Recently I spent five days wandering around the land of fire and ice, where the North American and Eurasian plates meet and hundreds of earthquakes rattle the bedrock every day (although, you don’t actually feel any of them). In a short amount of time, I saw volcanoes, lava fields, hot springs, black sand beaches, waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, moss covered hills, and the majestic Northern Lights.
Below are five tips you should think about before you go.
First, let’s start with my itinerary. I flew into Reykjavik and stayed at the Kerno Apartments just outside the downtown area. I stayed with two friends (who shared in the costs of the hotel and semi-private transportation from the airport), and booked three different tours. The rest of my expenses were spent on food and shopping. Total budget around $1400.
Five-Day Iceland Itinerary
Day 1: Arrived in Reykjavik, checked into Kerno Apartments, and spent half a day wandering around the city. This hotel offered clean apartments (with a full kitchen and balcony) and was a less expensive option than most of the other hotels in the city.
Day 2: We booked a Northern Lights Mystery Tour from Gray Line Iceland, which was cancelled due to bad weather. We rescheduled this tour to day three, and spent the rest of day two site-seeing around Reykjavik. I would not recommend Gray Line as a tour company (see why below).
Day 3: Small-Group Golden Circle Tour and Secret Lagoon Visit with Gateway to Iceland. This was by far the best of the three tours we booked. We visited the Secret Lagoon, the Gullfoss Waterfall, the Geysir Hot Springs, and Thingvellir National Park. After this tour ended (at around 7:30 pm), we had an hour and half before getting picked up for our rescheduled Northern Lights Tour (which ran until around 1:30 am).
Day 4: Southern Iceland Glaciers, Waterfalls and Beaches Tour with Bus Travel Iceland. We visited Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Skógafoss Waterfall, Sólheimajökull Glacier, and Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. This tour was mostly okay, it got us to where we wanted to go but nothing memorable about the tour company itself. However, part of my issue with this tour had more to do with how tired I was…three tours in two days!
Day 5: Last full day in Reykjavik, mostly spent relaxing, eating, and shopping.
What you can expect and what I learned in Iceland:
1. Renting a car in Iceland is a must!
I hate driving (even at home), and I especially hate the idea of driving in a foreign country where I don’t know my way around or understand the traffic signals. I don’t usually rent a car when I travel because it stresses me out, but if I could go back and do this trip all over again, I would definitely rent a car. I stayed near downtown Reykjavik, close enough to most of the sites and so I didn’t need a car getting around the city, however, I had to rely on tours in order to get out of the city. Although that’s typical when you don’t rent a car, in Iceland it felt very limiting not to be able to make our own way and our own schedule. With wide open roads and barely any traffic, driving around Iceland would have been a breeze.
2. The sticker price in Iceland will shock you.
Costs in Iceland are outrages, especially for food. Remember, everything here is imported. I’ve had meals in expensive cities (Rome, New York, San Francisco) and yet the sticker price in Reykjavik was shocking. I shelled out $25 for a bowl of soup and $30 for a chicken sandwich. The grocery store isn’t any better but if you’re cooking some of your meals, you’re at least spreading the costs a bit. My advice is to stay at a hotel with a kitchen and fridge (Kerno Apartments was fantastic), and buy some food to at least cover breakfast and some lunches. You’ll save a lot on food costs that way. Although I didn’t rent a car, I did hear that gas was also expensive, which is something to consider if you follow my first tip.
3. The tourism industry in Iceland is new.
Around 334,025 people live in Iceland, while over 2 million people visit every year. Tourism in the country has grown exponentially in the past few years and the Icelanders seem overwhelmed by the amount of people they must service. A couple of the tours I went on felt disorganized and although the people were nice and accommodating, logistically when we got off schedule, they seemed unprepared to deal with customer service issues or even how to explain to people where to stand and where to go. I worked in customer service for 8 years and I know all too well how nasty people can get when something goes wrong. The Icelanders dealt with these issues the best they could (and were so nice!), but it’s obvious they are still working through the kinks.
4. The Norther Lights are unpredictable.
We specifically booked our Northern Lights tour on the first night we arrived as we knew it could be cancelled because of bad weather. And we were right, we had to reschedule because of overcast skies (in the five days we were in Iceland, this tour only ran one night). We were picked up by Gray Line Iceland by a small bus and dropped off at the bus station where we were supposed to get on a larger bus. And that’s when the chaos started. Because several nights worth of tours had been cancelled, this tour company just didn’t know how to handle the amount of people they rescheduled. It took over an hour and a half for us to find a seat on a bus and the process was stressful and disorganized. No one told the hundreds of people there where to stand in line and so people were just all over the place, to the point where everyone was getting frustrated and loud. Finally, we made it on a bus and we drove out in the middle of nowhere to see the show. We spent a few hours standing around waiting for the lights to make an appearance, and eventually they did! However, as an FYI, the bright green and blue colors you see in those amazing shots are actually mostly invisible to the naked eye. I mostly saw cool shades of white across the night sky, and only after looking at someone’s photos did I see the green. I, alas, did not have the proper camera or equipment to take the million dollar shots.
5. It’s okay not to visit the Blue Lagoon.
I know, crazy right? Everyone was asking me why I didn’t plan to visit the Blue Lagoon, and the fact that it was the only thing people asked me about before and after the trip was a clear indication to me that it was going to be crowded (read: annoying to be there). So, instead we opted to visit the Secret Lagoon, which was much cheaper to get into and a lot less crowded. Also, the Blue Lagoon is actually a man-made pool and spa, while the Secret Lagoon is all natural.
There you have it, five things I learned. Have you been to Iceland? Any tips to share?