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Svalbard. An Arctic archipelago halfway between the North Pole and the Norwegian mainland.
60% of the islands is covered by glaciers, and the landscape is a polar desert - you have to look closely to find any vegetation here. October to February is one long polar night while April to August is a never-ending day, thanks to the midnight sun.
Only a little more than 2500 people are tough enough to live up here. Mostly Norwegian and Russian miners and researchers/students from all over the world, trying to document the effects of climate change.
It is a strange place. Barren and abandoned upon first view but also bustling and multicultural when you have a closer look. First and foremost however, it is the kingdom of the polar bear - the giant of the Arctic. Once hunted for its meat and fur, the polar bear is now a protected species.
Oddly enough, more than 100.000 visitors flock here each year, in the hope to see the Arctic giant, or just to have the trip of a lifetime. As you'd expect from a place this remote and unique however, visiting poses a few challenges, and there are a few things you should keep in mind when you go.
Thus, here's a list of everything you should know to visit Svalbard!
- Svalbard is part of Norway but neutral territory. That means that any nation can exploit the archipelago's natural goods and there are no visa requirements to live and work on the islands.
- There's only one major town and airport, called Longyearbyen. A few smaller settlements exists; namely the Russian mining town Barentsburg, the research centre Ny-Ålesund and the mine Sveagruva. There also is an abandoned Russian mining town north of Longyearbyen, called Pyramiden, that you can visit by boat.
- Apart from Norwegians, Russians make up a big part of the population as many are employed in the mine of Barentsburg.
- It's common to take off your shoes in most hotels, shops and even restaurants in Longyearbyen.
- Despite its remote location at the end of the world, the internet in Svalbard is excellent because broadband companies use the archipelago for experiments.
- All traces of humans from before WWII are considered cultural heritage and thus protected. Vegetation also is protected, which means that picking flowers or leaving trash behind is prohibited.
What to keep in mind:
1. Visiting Svalbard is expensive
As you might imagine, Svalbard is not exactly a budget destination. If prices in Oslo or Tromsø already seem horrendous to you, you should prepare to risk getting a heart attack when looking into visiting Svalbard. Accommodation and activities will most likely be the most expensive items of your trip.
We paid a whopping 4000 NOK ($480) for 3 nights in the local hostel and $216 per person for one day of sightseeing and visiting Barentsburg...
2. 4 months of darkness and 4 months of daylight
The town of Longyearbyen is situated at 79 degrees North, meaning it's located well above the Arctic Circle, and therefore experiences polar night in winter and midnight sun in summer. In contrast to places like Tromsø though, both phenomena are stronger and last longer than in mainland Norway.
The polar night in Longyearbyen lasts from 26 October until 15 February, and the midnight sun lasts from 20 April to 23 August. While the sun disappears behind the mountains at night in Tromsø, it shines as strongly during midnight as it does during midday in Longyearbyen, easily causing confusion for visitors and interrupting sleep patterns.
Also, while Tromsø experiences a couple hours of twilight each day during polar night, Longyearbyen is pitch black during winter. While that might be an interesting experience for visitors, you also need to keep in mind that opportunities for outdoor activities in winter are few. There's however the added bonus of being able to see the daytime aurora, or in other words: Northern Lights at any time of the day (if the skies are clear).
3. Finding cheap airfares is tricky but not impossible
There are year-round direct flight connections to Longyearbyen from Oslo and Tromsø, as well as seasonal connections from Murmansk and Moscow. SAS serves the route via Oslo and Tromsø, while Norwegian also offers flights from Oslo. If you're under 26 and a member of the SAS Eurobonus program, you can save up to 50% on your flight to Longyearbyen.
Furthermore, since Svalbard is considered part of Norway, making use of your Eurobonus points is a smart move - a return trip only costs you 10.000 points.
4. shortage of accommodation in peak seasons
Longyearbyen is a small town and while there's 9 hotels for you to choose from, rooms book out quickly so you need to order well in advance. While it might be possible to book a room, Airbnb or Couchsurfing host at the last minute in a place like London, Svalbard doesn't exactly offer an abundance of opportunities.
So if all hotel rooms are booked, there are little to no alternatives for your stay!
It's happened before that visitors booked a flight to Svalbard without booking accommodation, namely during the solar eclipse of 2015, and to put it short - it's a bad idea!
Svalbard is the kingdom of the polar bear and not even in the town of Longyearbyen you're completely safe. Just in February this year, a mother polar bear was spotted with her cubs in the town centre. Therefore, and also because of common winter temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, you can't just put up a tent and sleep outside.
There's a couple of Airbnb hosts in Longyearbyen, and there also is a campsite during summer, in case all hotels are fully booked during your stay, but it's advised not to wait to order a room.
Note: Airbnb in Svalbard is not always a budget option either and prices can sky-rocket with demand.
5. be careful about the location of your hotel
While Longyearbyen might not be a big town, it's not exactly compact either. Due to the permafrost of the Arctic, buildings can't be built everywhere there is space. Thus, the town spreads across several kilometers and you might end up having to walk 6 km to get from one end to the other, if your hotel is situated in the Nybyen area.
Most tour operators offer a pick up service at your hotel and transfer to the harbour or even the airport, so if your itinerary solely consists of tours, you'll probably be fine. However if you'd like to go for a stroll on your own, be aware that the walk back to the hotel could potentially be a long one as there's no public transport system either.
Also, hotels in Barentsburg are significantly cheaper than hotels in Longyearbyen BUT the two towns are 30 km apart from each other and it's only possible to get there by boat in summer and snowmobile in winter - so think twice about whether or not you actually want to stay in Barentsburg.
6. Check carefully whether or not you need a visa
While anyone can visit and live in Svalbard without a visa, there are no direct flight connections to the archipelago other than from Norway and Russia. If you go directly from London to Svalbard via Oslo with Norwegian for example, that's no problem. However if you choose the SAS flight that stops in Tromsø on the way, you might need a Schengen visa and pass immigration in Oslo.
Since mainland Norway is part of the Schengen area while Svalbard is not, passport controls are frequent too. On our way from Svalbard to Tromsø, our passports were checked three times: upon check-in at the airport, upon check-in at the gate and upon arrival in Tromsø. Just a little something to be aware of.
7. The chances of seeing a polar bear are slim
Polar bear sightings are rare for tourists and since the animals are protected, there are no polar bear safaris being offered either. The animals live close to the pack ice as they hunt seals, so during peak tourist season in summer, they would reside much further north than Longyearbyen.
According to Hurtigruten Svalbard, it might be possible to spot a polar bear on a boat trip to Pyramiden early in the summer, or on snowmobile safari at the east coast in late winter.
Even though the chances of seeing one are rather slim, the danger of a polar bear attack is real and you should by no means leave town without an armed guide who knows what to do in case of a sighting.
8. Tours and activities are expensive
I've previously complained about the cost of tours in Swedish Lapland but Svalbard caps it all off. We paid 1400 NOK ($168) to visit Barentsburg on a half day trip. The same trip to Pyramiden would have cost $204, and a one day tour to see both settlements comes at the grand price of $348.
Activities within the town borders of Longyearbyen are significantly cheaper but I leave it up to you to decide whether or not $41 for a sightseeing tour, or $83 for a guided bike trip are cheap.
9. Tours depend on weather and ice conditions
Many tours are subject to weather conditions as the settlement of Pyramiden for example, can't be reached by boat if there's a lot of pack ice. Same goes for the winter - if there's a major storm, your snowmobile or dog-sledding trip might get cancelled.
While that is fair enough, most tour operators unfortunately don't reimburse the costs of the tour - nor, what's even worse, give you a heads up. Megan from Megan Starr for example, found herself trapped on the middle of the ocean on a boat trip to Pyramiden that, due to pack ice, never made it to Pyramiden. While the crew knew about the conditions beforehand, as they couldn't reach the settlement the day before either, they decided to let their guests know after departure from Longyearbyen.
In a case like this, you wouldn't just loose money, but also valuable time that you could use on an alternative trip.
We didn't choose to go to Pyramiden for (among others) exactly this reason. It was quite cold during our visit and we didn't want to take any risks and chose to visit Barentsburg (which isn't as affected by ice as Pyramiden) instead.
If you're still eager to go on the tour of your choice though, follow the ice conditions in Svalbard here and the weather forecast here - and if necessary, try to book the tour last minute. We didn't book our tours in mid-June until a week before heading to Svalbard and there were still plenty of places available. However that might not be the case if a cruise ship is in town (check that here), or simply later in the season.
10. Alcohol, food and sports clothing can be quite cheap
Now, I assumed that since accommodation and activities are so expensive in Svalbard, everything else must be too. Therefore I came prepared and literally brought tons of food and snacks to Svalbard so that we didn't have to eat out.
I was positively surprised though as most items really weren't that expensive - or even cheaper than in Tromsø! If you're not used to prices in Norway, you will most likely still find alcohol, food and clothing expensive in Svalbard, but for us coming from Tromsø, it really wasn't that bad.
We paid ca. $24 for dinner at the Coal Miner's Cabins (burger and fries/ chicken salat and baked potato - both portions were huge), as well as $10 for cocktails, which in mainland Norway, you only get a beer for.
Since Svalbard is tax free, you can also make a good bargain when buying high quality sports or winter gear.
Note however that fresh fruits and vegetables are much more expensive than on the mainland, so if you're vegan/vegetarian, you might want to bring dry food to prepare yourself.
Are you eager to learn more about Svalbard?
Stay tuned for more posts on the archipelago and click the link below for a sneak peek!
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