Planning a Trip to Iceland: DOs and DON’Ts

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Planning a trip to Iceland is more complicated than to many countries. With its stunning volcanoes, lava fields, fjords, beaches, and waterfalls, it’s no wonder that visitor numbers to Iceland have surged in recent years.

But many tourists underestimate how dangerous this wild and remote island can be. Some take unnecessary risks and end up needing to be rescued, which is putting strain on Iceland’s volunteer rescue service. Visitors have even been injured or killed after accidents on glaciers, beaches, and cliffs.

This can be avoided, though, and there’s no reason you can’t have a wonderful, incident-free trip by following these Iceland travel tips.

I also include advice for making the most of your stay in this beautiful country and quirky facts that make Iceland such a unique place to travel.

Before You Arrive in Iceland

  • Save up – Iceland is expensive and you’ll enjoy it more if you aren’t worrying about every penny (on chilly days we really appreciated those hot chocolate and cake breaks). Find out how much our Iceland trip cost
  • Consider visiting in the off-season – Iceland gets very busy in the June to August summer months, so avoid the crowds by visiting at a different time of year. December and January have the lowest number of visitors and you can enjoy the snowy wonderland. We loved September with its autumn colours, northern lights, and first snowfall on the mountains.
The first step of planning a trip to Iceland is choosing which season to travel in. Here are the autumn colours of Hraunfossar waterfall in September,

The autumn colours of Hraunfossar waterfall in September

  • Plan your itinerary – See our off the beaten track Iceland itinerary for trips of 7 to 12 days or follow the classic ring road around the country (at least 10 days is recommended but some people manage it in 7). Roads in the north are often impassable in winter so stick to the south—here’s a 5 day Iceland winter itinerary.
  • Rent a car – It’s the best way to get around. We used Rental Cars to find the best deal. We appreciated our 4WD on gravel roads, but it isn’t strictly necessary for most trips.
  • Base yourself in Reykjavik and take day tours – If you don’t want to drive or will be visiting in winter (November to March) and aren’t confident driving on snowy roads. Iceland Travel runs a wide variety of popular day tours. 
  • Book your accommodation – Especially if you are travelling in the summer high season, you need to book far in advance. We used Airbnb and Booking to find self-catering cabins and saved on high restaurant costs. We preferred isolated locations like our cabin at Tradir Guesthouse between the mountains and sea on the Snaefellsness Peninsula
Tradir Guesthouse cabin at sunrise on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland

Tradir Guesthouse cabin at sunrise

  • Buy travel insurance – It’s essential in case anything goes wrong. We use and recommend True Traveller (for EU and UK residents) and World Nomads (for everyone else). 
  • Book the Blue Lagoon – Iceland’s most popular attraction can book up weeks in advance. It’s near the airport so most people visit after their flight arrives or before they depart. We skipped it because it’s expensive (around $80), crowded, and we found some gorgeous, isolated hot springs in the Westfjords instead.
Krossneslaug swimming pool in Strandir, Westfjords region of Iceland

Krossneslaug swimming pool on the remote Strandir Coast was our alternative to the Blue Lagoon and we had it to ourselves!

  • Read The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland by Alda Sigmundsdottir – For tips by a local on travelling safely and responsibly and to understand the impact the tourism boom has had on the country.
  • Pack the essentials – In every season you’ll need warm layers (merino wool is great), waterproofs, waterproof hiking shoes or boots, swimsuit and travel towel (for hot springs), tripod (for northern lights photography), and sunglasses (the sun is often low). My book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, has tips on packing light.
  • Bring a chip and pin debit or credit card – You’ll need it for self-service petrol pumps.
  • Don’t worry about cash – Cards are accepted everywhere. We only needed a small amount of cash (about 3000 Icelandic krona worth $25) for unattended hot springs and toilets.
  • Read safetravel.is – For tips on staying safe. You can also give them your travel itinerary so they’ll be able to respond if you don’t reach your planned destination.

Planning a Trip to Iceland: Dos and Don’ts

DO:

  • Take the Icelandic pledge 
  • Be flexible – The volatile weather can mean tours are cancelled or hikes or drives would be too dangerous.
  • Check road.is before setting out each day – For details of road conditions and closures.
  • Take a walk through a lava field – They are incredible! Our favourites were on the Snaefellness Peninsula.
Berserkjahraun lava field on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland

Berserkjahraun lava field on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

  • Expect to see many waterfalls – They are everywhere! My favourite was Dynjandi in the Westfjords.
Dynjandi Waterfall in the Westfjords of Iceland

Dynjandi Waterfall

  • Drink the tap water – It’s pure and delicious. Bring a foldable water bottle like the Vapur with you.
  • Look out for the northern lights from September to mid-April – We used the Aurora app and Vedur website to see our chances. We got lucky on a 30% chance day and saw them outside our Bjarkarholt cabin in the Westfjords. It’s best to stay in the countryside where there’s no light pollution. If you don’t have a car, you can take a northern lights tour from Reykjavik
  • Use a tripod and long exposure – To take photos of the northern lights. Most of mine were taken in manual mode at f2.8 with a 10 second shutter speed.
Northern Lights at Bjarkaholt in Westfjords, Iceland

The Northern Lights outside our cabin at Bjarkaholt in the Westfjords.

  • Enjoy the midnight sun – If you visit in the summer when it’s light 24/7.
  • Drive with your headlights on at all times.
  • Be careful of sheep on the road – And always report it if you run one over (you won’t be fined).
  • Fill up with petrol when you can – You might not come across a petrol pump for a while.
Enjoying an Icelandic hot pot at sunset at Birkimelur Swimming Pool in the Westfjords.

Enjoying an Icelandic hot pot at sunset at Birkimelur Swimming Pool in the Westfjords.

  • Relax at geothermally heated swimming pools and hot pots – You’ll find them in even the smallest towns and it’s so lovely to swim in warm water when it’s cold outside.
  • Shower naked thoroughly (without your swimsuit!) before entering a hot spring or pool – Public nudity isn’t a big deal in Iceland and you’ll draw far more attention to yourself if you don’t. They are very strict about this! There are separate male and female showers. You wear your swimsuit in the pool.
  • Use the toilet whenever you find one (they are in short supply) – Be prepared to pay, usually around 200 ISK ($1.70).
  • Admire the cute wooden churches everywhere.
Búðakirkja is a little black wooden church in the hamlet Búðir in Snaefellsness Iceland

Búðakirkja church in Budir on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

  • Track your travel expenses with an app like Trail Wallet – To help you stay on budget and avoid a painful surprise when you get home!
  • Look out for seals – We saw them three times lazing on rocks by the sea.
  • Ride an Icelandic horse and try its unique, smooth pace, the tölt.
Icelandic horse at Sturlureykir Horse Farm in West Iceland
  • Create a playlist of Icelandic music – I will forever associate Of Monsters and Men with epic drives through the mountains. Iceland has a huge number of talented bands—check out Björk, Sigur Rós, Solstafir, Ásgeir, Múm and many more.
  • Read books by Icelandic authors – It’s a very literary country. I’ll be sharing my favourites soon but Nobel Prize-winning Halldór Laxness is the most famous author. Reading the classic Icelandic Sagas from the 13th and 14th centuries will give you a greater understanding of the country as famous sites from the stories are everywhere.
  • Take a walk on a beach – It’s unlikely to be sunbathing weather, but Iceland’s dramatic black, golden, and red beaches are perfect for wild walks.
Rauðasandur, the red beach in the Westfjords

Rauðasandur, the red beach in the Westfjords

  • Shop at Bonus supermarket – It’s the cheapest place to self-cater.
  • Pack a picnic if you are road tripping – There often isn’t anywhere to stop for lunch, especially outside the summer when remote cafes close.
  • Stock up on alcohol at Duty-Free on arrival at the airport if you want to drink – It’s much cheaper than in the state-run liquor stores (the only place you can buy booze).
  • Enjoy delicious hot chocolate and cake (or a cinnamon bun) at one of Iceland’s excellent cosy cafes.
  • Check Grapevine, a free English language newspaper – For what’s on in Reykjavik and enjoy its legendary nightlife and music scene on weekends.
  • Call everyone by their first name – Titles aren’t used in Iceland. Instead of surnames, Icelanders use patronymics (or less commonly matronymics) made up of their father’s (or mother’s) name plus “son” (son) or “dóttir” (daughter). E.g. Björk Guðmundsdóttir is Gudmund’s daughter.

DON’T:

  • Underestimate the weather – Icelandic weather changes fast and can be dangerous. Check the Vedur website or download their app for weather forecasts. Always be prepared with extra layers and waterproofs. 
  • Drive in a storm – Strong winds can blow cars off the road or volcanic rocks into your windscreen in scary sandstorms.
  • Stop on the road – I understand, you will feel the urge to take a photo every few minutes, but always pull over into a parking area, even if the road seems empty.
A typically stunning drive in the Westfjords, Iceland

A typically stunning drive in the Westfjords

  • Speed – Stick to the speed limit of 50 km/h in urban areas, 80 km/h on rural gravel roads, and 90 km/h on rural asphalt roads.
  • Feel the need to tip – It’s not rude to do so, but it’s not expected or customary.
  • Wild camp – This is now banned and you must park your campervan or put up your tent in a designated campsite.
  • Risk your life for a photo – Respect any barriers that have been put up.
  • Get too close to cliff edges or the surf – Tourists have fallen off cliffs and been killed by rogue waves (especially at Reynisfjara beach).
Walking along the Latrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords, Iceland

Don’t get too close to the edge when walking along Iceland’s cliffs. Deaths have happened here at Latrabjarg.

  • Walk on the ice at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon – The ice is not stable and the water is dangerously cold.
  • Go onto a glacier without an accredited guide – There are hidden crevasses that you could fall into.
Into the Glacier ice tunnel in Iceland

The Into the Glacier ice tunnel tour is a safe way to explore a glacier

  • Drive on F roads without a 4WD vehicle
  • Drive off-road in any vehicle – It damages the landscape and you’ll receive a high fine.
  • Worry about staying connected – Even the remote cabins we stayed in had good WiFi and we had 3G or 4G signal almost everywhere.
  • Feed horses – Yes, they are cute, but it is bad for their health. It’s best to visit a horse farm like Sturlureykir where can pay a small fee to interact with them (or go on a ride).
  • Take rocks or pebbles as souvenirs
  • Litter – Have some respect for this beautiful place.
  • Ask Icelanders if they believe in elves (aka hidden people) – The majority do not, although they understand that many of their ancestors did and they are part of their heritage.
  • Rush – Iceland’s a stunning country, take your time and enjoy it.

I hope this post has answered any concerns about how to plan a trip to Iceland. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or share your own Iceland travel tips.

You can also see our Iceland itinerary for more tips on planning a trip to Iceland. 

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5 Comments (3 pingbacks)

  1. This is a great resource! Thanks so much for taking the time to put it together. I particularly appreciate the tips regarding the need for a credit/debit card with a chip and pin for buying gas/petrol, the custom for gratuities, the Icelandic music playlist (perfect for the road trip!) and reading suggestions, and where to buy alcohol and groceries. And my favorite tip is to enjoy the hot chocolate and cake…don’t need to tell me twice!

    Reply

  2. Good list! I have two comments:

    – Love the thing about tipping! During my trip, I actually asked one waitress what would be an appropriate tip and she said: “We have normal wages here, we don’t need tips”. 🐰👍

    – I tried to read Independent People by Laxness while in Iceland but I had to give up. There’s only so much interest I can muster about the sheep… 😝

    Reply

    • Ha! I haven’t read Independent People yet as I heard The Fish Can Sing is a more accessible, lighthearted introduction to Laxness and I did enjoy it.

      Reply

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