Most travelers encounter few difficulties in Sweden, finding it a place that welcomes visitors from other countries.
An easy country to travel in, Sweden has well-functioning public transportation, a high level of safety and a population that for the most part speaks English very well. Still, there are certain things to be aware of that will help your trip go as smoothly as possible. Read on for things you should know before you travel, so that your Swedish experience will live up to expectations, and be one you’ll remember for all the right reasons.
Planning your trip to Sweden
Figure out where to lay your head
If you want to get the best deals on accommodations in Sweden, you’ll need to book ahead, especially if you’re visiting at a busy time of year. Reliable hotel chains with hotels throughout Sweden include Scandic, Nordic Choice Hotels, Radisson and Best Western; there are also many independent hotels, some of them simpler properties with shared bathrooms, that may be worth considering if you want to save a bit of money.
A diverse range of hostels provide some of the most budget-friendly accommodations in Sweden, often in very appealing locations. Be aware that hostel guests are often expected to bring their own bed linens or pay an extra fee to rent them. Sleeping bags are not permitted.
Sorry we’re closed: avoiding disappointment
While many attractions, restaurants and shops in major cities generally keep fairly consistent hours throughout the year, some tourist businesses, including sightseeing cruises and certain attractions, are more seasonal, with opening hours tailored to the traditional Swedish summer holiday period from Midsummer to mid-August.
On the flip side, some restaurants have been known to close for up to six weeks in summer while staff go on vacation. Many museums are open daily during the summer high season but switch to a six-day opening schedule in the off season, typically with Monday as the closed day. If you have your heart set on a particular activity or attraction, do your homework and check opening dates and times before booking your trip.
Cash is not king
Sweden has been moving steadily away from cash for years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this already strong trend. While it’s helpful to carry some cash for emergencies, you can basically expect to rely on your credit or debit card for most transactions. Some places, including public transportation, no longer accept cash at all. If you have a contactless card, you can usually just tap it to pay, but if your card doesn’t have that option, you’ll generally need to be prepared to enter a PIN or show ID to complete your transaction.
You can ride the rails without spending a fortune
Train tickets in Sweden are available in both first and second class, with prices varying between different departures, so book well in advance for the best selection. The website of the Swedish national railway company, SJ, lists fares for both its own trains and routes operated by regional partners throughout the country.
If you’re planning to do a lot of rail travel, an Interrail or Eurail train pass is a good way to save money. You can purchase a pass online (Interrail if you live in Europe; Eurail if you live elsewhere), but be sure to order with enough time to receive the pass before your departure. For many trains, you’ll need to book a seat or sleeping compartment separately if you are using a rail pass.
Take to the road and avoid speeding tickets
Sweden’s roads are safe, well-maintained and, more often than not, scenic, but renting a car is expensive, as is fuel. As in any destination, booking well in advance and comparing various rental agencies is essential to get the best rate. If you don’t need to pick up your car at an airport, consider local agencies or even Circle K gas stations, which rent out cars and may have lower rates.
As you’re driving around Sweden, keep a watchful eye out for blue signs with a white symbol of a video camera, which warn of speed cameras ahead. If you are caught speeding, the police will eventually track you down and send you a bill.
Etiquette in Sweden
Small talk, what’s that?
A saying goes that Swedes are great friends, but poor strangers. Swedes are generally helpful and welcoming to tourists, but you’ll rarely find them engaging in small talk with people they don’t know. For visitors from more gregarious cultures, it can feel strange or uncomfortable to be waiting at a bus stop with a group of people who are all ignoring each other, or having someone avoid eye contact as they pass you on the street. Don’t take it personally. If you’re in Sweden long term, seeking out clubs and activities around a common interest can help break the ice. Once you do, you’ll find most Swedes to be warm, loyal friends.
Don’t be early, don’t be late
If you’re scheduled to meet with someone or invited to a private home, the time listed is when you’re expected to arrive. What might be considered fashionably late in other cultures is considered rude in Sweden. Likewise, arriving early may be awkward for your host and should be avoided. It’s also considered good form to bring a host gift along the lines of flowers, a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates. If you choose to bring wine, you’ll need to pop into the nearest Systembolaget outlet: Sweden’s state-run liquor stores are the only places where you can buy beverages with more than 3.5-percent alcohol content. Note that all Systembolaget stores are closed on Sundays.
Dress up to go out, down for work
In many countries, people dress up for work and more casually to go out. In Sweden, it’s often the opposite. You’ll see business people in meetings wearing jeans and a blazer, with people dressed to the nines to go out for drinks or dinner. In general, smart-casual dress without ostentation will do fine in most situations. You must be 18 or older to order alcoholic drinks at bars and restaurants, but at least 20 to shop at Systembolaget.
To tip or not to tip: it’s okay either way
The custom of tipping is much less established in Sweden than in many other countries, so for the most part you can expect to pay pretty much whatever is on the bill. If you’re eating out, it’s common to round up to the nearest big number to show your server some appreciation; if you choose not to tip, you’re unlikely to offend. For taxi fares it’s courteous to add a few kronor to round up; if you’re traveling with luggage a bit extra is appreciated, though not expected. It’s not necessary to tip for housekeeping and other services at hotels.
Take a number: how to queue in Sweden
Whether you’re waiting at the bank, a ticket office or the supermarket deli counter, the first thing you should do is look around for a ticket machine. The majority of queues in Sweden operate on a number system, so take a ticket and find somewhere to wait where you can see the display that indicates when your number is up and which counter you should go to. Sometimes there’s more than one number sequence in play for different types of services, so if you see multiple options on the ticket machine and can’t figure out which one applies to you, it’s best to ask someone for assistance before you waste time waiting in the wrong queue.
Health and safety in Sweden
Stay safe in the urban jungle and the wild outdoors
Sweden is a very safe country, but as in any destination you should keep a watchful eye on your belongings, as pickpocketing does occur. Make sure to store valuables in your hotel safe, if there is one, or keep them locked in your luggage while you’re out and about. If you’re staying in hostels, bring a padlock so you can store things safely in a locker. Be aware of your surroundings and try to stick to well-lit areas after dark. The chances of something bad happening are small, but it’s always best not to tempt fate.
If you’re heading into nature, make sure you’re adequately prepared – Sweden’s wild landscapes are gorgeous, but if something goes wrong, you may be a long way from help. Unless you’ve got wilderness experience, a guided tour is your best option for outdoor activities in remote areas.
Help, I need a doctor!
If you get sick or injured while in Sweden, never fear. The country’s healthcare system is top-notch, but figuring out how to access it as a visitor can be confusing. If you have a health insurance card from another European Economic Area (EEA) country, you’re eligible to receive care on the same terms as Swedes. If you’re from anywhere else, you’ll typically need to pay the full cost, so it’s important to have a decent travel insurance policy just in case.
If you need health care while in Sweden and are unsure of what to do, dial the national hotline 1177 for assistance. In case of an emergency requiring immediate attention, call 112.
Watch out! Two-wheeled hazards are everywhere
Sweden is a pedestrian-friendly country, but you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for two-wheeled transport. Don’t jaywalk, and never step into a dedicated bike lane without first looking in both directions; if you do, you’re risking life and limb, since cars and cyclists won’t be prepared to stop. Watch your feet as well – in recent years, electric scooters have proliferated in cities and are often left haphazardly in places where they pose an obstacle to pedestrians.
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