I recently went on a six-day road trip with two friends through the south of Iceland. We hiked volcanic hills, sampled local cuisine, and witnessed the Panama Paper protests in Reykjavik. Our trip was incredible—but a good amount of research made for a smooth journey. Below are a few insights I was glad to know before embarking on our Nordic adventure.
You don't need to tip in Iceland. No one is going to turn down your extra cash, but it’s already been included in the bill. This applies to both restaurants tabs and cab fares.
2. Car Rental
My travel crew rented a vehicle from Reykjavik Cars at Keflavik International Airport. It was pricey, but not shady. We opted for a 4X4 so that we could access most roads. I would recommend this to anyone planning to see more than the Golden Circle, especially if you're not traveling during the summer. We also paid a tad extra for gravel insurance so we didn’t have to hold our breath going over every little bump. (It was definitely worth the 7 Euro a day.) We skipped out on theft insurance, as well as sand and ash protection.
Quick tip: Never leave your car door open. The wind gusts in some areas of Iceland can push the doors back too far, and snap them off the hinges. This is an expensive fix! We thought the rental agency was joking when they warned us about this fascinating issue—until we visited Dyrhólaey lighthouse. My door almost blew off into the wind, like Dorthy in "The Wizard of Oz."
3. Iceland's Not Cheap
Iceland is more expensive than the average European country, but it can be done on a budget if you watch the food and lodging spend. Take free hikes, drive to the attractions yourself, and avoid group excursions. Restaurants were the real kicker—which leads us to the next tip.
4. Plan Out Your Meals
Buy breakfast food, PB&J fixings, and alcohol in Reykjavik. Most travelers agree that Bonus is the cheapest supermarket. You'll find a good number of restaurants along Ring Road, which we indulged in for dinner. But pack a bagged lunch for your hikes, grab some snacks for the car, and have toast or fruit for breakfast. That will save you a good $30 a day.
Alcohol is hard to find outside of the main cities. The hours for many liquor and wine shops are quite restrictive. Spirits are not sold at most grocery stores or gas stations, except for beer with a 2.25% ABV—which tricked us once in the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. (And no, I didn't make up that word.) If you've left Reykjavik, state-run Vínbúðins are your best bet for purchasing cocktail ingredients.
Fun fact: Similar to United States, Iceland had a period of prohibition that began in 1915. While wine restrictions were lifted in 1921 and liquor restrictions in 1935, the sale of beer over 2.25% was illegal until 1989! Iceland now celebrates "Beer Day" on March 1 every year because it's the anniversary of the beer law reversal.
5. Cell Phones
I'd recommend purchasing a SIM card at the airport convenience store. It's cheap, and we used Google Maps on our phones during the entirety of the trip. (Also, Instagram.)
6. The Blue Lagoon
Sure, it's touristy. But the Blue Lagoon is totally worth the time, especially if you're coming to or from the airport. Situated about 30 minutes south of Keflavik International, this vast geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. Because of it's popularity, be sure to pre-book your tickets.
Once you've arrived, you'll wait in a quick moving line to register a wristband. We opted for the "Comfort" package, which includes two mud masks, one drink, and—most importantly—a towel. Since we were boarding our planes back to the States right after our Blue Lagoon visit, this was an important perk.
Next, you'll move on to the locker rooms. There's enough storage for a purse, but it's wise to leave any luggage in the car. You can also rent a separate locker for larger bags if you're coming from the airport via bus—this storage center is located in a separate building, near the parking lot.
Before changing into your swimsuit you must shower. The staff requires it! If you're terrified of being naked in front of other people, there are several private showers. Be sure to leave a bit of extra conditioner in your hair because the silica in the water can wreak havoc on your locks.
My final tip: Give yourself enough time to enjoy the experience. We arrived at 11 a.m., but weren't in the water until about 11:40. After our (relaxing) swim, it took us another 40 minutes to shower again, dress, dry our hair, and return wristbands. We needed to be at the gate by 4 p.m., and our reservation gave us a healthy amount of time to return the rental car, go through Customs, grab a bite to eat before takeoff, etc.
7. Icelandic vs. English
Everyone we met spoke perfect English. Icelanders have a deliciously witty sense of humor, with a sprinkle of sarcasm. So don’t worry, my fellow Americans. You will easily be able to communicate in this country.
8. Drinking Water
The water (especially near Reykjavik) smells like sulfur—but drink it! We couldn't taste a thing. Don't let a whiff of rotten eggs deter you from sampling some of the cleanest water in the world. Plus, you’ll save a fortune not buying over-priced bottles of agua.
9. Unpredictable Weather
Iceland's weather is erratic during any given season. We traveled to the island in early April and were lucky to experience very little precipitation. That said, some roads to attractions we wanted to see were closed from previous snow storms, so we had to be flexible with our plans. The best method? Map out your dream route before flying to Iceland. Then, each night, sit down and see what looks plausible for the next day based on weather conditions and time restraints.
(See "What to Wear in Iceland: 15 Essentials for Cold Weather" to view a full packing list!)
You should pack a variety of clothes, especially if you're traveling in the winter or during the shoulder seasons (Apr-May and Sept-Oct). I can only attest to personal preferences during the month of April, but my uniform consisted of a sweater, jeans, waterproof boots, and a down jacket. Somedays I slipped into a lighter coat; other days I bundled up with a scarf and hat. The high was typically between 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit, so it wasn't much different than April in New York City. Here's a handy guide of the average temperatures in Iceland by month.
Oh, and don't forget a bathing suit! The island is basically one big hot spring, so always pack swimwear and a small towel for hikes. You never know what body of steaming, crystal clear water you might jump into.
Look into Icelandair’s stopover program if you're flying from the United States to Europe, or vise versa. I was able to find a decent deal from London to Iceland to Dulles, and it's free to "stopover" on the island as long as you're staying for 7 nights or less.
Visitors can shop tax free in Iceland. When purchasing items like wool or fur, be sure to ask the salesclerk for a Tax Free Form. At the airport, head over to the Customs desk before checking in for your flight and get a stamp on your form. Refunds can take up to three months. Here’s a wee bit more information.
13. Bring a Camera
Iceland is made for those who love photography and a bit of adventure. Bring a decent camera so you can capture the beauty of the island. Also, your iPhone will not be able to take photos of the Northern Lights—you’ll need a DSLR and a tripod for that magic. I use a Canon Rebel and upgraded a 50mm lens for up-close, portrait shots.
Don't forget an outlet converter! Iceland uses the Europlug/Schuko-Plug, which has two round prongs. Every place we stayed provided a hair dryer, so we didn't have to worry about voltage issues. Here’s the converter I prefer.
15. AIRBNB AND GUEST HOUSES
If you’re interested in staying at an Airbnb while visiting Reykjavik, I'd highly suggest the Old Bike Shop. We met a ton of travelers here and found the family to be extremely hospitable. They chatted with us each night about our adventures, offered up suggestions, and discussed Icelandic culture. Wherever you stay in Reykjavik, try and be near the busy, restaurant-filled streets of Hallgrímskirkja and Laugavegur so you can wander without a vehicle.
Finding Airbnbs outside of Reykjavik proved to be quite difficult, particularly in the Southeast. Expedia.com and Booking.com were a great tool for securing rooms, reading reviews, and searching through lists of amenities. Cottages and "guest houses" are popular in Iceland, many of which are family owned.
The most high-end place we stayed was the Farmhouse Lodge outside Vik. The wifi was strong, the beds were comfy, breakfast was included, and our host offered up a slew of helpful recommendations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, our cheapest nights were spent at Horgsland Cottages. There were pros and cons here. Positives: We each had our own rooms, there were two large hot tubs, and it was a fabulous price. Cons: The internet never worked, the property is large so you'll rarely interact with the host, and the shower was tiny! But overall, it was worth the price and we enjoyed our time drinking wine and searching for the Northern Lights in a hot tub full of excited travelers.