The following were originally going to be part of my post on 2021 Iceland Recommendations, however we decided these were more opinion based and shouldn't be mixed with the recommendations. While there is some bias in the following opinions, I will try to share the alternative in a fair light and explain the pros and cons of each to hopfully help you make decisions on what to do and where to go in Iceland.
Iceland: Tours vs Self-Guided
My recommendation is bias here as we typically like self guided trips as it allows me (read: "Ben") more control over the time table. Self-Guided tours also allow us to decide what to see and what not to see, this helps save money and avoid some of the tourist-traps and trinket stores (Nothing against those types of places, if that is what you are looking for, and sometimes they are fun). There is some down sides to this; mostly due to the fact that you have to plan what your seeing that day (or that trip) and you are responsible for the fun you are having...
This is where the tours come in, and they come in two forms. The first form is where the entire trip is planned for you, from where you are staying, to the activities you are doing, and the transportation to get you there. This helps take some of the stress of planning your trip and deciding what to do. The downside to this is there is significantly less choices and tailoring to what you want to see and do (and less flexibility on a day to day basis to make changes). This comes in to play when you are unexpectedly tired or you are board and want to get out and do something. If you are a morning person or even a night person this might affect you and you have to keep in mind you are probably changing a few time zones depending on where you are coming from.
The second form is the day-tours, this is more of a hybrid version where you can schedule and chose a tour just for the day. This works well if you want someone else to handle the transportation, and planning for the day. We have also found this to work in other countries where it can be hard to get individual tickets but often with the groups tours they have pre-purchased the tickets. This can help get in to sold-out events and attractions. We used this also when its prohibitively difficult to get somewhere on our own (see the section on whale watching.)
Ben's Travel Hack
So if you want to save some time on planning on your own trip check out the tour operators websites. The tour operator websites will give you an idea of the itinerary for each day, and you can use these to formulate your own. These are often tested and proven itineraries for timing (such as driving distance, food and drink stops, etc.) and see the popular spots and attractions.
This hack worked well in Iceland for us. We used a combination of itineraries from different groups and providers, and then added some some personalization and specific places we wanted to see, boom, instant itinerary (kinda... still takes a lot of research but helps with inital planning and timeline). Just keep an eye on your travel distances and travel-time (use Apple or Google Maps to get an estimate) and leave your self some space/time to make changes or wait something out (i.e. the weather or a crowd).
Iceland Small Boat vs Large Boat Whale Watching
One of the more unique experiences we had was whale watching. While we debated back and forth on going on a larger vs smaller boat for whale watching there is a bit of personal preference and luck in making this decision the right decision for you.
The small boats are great, and are my recommendation if you are more adventurous and in good physical health; as its a rougher ride, the seats are closer together and a little less comfortable. This sounds bad, but there are some benefits. The boats are faster and more maneuverable, allowing them to get closer to the whales and spend more time out and less time traveling. It can be harder to get a good shot on small boats but when you do they are often spectacular. The other con is that there is a good chance you are going to get wet, this is why we didn't bring our nice camera out. (... maybe if we had taken a private tour we would have, they were just a little too expensive for us).
Alternatively the larger boats are more stable and a little more comfortable. The larger boats also often have an area to warm up, grab some food/snacks, more comfortable seating, and a more stable platform for photography. However the downside is normally there is more people and the boat is slower. As a result these bigger boats can't get as close to the whales (however the captains are good and sometimes the whales surface up close). This means bring your telephoto lens and you can still get some stunning shots.
The decision is yours in the end, and hopefully this information can help you!
Get out of Reykjavik
While Reykjavik is a fun city, its only a part of Iceland, and we feel like you miss a lot of the experiences if you spend all of your time in the capital. If you are going the guided-tour route, we get it, most of the tours are out of the capital, but I would still push you to spend at least 2 nights outside of the city. In our opinion the best experiences we had in Iceland where ones that were not in the capital (not that Reykjavik is boring). So buy all the things you forgot, go to the grocery store in Reykjavik in the first day or two, and get out to another city!
If you are looking north check out:
- Akureyri (Whale/puffin watching)
- Húsavík (Whale/puffin watching)
While we didn't do much of south Iceland these towns are in my opinion worth the stop:
- Vik (if you have seen Netflix's Katla its cool)
As mentioned in our 2021 Iceland Recommendations Post use airBnB in these places or along the way, as this helps finding lodging in these more remote areas. The hotels are often full (is what we found) or not in the area you want to stay.
Get up Early (or Stay out Late)
In the summer the sun only goes down for a few hours so there is light even at 23:00 (especially in June and July) and even in august the sun rises at 4:00 (am) but never really sets. so if you want to get to some of the popular spots without the crowds this works great. Just check the opening and closing times as some spots have gates that close or parking lots close. This allowed us to have more relaxing evenings, cooking dinner, charging cameras and gear, and checking out our photos.
** Does not apply in winter **
These are Opinions and should be treated as such, and they are also very dependent on your situation and what you want out of your Iceland experience. Hopfully you can decided which side of the the fence you are on and that will help you book your trip to Iceland.