Your trip to Iceland will be epic. And, I don’t use that word lightly. I believe that because I just returned from my own epic Iceland adventure! And I also returned wiser. There are a few things you can be aware of that will make your trip even that much better!
This Iceland travel guide is stocked with helpful information to: 1) Provide tips for making the most of your trip and 2) Set expectations so you know what you’re getting into.
First, let’s get you excited!
Here are 5 awesome things about Iceland. This is based off my experience visiting Iceland in the month of October.
- Rainbows – We saw so many I can’t even count. Like, sometimes 4 in one hour.
- Cute horses – Literally everywhere.
- Waterfalls – Again, literally everywhere.
- Northern lights – Yep, we saw them! Not a guarantee, but we got 2 nights’ worth!
- Alien landscapes – Everywhere you look it feels like you could be on another plant.
A few more:
Geysers, glaciers, volcanos, mountains, oceans, raging rapids, meadows, lagoons, black sand beaches, fall foliage, flowers, hot springs.
Ok, so now let’s get to practical stuff. It’s not all rainbows and ponies. (Well, actually yes it is, but still this is helpful…)
Tips for your trip
- Rent a car and do a self-drive tour – While the weather at times may be tricky, for the most part the roads are really good and it’s hard to get lost as there is one major road (Ring Road) that circles the island. Download Google Maps so you have a version that doesn’t require internet and you can map to different attractions and to your hotels. Additionally, ask the car rental company if you need to get gravel insurance. We used Thrifty (picked up at Keflavik airport) and they were great! Note that not all car rental agencies have airport desks, so if you want to pick up and drop off at the airport, make sure you choose a company that is there.
- Take out some Icelandic kroner so you have some cash on hand – For the most part, you should be able to use a credit card most places but have some cash on hand just in case to pay for parking at the attractions and have a way to make a purchase if needed. There are ATMs in the airport. This is the best way and will get you the best exchange rate.
- Paying for gas – Iceland, like all of Scandinavia, uses “chip and pin” technology in their credit cards. In the USA, we use “chip and signature” credit cards. They are different. The gas stations require you to have a pin number to pump gas so make sure you take your debit card. Even if your credit card gives you a pin number, it doesn’t always work because it is a different transaction technology. The gas station we went to did not accept cash and using our debit card was the only way we could pay that was accepted by the machine. Test out getting gas before you are down to the wire just in case you have issues. You can also buy N1 gas station gift cards which should work as well. (N1 is a major gas station chain in Iceland).
- Photographing the Northern Lights- What many people don’t know is that you can’t just take photos of the Northern Lights with your iPhone and have them come out like the photos you see on Instagram. The good photos of the aurora are taken with a tripod and a long-exposure camera. What that means is the shutter stays open for a long period of time to let in lots of light which is what gives the photos that beautiful bright green glow. You need the tripod because the camera must be very still while the shutter is open otherwise you’ll have a blurry photo. Without a camera with a long-exposure capability, it’s likely you won’t even be able to capture them on camera, so if this is something you will want to try to do, be prepared with the right equipment!
- Do the Golden Circle in reverse – The Golden Circle is a route outside of Reykjavik filled with awesome attractions such as waterfalls, geysers and national parks. Because it is so close to the city, however, it also gets crowded. A lot of tour buses do this route and take it clockwise around the “circle.” We did it counter-clockwise and in the beginning and end of the route, the crowds were thin, which was better for us! For tips on what to do including but also beyond the Golden Circle, check out What to see in Iceland: 5 Day Itinerary.
- Head to Blue Lagoon after you land – There are mixed reviews on the Blue Lagoon. What you need to know is that it is a man-made spa but it is using water that naturally was infused with silica, which gives it its ethereal and beautiful reflective properties that make it appear blue. But, regardless of if it’s man-made, I thought it was awesome! It’s only a 20 minute drive from the airport, so it’s perfect to get off the plane and head straight there. Because there are locker rooms and showers, you can freshen up after your dip and then continue on with sightseeing. For more information to prep for your trip to Blue Lagoon, read on here.
- Pack right! Iceland’s weather is interesting to say the least and you’ll thank me later when you’ve brought all the right clothes and accessories to make the most of you trip. Make sure to read my ultimate packing list.
Expectation Setting for Iceland
You will enjoy Iceland all that much more if you have your expectations set around a few things so you are mentally (and physically) prepared! No matter what this list looks like, I promise you this place is so amazing it is worth it!!
- Iceland is expensive. This is very true. A burger and a beer could be $30-$40. A cocktail can be $20+. A very basic hotel room can run $150+/night. But, one way to look at it is that you’re there to see beautiful nature and that is free. You will walk away from some of the most amazing things you’ve ever seen and you will feel that you gladly would have paid to have seen it, so the fact that you’re paying more for food and drink isn’t a big deal. At times you will need to pay for parking or a small ticket fee for some of the most major attractions, but that money goes to a good place for nature conservation.
- You will get rained on. If you don’t, I’ll be surprised! But, expect that you’ll fall into some inclimate weather and be ready for it. This goes back to packing appropriately. Again, really useful packing tips available here.
- Meals can be limited. When you are outside of Reykjavik, places to eat can be a little scarce. It is not uncommon to eat at gas stations and many have cafes inside where you can order burgers, soups, etc. Some of the major attractions also have cafes and hotels often do as well. Be advised that it may be hard to get food after 9pm. We were out sightseeing late and there were several times where we almost couldn’t get dinner because it was after 9pm. A few nice establishments accommodated us with a more limited menu when their kitchen was closed and they saw we were desperate (what was left of the soup, french fries, etc). Otherwise, we would have gone without food as everything was closed. So, try to make sure you get dinner early. And, the menus can be very small (outside the city). You will likely have a choice of lamb, soup, fish, burger and some veggie burger or salad if you don’t eat meat. Some places will have a bigger menu, but we found that often wasn’t the case.
- Northern lights are sneaky. Those bucket list lights are both elusive and sometimes not what you think. We saw them twice and the first time we actually asked ourselves, are those it? There were light streaks across the sky that kind of looked like they could be light clouds. Then as we stared harder, we saw them start to move. Then they really picked up and we were certain they were them because they started flaring and streaking across the sky. But, as I mentioned earlier, the bright green color you see in photos is a result of the long exposure shots. They are not that green in real life and they are sometimes a little hard to see at first unless there is a more powerful solar storm happening. They are also only visible in the dark night so in the summer in Iceland, they are not visible as it never gets dark enough. So, keep your eyes peeled and don’t expect them to be as green as you see in photos. They are more like a very light green to the naked eye.
- Outside of Reykjavik, there is not much to do at night. Go ahead and spend all your energy during the day because after about 9-10pm, there will be little to do. You can always go to a liquor store (earlier) and pick up some wine or beer and hang out at your hotel (which we did one night), but honestly it’s probably best to just get some good sleep and a hot shower and be ready for another day of adventuring! When you’re in the city, it’s a different story as those bars actually stay open pretty late. Even on a Sunday night the bars were open until 1am.
So, there you have it. Again, awareness and preparation is the best remedy for anything Iceland may throw your way. But, you got this! Continue planning with the best Iceland South Coast Itinerary! Check out: What to see in Iceland: 5 Day Iceland Itinerary.