Our first trip to Iceland was an amazing adventure, and we have some recommendations we want to share with those planning trips to Iceland in the near future or even further out. Each one of the recommendations below will be expanded on in its own section, and maybe even future posts, to hopefully give you insight to making your Iceland trip as amazing as possible.
- Spend your first two days in Reykjavik
- 54F (12C) in Iceland is colder than you think (Cold, Wet, and Windy)
- Be prepared to be out all day
- Bring your camera (or at least a nice smartphone)
- Be prepared to drive long distances
- Get a comfortable car (and a 4x4 if planning on using F-road)
- Diesel is cheaper than Petrol (regular gas)
- Allot extra time for stops along your drive
- Go to the grocery store (save $$$)
- Use AirBnB (or similar) to get a more local experience
- Girls - Bring a hat!
- Have your paperwork ready
Spend the First Two days in Reykjavik
We recommend spending the first two days in the capital city of Reykjavik as this helped us get our bearings and helped us get ready for the rest of Iceland. If you (like us) have an overnight red-eye flight (where you leave ~9-10 pm and arrive in Iceland 7-8am) remember you have about a 50min drive from the international airport to the main city area. The KEF international airport is actually in the town of Keflavík. This means that if you didn't get much sleep on the plane (like us) you have a long day ahead and your not going to want to make a longer trip to a further city or location.
This also helped us get acclimatized to the weather, food, culture, and many more things. Being the largest city in Iceland if you forget something or need to purchase something, this is your chance, as the further you get away from Reykjavik the less choices you have. This really helped us as on the first day we noticed that while we had warm clothes we didn't have a warm base layer. This is our second recommendation...
Bring the Right Gear: Iceland is colder than you think.
This was something that we both under estimated on the first day, we brought the right gear, but it was still unexpectedly cold. I believe this is a combination of a few factors: the rain, the wind, and the lack of sun. Almost every day we were there it rained (for the first days it rained almost all day), being prepared for that is critical. Both of us have Goretex shells (specifically Arc'teryx), and these are what I would consider required gear for Iceland. In my opinion a nylon (standard rain jacket) shell is not going to cut it, its going to leave you wet, and with the temperatures in Iceland even in summer, cold.
The temperature during then end of July/August while we were there was around 40F to 60F (5C-15C) while this is generally cool feeling, however there is quite a bit of wind. On the first day we were there there was a pretty constant wind of a about 2o Knots (10 m/s) with gusts of 40+Knots (20+ m/s). This made driving pretty difficult especially with a roof tent. When we got out of the car the rainy mist was blowing sideways, this means everything is getting wet. Some of the wind coming off the mountain/cliff/tundra is pretty strong and can pull heat right out from your jacket, especially without a shell. With the lack of sun you can get pretty chilled pretty quickly as you are missing those warming rays. The weather also changed fairly quickly from sunny to rain, warm to cold, calm to gale force; so even on short hikes bring a shell and a jacket and be prepared to shed layers if it gets warm again.
Be Prepared to Be Out All Day:
If you are on a tour its going to be hard to go back to the hotel and get another layer so bring extra. Same if you have your own rental car, bring an extra layer or two in-case you start to get chilled (this is why we picked up extra base layers). Some of the locations are 2-3 hour drives away from Reykjavik and that's an awful long way to drive to back for an extra layer. The reason I'm saying this is because often once you get out towards one of the points of interest there is often others around it that would take even longer to get to if you were to drive straight from Reykjavik.
Iceland is bigger than you think and takes a few hours to get to different areas. This means bring food, snacks, and water for these trips. Even if you are taking a tour and they have lunch planned make sure you bring a few extra snacks and water as some of the hikes burn a significant amount of energy and you don't want to be hangry with a 2+hr ride to get back.
This is a little easier in a rental car as we just kept a backpack with snacks and a few extra pieces of clothing (in case they got wet or the weather changed)
Bring your Camera:
Iceland is a beautiful country, Bring your camera! We have attached a few of our favorite photos to this post and part of our recommendations. This is the time to buy or rent a camera, or upgrade your phone, as there is so much there to capture it will be worth it in the years to come when you look back at your Iceland photos. I may do a camera specific side of the gear post hopefully to give those travelers an idea of what to bring.
Be Prepared to Drive Long distances/Get a Comfortable Car or 4x4:
As Iceland is already expensive there is a urge to save money by getting a smaller less capable car....Fight that urge, pay the money get a nicer car as you will be using it.
As I mentioned previously a significant portion of the points of interest are a significant distance away from the towns even outside of Reykjavik and Akureyri. These distances can be 2+ Hours one-way so expect to be in a car/bus for at least half of the day (see the section on being out all day). If you are going to be staying in other towns besides Reykjavik (like us) or doing the ring road the drives between some of the larger towns can be 4-6+ Hours, This is where the comfortable car comes in. Spending a majority of the day in a vehicle can become quite uncomfortable especially if you are in something with a stiffer suspension and a short wheelbase. Rent a nice SUV. We saw a few Land Rovers Defenders, Volvo SUVs, and Toyota Land Cruisers and these are much better suited to longer trips vs something smaller like the Jimny. (this may sound like I'm hating or complaining about the Jimny, I'm not, its a great simple 4x4, but there are some sacrifices to meet this price/performance specification).
One of these wants was for cruise control.... long distances, limited traffic, and speed cameras make this feature a leg saver. Most of the roads between cities (could be called a highway) are 90kph (56 mph) and the tunnels range from 50kph to 70kph (from what I can remember) and this is enforced by the occasional random speed camera. I was specifically advised not to speed in Iceland so I'm going to share that advice with you as well.
If you are interested in taking the F-roads in Iceland you are legally required to have a 4x4. These F-roads can range from basically gravel roads to full-on river forging (such as F249 which rental cars are forbidden from taking). Outside of these F-roads all other off-roading is strictly forbidden, and there is some steep fines and legal repercussions (its not worth it). Most of the points of interest are easily accessible via normal roads, but if you have any plans to potentially use one of these F-roads get a nice 4x4 and it can be a fun experience
**If you are interested in F249 to Þórsmörk I would recommend taking a tour in super-jeep, we are looking in to this next time we go back to Iceland**
Diesel is the way to go
This was something I did not fully appreciate until I was in Iceland and filling up the car for the first time. Unlike the U.S, diesel is significantly cheaper in Iceland and generally gets better economy. Just to get an idea price for diesel is generally around 230isk per liter where petrol (regular gas) was 250isk per liter. Basically in U.S terms gas is $7.50 per gallon and diesel is $6.90 per Gallon. The other side of the story is all things the same diesel cars get about 20-35% further on a gallon . So if you get a choice get an automatic diesel for the best MPG or a manual diesel if you are good with driving manual.
Allot extra time for stops along the way
Like I've mentioned Iceland is beautiful place and its not just the tourist spots that are beautiful. During those longer drives its nice to take a break and see some of the lesser seen areas. This is some caveats to this, as a number of tourists have really developed a bad name for themselves by suddenly stopping in the middle road, causing accidents, and blocking paths. There is a number of designated pull off spots and picnic areas that should be used (as mentioned previously driving off road is illegal, this includes pulling off the road). In general add some time for stops whether for food and drink, for taking a few pictures, or just stretching your legs. Just be cognizant and respectful of others and the land, don't block or impede traffic, and stay on designated paths and parking areas.
Go to the Grocery store
One way to save a little while in Iceland is to go and get food at the grocery store instead of eating out for each meal. This worked well for us as we were able to pick up a few snacks and meals. Most of the places we stayed had either a full kitchen or at least a kettle, refrigerator and a microwave; This allowed us to have lunch on the go and occasionally dinner back at the place. Sandwiches worked great for lunch most days, and ramen and noodles worked great for dinner. A dinner out can easily cost 9000isk ($70) especially at a higher end restaurant where as buying a few groceries for a few days can cost under 3000isk ($23). Groceries are not exactly cheap in Iceland, and compared the some of stores in the U.S and other European countries the selection is more limited. You can generally get what you need however a few things are harder to get, and may not be available at all. If you are flexible and willing to cook you can save some money.
Use AirBnB or Similar Service
This is something that worked out quite well for us in Iceland and is definitely the recommended way of seeing different cities and areas in Iceland. We still recommend staying in Reykjavik for a day or two at the beginning of your trip (and probably a day at the end before your flight) but AirBnB allowed us to see the rest of the beautiful country. The photo above we were only able to get because we were staying at an AirBnB that was also a horse farm. This uniqueness is why we recommend staying at a local house or AirBnB. There are ways to save money with this method of travel, but that is not the only reason why we are recommending it here. There are a few nice benefits to staying in an apartment or cabin: like having a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, getting local advice, shorter drives to some of the points of interest, and even a view right in your backyard.
We stayed in a combination of cabins, farms, and apartments which was a great way to experience the different accommodations of Iceland. while staying in the bigger cities the apartments worked well as just over halfway through our trip we were able to wash our clothes, which let us pack smaller suitcases (which is nice if you have to move from place to place like us). In the countryside we stayed in a cabin with a small kitchen which allowed us to cook food, saving some money. This is why we recommend this as the best method for traveling in Iceland.
Girls, Bring a Hat!
Iceland is a great place to get those fun Instagram pictures to show where you have been, but not when the wind is whipping your hair everywhere! I brought a baseball cap for hiking to keep my hair out of my face and to keep it from blowing everywhere. However, if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely bring a cute winter hat for my pictures. It's almost not worth it to do your hair everyday since its so windy and rainy. My advice would be to do the minimum and to just wear a hat most of the time. I kept to braids, a baseball hat, and hoods to try to keep my hair from being ruined. It worked, but a couple of fashionable winter hats would've been better to not only keep my hair out of my face, but to keep me warm!
Have Your Paperwork Ready
One thing we noticed in the airport was a significant portion of travelers did not have their paperwork ready. This caused them to be pulled of to the side and then asked to complete the paperwork and undergo additional screening.... long story short, have all of the paperwork ready and saved as either a screenshot or a PDF on your phone before you get on the plane (if your really hardcore, print it). while there is WiFi at the KEF airport, remember everyone else who forgot or didn't prepare will be using it to access the same sites and download their paperwork... just making it worse and delaying your entry.
I hope these recommendations will help you plan your Iceland trip as these are some of the things we learned after ours. We quite enjoyed our time in Iceland and would love to go back in the future especially to spend more time on the south side, see the northern lights, and to see Iceland in winter.