Everything you need to know for your first trip to Iceland

Ultimate Guide to your first trip to Iceland, how to visit Iceland, road trip Iceland, how to save money in Iceland
Ultimate Guide to your first trip to Iceland, how to visit Iceland, road trip Iceland, how to save money in IcelandWhat to know to visit Iceland

So, you want to visit Iceland.
Here’s what you need to know before you go

Maybe you want to see the northern lights. Maybe driving the ring road is on your bucket list. Or maybe just stopping by to relax in the Blue Lagoon is more your speed. Whatever your taste in travel, you need to know a few things about the weather, getting around, and what to expect in order to best plan your itinerary.

And I got you. In this post, I’ll answer your most frequently asked questions – including when to go and what to do; tips for making this notoriously expensive country a teensy bit more budget friendly; where to find the infamous rotten shark; and everything in between.

And if you read this and still need help planning your arctic adventure, then send me an email and we’ll work on it together

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WHEN TO VISIT

When you should visit depends entirely on what you want to do and see. Want to frolic under the midnight sun? Visit in the summer. Northern lights? Brave the winter cold. Looking for cheap flights (and not scared to gamble on the weather)? Fall and spring are ideal. But here’s a little more detail on your options:

  • Summer (June – August): Since Iceland is in the arctic, there is almost 24 hours of daylight in the summer months. Combine the midnight sun with wildflowers and warm(ish) weather, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for peak season and wildly expensive flights. That being said, summer is definitely the best time to visit Iceland if you can spare the expense, since its also the best time to drive the Ring Road and explore the highlands and the west fjords.
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  • Fall (September – late October): Fall is my favorite time to visit because this is the time when the price of flights, accommodations and rental cars begin to drop. It’s directly following peak season but right before winter hits. Sure, days are a little shorter and the weather is a little bit colder… but everything is a little bit cheaper, and less crowded, AND you have a good chance of seeing some northern lights.
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  • Winter (November – February): The shortest (and bitter coldest) of days, but this is the time when you’ll find the cheapest flights and have the highest chance of seeing northern lights. I’ve also heard that Iceland is the ultimate winter wonderland, but I guess it depends how you feel about the thought of winter in the arctic.
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  • Spring (March – May): Spring in Iceland is like spring anywhere else. Cold and wet in the beginning and tolerable near the end. The weather in spring is unpredictable, but again, it’s on the outside of peak season so airfare is cheaper and everything is less crowded. If you visit closer to March, you still have a chance of seeing northern lights. If you visit closer to May, the weather is a bit better and you have longer days. Icelanders also have a lot of festivals in the spring, including a celebration around beer in March, the first day of spring celebration, and the Reykjavik Arts Festival.
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THINGS TO SEE: SOUTH COAST

Honestly, the good stuff – right? There’s a lot to see in Iceland, so if you’re heading down the southern coast, check out my post on what not to miss.

CLICK HERE for a complete list of 10 places NOT to miss while you’re in Iceland!

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GETTING AROUND

  • BUS: There’s no shortage of tours available if you choose to forego a rental car. Tours by bus can be booked online and arranged in advance for pickup from the airport, booked at any visitors/information centers, or with the help of your hotel/hostel once you get there.
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  • CAR: Hands down the best option if you want to craft your own adventure. Trucks, camper vans, jeeps, 4x4s, economy cars are available for rent. What you choose to rent is going to depend on the time of year, the weather, and what kind of adventure you’re looking to have.
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    Economy cars: just fine for fair weather travel limited to the lowlands (Route 1 south coast, the Reykjanes Peninsula, the area around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula).
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    4x4s: if you’re traveling the entire Ring Road, the highlands, the West Fjords, or for when its snowing.Good to know: When you get to the rental counter, they’ll try to sell you all kinds of insurance, including: collision, theft, sand, ash, and gravel. Whether or not you purchase the insurance options is up to you.However, I STRONGLY recommend that you purchase the gravel insurance – even if you decline everything else. Gravel insurance is relatively inexpensive and covers damage to the windshield, tires, and underside of the car. You’ll be glad you have it when you’re (inevitably) dodging potholes down unpaved roads full of loose gravel.How to Road Trip Iceland, Iceland Coast Ring Road
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WHERE TO STAY

  • Airbnb: Airbnb’s can easily be found around the entire country. They’re your cheapest and most convenient option, especially if you’re able to split the price with other people. Click HERE to save $40 on your first stay.

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  • Hostels and hotels: Hotels in Iceland are the most expensive option for accommodation. But the good news is that hostels are an amazing alternative to hotels if you’re traveling on a budget. Most of them are excellently maintained and nicely decorated, with self-serve kitchens, common areas, bars, and on-site restaurants. Check out the map:
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HOW TO SAVE MONEY IN ICELAND

Iceland is notoriously expensive and not exactly “budget-friendly”, at least for travelers from the US and Canada. One night of “budget” accommodation averages about $100/night, gas is about $7/gallon, and its not uncommon for a beer to run you close to $15.

That being said, it is possible to make traveling Iceland a little less expensive with some careful planning and local tips (like these ones):

  • Eat gas station hot dogs: Just trust me on this. Icelandic hot dogs are world-famous for being both cheap and insanely delicious. They’re made from lamb (not beef) and come served on a toasted bun with home made crispy onions, special remoulade sauce, mustard, and sweet apple-based ketchup. You can find them served fresh daily at just about every N1 gas station or at the famous hot dog stand (Baejarins Beztu Pylsur) in Reykjavik.
    The price per hot dog? ~ 300ISK, or US$2.50
    How’s that for budget eating?
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  • Don’t buy water: Hands down the easiest way to save money here. Besides, nothing screams tourist like drinking bottled water in Iceland. This country has some of the freshest water in the world. And, therefore, none of their water is filtered. Yep, the tap water comes either straight from the waterfalls or straight from a pipe in the ground. And that tap water is exactly what’s in those plastic bottles. So don’t waste your money – or pollute the planet – by buying bottled water when you can just go and get the same exact thing for free from the tap.
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  • Split the cost of Airbnb’s: In most countries, hostels are the cheapest form of accommodation. Not always the case here. In most cases, the price of a single bed in a hostel will cost you more than a room in an Airbnb. So if you’re traveling with other people, your cheapest option is probably to split the cost of a multi-bed Airbnb.
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  • Skip the Blue Lagoon: I know, I know… if you already read my post on 10 Places Not to Miss, you’ll wonder if its even possible to say you’ve gone to Iceland without visiting the Blue Lagoon.But if you’re on a budget, skip it. Here’s why: (1) It’s insanely expensive, and (2) there’s a version in the north that’s 1/2 the price. Bonus: it’s NATURAL and in the Northern Lights Capital. Check it out: The Mývatn Nature Baths

Need more tips? Check out 11 other ways I save money while I travel.

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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

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  • BEST TIME TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ICELAND?

The northern lights are one of Iceland’s biggest, yet most unpredictable, attractions. Several factors come into play in determining where, if, and when you’ll see them, such as: time of year, the weather, how long you’re in Iceland, and how dark it is where you are.

In short, the best months to see them are between October and mid-April, since these are the months where there are full dark nights.You’ll also want to be sure to keep a lookout when the sky is clear (when you can easily see the stars), and be as far away from the city lights as possible – which is relatively easy considering most of Iceland is wilderness.To check the forecast and strength of the aurora for any given night, visit the Iceland Aurora Forecast

  • HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DRIVE THE RING ROAD?

The Ring Road (Route 1), as its name suggests, is a road that runs all the way around Iceland. In order to get the most of your time, you’ll need a minimum of 10 days to drive it.Anything shorter than 10 days and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself rushed for time (so I recommend 2 weeks). Of course, you’ll need to add to your time to account for changes to your itinerary and amount of daylight hours.

Tip: Rent a 4×4. Don’t attempt to drive the whole Ring Road in a 2WD economy car, for several reasons: (1) you’ll be driving a lot, so you’ll probably be cramped and (2) the weather in Iceland is unpredictable and changes quickly with elevation. So, even if its sunshine and rainbows in the south, it could very well be snowing in the north. Not to mention the gale force winds you’ll encounter on precarious mountain passes in the fjords. Save yourself the heart attack of being blown off the cliff in a tiny car and rent something bigger. #urwelcome

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  • WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE SHARK?

The rumors are true. Kæstur hákarl (aka: “Rotten Shark”) is a traditional Icelandic dish of a Greenland shark that has been cured through a fermentation and drying process.

The shark comes prepared as yellow jelly cubes, typically served in a sealed container because the smell is so gnarly. But – if you can even believe it – it doesn’t taste nearly as bad as it smells. It’s still pretty bad though, so you can chase it with the traditional side of buttered Harðfiskur (Icelandic fish jerky) and triple distilled vodka. Tasty, right?

If you’re brave enough to give it a try, the best restaurants to get your hands on Hákarl are:

Or go straight to the source at Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum to learn all about the actual fermentation process and its history, and then try the shark fresh – or, not so fresh. You know what I mean.
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  • CAN I DRIVE INTO THE HIGHLANDS BY MYSELF?

Yes, sometimes. And pretty much only in the summer.

The highlands (or F-roads) are considered unmaintained mountain roads. They basically run all the way into the middle of the country and consist of sand, massive potholes, crazy elevation gains, inclement weather, and river crossings. So, you absolutely need a 4×4 to even attempt to drive them regardless of the time of year.

For more information on F-roads, driving conditions, and road closures, visit the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website.
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  • DO I NEED TO PAY TO WALK ON A GLACIER?

Yes. You’ll need to book a tour if you want to walk on a glacier or tour an ice cave. You’ll need to be fitted with gear (i.e. helmets and crampons) and be accompanied by a professional guide for safety reasons.

Glacier walks and ice cave tours are available year round and can be booked here.

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OTHER INFO THAT’S GOOD TO KNOW 

  • Pack layers, a rain jacket and and waterproof shoes, regardless of when you visit
  • Shop for authentic souvenirs: Litla lopasjoppan in Hella and the Kolaportið flea market in Reykjavik
  • If you rent a car, you’ll need a PIN for your credit card at the gas station pumps. If you don’t have one, go inside the gas station and purchase gas cards to use at the pump
  • Make sure you pet an Icelandic horse! They’re the purest horse breed in the world – and SO cute
  • You probably won’t need to exchange currency. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, even for small purchases
  • Most Icelanders speak English

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Any other questions? Or anything I left out? Leave your comments below!

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Ultimate Guide to Iceland, How to Visit Iceland, Road Trip Iceland, How to save money in Iceland

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2 thoughts on “Everything you need to know for your first trip to Iceland

  1. HI Jacqueline,
    I need to thank you for great Blog about Iceland. I read it all you advices. It has good structure with great pictures and very helpful and inspiring….Same as all other of your blogs.
    You did absolutely great job!
    I am flying to Iceland this Sunday and would like to ask you for advice with car rental. Any car agency you would highly recommend?
    thank you
    Petra

    1. Hi Petra!

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’m happy to hear you’re heading to Iceland. You’ll absolutely love it! As for the car – I have had good experiences with Hertz. The people who work there are very friendly and I like their prices. You’ll be able to take the shuttle right from the airport. I’d recommend renting a 4×4 and opting in for the gravel insurance. Additionally, be sure to double check tire pressures and make sure there is a car jack and spare tire in the trunk before you head out! We were stuck once without a spare tire and missed our flight on the way home haha so now we always double check.

      Let me know if there is anything else you need!
      Have a great time 🙂

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