|Cruise ships in the Stockholm Archipelago slalom past thousands of islands via dredged channels.|
By Rick Steves
You can cover a lot of territory in Scandinavia without ever checking into a hotel. Overnight luxury cruise liners stacked with saunas, smörgåsbords, and duty-free shopping sail nightly between several major cities. Imagine enjoying a Scandinavian feast with a vista of archipelago scenery. Budget travel rarely feels this hedonistic.
Here's a round-up of some of the best trips, and some tips for making the most of them.
Two fine and fiercely competitive lines, Viking and Silja, connect the capitals of Sweden and Finland. Each line offers state-of-the-art ships with luxurious smörgåsbord meals, reasonable cabins, plenty of entertainment (discos, saunas, gambling), and enough duty-free shopping to sink a ship. Of the two, Viking has the reputation as the party boat. Silja is considered more elegant (but still has its share of sometimes irritating and noisy passengers).
The Pepsi and Coke of the Scandinavian cruise industry vie to outdo each other with bigger and fancier boats. The ships are big — at 56,000 tons, nearly 200 yards long, and with 2,700 beds, they're the largest (and cheapest) luxury hotels in Scandinavia. Many other shipping lines buy their boats used from Viking and Silja.
Which line is best? You could count showers and compare smörgåsbords, but both lines go overboard to win the loyalty of the nine million duty free–crazy Swedes and Finns who make the trip each year. Viking has an older, less luxurious fleet, but caters better to low-budget travelers, selling cheap ekonomi cabins (shower down the hall) and allowing passengers to pay for deck passage only and sleep for free on chairs, sofas, and under the stars or stairs. Discounts can also be given for early booking, families (look for family-cabin rates), and seniors. Check the cruise lines' websites for specifics.
Both Viking and Silja sail nightly from Stockholm and Helsinki year-round. In both directions, the boats leave about 17:00 and arrive the next morning around 10:00. Both companies also sail daily between Stockholm and Turku, Finland. Fares vary by season, by day of the week, and by cabin class. Mid-June to mid-August is most crowded and expensive (with prices the same regardless of day). Fares drop about 25 percent off-season for departures Sunday through Wednesday.
Finland is one hour ahead of Sweden. Sailing from Stockholm to Helsinki, operate on Swedish time until you're ready to go to bed, then reset your watch. Morning schedules are Finnish time (and vice versa when you return).
Travelers with railpasses that include Sweden or Finland get a discount on deck passage on the Viking and Silja lines between Stockholm and Helsinki/Turku (doesn't use up a flexi-day); Silja extends the railpass discount to its cheapest cabin berths. (Railpass discounts change from year to year — always confirm before booking.)
While ships have cheap, fast cafeterias as well as classy, romantic restaurants, they are famous for their smörgåsbord dinners. Board the ship hungry. Dinner is self-serve in two sittings, one at about 18:00, the other a couple hours later. Pay for both the dinner buffet and breakfast buffet when you buy your ticket and you'll save about 10 percent. If you board without a reservation, go to the restaurant and make one. Make sure to reserve your table, not just your meal; window seats are highly sought after.
For summer or weekend sailings, reserve well in advance. Any travel agent in Scandinavia can also sell you a ticket (with a small booking fee).
You can visit the Baltic capital of Tallinn, Estonia — an inexpensive and adventurous destination — as a day trip from Helsinki or as part of a triangle trip: Stockholm–Helsinki–Tallinn–Stockholm, or vice versa.
Tallink's ships leave Stockholm at 19:00 every evening and arrive in Tallinn at 10:00 the next morning. Return trips leave Tallinn at 18:00 and arrive in Stockholm at 10:00. All times are local (Tallinn is an hour ahead of Stockholm).
Fares vary by the day and season — highest on Friday nights and from July 1 to August 15; lowest on Sunday through Wednesday nights the rest of the year. The two legs of a round-trip don't have to be on successive days (unlike the Stockholm–Helsinki ferries), and the price depends on both the outbound and return days of the week. Reserve your meal (and even, if possible, a window table) when you buy your ticket. The boats have exchange offices with acceptable rates for your leftover cash.
Speeding between Helsinki and Tallinn
From April to October, four different companies offer fast boats that link Helsinki and Tallinn (2/hour, 2-hour journey, first departure about 7:00, last about 21:30). You can reserve in advance by phone or online, or buy tickets from a travel agency (such as the Helsinki Expert office in the TI), but it's rarely necessary. Fast-boat trips may be canceled in stormy weather (in which case you'll be put on a bigger, slower boat).
Linda Line, which uses small hydrofoils, is the fastest (only 1.5 hours), but is routinely canceled in windy weather. Big, very slow car ferries also run year-round between Helsinki and Tallinn (7/day, 3.5 hours, discount for round-trip, students, and seniors and come with great smörgåsbord buffets. These boats are filled with "four-legged Finns" crazy about cheap booze and karaoke. Foot passengers prefer the Viking ferries, which depart from central Helsinki. The Tallink and Eckerö Line ferries use Helsinki's Länsi terminal (no problem for drivers, but hard to reach by public transit).
|Don't fall in! Some of Norway's fjords are more than a mile deep.|
Luxurious DFDS Seaways cruise ships leave nightly from Copenhagen for Oslo, and from Oslo for Copenhagen. The 16-hour sailings leave at 17:00 and arrive at 9:30 the next day. So you can spend seven hours in Norway's capital and then return to Copenhagen, or take this cruise from Oslo and do Copenhagen as a day trip...or just go one-way in either direction.
Cabins vary dramatically in price depending on the day and season (most expensive on weekends and late June–mid Aug; cheapest on weekdays and Oct–April). All cabins have private bathrooms.
DFDS Seaways operates two ships on this route — the M.S. Pearl of Scandinavia and the M.S. Crown of Scandinavia. Both offer all the cruise-ship luxuries: big buffets for breakfast and dinner, gourmet restaurants, a kids' playroom, pool (indoor on the Crown, indoor and outdoor on the Pearl), sauna, nightclubs, pay Wi-Fi, satellite phone, and tax-free shopping. There are no ATMs on board. Cash advances are available at the shipboard exchange desk. All shops and restaurants accept credit cards as well as euros, dollars, and Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian currency.
Reservations are smart in summer and on weekends. Advance bookings get the best prices.
If you're taking an overnight trip, keep these tips in mind:
- Travel off-season. Prices drop significantly if you cruise outside of July and August. Any time of year, avoid traveling on a Friday night, when boat fares are highest and business-class hotel prices are lowest.
- Consider taking successive trips. Sometimes you pay less for a round-trip ticket if you sail out one night and return the next.
- Book ahead. On some of the busier routes, such as the Stockholm-Helsinki trip, you can reserve not only your berth but also your window-side dinner table and your sauna time.
- Savor your smörgåsbord. Board the ship hungry. Resist the urge to pile everything on your plate at once, as many Americans do. Instead, take small portions and dine in stages. Why rush?
Eat like a king. Promenade the decks like a queen. Even if you're just common folk, you can afford royal treatment in Scandinavia.