Iceland is pretty much a magical winter fairytale land unlike anywhere I’ve ever been (even without these incredible horses). But, there are certain things you should know before you book that trip. Some of these I found after days of research, others I discovered while being there, but all of them I wish someone had told me. So here we go…
P.S. this post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click through and purchase something, I may receive a portion of the price (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for supporting Adventurers Anonymous.
1. It's Expensive
Iceland is, hands down, the most expensive country I have ever been to. I thought Switzerland was bad, but it doesn’t even come close. You really have to make a budget and do your best to stick to it, and the best way to do that is to do your research. I would even check out some restaurants in each area and look at their menus to get an idea of how much a meal will cost.
SPOILER ALERT: YOU PROBABLY WON’T FIND A DINNER UNDER $100, MAYBE NOT EVEN LUNCH.
To give you an idea, a bowl of soup was roughly $23 at a relatively nice restaurant, entrees ran from about $60 up to about $100, on average, and the boyfriend and I split a beer at a little café that was $19. Pretty insane, right? To be fair, the beer was 15% alcohol or something like that (and it was delicious!).
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF GROCERY STORES AND COMPLIMENTARY BREAKFASTS.
We became pretty hooked on open-faced ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The stores have a huge variety and they’re all surprisingly good. You can tell they’re not nearly as processed as a lot of brands here in the US. Add some fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, or maybe a little salami or prosciutto, and you’re set.
Bonus is a great supermarket because it has the cheapest groceries and you can find one just about anywhere.
Also, they have this organic sparkling cola drink from Whole Earth that I drank religiously, and this praline chocolate bar that we actually didn’t go a day without. Not to mention skyr! Who doesn’t love thick, creamy, probiotic, protein-filled, low-sugar, delicious Icelandic yogurt? Honestly, I’m still partial to the Siggi’s brand found here but Iceland had a lot of [probably more authentic] options.
Be sure to also check out Joe and the Juice in the airport because it’ll be the only thing open when you arrive at 6 am after your red-eye.
GAS IS NO WALK IN THE PARK, EITHER.
If you’re planning on renting a car that is. I remember driving by a [self-filling] gas station and thinking, “Oh, cool, gas is only about $2.00 a gallon” before immediately realizing it was per liter. Well, damn. Luckily, Iceland is actually really small (about the size of Kentucky), so you shouldn’t have to fill up too many times, even if you’re driving Ring Road.
THE ONE SAVING GRACE FOR US WAS GUESTHOUSES.
Guesthouses are like Iceland’s version of Airbnb-meets-small-hotel. They’re often little cottages with multiple available rooms or possibly even someone’s house. Well, technically they’re all someone’s house.
In fact, Trent and I mistakenly walked into a random person’s house because addresses are really confusing there and it was late and dark. Realizing we basically just broke in, we booked it out of there as fast as possible haha. But that’s another story.
Of course, you can also go for a hotel, which will set you back a few hundred bucks a night, but I wanted a more intimate, Icelandic experience. Needless to say, we had some pretty phenomenal places and some pretty questionable ones. You can see everywhere we stayed (on a budget) in this post.
I used booking.com to book all of our guesthouses, and it was incredibly easy. Virtually all of them let us pay when we actually got there, and if they didn’t, it was only 5-10% of the total price during checkout. You could also cancel 24-72 hours before check-in time, which gave us peace of mind in case we got snowed in somewhere or otherwise stuck in the snow.
The guesthouses we stayed in ranged from $66 to $136 a night for two people, and there were even cheaper options available.
2. PLANNING TO DRIVE IN ICE? YOU BETTER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING
I actually originally planned to take this trip alone. Then Trent entered my life and I decided it would be way more fun if he came too, haha. Thankfully he did, though, because it turns out the roads are icy just about everywhere, and you really have to know what you’re doing.
Actually, walking on ice isn’t exactly easy either. I would 100% invest in some crampons. They’ll allow you to walk normally on ice and not worry about falling down every two seconds. Most excursions require you to buy some anyway, so you can save money by bringing your own.
I’ve never had any experience driving on ice or snow, so I naively decided I’d be fine. Well, there are a ton of “rules” and tips for which way to turn depending on which side of the car is skidding out, how and if to hit the brakes, etc.
But even then, we almost died a few times.
I’m not even exaggerating. All of Ring Road is either bordered by ditches on both sides or just sits on the edge of a cliff. Now, add a touch of black ice and complete darkness, and you’ll catch yourself sitting in the passenger seat, clutching on to the door handle, while having zero control and basically putting your life into your SO/driver’s hands. Ok, now I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you get the idea.
I still drove in the South and during the daytime, so don’t get freaked out if you don’t know what you’re doing. Just stay mindful and calm and you’ll be alright.
Also, if a road says it’s impassable, don’t try to take it anyway. There have been tons of reports of tourists getting into trouble because they decided to take the shorter route. Don’t be that guy and give us tourists a bad name.
Now, some other tips:
- Check road conditions at www.road.is (and actually pay attention to them).
- You can contact road assistance at any time with this number: +354 571-2266. But that’s BS because I called them 3 times in one hour and they never got back to me.
- Gas stations are all self-service and some of them only accept debit cards or cash (as opposed to credit cards)
- Get gas whenever you see a station because you might not see another one for a while.
- Pulling over on the main road (aka no. 1, aka Ring Road) is prohibited. Find a side road if you want to stop for pictures.
- Filling station hours:
- Greater Reykjavik area: 10am-8pm (but some until 11:30)
- Countryside: varied opening hours, until 10-11:30 pm
- Don’t leave your car doors open or the wind might take them out.
- Get the full insurance package because Iceland has some pretty weird weather and road conditions (like gravel) that can really do some damage.
Finally, try your hardest not to get your car stuck in snow. Here’s the thing though…
3. You Might Get Your Car Stuck in Snow
Let’s set the scene. You’re driving down a snowy one-lane “road” and pull up to a gate. You realize you need to turn around. You see a nice snowy patch of land to your left, so you decide to try to U-turn. Next thing you know, you’ve spent over two hours shoveling snow from under your car with various strangers helping you.
SO THAT HAPPENED.
Yeah, that fluffy patch of snow is a trap, trust me. Even if it looks like it’s only a couple inches thick, just back on out of there instead. *Ahem* Hear that, Trent? I’m not judging, you’re judging.
He tried to get us out of our little snowy ditch for about a half hour, while I was on the phone with our rental company and roadside service, trying to get someone to call me back or direct me to someone who can help. Psht, that wasn’t happening.
So after many attempts of inching forwards and back, we started using our hands to try to clear the snow. At this point, this really nice guy pulled over and started helping us. He was there for probably an hour, which gives me hope for this world.
After a while, things weren’t looking very promising, so the guy went to find help, but found a couple shovels instead. He and Trent did a little digging while I laughed to myself in the car. Read that whole story here.
WHEN I ASKED TRENT WHAT SOME OF HIS TIPS WOULD BE, ONE OF THEM WAS “BRING YOUR OWN SHOVEL.”
Kind Stranger Dude finally had to leave and wished us luck, so I took over. With most of the snow cleared, and about 6 more strangers suddenly showing up when things got easy, I got in the driver’s seat while Trent and the others pushed from the back.
Finally, the car hit pavement again, and everyone was actually cheering for us hahaha. We called it a day from there and left to soak in baths and sip (chug?) some wine.
4. THERE ARE HIDDEN HOT SPRINGS AND POOLS EVERYWHERE
No need to spend a ton on Blue Lagoon and Myvatn baths and all those spa-like springs (although I still highly recommend it!). I wish I took advantage of this more, but go to hotpoticeland.com (previously hotpot.is) and you will see every hot spring or bath (hot pot), open swimming pool, and gas station in Iceland.
Just be aware that some of them aren’t really accessible in the winter, or may be pretty old and no longer exist, or just may be impossible to find.
True life: we spent at least an hour searching for this one bath on the East coast only to realize, after extensive google maps research, that it definitely no longer exists. Earlier in the trip, we tried to go to Seljavellir when it was dark, icy, and freezing, but pretty much called it off after it started snowing and I almost wiped out on the ice (again).
5. Finding the Northern Lights
You can check forecasts for weather and the Northern Lights ahead of time, but don’t expect to see them. So actually, I did know this one ahead of time, but I didn’t read it the right way.
YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE AURORA AND CLOUD FORECASTS.
So the big green map you see is JUST for the cloud coverage. This is super important because even if there are auroras active at the moment, you won’t see anything behind the clouds at night. Also, don’t forget that Northern lights are only seen in the winter, so plan accordingly.
The actual aurora forecast for that night is in the little box in the upper right corner, and it gives you a number from 0 to 9. The higher the number, the more likely you are to see them. Anything below a 5 I would say doesn’t give you a very good chance.
LIGHT POLLUTION IS A BITCH, tbh.
The only times we saw the lights were actually when driving between cities because it was the only time it got dark enough! If I did it again, I would probably take a day tour with a guide because they know alllll the right places.
ANOTHER OPTION IS TO GO ON A NORTHERN LIGHTS BOAT TOUR IN REYKJAVIK.
Or whale watching in the warmer months! It’s about $100 and usually leaves around 9:00 pm. We didn’t do this because the two nights we were in Reykjavik the forecast was pretty weak, so we decided to skip it.
But the nice part is that if you go out there and don’t see the lights on your scheduled night, you can come back the next night for freeee and try again. Or instead you can get a full refund or exchange it for a whale watching tour or “fish adventure dinner.”
6. Book the Blue Lagoon Early
Don’t wait until the last minute to book tickets for this famous Icelandic lagoon.
So, yeah. We saved this for the morning of our last day, and didn’t get to go… DON’T BE LIKE US. We tried booking it a day or two beforehand, and it was completely sold out.
BOOK AT LEAST A WEEK IN ADVANCE.
And try to go early when it opens, because there are still going to be some pretty crazy lines to get in. I’ve heard 8:00 am, right when they open, is the way to go. Click here to book.
Also, figure out how much time you want to spend there, then add two hours. This applies to any geothermal spa/spring/baths you go to. It’s really easy to lose track of time when you’re sitting in a natural hot spring with great company and decent wine that you snuck in.
So, looks like I’ll have to check out Blue Lagoon next time. But…
7. OTHER (AND POSSIBLY BETTER) GEOTHERMAL SPAS
There are so many other geothermal spas out there, and Iceland natives (plus many tourists) will tell you that the less popular ones are much better and more authentic.
We showed up to the Laugarvatn Fontana about an hour before closing, wine in hand (actually, more like in robe) and soaked until they started draining the pools. Too bad it was already dark because an Instagram search the next day revealed that we completely missed the really cool part of it that has a floating dock that extends into a lake-like situation.
Then in the North, like I said, we got stuck in the snow for a few hours. So we decided to just skip the rest of our plans and go to the Myvatn nature baths instead. It was dark, moody, romantic, and so, so amazing.
Oh, and this one actually let you buy wine and bring it in the water with you, so that made things easier. Here we actually ran into the guy that helped us shovel our way out of our little icy situation, and he wouldn’t even let us buy him a drink.
8. Free Week in Iceland
Airlines will let you have a layover in Iceland for up to a week for FREE!
I know WOW Air does this, which is what we flew, but I’m pretty sure Iceland Air and a bunch of other airlines do this too. So let’s say you’re flying to Europe, right? Feel free to just hop on over to Iceland for maybe a day, maybe a few days, or maybe a week. The ticket will cost the same! Pretty incredible, right?
I really want to go back to Iceland in the summer now but just for a few days. Since there’s so much daylight in the summer (21 hours), I feel like I could get sooo much done, and go to all the places I didn’t get a chance to see or just really need to go back to.
9. A Touch of Rotten Eggs
Basically, the whole country smells like sulfur. Yep, even your shower.
You might hear about how the water in Iceland is safe to drink and is even good for you, but they don’t tell you that every time you take a shower, the entire house will smell like sulfur (read: burnt rubber mixed with rotten eggs).
Technically, what you’re smelling is hydrogen sulfide, which is given off from hot, geothermal sources underground. It’s what’s responsible for the geysers and other really cool phenomena that make Iceland the magical land that it is.
BUT, IT REALLY STINKS.
You’ll notice it just driving around too, especially at Gunnuhver, which are these bubbly hot springs that you definitely DON’T want to go swimming in (when I say bubbly, I mean boiling).
Don’t worry, though, you get used to the smell pretty quickly (or at least that’s what you tell yourself), and the first bath back home is just that much better.
10. Drinking Water
Like I mentioned, the water in Iceland is totally safe to drink. That includes from a tap, from a spring, or from a random creek. You can even drink the water in the Silfra fissure while you dive between tectonic plates.
The water is safe because it has been filtered through lava for thousands of years. You know the Berkey filters? Well, this is the ultra-powerful version of that. Nature’s filter.
You’ll find that Icelanders are pretty proud of their water. In fact, most locals won’t even buy bottled water. It’s all for the tourists!
I completely planned to just fill up my water bottle everywhere we went but ended up forgetting more often than not. I love my Takeya bottle because it fits so much and is completely spill proof.
When I did forget, we would just buy huge water bottles at gas stations every time we filled up. The bottled spring water is actually pretty pricy, but you can get fizzy lemon water (which we love) for about half the price. It’s not as healthy (as it’s not spring water) but it’s fine on occasion.
I’m just kind of obsessed with bubbly water because I have less of an urge to chug it like I do with flat water, so it actually ends up lasting me a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, I could easily go through a gallon or two of water a day.
11. Get a Portable Hotspot
Fun fact: most international plans don’t cover Iceland, so you have to pay for additional coverage, and it’s spotty anyway. I tried it for the first two days, in case the MiFi didn’t work, and ended up canceling it. We charged the MiFi in our car and kept in my backpack, and sometimes it had even better service than our guesthouses’ WiFi (it’s 4G coverage).
You reserve it ahead of time online, then pick it up at one of several gas stations in Reykjavik. Afterwards, just send it back in the envelope they provide for you. Just don’t wait until you get back home to ship it out like I did… whoops.
Also, does anyone know if it’s pronounced Mai-Fai or Mee-Fee? I think it’s Mai-Fai because that’s how WiFi is pronounced, but then Trent said it might be Mee-Fee because it’s a portable device for ME. Anyway, let me know in the comments please because I’ve spent way too long overthinking this.
12. Winter has about 4 hours of daylight, summer has 21
If you’re going in winter, be prepared to squeeze as many activities as you can into about four hours, then spend the hours of darkness driving and relaxing. At least, this was our course of action and it worked out phenomenally… for the most part.
Winter = Northern Lights, Ice Cave Tours, & Other Glacier Excursions
In the winter, the darkness allows you to see the Northern lights, and the lower temperatures let you go on glacier hikes and ice cave tours.
Driving at night means you need to add an extra layer of caution. Actually, so does walking. Trying to explore at night, away from the main road or any tourist locations, can be a little challenging. You just don’t know where the slipperiest patches of ice are, and lately Iceland’s been having a problem with potholes.
The lack of light just means you need to take a little extra time planning your trip. Make sure you know what you’re doing each day, and give yourself a time cushion before and after any planned activity.
The best part? Sunrises and sunsets that last for hours! You’ll actually be awake for both, too.
We had about six excursions planned, but only ended up going to about two of them, plus a lot of unplanned ones. You can and should still book them in advance if you know you don’t want to miss them, but don’t forget how much fun you can have just finding cool things on your own.
SUMMER = WHALE WATCHING, PUFFIN WATCHING, AND ZODIAC BOAT TOURS
You’ll get about 21 hours of daylight around the summer solstice, which leaves you plenty of time during the day to do all your activities.
Don’t be fooled into thinking it’ll be warm though. Summer can still get extremely cold, and I feel like your location on the island has more to do with this than the season. More on this in a bit.
13. You can use your credit cards just about anywhere
You don’t need to worry about exchanging cash at the airport or finding an ATM while there. Just about everywhere we went, they accepted credit cards, and usually without an international fee.
The only exception I can think of is, like I mentioned, at gas stations. But if you have a debit card on hand you’ll be just fine.
14. Some of the people can be... interesting
Iceland natives have been known to be a peculiar bunch. I didn’t personally encounter this, but a lot of them believe in some pretty mystical stories and ideas.
Also, my mom watched a bunch of documentaries about Iceland once she found out I was going, and passed along some fun facts.
THE RATIO OF FEMALES TO MALES IS ABOUT 3:2.
I’m over here thinking that wow, that’s a lot of estrogen. As a result, the women are praised very highly and almost worshiped. Pretty cool, huh?
Again, this is from my mom from a documentary, so don’t quote me on it. I mean, the same documentary also said that Icelanders read more books than any country, which we know is not true. A quick Google search reveals that it’s either India or Finland, depending on which site you look at.
What they probably mean is that they read the most books per capita. For a country of only about 300,000 people, it’s pretty easy to be #1 at a lot of things. It’s even an ongoing joke that Icelanders claim they’re the best country in the world because they’re at the top for so many categories.
For example, most Nobel prizes won per capita. I mean, they only had one. But one in 300,000 gets you pretty high up there.
HOWEVER, WHAT ICELAND DOES HAVE THE MOST OF ARE WEED SMOKERS.
The World Drug Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that Iceland is the country that smokes the most cannabis. Surprisingly, it’s not the US or the Netherlands or Nigeria, or any other country you might expect.
While any country can give you a bit of a culture shock, Iceland’s was particularly interesting. It’s definitely one of those places where I would visit a million times but could probably never live in (which is saying a lot for me).
15. The Weather Change Within Minutes or Miles
When we arrived at 6am after our red eye, after virtually no sleep, we naively thought we could just start our day off adventuring and be just fine. Not only were we absolutely exhausted, but those first few hours made me rethink this whole “ice” part of Iceland.
It was about -11 to -15 degrees Celsius when we tried to find an entrance to a park where we were going to do Silfra snorkeling later that day.
I COULDN’T EVEN BE OUTSIDE FOR MORE THAN A MINUTE WITHOUT FEELING LIKE MY FACE WOULD FALL OFF.
Side note: we ended up napping in the car for a few hours until the sun started to come up. If I could do it again, I’d book a cheap guesthouse for that morning and sleep until 10 am.
But, once we headed back down to Reykjavik, it was suddenly around -1 degrees. I mean, it’s not exactly warm but we definitely stripped some layers. This was an ongoing theme though, so we quickly learned that layers upon layers were the way to go.
It never got as cold as it did again that first night (thank god) but there were some other weather surprises.
AFTER OUR CAR-IN-SNOW FIASCO, MOTHER NATURE DECIDED WE GOT OFF TOO EASY.
I had a whole day planned on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, which is where a lot of Game of Thrones was filmed North of the wall, specifically Kirkjufell Mountain (look it up!). If you’re a huge fan like I am, you can imagine how excited I was.
So we get there, and all of a sudden it’s absolutely downpouring, the wind is so strong that I can hardly open the car door, and I can’t seem to walk more than two feet without absolutely eating it on the ice. After about 5 minutes of trying to get rain jackets on and basically waterproofing ourselves, we just gave up entirely and got back in the car, haha.
Spoiler alert: it was good that we did, because on our way to grab a pizza and a beer (gotta help the disappointment somehow) the wind got so strong that we were holding onto light posts just to keep from sliding away.
THESE WERE HURRICANE STRENGTH WINDS WE WERE DEALING WITH. IT WAS WILD.
Honestly, we ended up having a pretty amazing time in this little café with a ton of other people, and just laughed at our absurd last two days. I think Trent kept waiting for me to freak out that my plans weren’t working out, but I was just like NO this is AWESOME. I love a good story.
16. Off the Beaten Path
Going off the beaten path (literally) is extremely easy and worth it.
The thing about Iceland is that no matter where you look, you’ll see something breathtaking. For such a small country, it’s so jam packed with waterfalls, geysers, animals (remember the horses?), mountains, caves, etc. Even though I planned a lot out, nothing was more fun than just pulling over on the side of an unmarked road and finding a little hidden treasure.
My favorite thing to do while Trent was driving (besides taking endless photos and eating praline chocolate) was going on Google Maps (not Apple Maps) and zooming in until those little green icons resembling photo ops appeared. It’s how we discovered this awesome cave:
The point is, don’t worry if the names and pronunciations overwhelm you, or if it seems like there’s just SO much you want to see, and not nearly enough time (trust me, I feel you). Just go, and discover what’s in store for you on the way. The best part is you can keep coming back and have a completely new experience each time.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and learned a little somethin’ somethin’ about one of the coolest places out there. Leave a comment below and let me know if you want to see more of Iceland! Maybe I’ll do a post on all of the times we nearly died, haha. And if you’ve been, I want to hear about your experience!
Keep on adventuring.