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Tips for Iceland Travels: Advice for First-Time Visitors

Mary Kujawski
tips for iceland travels

Let’s just get this out of the way before we go any further, friends:

I am not an Iceland expert.

I repeat: I am not a guru of all things related to the Land of Fire and Ice.

(I wish I could say I am! Alas, I am working on it!)

Yes, to be fair, I’ve only been to Iceland once.

So far.

(Wink, wink.)

Still, one visit to Iceland is all it took to turn my life completely on its head and blow my mind to complete and absolute bits. Trust.

I simply haven’t been the same since this country captured my heart!

My one-time visit was also enough to acquire some tips and advice for those who have not yet been. I learned so much during my travels there, from what I would do differently next time and which points of interest I recommend to what I feel made my trip so incredible and that would, ultimately, make yours incredible too.

And when you’re holding on to that kind of 411 treasure trove, you want to shout it from the rooftops!

So consider this blog post my virtual rooftop, friends!

Without further ado, hear ye my recommendations for a first-timer’s visit to stunning, otherworldly, magnificent Iceland!

USE AN ENVIRONMENTALLY-MINDED LOCAL TRAVEL AGENCY

sustainable iceland
Give your business to those who are helping to conserve and preserve Iceland!

I’m a planner at heart and as such am usually the one in my family to organize our trips. It’s a role I truly relish! That said, when I started planning for Iceland, I was flat-out overwhelmed. I knew I needed help to get the most out of our Iceland travels, and I found just that with Nordic Green Travel.

Through NGT we had a knowledgeable local Icelander who could answer all our questions, give us expert advice on how best to see everything that was on our wish list, and of course, guide us to hidden gems that only someone born and raised in Iceland could.

for Iceland Travels # 1: Simply put, it was money beyond well spent to ensure we had the trip of a lifetime in Iceland!

Did you know? 

Speaking of Nordic Green Travel, did you know that all tours booked with them are carbon offset with the planting of trees, which you can have a hand in doing yourself when you visit? Check them out!

SEE THE ISLAND BY CAR…

iceland by car
Views like this come up around every bend in Iceland! Endless beauty!

I’m convinced there’s no better way to see and explore Iceland than from behind the wheel! Renting a car will give you all the freedom and flexibility you desire to get out of the city and explore Iceland to your heart’s content!

There are many self-drive tours you can book if you need assistance with logistics and creating a sound itinerary. We booked Nordic Green Travel’s Iconic Highlights of South & West Iceland. We received all the maps, routes, and points of interest along our path so we could see as much as possible in our short time there!

Perfection!

… BUT GET ALL THE CAR INSURANCE…

dirty car rental vehicle
Our sweet little Kia Sportage rental lookin’ downright filthy during our travels!

There’s just a host of very bad things that can happen to your car in Iceland! ‘Tis the unfortunate truth! From your vehicle getting legit sand-blasted to your door flying straight off its hinge from the insane Icelandic wind, cars can take a beating in Iceland and it’s best you protect yourself in the event of such an occurrence. I have heard horror stories of people being left with charges in the thousands upon returning their rental due to not purchasing adequate insurance. I don’t want you to have a similar horror story, so please check your coverage and avoid skimping!

Tips for Iceland Travels #2: Getting SAAP (Sand and Ash Protection) coverage is a must in my mind!

…AND BE A CAUTIOUS AND CONSCIENTIOUS DRIVER

follow road signs when travelling in iceland
Follow all the signage when you’re driving.

You may be tempted to live on the edge a little while you’re on vacation, but follow the rules of the road in Iceland. Fines for speeding in Iceland are hefty, and it’s dangerous not to adhere to the speed limit with road conditions and weather as unpredictable as they are in Iceland. Stopping on the side of the road to take pictures is a quick way to get into an (unavoidable) accident, and please, stay on the actual road! Off-roading can tear up the fragile landscape and will land you in big, big trouble.

for Iceland Travels # 3: Use common sense, follow the law, and don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home.

PACK THE APPROPRIATE GEAR…

tips for iceland travels
Wearing ALL the layers visiting Kirkjufell! It’s the only way to dress in Iceland!

I can’t emphasize this enough! Iceland is a wild and unpredictable country whose weather can and will turn on a dime! As such, it’s important to have the right clothing with you so you can enjoy the beauty of Iceland not only on its best, brightest, warmest day but also on its coldest and wettest! If you can manage to stay dry and warm, you’ll enjoy Iceland no matter what Mother Nature decides to throw at you!

Pack wisely, including lots of quick-drying thermal layers and warm, waterproof footwear, and enjoy yourself to the max! Also, don’t forget to bring adapters.You will need something when you arrive in Iceland to plug in all those smart-lookin’ devices of yours, from your phones and Fitbits to your GoPro or camera equipment. We used something like this and it worked like a charm!

…BUDGET YOUR MONEY WISELY…

menu for iceland restaurant
There’s no getting around it: a sit-down dinner is gonna cost you!

It’s no secret that Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world! And nobody likes surprises of the nasty sort on vacation. Do your research and plan ahead to limit unanticipated expenses you weren’t prepared for. Make a realistic budget and then stick to it! You’ll be glad you did when your financial statements come rolling in post-Iceland! I promise you: your credit card company will find you!

Tips for Iceland Travels #4 : As a general rule, we found things like food and alcohol to be 2-3x more expensive than it would be back home. Bringing snacks from home, shopping at the Bónus supermarkets, taking advantage of happy hour prices, and buying alcohol duty-free from the airport will all help to soften the blow a bit. Also, find accommodation that includes breakfast!

…AND PLAN TO PAY ELECTRONICALLY

travelling in iceland
So much shopping, so little time. Bring your plastic!

Forget carrying cash! Plastic is preferred! We saw very little actual Krona when we were in Iceland, and by and large people pay for things electronically there. A little cash is nice for paying for bathrooms (Yes, this is a thing! Be prepared to pony up to relieve yourself!) and to tip your guides (although tipping in general is not expected in Iceland), but aside from that, it’s truly not needed.

Tips for Iceland Travels # 5: Don’t forget to bring credit cards that will not accrue foreign transactions fees and have a credit card with a pin. This is most needed (we found) when you are pumping gas! Many gas stations are unmanned and you will need a credit card with a pin to be able to fill up on our own. Trying to figure out how to add a pin to our card after we were in Iceland proved tricky and fruitless. Save yourself some trouble and obtain one of these ahead of your visit. You’ll be glad you did!

GET IN SHAPE PRE-ICELAND…

iceland travel on a glacier
Our three-hour hike on the glacier was incredible, but tiresome!

Iceland is stunning, but you’re gonna need to work for it to see some of the “best” spots. It wasn’t unusual for us to hike an hour or more one way to get to a scenic overlook or waterfall. Not only that, but a hike labeled “easy” by Icelanders is, we found, something more akin to what we consider a “moderate” hike in America. Those Icelanders…they are tough and hardy, I tell you!

Tips for Iceland Travels # 6: If you aren’t someone who works out regularly or is in decent shape, I would recommend getting some daily activity into your life starting now. Your body will be better prepared and you will have greater endurance to get through your days exploring Iceland on foot. You’ll be glad you built up your stamina ahead of your travels, and it’s just plain good for your health anyway!

There’s truly no downside here!

…AND LEARN A LITTLE ICELANDIC BEFORE YOU GO

travelling around iceland
Wouldn’t it be fun for you to go to Iceland and be able to understand this?

I’m not saying you need to become proficient, but learning a little Icelandic will enhance your experience tenfold! Not only will you be able to greet Icelanders and engage in small talk with those you encounter on your trip, but you’ll be able to try your hand at pronouncing the many (long) words you will come across on maps, menus, storefronts, and more! 

Tips for Iceland Travels # 7: Immerse yourself in the culture and you’ll have the most delightful fun as a result!

TAKE AND HONOR THE ICELANDIC PLEDGE

mossy lava field in iceland
Don’t step on that gorgeous moss! It took years upon years to grow!

Taking the Icelandic Pledge means you vow to be a steward of Iceland during your travels, treating its landscape with care and respect and promising not to be, well, a complete and utter a-hole when you visit. With the increase in Iceland’s tourism, it’s more important than ever to help preserve and protect the island’s fragile ecosystem and keep it thriving for generations to come.

Tips for Iceland Travels # 8: You can help and be part of the solution! And whatever you do, definitely don’t be part of the problem!

VISIT DURING SHOULDER SEASON

travelling in iceland in may
Shoulder season does not = shabby! Iceland was perfection in May!

My husband and I seem to always find ourselves visiting a place during its “shoulder season” (the period between peak and off-peak for tourism), mostly due to the fact that it’s the best time of year for us to leave our children in my parents’ care while we go off on our jaunts!

Having experienced Iceland in the shoulder season, I can say that I highly recommend it! You’ll find better prices on things like accommodation, encounter fewer tourists and therefore less traffic in your travels, and enjoy ample availability for tour bookings, etc.

Tips for Iceland Travels # 9: If you’re looking to visit one of the most expensive countries in the world but want to find any way make it a little easier on your pocketbook, visit during one of its shoulder seasons: April-May or September-October. You won’t be sorry!

BATHE IN THE BLUE LAGOON…

blue lagoon in iceland
The Blue Lagoon is the stuff of magic, I tell you!

Some say the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap and not worth the money, but I wholeheartedly disagree with those cynical folks! The Blue Lagoon is the top-rated attraction in Iceland and as such deserves a visit! It’s a perfect stop right off the airplane and is equal parts relaxing and rejuvenating for your travels ahead.

And, it has a beautiful, ethereal ambiance to boot! I implore you: what’s not to love?!

…AND DON’T FORGET TO FOLLOW ICELANDIC BATHING ETIQUETTE

iceland bathing rules for swimming pools
Thanks to this visual, I think it’s clear what I need to do and, um, where!

I come from America, where most people (rather unfortunately) don’t give showering before a dip in the pool a second thought. But please think again in Iceland. The geothermal pools will remain clean and sanitary for all when everyone adheres to a strict cleaning regimen.

Tips for Iceland Travels # 10: Don’t be shy! This is just the Icelandic way! Respect and follow the rules to a T and enjoy!

HIKE REYKJADALUR VALLEY…

hiking reykjadalur valley in iceland
How to put this into words?! Heaven on Earth, that’s what this is.

Hiking Reykjadalur valley under the gorgeous, sunny Icelandic sky will go down as not only the best morning I had while I was in Iceland, but as one of the best mornings I’ve had in my life, PERIOD. It is one of my top recommendations to anyone going to the Land of Fire and Ice. You’ll get a challenging hike, incredible views, and a soak in a hot river, all rolled into one. You heard me! This right here is a three-fer!

Tips for Iceland Travels # 11: Reykjadalur is not to be missed, and is a short 45-minute drive outside Reykjavík. Put this puppy on your itinerary and stat!

…BUT STRATEGIZE YOUR BATHROOM BREAKS

tips for iceland travels
Holy smokes this is beautiful! But, uh, hvar er klósettið?

You might be scratching your head on this one. Strategize my whaaa…, you say?! But yes, if you venture out into the countryside of Iceland (and please do!), you’ll find that public bathrooms are rather few and far between, which means you will actually need to give this basic human need some consideration and pre-planning while you are out exploring.

Thinking ahead to where your next stop and bathroom break might be, limiting your liquid intake while driving, and having a little cash on you to pay for bathroom use will (hopefully) make this a non-issue during your trip.

Tips for Iceland Travels # 12: avoid “going” in the Icelandic nature at all costs!

MAXIMIZE YOUR ICELAND EXPERIENCE THROUGH TOURS…

whale watching in iceland
About to set off on a whale-watching adventure!

Whether you want to ride horses, whale watch, or hike a glacier: there’s a tour for that! Tours are great for getting out into the countryside, enjoying the company of and learning from Icelandic locals, and perhaps meeting and making new friends of fellow tourists! Plus, if you do an activity like glacier hiking, going with an expert guide is truly a must. This is money worth spent to ensure you have a safe memory-making experience!

Tips for Iceland Travels # 13: Not all tours are created equal, so check that you are giving your business to a reputable and environmentally friendly company. Nordic Green Travel has working relationships with many and can help book tours for you.

LIKE SNORKELING THE SILFRA…

snorkeling in iceland
One of the most incredible experiences of my life!

Fun fact: Iceland is the only place in the world where one can snorkel between tectonic plates! Did you know?! There are several companies that offer snorkeling or diving tours in the Silfra fissure and I highly recommend that you take advantage of this truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Seriously, folks! This is not to be missed!

…AND RIDING ICELANDIC HORSES

horse riding in iceland
Icelandic horses galloping away on a farm in Hvolsvöllur.

One of the most peaceful, soulful things we did while in Iceland was go horseback riding in the Icelandic countryside. Icelandic horses are gentle giants with a unique look and sweet temperament. I recommend getting up close and personal with these magnificent animals and enjoying an afternoon or evening riding one. There are farms across the country offering horseback riding tours of varying durations.

Tips for Iceland Travels # 14: Please respect the Icelandic horses you see during your travels. Do not feed them or go into enclosures to get closer without explicit permission from their owners.

ROAM THE STREETS OF REYKJAVÍK…

tips for travelling in iceland
The sight atop Hallgrímskirkja church, a must-visit spot for superb city views!

True story: you won’t find a more artsy, quaint, or charming city anywhere! Reykjavík truly has my heart forever! Please give it its due diligence and allow yourself at *least* an afternoon to explore its treasures and gems. It’s a walkable city and full of whimsy and personality! Definitely don’t overlook Iceland’s beautiful capital city!

Tips for Iceland Travels # 15: Take one of the free two-hour CityWalk tours offered in Reykjavík. A local will provide you with an informative introductory stroll through the city center!

…AND EXPLORE SNÆFELLSNES PENINSULA

travelling to iceland
Scenery like this is just par for the course on the peninsula!

Snæfellsnes Peninsula is known as ‘Iceland in Miniature’ and for good reason! You’ll find all the highlights that Iceland is known for in a relatively small section of the country: glaciers, volcanoes, black sand beaches, incredible waterfalls, geothermal pools, and more! If you’re looking to get a lot of bang for your buck (and time), there’s no better place to get a thorough “snapshot” of Iceland than on Snæfellsnes!

FOR SEVERAL ICELANDIC HIGHLIGHTS, CHECK OUT THE GOLDEN CIRCLE…

iceland travel tips
Iconic Gullfoss waterfall is a sight to behold!

The Golden Circle is a popular day trip for tourists, and it’s no mystery as to why. The Golden Circle route in Iceland allows you to see several well-known spots in Iceland, like Thingvellir National Park (where you can snorkel the Silfra) and Geysir. You can even stop for ice cream at Efstidalur farm for a midday snack to fuel up for more sightseeing!

Take this route by car or join a tour that originates from Reykjavík!

…AND THEN MAKE YOUR WAY ALONG THE SOUTH COAST

travelling tips for iceland
Gorgeous basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach

Oh, the beauty of Iceland’s South Coast knows no bounds! It’s such a magnificent drive, full of noteworthy stops along the way. Highlights include epic waterfalls such as Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, as well as the gorgeous black sand Reynisfjara beach. So much awaits you, from lava fields to spectacular canyons, that it’s no wonder it’s one of the most visited areas in all of Iceland!

…AND DON’T STOP UNTIL YOU GET TO JÖKULSÁRLÓN LAGOON!

iceland tips for travelers
The colors of the water and icebergs at the lagoon are mesmerizing!

Please don’t forget to go far enough east to see the glacier lagoons! My oh my, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the shades of blue at Jökulsárlón! It is more than worth the extra drive and was a highlight of our Iceland trip. As such, I always recommend people try to find time for this in their itinerary. You can pair a trip to Jökulsárlón with a jaunt down to Diamond Beach, another arresting sight just a stone’s throw from the lagoon.

Tips for Iceland Travels #16 : If you want to get up close and personal to the icebergs, amphibian boat ride tours on the lagoon are also available. We took one and loved it!

ALL THE WHILE, DRINK THE WATER…

iceland tips for travel
At mineral spring Rauðamelsölkelda; its water is delicious!

Iceland is home to some of the cleanest and most refreshing water anywhere! So please, pack a reusable water bottle and chug away! The tap water is perfection! You will save yourself plenty of pennies by not purchasing bottled water and practice good environmental responsibility at the same time.

For fun, check out this bit of a tongue-in-cheek “commercial” Inspired in Iceland put out about drinking the Kranavatn (Icelandic water).

The message is clear: drink up!

…AND EAT LIKE AN ICELANDER

Tips for iceland travels
It doesn’t get tastier (or cheaper) than Icelandic hot dogs (pylsurs)!

You must keep an open mind and try some of the foods Iceland is most well-known for during your travels there! From Plokkfiskur (fish stew) and lamb to Hákarl (fermented shark) with a shot of Brennivín, seek it out!

Food is so intricately tied to a country’s culture and customs that to try some traditional foods is to dig deeper into its history and roots and become an honorary Icelander during your travels!

When in Rome!

I mean Iceland!

CHASE ALL THE WATERFALLS…

iceland travel tips
Enchanting Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall you can actually walk behind!

You can’t visit Iceland and not attempt to see as many waterfalls as you can while you’re there! They are seemingly around every bend in the road there, each one displaying its own unique attributes. A trip along the South Coast will allow you to see several of Iceland’s most iconic falls such as Skógafoss, but you’ll find a gorgeous waterfall (or dozen) no matter where on Iceland’s map you find yourself!

They’re one of Iceland’s greatest treasures, after all!

…AND ABOVE ALL ELSE:  KEEP A POSITIVE ATTITUDE!

tips for iceland travels
Sometimes things just won’t go your way. No worries, mate!

Look, there’s no beating around the bush here: Iceland is unpredictable! The sooner you adopt the mindset that anything can and will happen during your visit, the happier you’ll be!

We had several activities/hikes planned in our itinerary that didn’t end up happening. Either a road was closed, or the weather was too inclement, etc. It’s OKAY. I have actually come to love this about Iceland: she is her own boss and she does what she wants! Your plans just ain’t her problem, you hear?! It’s admirable, really!

So, embrace the unpredictable and be flexible in your thinking. The Icelanders have a common saying, þetta reddast, which means it will all work out in the end.

And guess what? It does!

It really, really does.

About the author

Mary Kujawski