One of my most favorite countries in this world is Iceland. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Iceland twice and I can guarantee there will be a third time. And maybe a 4th, 5th, and 10th. Iceland is one of the most beautiful, almost otherworldly, countries I have ever seen. If you love nature then Iceland is a must! This First Timers Guide to Iceland will help you prepare for what to expect on your first trip to Iceland.
Luckily, Iceland is pretty easy to navigate on your own, although there are plenty of tours available that you can book and let someone else do everything for you. I’ve done it both ways and it really just depends on your comfort level and how confident you feel at driving in a foreign country. And if you don’t mind possibly making a few wrong turns and getting lost. Trust me, sometimes those are the best mistakes you can make!
Iceland Travel Guide
Location: Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean and although it sits on both the North American and European Continents, it’s considered part of the European Continent. The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik and the International airport is located in Keflavik which is about a 50 minute drive from Reykjavik. Iceland is about a 5.5 hour flight from NYC and about a 3 hour flight from London.
Currency: The currency in Iceland is the Krona. Chances are you’ll never even have to use it. Credit cards are accepted everywhere. If you want to take money out, I wouldn’t take more than $50. Chances are you’ll still have most of it when you leave. Also, tipping in Iceland isn’t necessary.
Voltage: Iceland’s electricity is 220 volts. You’ll need to use European adapters for your electronics.
Safety: Iceland is considered one of the safest countries in the world. That said, it’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings. Keep your wallet where it can’t be seen. If you run into any issues, it’s likely to be because of another tourist.
The obvious is that Iceland is cold. Although it does have seasons it’s still cold in the summer. It’ll warm up during the day (if you’re lucky it’ll get into the 60’s) but you’ll still need to bundle up at night. We dressed in layers and found when we were hiking we didn’t even need our coats. But the weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable. Your day might start out with clear blue skies and two hours later you’ll find yourself in a snowstorm. Always be prepared.
Since Iceland is so far north, days are long in the summer and short in the winter. In the summer you can expect it to be daylight 24 hours a day. In the winter, the days are really short. The first time I went to Iceland was during mid November and the sun didn’t start to rise until about 10am and by 4:30pm it was already dark. You’ll want to keep this in mind when planning your trip to Iceland.
First Time in Iceland: Budget
Everything you’ve heard about Iceland being expensive is true. That said, you can find really good deals that include flights and hotel. I’ve used Gate 1 Travel to get an amazing deal on the flight and hotel to Iceland. Only catch is that most of those deals leave from New York, Boston, or New Jersey. So you’ll need to get yourself there first for those deals but it’s totally worth it. I used them both times and on the second trip I just extended my stay and paid for my own hotels for the extra days. I think Gate 1 Travel is a perfect option if it’s your first time visiting Iceland.
Guide to Iceland: Site-Seeing
Luckily, most of the site-seeing is free. You could go to Iceland and almost not spend any money on site-seeing. Waterfalls, hiking, viewing chunks of glaciers floating in the ocean: all free! Of course if you want to do things like glacial hiking, whale watching, or snorkeling between two tectonic plates (yes that’s a thing!), then those will cost money. But the price to do those things is not completely outrageous.
Getting around Iceland
When you arrive at the Keflavik International Airport there are two options for getting to your hotel. The first and most popular way is the Flybus. You can schedule your transportation online before you arrive or just purchase a ticket at a kiosk at the airport when you arrive. The buses are waiting right outside the exit and are there all day so you won’t have to worry about not being able to catch a ride to your hotel. You just let them know which hotel you’re going to and they will take you there. There’s also a terminal in Reykjavik to catch the bus back to the airport.
First Timers Guide To Iceland: Renting a Car
You also have the option of renting a car. If you do, the car rental company should pick you up at the airport and take you to their office to fill out the paperwork and pick up the car. Gas in Iceland is expensive but I felt like the gas mileage was really good. We went all over Iceland and I only had to fill up a few times. If you do decide to rent a vehicle, make sure you download offline maps to where you want to go. Internet service in Iceland outside of Reykjavik isn’t always an option.
If you rent a vehicle you’ll want to make sure you get something that has 4WD capability. The roads in Iceland are very well paved until you go off the main roads. The other roads are mostly gravel and rocky and have potholes. You’ll need something better than a small car to drive on those. Small cars are cheaper to rent but you’ll need to spend a little more if you want to explore further outside the Reykjavik and main Iceland Tourist Areas.
First Timers Guide to Iceland: Tours
Our first time visiting Iceland we relied on the tour company we booked through. Each day we had a tour scheduled that was included in the price we paid. We also scheduled some tours on our own with other companies. There are so many tour options for you to choose from that you really don’t need to rent a car if you don’t want to. These tour companies will pick you up and drop you back off at your hotel. Depending on how many people have scheduled that tour, you’ll either be in a nice comfy bus or a van. Either way, it’s a good option if you don’t feel comfortable driving in Iceland.
First Timers Guide to Iceland: Food
I’m going to be super honest here and say that the food in Iceland is different. I’m being nice. Unless you’re adventurous or are a big foodie you’ll be limited in choices. I’m not adventurous when it comes to food so I had to search out foods that I would eat. I also brought granola bars and snacks from home to eat. When we were driving outside of Reykjavik we found a lot of good food at the gas stations. Seriously! Try the sandwiches. But, if you like all things fermented then you’ll love the food in Iceland.
First Timers Guide to Iceland: Northern Lights
Almost everyone that goes to Iceland is hoping they will spot the northern lights. If this is your main reason for traveling to Iceland, don’t get your hopes up. There are so many factors that play into viewing them so plan on not seeing them so you won’t be disappointed.
That said, the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is between late September and early April. You’ll need to have clear skies and plan on staying up late. There are tours you can take that monitor where the best viewing spots on Iceland are to see them that night, but that still doesn’t guarantee you’ll see them. I was there a total of 9 days on both of my trips and only faintly saw them one night. There are even websites that track the odds of seeing them. Here and here.
First Timers Guide to Iceland: Wi-Fi Service
Cell service in Iceland is limited. You should have it at your hotel but even that isn’t a guarantee. Your best option is to rent a hotspot. There are a lot of companies that rent them and it gives you cell service wherever you are. Just charge it up at night and connect to it whenever you want. We rented ours through Iceland Camping Equipment. We picked it up at their office and dropped it off before we left. It’s only 5 euro a day and multiple people can connect to it. There’s other companies too, just search for hot spot rentals in Iceland.
Visiting The Blue Lagoon
One of the biggest tourist sites in Iceland is The Blue Lagoon. It’s kind of a must see/do place for your first time in Iceland. It’s probably one of the most expensive things you’ll do in Iceland, although the price isn’t too bad. For as little as $64 you can spend the whole day there in the geothermal hotsprings. You can also opt to get massages, eat at the restaurant or cafe, and even stay at their hotel.
I wrote an Ultimate Guide to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon so if this is on your list, make sure you check it out.
Final Thoughts on a First Timers Guide to Iceland
Iceland is one of the easiest places to visit and knowing what to expect only helps you have a better experience. Whether you choose to navigate Iceland on your own or let a tour company handle everything for you, I hope the information I’ve provided in The First Timers Guide to Iceland will help you have a smoother trip.