Once a little-known island situated between Greenland and Europe, Iceland has rapidly become a popular travel destination. In 2000 around 300,000 people visited in Iceland. That more than tripled to nearly 1 million visitors in 2014, and in 2016 almost 1.8 million people visited the island with a population of only 334,000. It’s hard to pinpoint where this sudden surge of interest came from, but some experts point to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which affected air travel across Europe in 2010 and may have put Iceland on people’s travel radar.
So tourism is booming in Iceland. Should you visit? Having visited Iceland in October 2017, I can say that the hype is real. The land of fire and ice is a unique travel destination with landscapes that can only be described as otherworldly. So yes, you should visit. I’d say do it sooner than later since tourism continues to skyrocket, and this will inevitably take a toll on the wild landscapes that draw people to Iceland.
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With that, I’ve compiled some basic information on traveling to Iceland and experiencing the country on the Ring Road. This article won’t replace a full guidebook (I like Lonely Planet), but it should give enough information to start planning the logistics of such a trip!
Look below for further articles in the series including a photographic journey through Iceland and an example itinerary for driving the entire Ring Road.
How to Get to Iceland
Iceland is an island, so the only options of travel there are by air or sea. The vast majority of visitors choose the air option and arrive at Keflavik International Airport which is located just 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik, the capital city.
Flying from the United States is relatively quick (around 6 hours from New York), and this easy access contributes to the growing tourism numbers in the country. I’ve found that WOW air and Icelandair are the two main carriers with regular service to Iceland.
WOW air is the budget airline service, so you won’t necessarily have all the amenities on your flight (here’s a review of one of their flights), and you’ll have to pay extra for luggage, seat selection, etc. That being said a round trip ticket from the US to Iceland for as low as $200 is definitely worth these sacrifices. Make sure to check out WOW air if you’re near any of their US airports.
Icelandair is a more standard airline carrier where you don’t have to pay for a cup of water. It’s considerably more expensive than WOW air, but their flights can be more convenient depending on which US city you’re departing from.
How to Travel Around Iceland
Iceland’s population is concentration is Reykjavik, so once you leave the capital city area public transportation is virtually nonexistent. If you’re only in the country for a little bit you could likely rely on a tour company to drive you around to the major highlights near Reykjavik, but you’re going to need to rent a car if you want to explore the Ring Road.
There are numerous car rental companies to choose from, and most all will have rentals just a short shuttle ride from the airport terminal at Keflavik. Do your research though as Iceland roads are notoriously harsh on vehicles and many companies charge exorbitant fees for road damage not covered under their policies. Some companies also have insurance with a rather high deductible, so it may be worth looking into 3rd party insurance policies. Allianz offers insurance that was accepted by our car rental company, and it covered dents, undercarriage damage, and ash/sand damage.
Side note: If you rent a vehicle many of the gas stations in Iceland require a PIN on your credit card to pump gas. If you don’t have this setup you can purchase pre-paid fuel cards inside at these stations.
Also think about what types of roads you want to drive. Smaller passenger cars are prohibited from the F-roads, which access the highlands and require 4x4. The Ring Road is virtually all paved, so we did fine driving in a small sedan with minimal clearance. We also negotiated some of the more remote gravel roads just fine. The car didn’t have winter tires though, and if you’re traveling in the shoulder seasons (such as October) it’s worth asking for winter tires to give yourself peace of mind as the roads can be treacherous with snow or ice.
Finally, quite a few companies rent out camper vans to travel and sleep in. This option seemed to be popular with younger couples, and looked adventurous. Make sure to research overnight parking options if you pursue this route. I saw many signs prohibiting overnight van parking at popular sights, and renting these vans can be almost as expensive as renting a cheap car and staying in a hotel for a night.
When to Visit
Peak season for tourism in Iceland is June – August. I visited in October, so I can’t comment on what the summer months are like, but very much enjoyed the smaller crowds that came with a visit at that time of year. Many of the parks and sights were quite packed with tourists (especially near Reykjavik & the Golden Circle) even in October, so I can only imagine how busy it can get in the summer.
The tradeoff is that a visit in the fall brings cooler temperatures and more rain. That being said you have a pretty good chance of seeing the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, if you visit from September – April!
Where to Stay
Reykjavik has a large selection of hotels to choose from, and Airbnb is popular for short-term rentals within the city. For traveling outside of this area and along the Ring Road I found that Booking.com is the most popular lodging website. This is the definitive booking site for all accommodations ranging from small homestays to more developed hotels.
In October we could get away with making reservations the night before, but reservations are often needed far ahead of time during the peak tourist season! Accommodations also tend to be pricy, and ranged from $90 to $170 USD for a basic double bed room during October.
Some of these reservations include breakfast, so make sure to keep an eye out whether that’s the case. Food in Iceland is expensive (as you’ll soon read about), so this could be worth it for you. Breakfasts seemed to be standard with toast, jellies, pastries, cereal, milk, hard-boiled eggs, sliced cucumber, tomato, and some marinated fish. Once you experience one Icelandic hotel breakfast you’ve experienced almost them all!
What to Do
Well, start off with a CityWalk tour in Reykjavik. The tour is incredibly informative, and a great way to become acquainted with the history and culture of Iceland. It's a free tour, but the guide relies on donations at the end, so bring some cash. After you explore Reykjavik I would suggest heading out on the Ring Road. Pick the sights that interest you along the way. If you Google “Iceland Destinations” you’ll come up with quite a few of the classics. Look to your guidebook for advice, and there are many tourist offices throughout the country that can help you plan your next move. You can also look at my 10-day Ring Road Itinerary for some advice.
Finally, Atlas Obscura is an online resource of interesting facts and sights from around the world (they also have a fascinating printed book). Currently it has around 80 destinations in Iceland ranging from a giant beer can to beautiful waterfalls. It’s worth checking out to start the creative process of what to see around Iceland.
If you truly want to experience the whole of Iceland you need to travel the Ring Road. Yes, most of the population of the country lives around Reykjavik, but there is much more to see. The Ring Road (also called Route 1), was completed in 1974 and is 828 miles long. The road is generally paved with two lanes, but features plenty of one-lane bridges to keep you on your toes! Traveling on the Ring Road will bring you by some of the more popular natural attractions in Iceland and allow you to experience the differences in the landscape and culture of the various regions of Iceland.
The speed limit on paved roads in Iceland is usually 90 km/h, which equates to 56 mph. That means you could finish the Ring Road in just under 15 hours if you didn’t stop, but we spent 10 days driving the Ring Road and there was plenty that we didn’t have time to see along the way.
National Parks & Sights
Access to all National Parks in Iceland is free, which is great. The only natural attraction that you have to pay an admission fee for is Kerið Crater (of course guided tours of ice caves, glaciers, etc. cost money). It is worth mentioning that natural attractions close to Reykjavik are significantly busier than other parts of the country, and not all these areas are equipped to handle the sheer volume of tourists. There are many established trails and gates preventing further degradation, but people continue to venture off these trails and leave trash. Do your part to make sure these places stay beautiful!
Also, while admission to these areas is free, access to the bathroom usually isn’t. I wish there were free bathrooms to use, but typically you either had to pay directly, or buy something from a nearby café
Food is crazy expensive in Iceland. Get used to it now. It’s not uncommon to pay $20 USD for a hamburger, and a proper entrée at a sit-down restaurant is likely to be upwards of $30 USD. Budget accordingly. It’s worth noting that tipping isn’t really expected in Iceland, so there’s no need to include a gratuity on your restaurant bill.
If you’re looking to save money on the food front I’d suggest stocking up on groceries at the supermarket. Supermarket food & produce is slightly more expensive than we are used to in the US, but far cheaper than eating prepared food. Some of the gas stations in larger towns also have some fairly affordable, tasty offerings.
Road Conditions & Wind
Iceland can be a brutally windy country. While visiting I heard horror stories of car damage due to the wind ripping car doors out of unsuspecting visitor’s hands. This caused damage to other cars, and could even bend the door into the car frame. It’s strong, and can affect your driving.
It’s worth checking their road conditions website to see what road surface conditions are like, and whether there might be a wind advisory in effect.
Weather & the Northern Lights
Vedur.is is your source for all weather information in Iceland. There’s also a great aurora forecast webpage. The forecast shows anticipated cloud cover over the island as well as predicted aurora “activity” by time of day. It’s never guaranteed, but if it’s a cloudless night with a high activity of auroras you’re probably in luck to see something!
Geothermally heated swimming pools abound in Iceland and act as a social center for many communities. Everyone has heard of the Blue Lagoon, and its easy access from Keflavik Airport makes it a very touristy attraction. I would recommend checking out the local swimming pools as well as explore some of the more natural, remote options. Go to Hotpot Iceland for a map of both developed and undeveloped hot springs throughout the island.
Questions or Comments?
Do you have any notable experiences or advice about traveling to Iceland? Any questions? Feel free to post below in the comments.