There's nothing like writing with a fountain pen, and while they can be expensive, you don't have to spend a ton of money to own one. For less than $50, you can have a refillable pen perfect for art, journaling, or taking notes in style. Let's look at two of the best, most accessible budget options you can buy.
Of course, these may not count as "budget" when you can go buy a pack of pens from the grocery store for a few bucks, but considering high-end pens, both fountain and gel, can quickly escalate well past this mark in price, these are pretty good, price-wise. Here are our contenders:
- Lamy Safari: The Lamy Safari is well-loved, well-regarded and for many people, the gateway to the world of high-end, fancy pens that are fun to write with. The solid colour, ABS plastic body, and metal clip design is timeless and modern looking but hasn't changed in ages. By default, the Safari uses refillable cartridges, but if you like, you can buy a converter to use bottled ink. Similarly, the nibs on the Safari are swappable and customisable, so you can choose thicker or thinner ones depending on your preference, or if you happen to wear one out. Plus, they're available in a rainbow of colours, so you can pick one to match your style. If you're interested, they run around $40, with the colours coming in a little less.
- Pilot Metropolitan: If you want to get into fountain pens, but you're looking for probably the best bang for the buck, the Pilot Metropolitan is where it's at. By default, the Metropolitan (or the MR, as it's known in Europe, available in both the "Metropolitan" collection and the "Animal" collection, the latter of which has animal prints or textures on the body) offers finer, thinner Japanese nibs than many other fountain pens, which may be nice for beginners looking for something more like what they're used to. If you do want a wider nib, you can change them out with other Pilot fountain models, and the Metropolitan comes with a converter to use bottled ink over the included cartridges. Best of all, they will only set you back around $40; the same as the Lamy Safari.
If you're the type of person who loves taking notes by hand, journaling in your own words, or just working with paper and paper notes, a good fountain pen just feels elegant and adds a personal touch to hand-written letters, birthday or holiday cards, or anything else you write. If you're the "free pen I got at work" type, well, obviously this showdown isn't for you.
Comfort and Ink Quality
One of the biggest selling points of the Lamy Safari is that its contoured grip design may look uncomfortable at first, but once you get used to using it, it actually encourages you to hold the pen so your hand is in the right position to write with the fountain nib. I'm left handed, and even I've found this to be true. It can be uncomfortable at times, but you do get used to it pretty quickly, and the results are worth using it the right way. Ink flows smoothly and there's an ink window so you can see how much is left before you need to refill or pop in a new cartridge. If you do want to use the Safari with bottled ink though, you'll need to buy a converter for it, which is only a few bucks, but does represent an added cost, even though it's the more expensive pen in the running here.
By contrast, the Pilot Metropolitan is a bit more of a standard-looking "pen," and grips like one. It's not flashy or stylised, which is both a pro and a con in my book. It's not fancy-looking or anything, but that also means you don't have an obviously pricey fountain pen sitting around for someone to "borrow" and never give back (I see you, pen thieves.) You also don't pay a ton of money for it, so on one level you get what you pay for. On another, it's still well constructed, and I don't want to emphasise otherwise. The Metropolitan uses PIlot's proprietary cartridges, but it does come with a converter that lets you use bottled ink, which is a nice gimme right out of the box -- no extra purchases required.
Beyond the differences in grip and design, however, the Safari and the Metropolitan both glide across the page and are a lot of fun to write with. The Japanese nibs on the Metropolitan will appeal to people who enjoy thinner, more precise lettering, over the medium-thick nibs included with the Safari, and to that point the Metropolitan is probably a little easier to work with and master if you're not familiar with a fountain pen.
Personally, I tend to prefer the heavier weight of the Safari, but it's a decision you have to make. If you have a current pen now with a heavy writing weight, say 0.7mm or higher, and think "yeah, that's the way I like to write," you'll prefer the Metropolitan out of the box. If you prefer thinner, finer lines, like a 0.5mm or lower, you'll probably prefer the Safari. That all said, replacing nibs is easy on both pens, and there are nibs with different weights available. To that point though, replacing nibs and cartridges on either pen is very easy.
Refillability and Refill Prices
If you'd like to change up your writing experience, both the Pilot Metropolitan and the Lamy Safari can be refilled with various ink types and writing nibs, within a degree. The Metropolitan can be refilled with Pilot's own proprietary ink, or once you use the converter, can be refilled with any array of bottled ink -- which gives you more flexibility over the type, colour, and style of ink you use with your pen. Similarly, the Metropolitan is compatible with nibs for a few of Pilot's other pens, like the Pilot Penmanship and the Pilot Numix, but you can check out all of the compatible inks and nibs at JetPens here.
With the Lamy Safari, on the other hand, if you buy the converter, you'll have the same ink and refill flexibility. When it comes to nibs however, you have way more options, including nibs with different weights designed specifically for the Safari. You can check out the full line at Jetpens here, including nibs specifically for calligraphy or broad or fine nibs for writing.
All in all, you'll spend the same amount of money to refill these pens, although we're starting to see a bit of a trend. The Safari offers more flexibility and customisation options, but it's more expensive. The Metropolitan, on the other hand, offers fewer customisation options in terms of nibs, but the ink refills are cheaper, and since the refill converter is included, bottled inks are just a purchase away, and will save you money in the long run over pre-packaged cartridges -- which is especially useful considering Pilot's proprietary cartridges.
At the end of the day, whether you've never owned a fountain pen or have one you adore, you can't go wrong with either of these. The Metropolitan makes for a great, budget-friendly travel companion that you might be a little bummed if you lose, but it won't be the end of the world. The Safari is a ton of fun to use, looks great and opens the door to a world of unique and interesting writing implements, so if you're ready to fall in love with the world of special, fancy, beautiful pens, the Safari is your gateway to it.
There's no disputing that the Metropolitan is probably your long-term money-saver though. Including the refill converter means that even if you feel like you've "graduated" to pricier, more enthusiast-friendly pens, you can still fill it with your favourite ink or a different colour of ink, and get some use out of it without spending a ton of money on cartridges or buying a bunch of refills of ink you don't really like.
However, speaking of graduating to different, more enthusiast-friendly writing utensils, the Safari is the option with tons of nibs, ink options, colours, and third-party tweaks. If you want your pen to be more of an investment, or you want to try it out and have the freedom to customise your pen to suit your writing style, the Safari can't be beat.
For the layperson just getting into all this though, both pens are pretty affordable, and you'll probably be fine with the cartridges and nibs out of the box. Pick the one that appeals to you the most. Personally, I'd swing for the Lamy Safari -- I feel like it has more customisation options and that it grew with me as I learned more about fountain pens and got into the world of writing instruments beyond that department store blister pack of rollerballs (that I still keep, just in case someone needs to borrow a pen.) That doesn't mean I don't pack a Metropolitan when I leave home though -- just in case I forget it in a hotel room somewhere.