9 Tips for Visiting Iceland
Earlier this year we visited Iceland for 3 and a half days. We weren’t there nearly long enough but we did pick up a few tips that we think would be helpful if you’re visiting Iceland.
1. Take your credit card(s).
We took two credit cards; one was a Visa and the other was a MasterCard. (We didn’t notice many places that took American Express.) Neither of our cards charged foreign-transaction fees. We used the credit cards for literally every transaction, including hot dogs at the world famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Credit card usage is ubiquitous throughout Iceland and we never had to worry about currency conversion.
We had read that Iceland credit card usage requires a four digit Pin so we contacted our credit card companies to get a Pin. We were told use of Pins on our cards turned the transaction into a Debit Card transaction and we didn’t want this. As a result, we used our credit cards throughout Iceland with no Pins and had no issues whatsoever.
Update: We passed this recommendation on to friends who were headed to Iceland soon after our trip. They reported that they found an exception to Iceland’s full usage of credit cards at three gasoline stations. They stopped at three unattended stations along busy highways and along tourist routes and the stations did not take credit cards nor cash. Luckily for them they were able to find another station within a short distance that did take credit cards. In contrast, we gassed up twice while we were there and were able to use our credit card at both stations. The difference is that both stations we stopped at were attended.
2. Rent a car and get insurance.
Traveling by car in Iceland is easy and relatively safe. The roads are well-marked and most areas that tourists want to visit are well-paved. Even in rural areas there are large-detailed signs that let you know where you are and what is nearby. The maximum speed allowed on Iceland’s highways is 90km/hour which translates to 55mph/hour; thus making road travel in Iceland even safer.
I don’t recall seeing even one police car in Iceland and you might think that would encourage drivers to speed, especially on rural highways. Not so; because there are speed cameras posted throughout the highway system and they record your speed and send updates to the police. You might think you’re immune to speeding fines because you’re a foreigner in a rental, but Iceland is a step ahead of you in that they will charge your rental company who will then pass that charge on to you with an added surcharge.
We rented our car from Sixt and picked up the car at the airport. We had reserved the car in advance and we bought the insurance including Gravel Protection. (Note: Most U.S. insurance doesn’t apply in foreign countries.) There is a lot of gravel on Iceland’s roads and we didn’t want to be surprised with lots of rock ding charges at the end of our visit. We had no issues with the car and returned it with no problem. However, I must admit I was sweating Sixt’s inspection of our car when we returned it. I have never had a rental car so thoroughly examined upon return! They even used a mirror to check for damage underneath the car!
3. Make sure you have plenty of gas in the car!
This is a no-brainer, right!? Well, it wasn’t for me. We gassed up in Reykjavik before heading east on the Ring Road to see the icebergs at Jökulsárlón. As we were driving east I paid attention to the gas stations along the way because I was pretty sure we would need to gas up before returning to our apartment.
We made it to Jökulsárlón around 4:00 PM and headed back to Reykjavik. We drove the 200 kilometers back to Vik and I checked my gas; almost a quarter tank left. I was pretty comfortable with that because I knew that there were gas stations on the way back to Reykjavik…because I had paid attention, right? My wife, Mona, did not share my confidence and said we should stop in Vik because there was definitely a station there. I shrugged off her suggestion and drove on.
Just west of Vik there is a small mountain. We chugged up the mountain with ease, but then I began to notice that my gas was going down at a rate faster than it had all day. However, I still wasn’t worried because I knew there were gas stations just ahead…because I had paid attention. Sure…right!
Soon we passed the turn off for the Sólheimasandur plane wreck. I checked the gauge and we had less than 1/8th of a tank. Much less. No gas stations in sight, but surely one was near because I had paid attention!
About 15 kilometers further west we come to the village of Skogar where I was sure I had noticed a gas station. We turned in and much to my surprise there was no gas station in sight and now the low-gas light was on. I dashed inside the Hotel Skogar and asked the manager where the nearest gas station was. The answer was, “35 kilometers back…in Vik.”. I trudged back to the car to tell Mona that obviously I had NOT paid attention and we had to go back.
The gas guage was on empty, it was twilight, we had to retrace 35 kilometers including back over a mountain, and it was freezing cold. Freezing cold, not outside, but inside the car where Mona was letting me know what she thought of my gasoline management skills. My hands were gripped to the wheel and I prayed to the gasoline gods every kilometer of the way back. I was never so relieved as I was coasting back down the mountain into Vik! Lucky for us, we landed at an attended gas station and they accepted credit cards. WHEW!
Anyway, you get the idea. While in Iceland you’re driving a rented car which you’re not familiar with and you’re driving in an area where you’re not sure of the gas stations. Make sure you keep your gas tank at least a quarter of a tank full!
4. Drive at least part of the Ring Road.
There is much to see in Iceland and we had only 3 1/2 days to sample it. Should we drive the Ring Road or the the Golden Circle or perhaps we should try for both. In the end, we decided to drive the southern part of the Ring Road from Reykjavik to the iceberg lagoon and Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón. Our trip took about 17 hours with us getting back to our hotel in the 1:00 AM twilight. Along the way we saw a great sampling of Icelandic treasures including; innumerable sheep, lots of Icelandic horses, waterfalls, smoke vents, icebergs, glaciers and basalt cliffs. We had an awesome day, in spite of having a little gasoline issue. (See above.)
On the other hand, our friends chose the Golden Circle and were quite happy with their trip. I guess what I’m saying is to be sure to get outside of Reykjavik and see the wonders of Iceland. They’re all around you!
5. Spend time walking around Reykjavik.
We set aside one day just to explore Reykjavik and we’re so glad we did. Even though it’s the capital and Iceland’s largest city it has a population of only about 125,000. The streets are easy to navigate and parking was easy to find wherever we went. There are lots of shops with Icelandic goods and there are a wide variety of restaurants to choose from. The city is clean and neat and the residents are pleasant and happy to help lost tourists like us.
Also, if you’re wanting to see puffins you can walk over to the old harbor area and catch one of the boats that will take you out to visit Akurey Island. It’s only a 15 minute boat ride and we saw puffins galore. This was the only place we saw puffins and we loved watching them dart through the sky. You have to be really fast and coordinated to photograph them in flight!
6. Visit the Blue Lagoon
Once you return from Iceland there is one question that virtually everyone will ask, “Did you go to the Blue Lagoon?” Luckily, we anticipated this question and visited the Blue Lagoon on our first day. There is plenty of parking at the lagoon and it’s just a short walk from the parking to the locker rooms where we changed into our bathing suits. The temperature that day was about 11 degrees Celsius with a 40 mph wind and a driving rain making for c-c-cold dash from the lockers to the water…but when we hit that water…..ahhh!
The Blue Lagoon is manmade and is the result of the geothermal plant located nearby. The water is loaded with silica helping to give it its trademark blue color and the temperature is about 100 degrees. We really appreciated that warm water because the air temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit with 30 mph winds on the day we visited.
Be sure to make your reservations before you go the Blue Lagoon. They don’t accommodate walkups.
7. Be prepared for higher prices, but…
We were forewarned about high prices in Iceland and thus had no sticker shock when we arrived. A few sample prices include: gasoline at almost $7.50 a gallon, burgers cost about $12, a beer cost about $8 and full meals start around $25. However, we found many ways to lower costs. For instance, the meals are hearty and portions were generous so we typically shared a meal. Also, there was a gas station next to our apartment and I would go there each morning to pick up coffees and pastries for breakfast in our room.
However, Iceland isn’t all high prices. For instance: our apartment was a one-bedroom kitchenette about ten blocks from downtown. We booked it through Hotels.com and it cost us $137 per night, taxes included. And our subcompact car rental from Sixt was about $26 a day. The insurance was another $15 per day.
One huge factor that helps balance the higher prices is the fact that virtually all the attractions that you’ll want to see are free (except for the Blue Lagoon)! That’s right, there are no fees for Iceland’s natural wonders and that’s what you’re really there to see!
8. Wear layers and bring waterproof clothing!
Weather conditions are highly variable. In our short June visit we went from 5 degrees Centigrade (41F) with 40 mph wind and driving rain to 12 degrees Centigrade (54F) and bright sunny skies. It was all good because we had layers of clothes to don and shuck as necessary. We also had gloves and scarves to use as needed…keeping us warm and cozy at all times. The only hitch we had was with Mona’s “waterproof” jacket. Turns out, it wasn’t waterproof after all and she got soaked on that 40 mph windy day! Live and learn! (and shiver!)
9. Be prepared to go back!
We found that three and a half days gave us time for only a sample of what Iceland has to offer. There is so much to see and do in Iceland and it’s impossible to get the full experience in just a few days.
Like I said, you should pre-book your visit to the Blue Lagoon and here’s the web page: Blue Lagoon Home
We did a lot of research by reading other bloggers’ sites. One of our favorites was Adventurous Miriam and here’s a link to her website: Adventurous Miriam
Here’s a handy and fun guide to learning more about Iceland: Iceland Academy