Iceland was a pretty recent bucket list add for me. It was never somewhere that I dreamed of visiting when I was younger, nothing like Egypt or Peru, but over the last few years, it seems like everyone’s attention has snapped to this little Scandinavian island, and it rose similarly quickly to the top of my own list. All the stunning photos of the dramatic volcano-dotted, glacier-studded, lunar landscape are enough to send any traveller into fits of wanderlust, and I have been absolutely no exception to this.

Now that we’ve (tearfully) departed Iceland after the most amazing 8 day road trip, I am already mentally planning my next visit. After all, I’m smarter now and know all sorts of handy things that I didn’t before. I thought I might share some of those musings with anyone wanting to visit Iceland for the first time!

When to go

Don’t be scared off by winter— I’m planning my next visit for summer so I can enjoy some hiking, but I just wanted to reassure anyone considering a winter visit that it is fabulous! Not only were we graced with no traffic, fewer people, and cheaper accommodation, but we had some flexibility since no tour or hotel was fully booked. I hate people in my pictures, and we often had whole waterfalls to ourselves! The Northern Lights are only visible in winter, and the short days (5 hours of daylight) didn’t disrupt our travels at all. Plus, the whole country is connected via the Ring Road (route 1) and it is cleared and drivable, even if it does snow. That being said, I would say early winter is probably best, just to reduce the likelihood of snow interrupting your trip.

How to get there

We weren’t even planning on going to Iceland in December, it totally fell into our laps. I was booking a flight from London to Seattle to see my parents for Christmas and noticed that basically every flight had a layover in Reykjavik (Keflavik International Airport). After further investigation, I found the Iceland Air Stopover program, where you can book a flight from Europe to the USA (or vice versa) with a stop in Iceland at no extra cost (ours actually saved us money on the ticket!) for anywhere between 1-7 nights. If you’re actually trying to do anything in Iceland past Reykjavik, I would go straight for 7 nights.

Search directly on the Iceland Air site for the Stopover deals. Also, be sure to sign up for the Saga Club, which is IcelandAir’s frequent flier club. I didn’t foresee flying through Iceland often enough to rack up points for a free flight, so I didn’t even bother to sign up before our flights. Fast forward to discovering that IcelandAir lets you convert miles into giftcards, and I was kicking myself! Thankfully, I got retroactive points for my flights through the website and was able to cash in for an Amazon gift card! To do this, after signing up for Saga Club and making sure your flight is on your account, sign up to Points.com and add your Saga Club membership. Then you can just click redeem and exchange points for gift cards to Amazon, Target, Starbucks, Best Buy, etc. FYI you can also exchange miles from Hawaiian Airlines and American Airlines in the same way. I literally just learned this and am very excited.

How to get around: Hire a car

There is no public transport and there are no people to hitch a ride from when you get into rural areas, aka 99% of the country. Everything is, however, located within a few minutes of the Ring Road, the big circular highway that connects all of Iceland, so a car just makes sense. To be fair, there are probably tour buses, but I think Iceland is so easy to get around, it’s a waste of your time, money, and freedom to join a tour and overpay to see very stock standard places instead of stopping where you want to. Hire a car!

I did a lot of reading before we arrived about the safety of driving in Iceland in winter and the reviews were so mixed. Some people said never, ever drive in Iceland, so imagine my surprise when we got there and had absolutely snow-free roads. Some of that is luck, but I think any sensible person can drive in Iceland (hence why Cal drove and not me). That being said, we witnessed a car drive straight through a T-intersection and crash into a lava field and one of the passengers was taken away in an ambulance. While we were trying to check the news online to see if she was ok, we read about another crash that day, a head-on collision on a one-way bridge with one fatality. I can’t comment on the conditions of the bridge crash completely, although I do know that it wasn’t snowing and there was absolutely no ice on the road that day, but I can say for the T-intersection crash that it was perfectly light and not foggy in the slightest! A case of not paying attention. The main roads are straight and flat, so it’s just the elements that might disrupt your driving. Snow, ice, fog, dark. It’s only light 10-4 in winter, so driving outside these times is dangerous, especially when there are low-hanging clouds or heavy fog, as we saw often. Factor in the frequent one-lane bridges and it’s easy to see how people crash when they aren’t being cautious. So just be cautious, problem solved.

We rented a car from Thrifty, but there are a million companies located at the Keflavik airport, like Eurocar and Enterprise and Sixt and all those standard ones you see everywhere. There are also some lower tier companies, like Sad Cars, which have older vehicles and are quite a bit cheaper. I read lots of good reviews (and lots of bad ones), but I didn’t want to risk it in winter. I opted for a 4WD as well, just in case. We ended up not needing it, but peace of mind is worth a lot. In summer, I would say get one of the cheap, smaller cars, or better yet rent a camper van! These are sadly not even an option in winter, as most places stop renting them the 1st of Dec.

Another hot tip, get the car wifi. Most rental places offer a roaming wifi thing (the very technical term) for about 10€/day and we didn’t want to pay for it so we opted to do without. Thankfully, the rental guy gave it to us anyway for free! It was a lifesaver. We used google maps, we searched for more stops, we streamed music, and I used it to update my blog and keep my photos backed up. Not sure how we possibly would have gotten around without it, because a lot of the best sites aren’t as easy to find as just typing an address into a gps. If you’re cheap like us (and don’t luck out with a free wifi thing), there is another option. There’s a UK mobile company called 3 that offers free unlimited data roaming in a heap of European countries (including Iceland!). If you’ll be in the UK, easy: just pick a SIM card up at a store, I think it’s 20GBP ($33AUD) for the unlimited deal. If you won’t be in the UK: trickier. I ordered one as a Christmas gift for my stepmother off this site, totally legitimate, they just mark it up quite a bit. I paid about $50AUD for the same unlimited sim. The price of convenience!

Planning your roadtrip

I was so overwhelmed when I started planning where we would stop. There are so many places, I could hardly write them down quickly enough! Well, my first piece of advice is to plan reasonable days for yourself, i.e. don’t plan to drive 5 hours a day in the winter, that’s more daylight hours than you actually have and you won’t get to see anything. Even more, there is always the chance that the weather will take a strange turn and you won’t be able to drive on to your next destination, especially if it’s still hours away. No one likes spending their whole trip in the car, so probably aim for 2-3 hours of driving each day in the winter and 4-5 in summer.

With that in mind, you should think how far around Iceland can I make it? Originally, I wanted to drive the whole Ring Road, but amended the itinerary to only drive from Keflavik (in the SW) to Höfn (in the E) and back, and I’m very glad I did. We got to see a lot more this way and were never rushed. I think 10 days would be enough for the whole Ring Road in winter, but more is always better, especially to allow for delays and avoid missing your flight out. In summer, though, 8 days would be totally doable, since you have almost endless daylight and no weather to worry about. So decide the ground you want to cover and stick to researching that area. No point in obsessing over waterfalls in the north if you’re not going there (not that it stopped me..).

The Golden Circle is the popular 1-day route from Reykjavik that most everyone includes in their road trip. It features several amazing waterfalls and geysers all in a condensed area, so if you’re short on time, it’s the one thing you should do. You can even book a tour that leaves from the airport or Reykjavik if you only have a day in country! If you have heaps of time, though, you could miss it. The sites are amazing, but way overcrowded (this is coming from a winter visit, so it’s probably 10x worse in summer), and if you have time to drive the Ring Road you’ll see far more beautiful places with far fewer people (often no people at all!). The Golden Circle is comparatively crowded with tour buses and it definitely detracts, in my opinion. Read more about our experience driving the Golden Circle.

Once you consider how far you’re willing to drive each day and where in Iceland you can reasonably make it to, I would look at a few things for inspiration for your stops!

  1. Tripcreator, which is a free website you can use to map out your whole road trip. It’s missing some places, but it’s super helpful in early planning. You enter how many days and whereabouts you’d like to stay each night and it will suggest hotels from Booking.com and suggest stops along your path. Like I said, doesn’t have everything, but it’s how I figured out what towns to stay in (it will tell you how far you’re driving each day and you can change the hotel accordingly) and where the main waterfalls/ beaches/viewpoints, etc. are located!
  2. The Iceland section of my blog! I wrote out laborious entries for every day of our road trip and posted an obscene number of photos, so it may be helpful to scroll through, see what stands out, and add it to your own itinerary 🙂
  3. Other blogs for similar inspiration, such as Alex Cornell’s and Unlocking Kiki, who actually lives in Iceland, plus many others, just have a google. I basically just plan all my trips by stalking other people.

And some of our best stops were completely random finds. We would see an amazing glacier in the distance and turn off the main road to get as close as we could. The photo below is a perfect example. More times than not, we would be the only ones there. There is nothing more magical.

Budgeting (& ways to save money)

Ah yes, the less-fun part of planning your trip: actually paying for your trip. 10/10 most expensive place I have ever been in my life, but I assure you, it’s worthwhile. Just to illustrate my point, though: with the discount card from our car rental company (Thrifty), we paid about 185ISK ($2.5AUD) per litre of fuel. For my American friends, that’s about $6.4USD per gallon. (WTF.) A meal at the hotel, often the only place to eat (not kidding, this country is about as developed as the Moon) was 5000-7000ISK. That’s right, $80AUD for a meal, not even including any drinks. Even Subway sandwiches are over $20. And the two tours we booked (horse riding to the glacier and a blue ice cave tour that got cancelled) cost about $200 per person. I don’t want to tell you how much snowmobiling cost..

Point being, you should take some measures to save money (unless you are extremely wealthy, in which case lucky you). We stopped at the supermarket, but even that food is expensive. There were many cup soup meals and definite binge-eating during free breakfast buffets at our various hotels. On one occasion when we craved hot food too badly to eat another peanut butter sandwich and drove 45min to eat at a service station, we paid 3500ISK for 2 burgers and chips ($20 per burger). If I could turn back time, I would a) stop at the supermarket in Reykjavik, because we didn’t stop until we were out of the city and were sorely limited by the selection and b) bring freeze-dried mountain food. Every hotel we stayed in had a kettle, just add hot water to your delicious mountain chile con carne or beef stroganoff and laugh at all the chumps paying $80 for a pasta dish at the hotel restaurant.

If you are visiting in summer, you will be burdened with even higher accomodation, car rental, and tour prices, but you have the option of camping or staying in a camper van, and both of those would save significant amounts of money for other activities. Out of main towns, you won’t find budget accomodation, and even the hostels you do see will be way more expensive than you’re imagining. We always opted for the cheapest option and still paid, on average, $150/night for our hotels. Split between 2 obviously, but that was still a back-breaker.

Booking your trip

I read other blog posts that encouraged pre-planning and I’m thankful that we did. Iceland is not Southeast Asia, you can’t just rock up in a new town with your backpack on and find a cheap place to stay the night. There are hotels around, but they aren’t always clustered together or even near a town (sometimes they are 45min from the nearest fuel station). And I’m sure in summer that they book out quickly! In winter, it’s dark by 340pm and you just want to know where you are going, not driving around in circles looking for a last-minute room. I’m hitting up campsites next time I come (in summer, obviously), but those may also have booking systems. Anyway, I would strongly advise you to book your room before you leave.

As for tours, I booked our ice cave tour two months in advance and still did not get my first choice of date OR time, and this is the least busy time of the year—imagine summer. Our horse riding guide told us that she is the only guide working for Skálakot in the winter, taking about 5 tours a week, whereas 6 guides work in summer and each take 3-4 tours a day, 6 days a week. That suggests to me that pre-booking is very necessary in busy times, so think about what you really want to do and make sure you don’t miss out. (Incidentally, I missed out on my ice caves anyway after the cave flooded and the tour was canceled, but it’s just an excuse to go back!)

Activities

The main activity is just driving around and pulling off two dozen times a day to look at the scenery, but there are also lots of cool tours to do! As mentioned previously, they are super expensive, but so worthwhile.

Ride Icelandic Horses

This is the quintessential Iceland experience, riding on the country’s most beloved animal to glaciers or black sand beaches. Icelandic horses have gorgeous manes and thick fur to withstand the winter, they are so sweet and docile, and they are pony-sized, how can you not love that? We went with Skálakot, which is an amazing little family-owned tour company not too far west of Vík in Ásólfsskáli. One look at the website, and you will be sold; it’s super personal and the horses are well loved. We paid around $200/person for a 4 hour private tour to the glacier Eyjafjallajökull and then stayed literally next door at Country Hotel Anna. Read more about our day riding horses.

Blue Lagoon

Not a tour, but still a paid activity that we really enjoyed, despite it being super popular, very touristy, and incredibly overpriced. For 50€, you get entrance into the lagoon with its all natural, silicone-rich mineral water, and it really is fun and quite beautiful, despite being manmade. It’s about half-way between Keflavik and Reykjavik, so it’s best to do on the way to or from the airport. Oh, and you need to book ahead on the website and choose a time slot to arrive. Read more about our experience at the Blue Lagoon.

Snowmobiling

There are a million companies that offer snowmobiling on Langjökull glacier, including ones that leave from Reykjavik and ones that leave from Gullfoss (in the Golden Circle). The price only seemed to vary a few dollars between companies, and most had good reviews, so we sort of randomly picked Mountaineers and it was great. We paid about $300 each for about 2 hours of actual snowmobiling. Read more about our day on snowmobiles.

Ice Cave Tour

Yes, ours was cancelled and I’m mega-depressed about it, but I fully intend to go back and do this one day. My research supervisor personally recommends Local Guide of Vatnajökull for the tour, it’s about $200/person and leaves a few times a day (10am/1pm when we were booking). The tour office you leave from is in Hof (not to be confused with Höfn) and we stayed in Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, which is beautiful and basically right next door.

Packing for your trip

Pack for all weather. This is a tip that applies to all those extreme places (NZ, Patagonia, Iceland) where the weather changes 10 times a day. You can go from sun to aggressive hail in seconds. And wind so heavy it will knock you over. I spent a lot of time on this trip (yes, in winter) wearing only yoga tights, a long sleeve, and a down vest, just frolicking around in hardly any layers. I also spent a lot of time wearing thermals, 2 pairs of pants, two jumpers, my vest, a jacket, a scarf, hat, and mittens—and still shivering. And then some other times in my rain jacket, so wishing I had packed my rain pants. It’s an extraordinary place, Iceland, often requiring half a dozen outfit changes per day.

In terms of footwear, it’s boots all the way. I saw a lot of wet, unhappy people in Nikes and I was v grateful for my Timberland’s, which were not only dry, but very grippy for running around on rocks, as I’m known to do in times of great excitement. Hiking boots would have been equally good.

Here’s my quick winter packing list:

  • thermals & fleece jumper
  • rain jacket with hood
  • down jacket (lots of people wearing Canada Goose, which is overkill in my opinion. A good North Face/ Arcteryx/ Patagonia down jacket will be plenty)
  • tights
  • beanie & gloves & scarf
  • boots (advocating for Tim’s) & wool socks
  • swimsuit, for visiting the Blue Lagoon or random hot springs
  • waterproof camera/ waterproof case for your phone (so much water comes off the waterfalls, people with big DSLRs couldn’t get very close)
  • as much food as you can possibly pack, like nut bars or crackers (we brought stroopwafels because we were coming from Holland)

And whatever you do, go to Iceland.

This is without a doubt one of the coolest place I’ve ever been. It’s worth the expensive food and the isolation for all the magic you’ll experience in this country. There are few places on earth you can see glaciers from the beach, walk on lava fields and then spot native reindeer, slip behind mammoth waterfalls and through ice caves, watch chunks of ice the size of houses float out into the ocean, and then sit down for an afternoon meal of horse burgers and wonder what else you might do that day. (I swear I didn’t actually eat any horses while in Iceland. Full disclosure, though, I did eat a reindeer.)