How to Get to Europe for $318: Taking Norwegian Air from Oakland

Stockholm Harbor, a boat, and swans on iceIn November, Sweden and Denmark were not on the hazy, voluminous to-travel-to list I keep in my head. The top contenders right now are Peru, Mexico, Montreal, Washington DC, Thailand, and (of course) France. But almost everywhere that doesn’t limit the rights of women, sexual minorities, or anyone considered gender variant is a contender, so it’s hardly a limiting list. I liked Iceland for sure; I idly wondered sometimes if other Scandinavian countries had the qualities I liked about it. But that’s as far as it went until one fateful day late last fall, when a friend who knows these things told me to get on the Norwegian Air site like right now, because there were round-trip fares from Oakland to Stockholm for around $318, if I picked my dates right.


Cue a fairly adrenaline-chased hour, in which I frantically wrote to my boss, played with dates, tried to envision an unclear future*, and ultimately decided to book a trip and get it refunded in the following 24 hours** if it indeed would not work with work (which was and remains the major priority in my life right now). I found I almost literally could not resist traveling that kind of distance for that little money. As of this writing, a similar ticket through Norwegian is more than $1,000. Other airlines come in at $1,500 or more. Because it’s a freaking flight across the world. 

Fortunately, my company is founded by and filled with insatiable travel fiends, and I was given the green light. At the end of what I thought would be a fairly ordinary workday, I suddenly had plans to travel to Sweden in the coming winter. Stunned and with plans to make, I tried to wrap my head around what I’d done by researching, starting with this unfamiliar airline. I learned that Norwegian has a different balance of services and fees as compared to most airlines. Thus, it required some strategy.

Norwegian Air progress map, with bonus USB

The A La Carte Model

In the US, we’re not completely unfamiliar with this. It’s pretty common on your average airline (Delta, American) to pay for blankets and snacks or to pay to check a bag. Then there are airlines like Spirit, where you might find a ticket somewhere for $6 but have to pay a couple hundred dollars or more for the amenities (carry-ons, water) to make your trip tolerable.

Norwegian falls somewhere in the middle. In the couple of months that passed after I booked the ticket, I did buy three add-ons:

  1. I paid $45 to select my seat on the way there, because I figured there was a chance I might see the Northern Lights during the flight. I didn’t, but it was worth it, for me, to pay for the possibility. Getting to the airport three-plus hours before the flight would probably accomplish the same thing for no extra money.
  2. I paid $45 ahead of time to check a bag on the flight back. I did this so that I wouldn’t have to look at any individual souvenir and wonder if it was worth paying for a checked bag later. I considered this a gift to myself, because I know my tendency toward overthinking.
  3. I paid $15 for Fast Track through Stockholm airport security. On travel days, I’m nervous and unhappy until I’m through security and at the gate; this was, to me, a small price to pay for an easier travel day. It was ultimately pointless, as the regular security line was almost as short as the Fast Track lane, but the motivation was sound.

Things I opted not to pay for: $42 each way for drinks and two meals; a seat assignment on the way back.

One thing to keep in mind while booking is that they have different classes of service; indeed, the Norwegian booking path was one of the most complicated ones I’ve ever seen. I booked the cheapest level, which includes basically nothing; if you go a level or two up, meals, checked bags, a greater weight allowance for carry-on bags, and other things are included – but, of course, you pay for it then too. You can learn more about their fees, in a variety of currencies, here. Like many airlines in the style of European low-cost carriers, you’ll pay twice as much to check a bag if you only decide to do it on the day of travel. And Norwegian Air’s bag check is a highly involved procedure, you see.

Sky outside Stockholm from a plane

The Best Time I Weighed My Carry-On Like Six Times

Have you ever traveled during the winter? Your bags bloom to twice their usual volume. Have you ever tried traveling during the winter with a 10-kg/22-pound carry-on allowance? This is not your usual luggage Tetris.

I realized immediately that I’d be doing laundry while there. I was ok with that. And I wasn’t tempted to check a bag on the way over, because I would be staying at four different places across my nine days, which would include multiple train and bus rides. My travel backpack and the cloth shopping bag I use on trips would be more than enough to deal with while going between spots. So economy of space (and money) was the name of the game.

The night before my departure, I managed to get my bag within the acceptable weight range after about five iterations. I did cheat in the end, stuffing the pockets of my coat with socks and tights and wearing my heaviest shoes and skirt. My coat felt like a pea pod, but it got my bag where it needed to be. In addition to the 10-kg main carry-on, there’s a 5-kg limit on a smaller carry-on, in the vein of a laptop bag or purse. It helps, but it’s not much when trying to envision a sensible wardrobe for Scandinavian winter. Something very helpful: they weigh your bags only at check-in, meaning you can stuff all available space with heavy water and snacks after you’re past security.

I read several different accounts of the strictness of airport bag weigh-ins with Norwegian (they weigh, they don’t weigh; they care, they don’t care), but I decided to leave nothing to chance. (See: departure anxiety.) The day of, I arrived, carrying my uncommonly lumpy winter coat. I watched as person after person in front of me had their bags weighed and, often, found overweight. A quietly impatient (but very pleasant) ticket agent oversaw the whole thing, moving between two desk spots to give one group and then another time to shift weight between bags.

The group in front of me was a four-person family, and I had a feeling they hadn’t been very fastidious with reading Norwegian’s strict rules or with their packing. Indeed, all of their bags were somewhat over, and the agent left them with four open bags and looks of great uncertainty when she walked to me. After having to deliver bad news to several people within the previous ten-odd minutes, I think she just didn’t want to bother with me. My bags read as sufficiently compact, it seems. I was given my boarding pass and was good to go, with no weighing required. Strategy: look like you know what you’re doing, and be behind a bunch of people who don’t? Or something like that.

On my return trip, since I’d paid to check a bag, the ticket agent didn’t weigh my backpack then either. I still think I got off lucky and would not suggest assuming this might be your experience, especially if you read as a less-straightforward traveler, with kids, companions, lots of carry-ons, and other complications.

When I got through security in Oakland, I stuffed my small bag with snacks and an extra bottle of water, trying to imagine what would look good to me after nine hours in the air. The pasta was ok; the quinoa was so gross I felt haunted by it several hours later. I might’ve paid $42 just to get the taste out of my mouth after a while. Which brings us to…

The $42 Multi-Course Experience

This is where flying Norwegian got, to me, truly strange. Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants walk around and double-check to see who ordered their meals ahead. About an hour into the flight, those people get coffee, wine, hot food, and dessert. (They get a cold breakfast bag not long before landing.) Only then is the possibility of buying snacks opened to the rest of us, usually about two hours into the flight. On the flight back in particular, I could see lots of people around me doing just as I was, checking the seat display to see when the closed tag would be taken off the snack bar button.

On the way back, I found buying in-flight snacks an almost frugal alternative to buying Swedish airport food, particularly after I accidentally spent $22 on an orange San Pellegrino and one of those lovely open-faced shrimp sandwiches. (Thank god I didn’t get the beer; I’d probably still be there, working off the bill via indentured servitude.) However, the open times for snack ordering are finite and, to me, a little unpredictable. I ordered the vegetarian dish (a salad with hummus and assorted veg), a ramen cup, a snack box, and a water, because I didn’t know if I’d get to order again when I needed a second meal.

If you like not thinking about things, maybe $42 for a one-way ticket of airplane food makes sense to you. However, most of the people around me appeared to have opted out. I saw clever people with leftovers in food storage containers and other people like me eating good-enough snacks bought at the airport, sufficient to get us to our destination.

The strangest thing was that, minus any pre-ordering, I felt pretty ignored by the flight attendants. If you haven’t paid, you don’t even get water. And they’re mostly not concerned about you. You’ll get attention if you ring the button to summon them, but otherwise, they don’t even collect trash very often. It’s a different model, but anytime I started to raise an eyebrow, I thought, “$318.” And then it all became amusing again.

Conclusion: Super Worth It

I was a little concerned about this trip, based on some of the research I’d done. There were stories of being stranded for two or three days due to mechanical problems. Norwegian’s fleet isn’t huge, and they don’t fly every route every day. When I booked, there were only three days each week to choose for my departure and return. If a plane went out of commission, a replacement might be thousands of miles away – and possibly also spoken for for a day or two. I said “$318” to myself one more time and said that, if I ended up with a couple surprise extra days in Stockholm, I’d make do (with profuse apologies to my work).

In the end, both flights were perfectly on time. My checked return bag made it with no problems. Flying out of Stockholm is a little odd – I went through an initial round of passport check to get into the international depatures area (to officially leave Sweden) and then an additional round to get into a separate gate area just for our flight (to comply with US regulations). But everything went exactly as promised, and I ended up with a surprise (and incredibly wonderful) trip to two countries I now love. But more on that later.

If a slight risk of inconvenience and having to work with a somewhat unfamiliar paradigm of airline service doesn’t bother you, I’d suggest going for this, if you have the chance. Norwegian’s sales aren’t rare, and they’re starting to go to more destinations. I subscribe to their emails now, and they’ve joined Icelandair in the short list of airline sale emails I am likely to push on friends.

If the timing is right, and the money works out? Do it. The details can come together later.

*I was maybe three weeks into a new job in a new industry and only recently permanently arrived in California. Travel was not on my mind.

**Like some other airlines, Norwegian lets you get a complete refund on a ticket in the 24 hours after booking. This is lovely, and I wish more airlines would adopt it.

Stockholm’s City Hall: Vikings, Italians, and Looming Pseudo-Medusas

Stockholm's city hall's exterior from the street, with EU flag

Stockholm’s city hall (Stadshuset to locals) looked like a staid brick building as I approached it, walking carefully along the icy sidewalk and hoping for a cafe where I could get second breakfast. (I was in luck there. Thanks, Sweden.) I like seeing millennium-old skeletons and grand history and all of that, but I also have a love of the everyday when I travel.* That includes municipal buildings, so I didn’t need to know about any grandeur in Stadshuset for it to be worth putting on my list for my time in Stockholm.

Looking toward the water from Stockholm's city hall courtyard

Walk through an arched doorway, and you find yourself within a wide courtyard. There are cobblestones under that snow. Beyond the arches you see here, there’s a green space (well, white when I was there) that meets the water, allowing you a wide view of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

Looking down into Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

The tour (100 SEK, or about $11 at this writing – typical for museums and tours, I found) starts in the Blue Hall, which you may know as the place where the Nobel Prize banquet is held each year. Oh, only that. It’s a wide space, but the tour guide took a little glee in telling us how each guest gets only 50 cm of dining space – except for those being honored and the royal family, who get a palatial 60 cm. It is snuggly for sure.

When we were there, it was just… quiet, that lovely exaggerated hush from people being respectful in a high-ceilinged room. Oh, and why is a clearly brick-walled room called the Blue Hall? The architect’s original idea was the glaze the walls blue, but the brick (deliberately aged to make it seem like a more ancient space than it is) was pretty enough that the glaze idea went, but the name stayed.

The building has a few mid-process switcheroos like that.

Looking up from within Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

This room is meant to evoke an Italian palazzo. I dig it.

Arched ceiling in the tower of Stockholm's city hall

From there, we ascended the stairs that Nobel Prize winners descend on the night of their banquet. We paused in the middle of the building’s tower, which is open for more detailed tours in the winter. These are the thousand arches (and, uh, one balloon).

Rådssalen ceiling

Next was the Rådssalen, where the city council gathers. Just take a second and compare this to the Blue Hall. I feel like the architect went for beauty and variety at the risk of that certain staid awe we like in our public buildings, but managed all of them anyway.

Rådssalen ceiling detail

The ceiling was inspired by Viking architecture, and I did very much wish I could lie down and stare up at it, maybe with a fire nearby. I don’t think about nesting much these days, but I did bookmark this in my head for if I ever own my own place and can do what I like with the ceilings and walls.

Oval Room at Stockholm's city hall

After that, we walked through the Oval Room, which is closed on Saturdays so Stockholm residents can get married in it. It’s lined in centuries-old Belgian-made tapestries, and it just feels lovely and warm in there. It’s up there, I think, with San Francisco’s City Hall and a pink Elvis-driven Cadillac in Vegas so far as rad places to celebrate your union.

Gold Room at Stockholm's City HallThe finale of the tour (and this is saying something for a tour that started with oh just the room where the Nobel bloody Banquet is held) was the Golden Hall, made of millions of tiles and about 10 kg of gold, sandwiched ever so thinly between tiny panes of clear glass. The post-banquet ball is held here, but I feel like even that scintillating company would pale a bit next to the very vivid tales going on in the enclaves and on the walls.

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

There are the Greek and Roman references that seem to pop up throughout the older Swedish decorative arts. (They’re frequent at the Vasamuseet, for instance.)

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

Yeah, this is familiar enough. (Excuse the pictures: art made for imposing and impressing doesn’t translate very well from a 5’8″ perspective, but I love these enough that I don’t care. They reminded me wonderfully of the art in Seattle’s Greek Orthodox church – surprisingly human and cartoony, considering the contexts.)

Eric XII and a woman with surprising spheres

But then it gets into local stories. I wish there was a tour that just told the tales being depicted on the walls. The tour guide gave some pretty great highlights, but then there’s this little scene. I’m not saying I’ve never taken the position of the woman in the back, but never in the presence of some grey-blue demon fellow with a pointed tongue.

Well, not yet.

Funeral procession detail in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

This one echoed a long illustrated scroll I saw at the Royal Armory. Humans have always loved a good funeral, I suppose.

Queen of Lake Mälaren in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

At the end of the room, the Queen of Lake Mälaren looks benevolently (and, let’s face it, a little dubiously) upon us. She was controversial, apparently – her hair too Medusa-like, her looks insufficiently dishy. I think her expression is perfect – how else should you look if you find yourself the caretaker of a city while holding a scepter and wearing a see-through shirt that turns your boobs blue? “Yeah, well, this is today, isn’t it? Right then. Better get to keeping this city from being smudged off the earth.”

Here’s a little more about some of the symbols and stories going on in this wonderful, wonderful space.

Bye, Gold Room!

And then it was time to go.

We descended the stairs back into the Blue Hall. I couldn’t quite keep my gaze on the star on the wall, too afraid was I of tumbling down the marble stairs and landing in the pile of performance fabrics that I’ve been since arriving in Stockholm on Saturday. That’s a thing with going from California to Sweden in February: it’s very easy to completely stop trusting your feet, as the ground very much has its own agenda.

I write this on a train to Malmö, where I’ll catch a second train to Copenhagen. I like it here so far. I’m not sure if it’s the secondhand Scandinavian exposure I had in my 11 years in Seattle or residual goodwill from my trip two years ago (!). Those two trips bookended a period of some of the greatest upheaval I’ve experienced in my life so far, so I can’t help but wonder what’s waiting for me when I get back to Oakland next week.

In the meantime: sensible design, a culture of beautiful collaboration, and awe at other people’s mythologies.

*A highlight of yesterday: seeing how cool Stockholm recycling is, with bonus laundry scheduling mechanism. More on that another day.