The Swedish secret to the perfectly balanced vacation

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Getting your Goldilocks on can help you restore a sense of spontaneity to your travels without hitting a wall.

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Key takeaways

Summary is AI-generated, newsroom-reviewed.

  • “Lagom” is gaining steam as a mind-set that can be applied to travel.
  • It’s Swedish for “not too much, not too little.”
  • It emphasizes having balance, avoiding stress, packing light and taking breaks (“fika”).

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If you’re the planning type, your vacations may begin to feel so structured that you need a do-nothing holiday by the time you return. Sound familiar? It may be time to consider the Swedish practice of “lagom.”

The word, pronounced lah-gom, means “not too much, not too little.” When applied to a trip, it means striking the ideal balance of exercise, adventure, food and relaxation.

Remember the coziness craze inspired by the Danish concept of “hygge”? Similarly, lagom has been practiced for generations but is now gaining steam worldwide. Lagom is an overarching mind-set that applies to balancing all aspects of life, but it is ideal for travel.

Helen Russell, journalist and author of “The Atlas of Happiness: The Global Secrets of How to Be Happy,” says that the word “lagom” derives from the Swedish word “lag,” or “team,” and that Swedish folklore suggests that “laget om” — or “around the team” — was a phrase Vikings used to make sure everyone got their fair share when a horn full of mead was passed around.

There’s no exact science or recipe to lagom; it varies by each individual’s own balance. Lola Akinmade Åkerström, travel photographer and author of the book “Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well,” says to think of lagom as an internal scale that must always stay balanced. Too much or too little of any one thing stresses the scale.

“Lagom actually means the optimal (not best) solution for maintaining balance and removing stress within your control,” she says. “As a personal ethos, it’s trying to help you live a sustainable life you can comfortably maintain.”

This means that lagom can be as simple as the “just-right” amount of salt in your soup or an entire idea such as eschewing bigger and better. Here are a few practical ways to fold lagom into your travel plans.

Start with a declutter

I grew up in a Southern household devoted to maximalism, so every suitcase-packing session ended with a good sit-and-zip because you never knew when you’d need a silk caftan and feather fascinator. But packing items you don’t need is the antithesis of lagom. Clutter can make a person anxious. Packing light (but smart), as with a travel uniform, better suits lagom travel.

My husband once told me that I have an otherworldly talent of turning our hotel room into a disaster zone in a matter of seconds. But with the practice of lagom, I now spend five minutes organizing my belongings and there’s an instant sense of calm in a new environment.

Akinmade Åkerström says that while traveling, you want to think simple, practical and sturdy, “from the gear you pack, so it lasts for a long time, to the activities you engage in.”

Pause for fika

In Sweden, “fika” is loosely defined as a practice to stop and recharge. And while Swedes do this on a daily basis, a vacation is the perfect time to dip your toe into the concept.

“This social act is often translated as taking a break several times during the day to socialize with friends, loved ones and colleagues over cups of coffee and pastries like cinnamon buns,” Akinmade Åkerström says.

“The unspoken reason why we fika is to center and reconnect with ourselves.”

Fika means swapping your order-ahead Starbucks latte for a sit-and-chat over a drink in a real mug. For solo travelers, it’s a fine time to people-watch in a new environment.

In its simplest form, fika is about recharging — perhaps by sitting for half an hour to rest your tired feet, or taking a refreshing nap before your next tour.

Read also:
27 little travel luxuries to make any trip feel first class

Leave room for spontaneity

Confession: I used to rely heavily on my No-Fun-Type-A Travel Planning Document, a spreadsheet that documented down-to-the-minute plans for every single day of our vacation. A sample:

  • 6 a.m. Wake up everyone!
  • 6:30 a.m. Please shove breakfast in your face, and make it snappy.
  • 6:35 a.m. Leave hotel for a must-do tour. (Don’t be late!)
  • Noon: Exhausted, but who cares because we have coveted restaurant lunch reservations!
  • 3 p.m. Not hungry? It doesn’t matter — we have a food tour on tap.
  • 4 p.m. Wanna nap? Too bad, it’s museum time.
  • 5 p.m. Happy hour? What’s that? No one here is happy.

I’ve since pared down my planning to a skeletal version that contains important details and a few plans but also some room for relaxation or spontaneity.

My husband and I have adopted a new acronym that fits with lagom travel: T-WOO, for “The world is our oyster.” In other words, no plans!

This approach has led to glorious days spent zooming around Laos on a motorbike, stumbling upon perfectly briny oysters near a peat-fed stove in Ireland, and making a last-minute decision to drive the Mississippi Blues Trail and finding live music in a smoky juke joint.

Spread out the indulgences

I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of times I’ve overeaten (and over-imbibed) on vacation. I wish I could turn back the clock and tell 21-year-old me that “all-you-can-drink mimosas” doesn’t mean you actually have to drink all the mimosas.

With lagom, the idea is to savor. Swedes have a diet rich in whole grains, lean proteins, veggies and berries — but they also have a serious sweet tooth (as in those beloved cinnamon buns for fika).

So eat the rich dessert and drink the beautifully made cocktail or mocktail, but do so with a sense of balance. For me, this means putting the brakes on at the breakfast buffet so that I can splurge on the multicourse prix fixe dinner.

Exercise — but also rest

I’ve always envied a skier’s vacation that includes a vigorous day of swooshing down the slopes and then the reward of an après-ski hot toddy and a warm soak.

Lagom allows you to forgo the hotel gym and instead enjoy the offerings of your destination. I like to think of it as making exercise local: a jog along the sea in San Juan, Puerto Rico; a hike in a Swiss forest; a bike ride in Amsterdam.

Aside from T-WOO, Russell suggests we embrace the letters WWASD: What Would a Swede Do? In short: Be mindful of biting off more than you can chew.

“To vacation like a Viking, lagom-style, think WWASD — is your cup really half-empty, or is there, in fact, just enough?” Russell says.

Anne Roderique-Jones is a travel writer who splits her time between New York and New Orleans. You can follow her on Instagram: @anniemarie_.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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