We just returned from our summer holidays in Iceland and having seen it ourselves, this country of ice and fire is absolutely amazing! The scenery is breathtaking and there are so many unique places where we knew, there is no other place on earth we can see or experience it! But heading to Iceland does require a bit of planning and having the right set of expectations – so here are 13 top tips to know before you go!
1. Plan reasonable amounts of driving each day
Iceland may seem like a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but it is not so tiny from driving perspective – we covered quite some distance from Reykjavik to Höfn and back. Driving distance and the amount of driving per day were important considerations when I was planning my itinerary especially in deciding as to where we would make a sightseeing stop and where we were staying for the night.
I wanted to break the driving up, and not overtire from too much driving. I also didn’t want to have 2 kids in the car for too long. The plan was to limit the driving to a maximum 2-hours of continuous driving for any stretch, and maximize the amount of time we spend at each location. This also meant that we didn’t have to rush through the sights, and had enough time to leisurely enjoy each place at our own pace.
2. Bring credit card with a pin
There is absolutely no need to exchange and hold any cash in Iceland – we spent nearly 2 weeks in Iceland without being in contact with the Icelandic Krona at all. Everything at any price can be settle by credit card. More importantly, a credit card where you can pay with a pin number (as opposed with a signature) is a must. This was essential for paying parking fees at the national parks and at self-service petrol stations where it was not manned.
3. Fuel up the car often
Our trip through the Golden Circle took us as far south-east as to Höfn. There’s very little civilization between Vik and Höfn, so that also means there are not too many petrol stations along the way. We fueled up whenever we had half a tank left so we made sure we had enough gas to last a long way and we didn’t have to stress about trying to find the next or nearest petrol station.
4. Even in summer, the weather is unpredictable! Stay dry!
Do not expect summer in Iceland to be like summer in continental Europe where it’s nice, hot and sunny every day. We learnt that the average summer temperature in Iceland is 9C, and the weather can change from sunny to overcast to rainy in a blink of an eye. The good news is that the rain we experienced weren’t downpours of heavy rain (so we didn’t get drenched) – rather, it is like gentle misty sprinkles so with a good hooded raincoat or waterproof windbreaker, we were fine. The bad news is that when the lower misty clouds drift over, it blankets all the wonderful scenery and magnificent mountain and glacier views! In addition to having a good hardy waterproof or water resistant jacket, having ankle-high waterproof boots are also a must!
5. Stock up on food
We found that once we started driving east from Hella, there were not many cafe/restaurant options – there were a few, just not too many to choose from. And further east from Vik, there isn’t much of anything other than wilderness for 2 hours until you get to Skaftafell National Park or the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon (By that time, we still had another 30 mins drive to Jokulsaron Lagoon!). We also stayed a few nights in the middle of that wilderness stretch so it was imperative that we stocked up on food at the Koran supermarket at Vik.
6. Buy wines at the Airport Duty Free before leaving customs
Alcohol is notoriously expensive in Iceland, and there are only designated shops that sell wines around the country. We did see beers being sold at supermarkets but not wines or other types of alcohol. While we didn’t do any research to compare prices, apparently, even the locals buy their wines at duty free as it is cheaper than at the shops in Reykjavik and elsewhere on the island. At the duty free shop, the range of wines are very extensive from old world wines to many of the new world wines from Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. The limit is 6 bottles per adult so we grabbed our maximum 18 bottles to start our 2 weeks road trip in Iceland!!!
7. There’s a lot of water! And its free!
As 11% of Iceland is covered by glaciers, one thing that’s free in Iceland is its water. There’s no need to buy bottled water, the tap water offers wonderfully refreshing water from source. At the Jokulsaron Lagoon, when we took the amphibian boat tour, the guide offered us a chunk of glacier ice to taste – strangely, 1000 years old ice taste just as fresh!
In Reykjavik, we also learnt that the hot water in homes is geo-thermal and are pumped directly by pipes from a geo-thermal energy plant around 20 mins outside of the city. That’s why when we turned on the hot water in Reykjavik, it was so boiling hot (children needs to be careful!) and we could smell the traces of sulfur.
8. Puffins are tiny birds!
For some reason, I thought puffins were large birds and had assumed they were easy to spot. How wrong I was! Puffins are tiny, with a height of around 30cm or so. Whilst there are abundant bird life in Iceland, not all of them are puffins! So spotting these tiny black birds are hard, and it is harder still to see their unique colorful bills. The tip our guide gave us is that puffins flap their wings up to 400 times a minute – so when we looked high up, the little black bird flapping fervently is a puffin – but then it’s all a blur!
One cannot leave Iceland without tasting langoustines!! We sampled langoustines all throughout Iceland and we found the best and freshest char-grilled langoustines at none other than Höfn, the langoustine capital of Iceland. Pakkhus Restuarant is the place to be and it has their own fishing boat for langoustines so that says enough for its freshness! To be a bit closer to Reykjavik and the airport, Cafe Bryggjan in Grindavik (close to the Blue Lagoon) offers the best langoustine soup, and what makes it even better, you can go for seconds!
10. Make at least 2 separate visits to Diamond Beach
The Diamond Beach is situated just at the mouth of the river Jokulsa which connects the Jokulsaron Lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean. The Jokulsaron Lagoon is filled with huge chucks of icebergs which have broken free from the glacier tongue outlet of the Vatnajokull glacier – the largest in Europe. Before heading out to the Atlantic Ocean, many of these huge icebergs are swept back onto the Diamond beach creating the magical sight of the glistening icebergs melting on black volcanic sand. On our first visit, it was in the late afternoon and the tides were moving into the Lagoon. This meant that many of the huge chucks of icebergs were gathered around the edge of the Lagoon but couldn’t flow out. Together with the heat of the sun, we presumed that’s why we didn’t see too many pieces of icebergs on the beach. On our return in the morning 2 days later, it was cold and wet but the tides were moving out of the Lagoon so there were many huge chucks of ice floating around and on the Diamond beach!! Just because this place is just so unbelievably amazing, plan 2 separate visits so as not to miss out on this incredibly unique phenomenon!
11. Most sights are short walks from the car park
With young kids and my mother on the trip, I wanted to find out how much walking we had to actually do to get to the sightseeing location. It also helped with roughly planning how much time we needed for each place. Luckily, the major sights in Iceland are easily accessible from the designated car parks which made it easy, accessible and enjoyable.
The only exceptions we found on our itinerary was the Bruarfoss waterfall which is around a 3km walk one way through farm land and muddy terrain and the Svartifoss waterfall in the Skaftafell National Park which is around a 45 mins walk one way (well paved path). We ended up having to skip the Bruarfoss waterfall hike as there were many other sights to see around that Golden Circle area – if we had stayed an extra day around Geysir and Gulfoss, we may have gone on the hike to see how amazingly blue the water is flowing from this waterfall.
12. Expect it to be expensive!
Everyone told us that holidaying in Iceland is expensive – and it is! I think more importantly is to set the right expectation before you go – expect Iceland to be expensive. But what does it mean by expensive? Coming from a place where Hong Kong is voted the most expensive place to live in, we found that the prices for accommodation, restaurants and supermarkets are comparable with Hong Kong; and the costs of tours, entry fees and activities, they were similar to those when we went to New Zealand/Norway. So with that mindset, we managed our own expectations and holiday budget accordingly, and in turn, made our time in Iceland more enjoyable!
13. Don’t be stupid!
We have witnessed with our own eyes some fellow tourists doing the most stupid of things in Iceland, and have also heard stories from our guides. One incredibly stupid and beyond common sense example was that we saw an Asian young couple attempting to drive their sedan rental car onto the Langjokull glacier!!! I’m not sure why they would have thought it was possible in the first place!
We watched them attempt it, and they had made it about 3 meters on the ice before having to reverse back onto the proper dirt road. What is more incredible was that to get to where their car was just on the edge of the glacier, we ourselves had taken a special vehicle from base camp to the 2nd base camp as the road up to the glacier was not suitable for normal cars. Then from the 2nd base camp onto the glacier itself, we boarded another vehicle that was designed to be driven on ice/glacier. I do not want to venture a guess as to how much the young Asian couple had to pay for all the damages to their little sedan!
At the Geysir Hot Springs, there are signs everywhere that the water flowing from the mud-pools and hot springs are extremely hot and dangerous. Yet, there are still people who ignore the signs and want to check out the water temperature themselves with their bare hands!!! Similarly, there are signs that warn people away from the dangerous cliff edges, yet people still want to head out there beyond the ropes just to capture that all important selfie!