I had a few fears about traveling abroad at first. There’s just so much to know and I was afraid I’d forget something important. I was scared of not knowing a language, not having service to get around, and forgetting to pack something that I wouldn’t be able to do without. My fears were obviously unnecessary but I think it’s just natural with my personality. Traveling to London was pretty easy because I was with Jessie, who grew up there. She knew how to get around the tube and where the main attractions were so that alleviated a lot of planning for that part of the trip!! But neither of us had been to Iceland so that was a different story. Jessie didn’t know much about Iceland so I put myself in charge of planning our week there, which meant I had to do a lot of research. But even still, with traveling, you cannot possibly know everything ahead of time and you have to accept that you’ll learn as you go. So I wanted to do a post specifically on traveling in Iceland, with a few general tips for traveling anywhere.
First things first! With international travel, you may not have service, which means you’re not going to be able to make phone calls, text, use Google Maps, Yelp, etc. Some of the phone companies will do an international plan for an extra $10 a week — I know Verizon does this. But I have AT&T and I wasn’t sure how it worked with them and I also didn’t want to be limited on data. I had heard about this device that you rent called a Tep Wireless and I decided to try it out. It allowed me to have service pretty much anywhere (sometimes it didn’t work in basements or inside certain buildings). Overall it was really reliable. It allowed me to use Google Maps, which was the most helpful thing of all. I am the worst with directions and maps so I knew this would be crucial. Definitely worth it.
Gas prices/how to buy it
Iceland gas stations are weird. First, the gas is very expensive — like $7/gallon expensive. I was very confused when I pulled up to the gas station because rather than picking a type of gas and it automatically filling up and stopping when it’s full (or you stopping it whenever you want), it asks you first how much you want to spend and then it puts in the amount of gas that you’re paying for. Since I didn’t know how much money equaled how many gallons/liters, I was lost. The options are something like 1000ISK, 2000ISK, 5000ISK, etc. I do not recommend doing the highest amount because you might end up paying 10000ISK when you only need 5000ISKs worth. Some of the stations are self-serve but some require you to go in so we would always go in if we could and tell them we wanted them to open the tank (sometimes they wouldn’t) and then we’d go back and pay once our tank was full. If that didn’t work, usually around 5000ISK would fill our tank and we had a small SUV, if that gives you an idea. Olis and N1 are two of the popular gas stations and there are a lot of them in the more populated areas as well as off Route 1, the main road. But if you go off Route 1 or further outside of Reykjavik, I recommend filling up your tank every time you see a gas station. Sometimes you can go a couple hours without seeing one and it’s just not worth risking running out of gas, especially in the winter. One more tip is that some of the gas stations require a credit/debit card with a pin number so make sure you know your pin. If your card doesn’t have a pin, you might have to get pre-paid gas cards!
Renting with Lotus
Renting a car in Iceland was one thing I was a little stressed about. Thankfully Iceland doesn’t charge an underage fee for people under 25 but still, renting a 4×4 with snow tires (which we needed because we were traveling in the winter when the roads get really snowy) through the main car rental companies was still ridiculously expensive, even before adding on insurance. In Iceland, you should definitely get gravel protection because the roads are not paved well and obviously collision damage is important too. Someone I know told me about this startup company called Lotus that rents out older cars and they offer unlimited mileage and all the insurances in the cost. There’s no extra fee to add it on. It’s very affordable, even for a 4×4, and they’ll pick you up and drop you off at the airport. The one thing I will say is if you do this, don’t stress yourself if they don’t pick you up exactly when they say they will. They say they’ll be there 30 minutes after your flight arrives but our guy was a tiny bit late. We panicked because we didn’t see someone holding a sign saying Lotus but he ended up showing up and it was fine!
What to wear
Iceland’s weather is INSANE. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We went in late November and according to the locals, usually it’s snowing at that time but when we went, all the snow was rain instead, which ended up working in our favor because we weren’t driving on snowy roads everyday. It rained most of the time we were there and the wind was very powerful. In some places, it’s so powerful that it will knock you down. One day we were at the basalt pillars at Black Sand Beach and we literally could not stand up. My hat blew off my head and my gloves actually flew out of my deep coat pockets. It was CRAZY!! So if you’re going any time when it’s winter, dress WARM! I wore wool socks, bean boots (waterproof, comfy shoes are a must), leggings under my pants, a warm shirt, a sweater on top, a Columbia, wind-resistant jacket, a hat, and some warm gloves! Do NOT play around. Jessie had her hands outside of her gloves for about ten minutes on a windy, rainy day and she almost got frostbite so bring more than enough to stay warm.
Sleeping in different locations
We stayed in Reykjavik the whole time we were in Iceland which was SO nice because we were close to downtown and could grab dinner or go shopping once the sun went down (at 4PM) but I honestly do not recommend this. Most of the stuff I wanted to see was on Route 1 but it was anywhere between 2-7 hours from Reykjavik. We ended up getting up before the sun came up to drive to our first location and we ended up spending a lot of time in the car. Most of our time in the car was in darkness too which was really hard. I would highly recommend looking up hotels or Airbnbs along Route 1 and just doing a couple days in each place so that you can see more and drive less!
Running the water cold
The Iceland tap water is very clean and safe to drink BUT it smells like sulfur. At times, it even tasted like sulfur. But the trick is to run the water cold for thirty seconds or so before drinking it!
There is actually a lot of free parking downtown Reykjavik! I was worried about this but if you just scour the side streets, you’ll find roads that don’t even have an hourly limit. As long as you’re willing to walk ten minutes, you’ll save a lot on parking.
Pinning locations on Google
When I travel, I hate wasting even one second so I wanted to figure out the best way to make an itinerary. I first made a list of every single place that I wanted to visit and then I went on my Google Maps app on my iPhone (knowing I’d be able to use it with the Tep Wireless) and I starred and favorited every place I wanted to go. On Google Maps, it shows you the stars so you can see where everything is and what order makes the most sense to see everything! I know this was a simple discovery but it was nice not to have to pull up a list and type them into Google Maps the day of. We didn’t waste any time and didn’t have to backtrack at all.
Google maps/searching gas on route
As you’ll learn from this post, I do NOT use Apple maps. NO, NO, NO. Google Maps is so much better. It factors in traffic and accidents and it’ll even reroute you if need be. There’s something about Google Maps that I didn’t know until our trip though!! When you have a location set, it’s annoying to have to stop it and find a gas station or restaurant, because it’s hard to know if it’ll be out of the way. But there’s actually a search button in the upper right corner and you can have Google Maps search another destination without stopping your other one. For example, we would have it search for gas stations on our route so we wouldn’t have to go out of our way for it! WOOO! Game changer!
Northern lights app
This one is a little bittersweet. Winter is the best time to see the Northern lights but unfortunately, due to the rain and me not understanding how to track the Northern lights, we missed seeing them. 🙁 I wanted to cry about this because we probably could have seen them on our one clear day but we just didn’t realize how it worked. This website has a forecast of the aurora for the next three days and it’ll tell you what the likelihood of seeing them is, based on a number system. The higher the number, the more likely you’ll see them. You have to look at the map to see where is best. White shows clear skies and green shows cloud cover. You need completely clear skies to see it so go where it’s white! You also obviously have to find a spot away from city lights but that’s not hard considering most of Iceland is open space. Haha! I hear the glacier lagoon is an awesome place to see them!
When booking your trip, beware of the sunrise and sunset times. In November, the sun rises at 10:30AM and sets at 4PM and in December it’s even less daylight than that. This was something I didn’t consider when booking and although it ended up being fine, it was not ideal. We had very limited time to see things so we didn’t have much time to take our time and explore. The next time I go, I want to go in June when there’s twenty hours of daylight. 😀
Bring a water bottle, like a Swell or Hydroflask! You’ll be out in the middle of nowhere a lot and it’s nice to have a bottle that’ll keep your water cold!
This goes for any time you travel out of the US but your bank will most likely shut your card down when you go to make a purchase in another country so just call them to let them know not to!
Everyone speaks English
Everyone in Iceland speaks English. You don’t have to ask because it’s taught in schools at a very young age! I only ran into one person at a gas station who didn’t speak it well but they still understood me!
I don’t know if it’s the sulfur in the water or what but some of my silver jewelry turned gold….. I was not very happy about this but as soon as I put it back in the water here in Virginia, it went back to silver. So I guess you don’t need to freak out but I’d still recommend taking off jewelry.
Ear plugs and eye shade
This also goes for traveling anywhere but I never go anywhere without ear plugs and an eye shade. EVER. We stayed in an Airbnb that had very noisy kids that I could literally still hear with ear plugs but I would have gotten ZERO sleep without them. Also, it’s always nice to put an eye shade on if you go to sleep before the person you’re traveling with or if you want to sleep well once the sun comes up. I am the world’s lightest sleeper so these are truly travel essentials.
Food is ridiculously expensive in Iceland. Any time we went out to eat, even if it wasn’t a super nice place, it would cost us $25-$30…… It’s fun to do if you’re not on a budget and you don’t mind seeing reindeer, horse, and blubber on the menu but if you want to cook at home, Bonus Supermarket is the most affordable, according to our Airbnb family. They do close early though (along with everything else) so be sure to look up their hours.
Be sure to order the correct plugs to charge your devices!! This is a great site for all kinds of info about each country, including the type of plug you’ll need!