Traveling to Iceland soon and not sure what you really need to know or bring? When we were planning our trip around Iceland, we read tons of blogs and forums, and yet we still felt like we came up short. After exploring the country’s ring road and beyond for just over two weeks, we have compiled a list of the top tips you will need before traveling in Iceland. We wished we had had such a list. Enjoy!
Bring Gore-tex rain gear and boots. Trust us when we tell you this, gore-tex will save your vacation. October is typically a very rainy month and believe us, it was. Luckily we had Gore-tex jackets and even though they looked drenched, nothing ever went through. The same can’t be said of our rain pants. Even though they were stellar brands (TNF and Marmot), they were clearly not made for even short hikes in pouring rain as even our base layers were soaked through by the end. The same can be said of our boots. Tim’s Salomon hiking shoes are made with Gore-tex, so he had no issues. My shoes were problematic because they are typically used for summer hiking, so my feet were soaked from all of the rain and big puddles. We were shocked with the amount of tourists we saw in the south wearing Nike runners and fashion boots as they wouldn’t have helped one bit. We’d recommend saving those only for the sunny days.
Rent a 4WD. There are some WILD roads in Iceland and we are not just talking the forbidden F-roads you keep hearing about. For instance, in Northern Iceland when traveling from Asbyrgi canyon to Dettifoss, the road connecting the two is in incredibly rough shape. It is not even marked as a bad road either. We were literally going 30 km/hr on that road because it was full of potholes, ruts and large puddles. There were also a bunch of spots to see around Iceland that require you to go on a 4WD only road, so we were very happy with our choice of renting a 4WD.
Camp or hire a campervan. It will save you tons of money as hostels and AirBnB can get quite expensive. Even in October, if you forget all of the rain, the weather was pretty warm. We ended up sleeping in our car a couple of nights (more on that later!), and honestly it wasn’t that cold. A little uncomfortable, yes, which is why we say rent a campervan. Though the price may seem steep at first, in the end it would’ve been cheaper for us to get one because of the high costs of staying places. Campsites were not open in October, but if you’re headed to Iceland in the summer months, obviously that’s your best bet. You will save tons and you will see such remote places of the country too!
If you just decide to rent a car, use AirBnB instead of a hostel, especially if you are traveling as a couple. Hostels can cost sometimes $60/night per person in Iceland! If you go for a comfortable, clean AirBnB with a kitchen and a bit of privacy, they cost around $80-120/night depending on location, so why wouldn’t you go that route?
Book places ahead of time, even outside of the summer months. We went in October thinking it wouldn’t be busy, but along the south coast places booked up fast especially the affordable ones. As soon as we learned that, we booked about a day or two in advance in order to get a decently priced place.
If you stay in hostels, bring your own sleeping bag. Iceland has what is called, “sleeping bag accommodation,” which means you will save yourself money by bringing your own linen. Definitely nice to save a few dollars here and there in a country as expensive as this one. Having sleeping bags with us definitely helped when we ended up sleeping in our car too!
Speaking of saving a few dollars, make sure to bring a quick-drying towel on your vacation. Even if you’re staying at AirBnB’s which provide towels, you will need one at one of the many hot pools around the country. While some places, like the Blue Lagoon or Secret Lagoon, allow you to rent towels, bringing your own will save you money.
Get a prepaid gas card when traveling around the country, especially if you are Canadian. For whatever reason, the Canadian bank cards would not work at the pump. It was incredibly frustrating because the bank even went as far as freezing Tim’s card. We ended up buying prepaid cards and it was super smooth from then on. Gas stations like N1 or Okran are a couple of good options.
Make your own food. The cost of going out to eat in Iceland is ridiculously expensive. We went out for dinner once in Reykjavik at our hostel’s restaurant on the main floor and we paid $80 for two drinks and two main courses. Our main courses were veggie sausages with salad and bread! So with that being said, try Bonus or Kronan for the cheapest groceries. In the end we paid about $140 for groceries for the 2 weeks we were there. We ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, the Iceland treat Skyr (basically yogurt but high in protein and delicious too), carrots, noodle soup with veggies and chickpeas for dinner, and the occasional snack during the day. We eat much more at home, but this was enough to be satisfied in order to save money for other things.
There are alternatives to the Blue Lagoon if you’re looking to save costs. You’ll read a lot about The Blue Lagoon and whether its worth the steep entrance fee (approximately $70 a person!) We stayed 3 hours to make it worth it. And even if we didn’t, the Blue Lagoon was an amazing experience. The water is beautiful. And besides, it’s like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. You have to! However, if you’re backpacking and not willing to spend the money, there are slightly cheaper alternatives. The Myvatn Nature Baths in the north were just as incredible, though not as warm as the Blue Lagoon. Costing about $50 a person, you will be treated to large pools and incredible sunset views of the area around Lake Myvatn. There is also the Secret Lagoon, which is just off the trail when you’re doing the Golden Circle in the south. It’s about $35 a person and it’s gorgeous. The steaming vents all around the hot pool and the old concrete shack give it an authentic and scenic feel.
If you’re in the south of Iceland, wake up early to enjoy the sights first. There are a ton of tourists in the south, even when we went in October. From Vik to the Golden Circle, there are a number of large coach buses carrying herds of tourists around. Even Jökulsárlón was filled with buses of travellers when we arrived at sunset. If you get up early, you will miss most of them. The same is true of the Blue Lagoon. We went for 8:30 am and we couldn’t have been happier with the choice. It was super chill in the morning with not a lot of people or action and made the experience very enjoyable. When we were headed out around 12:30-1pm, swarms of people were arriving and it would’ve definitely changed the ambience of the whole place.
Learn the road rules and signs. We read about driving in Iceland in our Lonely Planet guide, but we felt this warning can’t be stressed enough. We saw a lot of drivers disobeying the rules from pulling over on narrow highways to get a photo or not driving with their lights on throughout the day. I believe these rules are put in place for a reason, everyone’s safety, so please know them and obey them. There are also a bunch of signs that you may never have seen before, so make yourself familiar before heading out. Lastly, watch out for animals on the road! Sheep are everywhere in this country! We even saw a horse taking a stroll on the highway late at night.
Save your pennies! It really doesn’t matter what you pack, you need cash for Iceland! So instead of filling your suitcase with sweaters, fill it with money. For us Canadians, everything from gas to hostels to restaurants to beer was about double the cost or more. FYI, tours cost approximately $230 a person in Iceland. That includes kayaking, glacier hiking, diving or snorkelling. It’s a little absurd. So with that being said, if you are planning on doing tours, save as much money as you can and remember to book early. Lucky for us, the flight was decently priced, so that helped us save for the actual trip.
Research the activities you want to do and make sure it’s possible when you are planning to travel. The crazy thing about traveling to Iceland in October is that it seems to be a transition month for locals. They’ve already shut down summer camping and activities, opening hours are very limited (if open at all) for some businesses, and some tours aren’t quite yet open for the winter such as glacier walks and caves. Keep this in mind if you are hell-bent on doing some fun stuff. We are definitely heading back to Iceland one day to do some hiking in the West Fjords and possibly kayaking along the south as it wasn’t an option for us in October.
Always be on the look out for the Northern Lights. Everyone under the sun is going to ask you two questions when you go to Iceland, “Did you go to the Blue Lagoon?” and, “Did you see the Northern Lights?” We were tipped off by fellow travellers to a website, www.vedur.is, that shows you the probability of seeing the Northern Lights. You can look for cloud cover and specific hours in the night in order to maximize your chance of seeing them. In case you’re wondering, we actually saw them on the plane when we were flying over the Arctic. The sky was awash with bright green streaks with hints of purple; it was amazing! Did we see them on the ground? No. We could’ve studied the website a little more, but with the rain we had in the south at the end of our trip, the probability was very small. For us, we were not too bothered. First of all, we’re from Canada so the chance to see them in our own country is high. Secondly, while I personally came for the Northern Lights, I stayed for every other wonderful sight that I consider myself lucky enough to see in Iceland. Lights or not, I was more than content with my travels.
Did we miss anything? Let us know below!