Visiting Iceland will not disappoint regardless of what decisions you make, but I’ve put together the below collection of tips and information based on a recent trip to this beautiful island nation (June 2015). If you’re looking for more info on the top places to visit, see my earlier post “Touring Iceland“.
This post contains:
How to prepare for your trip
What to pack for your trip to Iceland
10 tips for a great trip to Iceland
How to have a low budget trip to Iceland
My trip playlist
How to prepare for your trip to Iceland
Iceland was a very easy place to travel around. It’s safe and friendly and quite set up for tourists, so lots can be arranged once you arrive in the country. That said, in order to optimize your time there, you can do a few things ahead of time.
- Book your accommodations and rental car ahead of time: Day tours, ferries, reservations at Blue Lagoon and so forth can be made once you arrive, but having your car figured out ahead of time is key. It’s also likely going to cost you less. If you’re camping, there is no need to book ahead of time as campgrounds can accommodate pretty much any number of guests. You simply show up and pay.
- Buy a Lonely Planet guidebook: This is a great resource for you to peruse ahead of time (especially to figure out accommodations and key destinations), and it is excellent to have with you as you plan day by day as you travel.
- Check out Youtube: You can easily find videos of all of Iceland’s most amazing attractions so it’s a great way to learn and get excited about the trip.
- Do normal trip preparation: Call your credit union/bank ahead of time to put a travel note on your credit cards. Put an away message on your phone and email if you choose. Make sure you have your prescriptions filled. This allows you to have peace of mind and nothing to try to figure out while away. Internet is readily available in most places in Iceland should you need to check in though.
- Learn a few phrases: Although pretty much everyone can speak English, it’s always good to be able to greet people and say thank you. Podcasts and youtube videos are great for this.
What to pack for your trip to Iceland
- Bring layers! Some days you will be hot in the sun and others you will be chilled by the wind and rain. Pack clothing for all seasons including a raincoat, hat and gloves, scarf/buff. Where possible consider quick-dry, moisture-wicking clothing if you’re going to be active, as well as merino wool which is great for travel.
- Good walking shoes that are rain-friendly if possible
- Hiking poles and boots. Plan to get out on the trails and come prepared to do so.
- Sunblock, hat, sunglasses
- Swimming supplies: swimsuit, quick dry towel, sandals, goggles
- Book (the 24 sunlight can mean a harder time to get to sleep for some so come prepared)
- Eye shades for night
- Earplugs (Iceland is full of birds who song beautiful songs… All the time)
- Credit and debit cards (very easy to use almost everywhere so no need to bring cash with you)
- Travel guidebook
- Aux cord so you can listen to music and podcasts as you drive
- Camping stuff – if that’s the type of trip you’ll be doing. Go lightweight wherever possible on your cooking tools, stove, tent, sleeping pad but bring a really warm sleeping bag and possibly and extra blanket (check the weather before you go). Bring a couple extra water bottles or bladders for bringing fresh water into the backcountry. Also bring dry bags and extra clear plastic bags so your things stay dry.
- A multitool is always handy. As is duct tape which I wrap around my water bottle so it’s easy to transport and always on me.
- Packpack for day trips and day hikes
- Plug converter for electronics
- Ziplock bags. You will never regret this. They are great for carrying things that might otherwise leak or to separate different items and keep your pack organized.
You probably won’t need bug spray (no mosquitos), headlamp (unless you’re caving), water purification system (there is so much fresh water available most everywhere), so decide for yourself on these things.
10 Tips for a great trip to Iceland
- Get a copy of the Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper when you first arrive. You will quickly get acquainted with what local events are happening. They often have a summary of all of the Reykjavik happy hours too and this matters in Iceland because it often means 1/2 price drinks which is more like regular prices in Canada.
- Bring a guidebook so you can have information and maps at your fingertips. Lonely Planet is a great one, but others would probably work. If you can get a current volume, the details and prices are going to be more accurate too.
- Do your research ahead of time so you have an idea of how many places and in what order you are traversing this magical land so you don’t miss anything that really matters to you.
- Take advantage of tourist centres to ask questions, get tips and pick up hiking maps. Double check what you’ve read ahead of time with the local folks at the centres.
- Don’t let the weather stop you so come prepared for rain, cold, wind, sun. Chances are, the next sunny moment is right around the corner but don’t wait for it. Seeing the sights and being outside can be great in any weather if you’re dressed appropriately.
- Take advantage of the hot pots and town pools after a long day. These are often cheap and relaxing. It’s a great place to get your shower after backcountry hiking too.
- Get out of Reykjavik. Definitely visit Reykjavik, but also book a rental car or hitchhike to get out to the Golden Circle or beyond on the Ring Road. You won’t regret it.
- When you visit in the 24 hour sunlight season, it means you can adjust your schedule to visit the high-tourist destinations off-schedule and have spectacular sights to yourself! That means skip the crowds of people from tour buses and visit the falls and the historic sites at midnight. Sounds strange but do it once and you’ll totally get it. Think about this for a minute – no people in your photos of the magnificent sights.
- Leave some wiggle room in your schedule. Iceland has way more attractions and hikes than you would initially think so if you find a cool spot along the way, make sure you have time to visit and take it all in. And, plan to visit again so you’ll do more next time. Don’t rush it.
- Stay as long as you can! Visiting for a couple of days would be lovely, but there is so much to see that even a few weeks hardly allows for it. That said, do what you can to maximize visiting time by coming prepared, being healthy when you arrive and taking advantage of the sunlight.
How to have a low budget trip to Iceland
Iceland is notorious for being an expensive place to visit. At initial glance, this seems true, but there are lots of ways to get around it.
- Camp: You can camp for free in many spaces (not national parks, bird nesting grounds or private property, but there are so many other places including mountains, valleys, beaches and more). If you want amenities, for roughly $13CAD ($10USD) per person per night, you can stay at beautiful campgrounds.
- Shop around for a rental car or hitchhike: We hunted a bit online, paid a bit more for a bigger car with Budget but then later met lots of people who booked very cheap rentals through SADcars.com. Terrible name and honestly most people said their cars had the ‘check engine’ light on for most of their trip, but I didn’t hear of any breakdowns. We’re talking half the cost of the popular international rental companies. Hitchhiking is very common, easy and apparently quite safe. If you want to opt to not have a rental car or board a tour bus, pack smart and make new friends. Thumbs out. If you take a rental car, consider picking up hitchhikers who sometimes will pitch in for gas.
- Bring your supplies with you: Especially if you have dietary restrictions or like particular things (toiletries, food, etc), it just makes sense to bring that with you. Getting through customs seems to be a breeze with these types of items too (read the restrictions ahead of time of course and declare anything needing declaring). My travel buddy made a few big batches of food and dehydrated them ahead of time so we have 20 meals in little ziplock baggies ready for rehydration (really light to carry too). For us it was chick pea curry, black bean chilli and humous. Also bring your first aid items with you including things for upset stomach, body aches, nausea, sleeping, etc. These items tend to have a higher price tag in Iceland.
- Cook your own food: Even if you don’t camp, you can still bring a little camp stove, pot and dishes (fuel is available at most gas stations and grocery stores). You can shop at the grocery stores for your food and have picnics instead of eating at restaurants.
- Be wise about your booze: Buy your booze at the duty-free shop before leaving the airport when you arrive. Alternatively or in addition, buy your booze at the liquor store (“Vinbudin”). The mark-up in some bars is 5x or more. Lastly, pay attention to happy hour in bars and choose your times wisely.
- Do swaps and check out free bins: Most hostels and campgrounds have free bins or book swap shelves. Books are pretty expensive in Iceland and the English book selection can be limited in some stores. Scan free bins for supplies you might need. Most of the time there is camp fuel available, English books, cooking supplies, etc. Also, if you’re carrying around something you’re not using, lighten your load by donating it for use by someone who might need it more.
My goal was to spend around $3000 for a 3 week trip to Iceland, including my flight. This was ambitious for what I had heard about the high costs, but I came in pretty close.
Flights $777 (Iceland Air from Halifax, Canada booked 4 months ahead of time)
Rental car and insurance $1152 (My half – Budget)
Pre trip food and supply purchase $250
Tours and admissions $150
Camping fees as well as 1 night at hostel night before flight $160
Gas, food, booze, gifts, entertainment, misc. $661
(Health insurance was covered through my Travel VISA for free)
(A lot of gear was borrowed from family so that saved a lot of money)
(Hiking clothing was bought here and there at sales and outlets over the year prior to the trip so that doesn’t show up here but it was very reasonable)
*All in Canadian Dollars
My trip playlist
When you’re in a car for nearly 3 weeks, you’ll want to bring music with you. Podcasts are also great. For this trip, the following songs were some of my favourites on the trip playlist (among hundreds of others):
- Old Pine – Ben Harper
- I Got a Woman – Ray Charles
- Tenessee Flattop Box – Johnny Cash
- The Next Time Around – Little Joy
- Put it in My Box – Big Momma Laley
- Sittin on the Dock of the Bay – Ottis Redding
- Taboo – Good Lovelies
- Tell it Like it Is – Aaron Neville
- Don’t Let it Bring You Down – Neil Young
- Rock Me Mamma – Old Crow Medicine Show
- Tisket Tasket – Ella Fitzgerald
- Littlest Birds – Be Good Tanyas
- Juicy – Biggie Smalls
- Love Is – Adam Cohen
- Up on Cripple Creek – The Band
- Our Hearts Were Young – The Wooden Sky
- Sinner – Jeremy Loops
- Broken Halo – Phantoms ft. Nicholas Brown
For more help to plan your trip see my earlier post “Touring Iceland“