Iceland Travel Tips

September 9, 2015

by Rebecca Holland

No matter how much research you do, you can never know everything about a destination until you arrive. I can’t tell you how many times in Iceland my travel partners and I said “I”m so glad we got an SUV!” (easily researchable) or “wow they love hamburgers here” (not found in our research). Here are a few tips and observations noted during a recent trip, in case you want to be extra prepared, or just nod knowingly when your friends comment on the surprising amount of 90s pop played on the radio or how paprika is used on everything from chips to seafood.

  • Get an SUV! – If you’re renting a car, which seems to be the norm in Iceland, go with an SUV and four-wheel drive. Route 1, or the Ring Road, is a well kept highway, but how boring your trip would be if you stayed on it. Stray onto more rugged terrain, especially in the mountains in the west fjords, and you’ll be rewarded with views not found on the highway (and close encounters with sheep and ponies). 2015-07-21 17.47.53
  • Go west – Most people head toward the east coast first, but in my opinion the west is prettier, and this way you avoid traffic. Plus, seeing no one for days in the west and north makes the much more touristy east a welcome change once you arrive.
  • Bring an extra memory card – We took thousands of photos. Each. Maybe we went overboard, but every mile is stunning, so be safe and stock up on memory.
  • Bring a sleep mask – Almost 24-hour daylight can really mess with your sleep cycle, and no one wants to be groggy while traveling.
  • Paprika everything– Will this tip really help you? No. But the love for paprika really is astounding.
  • So many hamburgers – As is the love of hamburgers. Just wait. You’ll see.
  • Bring provisions! – Aside from Reykjavik and Akureyri, towns in Iceland are tiny, and generally don’t have restaurants. Gas stations (our favorite was the N1) serve the aforementioned hamburgers and hot dogs, but other than that prepared food is lacking. You can stock up on paprika chips and Icelandic coffee at the gas stations (not a terrible plan), but you probably also want to bring along some granola bars.Photo Jul 22, 4 25 40 PM
  • Eat Skyr – Following the last point, Skyr is one of the most popular foods in Iceland. We had two a day, usually a drinkable one for breakfast and a more solid version for lunch.
  • The Mývatn baths are way better than Blue Lagoon– The Blue Lagoon is very crowded, quite expensive, and not all that beautiful. The Mývatn Nature Baths, on the other hand, are relaxing, quiet, and more picturesque.
  • The radio is…interesting – 90s hits? Great! 90s American music no one has ever heard of? Not as great. The radio is hit or miss, and often doesn’t work at all depending how off the grid you go. Bring an auxiliary cord and thank me later.
  • Invest in international data – Roads, especially smaller roads, are not always well-marked, and our GPS stopped working in more remote areas. International data plans saved us, and both Verizon and T-Mobile had surprisingly strong coverage around the country.
  • Bring a car charger – To keep your music and maps going.
  • You cannot win with the weather – It’s freezing and windy so you don your down jacket and wool gloves. Next thing you know you’re hiking and it’s sunny and you’re sweating and stripping down to a tank top. Then the wind kicks in again. Layer, layer, layer.
  • Hitchhiking is perfectly normal – You’ll see hitchhikers all along the highway. Pick them up if you have room, and if you don’t want to rent a car you could even try this transportation method yourself.
  • Get gas whenever possible, especially in the north – Gas stations aren’t that rare, but we did encounter a few that weren’t open and where the pumps didn’t accept American credit cards. After one close call we stopped early and often to fill up.
  • Don’t eat the whale – Marketed as a delicacy, the whale is really only on the menu for tourists. A better way to appreciate the whale population? Go on a whale watching tour! We went on one with Gentle Giants and saw several humpback whales with an incredibly informative and fun guide.
  • DO drink the water – Bring a water bottle, because the fresh spring water in Iceland is the best you’ll ever taste. Returning home, even filtered or bottled water tasted bad in comparison. I’ve honestly never had anything like it. Cold, pure, delicious water. Just put your water bottle up to any waterfall and enjoy.
  • Buy alcohol ahead of time – Alcohol is extremely expensive in Iceland. Stock up at Duty Free if you can. If you forget, look out for Vin Budin stores. These are the liquor stores and are much more reasonable than restaurants or bars.
  • Bring toilet paper and a trash bag – Sound gross? It is. Gas stations, and therefore restrooms, are scarce (especially in the west and north). We made several side of the road stops. Must have been all that fresh water.
  • Flat tires aren’t the end of the world – Somewhere between traversing a mountain that didn’t look like it had any sort of road and driving on a rocky beach, we found ourselves with a flat tire. We panicked at first, but after putting on the spare and driving to the nearest (very small) town, we found a repair shop and were astounded at the speed with which they changed not only the tire in question, but the other three as well. It felt like we were part of a pit stop in a Formula One race. We were assured by multiple people that flat tires are common, and sure enough in the time we were there (which was seriously about five minutes) four more cars showed up for the same service. If you have insurance on your rental car you should be covered, and in our case the auto shop owner called our rental agency and warned them he was changing all four tires. “I know him,” he said, as a simple explanation, even though we were on the complete opposite side of the country from the rental office. “It’s a small country.” Photo Jul 27, 12 57 15 PM (2)
  • Ice cream is everywhere – If you get sick of hamburgers and paprika chips, you can always have an ice cream. I love ice cream, but found the obsession with the frozen treat a little odd considering the weather was pretty chilly most of the time, even in July. Still, I’ll never say no to ice cream.
  • Keep it clean – Iceland is the cleanest place I’ve ever been, probably because of the small population and until recently lack of tourism. As visitors increase, I hope this doesn’t change. Photo Jul 23, 11 23 23 AM
    A road we probably should have avoided...

    A road we probably should have avoided…


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  • Reply M @LiveLikeYoureTraveling September 9, 2015 at 4:33 am

    Great list… so… paprika chips, coffee, burgers and Skyr… got it 🙂 So it’s mostly about the scenery then 🙂 Good to know to stick to the east and the less crowded lagoons. Sounds like the perfect place for remote travel!!

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