What to know before you plan a trip to Iceland
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, you might have realized its one of those places you might want to plan ahead for, especially if you visit during peak season. Planning a trip to Iceland will probably take you a bit more time up front, especially if you are like me and typically don’t plan at all before a trip.
Spoiler alert: this post mentions how expensive Iceland is! If you’re trying to save more money, check out these free things to do in Reykjavik!
Looking for more Iceland travel tips? Check out these posts:
- What to pack for Iceland in July
- Ice ice baby – how to visit Iceland’s glacial ice lagoon
- Hiking the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland
- Whale watching in West Iceland
When it comes to food… just forget about restaurants… or save up for months ahead of time
Prior to visiting Iceland I heard about how expensive it was. Yeah, yeah, I thought… I’d read it all on travel blogs from people who travel full time. Of course it would be expensive for people who travel full time, but for someone with a full time job like me, it would be no problem right?
WRONG! Restaurants in Iceland are so expensive… they made me feel like a pauper.
Here’s are examples from actual meals we ate:
- 1 spaghetti bolognese – 19euro
- 1 beer – 8 euro
- 1 burger – 26 euro
Sadly, I’m not exaggerating on the prices. So if you want to eat out, choose wisely. And if you want to splurge on nice Icelandic restaurants, then more power to you…. but good luck! The cost of food is one of my main Iceland travel tips to watch out for.
Which leads me to my next point…
You’re gonna want to hit up the grocery stores
Every day in Iceland started off the same for us. Drive to the nearest (hopefully discount grocery store), load up on bread, cheese, sandwich meat, apples and crackers, and load those goodies into the car for a picnic lunch. Buying your own food at grocery stores for lunch (and also for dinner…) is one of the best options in Iceland for a few reasons.
- Iceland is f**king expensive. There is no such thing as a cheap trip to Iceland. There are just ways to save a bit of money
- It will be really hard to find a restaurant to eat at during lunch time (unless you are in Reykjavik)
Instead, you’re gonna want to load up your car with snacks and lunch supplies so you’re ready for a picnic whenever hunger strikes.
There are a few discount grocery stores you should visit when you have the chance:
- Bonus – best known for its logo with a piggy that looks like its just dropped acid
- Kronan – I guess this logo is a smiling lemon or something?
- Netto – with an apple logo (no, not that apple logo)
And I say when you have the chance because outside of the Golden Circle the grocery stores can be pretty few and far between. By few and far between I mean sometimes at least an hour between grocery stores. Sometimes more, sometimes less. So stop when you can.
Check out this post for a complete Iceland budget break down
…and you should consider eating at gas stations
Yes, you read that correctly. Anyone who knows me personally is probably sure to know I would never normally recommend eating at gas stations – they don’t typically offer my preferred cuisine 😉
But, when in Iceland, all bets are off. Hit up that gas station for your meal if you can’t or didn’t make it to the grocery store. Iceland actually offers some damn good gas station hot dogs, which I am not ashamed I say I ate at least four of during our time there. In a pinch, a gas station hot dog is a cheap and easy option to solve your hunger! The hotdogs there are pretty similar to the ones they sell at Ikea.
Besides the decent hot dogs, many gas stations in Iceland (at least in the more populous areas) offer pretty decent looking take-away meals. Once you’re outside of the busy areas these meals might be a bit questionable (I’d stick to the hotdog if I were you), but at least they are good for a pastry and a coffee in the morning.
While you’re at it, fill up your tank
Not only grocery stores, but gas station too are few and far between. You don’t want to be in the middle of nowhere running out of gas in your car. Do yourself a favor and load up on gas whenever you can so you don’t find yourself stranded.
Iceland is not a place to be spontaneous with your lodging (unless you’re hitchhiking!) – Book ahead!
I’m not especially known for my planning skills… I have other strengths 😉 But luckily I read up on enough blogs prior to our visit to Iceland to realize in time that I needed to book our accommodations, rental car and tours well ahead of time (we visited end of July/early August).
During our visit to the south east of the country to visit Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon we stayed in was could loosely be called a hotel in the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The four of us (keep in mind that is my boyfriend, brother, dad and myself), stayed in what was closer to a dorm room (albeit clean) with a shared shower. Not shared between the four of us. But shared with other guests. The price? €250 per night. PER NIGHT! Visiting Iceland seriously made me question how far I have come in my life. Oh, you just got a promotion at work and own a house? Well, better rethink things, cause in Iceland you’re gonna be dead BROKE! Or at least you’re gonna feel pretty broke if you visit during peak season. We were luckily to have 7 days of full sun and one day of 20 celsius weather though, so we paid a premium for the weather.
Because Iceland has such a low density of inhabitants across the country, there just aren’t enough accommodations outside of Reykjavik to handle all the demand from tourists in the busy summer months. The farther away from the Golden Circle and Reykjavik you venture, the more limited and expensive the accommodation will become. To make things more challenging, we were traveling with four people – if you travel with two it might be easier, but still count on booking ahead. I booked all of our accommodation about 1.5 months in advance to our trip to Iceland and I paid a PREMIUM! The only other hotel which was available in the area would have cost us €750 per night. If you plan to visit Skaftafell National Park or Jokulsarlon, make sure you already have a place to stay, (likely in Vik or Kirkjubæjarklaustur), and make sure you book ahead of time… please! As mentioned, when I booked 1.5 months in advance, almost everything was already sold out. So, if you visit in high season, you’ll probably want to book you hotels at least 2 months in advance (maybe even earlier) to get the best deals.
When you look for places to stay in Iceland, keep in mind that many of the hotels include shared bathrooms (with other guests) like the one I mentioned. This is typical of many lodgings there. And often you’ll just have to choose your lodging based on where you want to go and because you need a place to sleep.
And as a final point, when you’re looking for places to stay, DEFINITELY CONSIDER AirBnB’s or any hotel with a kitchen in the room! Having a kitchen is going to save you a lot of money if you are able to eat both breakfast and dinner where you stay. Cooking in our apartments helped us to save quite a bit of money. Buying groceries for one meal probably cost us between €15-20 euro, while a meal for each of us would have easily cost €25.
Plan your Iceland itinerary ahead of time
When you plan your trip to Iceland, go there with a game plan. Of course you can be spontaneous along the way, but since you’ll have to book your accommodation ahead of time, you’re best off having a list of highlights or activities you want to hit up every day.
For example, I knew we’d go to Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon at the end of the day, so we planned in out hike to Svartifoss in the morning/early afternoon since they were in the same general direction. If you visit in summer, you’ll have ample day light to see as much as you can, but it can also be a bit overwhelming not to have a plan at all and just fly by the seat of your pants… there are so many highlights, it can be hard to choose! Anyway, plan your route so you can get hotels in the right locations for where you want to visit.
Book your Iceland rental car ahead of time
Are you getting a sense of what the biggest tip is? Plan ahead! Especially if you cannot drive a manual (ahem, American friends), you’re gonna need to find yourself a car, and fast. When you book don’t forget to get a car big enough to fit all your gear and bags. Touring Iceland by car is by far the best way to get around Iceland. I see a lot of questions online about doing a guided tour in Iceland, but I would strongly suggest you drive Iceland yourself. It isn’t a hard country to navigate, and you’ll be happy with the freedom driving yourself gives you.
We booked our car through Guide to Iceland Car Rental, and had no problems with our car. Make sure you rent a car that is allowed to go off road if you plan to go off road. Sounds pretty straight forward but a lot of people forget to do this. Driving off-road without a 4×4 is illegal in Iceland and is actually punishable by death.
Just kidding, but it really is illegal, and knowing this country, you’ll probably be slapped with an expensive fine.
If you plan on getting anywhere near a waterfall, bring waterproof clothes and boots for christsakes. I can’t tell you how many people I saw wearing just jeans near a waterfall and walking away soaking wet. Yes, a rainsuit might not be the sexiest look… it sure wasn’t for me. But, you’ll be glad you can experience all that nature has to offer without worrying about getting wet and cold if you pack appropriately.
This is probably most important for your feet, so invest in a decent pair of waterproof boots before you go, even if you visit in summer time.
I didn’t want to invest too much money, so bought this pair at Decathlon for 38 euros. 38 freaking euros for waterproof boots – how can you go wrong? Sure the stunk like glue at first (now they stink like feet…). And let me tell you, my feet stayed dry and warm the whole time, even while splashing around and jumping through streams.
Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing 😉
If you are looking for more tips on what to pack for Iceland, don’t miss this other post on my blog.
Don’t be dumb… be respectful
When we visited Iceland I read several articles about how annoyed the locals are with all the uninformed tourists who visit their country. Of course, the country relies in large part on tourism, but please don’t be one of those people that doesn’t book lodging ahead of time and knocks on some poor Icelandic person’s door for a place to stay. And don’t resort to pooping on someone’s farmland because you think you’re one with nature.
There is no reason not to plan ahead properly for your trip… or to poop on someone’s property for that matter. It should go without saying, but people actually live here, so don’t mess up the place. Or pick moss out on a hill side to spell out “Send Nudes.”
Thanks to the NY Post for this depressing/hilarious photo
Respect nature and the signage… don’t do something you’re not allowed to
This is a big one but one that sadly can take people’s lives. Iceland has extremely beautiful nature but it can come with its dangers. If you visit the basalt column beach near Vik, you’ll see a sign listing the recent tourist deaths from people who were swept out to sea by a sneaker wave.
If you visit Kirkjufell you’ll learn not to go without a guide because some hikers have slipped off this very steep mountain and died.
If a sign says not to do something, don’t do it. The rules apply to everyone! We all think we are the ones who won’t get hurt, but its best to take these signs seriously so you can leave your trip to Iceland with only happy memories.
Also, it might not hurt to stay up to date with Icelandic news when you’re there. When we visited there was a 50% chance Katla volcano would blow. As we were…um, delighted to find out, Katla is Iceland’s most powerful volcano. And we were staying only 30km away. Thankfully it didn’t blow its top, but if you visit you should probably stay up to date on the news in case there is a volcano warning so you can have a bit of time to build your mental escape route 😉
Looking for more Iceland travel tips? Don’t miss these posts:
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.