What to Know Before Going to Iceland
Iceland is one of those places where you wake up from dreaming only to realize you’re living a real one. With breathtaking waterfalls, wide-open pastures of sheep, dramatic glacier lagoons, and a clear freshness in the air, this destination is purely magic.
The island of Iceland is one of the world’s most popular destinations right now for outdoorsy people and explorers alike. Photographers and social media influencers have painted a dreamy picture of Iceland showing off all of it’s glory; however, Iceland isn’t the easiest place to travel to.
In this post, I’m going to reflect on our Iceland road trip adventure and share with you some tips and tricks we learned. Knowing this list of tips will ultimately prepare you before embarking on your own Iceland adventure. Without further ado, let’s break it down.
First off, I’ll describe our Iceland trip. My sister, her boyfriend, my cousin, and I spent five days in Iceland doing a South Coast roadtrip. We rented a car and discovered several amazing road-side stops along the way. In a future post, I am going to talk more about how long to stay in Iceland, but for us, five days was perfect.
Driving in Iceland
Driving is simply the best way to explore Iceland on your own. This country only has about 330,000 people, therefore there aren’t other means of transport other than by road. There are some bus lines in areas around Reykjavik, but if you want to get out and see some more of the natural sites you’ll have to rent a car.
The driving rules are a bit different in this country. For instance, you can’t turn right at red lights and must wait for the light to change before turning. Because the roadways aren’t as wide as those in America or more urbanized places, there isn’t space to pull off onto the side of the road. You should only pull off to the side of the road when it’s an emergency. If you need to go to the bathroom or want to pull over to see something, you must find designated areas to do so. There is also a ubiquitous road sign that really confused us during our trip. It was a blue sign with nothing but a red line going through it. This sign means no stopping or no parking, it does not mean ‘no entry’ as it may appear.
Another important rule is that you’re headlights must always be on 24 hours during the day. Not having them on will result in a large fine.
Most of the cars in Iceland operate on manual! So if you plan to rent a car, make sure you pay attention to this before you book it. There are some automatic cars available with certain rental companies but they are much more expensive. Be aware of this!
Be aware that renting a car can be one of the biggest expenses when traveling to Iceland. It is necessary that you drive your own car, otherwise you’re going to be packed onto tour buses listening to older men snore the entire journey . Having your own car allows you the freedom to stop wherever you please and check out lesser known areas. You’re also on your own time schedule. Most of the cars have excellent gas mileage which make up for the renting costs.
Don’t speed in Iceland although it might be tempting. Speeding tickets can cost up to $400 USD. No thank you.
There are lot of one-way roads, especially in Reykjavik. Pay attention to road signs and directions. There are also a lot of one-lane bridges so be conscientious of oncoming traffic.
Parking is free on Sundays in downtown Reykjavik. Don’t be like us and try to pay a parking meter that wasn’t responding to us. You’ll just end up looking really dumb.
Iceland is quite large and rural, it is important that you download a map of it on your mobile device. I like using the app called maps.me. You can download any map you want for free and it will track your location on the map without wifi. It surprisingly doesn’t take up very much storage on your device as you might think.
Another app is Google Maps (don’t think this is on the ‘Maps’ app already downloaded on IOS devices.) On the Google Maps app, you can select an area on the world map to download onto your phone. Once downloaded, you can use the GPS and navigation functions normally without wifi! You can also look up places without having to search using internet connection. Very useful here! We never got lost because of these features.
Some things you might want to bring
Packing for Iceland was challenging, we didn’t really know what to expect. We visited this country in June and didn’t know if the climate would be more on the summer side or winter side.
Despite what time of year it may be, pack layers. Some places might be super hot where others have a serious wind chill!
Bring ear plugs. Iceland isn’t noisy, but very windy. During longer hikes we experienced a lot of wind hitting our ears. It doesn’t sound bad but this wind is intense in open Icelandic landscapes. Many of us got ear aches without them!
Eye mask. The sun never sets on the Iceland empire. No, seriously, it doesn’t in the summer. Although it does ’set’ at about 2 in the morning it’s still plenty light out to see around you. The idea of the sun never setting is surreal and was something that was amazing about Iceland, but when it comes to sleeping you need to cover your eyes to make darkness. The places you stay might not have super dark shutters or blinds, so I recommend bringing an eye mask.
Lens wipes. Whether you wear glasses, have sunglasses, or want to take pictures up close to pretty waterfalls, bring a lens wipe! I’ve never used one more than in Iceland. Even in downtown Reykjavik we experienced not rain but a constant mist falling from the sky. It will fog up your camera and glass lenses quickly so I encourage you to pack a small lens wipe.
Pack a towel. You never know when you’re going to stumble across a heated river or hot spring! Bring a towel everywhere you go in Iceland and you won’t regret it. Just a small cloth to dry yourself might just be enough.
One thing to take note of is that Iceland doesn’t have mosquitoes! There are some bugs but compared to temperate forests there are hardly any. You don’t need to pack as much bug spray as you might think.
Unfortunately, Iceland is one of the most expensive countries to travel in the world. Almost everything is imported here and there is a huge tax on purchases. Here are a few ways you can save money on your trip.
Although I wouldn’t suggest Iceland as being your go-to ‘party’ destination unless you’re spending all of your time in Reykjavik, definitely purchase alcohol at duty free at the airport and not in any liquor stores. It will save you a lot of money. If you want to go downtown and party you should definitely stock up at the airport and purchase as few drinks out as possible. Stock up at the airport!
When you make purchases over 6,000 Icelandic Kronas (About $56 USD), the airport will return a portion of your purchase from a tax expense. Just save your receipts and visit the currency counter at the airport to get cash back before you leave! This only works for single items that are valued greater than 6,000 Krones, not if you buy a bunch of groceries that total greater than 6,000 Kronas. Keep your receipts.
Bonus Grocery Store. This is where you want to stock up on all of your food during your Iceland trip. Bonus is by far the most cost effective place to purchase food for travelers. They are everywhere in Reykjavik and start to diminish in number when you head East, so make sure you buy more food than you might originally think you need. We found ourselves hours away from the nearest grocery store without much food. Places near us that did sell food had very inconvienent and short opening hours so stock up!
Iceland has a lot of hidden costs that show up at random. Some of the more popular tourist sites charged a parking fee. Just park a little ways off from the lot and walk a little extra to avoid this cost. Many bathrooms charge a few coins so be timely with your restroom usage.
Other Useful Tips
Iceland is very much so on the honor system. This country hardly experiences any crime and doesn’t need a bunch of foreign tourists to take advantage of this. Be respectful of this country and even if it may seem easy to pull off a ‘dine and dash’ or so be it, realize the kindness of the Icelandic people and that they deserve better than that. Although some places might not have an enforcer to prohibit people from crossing fences or boundaries, don’t be one of those people who trample over the beautiful landscapes just for a photo or closer look.
Sulfur is okay to drink. The smell might be rotten and smell like rotten egg but it’s totally okay to drink, swim, and shower in. Don’t let the smell defer you.
Turns will attack! There is a native bird called and Arctic turn that is very aggressive. They are merciless when protecting their nests and did, in fact, attack me. Terrifying experience, keep your distance from their nests as they will dive bomb your head.
The Blue Lagoon
In an upcoming post, I will be talking about all the details of the Blue Lagoon. What it’s really like and what to know before going. I thought I should mentioned a big tip before visiting this popular site on this post too. The most important thing to know is that you need to book a ticket reservation well in advanced before your trip. You can’t just arrive and buy a ticket. Plan and book online before your arrival! We booked our tickets a month before going because we wanted a specific time of day to arrive. If you book a week in advanced during the summer months, you risk not getting your preferred entry time or preferred day.
Check out my Iceland travel video from this roadtrip:
Thanks so much for checking out my Iceland Tips post! I encourage you to read more of my travel blogs. If you have any questions or suggestions for future posts that you would like our take on, comment below. Stay updated by following on social media:
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Written by Jeff Hyer
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