Picturesque village

How to plan a self-guided tour of Scandinavia

While there are plenty of ways to see the highlights of Scandinavia, a road trip is hard to beat. Drivers can get off the beaten path and enjoy breathtaking viewpoints, small villages, scenic drives and much more away from the crowds of tourist hotspots.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all great road trip destinations for different reasons.

From quaint fjord villages to mountain lookouts, some of Norway’s most scenic spots are only accessible by your own means of transport. Denmark’s flat terrain and direct roads mean getting around by car is a breeze, while the rural lakes of southern and central Sweden are ideal for exploration by road.

Many tour operators sell self-drive packages that include the cost of car rental, ferry tickets, insurance and accommodation along a pre-determined route. While fine for some travelers, you’ll pay more for the convenience and have far less flexibility for last-minute plan changes.

If you have the time to plan your own trip, here are some tips to make the most of your time and money.

Combine all three countries in one trip

It is not difficult to combine the three Scandinavian countries in one itinerary. Driving in Denmark, Norway and Sweden is generally easy, although inexperienced drivers should be more careful in smaller towns and villages where locals will assume knowledge of the road.

Border crossings are straightforward and in many cases you will continue straight ahead. Just be sure to check with your rental car provider that international travel is permitted.

As all three countries are on the way to becoming cashless societies, you don’t have to worry about exchanging money multiple times. As long as you have a debit card, credit card, or mobile payment system that works internationally, you’ll be fine.

However, just because you can include all three countries in your itinerary doesn’t mean you should!

Take your time

When planning a travel itinerary, it can be tempting to cram in as many must-see sites as possible. Although you should plan your trip around certain highlights and your accommodation options, allow time to make decisions on the day.

Spending two or more consecutive nights in the same accommodation is a good idea so you can explore the area without the constant stress of getting to the next stop on time.

Even on shorter routes like in the Norwegian fjords, allow extra time between stops. If a map suggests three hours, plan for four or five hours. You’ll almost certainly find the perfect spot for a photo or a picnic, or a village you want to explore.

Arrange ferries

It is difficult to avoid car ferry crossings in Scandinavia, especially in the Norwegian fjord region. Even if you’re not used to them, there’s no need to worry or plan to avoid them. They provide a natural break from driving and the ability to have a coffee, snack and restroom break.

Google Maps is excellent for identifying ferry crossings when planning a trip. While ferries on major routes such as the E39 in Norway are very regular, ferries on more remote routes are less frequent, especially at weekends and in the evenings. It’s a good idea to print out the ferry times ahead of time so you’re not surprised by a long wait.

Advance booking is a wise decision on popular ferries such as Bodø to Lofoten, while essential on longer ferries between countries. Although this removes flexibility, it ensures that you will get where you want to go.

Save money on a road trip

If cost is an issue, consider exploring Norway by train instead. A trip on the Oslo-Bergen line will give you time to explore Norway’s two largest cities and offer fantastic views of the Hardangervidda plateau mountains.

The optional Flåm Railway is an attraction in itself and provides access to the scenic Aurlandsfjord. Combine that with a road trip to Sweden and/or Denmark and you have the ingredients for a memorable trip.

When traveling by car, plan your route to start and end in the same place. Although one-way car hire is available with most companies, you will pay dearly for the privilege.

Also consider choosing a smaller car. If your trip is in the summer, you won’t need an all-terrain vehicle. The demand for a hybrid car can also save significant amounts of fuel, without having to seek out electric car charging stations, which can see long queues in the summer.

Road trip routes in Scandinavia

With all of these tips in mind, creating your ideal road trip itinerary can still be a stressful experience. But there is no reason to start from scratch. Many others have been there, done it and written about it.

First, check out some of the self-guided tours offered by tour operators. They may not give you the full itinerary without a reservation, but their tour descriptions will give you a great starting point to start building your own.

Many travel bloggers have also covered their road trips in detail. This 9-day trip begins in Gothenburg, Sweden and focuses on the Norwegian fjord region before incorporating an overnight ferry to Denmark. This 14-day trip includes flights, ferries and trains, but is a good starting point for a longer journey.

Rick Steves offers several options depending on how much time you have, starting with the Scandinavian capitals and then expanding to include the Norwegian fjords and beyond.