Iceland is one of the most incredible countries I have ever visited, period. Every turn provides new nature, gorgeous scenery, and breathtaking views. I have compiled a list of things to consider before you plan your epic Iceland adventure:
Before you can go to Iceland, you must decide how you want to see it, rolling green or with blankets of snow? Both options have pros and cons. During the Summer, it is in the 50’s. Driving is pretty straightforward as the weather is mild, however, most tourists pick traveling during this period. Expect heavy foot traffic at all the tourist destinations. You have the most amount of daylight in the Summer, averaging about 20 hours. During the Winter, it is below freezing. Driving can be frightening and unpredictable. The weather can change to a blizzard within a couple of minutes. There are still tons of tourists but nowhere near as many as during Summer. Lastly, you only average about six hours of full daylight. For us, the sun began coming up around 0930 and setting around 1530. If you want full daylight, consider a Summer trip.
NORTHERN LIGHTS VISIBILITY
Are you going just to see the Northern Lights? If so, Winter is your best shot since there is less light! It isn’t a guarantee, but it does better your chances of seeing them. You must have a fancy camera with aperture, IPO, and shutter speed customizations. A tripod is imperative when using customized camera settings to capture the lights. Plan on traveling with one! Download Aurora Borealis apps and check the forecast regularly. This isn’t perfect but it lets you know your chances of seeing the lights!
SELF-DRIVING OR TOURS
Another thing to consider is how you plan on getting around in Iceland. Iceland is a fairly small country, however the huge sites are spread out. There are plenty of tour companies that will take you around to all the big sites. If you aren’t comfortable driving, this is the route for you. If you choose more freedom and you are comfortable with all road conditions, then you should rent a car. We rented a car and it was perfect for us. We were able to stop when we wanted to for pictures and we created our own itinerary based on how we wanted to see Iceland. Ian was confident driving through blizzards, 25mph winds, and on black ice. Additionally, we saved a boat load of money by doing it ourselves. We even car-camped at waterfalls and lagoons for two nights so we could wait out the Northern Lights. This is something that you can’t do with a tour company. And it was worth it because we saw the most incredible Northern Lights shows over some of Iceland’s most touristy spots.
With Iceland becoming more and more popular, tourists are everywhere. My best advice is to hit the big spots early. I know this can be tricky if it is Winter and there is low lighting, but even around 0900 there is enough light to snap pics! It is worth it to get to these sites without buses of tourists being unloaded onto the scene. Despite all the tourists, we never had traffic on the highways. Everyone who self-drives creates their own routes so driving is pretty traffic-free until you hit Reykjavik. Prepare to get passed by Iceland locals on the highways. They know how to drive in Iceland, you don’t. Take your time and be safe. Allow yourself to get passed…over and over again. Safety is the priority.
Everything in Iceland is ridiculously expensive. To put it into perspective, a cup of soup (not a bowl) was the equivalent of $15 USD. Iceland uses the Krona currency.
During the holidays, a lot in Iceland is closed. Especially Christmas and New Year’s Day. Do your research to make sure something around you is open if you need to eat! During the holidays, the snow plows don’t clear the roads as regularly. Proceed with caution!
HOTELS AND TOURS
Hotels and AirBnB’s fill up extremely fast. Book everything in advance. If you are self-driving, allow room for error. There is the chance that you don’t make it to your hotel if the weather turns for the worst! Tours also fill up quickly. If you are late, they will leave without you! Allow yourself ample time to get to your tours so you don’t miss out. A good tip is to double the driving time that the GPS says. This way it makes up for stops or changes in road conditions.
DRIVING IN ICELAND
The roads and the driving side are the same as in the United States. The maximum speed is 90KM. Iceland has one-way bridges throughout the Golden Circle. Take caution here. Iceland also utilizes a lot of roundabouts. Filling up your tank in Iceland is pricey. Our little Suzuki Jimny cost $150 USD to fill up each time. They only accept debit cards at the tanks. If you choose, you can get a gas card inside with the vendor. This way you can pay with your credit card. Rent a GPS and a WiFi box from your car rental company. If your GPS is acting funny, you can connect to WiFi and use your phone! You do not want to lose anytime by getting lost, especially if you have minimal lighting in the Winter. Make sure you are checking Iceland’s road conditions every time before you start driving. They give you live updates on road closures, wind speeds, and black ice conditions.
Whether you go in the Winter or the Summer, layers are of priority. There were days I wore two silk pant base layers, a Smartwool pant base layer, two pairs of wool socks, a silk base layer shirt, a Smartwool base layer shirt, two sweaters, and a jacket. Other days, one base layer sufficed. My trick to packing is to bring a few key pieces that can be reworked many different ways. I packed three sweaters. All of which could have one of two collared shirts beneath. The sweaters also went with either of the three pairs of pants I packed. This way it didn’t look like I was wearing the same outfit our entire trip! Our down puffers save our lives every trip. They are easy to pack and provide that extra warmth you need. We also packed our Penfield jackets and NorthFace raincoats incase the weather got damp. Once again, these jackets fold in on themselves to make packing a breeze. To top things off we each brought one big coat which we wore on the plane. We also wore our comfortable yet warm hiking boots on the plane. This is of upmost importance. You do so much walking in Iceland that comfort must take priority…and also warmth! Don’t be stingy on this purchase. Also pack durable gloves and cozy hats! Lastly, we each brought one scarf that we wore as needed. I packed a big blanket scarf that was glorious on cold days. We each carried on all of our luggage for ten days in Iceland, in below freezing temperatures!