After we returned home, I polled my friends for advice they’d give travelers planning to visit Iceland. I had no idea what I’d get, but they made some really good points, so I compiled them for this post. I hope you’ll find them helpful!
Recap: In October 2016, I organized a 10-day trip to Iceland with my women’s hockey team. The first half was a road trip around southern Iceland, from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón and back. We spent the remainder of our time exploring Reykjavik and playing in a tournament. Be sure to check out Part 1: In Love with Iceland, Part 2: Iceland Favorites: Þórsmörk and Jökulsárlón, Part 4: Skal! Sampling Iceland’s Craft Beer, and Part 5: Wandering Reykjavik of the In Love with Iceland series as well!
WISDOM FROM THE CROWD
I was please to hear that in general, everyone felt well prepared for the trip. In their responses, my friends assured me that everything had gone perfectly. However, they also said they would want anyone thinking about traveling to Iceland to take certain pieces of advice very seriously. The top suggestions were
- Be prepared to dress for the weather
- Expect to pay a lot for food and drink
- Hike as much as you can
Below I’ll build on these points, based on tips we received before going and what we learned while traveling.
THERE’S NO BAD TIME TO VISIT ICELAND
… especially if you’re prepared for the weather (see my next point). I was a bit worried that we’d be limited in what we could do in October, since it’s sort of between the summer and winter seasons. However, there are plenty of year-round activities, especially in (but certainly not limited to) the south and southwest. The puffins and whales are gone by October, some campgrounds are already closed, and some winter attractions like the ice caves aren’t accessible yet, but you still have plenty of options.
DRESS FOR WEATHER AND WATERFALLS
Iceland is a magical country, even when, as one friend said, it’s ’“dumping rain.” If you’re worried about getting wet, you won’t have as much fun, so it’s best to be prepared. An Irish couple I met along the way compared Iceland to their homeland and advised, “If you wait for better weather, you’ll never do anything.”
It’s not just the weather you need to consider, however. Waterfalls might look neatly contained from a distance, but they have a way of soaking anyone who gets close, especially if it’s windy. Furthermore, some spectacular canyons and ravines are accessible only by following their rivers, and hopping from stone to stone doesn’t always ensure your feet will stay dry.
Some of that trip would have been pretty miserable without the right layers and rain gear.
So bring your all-weather waterproof layers (layers, layers, layers!) and soak up (pun intended) every experience you can. At the very least, choose fabrics that repel water or dry quickly; I think we can all agree that wet jeans feel awful. Even if you plan to stick to the Golden Circle, you’ll be glad for rain gear or quick-dry clothes if you want to get up close to the waterfalls.
The same goes for your shoes and socks. Wool socks keep your feet warm even when wet. For boots, I wore heavy-duty, water-resistant, ankle-high hikers, and I generally don’t mind getting my feet wet. However, it might have been nice to have higher waterproof boots, especially so I could have explored the floor of Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. Also make sure you have good treads on your boots. In any case, leave the gym shoes for your urban exploration.
BUDGET FOR FOOD
Even if you are prepared for it to be expensive you don’t really get it until you’re there.
No Iceland advice post is complete without a nod to the high food prices. If you’re not specifically a culinary tourist, you’d best keep an eye on your food budget. Reykjavik has plenty of food in a range of prices, but your options will be more limited on the road, often with a choice between gas station fast food or hotel sit-down meals.
You can mitigate costs by eating a hearty breakfast (often included in hotel fees) and stocking up on snacks and picnic foods at grocery stores. Just don’t cheat yourself out of some great local dining experiences, especially if you like lamb, fish, or lobster (langoustine). Meals can cost upward of $25 (~3.000 ISK) even at cheaper restaurants.
However, take heart that you won’t be paying tax and tip on top of those prices. It’s still pricey but not as far out of bounds as you might initially think.
Gas stations may actually have some good food; fast food in Iceland seems to prepared to a standard higher than what we’re used to in the US. We had some great lamb-burgers at the gas station across from Hotel Skaftafell; the special included fries and a drink as well. At about $13 (~1.500 ISK), this is a pretty good deal, relatively speaking. Hot dog stands and other street food in Reykjavik are another way to get a hot, lower-priced, tasty meal, and they’re open late.
RETHINK YOUR DRINK
It’s true, drinking in Iceland is shockingly expensive. A good beer could set you back at least $8-10 (1.000 – 1.200+ ISK), cocktails even more. The standard advice is to stock up on alcoholic beverages at Duty Free when you arrive. You can replenish your supply at the state-run liquor stores called Vínbúðin. In most places, they close at 6 pm (18:00) but near larger cities, they may be open longer.
If you’re looking for the most economical way to get a buzz, then pregaming with your Duty Free or Vínbúðin stash is solid advice. However, I wouldn’t suggest this as your sole drinking strategy because then you might miss out on some great bars, interesting conversations, or the chance to try some local beers available only on tap. We also had some amazing(ly expensive) cocktails at Apotek (Reykjavik) that I do not regret one bit.
Many bars also have happy hour specials, which might last until 6 or 7 pm (18:00 or 19:00), but be sure to pace yourself, since the real party doesn’t start until the wee hours on weekends.
CHOOSE TOURS AND PACKAGES CAREFULLY
Reykjavik is a great jumping-off point for lots of day (and night) tours. These can be pricey, but they can also provide access to things you can’t do yourself, so definitely choose carefully.
For example, Northern Lights tours might cost you $70 (~8.000 ISK) or more, but they definitely increase your chances of seeing the aurora, especially if you’re in the country for only a short time. Of my friends, the only people who got good view of the Northern Lights were those who took a tour or stayed in Iceland for several weeks.
Many day tours give you the option for hotel pick up or self-drive. Depending on how many people are in your group, it might be cheaper to rent a car than to pay the transfer fee for everyone. It’s also a good idea to skip the tour bus and do a self-drive if you’re planning to do the Golden Circle route. This gives you more flexibility, and you might encounter smaller crowds if you leave early. We were on the road by 9 am and seemed to be just ahead of some large bus groups.
Many tour companies offer lots of different packages for travel around Iceland. We booked a self-drive package, which gave us a better deal on the hotels and rental cars than I would have gotten for myself. Since we weren’t particular about the hotels (other than a desire for private baths), they did the legwork for us. All of the hotels were clean, cozy, and comfortable. This was especially convenient because we needed 7 rooms at a different hotel each night.
IT’S OK TO LIKE THE BLUE LAGOON
I know many people say the Blue Lagoon is too touristy, but we really enjoyed it. It was a great way to relax and recover after our flight, before we could check into our hotel. Go early to avoid crowds. However, you won’t get the real Iceland experience unless you check out some of the other swimming pools and hot springs.
RENT A WIFI HOTSPOT
My friend’s boss recommended renting WiFi hotspots; we got one for each of our cars. You can get unlimited data for as little as $10 a day (plus a return-by-post fee) from Trawire, and you can connect up to 10 devices to each HOTSPOT. Reception was generally good along our entire route, so we were able to use Google Maps. (However, navigation isn’t very difficult since there are so few roads). It was nice to be connected so we could post pictures, stay in touch back home, and communicate across cars via WhatsApp. The lasting benefit is that our Iceland WhatsApp group continues to keep us connected long after our return home.
GET OFF THE RING ROAD
Though the Golden Circle and ring road (Route 1) offer stunning stops around every bend, it’s worth it to sacrifice a few check-box items in order to get off the main path for a little while. You don’t have to make a stop at every waterfall or rock formation.
Though we were limited by group size, amount of time, and season, we made it a point to take some detours so we could visit some less-crowded places. These included a guided excursion to Thórsmörk (you need a specially equipped vehicle) and visits to Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon and Ölvisholt brewery (accessible by gravel road). Just make sure you rent a car that you can drive on F roads and that your insurance covers gravel and horse (yes, horse) damage.
Though it’s required that you stay on marked paths to maintain the fragile landscape, Iceland has so many paths, you don’t have to restrict yourself to the ring road’s easiest photo stops.
EARN YOUR SCENIC PAYOFFS
Definitely get in as much hiking as you can. As I mentioned above, you don’t have to stop at every waterfall along the way, even though each one is more breathtaking than the next. I’d advise picking a few and spending more time at each one. If you’re physically able, don’t be afraid to put in a little effort for the payoff.
While I would not have wanted to miss Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss (especially cave behind it), hiking to Svartifoss and Nauthsagil’s waterfalls felt quite a bit more rewarding, and we had them nearly all to ourselves. I wish we’d had time to check out Gljúfrabúi Waterfall, just up the road from Seljalandsfoss as well.
This isn’t just true for waterfalls. Iceland has lots of great sights that take a little work to reach. If we had even a few more days, I would have added hikes to the Sólheimasandur plane crash site, Seljavallalaug pool, or one of the glaciers. I would also have liked to do the 55 km trek between Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar. And let’s not even talk about all the amazing places in the north. But let’s not get completely carried away.
Anyway, the point is, you have to make some tough choices. I’d recommend taking your time and not just picking the low-hanging fruit.
BE A GOOD GUEST
Finally, If you’re considering a trip to Iceland, be aware that the country is already experiencing some stresses of over-tourism. I say this not to be dissuade you from going, but to encourage you to go mindfully. Take care to respect the landscape, the environment, and your Icelandic hosts. (Skift and The New York Times recently published great in-depth articles about the effects of tourism’s rapid growth in Iceland.)
What are your Iceland travel tips? What do you wish you had known before you went?
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12/16/2016 Update: My teammate and travel buddy Shanon shared some of her own tips and experiences; what she sent me was so good, I turned it into a post: Iceland Travel Tips, Part 2.
If you liked this post, be sure to check out Part 1: In Love with Iceland, Part 2: Iceland Favorites: Þórsmörk and Jökulsárlón, Part 4: Skal! Sampling Iceland’s Craft Beer, and Part 5: Wandering Reykjavik of the In Love with Iceland series as well!
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