Norway can seem both vast and tiny when you’re tackling it for the first time. Although the country is similar in shape and size to California, it has fewer people (5 million), fewer cities and towns, and its natural wonders can seem far apart, and even inaccessible. With the right planning and preparation, however, you’ll be able to see what you want, when and how you want. Read on for some tips about how to organize your perfect Norwegian vacation, or how to find an expert to do it for you.
What type of traveler are you?
The first thing to consider when planning a trip to Norway is just what you want to accomplish. Are you an active traveler who thrills at outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, rock-climbing or dog-sledding? Or are you a relaxed traveler who wants to take time in each place, learn about a country’s history and culture, and see some natural beauty along the way?
If you’re the former, it may be a good idea to employ a guide for at least some legs of your journey: Norwegian guides know the terrain, and what’s more, will be able to discuss your needs, wishes and fitness levels and plan a trip that best corresponds to all of them. If you’re a culture vulture, you may want to spend most of your time wandering cities; but perhaps there’s a specific hike nearby you’d like to try as a day trip, or a special fjord or mountain that takes expert navigation to reach.
Where and when do you want to go?
As with most countries, whether you travel alone or hire a guide may have a lot to do with geography. If you’re planning on sticking to the south, where cities are closer together and train and bus travel are plentiful, there’s a lot you can do on your own. If you want to head north, where civilization is more sparse, you’ll probably want an expert to guide you.
The weather may have a lot to do with your decision as well. If you’re going to be venturing north in winter, it can be a great comfort to have a knowledgeable guide along, not just to assess weather conditions and keep your trip on track, but also simply to double as your driver, navigating difficult roads that may be snow-covered for months on end. What’s more, if you’re planning on doing winter sports, hiring a guide that works for a reputable company means you won’t have to bring your own gear; the company will be able to provide it.
Remember, the benefit of a guide is that you will get to see hidden gems and enjoy more local experiences—but even on a fully guided tour, you can always request to have self-guided legs arranged as part of the itinerary.
Remote locations, extreme destinations, and elusive sights like the Northern Lights are best tackled with the help of an experienced professional. In the remote north, a guide with photography skills can help you capture the wonder of the aurora borealis on film, or take you to interact with locals in areas that aren’t just built around tourism, like a meeting with Sami reindeer herders in Lapland, or traditional craftspeople in Aurland.
On the island of Svalbard, where polar bears practically outnumber people, a guide can be an issue of safety. But having a guide can also be a question of flexibility: a guide can pick the best hikes on any given day depending on conditions and how long and challenging you would like your hike to be. Thanks to Norway’s “Right to Roam” law, you’re allowed free access to the countryside; all the more reason to bring someone along who knows how to forage, fish, and pitch a tent.
Self-Guided or Partially Guided Tours
If you’re going to be sticking close to cities or semi-urban areas, you may not need the help of a guide the entire time. Still, you can engage the experts for things like historical and cultural tours, tickets to performing arts events and restaurant reservations. What’s more, if there’s a particular day hike you may want to try out, your guide can simply meet you for that excursion, and be on hand to advise you for the rest of the trip.
This works particularly well in a culturally rich city like Bergen, where you may want to stick close to the city center for a tour of Bryggen wharf one day, and on another, head out to the islands west of Bergen or the seven mountains that surround it. A day trip through the fjords, passing steep mountains and breathtaking waterfalls, is also something you could do on your own, but you’re less likely to follow the well-worn tourist paths if you hire a local guide to accompany you.
Certain remote hotels like Aurland’s Riverside Farm Lodge or the historic Hotel Union Øye close to Ålesund will also go out of their way to book exciting excursions for their guests. Of course, if you want to do some hikes on your own, Norway’s trails are quite well-marked, and with the more popular ones, especially in summer, you’ll be in good company.
Group travel can be one of the best ways to meet new people who share your interests (and who can quickly become worthwhile traveling companions or lifelong friends). Of course, group travel is also a great way to save money, and in Norway—one of the most expensive countries in the world—that can mean a lot. You can put together a group of your own among friends, family members, and colleagues, or simply contact any of the companies you might otherwise use to book a private guide and ask if they have any group trips scheduled. Very often, it's simply a matter of finding the right time to join in one of their regular group excursions.
The most reliable and reputable companies will keep groups small, and will offer the same locals-only experiences you’d get with a personal guide. What’s more, if you’re looking to spend part of your trip traveling alone, a group can be a great fallback for some of the more complicated excursions.
Perhaps you’ll be based in Oslo, but want to join up with a group to do some cross-country skiing nearby. Maybe you’re staying in Stavanger, and you’d like to find some like-minded adventurers to cruise up the Lysefjord and see the fantastic Kjeragbolten. Maybe you’re looking for companions as intrepid as you are to conquer the Norwegian Arctic or Finnish Lapland. Regardless of where you’re going, with a common goal and a guide to plan out the logistics, group travel can be a stress-free and exciting way to get to know Norway.