It’s the place everyone is talking about right now: Iceland. Beginning in 2010, Iceland started to see a boom in its tourism numbers due to adventurers flocking to see the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Once they shared their photos on social media and word got out about the natural beauty of the country, the tourists just kept on coming, and for good reason. I will be the first to tell you to make your next flight one that takes you to this quaint Nordic island, so here are ten tips to help aid you in having the best trip possible.
1. Don’t Skip the Big Stuff.
Iceland is full of hidden gems, but many times the most popular destinations are well known landmarks for good reason. Many times when you plan a trip, you will hear from friends who have been there before, “Oh, skip that! It’s a tourist trap.” For Iceland, and most other destinations in my opinion, don’t take this advice. You’ll be bummed you missed out on something beautiful just because you were trying to be a hipster. Instead, discover the best times to visit and avoid the crowds. Go to the busiest places early in the morning or travel in the off season, which will save you money too. See my list of the "Big Stuff" in South Iceland HERE.
2. Be safe.
If you live in practically any other country of the world, Iceland’s crime is almost non-existent by comparison. What stands to cause you harm here is also what most likely drew you here: Mother Nature. Iceland has a daunting climate and rugged terrain. If you are embarking on a hike and it says to bring crampons and hiking poles, bring them! (We slipped and fell on the ice, don't be us!) Know about the locations that you are going to. For instance, don’t stand on the Sólheimasandur plane crash for the perfect Instagram photo. It is illegal because they can’t waste resources coming to help you if you fall for the flick. Another example? The waves at Reynisfjara Beach are sneaker waves and extremely dangerous. Don’t put your back to the water.
3. Make the Most of the Daylight.
If you are traveling outside of the summer months, you will be missing out on the midnight sun. Still, you are able to jam pack a day if you plan well. In the winter months when the sun rises at 11am, you can drive to your first stop of the day while it’s still dark and enjoy an early golden hour. Know how long you will want at each destination and how far apart your stops are. Stick to your schedule and plan your food and gas stops ahead of time. Save even more time by eating in the car, though don’t tell the rental company I told you that.
4. Grocery Shop.
If you are a foodie, this doesn’t apply to you. Due to its climate, Iceland has to import most of their food. Restaurants can get really pricey, so one of the best money savers when traveling is to buy your food right from the grocery store. This is often just as much of an experience as eating out because seeing a place you are so familiar with, like a grocery store, in a whole new country can be exciting and a great way to see what day to day life looks like where you are. Go out and try the unique foodies of a region (though in Iceland this can mean horse and reindeer which were both a hard pass for me) or try that restaurant you saw on a travel show (such as Omnom Chocolates in Reykjavik), but balance this with some grab and go grocery food. (Vegoschnitzel was so good we went back and bought more the following night!)
5. Pack Layers.
It is Iceland. The name itself implies the cold. The temperature scale doesn’t sway too much, so you can have a general idea of what to expect. The average low in the winter is 28F and the average high in the summer is 57F. As you stop at different attractions throughout the same day, you will experience different levels of windchill when you are standing next to the ocean or a waterfall or hiking through a canyon. Make sure you bring a raincoat, windbreaker, hat, gloves, waterproof shoes and bathing suit with you wherever you go, because hey, you never know.
6. Rent a Car.
Yes, those tours that take you from one stop to another are a great way to see the highlights and meet other travelers if you are on a solo trip, and in most countries I opt for public transportation, but if you rent a car anywhere, make it Iceland. While it is possible to get around the island by bus, you may miss out on many little stops along the way. Look up discount codes for the rental company you plan on using and also take a video of the car when you are still at the pick up location so that you can prove your innocence if they try to hold you liable for pre-existing damages. Sadly, this is a common way they try to take advantage of tourists. (We used Blue Car Rental and had no issues. We were even able to find a promo code on Iceland With a View's helpful YouTube page HERE!)
7. Be Car Savvy.
Certain roads in Iceland require that you drive a four wheel drive vehicle. Make sure you know which route you are taking and whether you will need an F roads capable vehicle. I recommend getting one regardless in case your plans change and you add an unexpected stop to your journey. Even if you are the world’s best driver, opt for the additional sand and ash insurance because while you may be driving carefully the weather can turn at any moment and you will be held liable. If you drive standard, you will find you can get a cheaper rental car. When you fill up on fuel, which you should do at every given opportunity, set a specific amount. If you just click fill up, your card may be stopped. If you over estimate, you can get the return.
8. Cover your Basics.
While traveling the island, you will want to be able to use your phone for directions, reservations, and other needs, so plan ahead. Make sure that you pack a European travel outlet adapter and get a data plan through your existing carrier for while you will be in the country so that you don’t get charged outrageous fees. Also, inform your bank that you will be using your card in Iceland so they do not assume that your card was stolen. While most places on the island are credit card friendly, it doesn't hurt to have some cash handy for emergencies and tipping guides or housekeeping. Consider downloading a currency converting app and translating app to make yourself more aware of how much you are spending and other general information.
9. Book Early.
As previously mentioned, Iceland is booming for tourism and often the deals are snatched up quickly. When you see a good flight or hotel price, book quickly. Do your research. You’ll benefit from having a list of all of your must-sees so that you can road trip accordingly. Book your activities early too. Some things are harder to plan, such as where will be the best places on the island to have the opportunity to see the Northern Lights that evening, but download apps such as My Aurora Forecast and Alerts in advance to help you more easily navigate the things that might shift day by day. I used the Countdown app to keep me excited for a trip that was months away and to nudge me to make sure that I was booking my reservations in advance.
10. Enjoy Iceland.
Whether you get the benefit of the midnight sun or the chance of Northern Lights, Iceland is a beautiful destination year round. Get off the beaten path and explore nature safely and smartly. If there is a specific activity that you want to do, such as snorkeling between tectonic plates or taking a guided volcanic hike, spend a little bit extra and treat yourself to these phenomenal experiences. Try to learn a little Icelandic and chat with locals, though most people will speak English. Take photos to memorialize your trip but stay off your phone. As soon as you get home, show your friends and family the photos and start planning your next trip back to Iceland.