Before making my first trip to Iceland in the summer of 2018, I read a ton of blog posts, Wikipedia pages, and solicited the advice of friends. I wanted to learn as much as possible to avoid unnecessary surprises. Most of the things I learned turned out to be true, but there were a few things that could only be experienced on the ground. To help others who may be planning their own trip, here are five things I learned as a first time visitor.
Iceland is expensive
Plenty of people told me Iceland was expensive, but I didn’t truly appreciate how expensive it was until I was there spending money. The conversion of Icelandic Krona to United States Dollar can be punishing. Coffee, groceries, clothes – you name it – everything is higher.
Here are a few tips for spending less.
One, buy food from local grocery stores instead of eating out. You’ll still pay more than a grocery store back home, but the cost won’t be as bad as eating in a restaurant. I heard a story about someone who flew to Iceland with an extra suitcase full of canned soup and a can opener to save even more. Sounds crazy I know, but if you can check an extra bag for free, it might be worth the effort if on a strict budget.
Two, buy beer, wine, and liquor from the Reykjavik airport when you land. You’ll be tired and not thinking about booze, but if you plan on drinking anything during your stay, buy it at the airport. If you’re staying with an Airbnb host, ask if you can bring them something. They’ll thank you.
Three, avoid purchasing anything you could just as easily get at home or order online. You’ll be tempted by all kinds of colorful outdoor gear (I came this close to buying a bright yellow rain jacket and some Fjallraven pants), hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweaters and blankets, but seriously, you’ll cringe looking at your credit card statement a month later.
Four, if you do break down and purchase something of value, there’s a counter at the Reykjavik airport where you can receive tax refunds for items purchased in Iceland. You can’t deduct accommodations, food, or anything like that, but if you picked up a 66 North jacket with a fur-lined collar, keep the receipt, then head to the Tax Refunds counter at Keflavik Airport before you fly to get some of your hard-earned money back.
Everyone speaks perfect English
Seriously, it’s weird. I’m accustomed to at least some difficulty communicating with locals in foreign countries, but in Iceland, I felt at times I hadn’t left home. No matter where I went, communication was easy. Too easy. Don’t get me wrong, not having a language barrier certainly makes getting around convenient, but it also detracts somewhat from the feeling of being elsewhere.
Avoid the tour, get a car
When I first started researching Iceland, I perused a number of different tour companies offering “day trips from Reykjavik” to touristy areas around “The Golden Circle” and along the southern coastline. I’m sure many of these companies provide great service, but unless you have a specific reason to use a tour, you probably don’t need it. Instead, rent a car from the airport and drive yourself to all the same places, and then some. With your own car, you’re free to explore and enjoy the scenic landscapes on your own time. I especially liked this Google Map of attractions.
Move beyond Reykjavik
Reykjavik is worth seeing and exploring for a day or two, and is a good “home base” when driving around the Golden Circle and the southern coastline. But you should consider spending the night in other parts of the country. That way you’re not spending hours in the car driving back and forth from Reykjavik and you’ll experience more of Iceland along the way. There are plenty of locally-operated hotels and Airbnbs all around the island.
Prepare for the weather
As they say in Iceland, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.” Rain, wind, sun — you name it — the weather in Iceland is famously unpredictable. Even in summer when temperatures are mild, you’ll still experience cold breezes and plenty of rain and mist. Bring an actual rain jacket that repels water — not a poncho — unless you always want to look like you’re wearing a trash bag. Waterproof boots are also very handy if you’ve got them. Overall, bring what you’d typically wear to go camping and leave your nicer threads at home. You’ll fit right in. If you’re really serious about the weather, bookmark the Icelandic Meteorogical Office website for up-to-the-minute updates.
That’s it! Hope this information was helpful to anyone considering their first trip to the land of fire and ice.