 95 €)
- Toll costs: 126 € (we hope we will not receive any more invoices than the 2,60 EUR one, so fingers crossed!)
- Museum entries: 46 € (we did visit a few extra museums on their free day)
- Supermarkets: 391 € (most of it bought in Belgium)
- Restaurants: 203 €
- Various (parking, showers, etc…): 16,5 €
- TOTAL : 1798,6 €
We already had camping gear, so we did not include these, but basic camping gear is relatively cheap in Scandinavia as they are camping mad.
We did not include flights as this of course depends on where you are flying from. We only included costs for the road trip itself. We paid 160 EUR for the two of us together for one way flights from Eindhoven to Copenhagen (including an extra luggage allowance for camping gear and food). We flew out from Copenhagen to Barcelona for 180 EUR for 2.
So, we have travelled on less than 60 EUR a day for the two of us together. If the toll invoice doesn’t arrive, we will have done it even a bit cheaper. Although it was not always easy to travel on this modest budget, it was definitely worth it!
Curious about what else we saw in Scandinavia? Take a look here for the stories on Sweden, Denmark and Finland and here for the stories on Norway. Have a look here for our pictures of Sweden and Finland. Can’t get enough of our pictures of Norway: have a look here for more fjord beauties and here for pictures of the Arctic North. For a Copenhagen citytrip, click here.