Tips for Traveling Around Iceland
I like value for my money, but not necessarily a bargain at the expense of other things. Comfort and convenience are very important to me. As an older couple driving ourselves around Iceland, I wanted to be sure we were safe, rested, well-fed, and had as little travel-related stress as possible.
First Task, Get a Good Car.
I selected an automatic with 4-wheel drive. My husband was doing the driving and is very comfortable with a stick shift, and even though I can also drive a stick (it’s been a while), I thought an automatic would be more relaxing. The 4-wheel drive was in case we encountered any of Iceland’s famous unpaved F-roads. The weather conditions we enjoyed were good and although we were on many gravel roads, the 4-wheel drive was not needed. I also opted to get GPS and a wi-fi hotspot. I know many bargain drivers opt for the hot spot and use car-play, but it was nice to have the GPS on while I looked up other info on my phone.
We also wanted an SUV and recommend Fara (ask for Andrea). They are a local family-owned company and really great to deal with. Don’t use Guide to Iceland to get your car. They were extremely difficult and frustrating to deal with. They are not based in Iceland, and do not answer questions correctly or efficiently; if you try to call them, you will be speaking to someone in Bangladesh. Ignore their impressive web-based marketing presence and try to go directly to the source whenever possible. I, regrettably, broke my own rule for direct booking.
Make Your Arrival Day Count.
Planes land in Iceland very early in the morning so you need a plan for how to spend that first day. Many head for the Blue Lagoon, which is about 20 minutes from the airport. We stayed at the Blue Lagoon to relax at the end of our trip. I knew we would probably be tired from the overnight flight (it’s not as easy as it used to be to sleep on a plane). I arranged for a private guide to pick us up at the airport and take us to the Golden Triangle. This allowed us to be driven around the first day, see some famous Icelandic sites, and have the opportunity to become oriented to Icelandic culture. We were very pleased with our guide from Tours by Locals. They offer a variety of tour options, and you can read bios and reviews to select your guide.
Time is a Valuable Asset.
The next day we explored Reykjavik on our own. On the morning we were ready to start driving, we arranged for the car to be brought to us at our hotel. Otherwise, we would’ve had to return to the airport which is 45 minutes away and not in the direction we were going. There was an extra charge to bring the car into town, but I felt the time saved (about 2 hours) was more valuable.
I chose to stay in the nicest hotels I could find, and once you are away from Reykjavik and the South Coast, there aren’t that many. Book well in advance.
Icelandic Travel Truisms:
- Driving is not difficult if you are a sane, logical person
- A clockwise route is best, in my opinion, keeping you on the inside of the rail-less mountain curves
- Although dramatic, the roads through the mountains aren’t that high; usually, we were under 2,000’
- One-lane tunnels and bridges can cause some anxiety
- Buying gas is the most difficult hurdle. It’s no joke you need a card with a working pin number. Our debit card with pin did not work and we had to use a credit card with a pin (which incurs a surcharge). Glad we took both. If you don’t have a pin, get one ahead of time, it can take more than a week to process at some banks.
- During summer months of extended daylight, blackout drapes are rarely 100% effective
- Some bathroom sinks are like kids’ play-sinks, and often sinks are outfitted with fixed open drains, making doing a bit of handwash laundry a challenge
- I never found a hotel laundry service in the north
- Take a face/head net if you are going to Lake Myvatn area or Dettifoss, you will thank me later
- Open showers are trendy – I hate them, particularly when it’s cold
- They seem to love the open closet concept here
- Don’t expect American TV news (maybe that’s for the best); we saw CNN one night
- Wi-Fi service was good almost everywhere
- I activated my Verizon Global plan for $10 a day and had good service
- Accept the fact you will never master even one word of the language
- Can’t go wrong with the seafood
- They do eat horse . . . horse tartare anyone?
- Only one toll tunnel still exists (near Akureyri); you need to pay by app- ahead of time
- You don’t need cash – everyone takes credit cards, even for pay toilets
- Pay credit card bills in Icelandic Krona (ISK) when given the currency option, it will be the most economical
- Buy souvenirs and gifts at the airport when you leave. Once out of Reykjavik interesting shops are hard to come by. I didn’t buy much: chocolates, stuffed toys for the grandkids, and silica crème at the Blue Lagoon (also at the airport).
Don’t Go to the Airport Early.
When you are flying out, there is no point in getting to the airport early, the counters don’t open until 2-3 hours before flights are scheduled, and from Reykjavik back to the US they leave late in the day. Self-service check-in kiosks are useless if you don’t have your international boarding pass (which you must get at check-in since it’s international). Until you get that boarding pass you are stuck on the first floor. There is one place to grab a snack, one grocery store, and some uncomfortable seating on that level. The second floor has all the shops, a food court, and the nice Icelandair Saga Lounge.
Would’ve, Should’ve . . .We managed to get around Iceland easily and check off the boxes for everything on our advance must-see list. In retrospect, one thing I wish I had done was allow enough time to see the historic Keldur Turf Houses on the South Coast. We were in the area too early (they’re open 10-5); it would be an interesting hour or two.
I hear the Lava Museum is also well done and worth a visit. We canceled our planned ATV tour due to our one day of bad weather. The same day, weather impacted our visit to the famous Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara. The wind and waves were really whipping. I’m sorry I was not more resilient and willing to look around a bit more, but I couldn’t wait to get away from the blowing sand and back in the car.
And finally, if we had more time, I would’ve loved to get down to water level in Studlagil Canyon to be up close and personal with those incredible basalt formations. To do that we needed to get to the other side and have time to walk quite a few kilometers; 5 each way from where you park (10 total). From what I could see, the walk looks fairly flat. Anyone interested in exploring this area should allow at least 4 hours.
Resources & Blogsources:
Besides talking with friends who had previously been to Iceland, I read a lot of travel articles, googled dozens of sites and topics, and used travel books to prepare for and plan this trip. Books I found useful were Top 10 Iceland, which was great for visuals and a good overview, Fodor’s Essential Iceland for planning and route-specific info, and Rick Steves Iceland, which was my go-to reference during the trip. The walking tours and driving routes were indispensable. Be sure to check the publication dates before you order to get the most current up-to-date copy. The Michelin road map I purchased was, surprisingly, seriously outdated (Iceland has added and improved routes). Although useful for planning purposes, I would not recommend it.
The Facebook group “ICELAND – tips for travelers” had some really valuable specific tips from members and lots of inspiring gorgeous pics. Other bloggers also provided insightful perspectives, interesting ideas, and much appreciated direct follow-up. I’d like to thank four in particular: Lawrence from “Finding the Universe” was very helpful with my early planning and tipped me off to the wonderful reindeer safari. Jurga from “Full Suitcase” shared detailed location and route information and answered some of my logistical questions. Katie from “Two Wandering Soles” wrote a very informative series about the ins and outs of car rental in Iceland, providing must-have info for all of us visiting drivers. The best summary anywhere of whale watching options in Husavik was posted by Liz from “With Wonder and Whimsy”.