Practical Travel Tips: Iceland

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Iceland definitely is the “IT” destination at the moment. From cities with Icelandair or WOW Air service – it is reasonable to get to. Definitely a fun destination – we had two write-ups previously on Iceland and Westman Islands, Iceland. Yvonne, of Hello Wander World, who last wrote about Costa Rica and Bangkok, recently went and here are her practical travel tips.

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Iceland is one of those places that make you question whether or not the landscape is of this world. You’ll be able to set foot on the black sand beaches of Vik or snorkel between two tectonic plates separating Europe and North America. It’s a country loaded with lots of beauty, adventure, and close knit culture.

The Black Sand Beach in the South coast town of Vík – Photo: (c) 2017 – Yvonne of Hello Wander World

How to get around

You’ll fly into Keflavík International Airport (KEF), which is about 45 minutes outside of the main town, Reykjavik. From there you can take a bus into town or rent a car.

Reykjavik is a small town that’s easily walkable; so if you’re planning on just staying in the town, you can walk to everything you would need. Look out for free walking tours that will give you a great overview of the history and legends of the culture. There’s a public bus that’s easy to use and can bring you out to local hangouts, like the geothermal beach – just ask the driver to let you know when you get to the stop! Almost all tours offer pick-up/drop-off from downtown Reykjavik, so getting to the cool glaciers and hot springs are still convenient without a car.
Renting a car opens your options to a lot more destinations. Main roads are paved and easy to drive, but check the weather reports for any advisories. Ask for a GPS or paper map with your rental and you’ll be all set to take on your own road trip. If you choose to get a GPS, it’s helpful to program your destinations before you leave the rental company, so you don’t need to worry about deciphering the Icelandic road signs.

Where to stay

If you’re staying in Reykjavik, there are lots of great hostels, Airbnbs, and hotels (hostels and Airbnb’s, if split, being the cheapest). If you’re wandering around the country, there are Airbnbs, hotels, and camping sites. You can find everything from hot spring resorts for pampering to individual glass igloos for the best view of the night sky.

Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik – Photo: (c) 2017 – Yvonne of Hello Wander World

Currency

In Reykjavik, you can use a credit card for almost every transaction. Remember to always charge in the local currency and not USD! It’s not necessary to take any cash out if you’re staying in the city. If you’re traveling to the more rural areas, it might be handy to have a little cash for tips or small vendors, but even then, most of your transactions can be done through a credit card. Tipping isn’t customary but it’s not considered rude and will always be appreciated.

Food and Drink

Iceland offers some delicious food you can’t leave without trying. This includes:

  • Skyr – a yogurt like superfood that’s usually mixed with fruit for a creamy snack or dessert
  • Fish – any and all the fish. Fish is a big part of the culture because of the abundance and freshness. Go to any of the waterfront shops in Reykjavik to enjoy melt-in-your-mouth fish
  • Lamb – the lamb roam freely their whole lives so the meat is tender. Try the lamb soup and you won’t regret it.
  • Hot dogs – this seems like a random dish to be known for, but there’s a twist – the hot dogs contain lamb and there’s a special sauce that goes on top. Have it with the works: ketchup, mustard, onions, and the special sauce. Check out the famous hot dog food truck in Reykjavik, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.

Famous Icelandic hot dog – Photo: (c) 2017 – Yvonne of Hello Wander World

Language and Legends

English is spoken basically everywhere so communication won’t be an issue – this is important for obvious logistical reasons, but also for storytelling reasons. It’s almost impossible to visit Iceland without hearing about elves. The Icelandic have a strong connection with elf folklore so ask a local about the stories — you won’t regret it.

Best times to visit

The time you choose to visit should be based on what you’re interested in doing. The summer months of June – August bring warmer weather (still with highs only in the 60s F) with the midnight sun – anywhere from 20 to 24 hours of sunlight. This time is the best for hiking, camping, snorkeling, and other outside intensive activity. The mild winter months of February – March and September – October bring more hours of darkness, more precipitation, and colder weather, but it also opens up the opportunity to see the famous Northern Lights or go ice caving.

Looks like you just have to plan more than one trip!

What 11:30PM looks like during the Summer – Photo: (c) 2017 – Yvonne of Hello Wander World

Seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)

One of the biggest draws to Iceland is the opportunity to see the Northern Lights – those dancing green lights in the sky. To make the best viewing experience, getting away from city lights and going during the right time of year will increase your chances. The lights aren’t viewable every day, so allow multiple opportunities in your schedule to see it and use Aurora tracking websites/apps to stay updated with conditions. If you plan on taking pictures, have a camera with good long exposure capabilities and a tripod ready to go.

Weather

The locals say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes” and they’re not exaggerating. Some days it can feel like you’re experiencing all 4 seasons, so be prepared with layers. In the rainy season, opt for a rain jacket or poncho over an umbrella to avoid the tourist mistake of not being prepared for the strong winds.

Because the country is so prone to vast weather changes and strong winds, don’t be surprised if there are last minute changes to a tour itinerary due to weather. When I went, my glacier hiking tour was cancelled twice because of strong winds. In these times, you have to appreciate Mother Nature for her beauty and unpredictability. If this happens, there are many options for you; all you have to do is wander into a tour agency and see what they have available. In my case, I ended up snorkeling the Silfra, which ended up being the coolest thing I did.

If you lack warm gear strong enough for winter in Iceland, Iceland is actually the best place to get the highest quality in wool and adventure thermal gear.

In the crystal, clear 3 degree Celsius water of the Silfra – Photo: (c) 2017 – Yvonne of Hello Wander World

Safety

Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world. I went as a solo female traveler and was able to relax knowing that I didn’t have to constantly watch my back. In fact, it’s one of the top destinations for solo travelers in general because of its safe, welcoming community. With that being said, petty crime is still possible so keep valuables back at the hotel or house.

Layover Option

Icelandair offers a unique layover option in Iceland before or after a trip to Europe. That means you pay for a flight to somewhere in continental Europe, but you also get a stopover in Iceland, ranging from a few hours to a week, for no extra charge. Tours cater to the layover visitors as well, with tour pick-ups at the airport, so you can sneak in a quick snowmobile adventure before heading home or glacier hiking trip on your way to Paris.

A very popular stop near the airport is the Blue Lagoon, a natural spa that boasts a milky, geothermal lagoon for soaking and relaxing. Enjoy all that Iceland has to offer!

About The Author:

Yvonne is a software engineer by profession, traveler by heart. When she’s not traveling, she lives in DC, attempting to satisfy her wanderlust through picking up new hobbies (like flying trapeze) and trying new foods (like pupusas). She’s on the never-ending quest to taste and see all the flavors of the world, and she believes everyone should experience the type of travel that opens your mind to imagination and creates a flurry of emotion. Follow her on this quest through her blog, Hello Wander World or Instagram @hellowanderworld.

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3 Responses to "Practical Travel Tips: Iceland"

  1. Bob says:

    Haha. Ridicolously misleading about the country that fleeces its tourists.
    Paying $2 to use the toilet at popular tourist destinations. Paying $60 for a couple of beers and two burgers at a “cheap” eatery in downtown Reykjavic.

    The place is cool if you want to see the Northern Lights, but don’t be fooled, much of the scenery can be found in the U.S.

    Reply
    • BL says:

      I was in Iceland a few months ago and did not experience what you described.

      The only places with pay-to-use toilets were one or two very popular touristy sight-seeing spots near Reykjavik. None outside the Golden Circle was paid toilets; all free to use, around the country. (btw, paid toilets is a common thing in Europe, unlike the US. In much of Europe you can expect to pay 1 euro to use a toilet.)

      I had meals both cheap and expensive. Reykjavik tends to have the expensive ones but I did not experience this $60 for 2 beers and 2 burgers thing. My fanciest meal was at a place that served beers and burgers in downtown and it was US prices. (under $20 per person for a meal)

      I guess you either have to be lucky (or unlucky) or just have to know what to choose and what not to choose when picking a meal?

      Reply
    • BL says:

      And I forgot to reply to this comment:
      “much of the scenery can be found in the US”

      This really sounds to me like you only went to Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.

      Take a trip around the rest of Iceland. You’ll see that much of the scenery is NOT what you can find in the US. 😉

      Reply

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