It’s a country known for fjords, midnight sun and blue-eyed blondes – and for extortionate prices, but don’t let that put you off. There are ways to see Norway on a budget
I once met a hiker who made annual visits to Norway to ramble in the national parks. He was a keen walker and Jotunheimen was his absolute favourite.
‘But the prices!’ he sighed, echoing the thoughts of many a visitor. He had his ways, though, as he explained. Upon arrival, he would wander up the hills behind Torp Airport (low-cost airline, naturally) and pitch his tent on the first available spot.
‘And I once traded a meal for my copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac,’ he added, with great satisfaction.
So, for the price of a plane ticket and a good supply of paperbacks, it would be possible to tour Norway with no further expense.
If you wish to do it in a little bit more comfort, however, follow my tips for a stay that won’t break the bank.
What to see
Norway is famous for northern lights, dramatic fjords, trolls and stunning scenery. They all have in common that they are cheap and, apart from the northern lights – and maybe the trolls – readily accessible to visitors. Though there are plenty of worthwhile sights in the cities, the great outdoors has to be the main draw. Some personal highlights:
Visit a city on May 17th
If you visit during Norway’s national day, you will find yourself swept up in a people’s party of parades, national costumes and endless flag-waving. The programme is the same everywhere, with three parades; an early-bird parade, the children’s parade at noon and the afternoon parade for organisations and college students with witty slogans. Most shops are closed on the day, but the larger tourist attractions will keep open, and cafes and restaurants do a roaring trade. The day is effectively a free invite to a party - just make sure you dress up…
See Join the celebrations in Oslo for tips on how to make the most of the day in Oslo.
Take the train from Oslo to Bergen
This journey is easily one of Europe’s most scenic, frequently listed as one of the world’s most exciting and beautiful train rides. The scenery varies from bare, wind-swept mountains, to deep valleys and dramatic fjords, and links to the even more sensational Flåm railway, one of the world’s steepest railway lines. (see Nigel Tisdall’s article). With prices starting at NOK 199, this trip is also an absolute bargain.
Catch a cruise with Hurtigruten
Hurtigruten visits 34 ports and a number of fjords between Bergen and Kirkenes, carrying mail and supplies, as well offering a spectacular way to experience Norwegian nature on board modern cruise ships. Granted, the ships are not the cheapest accommodation going, but the on board experience still makes it excellent value for money – there is really no better way to see the fjords or experience the midnight sun, for example. Prices vary greatly, with themed trips offering excursions and on-board activities, such as mid-winter fish BBQs whilst looking for the northern lights, as well packages combining a cruise with anything from fishing and golf, to train trips and gastronomy.
The full trip north and back takes 12 days, but you can join or disembark at any of the ports if you fancy a shorter trip. Cut your cost by buying food in the ports. For a taster, go for a more reasonable day journey, starting from NOK 122 (www.hurtigruten.no).
For sightseeing, deals are available, such as the Oslo Pass, which provides free travel on public transport and free entry to the major sights, along with amusement parks and ice skating, amongst others. Two museum visits and a ferry trip will make the card pay for itself, with prices starting at NOK 230 for 24 hours (www.visitoslo.com/en/the-oslo-pass). Bergen has a similar scheme (www.visitbergen.com/en/BERGEN-CARD/).
Where to eat
Services are expensive in Norway, food and accommodation amongst them, so self-catering will cut your costs considerably. The Germans are famous for taking this to extremes by touring the country with camper vans loaded with food from home, which is less than popular with the locals. They often return home equally loaded with food, as sea fishing does not require a licence in Norway, thus providing visitors with a plentiful supply of free dinners.
The bakeries, meanwhile, are a great place for lunch, most of whom will have a table or two by the window, perfect for watching the world go by. They serve excellent open-top sandwiches in a cosy setting, freshly made and at better value than the cafes.
If you are going to Oslo, the restaurants around Youngstorget/Torggata, Grünerløkka and Grønland are known to offer value for money, the Asian restaurants in particular. Italian Bella Napoli offer main courses starting at NOK 98 (Storgata 26, 0184 Oslo; +22 17 31 62; www.bellanapoli.no), as does the more Norwegian Jarlen Restaurant (Åkebergv. 34, 0650 Oslo; +22 67 76 80; www.jarlenrestaurant.no). Fru Hagen, serving excellent sandwiches and burgers in a great people-watching spot, is slightly more expensive, with main courses from 138 NOK, but is always heaving (Thorvald Meyersgate 40, 0555 Oslo; +45 4919 04; www.fruhagen.no).
Slightly cheeky, but perfectly allowed, is to visit the student union cafés, which are very cheap indeed. Oslo's Aker Brygge is one to avoid for price, though the food stalls are a cheaper option.
It is also worth mentioning that quality and price are often quite unrelated. An expensive menu does not guarantee you a good meal, nor is the opposite true.
There are two things Norwegians are incapable of doing in airports; queuing properly and bypassing the tax-free. Whilst there is little excuse for the first, the second will make perfect sense once you have made a visit to the local ‘wine monopoly’ and even more so if you order a beer or a glass of wine in a restaurant. A visit to the tax-free is therefore not a bad idea if you are self-catering or are planning to bring a half bottle on a picnic, say.
If waiter service is essential to your enjoyment, however, then the word budget is unlikely to apply. The prices are universally high, but staying clear of other tourists will make some difference, as prices tend to be higher in tourist areas.
With the advent of low-cost airlines, flying to Norway is no longer the bank-breaker it used to be. Norwegian (www.norwegian.no) flies to a number of European destinations from the main cities, with a number of good deals available for early bookers. Flying to small domestic airports is another matter, however, and can be more expensive.
Once there, the train, bus and ferry network is excellent, comfortable and rarely too crowded, unless you’re in Oslo during rush hour. www.177.no is a great source of information, providing a portal for travel information of all kinds.
The bus network is extensive and the best way to reach more remote places. Stringent speed limits and departure times combine to demand a degree of flexibility on your side, however.
More comfortable are trains, which are a great way to see the country, let alone getting from A to B. The service is also state run, which makes it far cheaper than expected. A limited number of Minipris tickets are available on each departure, such as NOK 199 for Oslo to Bergen, for example, a bargain for a seven hour journey. Buy tickets at www.nsb.no, and make sure to plan ahead for cheap prices.
Car hire can be more expensive and with petrol prices more or less mirroring the English.
Where to stay
The cheapest option is to bring a tent. Norwegian right of access laws permit campers to go wherever they like, provided they are further than 150m from the nearest dwelling and stay away from cultivated land, which leaves an awful lot of land to pitch your tent on. Certainly, there is no need to plant yourself in the path of Boeing 737. If you want access to basic facilities, visit www.camping.no for a guide to campsites.
The bargain of the land is otherwise the extensive network of cabins run by the Norwegian Trekking Association (www.turistforeningen.no/), which are ideal if you are heading into the national parks. Prices start at as little as NOK 150 per night, with both self-catering and larger cabins serving meals to choose from.
For hotels, consider buying a Fjord Pass (www.fjord-pass.com), which offers discounts on a range of hotels, cabins and apartments. One pass costs NOK 120 and is valid for two adults.
Business hotels are also worth checking out, as many reduce their prices during the summer months, when business travel decreases and the locals go abroad. The Rica hotel chain is one example (www.rica-hotels.com).
In Oslo, the following all offer good value for money:
Not far from the new opera house, MS Innvik is a b&b, a theatre and a café, all on board a boat. They describe their cabins as ‘not enormous’ and with a genuine 1980’s colour scheme, but though not stylish, it makes up for it in price and fun factor. Double rooms are NOK 750.
Residence Kristinelund is a b&b located in an old villa near Vigelandspark. Bathrooms and toilets are shared, and Kristinelund does not offer the same comfort as a hotel, but it is charming, in a beautiful setting and good value for money. Double rooms are NOK 890.
Anker Hostel is in a central and convenient location - expect typical backpacker hostel style. Double rooms from NOK 540.