Visiting Iceland for the first time? To help you prepare and plan for your Iceland trip, I have put together 17 essential Iceland travel tips that you need to know before you go!
Iceland Travel Tips
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1. Book Early
Iceland is a popular travel destination, so plan your trip well in advance. This is even more important if traveling during the busy summer season. The best value and higher rated accommodations are usually booked first. If you are not able to book your Iceland trip in advance, then visit during shoulder season or low season when there are fewer tourists.
Keep in mind that no matter what season you visit, popular tours like glacier hikes, ice cave explorations and whale watching can sell out quickly.
2. Figure Out the Best Time to Visit
Keep in mind that deciding when to visit Iceland is very important. Your experience in Iceland will vary greatly depending if you visit in the summer or the winter. In addition to the difference in temperature, keep in mind the length of the daylight. Iceland experiences almost 24-hour daylight in summer and extended darkness in winter.
If you visit in the summer, you will have pretty much all day to sightsee and explore attractions in the daylight but you have to deal with more tourists and it will be harder to sleep at night.
If you would like to see the Northern Lights, plan your trip between mid-September and mid-April to maximize your chances.
I think the best time to visit Iceland is September and October. Early September is still summer in Iceland but there are fewer crowds because many students are back in school.
Personally I preferred visiting Iceland in late September and early October (which is shoulder season). There are fewer tourists because the summer season is over but there is still plenty of daylight to explore Iceland (about 10-12 hours) and the weather is not yet too cold. It is also early enough to to see the Northern Lights.
If you do decide to visit Iceland in the winter, you will adjust your activities accordingly to be back before dark.
3. Don’t Plan Your Trip Only Around the Northern Lights
I get it the Northern Lights are at the top off many bucket lists, but seeing the lights on your Iceland trip is never guaranteed no matter when you visit. Do not plan a trip to Iceland just to see the Northern Lights, but consider it a bonus if you do. I ended up only seeing the Northern Lights one day on my last 10 day trip. Here are some tips to maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights:
• Pick a night with low cloud cover. Even if there is a lot of aurora activity you will not see the lights on a cloudy night.
• Use an Aurora tracking app to figure out the best day and time to see the lights.
• Venture away from city lights.
• Be patient. Sometimes, the Northern Lights can be elusive, but the spectacle is worth the wait.
• Choose a hotel with that offers a Northern Lights wake up call.
• Book a Northern Lights tour for the best chance of seeing the lights near Reykjavik. The tours will take you out to the best spots and some will even take professional photos of you with the Northern Lights.
4. English is Common
While the official language is Icelandic, English is widely spoken. Although not necessary, learning a few Icelandic phrases can help you connect with locals and show respect for their culture and language.
5. Drink the Water
Iceland has the cleanest water in the world. Carry a reusable water bottle to fill up on free tap water and help reduce plastic waste.
6. Budget Wisely
Be aware that Iceland is a very expensive destination. Prepare a budget that accounts for higher costs for food, accommodation and activities.
7. Tipping is Not Expected
Tipping is not customary in Iceland so you are not expected to tip at restaurants or anywhere. The only exception is you can tip your tour guide but it is still not expected.
8. Iceland is Cashless
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Iceland for even small purchases, so carrying cash isn’t usually necessary. I did not use cash even once during my last trip to Iceland. If you do decide to exchange some cash, just exchange a small amount. The currency in Iceland is the Icelandic Krona (ISK).
Make sure you have a chip and pin credit or debit card. If your credit card does not have a pin, you might have to call in advance to set it up a PIN number. However, we were able to use our US chip only credit cards without a pin.
Make sure you have a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees like the Chase Sapphire Preferred (my favorite travel credit card for Americans).
9. Download Essential Apps
Download useful apps like before your trip to Iceland. These are my essential Iceland apps:
• Safetravel – for weather and road conditions and road closures.
• Veður – app for the Icelandic Meteorological Office for the most accurate weather conditions
• Parka – to pay for parking in Reykjavík and many tourist attractions in Iceland.
• My Aurora Forecast – for Northern Lights forecasts.
10. Iceland Has Unpredictable Weather
Iceland’s weather can change in an instant. Be prepared for varying conditions by layering your clothing. Make sure to packing waterproof gear as your outer layer.
11. Pack Smart
– Essential items to pack for Iceland include a waterproof jacket, waterproof hiking boots, a universal power adapter and a portable charger for your devices. Read: Iceland Packing List for all the travel essentials you need in Iceland.
12. Check Weather Conditions
Always check the weather and trail conditions before setting out for a drive or a hike.
13. Driving is the Best Way to Explore Iceland
Driving is the best way to explore Iceland so if possible consider renting a car. One benefit of renting a car is you can stop off at picturesque locations towns along the way including some off the beaten path attractions not included in most tours.
The only exception is winter, when it might be better to join a tour to avoid challenging driving conditions.
If you plan to rent a car, familiarize yourself with Icelandic road signs and rules. Be careful of speeding cameras, just because there are no police around does not mean you cannot get a speeding ticket by email.
There is no Uber or other ridesharing in Iceland but there are taxis in Reykjavík.
14. Tips for Renting a Car
You do NOT need an international driving permit to rent a car in Iceland – just a drivers license from home. Make sure to purchase the full insurance when renting a car, even if you have insurance through your credit card.
15. Plan Your Blue Lagoon Visit
If you plan to visit the iconic Blue Lagoon, book your tickets in advance to avoid long lines. Try to go early in the morning or late in the evening for a more serene experience. The Blue Lagoon is located close the airport so many visitors book a visit on their arrival or departure day.
16. Follow Hot Springs Etiquette
When visiting hot springs, public pools, or geothermal areas, always shower without your swimsuit before entering the water.
17. Allow Extra Time
Be prepared to add extra time to your itinerary for photo-worthy moments along the way.
So there you have it – the best Iceland travel tips for first time visitors. If you have other tips for visiting Iceland let me know in the comments below!
Check out some of my other Iceland posts below: