Grab your scarves and boots and get ready delve in to the breathtaking world of fire and ice – this is the best planet Earth has to offer.
Iceland is home to more than 30 active volcanoes, and is still being shaped by the odd eruption – it’s one of the only places where you can drive along a highway and watch jets of steam and boiling mud shoot from the Earth’s core.
While you’re travelling along, you can also stop at one of the hundreds of natural hot springs, walk along the black sandy beaches, marvel at the volcanic cliffs, eat hot dogs at gas stations, make friends with puffins, and gaze across endless glaciers while pondering your existential significance. The natural splendour and sheer magnitude of Iceland will have you speechlessly clutching your North Face mittens in awe.
Whether you’re there for a seven-day stopover or a month-long expedition, Iceland’s growing tourism industry means you can design the trip that’s right for you, ranging from a relaxing drive through the picturesque Westfjords with multiple bookings in 5-star hotels, to a high-intensity adventure through the icy grey tundra of the Central Highlands with a tent and a sturdy pair of Gortex boots. Even if you’re not a lover of landscapes, Iceland will convert you.
When To Go:
Low season runs from October to April, and is not only absolutely freezing (0-degrees in the south, -20 in the north), but stays dark for about 20-hours a day. While many of the roads are closed due to snow and ice, prices are at their absolute lowest, there’s a range of winter sports on offer, and you can see the Northern Lights.
Shoulder season runs around May and September, and while temperatures are still cool, days are longer (eight-hours or more), prices are relatively low, roads up north are generally unblocked, and literally hundreds of waterfalls reach their prime as the snow melts.
High season runs from June to August, and is the perfect time to see Iceland in green splendor. The ice melts, the sun emerges for 22-hours of daylight, grass grows, flowers bloom, and the tourist floodgates are left wide-open. Prices soar, bookings are essential, and a range of summer festivals sweep magically across the island.
How Long For?
While many reap the benefits of the popular seven-day stopovers provided by the budget airline WOW, you really need about two-weeks to do the place justice. Technically you can drive the ring road in 16-hours at 90km/h without stopping, but don’t let this trick you in to thinking you can see Iceland quickly.
Not only will you find you want to stop every 10-minutes and take photos, erratic weather conditions dictate how fast you can drive (especially in shoulder and low seasons), and the best of Iceland is on smaller routes off the ring road!
Holidays: Iceland is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means travellers who aren’t from one of the 26 member countries are limited to a maximum of 90-days in all Schengen countries within a six-month period, with the exception of these countries. Head to The Schengen Visa Info page for more.
Work: unless you’re from Europe, married to a European, or directly related to a European, you are most likely unable to work in Iceland. If none of these apply to your situation, you either have to prove that no one else in Iceland can do your job, or that there is a shortage in the labor market.
Workaway: if the above criteria doesn’t apply to you and you’re desperate to live in Iceland, join Workaway! This is a fantastic program that allows travellers to find work in countries all over the world, in exchange for food, accommodation, and a range of other things, depending on the job. While you’re still limited to holiday visa restrictions, it’s a great way to live in another country without a hefty application process.
Icelandic Krona (ISK) – visit XE for currency conversion. The examples below are correct as of March 2017.
1 USD = 113.182 ISK
1 AUD = 86.5135 ISK
1 CAD = 85.1529 ISK
1 GBP = 141.914 ISK
Not only have the Icelandic recovered from the major economic collapse of the 90s, they’ve risen above and beyond – unless you’re from other parts of Scandinavia, Iceland is a pretty expensive place to be. Public transport in Reykjavik will cost around 350 ISK one-way, beer will cost at least 1,000 ISK (or around 500 during happy hour), a glass of wine is around 1,200, a main meal is around 3,000, and museum entry is around 1,000.
While there are public buses and taxis around Reykjavik, once you move outside the city getting around is a bit harder, and forking out to rent a car starts to look pretty appealing.
Car Rental: Hiring a car is by far the best way to see Iceland. You can go exploring, stop, start, take photos, and seek refuge from the wind at your leisure – the possibilities are endless. Keep in mind that you can only go on F-roads (around the central highlands, and some areas up north) with a 4×4. It’s a bit pricey (around 70,000 ISK for a 4×4 for two-weeks), but picking up hitchhikers or carpooling can keep costs down.
These are some of the budget car rental places I looked at, but do your research – there are plenty more around.
Hint: book as early as possible to make the most of early-bird prices.
– Reykjavik Rent A Car (I did a lot of research, and these guys had the cheapest cars in the city. I used them for my month-long trip, and I didn’t have any problems. I gave the car back covered in mud – inside and out – and they were completely fine with it.)
– Reykjavik Cars
Carpooling: An excellent way of hitching a ride and making friends at the same time. I put a message up on Samferda (a website dedicated to carpooling in Iceland) and met someone to travel around with for a week, but various people who were gathering groups of people to travel in 6-bed campervans contacted me as well. If nothing else, it’s a great way of saving cash.
Hitchhiking: While the idea of hitchhiking reaps terror in to the souls of many, in Iceland, it’s a thing. I met lots of solo male and female travellers (and a few couples) who successfully hitchhiked the ring road. Picking up a French couple in Mývatn and taking them to Akureyri was a highlight of my trip!
NOTE: Iceland may have an extremely low crime rate, but these things are never completely risk-free. It’s important to go with your gut and trust your instincts in these situations – if it feels wrong, it probably is – but that doesn’t mean you can’t trust anyone. In places with a culture of hitchhiking (yes, locals do it too), some people do really want to help you.
Bus: If you don’t have a driver’s license, there’s a range of buses that travel around the island from around May to September. In summer, a range of Bus Passports become available, allowing passengers to get on and off certain buses at their leisure, depending on the timetable. Different companies offer different passports at different costs, but they’re still not cheap. Some lines operate in winter, but on restricted timetables. Major companies include:
For keen bus travellers, Iceland By Bus is a fabulous website.
Accommodation can be wildly expensive in Iceland, depending on the location and season, which is why so many people choose to camp. If you’re there in low season you probably don’t need to worry too much about booking in advance outside Reykjavik, in shoulder seasons you can take your chances, and pre-booking in summer is a must. I used booking.com throughout my stay and never had a problem.
Camping: Camping in Iceland can be lovely or harrowing, depending on your levels of preparedness. While most campsites are situated in picturesque locations, Summer is still undoubtedly the best time to camp. Temperatures aren’t too cold, things are nice and green, and all campsites will be open. Most campsites have facilities, kitchens, and barbecues.
(Not sure what gear to bring? Check out my article on what to take camping in Iceland!)
Along with various websites and pamphlets mapping campsites around the country, you can save a lot of money using summer camping passes (purchased at N1 gas stations or campsites). If travelling in shoulder season, it’s best to call ahead to find out if they’re open – a lot of campsites only open in late June, but you can find out more about that at Camping Info. The weather in Iceland is unpredictable regardless of the season, so many sure you bring winter gear, and bring an eye-mask! The sun doesn’t set.
1,000-1,400 ISK per person
Wild Camping: The Icelandic Government allows travellers to camp anywhere that isn’t a national park or private property free-of-charge, but don’t latch on to this idea too much – huge chunks of land are made up of volcanic rock and ice, rather than tent-friendly grass. If you do find a spot that’s perfect for camping, odds are someone owns it, or it’s a protected area. You also probably won’t know if it’s a high-wind area or a flood plane, so do some research before wild camping.
Campervan: This is a great option for winter (get one with heating and a bathroom), families, or people wanting to explore the country without worrying about pre-booking hotels. If you stop in a town, you will probably have to stay at the local campsite (many are powered), but failing that you can find your own secluded spot and park there for the night. Campers and motorhomes are pretty expensive, but they generally include sleeping bags, TVs, CD players, kitchen supplies, cookers, beds, camp tables, ect, so the cost can be worth it.
Around 25,000/day, depending on the company
Hostels: Say goodbye to crappy rooms with views of the wall! Almost every dorm outside Reykjavik has a window, which means the view is spectacular regardless of your budget. The whole of Iceland is basically breathtakingly scenic, so while hotel-owners can charge more for the best views, almost all rooms are guaranteed to have some sort of view of a mountain, valley, or lake. While this is still a relatively expensive option, if you’re travelling in the shoulder or low season, sometimes it’s not worth trying to camp.
4,000-6,000 ISK per dorm bed
Hotels/Guesthouses: These are nice options if you’re travelling around with your significant other, or find the idea of dorms weird. Rooms often have ensuites, along with restaurants and free breakfasts. Prices vary dramatically depending on the season and location.
Boutique Hotels: If money is no object, Iceland has some seriously fabulous options with spectacular views, high-end restaurants, and all the facilities you could ever want. Prices are sky-high, but when it’s windy and cold outside, sometimes you just want to be warm and comfortable.
30,000 ISK +
Iceland isn’t really known for its food. Not much grows in the frozen ground, and most fresh fruit and vegetables are imported, and as a result, there’s a surplus of American-style grills serving burgers, pizzas, onion rings, ice-creams, jumbo cups of coke, and of course, the famous hot dogs, sold at almost every gas station.
Having said that, there are lots of restaurants around the country cooking traditional Icelandic food (usually fish and potatoes cooked in various ways), and many local restaurants and bakeries have harnessed geothermal technology to create underground ovens.
Meals/Drinks (per person)
1 Hotel breakfast (cold meat, egg, bread, jam, cheese): 1,200+
1 Hotdog: 200-400
1 Burger: 1,500+
1 Fish dinner: 3,000-8,000
1 Beer (pint in bar): 1,200-2,000 (happy hour: 200-600)
1 half-litre local beer (liquor store): 350+
1 Wine (glass in bar): 1,300+
1 bottle (liquor store): 2,500+
1 350ml bottle water: 300
1 Cup of coffee: 300+ (refills are almost always free!)
Other Things To Note:
Cook: You can spend up to 80-percent less if you cook for yourself. Most (if not all) hostels and campsites have kitchen facilities, but failing that, you can always bring your own compact stove and get a gas bottle at a gas station. The cheapest supermarket is Bonus, closely followed by Kronan. Netto is pretty affordable as well, and 24/10 is absurdly expensive but they sell SIM cards. Hint: Bring your own shopping bag to avoid paying for one.
SIM Cards: It’s easy to get a SIM card in Iceland, and I really recommend it. It was particularly useful for when I got lost in the snow, and for calling campsites and hostels when reception was unattended (this happens in low and shoulder seasons – there’s usually a sign instructing you to call when you get there). You don’t have to show any ID, just pop in to a 24/10 or retailer and get one over the counter. I went with Simmin – it came with a started package (2,990 ISK) including 100-minutes of calls, 100 texts, and 1GB of data. I didn’t recharge for the whole month I was there, and had reception absolutely everywhere I went.
Weather: While Iceland is scarcely the size of Hungary, the biggest mistake tourists make is underestimating the harrowing forces of nature. This scarcely populated island is full of volcanoes and glaciers, plunges in to darkness for seven-months a year with freezing temperatures, mazes of gravel roads, boiling springs, and a vast core of icy tundra. The weather forecast may say it’s only eight-degrees (a warm spring day in Akureyri…), but the wind-chill factor can be extreme, so keep that in mind.