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Finland and Helsinki on a Budget

When it comes to costs for tourists, Scandinavian countries have a reputation for being very expensive. Taxes are high but salaries in those countries are more or less commensurate with prices meaning that costs appear high not to locals but to people from outside the region. Finland is the least expensive of the countries that make up Scandinavia though prices are still higher than in the US or in the UK and many other countries of western Europe.

If you are set on visiting Finland but don’t have inexhaustible financial resources, there are ways of reducing the costs of travel, accommodation, eating out and sightseeing but you will have to put in a little hard work first to identify where those savings can be made.

Depending on where you are coming from you may be able to save on travel costs. Budget airline Blue 1, the budget arm of the national carrier Finn Air; they operate a frequent service from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport and offer some attractive prices throughout the year. Alternatively, it’s possible to fly to Tallinn in Estonia with several budget airlines and from there take a ferry across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki. Traveling outside of the peak season may seem like a good idea as far as getting to Finland is concerned, but many museums and other visitor attractions do not open over the winter; in fact, many close in September and don’t reopen until May.

Finnish winters are long and harsh; the temperature drops quickly from September and the days soon become very short; if you intend to spend lots of time outdoors, you really need to visit in the height of summer when there are more hours of daylight. The more time you spend indoors, the more money you’ll spend so visiting in summer can work out much cheaper as you can prepare picnics and spend time occupied in free activities rather than eating hot meals in restaurants and paying for entrance to indoor activities.

Within Finland buses and coaches tend to cost more or less the same price and your decision may come down to the time of day you wish to travel. There are various passes available for tourists who might be using buses or trains frequently within a given period. While these can offer savings, it’s important to work out first whether this option is the right one for you as they can still be quite costly. Look out too for money saving city cards that offer free use of public transport within a particular town or city as well as reduced price (or free admission) to museums and other attractions, as well as some discounts in cafes and restaurants. The major cities such as Tampere all offer this kind of card but as with combined train or bus passes, you should give some thought to how much use you’re likely to get from it before buying.

Guided tours can be great but they are almost always expensive. Many hostels offer free or cheap tours of their own, or else a discount on city tours if you book through your hostel. Check what your hostel is offering before you book places on tours. An alternative is not to book a paid for tour at all and to use social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook to find someone in the city who could give you a tour. Sign up to a city page (most major towns and cities have dedicated pages) and ask if anyone is willing to show you round; having a local guide is a great way of finding out those secret places that tourists don’t usually get to see.

A bit of local knowledge can go a long way towards reducing costs when traveling in Finland. Eating outside of the city centre is a good way to spend less on food but the best tip of all is to eat your main meal at lunchtime rather than in the evening; most restaurants offer special lunchtime deals which represent much better value for money if you don’t mind choosing from a narrower menu. At first meals can seem very expensive but usually the price includes your side dish, a soup or salad starter and sometimes a small dessert; there is always a jug of water available and most restaurants tend to have a pot of hot coffee on the go at all times, unlimited refills are included in the price of your main meal. Eating at Finnish chains is usually cheaper than opting for international names; look out for burger joints like Hesburger which offer better value than names like McDonalds. Supermarket cafeterias also offer good value and while there you can pick up the ingredients for a picnic or just to make sandwiches for a cheap lunch.

Alcohol is fairly costly in Finland but nowhere near as costly as in Sweden or Norway. City centre pubs tend to be the most expensive so head to the edge of town to save money; for example, the Kallio district of Helsinki, a short tram ride from the central station is home to lots of unusual pubs and bars and beer here costs about half as much as beer bought in the centre. Microbreweries are common in Finland and their beers also tend to be a little cheaper than the big domestic and international brands. Imported drinks like wine are also very expensive and should be avoided if you want to reduce your spending.

Accommodation will comprise a good part of your spending on a trip to Finland. A package tour may not at first seem like the cheapest option but if you are going to be based only in one city – for example a long weekend in the capital – it may work out cheaper to book a package. Tour operators buy rooms in bulk in advance to get the best rates and single nights booked independently can work out more expensive. The major cities all have plenty of hostel accommodation, not all of it in large dormitories, and many hostels have large rooms suitable for families. Prices tend to be pretty rigid so there is not a great deal that can be done to reduce accommodation costs, so it’s better to look for savings in other areas.

There will be times when you simply have to bear the cost of something expensive but by reducing other expenses wherever possible you’ll not need to deny yourself those experiences that make a holiday unique.