Words: Erin Hardie | Photos: Ryan Platten | Have you ever thought about going to Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice – as it’s popularly known? We never really had, until we fatefully ended up booking a flight from New York to Dublin that routed through Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital). This was an accident of economy as we were looking for the cheapest flight option of course, and currently Iceland’s WOW Air is very competitive particularly in the US major cities market.
|1400ISK per pint of Guinness
*1200ISK per pint of local beer (Viking Gylltur)
Due to this chance occurrence we thought why not extend our 3 hour stopover into a 3 day stopover as it’s not everyday one finds themselves in Iceland. Of course the problem with this “fly by the seat of our pants” casual approach to visiting Iceland is that we really didn’t know much about Iceland in advance and therefore made rather a mess of our visit.
Perhaps you already know all about Iceland’s almost unconquerable natural beauty thanks to social media channels such as landscape photographer @iuriebelegurschi on Instagram. But if you are like us and know essentially nothing about Iceland then read on for our 5 mistakes not to make when traveling to Iceland. These tips will save you money and help you get the most out of your time in the most sparsely populated country on Earth (maybe so due to just how tough going some of its geography is!).
The first thing to be aware of, when planning a visit to Iceland, is the cost. You will need a wheelbarrow full of money, per person, period. This is not because the Icelandic króna is a banana-republic inflated to the extreme currency but rather actually a strong currency and it’s coupled with a very high cost of living (4th highest in the world!). One lunchtime on the recommendation of a fellow tour group participant we checked out a soup bar (Svarta Kaffid) just off the main street in Reykjavik, a bar with four tap beers and a daily choice of either a meat or vegetable soup served in a generously sized hollowed out cob loaf. This sounded like a dream come true until the bill came, we paid $70 AUD for two soups and two pints of beer! By comparison in Australia you would pay on average $42 for the same. After this debacle we tried a kebab for dinner… $20 AUD per kebab! We quickly raced down to the local supermarket to avail ourselves of breakfast supplies. A box of cornflakes, bananas and milk to last two of us for three breakfasts cost $15 AUD, much better but still a good $5 more than we would pay back in Aus. So Iceland is expensive… but we did also make a few mistakes.
Mistake one: try and avoid going out to eat, and if you do steer well clear of the main streets of Reykjavik – this is tourist central and the prices are inflated accordingly. Mistake two: we went to the twenty-four supermarket as it was the most conveniently close in the baltic temperatures. Don’t go to 24 hour supermarkets, due to higher cost of wages they typically pass these costs on to the customer in the prices of their goods.
As for the excursions – they’re expensive too of course, but worth it. Accommodation can be found for a reasonable price of around $80 AUD per night for a double room in a guesthouse and if you source your food correctly according to the tips above you can afford to be a bit more liberal in your excursion spending – which serves the whole point of being in Iceland: getting out to see that formidable, almost untameable natural beauty!
When visiting Iceland get your timing right! Consider what you want to see. Although Iceland really does a good job of living up to its name of being an icy cold wintery country for a good part of the year, they do still have seasons, and these can affect what can be seen when. The ice caves were high on my list, but we discovered, difficult to book at short notice and neither close nor easy to self-drive to in mid-winter weather conditions. The shortest tour offered was a 12 hour day trip out of Reykjavik. Many tours available are designed to visit a few sites around the island over 2-5 days plus! Winter (approx. November to March) is the time for ice caves of course, and many of these tours/hikes do not run in the summer months. Likewise winter is the better time for the Northern lights. However with winter comes winter weather, ie cloud cover, storms, impediments to seeing northern lights or participating in outdoor activities. Due to the weather and shortness of our stay we had to forego the ice cave experience and so opted instead for a lava tube caving experience which being “inside” was touted to be a good “bad weather” activity. However after a brief scramble down the ice covered cave entrance we found the tube floor to be ankle deep with water with more dripping down from the ceiling above due to the heavy rain outside.
For me this made it an experience to save for the summer season, although our guide assured us we weren’t at risk of frostbite in our extremities at least because the temperature was not quite below zero… If it is the volcanic side of Iceland that has you excited note that the very popular dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano magma crater tour is summer season only (approx April thru October). Whale watching is year round with most companies boasting a 90% success rate, but again in the winter months tours can be subject to cancellations due to weather. Northern lights tours often offer participants the chance to go for free the following night if their tour is unsuccessful or cancelled until they see lights. So our advice is whatever the season you wish to visit in make sure you’ve got time to spare!
The weather outside is weather… so said our lava tube guide and he didn’t even perceptibly change his tune once the windscreen wiper was blown off the front of his car on the stormy drive to the lava tube… If you’re planning a trip to Iceland then do as the locals do and man up about the weather! But also, be prepared. It’s a whole lot easier to be casual about the weather if you’re protected from the worst of it. Make sure (especially in winter) that you have a proper weatherproof coat, good gloves, good hiking shoes and waterproof pants for some excursions. We had almost none of this bar the coats, and whilst we were alright around Reykjavik town centre we really suffered on some of the more outdoorsy excursions.
Another reason to come prepared is that you will not want to buy it there! As mentioned before, Iceland is expensive! However as fearsome as the Icelandic weather can be it is another part of the experience, particularly for those from warmer climate countries like ourselves. In winter the shortness of the days is astounding – in mid-winter the sun rises after 11am and sets by 4pm! Icelanders in Reykjavik keep their Christmas lights up therefore for the whole of winter we found out, because quote “we need something cheerful with so little sun each day”. Then by contrast there’s the polar summer or midnight sun as it’s also known. I would love to go back just to see this phenomena where at the equinox in June the sun sets at midnight and rises again before 3am! Mind-blown!
Whale… Let’s talk about whale for a moment. The main street has restaurants proudly proclaiming the whale delights within as if eating whale is indeed the norm in Iceland… But go slightly away from the Christmas village delights of this area onto side streets and you may notice restaurants with stickers saying “meet us don’t eat us” below an incredibly cute cartoon whale graphic…
Of course we found this out only after having consumed some (a very tiny portion only as part of a tasting menu I promise!) Still, don’t make our mistake! Having seen the stickers on the subsequent day we then confirmed with a local tour guide that indeed eating whale is somewhat frowned upon and the Icelandic meat delicacy to be on the lookout for is the free range lamb as well as the many seafood delights of a non-mammalian order…
5. The Blue Lagoon
What’s the one thing you may have already known about Iceland? That it’s home to the Blue Lagoon of course! You know that bigger than an olympic swimming pool expanse of very polar-blue, surreal steaming hot springs? But our final tip is a warning on getting your hopes up! If you want that very instagrammable picture of the place to yourself you’re going to need to do some careful planning (consider the shortness of the days in winter!) to get there when there’s a minimal horde of tourists around. Because I am not using the word horde lightly or solely for hyperbole: this place really churns and burns through patrons. We got our visit completely wrong of course. We went at night, which is not at all ideal for those quintessential photographs I mentioned above. Although the pool is lit, it’s dark all around other than that. Also it’s required that you book your session slot in advance, and these book up well in advance, so our limitation to a night session was due to our poor planning. You can book online from a very functional website, so don’t wait until you arrive in Iceland to do so! If confused about the pricing packages (like we were) here’s our advice – go premium. It’s actually worth it. Sure ultimately you all end up in the same lagoon, there’s no VIP area of water to my knowledge, but your changeroom experience is vastly improved if you go premium and it’s only about $50 AUD more expensive to do so.
I stumbled into the premium change rooms on the way out by mistake and realised the error in our frugality. In the “standard” change room section there was nowhere private to change and only 3 showers which 30 people were lining up for impatiently. The extra money is worth it as well, as with the session booking we got the impression that we could only stay for an hour until the commencement of the next session an hour hence, but actually this is not the case. You can stay in as long as you like. So book an early session to maximise your chances of getting that surreal photo and then take your time and luxuriate!
Ready to do (a lot of!) planning for your perfect Iceland trip? Set the mood with a soy candle in Iceland’s scent by fellow travel blogger turned candle artisan Lauren! You can shop her candles by clicking here.
What did you think of our list? Do you know of any mistakes to advise our readers to avoid? Please leave your ideas and further questions below!