Monday, 16 July 2012

Scandinavian Scrimping: an Art

The perennial refrain among Eurail riders about Scandinavia is a variation of “Great, but is it ever expensive.” Four weeks of exploring it last summer makes me want to pass on some tips for cutting fiscal corners without diminishing your pleasure. It is expensive, but there are economy pockets that are fun to find.

Baggage: My first principle as a Eurail traveler is never leave a station with more than a tote. I travel in circles—or more precisely loops—of a few days at a time. In Scandinavia, the best entrepot is Copenhagen’s Central Station. For five Danish kronors (60 cents), you can lock your gear up and travel free as a bird—Copenhagen-Oslo, Oslo-Gotheberg, Gotheberg-Copenhagen—doing similar loops to all the capitals and principal cities of Scandinavia.

Theoretically, there’s a two-day limit to the lockers, but in practice I was away as long as a week, with all my gear awaiting me when I passed through for a new loop.

InterRail Student Center: One of the niftiest innovations Danish State Railways has introduced to Europe is a free drop-in center at Copenhagen Central, open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. You qualify if you’re 26 or under and hold either an InterRail or Eurail pass.

Free showers, a place to store your backpack, snacks and drinks for sale, a notice board for synching your movements with friends coming in from elsewhere, and a very congenial atmosphere. Antiquated types like myself found their bulletin board a marvelous resource: Use It (a lively handout to traveler’s services); a bulletin about Danish classic films dubbed in English; directions to a nearby automatic laundry.

Breakfasts: Here’s my discovery of the summer. Near every train station in Europe is a first-class hotel serving buffet breakfasts to their guests—and to any one else willing to pay (Visa is usually acceptable) their exceedingly modest fees.

At Helsinki’s Hesperides, a four-star hotel, a humungous spread cost a piddling 15 Finnmarks ($2.50). Such a meal can last you half a day, and you eat amidst the most elegant surroundings, having washed up from the overnight train ride in their well-appointed washroom.

And the concierges in such hotels have a pack of free info for tourists—each major metropolis has a “This Week in . . .” type pocket guide, a walking map of the downtown—so you can plot your day as you munch away.

Sleeping Over: The Scandinavian trains, alas, are the least amenable to free overnight accommodations. They are mostly sit-up seats in Amtrak-like rows (not the scooch-together seats in six-place compartments on other European trains that form credible beds for free overnight journeys).

But there are some old ones still in use, and it behooves you to get to the station an hour early and check out the cars. There will be color-coded charts of the train you’re taking: green for second-class sit-up, yellow for first-class, blue for sleeping cars (for which you ordinarily need reservations but can often wangle on-the-spot berths if they are available).

Cheap Digs: By all means, get an American Youth Hostel pass ($20) and their handbook listing (with map) most of the hostels in Europe ($6.95). You not only save much money but the talk is worth more than the cheap price.

I stayed at Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium for 25 Finnmarks (a little over $4). It is a dormitory, but it’s clean and friendly, and the mix of fellow travelers is intellectually exhilarating—next to my bunk were an Australian, a New Zealander, a Japanese and a Korean. I not only got a line on what the rest of the world was thinking, but also priceless travel tips from folks hot off the road.

There are also hostels not on the official roster that you can find out about at the local train stations: for example, in Jyvaskyla, Alvar Aalto’s home town, we stayed in a lovely woodsy place a ten-minute walk from the great architect’s museum. Quite a deal for 40 Finnmarks, 15 of which went to the Save the Children Foundation.

Cheap Internal Travel: It behooves you to look into new travel bargains in Scandinavia. Each big city has a tourist card for local transport and museums.

In Stockholm, when I arrived from Finland on the Silja Ferry from Helsinki (free on the Eurail pass), I bought a one-day pass for 17 Swedish kronors so I could visit the Carl Milles sculpture garden just outside of town, then criss-cross inside the city visiting museums and notable works of architecture, such as Gunnar Asplund’s great Main Library.

Airfares are a steal as well: Braathens S.A.F.E. (the slightly disconcerting initials refer to its origins as a charter to South America and the Far East) and Finnair are offering real bargains for flights within Norway and Finland, respectively. Finnair’s 15 day, $250 pass is especially noteworthy. And there are Scandinavian variants of Eurail that might be your ticket if you’re only going to travel in those countries.

Money: I think I’m giving up on traveler’s checks, except for emergency backup money. The $1,200 I took along for my three months was losing me interest for most of my trip. I stumbled across the answer when I ran out of checks—use Visa for cash advance. You don’t pay the local bank anything and you get just as much local currency as you need.

(It’s changing and rechanging from one currency to another that is not only a pest but expensive—minimum commissions, no matter the amount changed). Then you mail a check each month to Visa covering your expenditures and you avoid their sometimes usurious interest charges.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark August 6, 1986

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