With today’s technology, planning a road trip seems easy, right? But that is not the case with Iceland! This stunning country is at the top of the list of hippest, must-visit places in the world, but a family vacation in Iceland requires more than simply jumping on a plane, renting a car, and improvising! Iceland is home to the most active volcano in the world as well as the largest waterfalls and glacier in Europe. You’ll need to come prepared! These Iceland planning tips will tell you everything you need to know for an unforgettable Iceland road trip.
Planning an Iceland Road Trip – What You Need to Know
I am a devoted independent traveler. For more than 30 years, I traveled extensively making most of the arrangements myself. Then it came time for my trip to Iceland. We were 8 friends, all experienced travelers, planning our epic Icelandic road trip. We put our strength together, but from the very beginning we realized that it was going to be a challenge, and it was! Our adventure turned out to be a blast, but only because we took the time to carefully plan it.
Iceland Planning Tips: Your Questions Answered
What should I know about Iceland before I go?
Iceland is a developed country, but still beautifully wild. You will find nature at its best there. Tourism is the number one industry, providing more income than the second and third largest industries — fishing and aluminum — combined.
Tourism boomed as a direct consequence of Iceland’s 2008 – 2011 financial crisis. The world was watching already/ Then, in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull (try to pronounce that!) volcano erupted, disrupting air traffic over mainland Europe and drawing more eyes to Iceland.
To offset the poor press, the government and tourism industry partnered to create the Inspired by Iceland marketing campaign, which produced a series of viral videos showcasing the country’s natural marvels. Since then the number of foreign visitors has tripled.
Iceland had an estimated population of 350,000 in 2018. The capital and largest city of Iceland is Reykjavik, which is also the northernmost capital in the world. It is the only true city in the nation, hosting the majority of the country’s accommodations, car rentals, tour operators, shops, bars, cafes, and museums. Sixty percent of Icelanders live there.
How easy it is to get to Iceland?
Plenty of airline companies operate regular flights to Iceland. From the USA, United Airlines and American Airlines fly there. Icelandair and WOW Air are usually less expensive. But, like discount carriers in the US, you should expect to pay for any extras, including food, alcoholic beverages and checked bags.
Iceland is located halfway between North America and Europe and therefore is a perfect place for a stopover on a transatlantic journey. Both Icelandair and Wow airlines offer free stopover for up to seven days, depending on which class you fly.
Should I arrange my road trip to Iceland on my own or should I go with one of the Icelandic self-drive tours?
Our first thought was, of course, we can do it on our own. But when we started looking for accommodations, we found very few options for our size group anywhere beyond Reykjavik. I am under the strong impression that tour operators reserve in advance blocks of hotel rooms for their potential clients.
We had a choice to rent a house, but with 2 bathrooms at the most. That would never work for 8 people on a tight itinerary. After taking into consideration all the pros and cons, we decided to book a self-drive tour for our Iceland road trip. It was a good decision. Everything was arranged for us, including car rental, airport shuttle, accommodation – with breakfast included — maps and a detailed itinerary. Most visitors to Iceland travel this way.
But if you travel in a small group and especially if you are willing to camp, you can try it on your own. I am thinking of renting a camper for my return trip and staying at some of the most beautiful camping spots I have ever seen.
Should I take my children for an Iceland road trip?
One of my most important Iceland planning tips: Think twice whether this adventure is suitable for younger children. Other than Reykjavik, Iceland is all about nature. It is strikingly beautiful, but it is a dangerous beauty. You will encounter boiling mud, shooting geysers, volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, and sheer cliffs dropping down into the ocean. This is not a place for young children to run freely.
Is my physical condition good enough for an Iceland road trip?
When planning an Icelandic road trip, keep in mind that you need to be able to walk. Trails are not handicapped accessible. If you want to see Icelandic nature up close, you will be walking on slippery rocks, mud, ice, and in a deep sand.
With that said, you do not need to be an experienced hiker. Trails are well maintained and easy to follow. If you are OK to see just the highlights of Iceland, you can see a lot, even with limited mobility. Many major attractions require just a short walk.
If you have any major health problems, keep in mind that the south part of Iceland, where many major attractions are located, is rather remote. From what I learned, emergencies there are handled by a helicopter. Keep that in mind, and consider buying travel insurance before you go.
Will I see Northern Lights during my Iceland Road Trip?
Here is a very important Iceland planning tip: Unless you visit in winter, treat Northern Lights as the icing on the cake. Plan to see the country and hope for the best to see the lights. During winter months, it is usually fairly easy to spot them, even in downtown Reykjavik. Read about the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland here.
What is the best time to take an Iceland road trip?
It depends what you are looking for. Winter, November to February, can get extremely cold, but it is also the best time to see the Northern Lights. Temperatures dip to -4°F (-20°C) so be sure to dress appropriately! July and August are Iceland’s warmest months and the most popular time to visit.
We arrived in early September to give ourselves a chance to see the Northern Lights (no success here) and still enjoy decent weather. It rained a few times, but it was not a steady rain. Most of the time we had a mix of sun and clouds with temperatures in the low 50s. I would love to come back in May or June before the crowds arrive and the wildflowers are blooming. June is probably the best time to visit if you are not preoccupied with the Northern Lights.
How much time should I devote to my Iceland road trip?
Another very important Iceland planning tip: Do not overload your itinerary. Seven days is enough to see the major attractions along The Golden Circle and The Ring Road. If you want a taste of the entire country, you should devote at least 2 weeks.
We drove 1,553 miles in 9 days, hiked at least 2 miles per day, drove steep gravel roads during the rain and fog, and slept in a different hotel almost every night. On some days, we were on the road for 12 hours. I loved it, but it was intense.
What should I pack for Iceland?
Waterproof hiking boots are a must. Even when it does not rain, the terrain is uneven, slippery, and/or muddy. Have another pair of hiking boots or good walking shoes just in case your main pair gets wet. Slip-on rain gear is required too. Carry it in your lightweight backpack along with food, water, and extra clothing while hiking.
Bring layers of clothing since the weather changes frequently. Even in the summertime, you definitely need one heavier jacket in case of cold or wind. I used mine mostly on windy days on the north coast. Do not forget hats and gloves.
Another must-bring item is a swimsuit. Even if you are not into soaking, try it! Thermal pools are among Iceland’s iconic experiences and you should not miss the chance to try one (or more). Visiting Geosea baths, for me, was the best moment of the trip.
Here is your 4 season guide on how to pack for Iceland.
What attractions should I include in planning my Iceland road trip?
When we were planning our Iceland road trip, we decided to see all the major attractions. Our tour was packed! I just wish we had more time to enjoy them.
Iceland Planning Tips – what to see:
If you only have a few days, head straight to the mind-blowing attractions of South Iceland. This 200 km stretch of The Ring Road will take you across vast deltas of grey glacial sand, isolated farms, around the toes of craggy mountains, and by glacier tongues and ice-filled lagoons.
Nowhere else in the world is this kind of scenery accessible with such an ease. Where else can you find glaciers, volcanoes, volcanic islands, geothermal spots, glacial rivers, black sands, green pastures, marshes, lakes, undisturbed highlands, and black sand beaches all within an easy drive of each other?
If you have more time, pick from the routes below or do it all!
1. Reykjavik and The Golden Circle
For a stopover or just a few days in Iceland plan to see the attractions of Reykjavik and the beautiful sites of The Golden Circle – the most popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300 kilometers looping from Reykjavik into the southern uplands of Iceland and back.
2. The Ring Road
Route 1 or the Ring Road runs around the island and connects most of the inhabited parts of the country. The total length of the road is 1,332 kilometres (828 Rmi). For almost all its length, the road is two lanes wide: one lane going in each direction. The road is paved with asphalt for almost all of its length.
TravelingMom Tip: If you see a bathroom, use it! There are long stretches of emptiness along the Ring Road with no bushes or trees in sight. Plus, the road has no shoulders and stopping is prohibited. Pull-overs do not exist.
Should I tour the Ring Road clockwise or counterclockwise from Reykjavik?
There are two schools about it. One is that you should go clockwise to see lesser attractions first and leave the big ones for the end. My Iceland planning tip is: Go counter clockwise. Visiting Iceland is not a walk in the park. You will get tired. Have your strength and curiosity in high gear at the beginning of your trip and finish słow. You can even skip one or two attractions if you feel you had enough.
3. Snaefellsnes Peninsula
On our tour, we only got a taste of the major attractions of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Just a few hours from Reykjavik, it is a nature lovers paradise, the perfect place to visit if you only have a few days in Iceland.
It is often referred to as “Iceland in Miniature” because of the diversity of its landscapes. In order to get to there, you need to either drive around the entire fjord of Hvalfjörður or go through the tunnel that takes you beneath the fjord. The journey takes about 2 hours from Reykjavik.
4. The Diamond Circle
The Diamond Circle is another attraction-packed route of about 260 km in the Northeast of Iceland, which includes some of the most stunning sights and scenic landscapes in the country. Husavik, famous for whale and puffin watching tours, is the main town and the starting and ending point of the Diamond Circle.
I heard that Iceland is expensive, is that true?
Eating out is expensive. Plan $50 for dinner with one drink. Most tours include a good breakfast. We had snacks and sandwiches to eat in between. Food in grocery stores is not overly expensive. Save on water, it is perfectly drinkable in Iceland. The good news is that there are no entry fees to natural attractions, even national parks. As far as alcohol, we got our supplies at the duty-free shop at Reykjavik airport.
You can save on lodging too. If you don’t mind camping in cold weather, you can travel for $15 per day and enjoy stunning natural locations. It seems that you can even camp for free in more remote areas.
What is the Icelandic currency?
Icelandic Krona, 1 ISK = 0.00902 USD, but you do not need to carry it around. Credit cards are accepted even for small purchases. Just in case you need to pay with cash, carry US dollars or Euros, both are accepted. Prices are displayed in Kronas.
What kind of accommodation can I expect in Iceland?
Iceland is a no-frill country. Guesthouses and hotels deliver everything you need, but not much more. Do not expect indoor pools, bathtubs, or gyms. You will find clean rooms with two single beds, separated or put together to make it double. Showers are typical for Europe, meaning very small.
We mostly stayed in Fosshotels. It’s an Icelandic chain that can accommodate larger groups. In contrast to basic rooms, the restaurants in Fosshotels deliver top notch food and huge windows bring in the views.
What is Icelandic food like?
In grocery stores, you can find typical food that you buy in the USA. Eating out is another story. The menu mostly reflects of what Iceland has plenty of – fish and lamb. I tried a few Icelandic specialties like the fermented shark, whale (not endangered!) and a horse. None of them tasted like chicken! But you will find “normal” food everywhere you go.
If you are not a food adventurer, at least try the famous Icelandic hot dog. What sets Icelandic hot dogs apart: They are made from Icelandic lamb, pork, and beef – all 100% organic!
Will I have any problems communicating in Iceland?
Normally when going to a new country, most of us like to memorize at least a few local words. Here is my practical Iceland planning tip: Forget it! Do not even try to pronounce or memorize anything in the Icelandic language. I felt like an illiterate while there. I could not read anything and had a terrible time remembering names of places I visited.
The good news is, English is spoken everywhere. Actually, most likely you will not meet any locals. We did not.
Instead, almost every person we encountered during our Icelandic journey was Polish! Good for me, I could use my native language! There is a large Polish community in Iceland. Also, many Polish students come to work there during their summer break.
Words of advice: Pay attention to Icelandic churches!
Because of the country’s harsh climate, Iceland traditionally is more about survival. Its architecture is simple, but there is something about this simplicity. Just like nature all around Iceland, these churches will bring peace to you.