20 Tips For Planning Your Iceland Itinerary
Is Iceland on your bucket list?
You’re not alone.
From 2012 to 2016, spending of foreign visitors in Iceland has increased by 162%. Tourism is booming in the land of fire and ice, and it’s not hard to see why.
Whether you’re visiting for the amazing scenery, friendly locals, or breathtaking Northern Lights – Iceland is a destination that has moved to the top of a lot of travelers’ bucket lists, and for good reason.
The first time I visited Iceland, it quickly became my favorite place in the world.
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, here are some things you need to keep in mind while planning your itinerary:
Book Everything In Advance
Iceland has over 2 million tourists every year, and that number is only going to keep going up. Book all accommodation, car rentals, and tours well in advance, especially during peak travel season (May-September). Even when I visited during the cold, rainy month of November, plenty of accommodations and car rental companies were booked solid.
Booking everything in advance requires quite a bit of extra planning, especially if you’re driving the Ring Road or other road trips in Iceland, but it’s worth it to know that you have a place to sleep at night. There’s no worse feeling than showing up to a tiny Icelandic village and not having a place to stay.
If you’re not comfortable driving in the dark (or just want to be sure you don’t show up to Gulfoss in pitch black dark), be sure to plan your route and itinerary around sunrise and sunset times. In the Winter there can be as little as 4 hours of daylight.
Want to wing it on your Iceland road trip and avoid planning your route and accommodations in advance? Rent a camper van (before you get there, of course!) and sleep whenever and wherever your heart desires.
Know When To Visit Iceland
So, when should you visit Iceland? My opinion is, whenever you can. There are pros and cons to each time of year.
Summer is obviously going to have better weather and more sunlight, but you’ll likely be surrounded by swarms of other tourists. You’ll get to experience Iceland’s wildlife (have you seen how cute those puffins are?!), see unfrozen waterfalls, and go off the beaten path a bit more. You’ll also have almost 24 hours of sunlight during the middle of the summer, which allows you to really make the most of your time in Iceland.
Because of the increase in tourists, prices are incredibly high during the summer.
Iceland actually has fairly moderate winter temperatures, usually hovering around 20-35 degrees Fahrenheit depending on what area of Iceland you’re in, but you will have to worry about icy roads and Winter storms. Despite the weather considerations, I absolutely love Iceland in the Winter.
When you visit Iceland during the off season, you get to experience the beauty of Iceland without hoards of tourists crowding your view. I climbed up a mountain to a hot spring river and was the only person there for almost an hour. It’s an incredible experience to be surrounded by the country’s beauty – and no one else.
Iceland in the off season also means you’ll have the opportunity to see the Northern Lights during the late Autumn through early Spring, and prices will be much lower than during the Summer. Visiting during the Winter is a great way to cut costs during your Iceland adventure.
If you do decide to visit Iceland in the winter, make sure you research what activities/attractions are and are not available during the off season. For example, don’t show up in December if you have your heart set on white water rafting!
Plan Your Iceland Budget – And Try To Stick To It
I get the same question over and over again: What should I budget for a trip to Iceland? The answer to this question varies depending on your travel style, but I can sum Iceland prices up in one word: expensive.
According to the popular travel budgeting site Budget Your Trip, the average cost of mid-range travel is $216 per day. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this number to be very far off. There are plenty of ways to keep costs low in Iceland, but you are going to be surprised by the prices. It would be tough to find even a burger and beer for less than $40. A true budget traveler can probably do Iceland for around $80 per day, but that doesn’t allow for much else than groceries and a hostel.
Be sure to add some extra padding to your Iceland budget. You will need it. You will either get there and realize everything is way more expensive than you anticipated, and therefore thank yourself for the extra cash in the budget, or you’ll have money to buy than cozy Icelandic sweater that you start dreaming of as soon as your plane lands.
Research Your Airline
With low-cost carriers like WowAir offering cheap flights to Iceland, tourism in the country has spiked tremendously. While a $200 round trip ticket to Iceland can seem like an amazing deal, make sure you research the baggage allowances and other charges for the airline you’re considering.
WowAir, for example, does not allow for anything other than a small personal item with their base ticket price. You also have to pay if you want to select your seat in advance, or even want a bottle of water while on-board.
If you need to check a bag, want a meal during your flight, or prefer extra leg room; a more expensive ticket with a bigger airline is a better option for you, and will probably end up cheaper in the long run. If you’re a budget traveler who can pack in just a small backpack, and just wants to get to Iceland; budget airlines like WowAir are an amazing way to travel more for less.
While some people hate the a la carte pricing style that is becoming more popular with airlines, these low-cost tickets are making travel more accessible for a wider range of people.
Rent A Car
Nothing beats renting a car and driving when experiencing this amazing country. You’ll soon find that driving somewhere isn’t as simple as driving from point A to point B; some of the most amazing views I came across in Iceland were a result of random stops along the road. Renting a car allows you to get out and explore – on your own schedule.
When selecting your rental type, make sure you get the right vehicle for your trip. If you’re visiting in the winter or plan to drive the F-roads, you’ll need a 4×4. I also recommend a 4×4 if you’re not accustomed to driving during the winter. While I drove part of the ring road in November in a Ford Focus, I definitely do not recommend it for everyone.
Want to save yourself from a rental car disaster? Get the extra insurance. Iceland is a crazy place, so you never know what might hit your car. It’s not at all unheard of for a tourist to lose an entire car door on a windy day.
Additionally, if you have never driven in the snow or don’t feel comfortable with the idea, Iceland during the winter is NOT the place to try it out. If you’re worried about renting a car, group tours can be a great way to see the country! There are many group tour options for the Golden Circle, South Coast, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Northern Lights, and more.
The cheapest and best rated car rental company I found for Iceland is Guide To Iceland. They have a wide selection of both manual and automatic cars, and options for every kind of weather.
Be sure to rent your car from the airport, as the bus ride from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik costs $24 each way. If you’re already planning on renting a car, driving it into the city from the airport will save you quite a bit of cash!
Plan Your Driving Route
Even if you plan on renting a GPS or using your phone’s GPS app, plan your route beforehand. It’s a good idea to either draw it out on a paper map, or print out your route using Google Maps. Iceland is a very large country, and most of it is very rural. Even if you have cell reception in Reykjavik, odds are your phone’s GPS will lose service at some point on your drive.
Remember Murphy’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong. Plan for the worst and have a backup plan if your GPS fails or gets you lost in the middle of nowhere.
If you do get lost, don’t be afraid to ask for directions! Icelandic people are the friendliest I have ever met, and are always happy to help tourists find their way.
Drive The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
While there are many amazing places along the Ring Road and further inland, my absolute favorite part about visiting Iceland is the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This scenic drive is about two hours from Reykjavik. You’ll experience a little bit of everything Iceland has to offer when you drive this peninsula often called “Little Iceland”. You’ll find waterfalls, a glacier, a National Park, rocky cliffs, black sand beaches, churches, Icelandic ponies, and more.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is not as popular as the Golden Circle because of its distance from Reykjavik, and therefore you won’t come into contact with as many hoards of tourists. While they do have group tour buses that frequent the route, if you wait it out you’ll probably find yourself standing alone at many of the stops along the route.
Hellnar and Arnarstapi, two small fishing villages along the West coast, are both must-sees along the route. They both have beautiful hiking paths along the ocean, and Arnarstapi is home to the famous arch rock that appear in many Iceland Instagram photos.
Packing the right clothing for the weather can make or break your trip. The key to dressing appropriately in Iceland is layers, layers, and more layers! Instead of packing your bulky winter coat, pack layers of thermals and fleece, with a waterproof outer layer on top. Waterproof hiking shoes or boots are also a necessity.
During the winter, I highly recommend bringing a pair of insulated waterproof pants. I didn’t think mine would be necessary, but after freezing the first day of my trip I wore my snow pants with pride. You probably won’t need them while in Reykjavik, but they’re a lifesaver while exploring outside the city. Just don’t be the tourist who shows up with Ugg boots and expects to hike Icelandic mountains in them!
While in Reykjavik, you probably don’t need to worry about bringing any fancy dress clothes or shoes. Icelanders dress very practically for the weather. Even if you’re out at the bars, you’ll usually be fine in your boots, jeans, and a sweater. Obviously if you plan on any fancy dinners you should pack accordingly, but most travelers will be fine dressing down.
If you plan on packing carry-on only or just want to save some luggage space for souvenirs, look for an Airbnb with laundry facilities. By doing a load of laundry every few days, I was able to only bring four outfits for a 9 day trip! The above picture is all of the luggage I brought with me for my Iceland trip in November.
If, like most travelers, you’re trying not to blow your budget in Iceland, be sure to pack everything you’ll need for your trip. Don’t assume that you can save space in your luggage and just buy your toiletries there, or purchase winter clothing when you see what the weather is like. Even buying something as simple as a scarf could easily run you $80. Some people even pack food items like trail mix, granola bars, or peanut butter to save costs on food! Plan ahead and bring what you can so that your budget can stay in tact.
Bring your swimsuit!
No matter if you’re visiting Iceland during the summer months or the dead of winter, you’re bound to need a swimsuit. There are tons of geothermal springs and swimming pools (both natural and man-made) that will be some of the highlights of your trip!
My absolute favorite Iceland experience was hiking to Reykjadalur hot springs in November, and getting in the hot tub temperature water while surrounded by snow-covered mountains. I was the only person there for a solid half hour. Changing into a swimsuit in 20 degree weather might not be the best feeling in the world, but that water definitely was.
If you forget your swimsuit, some of the more popular swimming pools like the Blue Lagoon and the Secret Lagoon offer swimsuit rentals and an affordable (for Iceland!) price. If you forget your suit and are planning on visiting more than these swimming pools, it might be worth it to push your budget a bit and purchase a new one. You probably won’t regret the extra money spent, but you’ll definitely miss out on an essential Iceland experience if you never set foot in the water.
Pack A Camera
This probably goes without saying, but you’re going to see some amazing scenery while you’re in Iceland. Even if you stay in Reykjavik, the colorful houses and street art are going to make you want to keep a camera in-hand at all times. These days, your iPhone or Android can take some pretty great pictures.
I personally travel with an iPhone X, Nikon d3300, and a GoPro Hero 4. If you’re looking for an upgrade from your phone but still want something that’s a little more point and shoot, this camera is a great option!
Make sure that whatever camera you choose, you bring extra batteries. Cold weather drains batteries very quickly. I was often carrying three GoPro batteries with me and still having to recharge them halfway through the day!
I also recommend carrying extra memory cards and/or if you’re bringing a laptop, backing up your photos. The last thing you want to do is run out of space during your trip! I use this extended hard drive to back up all of my photos when I’m traveling. You can also utilize a cloud storage service like DropBox to store all the memories from your trip!
If you’re relying on your phone, this portable charger is small, light-weight, and will easily keep your iPhone charged and ready to capture your trip!
Carry A Credit Card – But Have Some Emergency Cash
While I was in Iceland, I relied on my credit card and barely carried any cash. I didn’t come across a single business in Iceland that didn’t accept credit cards – even the rural bathroom stops!
Before you leave for your trip, make sure you look up your credit card’s foreign transaction fee or apply for one with 0% foreign transaction fees. If you have a high fee, taking cash out of an ATM may be your best bet.
If you do decide to rely on credit cards, it’s still a good idea to keep some cash on hand for emergencies. I would also recommend bringing more than one card if possible and keeping them in two separate locations (ex: one in your purse and one back at your hotel). Having only one card and no cash is a recipe for disaster if it gets stolen – or more likely misplaced, considering theft isn’t exactly common in super-friendly Iceland.
Consider Skipping The Blue Lagoon
I know, I know – you’ve seen the pictures on Instagram and Pinterest, and you’re expecting the Blue Lagoon to be one of the highlights of your trip. Hear me out.
The Blue Lagoon is $67 for the “Comfort Package”, which gets you entrance to the lagoon, a mud mask, a towel, and your first drink.
Did you know that the famous blue water in the Blue Lagoon isn’t even natural water? It’s runoff from a nearby geothermal plant. Doesn’t sound as luxurious when you think about it, does it?
While I’m sure the Blue Lagoon is a cool experience, there are plenty of other natural hot springs in Iceland. I personally recommend The Secret Lagoon, which is a lesser known (and cheaper at only $26) spot that is an amazing end to a day of driving the Golden Circle.
There are also community pools in just about every town that are much less frequented by tourists. Swim where the locals do!
Don’t Spend Your Whole Trip In Reykjavik – But Get Lost While You’re There
While Reykjavik definitely deserves at least a couple days of exploring, the best parts of Iceland are outside the city. You can’t truly get a taste of Iceland by staying within the city limits. Rent a car, book a group tour, start hitchhiking – whatever you have to do to get out and explore!
I truly love the city of Reykjavik, but I couldn’t imagine coming to Iceland and only experiencing what’s inside the city limits.
While you are in Reykjavik, make sure to spend some time just exploring the city. Some of the coolest things I came across were a result of just wandering down random streets. The plentiful street art and colorful houses are reason enough to get lost and immerse yourself in the city. The walkable nature of Reykjavik makes it easy to just pick a direction and walk until you run out of street, without having to worry about getting lost.
Talk To The Locals
Icelanders are hands down the most friendly people I have ever met. Talk to as many as possible, as often as possible.
Looking for a restaurant for dinner, or have some time to kill on your trip? Ask a local for recommendations. Most are more than happy to help, and it will likely be the best part of your entire Iceland adventure.
Take A Free Walking Tour
Walking tours are the easiest way to get yourself acquainted with a new city. The first day you get into Reykjavik, go on a walking tour to see all of the highlights of the city and make note of what you want to go back to. You’ll often also get recommendations of things to do, see, and eat from your guide, along with some interesting (and often humorous) facts about Iceland, its people, and its culture.
While these walking tours are advertised as free, they are more of a “pay what you want” system and the guides work off of tips. Be sure to have some cash on hand to tip your guide at the end! It’s worth it, believe me!
I went on the CityWalk History and Culture Tour, and it was one of the highlights of my stay in the city.
Save On Your Food Budget
To be completely honest, the food in Reykjavik left much to be desired. Even my Airbnb host told me not to spend money on food, and that it was better in America! Save on your food budget by not eating expensive dinners out, and use that money for additional Icelandic experiences like exploring ice caves or riding Icelandic ponies.
With that said, I did have a delicious burger from Íslenski Barinn (The Iceland Bar) and some amazing lobster soup from The Sea Baron. There are plenty of more affordable places to eat in Iceland. You just need to be prepared to do some research before you go; don’t just walk into a random restaurant unless you want to spend a full day’s budget on one entreé.
To save some cash, stay at an Airbnb with a kitchen and do some grocery shopping during your drip. Iceland has a chain of grocery stores called Bonus that are affordable (for Icelandic prices) and easy to find. Go grocery shopping and stock up on things like granola bars, bread, peanut butter and jelly, etc. I also bought supplies to make a simple pasta and marinara sauce at my Airbnb that lasted me a few days. Grocery shopping and making your own food will save you enough money to be able to splurge on occasional dinners out!
Take Advantage of Happy Hours
Icelandic bars and restaurants usually have great happy hour deals. If you’re planning on a night out or want to try some local beers, look up happy hours in the city and start early! Some bars even have happy “hours” spanning most of the day.
Bring A Water Bottle
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT buy bottled water in Iceland. It will be your biggest waste of money.
All of the water in Iceland is completely drinkable due to the glaciers. The tap water is probably better quality and cleaner than anything you could purchase in a bottle.
Bring a refillable travel water bottle and keep it with you at all times! It will save you a ton of money that would be better spent on a Viking beer.
Do Go Chasing Waterfalls
Ahhh, the waterfalls. Any good trip to Iceland involves as many waterfalls as possible. While there are a few waterfalls on the popular Golden Circle, some of the best waterfalls in Iceland are a little off the beaten path. Depending on your route and itinerary, here are some of the waterfalls to check out:
Be Smart and Follow The Rules
While Iceland is beautiful and has some of the most amazing scenery you’ll ever come across in your lifetime, it can also be very dangerous if you, quite frankly, act like an idiot. So follow the signs, rules, and your own common sense, and you’ll be fine. This means don’t get too close to cliff edges, don’t run around on moss when the signs say to keep off, don’t try to get a closer picture of the geysers, don’t take your rented Ford Focus on the F-roads… You get the idea.
While planning an Iceland itinerary can be overwhelming, remembering these tips can save you a lot of headaches once you arrive. Iceland travel takes quite a bit of planning and preparation. If you do your homework and plan accordingly, you’re bound to have the Icelandic adventure of a lifetime.