How to Survive a Trip to IKEA with Your Sanity (and Marriage) Intact


My love affair with IKEA first began overseas when I purchased an iconic POÄNG chair, used, for only $20. Before I moved back to America, I sold the chair, but I later found the same style and even the ottoman at Goodwill for a grand total of $14, a sure sign that the Scandinavian furniture gods were on my side.

I’ve since been to IKEA in at least half a dozen countries and twice as many stores. Our home is now full of IKEA furnishings. My favorite bathrobe is even from there. Needless to say, I’m hooked on the place. There’s something about this behemoth store that makes me want to completely redecorate my home, every time I set foot inside.

There’s also something about the store that occasionally makes me want to spit Swedish meatballs at my spouse.

One of the biggest and only arguments the Sailor and I have ever had in our nearly 11 years of marriage started in IKEA, over a bed. (The only other noteworthy disagreement involved our tiny car and massive car seat, a heavily pregnant me, and a furnace-like garage mid-summer, but I digress.) Suffice it to say, I have a love-hate relationship with IKEA, and yet I find myself yearning for those meatballs regularly.* We have been crazy enough to go there on a weekend (when everyone else within a 200 mile radius is also there) and we seem to make a habit out of stopping there after 24-hour international flights into Atlanta. There’s nothing quite like dragging your jet-lagged self and toddler through the store, then trying to shove flat-packed furniture in between suitcases.

Clearly, IKEA and my family have been through a lot together. I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Lesson 1

Before you even leave the house, measure EVERYTHING. Sure, you may have curtains you love, but I bet you’ll find ones you like even more once you get to IKEA. Measure your windows. Measure your floors in case you have to take home that rug you saw on sale. Measure the space between your bed and the wall because you don’t want to be having a discussion with your partner about whether or not that dresser will fit, while a bazillion other couples argue over the same thing right next to you.

Then measure your car. I miraculously got the frame of a double bed, plus the mattress into my aforementioned compact car. It involved an open sunroof, and my mother squashed like a bug on the inside of the windshield because her seat was so far forward to accommodate the purchases. Was it doable? Yes. Pleasant? No.

All measured? Good. Now you can begin your journey.

When you first walk into IKEA, you may think you’re in heaven. Everything is clean, spotless, new…you’ll find both family-friendly food and bathrooms (complete with complimentary diapers in case your baby has had one too many blow-outs before you finish shopping), plus nursing stations, lockers for your stuff, and even a free supervised play area for children who are between 37”-54” and potty trained.

For IKEA novices, simply follow the arrows. IKEA channels you into their showroom first, ensuring another strange phenomenon: you will suddenly feel the need to downsize to a mere 270 square feet, all because you walked through a tiny apartment on display.

Lesson 2

Resist the urge to throw items into your shopping bag at this point. If you really want to get in and out of IKEA quickly and you only want small items like dishes and towels, bypass the showroom and restaurant and head directly for the downstairs market hall. The arrows will tell you otherwise, but there is always a way to get downstairs without going through the showroom.

Yes, our home has a ridiculous amount of IKEA stuff in it.

Lesson 3

Write down everything that catches your eye on the supplied snippets of paper and pencil stub. Tape measures are also available. Keeping track of what you want to purchase is key — you’ll never find the sofa you want in the self-serve area if you don’t have the item number and where to find it. I usually take a photo of the item’s tag on my phone.

(Addendum to Lesson 2: If you want to purchase larger items you can still bypass the showroom, if you have the item number from either the website or catalogue. There are computers in the warehouse where you can check the location of your sofa.)

Once you’re through the maze of the showroom, you’re swept into the restaurant portion of the store. Thank God, because by this time you need a break.

Lesson 4

EAT. I recommend the meatballs and the chocolate cake. Kids even eat free on Tuesdays! (Although the kids’ meals are cheap, in any case.) Even if you’re not hungry, at least pause here to regroup. There’s usually a children’s area in the restaurant too.

Next, head downstairs to the market hall. All of the small stuff you saw on display can be found there. So can grumpy spouses and whiny babies. Stock up on dish towels and bath rugs, because after this trip, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to return to the store for a long time.

Exit the market hall and welcome to the self-serve area, also known as hell. All that furniture you want? Now you need to find it.

That story about our bed? It was technically ‘in stock’ but hadn’t been put onto an accessible shelf yet. Something about IKEA not being allowed to run forklifts around customers — I’m not exactly sure because the rage in my head drowned out the employee’s voice. I was also trying to stop the Sailor from either climbing the shelf or hijacking a forklift to get to the bed.

Be sure to get your kids in on the action of assembling furniture. They probably have more tools than you do.

Thankfully, IKEA delivered the item for free to us later that week, but overcharged us for bed slats, which we didn’t need. Years later, we upgraded to a bigger bed, and after putting it together, we discovered we were missing a crucial piece — the midbeam that actually supports everything.

Lesson 5

Sometimes it doesn’t all come in one box…especially beds! You often need a beam and/or slats that are in a COMPLETELY different section of the self-serve area. Triple check how many boxes you need to complete your furniture. Also double check the size of items. Some items come in multiple sizes and it’s easy to grab the wrong box. (We may or may not have driven to IKEA three times in one week because of these errors.)

Once you finally locate your items, you still need to wait in an eternal line and figure out how to get all of your purchases into your car. Rope is available for purchase if you need to strap something to your roof. Don’t forget: you still need to put together your purchases once you’re home. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Never fear, you really don’t ever have to set foot inside another store again. IKEA does offer both shipping and assembly services for a fee. But really, where’s the fun in that?

*While IKEA won’t give up their Swedish meatball recipe, Food Network has come up with a pretty tasty duplicate. No trip to IKEA required, although you may want to stock up on jars of lingonberry jam the next time you’re there. Find the recipe here.

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Brenda Steffen
I spent my twenties and a good chunk of my thirties living and working in various countries. I met and married a South African sailor and I was quite content to keep traveling without kids. We landed in Chattanooga in 2013 and our son arrived over the summer of 2014. We haven’t really slept since. Sometimes jet-lag gets the blame. Or Daylight Savings, or even a good book. Usually though, it’s the Peanut. You can often find me charged up on caffeine, chasing after my son at Coolidge Park, the zoo or the library. You can also find me online on my blog.