7 Iceland Travel Tips To Remember
There’s no question about it, Iceland is pretty hot right now! Just scroll through your Instagram feed and it’ll seem like everybody and their brother, mother, and aunt are visiting. If you’re considering your own adventure to this wild island in the Atlantic here are 7 things you should know before you go…
1. Don’t be afraid to go for a long weekend
My first trip to Iceland was in April of 2018 and started off with a long flight from LAX to Reykjavík.
Flights had been cheap for a while but I waited to go in order to coordinate a larger trip with two of my sisters — a total of 3 and a half weeks in Europe. It seemed insane to me to get on a 9+ hour flight just for a long weekend.
I was totally mistaken in thinking that. I’d argue that four days in Iceland is equivalent to two weeks of regular life back home. There is so much to do and see that you’ll finish your trip physically exhausted but also mentally overwhelmed from the incomprehensible landscapes. Your eyes will take in the beauty but your brain will have some major trouble computing.
The view from behind Seljalandsfoss.
In just four days we saw more waterfalls than we could keep track of, stunning glaciers, glistening black sand beaches, puffins in their natural habitat, Icelandic horses, erupting geysers and so much more. Each day felt like 2-3 separate days and we’d arrive at our hostel for the night thinking back over the day saying, “Wait, that was this morning? It feels like a week ago!”
When we boarded the plane at 6 a.m. on the morning of our connecting flight to Charles de Gaulle I remember thinking, “I’m exhausted, and it’s only been four days. I wish I was going back to LA,” before immediately passing out.
2. Stay as much time as you possibly can
With all of the above being said, I also encourage you to stay in Iceland as long as you can afford to. I loved exploring the other seven countries we traveled to in Europe but there was something about Iceland that grabbed my heart immediately, squeezed tight and wouldn’t let go.
It’s just so wildly beautiful and the landscapes are truly otherworldly. Don’t believe that description? Well, NASA is actually doing studies of Iceland’s landscapes to prepare for future missions to Mars.
Opposing landscapes in Thingvellir National Park.
If you’re GOT fan you’ll also recognize some of Iceland’s backdrops from the show (or so I’ve heard as I’ve never seen an episode.)
Four days was enough time to hit a ton of amazing spots but I missed the ability to wander unhindered by a timetable. It also took everything in me to turn the car around at Vik and head back toward Reykjavik on our last day instead of continuing on around the Ring Road. I’d watched a YouTube series on Iceland before my trip so I knew I was missing out on some incredible scenery to the north and west but that’ll have to wait for next time.
Speaking of next time, I’m already planning to visit Iceland at least twice more to take advantage of all that this incredible country has to offer. I want to hit it in the colder months to see the northern lights and again in full summer to see the super long daylight hours. It’s truly the type of place that has something incredible to see no matter what the time of year.
3. Connecting with locals can be a bit tricky
Unlike many other places I traveled, I didn’t find as many opportunities to meet up with locals. We were on the go constantly and outside the city the attractions are spread out and crawling with, of course, tourists!
The hostels were also pretty empty during our trip, and one was more of a “home” for a bunch of guys that worked in local industries and basically lived long-term at the hostel. Luckily, I started chatting with the girl who ran the hostel and we hit it off instantly as she used to live in Las Vegas (my current home). Not only that, she used to be a substitute teacher (I used to teach) so we were off and chatting about her winding life story from growing up in LA, to living in Vegas, to moving to Hawaii where she met her Icelandic husband. She told us about local life in Iceland and the small town of Eyrarbakki. Moments like this, behind the scenes learning about real local life, are my favorite thing about travel.
Normally, when traveling, hitting up neighborhood bars and pubs is a great way to meet locals but we stayed away from this in Iceland for a couple reasons. First, alcohol, like everything else, is ridiculously expensive. A six-pack from the beer store will set you back about $24 USD so just imagine paying for a draft in a bar. Plus, we were frankly exhausted from all the traveling. Spending all day climbing glaciers, walking miles out airplanes and freezing in the spray from mighty waterfalls really takes it out of you!
4. Roads are incredibly well marked
We used a hotspot to get around via Google Maps but I would’ve felt pretty confident without it when visiting the main spots. Iceland’s Ring Road, Route 1, runs in a circle all the way around the island and it’s pretty easy to navigate with respect to that. You’re either heading toward Reykjavík or away from it so once you get oriented at the beginning, you’re all set.
Stopping to double check our directions on the way to Reynisfjara.
Additionally, there are tons of blue signs around that point you toward your destination. Sure, it depends on your navigational skills, but I consider myself pretty pathetic directionally and was able to manage with ease.
5. Buy your alcohol early
If you’d like to spend your evening winding down with a cold beer after a long day, make sure to grab your alcohol earlier in the day. Like Canada with “The Beer Store,” in Iceland, you can only buy alcohol at a specific store: Vínbúðinn. It’s pricey, but what’re you going to do? Iceland is an island making you a captive audience.
Get your alcohol and get it early as many of the stores are only open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. We hit one up, luckily spying it off the side of the road around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday and it was jammed. On the bright side, if you’re exploring Iceland properly you’ll be so exhausted at the end of most days that you won’t be doing anywhere near your usual level of drinking.
Still, nothing makes tourist watching better than a cold beer, and we spent a good hour sitting on a black sand beach drinking a couple and watching tourists flail around on top of the Sólheimasandur plane wreck trying to look cool for their Instagram.
Drinking and people watching at Sólheimasandur.
One more thing — you may find that gas stations sell alcohol but legally, they’re not allowed to sell anything stronger than 2.25% so really … I don’t know if that even qualifies.
6. Proper gear is essential for a good time
Two words: Waterproof everything. In my opinion, nothing makes you feel quite so alive as the rush of a mighty waterfall. Standing in front of Skógafoss I couldn’t hear anything but the roar and I couldn’t feel anything but my heart pounding and the freezing spray soaking me head to toe.
My sister snapped photos while I stood there as long as I could, grinning like a maniac, happiness bubbling up until I realized that I couldn’t feel my fingers and probably needed to head back. Reluctantly, I turned and headed back toward the crowds who had stayed farther back, the busloads of tourists dressed in yoga pants, light windbreakers, and Toms. Seriously, Toms! I marveled at how many people came from locations far across the world only to be held back because of improper clothing and footwear.
Freezing and loving every minute of it at Skógafoss.
They might’ve thought I was the crazy one but I didn’t come all the way to Iceland to watch from afar, I wanted to be inside the action as much as possible. I repeated the scene at Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss, getting up as close to the roar and spray as possible, slipping on the rocks, freezing my fingers and face off, getting soaked to the bone and feeling my heartbeat match the pounding beat of the falls.
I marched straight into the ocean waves on black sand beaches, slipped down icy glaciers, and hiked out to wilderness pools, all because I’d prepped properly. You don’t need a ton of things, rather layers.
My sister and I layered up and ready to start our trek out to Sólheimasandur plane wreck.
It was between 38 and 42 Fahrenheit on my days in Iceland and the key to the perfect outfit is layering. On a daily basis, I wore warm leggings (on a colder day I’d add another pair of leggings) with waterproof pants over top. Up top, I’d pair a long-sleeve shirt or sweater with a fleece jacket and a waterproof windbreaker. To round things out, you’ll need a warm hat and gloves and most importantly in my opinion, waterproof boots.
This will allow you to do pretty much anything, including getting up close and personal with all kinds of nature. One more thing, try to make sure your top layers zip. That way you can unzip them as needed when you get hot climbing up a mountainside.
7. Don’t stick too closely to your itinerary
If you’re going for just a few days it’s definitely important to plan out the major sights you want to hit in order to get the most out of your trip. That being said, things will come up. Reykjadalur hot spring was closed which was a major bummer for us as we’d been looking forward to it for weeks. We changed up our plans, calling it an early night and then heading out to Seljavallalaug the next day which, though crowded and we didn’t swim, was in a truly stunning setting.
Opting not to swim but instead just enjoy the views at Seljavallalaug.
On a different day, we found ourselves making very good time and had a few hours to spare so we decided to follow a tour bus. Wait, what? I know, normally I see a tour bus and go in the opposite direction but we didn’t know where we were and figured they were probably heading somewhere good. Boy, were we right!
We followed them to Sólheimajökull glacier, a place I hadn’t even researched and it was right along our route. Luckily this place is enormous so while the tour bus headed off in one direction, we went the other and spent a happy few hours just wandering, mostly in silence. This place was unreal and one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced — all by accident.
Getting up close with the ice at Sólheimajökull glacier.
Our last day in Vik we found ourselves with more time to explore and took our little Toyota Aygo up to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse with its stunning views out over Reynisfjara Beach.
That’s part of the beauty of Iceland, no matter where you go, you’re going to find incredible views, so if you have the time, toss your plans and see where the day takes you.
I’m Mashon Thomas, a former “lot of things” turned entrepreneur and world traveler. Committed to telling the real stories behind my journey I like to travel at my own speed, not counting countries but reveling in making lifelong memories. I also use my career experiences to inspire others to use skills they may not even know they have to create businesses that allow them to work on their own terms and travel the world. Follow along on Instagram @mashonward and get inspired to make your own way at MashOnward.com.