Planning a Trip to Iceland

Yesterday, I got a Facebook message from a friend telling me that she and her husband had just bought tickets to Iceland and asking me for some travel tips. This happens all the time, especially for Iceland, Italy, New York, and Amsterdam, so I figured it was about time I share some of that advice publicly (if you want all my secrets, I'm happy to set up a trip planning consultation for you).

I’ve been lucky enough to get to travel to Iceland four times in the last two years. The first time, I did it the wrong way and spent almost all of my time in Reykjavik and at the Blue Lagoon. The next two times were layovers on my way to and from Italy, meaning I had just about ten to twelve hours in Iceland and decided to make the absolute most of my time by renting a car and driving around all day (I saw and learned A LOT!). The fourth time was this past spring when Ruth and I met up in Iceland for a five day road trip around the northern part of the island, mostly in Myvatn, Akureyri, and the Westfjords. All that to say, I may not yet be an expert, but I’ve probably had the opportunity to cover more ground than most people you know, so here are my insights.

Save Money By Shopping At The Grocery Store

First things first -- Iceland is super expensive, but there are ways to manage this. Do your research in advance, create a budget based on anticipated expenses, and get creative.  

An incredibly easy way to hemorrhage money while in Iceland is eating out and drinking. They are an island, one on which it is incredibly difficult to grow produce, so almost everything has to be imported and that is reflected in the price. The good news is that you aren’t traveling to Iceland for the food. Sure you might like to try the fermented shark (but hold your nose it smells AWFUL!) and you should try the famed hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (they’re not made from mystery meat like the ones here in the U.S.), but overall I would suggest skipping the restaurants and instead tell you to stock up at a grocery store (I particularly like Bonus, sort of like an Aldi). You can also pack some snacks from home and, if you want to drink, consider packing a bottle of wine or picking something up at Duty Free before leaving the airport.

Note: Traditionally, puffin have been a cherished cuisine in Iceland but they are incredibly endangered and on the verge of extinction. I would encourage you to do some research and consider the impact of tourism before choosing to eat puffin while in Iceland.  

How Much Time in Reykjavik?

If you are going to be in Iceland for less than a week, I would suggest no more than a half day in Reykjavik. There are some cool things to do there, but none of it is as great as getting out and actually seeing Iceland. Plus, it’s a small city (honestly, I don’t even feel comfortable calling it a city…) so you won’t need a lot of time. If you have more than a week in Iceland, then go ahead and give yourself a day there to explore the harbor, maybe visit a museum or explore the Harpa (Concert Hall), take in the view from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja Church, explore the (FREE) sculpture gardens next door, and relax at the Geothermal Beach. Definitely make time for the City Walk Free Walking Tour, an incredibly eye opening and informative two hour tour that is “pay what you want,” so in the end you just tip the guide what you think it was worth (bring cash).  

Where To Go?

A lot of people get overwhelmed with all of the options available when planning a trip to Iceland and think,  “Let’s just make Reykjavik our home base and take day trips from there.” Plenty of people have done this and had a great time. That being said, day trips really limit how much of the country you can see. Believe me when I tell you that all the best parts of Iceland are away from the Reykjavik radius. So, if you feel more comfortable staying on the beaten path or in tourist zones, go ahead and stick with Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, but if you prefer to break free from the crowd and have an off-the-beaten-path adventure, I highly recommend finding a place to stay somewhere further out.

The southern part of the island (particularly the black sand beaches, Glacier Lagoon, and diamond beach) is incredible, but the northern part is otherworldly and much less crowded. Some of my favorite spots were Lake Myvatn, Grjotagja Cave, Godafoss Falls, Namafjall Hverir, Hellulaug, and the Akureyri town pool (more fun and much cheaper than the Blue Lagoon).  

Should I Rent a Campervan?

Sure. But only if you particularly enjoy camping. A lot of people assume that renting a campervan is the cheapest option (because then you don’t have to pay for a car and lodging) but this isn’t always the case. Campervans come with a lot of hidden costs:

  • You will have to pay for more gas than you would with a small car.

  • You will have to pay for campsites (you are no longer allowed to camp on the side of the road in Iceland).

  • And you will have to rent sleeping bags and a camp stove (and buy propane), etc.

I've also been told that the rental company limits the number of hours the heater can be used, so you have to ration your use at night so it lasts all week. Additionally, you will not have easy access to showers and bathrooms. We met a couple that was camping in the Westfjords, and they found that a lot of the campgrounds they were staying at didn’t always have working showers. All that to say, if you enjoy camping then you should definitely go for it, but don’t do it simply because you think it is an easy or cheap option. I found in comparing prices that renting private rooms in hostels and on Airbnb would cost us about the same or less than a campervan, so we went that route and discussed multiple times (mostly after having met other people who were camping) how grateful we were to have a warm bed and hot shower to go home to each night.

Suggested 8 Day Itinerary

Note: If you are traveling to Iceland in the winter when there is incredibly limited daylight, I would not suggest this itinerary. 

Day One: Pick up your rental car and drive to Diamond Beach. Consider pit stops at the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck, Black Sand Beaches in Vik, and Seljavallalaug along the way.

Day Two: Spend the morning exploring the Glacier Lagoon and then head up to the Myvatn area.

Day Three: Spend the day exploring the Myvatn region.

Day Four: Spend the morning at the Akureyri town pools then head off to the Westfjords, exploring along the way.

Day Five: Explore the Westfjords. Make sure to stop by Hellulaug and relax in the hot springs right on the beach.

Day Six: Take the ferry (or drive) to Snæfellsjökull National Park and explore.

Day Seven: Explore and then make your way down to Reykjavik. If you can, do the City Walk Walking Tour.

Day Eight: Before heading to the airport, consider exploring Reykjavik or the area down around the airport. Within an hour of the airport are the Pagan Temple, Hafnarfjordur, and the Bridge Between Two Continents.

Have you been to Iceland and have something to add? Please share in the comments below.

If you're planning a trip, did you find this helpful or have further questions? Please ask in the comments below and I will do my best to help answer them.