This trip was a trip of a lifetime for me. Iceland is literally the island of fire and ice. (I’m a big game of thrones fan so that whole fire and ice vibe was right up my alley). It has volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, geysers, lakes, valleys, hot springs, and black sand beaches. There’s not many, if any, destinations where you can get all of those things. While I was gone, most people called it a vacation for me but in reality it was an adventure. Long days of road tripping and seeing things that few people will get to see in a lifetime. If you want to be one of those people, this post is to help get you there and to know what to expect.
Here’s some background on our trips and tips for anyone planning on going:
From Philadelphia, we flew with Jet Blue to and from Boston (1 hour flight) and got our connecting flight to and from Keflavík International airport (5 hour flight there, 5.5 hour flight back) through Icelandair. Keflavík International airport is approximately a 40 minute drive outside of Reykjavík. Reykjavík has its own airport in the center of the city but it’s much much smaller – Keflavík is the main airport. If you don’t like layovers, Icelandair flys directly out of Philadelphia from May through September. We had really good experience with both airlines and I would recommend both. There’s also another airline called WOW that you could look into.
Everything was booked through the website, Kayak, which I use for all my trips to find cheap flights – it has a feature on the app that’ll send you notifications when prices drop and it’s super helpful. It wound up being about $500 round trip per person after all the taxes and travel insurance. My advice be to start looking for flights at least 6 months before your trip.
Iceland is right outside of the Arctic Circle and therefore has long days during the summer (May – September) and long nights during the winter (October – April). This is important to know when planning your trip because if seeing the northern lights is an important part of your travel (they should be) then you should consider not going in the summer. The odds of you seeing them with the long days is extremely limited and you’re going to want to see them, they were hands down my favorite part of the trip. Going at the end of October we had a close to normal day with sunrise around 8 and sunset around 5:30 and we saw the northern lights twice (I’ll give more details about them in my next post). The sun never completely rose so if you’re into photography, the lighting is PERFECT because it almost looks like the golden hour all day. Also we got super lucky with the weather when we were there. Iceland is the third windiest place on earth so even though the weather was in the mid to high 40’s all week it could sometime feel like low 30’s. It is an island so it’ll sporadically rain but we had mostly dry weather even though it is gray and cloudy a majority of the time. But you know what they say in Iceland “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes”.
There are a lot of options on where to stay and how to get around Iceland. We stayed in an Airbnb right in the heart of Reykjavík and it was so perfect for us. There is of course always the hotel option but I love Airbnb because for one, it’s usually cheaper. Also, you get a more authentic experience that has a homier feel. If you plan on traveling around the whole coast of Iceland, I would recommend just renting a camper van. You can reach the northern part of Iceland during the summer months but it can become quite dangerous during the winter months due to the snow. We mostly stayed in the southwest part of Iceland and it still offered SO many cool things to see.
From Reykjavík you can get to many of the sights and attractions by car. There are also a lot of tours that depart from the city. However, I would really really REALLY just rent a car if I were you – it’s honestly worth the money. The tours can be expensive and you’re on their time schedule for the most part. We rented a mini car (Hyundai i10) from Avis and it was great. I also found the car deal for cheap on Kayak again!
We had the option to stop when we wanted, where we wanted, and for how long or short we wanted to stay at certain places. Trust me, we stopped 5 or 6 times because some of the views were so breathtaking that we had to get a picture. There are also a lot of wild horses in Iceland that are really friendly and will come up to the side of the road and let you pet them – a bus tour won’t give you this opportunity.
But it’s super important to know that there are specific pull off spots on the road that will have signs 200m before to give you a heads up. The last thing you want to do is just stop on the side of the road in Iceland because the roads are narrow and you’re seriously going to put yourself and other drivers at risk.
(as you can see – there’s little to no shoulder)
The only problem with our little meatball of a rental car was that it didn’t have 4 wheel drive. This is an issue if you want to see Haifoss or Gjaín which need a 4×4 vehicle to access the unpaved roads so we missed out on those so if you have the money, get a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Also if you have the money get the full coverage on the rental car insurance just in case (it is super expensive). Iceland can be a very dangerous environment so it’s better to be safe than sorry. We didn’t have the money so we did the bare minimum coverage which included gravel – it was $37 a day. When you see some of the roads there’s, you absolutely need to have the gravel protection. I lost count of how many times rock and gravel bounced up and hit our windshield and the rest of the car.
Iceland is like America in that they drive on the right side of the road there (thank god). You also don’t need an international drivers license. All you need to rent a car is your passport, a registered state drivers license, and a credit card.
Iceland is very expensive to begin with since almost all of the goods are imported but gas is especially pricey so do your research and make sure the car your renting has a high mpg to save money. If you’re planning to go on a road trip, fill up your gas before you leave the city. Once you’re out into the country there’s a limited amount of gas stations and you don’t want to breakdown with an empty tank in the middle of no where. Also when renting a car, make sure the transmission is automatic if you don’t know how to drive stick. Manual transmission is a lot more common in Europe and I accidentally booked manual instead of automatic at first so I don’t want anyone else to make that mistake.
In Iceland, you generally don’t need to go to a currency exchange. Credit and debit cards are taken everywhere and rarely do you ever see anyone use cash. If you plan on using your credit card you should know what your pin is just in case because some gas stations will ask for it. I know what you’re thinking, “who the hell knows what their credit card pin is?”. Call your bank account before and ask for it, it’s good to know in case of an emergency. The conversion of USD to ISK (also called Kr) is pretty simple. 1 USD is equal to 106 ISK. I found it easy to just move the decimal in the ISK over to the left 2 places to get the USD amount. For example, if a bottle of soda was 398 ISK I assumed it was $3.98 (it’s actually a few cents less).
In order to save some money, my genius friend Devin packed some dry foods from home such as rice, peanut butter (to make sandwiches), chocolate, and granola.
Finally, depending on your phone carrier you should invest in a Wi-Fi plan. I have AT&T and you just pay $10 a day and you get to use your phone with unlimited data like you get to do at home. This is amazing because I used it to use my phone as a GPS and we saved about ~ $17 a day by not renting a GPS from the rental company. I’m not sure about how Verizon or other carriers work but AT&T’s service was really impressive.
There’s a lot to know and research before traveling to Iceland but it is SO worth it. If it’s a place you want to visit, just go. Stop making excuses. You won’t regret it, I promise.