Planning Your Iceland Trip

Iceland is a unique trip for most people so preparing for it can be a bit baffling.  Before our trip we were fortunate to get immensely helpful tips and tricks from friends who had previously visited.  So I am combining those with the tips and tricks that we learned during our trip in hopes that this will help with the question “What exactly do I need to know about Iceland and what in the world do I pack?”  

Related Post: Road Tripping Iceland in 7 Days

Tips & Tricks (i.e, Stress Relievers)  

Those little things you wish you knew before you arrived that might make your trip just a bit smoother.

Currency

The local currency is the Icelandic Krona, but worry not because money is super easy over there.  In fact, we didn’t have cash at all during our trip because literally everywhere accepts credit cards.  Even the bathroom stalls (and you do have to pay for some of them!).  This is likely because there are some very isolated areas where ATMs are not available and you would be stranded without a card.  However, make sure that your credit card providers are aware of your travel plans.  You will be swiping a lot and you definitely don’t want to be cut off.  For more tips on foreign currency check out this prior post.

Budget

Iceland is notoriously for its high prices for some basics such as food and drinks. But with a bit of planning this trip is very affordable.

1. Plane Ticket Budget

Getting to Iceland from the US or Canada is really affordable.  If you watch prices it is very easy to get a round-trip ticket for $400 or less on WOW airlines.  What I also love about WOW is that you can schedule a layover in another European city for no extra cost.  So you may want to consider slipping in another destination for a week or two!

2. Food & Alcohol Budget

While the flights to Iceland can be a steal, once you are there it is notoriously expensive. However, with a bit of planning it should not be an issue.  Some of our fav ways that we saved $$$:

arrowAlcohol:  While alcohol prices in Iceland can make you want to jump on the bandwagon for the duration of your trip, there is a solution!  Purchase at duty-free and stuff it in your carry on.  We each purchased 2 bottles of wine and those 4 bottles lasted us all week.

Tip: If you are bringing bottles or wine or plan to buy bottles at the grocery store once you are there, don’t forget to throw a corkscrew into your suitcase.

arrowFood: Usually I love to experience the local cuisine and while we ate dinner out a few times we considered this to be an adventure trip instead of a gastronomic trip so we saved a lot of money by being creative.  

  • Breakfast:
    • We bought a variety of breakfast bars and foods with us.  
    • The traditional Icelandic yogurt, Skyr, is super good, affordable, and can be picked up at any grocery store or gas station.
    • Look for guest houses or hostels that include breakfast with their rate.  We stayed at a few places that included breakfast and found it to be quite good.
  • Lunch & Snacks:
    • Like breakfast bars, bring along snack foods like crackers or granola bars in your suitcase.
    • Find a grocery store during your trip and stock up on sandwich items, fruit, and other items that are easy to eat in the car.    
  • Dinner: We did eat dinner out a few times and if you love fish you definitely want to try some since this is one of their specialties (usually caught right off the side of Ring Road!).  But the rest of the time this is how we rolled:
    • Stayed at AirBnB’s or Guest Houses that had a kitchen so we also cooked easy things such as pasta.  
    • N1 Gas Stations are affordable with a surprising array of food such as salad bars, pasta bars, soup, hamburgers, etc..  In some of the tiny villages this is only “restaurant” around so you will see lots of locals there as well.   

Tip: You CANNOT leave Iceland without eating at least one bacon wrapped, cheese hot dog.  Yummy!

Rental Vehicle

Renting a car is pretty much required in Iceland if you want to leave Reykjavik. In fact, Iceland is pretty much a road trip vacation.  The terrain is very rough on cars and the rental car companies are super stringent about any damage to the vehicle.  Honestly, this was one of the biggest sources of stress on our trip.  So if you don’t want to spend 80% of your car time (and there is a lot of car time in Iceland) freaked out about the state of the car, 2 things to splurge on:

arrowAdditional Insurance: At a minimum buy the gravel, wind and volcanic coverage because the risk is real.  We received the same advice before we left and still debated it at the rental car counter but ultimately went with it.  And once on the road, we were so happy we did because it did alleviate some of the driving stress.     

arrowGet the 4X4:  Always the budget travelers we opted for the economy car and ended up with a Nissan Micra.  Cute but definitely not practical even for parts of the Ring Road (we didn’t drive on any F-roads).  We were chasing hubcaps several times as we bounced over parts of the roads (some of our funniest memories but still I don’t recommend it).    

Tip: Many of the roads on the interior of the island are referred to as F-Roads and it is illegal to drive on them unless you have a 4X4 but even then they are known to be quite dangerous.

We were lucky that even though we were missing a hubcap we were not charged additional amounts for car damage.  We heard several people telling horror stories about paying thousands of dollars due to damage.  I promise you both of these will take a lot of anxiety out of your trip.

Micra at Pjofafoss Waterfalls
Our adorable Nissan Micra at Pjofafoss Waterfalls. It was a cute car, but we wished we had opted for the 4X4 even though a bit more expensive. Note our missing rear hubcap 🙂

Cell Service

Iceland is very well connected and there are mobile hotspots everywhere to make connecting to google maps or searching for information on the next destination easy. Even so, though there are remote areas (especially in the North) without wifi.  We both purchased the Verizon travel pass on our phones which at just $10 per day was really affordable.  Check out your phone providers options, but generally, this is pretty easy in Iceland.  For more info on international cell phone plans check out this prior post.

Tip: Even with travel passes on our phones in some of the more remote areas the signal was not always reliable so be prepared with knowledge of your route just in case.

Other Tips & Tricks

Language

Icelandic is the official language but not to worry because nearly everyone speaks English.  Which is a relief because while it is lovely to listen to them communicate in their language, it is not one you are going to master in time for the trip.  As hard I tried I was never able to pronounce a word the same way twice.

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This pretty much says it all when it comes to trying to understand the Icelandic language in time for your trip. This t-shirt made me laugh each time we saw it in a gift shop.
F-roads vs. Paid Tours

Many of the interior roads on the islands are called the F-roads and it is illegal to drive on them without a 4X4.  So if you think you want to venture into them you most definitely want to upgrade the rental car to a 4X4.  However, if off-road driving is not your cup of tea even with a 4X4 (like ours) there are plenty of tours that can take you into some of the amazing interior portions of the island.  

Car Time

There is a lot of car time involved in an Icelandic vacation getting from place to place.  A lot and especially in the north.  The good news is that it is beautiful and lots of opportunities to stop and stretch your legs.  But be prepared for hours in the car between locations (such as downloading any audible books, podcasts, or music playlists in advance).

Chargers

Iceland is in Europe so make sure to bring along converters for charging your devices.  Since there is so much car time this can be a great time to charge up all your devices.  In addition to phone car chargers, a charging pack like this could come in handy for multiple devices or even for charging a.  

What to Pack

You will be spending most of your time in the car or doing outdoor activities so if I had to pick 3 words for packing for an Iceland vacation it would be: warm, casual, comfortable.  I strongly advise against packing cute/go-out clothing because you really won’t have an opportunity to wear them and will wish you had used the space in your suitcase for something more practical.  Everyone you see is going to be dressed similarly so unless you are going out for a night on the town in Reykjavik anything other than comfy outdoor gear and you will be wayyyy overdressed.  

arrowLots of Layers: You will be shedding or adding clothes between sitting in the car and getting outside to explore.  Plus depending on the sunlight it can get “warm”.  So layers of shirt, sweater, and a jacket is definitely recommended.

arrowCold weather accessories: Hat, gloves, scarves, and socks (warm and at least calf length)  

arrowBase Layers – Merino wool base layers are the best, but any base layers that you have definitely bring along.

arrowRain/Wind Gear: A jacket that doubles for both rain and wind protector as well as an umbrella.  It rained the whole time we were there and many areas are very windy. But even if you are lucky enough not to encounter rain you will be getting close to a lot of waterfalls and so the rain jacket comes in quite handy on a daily basis.  

arrowCold Weather Jacket: Down jackets are really the best, but regardless of material you will want to have a warm jacket, especially in the winter.  It can always come off if needed.  We were there in late September and with the rain and chilly weather we often wore our rain jackets over the top of our cold weather jackets and that kept us comfortable.

arrowMaterials: Cashmere and wool are the best cold weather materials to keep you warm so pack those if you have them!

arrowHiking Boots/Shoes: Not cute, fashionable wanna be hiking shoes but durable comfortable hiking shoes (and they can be cute…I have a very cute Salomon pair). Unless you are just poking your nose out of the car to observe (and I certainly hope not) you will be doing lots of walking over rough terrain.  And the area around waterfalls is really slippery so you want a good grip.

arrowBathing Suit – While you are not likely going to jump in the ocean you most definitely want to slip into at least one hot spring while you are there!

arrowTowel – This definitely comes in handy if you are going to stop and dip into hot springs.  Even at the larger lagoons/hot springs the towel rental can be expensive (around $5).  Plus depending on your accommodations towels may or may not be included.  I threw in a camping microfiber towels from REI which is super thin and fast drying making it perfect.

arrowMap of Iceland – Throw it back to 1995 and bring along an old-school map of Iceland.  Audrey brought one along this Michelin Map and it came in quite useful a few times because when cell service was under 3G our GPS was not always reliable.

arrowCamera – This is one of those vacations that would be perfect to turn into an animated flip book because just about every square inch is a photography dream (whether you are a novice or a pro).  So make sure to bring along your photography equipment (camera, tripod, or other fancy schmancy stuff you have).  For some vacations your phone is enough, but for Iceland you will really want that camera.

arrowFood & Such – Don’t forget to add any food items or corkscrew that you are opting to bring along.

arrowToiletries – Add a packet of tissues or wet wipes to your toiletries along with a ziplock bag.  There can be long stretches of road without access to a restroom so if you have to stop on the side of the road you will be really glad you have these (and you do not want to leave behind any litter).

Bonus Pro Tip:  Car doors can double as privacy shields if you have to make an emergency roadside stop.  

Tip: If your itinerary is going around Ring Road and moving accommodations every day or two remember that you will be hauling your suitcase out of the car and repacking A LOT.  I definitely recommend packing as light as possible.  If you can find guesthouses or AirBnB that has access to a washer and dryer this will also help you limit what you need to bring. By packing just 2 outfits each we were both able to get everything in a carry-on suitcase.  For more on packing light, take a peek at this earlier post.  

Planning Your Trip

Iceland 2017 Map
Kerri & Audrey Iceland 2017 Itinerary, Route, and Places Visited

So I am just going to put it out there…you won’t be able to do it all.  I am convinced you could live there and not do it all.  There are infinite things to do and to this day I still see amazing pics on Instagram of all the things we missed and I am green with jealousy.  So while everyone puts together a “Top 10 List” keep in mind that is from their trip and they probably missed all kinds of things too.  Just driving down the road in Iceland is an experience and you will want to stop every 2 miles (seriously, just wait and see).  

We booked our trip last minute and we stayed in Iceland only for a week and once we started planning realized that we should have gone for a minimum of 10 days (really 2+ weeks is more ideal).  However, those were the tickets so we did some mad planning!  You can go here to see that places we visited in Iceland.

arrowRing Road – This is the road that circles the whole island and will be the primary route for your journey.  Many of the more popular tourist attractions are in the south (like Golden Circle), which means most people depart Reykjavik taking Ring Road south. However, because of our chosen itinerary, we actually did the opposite and departed Reykjavik going northwest.  

I recommend starting with the Northern part of the island first and working your way to the south because it is more scenic in this direction.  How do I know this you ask?  Well, interesting story!  When we were 60% around the island a bridge on Ring Road collapsed due to rain and that section of the road was closed for the duration of our trip.  We had to turn around and drive all the way back around the island to get to the southern part. We lost a day of our trip, but we were able to see the island from both directions and we found north to south to be more beautiful.

arrowAccommodations – Outside of the main cities and some of the larger villages the typical hotel in Iceland is scarce. Most accommodations are Airbnb, Hostels, or Guest Houses.  I love these types of accommodations because you get a chance to meet more locals or interact with other visitors to Iceland since you are often sharing a common living space.  

For booking this trip Airbnb and booking.com were great resources for finding affordable accommodations almost anywhere on the island.  

Tip: While I often take trips where my accommodations are not booked in advance I would recommend (at least on the first trip to Iceland) booking in advance.  Rooms can be limited in some villages or a long distance outside of a village.  We were there in a low season so there were open rooms, but in high season this could be a challenge.  But also be flexible, you never know when you may run into a car or nature issue and requires you to change your plans without notice.

Other super-cool accommodation options that are available are camper vans and tent camping.  While we did not do that on this trip I have done both of these in prior vacations and had a blast. I highly recommend them as a great way to have an adventure vacation.  Iceland has a lot of campgrounds in which you can have both a camper van and a tent.  My next trip to Iceland will likely involve a camper van.   

Iceland Cheat Sheet
Iceland Cheat Sheet – This is a pic I snapped at the airport when we arrived. Its stuffed full of good info about Iceland that we referenced several times during our trip! It might also help you pick the time of year you want to visit!

Most Importantly…Have Fun!

Best of luck with planning an amazing Icelandic adventure and if you have any questions send me a note and I will help out as much as I can!  Or on the flip side if you have an Icelandic tip or suggestion send it to me so I can add to the list (with reader credit of course).

bon voyage

P.S. To check out our Icelandic adventure, visit this blog post: Road Tripping Iceland in 7 Days.

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