Lapland by Bus and Train - A Guide to going from Tromso and Narvik to Kiruna and the Icehotel

If you've been following along on Snapchat, you might remember that our return trip from Kiruna to Tromso was a total nightmare. What I haven't talked about so far however, is that deciding to visit Swedish Lapland by bus and train was a really dumb idea of us and we had issues regarding public transport during our entire trip.

Why that was and why we'd never visit Swedish Lapland without a car again, will thus be the topic of this post. 

Now remember, I absolutely love Swedish Lapland and would 100% recommend visiting Kiruna and the Icehotel. If you're a regular reader, you however also know that I don't hide the ugly side about living and travelling around the Arctic, which is why I'd like to share the downsides of this trip with you too. 

Not to spread negativity, but to make sure you come prepared on your trip and don't make the same mistakes as we did! 

 

Getting from Tromso to Kiruna and vice versa

The journey from Tromso to Kiruna is one of very few trips you can do in Northern Norway without renting a car or going by plane. The train tracks in Norway end further south in Fauske, close to Bodo, and while there is a train from Narvik to Kiruna in Sweden, there is no train connecting Fauske to Narvik.

However there are busses connecting Fauske and Tromso with Narvik so that you can theoretically visit the Lofoten Islands and even Trondheim by public transport from Tromso via Narvik. Now I say theoretically because there are only a limited amount of departures each day and delays or cancellations can even occur when the weather is totally fine, as happened to us.

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

The travel time between Tromso and Narvik by bus is reported to be 4 - 4 1/2 hours but after making this trip twice, I would suggest you plan in 30 - 45 minutes more. If the weather is really bad and it's snowing like crazy, I would add 1 - 1 1/2 hours but you never really know. The distance between the two towns is only 250 km but the roads are curvy and narrow and not exactly a German "Autobahn" if you know what I mean. There's a speed limit of 80 km/h but the busses drive through towns and smaller settlements too, making the journey even longer. 

The main problem if you plan to go from Tromso to Kiruna in one go, so without stopping in Narvik for a night, however is the tight schedule. There are only two trains to Kiruna from Narvik each day*, at 11 am and 3.15 pm, and three busses from Tromso to Narvik - at 6.10 am, 10 am and 4 pm. 

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

If you take the bus at 6.1o am, your scheduled arrival in Narvik is at 10.26 am - only that we arrived at 10.45 am, which made it a lot tighter to get to the train station. And no, the bus does not stop directly at the train station. More on that to come. But first:

The story: Now being half an hour delayed on our way to and from Tromso wasn't the actual problem on our trip, even though connections were tight. On our departure day, the train from Kiruna to Narvik got cancelled and replaced with a bus. Only that the bus didn't depart when the train was supposed to, but over 2 hours later. 

We were supposed to catch the second bus going from Narvik to Tromso that day but the delay meant that we had to rush to even get the very last bus for the day or otherwise we would have had to find a hotel in Narvik and stay the night, missing work the next day. Of course, in such a situation everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong and so it did for us.

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

Not only did we have a more than 2 hour delay from Kiruna, but we also got delayed along the way as we had to wait for another bus in Riksgränsen and got stopped by Norwegian border police in literally the middle of nowhere. The bus driver couldn't tell us whether we'd be able to catch the bus until we made it over the border and the worst part was, that there is neither an information desk at the train station in Kiruna, nor wifi, so that checking info and updates on the situation meant having to use expensive and slow data.

And don't even get me started on the fact that there isn't even a drink or snack machine at the train station. I have never ever experienced a train station like this in such a popular tourist destination. You're basically left to yourself there, 2 km from the town centre. Again, more on that to come.

Anyhow, we made it with 10 minutes to spare in Narvik and with a total travel time of 11 1/2 hours instead of 7 1/2 hrs.

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

Lessons learnt: Expect a travel time of 4 1/2 to 5 hours on the bus between Tromso and Narvik and better plan a stopover in the latter if you're travelling in the midst of winter, just in case. Also, bring enough water and food for the journey (I'm so glad that we did!) and consider buying a data plan for Sweden and Norway to stay updated on delays/to figure out where you are or when the next bus leaves etc.

Oh and definitely print out the entire bus/train timetable before you depart for your trip and not just the info on the bus/train you plan to take. 

 

A few words about Narvik

Narvik is an industrial town in the middle of nowhere and even if neither one of us would have had to go back to work the next day, we wouldn't have wanted to stay the night there. Of course, one reason being that Norway is even more expensive than Swedish Lapland when it comes to accommodation and even more so when you have to search for a room last minute.

But no, the main reason is that Narvik is just a pretty grim place. Of course, it is situated at an absolutely gorgeous fjord and I have no doubt that the greater Narvik area with its mountains is absolutely breath-taking - what I've seen from the train certainly was.

The town centre however is pretty dull. 

Also as mentioned earlier, the bus stop for the Tromso busses is situated around 5 minutes from the train station and I don't know if you've tried to walk on snow and ice with a suitcase before, but 5 minutes can quickly turn into 10 in such conditions.

Lessons learnt: So again, plan in enough time to catch your train and consider booking a hotel for the night if you're travelling in the middle of winter!

 

Getting around in Kiruna

Kiruna itself is a very walkable city so that you don't really need any public transport if you plan on just staying there and going skiing/snowboarding on the local slopes. However, parts of the town and in particular the town centre will be moved to extend the local mine, in the next couple of years and the train station has already moved.

It is now situated 2 km outside of town which means that one way or another, you need some form of public transport to get into town when arriving by train. Now the town has organised free shuttle busses that depart 5 minutes after the arrival of each train, but of course with our luck on this trip, things didn't go as smoothly as expected.

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

The story: The train was packed so when we arrived in Kiruna, the platform was pretty crowded and chaotic. There were two busses at the platform and we were told by assumingly a local who must have seen the confused look on our faces, that both would go into town.

Now I'm usually all for friendly locals helping out tourists though as it turned out, we should have ignored the friendly advice this time. We boarded the second bus in the row and as soon as we sat down, an English tour guide came inside yelling at us that this was the bus for his group and that we had to get out. Bit rude but fair enough, though why didn't the bus driver say anything when he helped us getting our suitcase onboard? 

So we got out and wanted to talk to the driver though he was being yelled at by the tour guide while the actual shuttle bus departed, leaving us stranded. Since the train station only experiences around 9 arrivals a day and we only had two days in town anyway, we didn't want to waste an hour to wait for the next bus and took a taxi instead which cost 150 SEK - a bit annoying considering that we could have had the journey for free but overall not too bad.

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

On our departure day, we then wanted to grab a taxi to the train station again as our second accommodation was nowhere near the bus stop for the free shuttle, so we tried calling the local (and only) taxi company. And tried. And tried. We spent 1 hour (!) in the queue without anyone picking up the phone and ended up ordering the taxi online instead, which turned out to be twice as expensive. Didn't exactly help when our taxi driver greeted us by saying "Why did you order online? That's much more expensive!" ...

Lessons learnt: When arriving by train in Kiruna, ignore local advice and head for the first shuttle bus in line AND ask the driver if that's the shuttle bus into town. Also, never order the taxi online, and call them the day before you actually need it. 

 

Visiting the Icehotel without a car

Which leaves us with the famous Icehotel, which alone is worth the journey to Kiruna. Now while there are local busses going from Kiruna to the hotel for as little as 50 or so SEK, departures are very limited, especially so on weekends - which is when we visited (of course). And since we had planned to spend Sunday on the slopes and a visit to the mine on Saturday afternoon, taking the bus would have only given us 40 minutes at the hotel, which is way too little.

swedish lapland narvik kiruna train

So we took a taxi instead which granted, took us back by 1000 SEK ($110) but was the only option in our case, and with almost 3 hours we got to spend at the magical Icehotel, it was worth it!

Lesson learnt: If you're planning to visit the Icehotel and you don't have a car, make sure you take the local bus on a weekday and stay flexible when it comes to your itinerary for the rest of the day. Or pay the 1000 SEK taxi fare - if you're a group, that's really not too bad.

 

In a nutshell

We decided to visit Kiruna by bus and train in the naive assumption that it would be cheap. Considering our taxi fares and all the stress we had on our journey to and from Swedish Lapland, I certainly would rather spend a few bucks more and rent a car next time. 

But well, hindsight is 20/20. Don't make our mistakes on your trip to the Arctic Circle and stay tuned for more posts on Kiruna and the Icehotel!

 

What's the worst trip you've ever had? and What are your tips to survive long haul bus/train travel?

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(*Departure times at the time of writing this post in March 2017. Check tromskortet.no and sj.se for updates)

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