Form a travel group with people you’re willing to be in close quarters with for weeks.
The group can share living expenses, which translates to (a) eating well and healthy or, at the very least, not relying only on instant noodles or nuked frozen meals; (b) booking comfy, well-appointed lodgings, which comes in handy for when everybody’s too tired to be out in the cold and just wants to spend a few hours indoors; and (c) doing the laundry on a washer/dryer for free, because one can’t possibly fit in a month’s worth of clothing in just a 25-kilo piece of luggage.
Reserve/book intercontinental, or long-haul, flights 10 months to at least 8 months before the travel period—better the chances of finding rates that aren’t ridiculously sky-high.
It’s applicable even for posh airlines with bigger fleets like Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways.
You might ask, why would a frugal traveler fly luxe? Actually, you won’t. You’ll be flying coach, but in a reputable airline. It makes a huge difference in keeping health and sanity intact so that you, a person raised in the tropics, can better adapt to northern Europe’s crazy low temperatures, Iceland’s forceful winds and its midnight sun (when nights seem like day in May-July).
Compare/contrast the cost versus perks/downsides, such as number and duration of layovers, and service quality. We have tried scrimping the long-haul flights on a lesser-known carrier before, only to have the outbound flight changed several times and, worse, be forced to endure a rude flight crew.
For the regional transfers, consider Nordic low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle and the Sweden-Norway-Denmark flag carrier Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS).
We’ve tried both. Their apps, the ease of DIY check-in and bag drop, and cabin experience satisfied our requirements.
Rent an entire unit, apartment or home, which can be booked not just on Airbnb.
The property should meet basic (also money-saving) needs like enough beds, WiFi access, proximity to commuter station and supermarket, a cooker/stove or working kitchen, a washer-dryer.
Prepare debit, credits cards.
It’s so much easier to withdraw from airport ATMs than going to the money changer and then being subjected to forex charges and taxes. It gets confusing as well to have all the notes and coins at the same time, since each Nordic state uses a different currency. Locals regularly use cards over cash, more so in Iceland where the running joke is that purses are useless to an Icelandic woman on a night out because she would only need lipstick and plastic.
Search online for free walking tours.
Services are tip-based. Pay only the amount you think the experience is worth—just don’t be such a Scrooge. Most tour guides know their cities like the back of their hands. Not only can they talk culture and history. After the tour, they can also be asked how to get around town and find inexpensive hotspots.
Denmark (Copenhagen): Sandemans New Europe (www.neweuropetours.eu/)
Finland (Helsinki): Happy Guide Helsinki (www.happyguidehelsinki.com), whose guides are identifiable by their reindeer hats
Iceland (Reykjavik): CityWalk’s (https://citywalk.is) Sara Hrund Einarsdóttir, who epitomizes Icelandic humor and charm
Sweden (Stockholm): Free Walking Tour Stockholm (www.tripadvisor.com)
Some museums are open to the public for free on certain days. Check online for schedules then plan itineraries around them.
Denmark: In Copenhagen, Thorvaldsens Museum and The National Museum of Denmark (https://en.natmus.dk/museums-and-palaces/the-national-museum-of-denmark). Both offered free entrance on a Wednesday at the time of our trip.
Finland: Suomenlinna (www.suomenlinna.fi), a sea fortress turned Unesco World Heritage site, has what is called “Art Walk,” featuring art shows as well as artisan studios for ceramics, woodwork and glassblowing. The fortress has no entrance fee; pay only for ferry transfers from Market Square of mainland Helsinki.
Norway: The National Gallery (www.nasjonalmuseet.no) in Oslo is temporarily closed; it’s moving to the new National Museum that opens next year. Free admission was on a Thursday at the time of our trip. The gallery exhibits the best of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s work, such as “The Scream” and “The Dance of Life.”
Oslo is also home to the world’s largest (free!) sculpture park—The Vigeland Park, featuring the mind-blowing, monumental works of Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland.
Sweden: Sigtuna (https://destinationsigtuna.se), a town of medieval structures and traditional wooden homes in northern Stockholm, has its own version of an art walk. Pay only for the commute; public transport to the town is available.
Moderna Museet (modernamuseet.se), or museum of modern art in Stockholm, offers free admission.
Worth the splurge: Museums for maritime and Viking heritage. Scandinavia is home to Vikings and ancient shipbuilders, after all.
The Viking Ship Museum (khm.uio.no) in Oslo, Norway—Tickets are actually cheap, about P600 each, by Nordic standards.
Vasa Museum (vasamuseet.se) in Stockholm, Sweden—about P700 entrance fee
Include other free sights and destinations in the itinerary.
Denmark: No-pay areas and parks of Amalienborg, official residence of the Danish royal family; King’s Garden, the “hippie freetown” Christiania, Harbourside Promenade that leads to The Little Mermaid
Finland: Suomenlinna sea fortress
Iceland: Harpa—just go inside, it’s free. No need for event/concert tickets to experience the arts center’s extraordinary architecture and honeycomb-like glass walls.
Places of worship, such as Catholic churches and shrines, even small ones like the unique, wooden Kamppi “Chapel of Silence” in Helsinki, Finland. Remember to minimize noise and be respectful of worshippers.
“Collect” sightings of the changing of the guard at royal palaces and grounds—where you’re headed anyway in walking tours, and because Europe is the place for palace-hopping.
The ceremony takes place at Copenhagen’s Amalienborg, The Royal Palace and Park in Oslo, and Royal Palace of Stockholm. Swedish royal troops are even occasionally accompanied by a brass marching band that can play pop tunes, and on horseback, too!
Worth the splurge: Denmark’s Tivoli gardens in Copenhagen
Maximize the paid ticket by going late in the afternoon and staying till evening. The grounds turn sparkly and even more gorgeous when all the lights are on. Catch the lagoon’s nightly water dance show as well.
Not a die-hard Lego fan? No budget or time for Denmark’s Legoland? Visit a Lego shop instead, where you can take photos among Lego tableaus and figures.
Worth the splurge: Tour of Iceland’s natural wonders, be it the Northern Lights, “Game of Thrones” filming sites, or countryside day trip
Super recommends: BusTravel Iceland’s Premium Golden Circle Tour, a great intro to the real-life Land of Fire and Ice. The 8-hour tour goes to Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall, Þingvellir National Park (a “GOT” location), Kerið volcanic crater, and Friðheimar horse farm (where there’s a superhot farmer who serves ice cream with honey—fire and ice, indeed). Book via https://bustravel.is/tours; prompt customer service available by e-mail and Facebook Messenger.
Worth the splurge: Dipping in the geothermal seawater of Blue Lagoon in Iceland
The same travel agency (refer to tip No. 13) offers transfers to Blue Lagoon, with buses departing on a regular basis to and from the site.
Locals would recommend the lower-priced public thermal pools. However, for Iceland first-timers, this is one more instance to relax the frugality. Go for the grand experience but choose the most affordable package—a daytrip (www.bluelagoon.com).
Worth the splurge: Going to the opera in Stockholm or Gothenburg, Sweden
We caught an astounding production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” in the city of Gothenburg, the balcony seats worth about P2,500 each. Shows regularly sell out, especially at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.
The region’s airports
Don’t discard empty water bottles.
After passing all security checks, refill yours at a drinking fountain, which airports usually have. If you can’t find any, then refill from the restroom taps. Don’t worry, Scandinavian tap water is potable.
Most Scandi airports provide zip-lock bags for storing small bottled liquids.
Take advantage of this freebie as you might need it for other purposes, such as storing snacks or an unfinished sandwich.
Helsinki Airport provides large, sturdy plastic bags with zip ties for storing bags, backpacks, purses that travelers belatedly decide to check in.
Again, take advantage, as it can be used for unwashed clothes, as DIY compression bag to save luggage space, or as garbage bag.
Alcohol is expensive. If the travel group is desperate for a drink, especially in chilly Iceland, grab a bottle or two from the airport duty-free outlet upon arrival.
Cutting down living expenses
Buy groceries and cook meals in your lodgings—cheaper than dining out all the time.
Learn to spot promo tags, labels on supermarket shelves.
Though written in the vernacular, the often neon tags/labels have numbers and/or the percent sign. Chances are items could be on sale, on buy-1-take-1 promo or have special deals that could save you a few extra bucks.
Ask the rental host/owner if there are pantry or kitchen food items meant for the guests, if it isn’t already stated in the fine print.
Condiments, dish cleansers or dishwasher pods/detergent in rentals can be used (make sure to ask permission), so remove these from the grocery list. Take note, unlike in the Philippines, Europe does not sell anything in solo/budget sizes (aka tingi-tingi).
Avoid small purchases that actually add up.
For example, toilet paper. Pack some of the core-free or travel-size variety. Don’t ignore tissues provided in restos, fast-food chains and (paid) public toilets. Bring laundry detergent in sachets, too.
Convenience shops and some fast-food chains provide salad dressing in mini resealable plastic vials. Save the leftovers or the spare vials that came with your order and use them for a DIY salad.
Going out and about
Always bring water plus sandwich, filling snacks.
These will tide you over between meals (all the walking will make you hungry) and keep you from buying expensive grub on-the-go.
Eating out? Check storefront menu boards and window signage for resto meal deals. An 8-euro buffet in Helsinki, for example, is cheap enough in Scandinavia.
As counterpoint to items 20 and 25, eat at least one non-cheapo meal in each city so you won’t feel deprived. Splurge on comforting, familiar food like pasta and pizza at an Italian diner.
The Nordics may have tasty hotdogs on buns with fried onions, open-faced sandwiches, stewed meats and smoked fish, but the cuisine could still be an acquired taste for the Pinoy traveler.
Most of Europe has paid public toilets. Avoid the expense: Go to the loo before exiting museums, libraries, theaters and (a few) fast-food chains.
Get day passes if staying in a city for 3 full days or more, and its itinerary requires heavy use of public transport. It’ll be more cost-effective than buying single-trip tickets.
Make friends with other travelers.
The best ones we’ve made had also joined free walking tours and are savvy budget travelers. It helps to have others with whom to exchange travel tips and overlooked details, such as supermarkets with the best prices and sudden weather changes (as in Iceland).