Iceland is not like any other country. It’s a country where you are dependent on the weather and the forces of nature, more so than anywhere else. I spent two weeks in Iceland to discover its diversity. I admired gushing waterfalls, tiny fishing villages, moody lava fields and boiling mud pools. It was a hell of a road trip, but also one in which I felt pretty vulnerable at times!
If you want to visit the Land of Fire and Ice, you need to come prepared! So before you head off, check out these 12 things you should know before your first visit to Iceland.
Ten invaluable travel tips for Iceland!
1.Rent a car
Yes, it is expensive, especially in summer, but if there are several of you travelling together, there won’t be a massive difference compared to taking the bus. You can get to most sights by bus, but it might take an awful lot of time for the more remote areas. Going on excursions is hassle-free, but you don’t get to choose how much time you want to spend in a place and you will be there when the crowds are. So yes, rent a car, trust me!
2.Iceland is HUGE, take your time
So you thought this Nordic island between the USA and Europe was tiny? Think again! It’s roughly the size of Portugal or the state of Kentucky! So if you want to travel all around Iceland, you will end up driving A LOT! I thought 2 weeks would be plenty. Guess what? Nope! There are quite a few gravel roads that will slow you down a lot!
Oh and don’t rely on Google maps! When it says your travel time will be 2 hours, make sure you count double! It’s pretty accurate on the Ring Road, the major road around the island, but once you’re off that, it’s anybody’s guess how long it’ll take you to get to your next destination!
So, take your time!! Don’t spend a whole day driving, instead walk around the fishing villages, go for a hike and stop at that scenic picnic spot!
Winging it is a bad idea in Iceland! I drove for about 60km without seeing anybody else on the road, or a village or shop for that matter! Buy a road map that indicates petrol stations and fill up every time you get the opportunity, you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank!
Same thing goes for food. In most countries, we are used to come across some kind of shop or café every few kilometres. Not in Iceland! Make sure you have some provision with you, even for dinner. Some hostels I stayed in were so remote I would have had to drive 30km to the next bar/restaurant!
4.Icelandic weather is unpredictable, even in “summer”
I live in Ireland, so I thought I knew a thing or two about changeable weather. Turned out I was wrong… I went to Iceland in June, somehow referred to as “summer”, with an average temperature of 12°C/53°F! But what really surprised me were the howling winds and lashing rain at times. Rain doesn’t seem to come from the sky in Iceland, it seems to lash horizontally, making sure you get absolutely soaked and putting your waterproof gear to an ultimate test!
If you go hiking, prepare!
I took some risks walking along the beautiful Raudanes cliffs. The weather started off fine, but soon fog set in, meaning that it got pretty challenging to find my bearings… Take a GPS with you!
Or how about leaving beautiful Seydisfjördur, in the East Fjords? Driving over the mountain pass in thick fog, not seeing where I was going, was pretty frightening I must say!
Download the free 112 Iceland app, which will allow you to leave your travel route and will send an SMS to the Icelandic emergency services with your GPS location if you get into real trouble!
5. Summer daylight or winter darkness
If you’re visiting Iceland in summer, be prepared for nearly constant daylight. The advantage of longer days is that there is plenty of time for sightseeing. The downside is that your body doesn’t receive any signal on when to slow down. If your hostel or hotel room doesn’t have dark blinds, I strongly suggest you bring an eye mask!
In winter, it’s the opposite problem. Days are very, very short and you have approximately 5 hours of proper daylight to schedule in visits. Icy roads will be another problem. If you are visiting Iceland in winter, you should definitely plan for more time! The advantage? The Northern Lights!!
6. Respect the landscape
Iceland boasts landscapes that literally look “out of this world”: lava fields, bubbling mud pools, glaciers: diversity galore! But, whatever you do, please respect this fragile nature! It’s no secret that Iceland has been overrun with tourists over the last 5 years and we all have an impact on the landscape, no matter how sensible we are. But when I see people trying to step on a glacier despite saying “danger, do not step forward” just to get the perfect selfie or Instagram pose, my blood is boiling!
7.Bring your own music
Whenever I’m abroad, I love listening to the local radio station to hear the local music and/or learn a bit about the local lingo. I could picture myself driving on the empty Icelandic roads listening to Björk-soundalikes. I was right about the empty roads, I was wrong about the music. Some areas are so remote that you just don’t capture any kind of radio station! If you do, it will be either RUV1 or RUV2, the national broadcasting service, which is hardly more exciting. They seem to talk endlessly on those channels and music is a rarity. When they finally do play something, you wish you had another channel you could switch to!
Bylgjan or FM957 are better choices, but forget about finding them in remoter areas.
8. Happy hours!
One of the most common myths is that alcohol is very expensive in Iceland. It’s not exactly cheap, but in Reykjavik you can get your tipple for not a lot more than you would back home: make sure you download the free app “Appy Hour” to check on all happy hours of all the bars in Reykjavik. How is that for a saver?
On the subject of the Icelandic capital, you should really spend some time there! There are plenty of things to do in Reykjavik!
9. Yaaay, free car-wash
Driving on the gravel roads or dirt tracks will transform your shiny car into one big muddy affair. But no worries, no need to pay for an expensive carwash! Most petrol stations have brushes and water handy to get rid of most of the dirt. And they are completely free!
10. Credit card country
No need to take a massive amount of cash with you, cards are accepted everywhere, even for small amounts. For my American readers, you do need a PIN code to get petrol, no swiping in Iceland, so make sure to get one from the bank before leaving!
11.Watch out for the Arctic Terns
I’m not much of a bird-fan, I consider anything that flies as a possible aggressor. Of course most of the birds will leave you alone, but in Iceland they seem to have a variety that actually does represent my worst nightmare: meet the Arctic tern! To be fair to them, they only attack during nesting/breeding season, roughly May-August. Of course, let that be the season I was there!
I was walking quietly on a country road in the East Fjords when a few of them started circling around my head, squeaking to clearly intimidate. Pretty impressive!
A few days later, in the north, I was walking along the beach when the same thing happened, but this time they decided to up their game: one of them actually started pecking at my head! Oh the horror!
It’s difficult to know where exactly they are nesting, but don’t worry about finding them, they will find you!
I saw a few walkers waving their walking poles above their head to avoid the aerial strikes. A hat might also help to protect.
12. Beware of the sheep too
In spite of having so much space available, some sheep have decided that the best place for a sit-in is in the middle of the road! So be careful, especially in remote areas and in foggy weather!
After these 12 travel tips for Iceland, you should be ready to go!
Iceland is a fantastic country! Check out this 2 week itinerary for Iceland to have an idea on what to do. Have fun, enjoy your trip and you can thank me later!