Assembling a Trip to Iceland: The Toolbox

I love doing travel research for European trips. I have a grasp on how to find interesting historical sites, museums, markets, local food specialities, and other things to do when visiting cities and small towns. But give me the span of the great outdoors and I don’t have a handle on the first thing to do.

My trip to Iceland this past October was one of the most incredible and wonderful trips I’ve taken in all of my time traveling through Europe, yet it almost didn’t come together. I was intimidated to plan, information seemed less accessible than other destinations, and the possibilities of what to see and do seemed endless. When the entire country is gorgeous, how do you narrow it down?

If Iceland at all appeals to you, I hope you don’t pass up the opportunity to go because it feels daunting to figure out. I am the least outdoorsy person out there (remember my appearance in Seefeld, Austria last December in a peacoat and jeggings among the Olympic-clad cross-country skiers?!), yet I can vouch it is possible to make this trip happen. So take heart! I’ve put together a few pieces of advice that would have encouraged me and helped me along the task of trip-planning an Icelandic adventure. So let’s do this together.

Are you ready to plan a trip to Iceland? Here’s some things to consider as you solidify some plans:

  • Figure out when you want to go. The summer months offer lots of sunlight to maximize sightseeing, and if you time it right, you can even experience the midnight sun phenomenon. Also, there are some places that you are only able to access during the summer months so keep that in mind as you consult the calendar. (For example, the hiking trail from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk.) Winter months on the other hand offer a chance to see another natural phenomenon, the northern lights. September through mid-April is the target time to be in Iceland for a chance to see them - the key is to have a dark night sky (and no cloud cover), with the least moonlight as possible.
  • In my experience, the shoulder seasons of May and October have been great times to go. There aren’t many tourists during this time so not only is it less crowded but the prices of hotels and such aren’t at their peak. 
I was able to see the Northern Lights for my first time in Iceland in October! We were up against pretty cloudy nighttime skies the whole trip so we were really fortunate to see anything at all. It's never a guarantee to see them, but a nice bonus to an Icelandic venture if you happen to catch them in the winter months.

I was able to see the Northern Lights for my first time in Iceland in October! We were up against pretty cloudy nighttime skies the whole trip so we were really fortunate to see anything at all. It's never a guarantee to see them, but a nice bonus to an Icelandic venture if you happen to catch them in the winter months.

  • Consider if you have any travel plans coming up on the horizon between North America and Europe. Icelandair has a promotion for a free stopover in Iceland for up to a week. This has saved me money in getting to Iceland, and also I’ve found airfare between Paris and my hometown in NJ to often be lower with Icelandair than other companies. Trust me, you’ll likely spend the money you save on a stopover on the rest of the trip, but every bit helps!
  • Allow for ample time to explore. And above all, be realistic in expectations of how much you can do in a day. It’s corny and all, but a trip to Iceland is just as much about the journey as it is about “destinations.” It really is best to have a few points of interest in mind to get to, and have lots of padded time to travel slowly and savor the scenery. I can’t even count how many stops and detours we made along the way on our last trip, and I’m so glad we had time to just enjoy the adventure as it unfolded without feeling stressed to cram stuff into the day.

Got the basics for your adventure set? Here are some more things beforehand to prep for:

  • Get outside of Reykjavik. Unless you are only staying for a very brief amount of time, make sure you get out of the city and see the countryside. Iceland is all about its incredibly beautiful and diverse landscape. Even if you are in town for a short stint, consider at the very least doing the popular Golden Circle route to see some natural wonders.
  • Rent a car. Unless you are staying for a short amount of time, I believe renting a car and exploring on your own is the best way to experience Iceland. It can be pricey, especially when you factor in the price of gas, but absolutely worth it. It allows freedom to go at your own pace, see what interests you, and the flexibility to venture off where no tourbus can manoeuvre. Or to places that don’t make a tour company’s itinerary.

Renting this SUV was the perfect way to explore northern Iceland! 

  • Figure out the exchange rate before you arrive. You might assume that 15,000 Icelandic Króna can buy you a small car. But as of the day I’m writing this in November 2014, it maybe could buy a car part, coming in at about $122 (USD). Make sure you look up the exchange rate to have an idea of how to translate these crazy prices to your home currency so you’re not completely blindsided when you go to purchase something. 

And a basic packing list:

  • A trip to Iceland is about outdoor adventuring. So pack athletic (or in my case, jeans) clothes and comfortable shoes. Throw in some hiking shoes if you plan for more rigorous walks.
  • Pack in layers, and bring warm clothes! Were you ever taught in school that “Greenland is full of ice, and Iceland is green”? Well, as true as it might be, Iceland still has the word “ice” in its name! Something I failed to recognize on my trip this October. Let me tell you, it was cold! Pack a hat and gloves, or you may have to buy some wooly accessories like I did.

I ended up buying this fashionable headband and gloves made from Icelandic sheep wool on my last trip to Iceland because I was freezing. Not that I won't use these little souvenirs again, but I spent much more than I would have if I had just thought ahead and purchased something on the first leg of my trip in the US!

  • Don’t forget a bathing suit! No matter how short a visit in Iceland, you must make it to one of the country's geothermal pools. If you're not ready to go for a more local experience or don't have much time to venture far beyond the main airport, I can definitely recommend a visit to the popular Blue Lagoon.

A trip to Iceland must include the Blue Lagoon, or at least another geothermal pool experience! 

  • Throw some snacks in your bag. Two reasons: 1. Iceland is expensive, and food can really add up fast. 2. If you are outside of Reykjavik, you can drive for quite a while before you even find a place for a bite to eat. I learned this the hard way on my first trip to Iceland. In the tiny village where I was staying (if you can even call it that), the supermarket was open from 10am-4pm. Not very convenient opening hours to swing by when you’re out and about all day! And buy plenty of water at the airport - always important to stay hydrated!
  • And do not, I repeat, do not, forget a camera! I want to bet that even the most camera-adverse can’t resist snapping a picture or two of all this natural beauty.

And finally, if you do go to Iceland and take my advice to rent a car, here are some things I would have found helpful to know in advance:

  • Determine where you are going and get the appropriate car. On my first trip to Iceland, we rented a sedan and stuck to the Ring Road as well as smooth roads within Vatnajökull National Park. The second time we rented a 4-wheel drive SUV that was necessary for some of the further exploring we did off the main roads. The time of year is also important to consider as I imagine 4-wheel drive is necessary in the winter months.
  • Always keep an eye on your gas tank levels. If you haven’t gotten the idea already, outside of Reykjavik is quite rural with few opportunities to fill up. So be aware and don’t pass up opportunities because it can be a while before the next one arises.
  • (Along the same lines - take every bathroom break when presented with the option! I’ve read tips from others who advocate for carrying along a roll of toilet paper around on the road, but I’m not that intense. I’ve never gone camping at a site without running water, and I’m not about to start roughing it anytime soon. But if you’re headed to really secluded stops, by all means!)
  • Back to the gas station - filling up your gas tank can be confusing, even when you are able to switch the prompts into English. The gas pump will ask you to put in an amount before you fill up the tank. Don’t worry, it is not asking you to estimate how much gas you need by committing to a price to pay. It is asking you to pick the cap it can charge your card. So if you select a higher amount than you actually pump, you of course will only pay for what you took. But if you choose an amount too low and need more gas, you will be charged what you indicated as the cap and will have to go through the process again. Also, if you want a receipt, after you fill up insert your credit card again and it will print the receipt.
  • Be aware of road conditions and road closures. This is especially important during the offseason and winter months...basically anything besides summer. But then again there are these things that can cause disruptions called volcanoes, so there really isn’t a time when you shouldn’t be diligent in looking into road conditions. Consult the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration’s web page in English.
  • Other cars on the road usually are not the main thing to head caution to when driving. Outside of Reykavik and its suburbs, there are few cars on the road. Instead, you do need to watch out for the occasional wandering sheep crossing the street. And sometimes construction work that happens in the middle of the road (as in the road is still functioning and not closed off) - I had to proceed around a few cranes and such during my recent road trip.

Be careful of spontaneous sheep crossings in Iceland! 

  • And lastly, when you are driving, take notice of these blue signs with a black four-leaf clover symbol of sorts on a white background. This indicates some type of natural wonder. They can make for some great little detours to places you may not have even known about, and are worth checking out!

Here's an example of the sign I'm talking about - it looks like this. This one in particular led us to the site below - 

...a mysterious shipwrecked boat along the ocean. Though I don't think the sign indicated this boat in particular - it is a peninsula with beautiful cliffs right beside the ocean.

So when are you going to Iceland?! And if you've been already, what tips can you add to the list?