So you want to visit Iceland, one of the most photogenic places on the planet? You’ll love it! I have visited Iceland three times so far and on one of those trips I spent a full month traveling all over the country. In this series I share my tips for a fun trip. We cover flights, must-see sites, the Northern Lights, transportation, food, booze, money, language, lodging, and, of course, photography. This is not a complete itinerary nor do I intend for it to be. For me, travel is about exploring at your own pace – not checking items off a list.
Part One of my guide is about getting there and preparing for your first day.
I live in the USA so this portion of the series might not interest you if you live elsewhere. It won’t hurt my feelings if you skip ahead.
All of the major airlines fly to Keflavík airport (KEF) from the USA but my experience is limited to Icelandair and Wow Air. The former is luxurious and cozy (as much an airline can be) while the latter is a discount carrier that will charge you by the gram for your luggage. My preference is for Wow Air mainly due to cost but to their credit, Wow Air has a modern fleet and probably the coolest flight attendant uniforms in the business. The flight is roughly five hours from the USA’s East coast and they tend to leave in the late evening.
On Wow Air it’s possible to find round trip flights for less than $200 in the late winter / early spring season of February – April. As you get towards the late spring and summer the flights get costlier – but you also have less chance of seeing the Northern Lights! More on that later.
They say that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland then wait a few minutes and it will change. You can anticipate cold, wind, rain, wind, snow, wind, sleet, wind, and occasionally some wind. Every now and then there’s some sunshine!
It’s cold but look, it’s not that cold. I have spent entire nights outside shooting timelapses of the Northern Lights with decent cold-weather gear. Layers: wicking, insulating, rain/wind. Hat. Gloves. Don’t go down to REI and buy some crazy insulated expedition parka – in fact you’ll stick out like a sore thumb and immediately be marked as a tourist and we don’t want that!
The wind and precipitation are what you’ll need to be prepared for if you’re going to be out in the elements. A good rain coat will come in handy as will good layering technique. If you’ll be out for extended periods of time (say a six hour timelapse photo shoot, perhaps?) then wind gear will be very helpful.
A note on clouds: if it’s cloudy then you won’t be able to see the Northern Lights even if they are shooting overhead. The clouds are far below the point in the atmosphere where the aurora do their magic.
Spend some time before your trip looking at historical weather. In March, my personal favorite time to visit, the temperature rarely exceeds 38 (F) and the lows may get down into the 20s (F).
The Icelandic Meteorological Office has a cracking good website for keeping an eye on the weather and they were even so kind as to translate it to English if your Icelandic is rusty. They even have a section just for forecasting the Northern Lights!
Car Rental & Transport
You can take a bus from the airport or rent a car.
Bus: Flybus Airport Shuttle. It’s about $30 or so. I’ve never taken it; not an endorsement.
Car: I endorse icerental4x4.is for renting a car. Kjartan and Hjolli will take good care of you.
All of the major car rental chains are represented at KEF but I do suggest that you have a reservation beforehand.
Car rental isn’t cheap but, in my opinion, it’s essential for exploring this beautiful country. There are not a lot of options for public transportation outside of Reykjavík although it is certainly possible to book day tours to popular destinations.
Do not go on F roads unless you really know what you’re doing. These “roads” are marked on the map and are for 4-wheel drive vehicles only. The rental folks will tell you the same thing when you rent your car. They mean it and so do I.
The gas pumps are mostly pay-at-the-pump like here BUT they all require a PIN even your credit card. Call your credit card company and ask about a PIN for this purpose – they should be able to set you straight.
N1 is the most prevalent gas station chain around especially once you get out of the city. When you leave Reykjavík make sure that you take every opportunity to top off your gas tank. Once you get past Vík along the southern coast the fuel opportunities get few and far between.
Roads in Iceland are fine to drive on but be very aware of weather conditions; they change frequently. Keep an eye on the website for the national road service, Vegagerðin – click on the region of the country you’re planning to drive in and make sure the roads are clear. I wouldn’t drive on anything worse than the light-blue (slippery) roads in a 2wd car. If you’re in a 4×4 (esp. with studded tires) then you can go up to the pink roads but I wouldn’t advise it unless you have 4×4 off-roading experience.
Hostels: When I travel alone I prefer to slum it and stay in hostels or even in my rental car. Hostels are often the most affordable option unless you enjoy curling up in the back seat of a Hyundai. The hosteling network in Iceland is amazing. The hostels are very affordable, comfortable, and fun. So if the phrases “shared bathroom” or “bunk beds” aren’t sufficient to send you running for the nearest Starwood property then have a look at the what’s on offer at Hosteling International.
Hotels: The major chains are represented in Reykjavík but hotels outside of the city can be challenging. The best bet for coverage is going to be Icelandair Hotels. Few options exist except in larger areas like Akureyri. Those that do exist tend to be costly – often MUCH more costly than a private bedroom at a hostel.
Airbnb: I love Airbnb because I always get a bit of local flavor but most of all it’s because I get my own kitchen! I can always cook some noodles or make sandwiches in a hostel but with my own kitchen I can really make a good home-cooked meal which saves money and is usually far healthier than a restaurant. Sign up with my link and you’ll get $40 off your first trip! Dude!
Camping / Campers: It’s possible to rent groovy vans with beds, cookers, etc. I love the idea but I have not done this yet. I am an avid camper and backpacker and though I’ve never done it in Iceland I’m told that the country is very welcoming of campers.
If you want cell service you can buy a SIM card for your phone. Don’t get one at the airport – they’re expensive there. You can buy an Icelandic SIM from Elko electronics stores (and others). The carrier there is call Síminn. I don’t know much about this process or how it works, I just closed my eyes, handed over my phone and credit card, and bought one for the month I was there. It’s fairly affordable. Check with your domestic provider before you go – you might be able to sign up for a month’s worth of international roaming and avoid the hassle. https://www.siminn.is/english/
Next time: Arrival and Exploring Reykjavík!