Back in 2010, the eruption of a volcano that no one could pronounce (Eyjafjallajökull… anyone, anyone?) thrust Iceland into the global spotlight.
Attracted by the wild and untouched landscapes, the otherworldly natural beauty and the chance of laying eyes on the majestic northern lights, the number of people flocking to Iceland has been increasing ever since.
For us, it was the scene of Walter Mitty longboarding through Seydisfjordur that gave us goosebumps and cemented Iceland firmly on our travel list.
Anchored in the windswept seas of the North Atlantic, Iceland is a place of raw, unfathomable beauty, where iridescent green fjords carved by forgotten glaciers roll into turquoise seas and blackened lava fields are enveloped by sprawling glaciers and sheets of glistering ice. It’s a place of moody skies, chiselled valleys and fields blanketed in lilac heather and wild berries.
And that isn’t even the half of it.
Geysers shooting water high into the air, painted mountains, countless waterfalls and a lagoon of floating icebergs are just a few extraordinary sights you’ll discover on a visit to Iceland. Every tiny pocket of this country has a different, stunning type of landscape to explore. You literally never know what to expect around the next corner.
We spent two weeks driving our way around Iceland’s ring road, pealing off onto detours that struck our curiosity, and can happily say, it’s easily one of the most scenic places we’ve ever been. But, travelling in Iceland isn’t always as easy as you might expect.
In this post we share our top Iceland travel tips – the lessons we learnt, some practical tips and a few things to consider when planning your trip.
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Our biggest tip for visiting Iceland is not to try and cram too much into your itinerary.
Iceland may look small, but when you factor in stopping at every second bend for those unmissable photo opportunities, an unplanned detour through the black desert to the glacier over there on the horizon, a small walk on said glacier, a lunch break, stopping at every other waterfall, taking it slow along the four-wheel-drive tracks and a much needed tea stop, just driving 100 km can take you all day, especially when the sun shows no sign of setting anytime soon.
By packing too much into your itinerary you run the risk of spending far too much time in your car rushing from place to place.
With two weeks to drive the ring road and several planned detours, this is exactly what happened to us. Though it was an incredible trip, we felt far more short on time than we had anticipated with never enough time at each place, far too much time in the car and we almost always reached our accommodation well into the evening.
Iceland’s landscapes are so diverse that it deserves several visits to really appreciate it.
If you only have a week in the country, we would suggest picking one region of the island, taking it slow and exploring it thoroughly.
Leave time for those spontaneous hikes through the wilderness, for sitting and drinking in the beauty of the fjords and spending a few hours watching the wildlife, rather than just letting it all fly by beyond your windscreen.
No surprises here – Iceland is an expensive travel destination.
Locking down cheap airfares may be a breeze, but the budgeting fun pretty much stops there.
Those travelling on a shoestring may soon be questioning whether a bed, food and any extra excursions are in fact essential to their trip.
Seeing Iceland on the cheap can be challenging, particularly if you like your basic comforts.
But, if you’re willing to put up with periods of terrible weather (torrential rain and howling winds are not uncommon), camping and hitchhiking or cycling are pretty common practice for budget travellers in Iceland.
Catching a ride anywhere on the Ring Road is straightforward, but if you plan on venturing into the fjords or the highlands where traffic is much lighter, finding a car can become a challenge. Also, due to the high price of car rental, many tourists opt for the smallest, cheapest vehicles available which can also leave little room for road-side guests.
While this is a great way to drastically cut down your costs, we will say we met travellers who had their tents flooded from intense rain or stood for hours in torrential downpours waiting for a ride. Then again, you could have weeks of beautiful sunshine.
If you’re on a really tight budget and this doesn’t sound like the type of adventure you’d enjoy, the next best option is bus travel and hostels.
Although there is an ample supply of guesthouses around the island, hostels outside of Reykjavik and the south-west area of Iceland are somewhat limited.
Bus passes can be bought for several hop-on hop-off routes that run around the country, otherwise, there is a public bus that covers most areas along the coast.
Car rental though is definitely the best way to see the island and allows you to get off the main tourist trail. However, it is pricey. Like our eyes nearly popped out of our heads when we saw the quotes kind of pricey! Campervans are another great alternative – the freedom of a car with the cosiness of sleeping ‘indoors’. Several companies rent out fully equipped campers for travelling in Iceland with equipment for cooking and sleeping.
In case we scared you off already with all this ‘expensive’ talk, we will add that even though it can be a little rough on the wallet, a trip through Iceland is totally worth the experience!
Not Renting A Car? Check Out These Awesome Iceland Tours!
With the growing number of tourists visiting Iceland and the considerable expense a trip here involves, many hardcore budgeters have taken a pretty brutal approach to travelling cheaply which is having some devastating (and quite frankly, completely disgusting) consequences.
Locals finding piles of shit and toilet paper in their gardens, picnic tables smelling like piss and fragile natural environments being damaged by inconsiderate visitors is not cool!
There are plenty of established campsites scattered throughout Iceland that charge a reasonable fee, many with kitchen and toilet facilities.
Where possible it is strongly advised that you use these sites.
If you do choose to camp in the wild, which is legal in Iceland, do so responsibly. Avoid protected habitats, clean up after yourselves and definitely don’t do what these guys did!
Iceland isn’t called the land of fire and ice for nothing!
With countless volcanoes, sprawling glaciers, expansive fjords, raging waterfalls, moonscape-like lava fields, exploding geysers, painted mountains, blazing sunsets, the midnight sun and the northern lights, Iceland really has it all.
You never know what to expect from a day’s drive as these environments seamlessly melt from one into another. Some days our plans were completely derailed by following a side road through a lush green meadow only to find ourselves three hours later halfway up a mountain surrounded by snow.
Having such diverse environments right next to each other on such a small area of the Earth is one of the things that makes a trip to Iceland so special.
Considering the Ring Road is the route most tourists follow, getting away from it can be like a breath of fresh air, particularly on the often congested south side of the island.
If you head east out of Reykjavik most of the main attractions are dotted right alongside the road – the famous waterfalls of Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the black sand beach at Vík, the many glacial walls and the not-to-be-missed Jökulsárlón – but as you work your way around, it pays to venture a little further.
The impressive bays of the East and West Fjords hold some of Iceland’s best coastal drives, the north coast has several unique rock formations and many opportunities for wildlife watching, the coastline of the Snæfells Peninsula shows off some of the country’s most stunning landscapes and the lonely and desolate Highlands area, with just a smattering of four-wheel-drive tracks, is probably the least explored of all.
As we mentioned, if you’re short on time don’t try and drive the whole ring, choose a smaller area to cover and get out there and explore it.
Iceland may have a huge influx of tourists each year, but it doesn’t have to feel like you’re just one of the crowd.
During the high season, places within about a day’s drive of Reykjavik (especially the south coast) can feel a little like a circus, but the further away you drive, the easier it is to escape and soon enough you’ll find yourself on an empty road in the wilderness having not seen another car for hours.
If you’re looking to get a way off the beaten path in Iceland, the vast and desolate Highlands feature some of the most untamed and untouched landscapes in Europe, and with just two seriously bumpy four-wheel-drive tracks through this central region, these are some of the least driven roads in the country.
As we mentioned, simply venturing a little further than the ring road will see the number of tourists accompanying you steadily drop, but if your ambition is to be a lonely wanderer in the empty wilderness, then the highlands are your best bet.
Explore More Of Iceland With These Epic Experiences!
We arrived in Iceland on a beautifully sunny afternoon and wound our way along the coast towards the Snæfells Peninsula with the mountain walls flushing green and gold in the intense light of the setting sun. At 10 o’clock that evening we sat down to dinner beneath a sky of vibrant pink and purple as the final light of the day melted away.
However, the following morning we woke to heavy rain, howling winds and thick mist and spent the next week with very soggy feet, traipsing around beneath a sky of moody grey.
We learned a few lessons from this.
Be prepared for all conditions – layers are key! It may not always feel cold – some days were comfortably mild – but when the wind blows it can be fierce.
Secondly, don’t put anything off until tomorrow. If the conditions are good, make use of it. Get outside, do the hike, take all the photos you want then and there, because if the weather has its way, you may not get the chance again.
Lastly, sometimes the grey, moody weather can be an achingly beautiful thing. Don’t let it dampen your spirits.
The condition of Iceland’s roads vary greatly from perfectly laid tarmac to a vague trail of sizeable rocks that weaves through several rivers.
If the sign says ‘only suitable for four-wheel-drives’, as is the case on most f-roads in Iceland, they mean it!
Our best Iceland travel tip, if you’re keen to have the ultimate experience with full access to every trail, is to be sure to upgrade to a sturdy off-road vehicle.
Still struggling to wrap your head around the name of that volcano? This video might be able to help… or at the very least give you a few laughs.