Copenhagen on a Budget
Since my current trip - which I’ve taken to calling the “Six Week Sabbatical” - was planned on pretty short notice, I was primarily concerned with finding the cheapest round trip flight from Nashville to Europe that I could in early October… and purchasing that flight as quickly as possible. I planned to finalize the route of the rest of the trip, transportation between cities, and accommodation once I got overseas.
Ironically, the cheapest flight I could find on such short notice was a round trip flight to Copenhagen, Denmark.
This relatively cheap flight was an ironic find because Copenhagen happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the world (both to live and to visit). Having never been to Denmark (or any other Scandinavian countries, for that matter), I had a vague idea that the Nordic countries were expensive… but I have spent quite a bit of time in London, so I thought I could figure something out.
Needless to say, I was not prepared.
To be honest, I went a bit over my budget in Copenhagen… but it could have been much worse. Below are a few things I did to save money that I'm hoping may be helpful to you if you are planning a trip to Denmark’s capital.
1. Travel in the Off Season
Let's start with a basic tip for European travel that I live by no matter where I'm headed: always travel in the the shoulder season or low season. High season for European travel is from June to August. During this time, everything is more expensive: flights, food, accommodation, transportation, attractions, oxygen (ok maybe not that last one, but the rest are valid).
Aside from budget concerns, there are other good reasons to consider visiting Europe outside of high season. If you don't like crowds of tourists, waiting in line, taking twice as long as it should take for you to walk down the sidewalk, or never being able to get a clear view (much less a clear photo) of anything you see… then traveling in most European cities between June and August probably isn’t a good option for you. May and September are better in terms of expense and crowds, but if you are planning a trip to a very expensive and/or busy European destination, you may want to consider March, April, October, or November if possible.
2. Walk (or Bike) Everywhere
This tip is a bit more specific to Copenhagen, because I'm generally a big fan of using public transportation in Europe. It tends to be cost effective and efficient… just maybe not so much here.
After taking a train from the airport to the stop nearest my hostel, I didn't use the metro system again during my 4 days in Copenhagen. I also didn’t take any cabs or use any other forms of transportation. Fortunately the city is very walkable, so avoiding public transportation is an effective way to save some money during your visit.
If you are a person who did not have a traumatic bicycle accident as a child that left you with a tendency to panic, freeze completely and lose the ability to brake while riding bikes, you should also consider renting a bike. Since biking is the city’s most popular form of transportation, bike rentals are a relatively affordable alternative option for getting around. That being said, walking is free… and no panic attacks are involved (win-win).
3. Avoid Eating Out if Possible, and Be Smart When You Do
I feel conflicted about this tip, because Copenhagen has an AMAZING food scene. It’s home to Noma, a restaurant named best in the world four times (but probably not somewhere you’ll be visiting if you are on a budget). Aside from specific restaurants, I just love the food culture here. The food scene is dominated by organic, farm-to-table, local ingredients and simple, well-designed interiors. It seemed to me that people took their time over meals in Copenhagen, ordering drinks, dessert, coffee… and possibly more drinks… my kind of dinner!
Personally, I would recommend doing some research and picking out one or two restaurants you don't want to miss while on your trip, then budget around those one or two meals by saving as much as possible on other meals. If your accommodation includes a kitchen, take advantage by preparing your own food when possible. Try not to drink alcohol out, and if you do, look for happy hours or other deals (the hostel I stayed in had a 2 for 1 deal on beer for an hour every night of the week, which was very helpful… but unfortunately, it did not have a kitchen). If you are staying in a hostel, see if their breakfast pricing is reasonable, as hostel breakfasts tend to be all you can eat buffet-style (or better yet, see if you can find a hostel that offers breakfast for free!)
In addition to excellent restaurant fare, the Danes know their baked goods. Luckily, bakeries tend to be pretty affordable, particularly if you can eat a plain roll instead of a cinnamon roll (but do get a cinnamon roll while you are here, because they are heavenly). Also make sure to try Torvehallerne, a market with a variety of stalls offering what I’ll describe as ‘elevated street food’ from around the world (I had empanadas! In Denmark!), with many of the restaurants offering smaller, more affordable portions than you might find elsewhere.
4. Save Money on Accommodation
Since it is difficult to save money on food in Copenhagen (because there aren't many chain restaurants and they appreciate quality ingredients… which are arguably positives), you may need to cut some corners on accommodation here. If you stay in a mixture of hotels, Airbnbs and hostels like I do, this is probably a city where you'll want to stay in a dorm room in a hostel. The city isn't huge, so even if you choose a hostel a bit outside the center, it will likely still be a walkable distance from the things you want to see… just make sure to confirm that prior to booking, so that you can save money on transportation (as mentioned above).
5. Don't Pay for Attractions or Tours
I'm torn about this tip as well, because there are a lot of great galleries and museums in Copenhagen... but I didn't visit them. The weather was perfect when I was visiting in mid-October, and I couldn't bring myself to spend time inside. Walking around and taking pictures are my favorite things to do when traveling, and lucky for me, both are free.
If you spend a little time planning out your own walking route between things that you want to see, you can avoid paying for a tour. In my opinion, Copenhagen seemed to have a good amount of freely accessible outdoor attractions and activities, so you'll be able to save money in this city if you’re willing to spend time outside. (Consider walking up and down Nyhavn taking pictures, spending time in and around the King's Garden, walking along the waterways, or exploring Assistens Cemetery).
At the end of the day, you should spend your money on the things that make you happy when you are traveling (and in general)… so if you want to spend money on admission to attractions and don't care as much as I do about food, then feel free to revise these ideas in such a way that works for you.
6. Make Up for the Cost of Copenhagen Somewhere Else
My general recommendation is to always build your travel budget using an average. If you are targeting an average price for accommodation per night, and an average amount of spending per day on food, transportation, and attractions, it allows you to offset expensive food by focusing on saving money in the other categories… but it also allows you to offset a very expensive city in general (like Copenhagen) by visiting a cheaper city in the same trip (like Prague or Budapest). The reality is that you may not be able to stay in Copenhagen for a significant amount of time, and may need to pair your visit to Copenhagen with a visit somewhere more affordable to keep the average budget in check.
Overall, I had a fantastic time in Copenhagen in late October, and would highly recommend the city… even to budget travelers. It was the perfect first city to visit on this trip in particular, because I know how much I need to save to make up for it in the other cities… and also how much I need to walk to offset all the baked goods I ate!
Have you visited Copenhagen? Do you have tips for staying on budget in the city? Feel free to share in the comments!