Every passionate traveler should visit Iceland at least once because it could be the adventure of a lifetime. But, let me be honest with you. Planning a trip to Iceland can be painfully overwhelming and the trip itself is far from a laid back vacation. You would need all of the preparation you could get. So, here are 20 untold tips for tourists visiting Iceland. Believe me, I wish I have known them sooner!
20 Untold Tips For Tourists Visiting Iceland:
1. Book your hotels and tours in advance
Tourism in Iceland has been gaining popularity exponentially. Iceland is unbelievably beautiful, not to mention there are now more convenient ways to get there. On the downside, due to its high demand among travelers, hotels and tours sell out fast. You have to book months in advance for tours and hotels. If you wait to book a week before your trip, you will run out of good, affordable hotels to choose from.
For a list of accommodations you should consider, click here. These are the accommodations we have tried and tested – from budget hostels to luxury design hotels! 🙂
Blue Lagoon is no exception when it comes to advance booking. Even though our trip was during the off-peak season, it was still difficult to find an availability. If you can, book as early as a month in advance. Also, price depends on the time of day of the visit and how far in advance of the visit the ticket is booked. There is no time limit so you can stay as long as you want!
2. If you are planning to join a Northern Lights tour, book it on the earlier days of your trip
Most of the Northern Lights tours give their customers a second chance on seeing the Northern Lights (for free) if they failed to see it on the first night. Booking it early on your trip will allow you to have more options on the second night if needed.
*Don’t forget to bring a portable tripod for better Northern Lights photos!
Want to make it more exciting? You can hunt the Northern Lights by yourself!
It might not be as easy as having your own guide to track the Northern Lights for you but it could be very fulfilling. In our case, we joined a Northern Lights tour (which we didn’t see any due to the clouds) AND we also stayed late on our last 2 nights hunting the Northern Lights by ourselves. Guess what, we found it on our own on our last night in Iceland! It was faint but the experience of finding it by ourselves was amazing!
These are the tools that we used to track the Northern Lights:
Aurora Alerts Northern Lights App – shows your chance of seeing the Northern Lights in your current location and the potential strength of the Northern Lights
Aurora Forecast (Icelandic Meteorological Office) – shows the cloud coverage forecast per hour for all regions
*Although these are forecasts and may not be 100% accurate, you will know which direction you should be going. Go for the dark and clear skies! Seeing stars is a good sign.
3. Ice caves vary from time to time depending on the flowing water
How the ice cave looks like today may not be how it looked like the previous week. In our case, it was smaller than we expected but it was as bright and as blue as portrayed in the photos.
Read more about the Ice Cave Tour.
4. Things you need to know about the Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon is NOT overrated. I was skeptical at first but ended up considering it as one of the highlights of our trip.
A major drawback of this lavish experience is the Blue Lagoon’s damaging effect to the hair. Leave a large amount of conditioner on your hair and pull it into a bun. Try not to soak it in the lagoon to avoid an extremely dry, rough and brittle hair.
It doesn’t smell as good as it looks. As you approach the Blue Lagoon area, you will smell a strong scent of sulfur. It is similar to that of a rotten egg. Don’t be discouraged though. It doesn’t smell bad when you’re already swimming in the lagoon. Besides, the scenery and the whole spa experience will make you forget about that odor.
The bright blue hues of the lagoon can be GREEN at times as a result of algae. On our second visit to the Blue Lagoon, we were surprised by the change in color. We were expecting to find the same bright blue water we saw the previous year. Instead, the water was darker and greener. There was also an area in the lagoon where we stepped on some algae. This is the downside of a perfect, sunny weather.
Read more about our Blue Lagoon experience here.
5. Traveling in Iceland can be quite expensive that’s why it’s crucial to cut the avoidable costs
Here are some ways you can save on your Iceland trip:
Bring your own towel, robe and slippers if you’re going to the Blue Lagoon. This will save you ISK 3500 or around 32 USD per person
Bring a large water bottle. Most hotels have potable water which you can use to refill.
Again, book in advance for hotels and tours.
Go in groups. You can split the cost for car rental, gas and hotel. There are also many guesthouses that have dorms. You can book as a group, making it more fun and budget-friendly!
6. Off-peak seasons are off-peak for a reason
Our first visit to Iceland was on the 2nd week of October. There was a continuous heavy rainfall during the first 2 days of our trip. Most of the summer tours (e.g. glacier boat tours) have ended by this time while majority of the winter tours (e.g. ice cave tours) are not yet offered.
7. Rent a car and do a self-drive tour
I highly recommend renting a car and doing a self-drive tour in Iceland. Believe me, those drives were our best adventures! Unlike being in a group tour, we were able to go anywhere we want. Even though road conditions can be challenging outside the Ring Road, personally, a self-drive tour is still the best way to discover Iceland. Every part of this beautiful country is something you should see, not just the popular attractions like the Ring Road. You could rent a car from Reykjavik airport for convenience.
Doing a self-drive tour is easy if you stick to the Ring Road.
If you are going to be adventurous, plan your routes carefully and check the types of roads you will be encountering. You can check it in Google Maps.
- Avoid these roads if you will be driving in a non-4×4 vehicle: F-roads, 550 and 35
- Speed limit: gravel road – 80 km/h, paved road – 90 km/h
- Iceland’s public emergency number: 112
For road conditions and road types in Iceland, you can check this site.
8. Although Google Maps is helpful at most times, don’t fully rely on its first and faster route suggestion
Don’t get lost like the way we did or you might end up at an F-road. We were very dependent on Google Maps. Without looking at the full route it suggested, we started driving towards one of our destinations. Little did we know, our route included a couple of mountain roads passable only to 4×4 vehicles. Imagine a very narrow, uneven road with loose gravel! The bad weather didn’t help either.
9. Renting a 4×4 or a regular car
If you’re going to Iceland on summer (or at least not during winter) and you only plan to drive around the Ring Road, 4×4 is not needed. We drove a car on October and we were able to drive the Ring Road. However, your destinations will be limited to that area only. There are many gorgeous spots outside the Ring Road and most of them have to be driven using a 4×4. If you are the adventurous type and would like to explore random areas, I highly recommend using a 4×4. During winter, I also recommend driving a 4×4. It will put you at ease because it is safer and the roads in Iceland could get really challenging during winter season. It’s for your safety, convenience and freedom to drive at F-roads. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck or damaging your car because of the potholes and gravels.
Find a 4×4 or a car here.
Explore around Iceland but know the limitations of your car. It is very convenient if you rent an off-road vehicle with all-terrain capabilities. It is way more expensive but you wouldn’t need to worry every now and then.
Get the complete car insurance
Car insurance in Iceland are expensive but crucial. Car rental and insurance are costly for a reason – the roads and weather in Iceland can really damage the car.
10. Unlike US and Canada, tipping is not required in Iceland but appreciated
11. Don’t underestimate the wind caution
It’s very windy in Iceland. There were times when the wind was too strong, our car was being rocked. We had to hold the door every time we opened it. You will be charged by the car rental company if the door gets damaged by the wind.
12. Try not to get too disappointed when you miss your chance to take a photo while on the road
Our drive was filled with endless beautiful views. It was hard to keep up with the photo opportunities. Be ready to take pictures but if you miss a shot, don’t worry about it. There are still many chances!
Oh, and don’t miss out on the photos because of an empty battery. If you will be shooting relentlessly, which you probably will, the battery of your camera might not last one full day. It’s best to bring an extra battery for your camera.
13. Take extra precaution when visiting Reynisfjara and Kirkjufjara beach
There are warning signs in these areas because of their known dangers especially to tourists. However, it is easy to overlook these signs. Even I am guilty of this one. Once you see the black sand beach and basalt column caves, there is a strong urge to explore and take photos even at the most unsafe place. Gigantic waves taller than an average person become an excellent photo opportunity.
These warnings should not be taken lightly. There are reported cases of tourists drowning at the beach because of the killer waves. Don’t turn your back on the sea when taking a selfie and stay at a safe distance. Don’t even try to swim in the beach, no matter how challenging/amazing it seems.
For a detailed article on the dangers of Reynisfjara and Kirkjufjara, you can check this blog.
14. The famous Icelandic hotdog is made of lamb
Personally, I don’t prefer the strong taste of lamb but it is a must-try in Iceland.
15. Must-see places that are not in popular travel tour itineraries:
Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Seljalandsfoss (at night)
On the hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, we decided to take a night drive to find it on our own. Well, we didn’t see the Northern Lights because of the cloudy skies BUT we discovered that Seljalandsfoss can be viewed at night! We even had it all to ourselves.
16. Look out at the side of the roads for a chance to befriend an Icelandic horse but please, be gentle and kind to them
If petting and taking a photo with an Icelandic horse are also in your list, you have many chances! We encountered a very friendly one on our way to Kirkjufjara beach. We were driving when we noticed this adorable white horse near the side of the road. It was the perfect opportunity so we parked our car and made our way to it. It loved the attention it was getting!
*Also keep an eye on the Icelandic wildlife like the arctic fox, reindeer and seal.
We chanced upon seeing all three! On our first trip, we found an arctic fox while we were driving from Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. We didn’t have a dashcam back then so we weren’t able to record it. On our recent trip, we saw a herd of reindeer while we were driving to in the East region of Iceland, twice! For the seal, we saw it while we were taking photos of Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.
17. While planning for our Iceland trip, I read somewhere that you shouldn’t worry if it rains because the weather changes quickly. This is not always the case.
We had a difficult time on our first 2 days because of the non-stop heavy rainfall. On the bright side, if it rains, you will see endless waterfalls coming from the mountains.
18. Packing essentials:
Always pack a pair of boots, change of pants, socks, waterproof and windproof jacket and extra shoes
There were several instances where we were drenched in rain or splashed by waterfalls. Water repellent clothes and extra shoes would come in handy. There are also lots of opportunities for hiking and exploring so bring a pair of comfortable boots or hiking shoes!
Bring a pair of sunglasses
It can get too bright in Iceland. You might need these when you’re in the Blue Lagoon or driving at daylight.
If you’re visiting Iceland during winter, bring a pair of crampons
The sights and activities you will be doing during winter will most likely include an icy, slippery trek. We visited Iceland at early March and we regretted not having crampons. We hiked Kerid (volcanic crater lake), a waterfall and several glaciers and every time we were wishing that we were wearing crampons. There were also several tourists that had crampons.
These crampons are portable and might actually save your life when hiking those icy trails. Our ice cave tour provided us crampons similar to the one below and we really felt the difference between having crampons and without. It had a tight grip on the ice and we weren’t sliding. Without crampons, our hikes in Kerid, the waterfall and glaciers were difficult. Even though we were already using snow boots similar to hiking boots, we were always sliding.
19. Bring a universal plug adapter and a car charger
Most sockets in Europe have two rounded holes. The accommodations we stayed did not have a universal plug adapter so we had to charge our phones while driving.
Universal World Travel USB Adapter / Plug Converter – $5.71 w/ USB Power Port / EU / US / UK Plugs
If you forgot to buy one and you’re already reading this from Iceland, you can try the electronic store in Reykjavik called ELKO. It is where we bought ours!
20. Bring a dashcam if you are going to do a self-drive tour
Iceland is incredibly stunning that you would want to record all of your drives. A dashcam will come in handy because it will record everything on the road while you take all the pictures you want!
Bonus: Itinerary tips for tourists visiting Iceland, click here.
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