Visiting Iceland for the first time: 13 things you need to know

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Well, it’s safe to say that Iceland blew us away in every way possible. It blew our minds with its incredible other-worldly landscapes and it blew us off our feet, literally. Yes, it is very windy! So why did we leave visiting Iceland for the first time until now?

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

There are a few reasons. Mainly, we weren’t sure when was the best time of year to go. We didn’t want to go in the summer because of the crowds and yet we were a little concerned that winter would be bitterly cold. Would it be worth buying enough cold-weather gear to survive an Antarctic trek only to discover that the kids didn’t like the cold? Would it be so expensive that we’d be eating pot noodles in our accommodation every day?

We had a lot of questions and did a lot of research but still, not all of our questions were answered. Ultimately, our overwhelming desire to see what everyone was raving about led us to book our flights but there are some things we wished we’d known before we went.

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, make sure you read these 13 essential things you must know before you go which will help you avoid some of the mistakes we made.

Kirkjufell in Iceland

Kirkjufell in Iceland

1. Is Iceland in Europe?

Yes – but we’re slightly embarrassed to admit that we had to Google this. It just seemed a lot further away than it actually is but being in Europe means that you can use your UK mobile data. The electricity sockets are standard 2 pin 220v. UK appliances would need these UK to EU travel adaptors. And in case you wondered, Iceland is not in the EU.

2. Iceland currency

Iceland is in Europe but the currency in Iceland is Icelandic Krona. Credit cards are widely accepted so there isn’t really any need to have cash on you. Just try to use a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and if you have a choice of paying in GBP or local currency when paying by card, always choose local currency as you will get a better rate.

3. Flights to Iceland

Iceland flights are only 2.5 hours from London to Reykjavik (Keflavik). You can find relatively cheap flights to Iceland from the UK particularly with Easyjet and Whizz Air who both fly from London Luton Airport to Keflavik. If you’re travelling from the US, Icelandair offers a great free stopover in Iceland on routes from the US to Europe. Why not break up your journey with a one, two, three or even a five-day stopover?

Visiting Iceland: 13 things you need to know

4. Weather in Iceland

Iceland lies just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle and at certain times of the year, it can get very cold. Add to this the wind which can make it feel significantly colder. Obviously you can dress appropriately to cope with the colder weather, but it might be tougher on little ones if they are visiting sights in the driving snow and wind.  Temperatures can range from -5 in the winter to +15 in the summer months (although it can reach the mid 20s).

Snow in Iceland

Snowy landscapes in Iceland

5. Best time to visit Iceland

This is a personal preference. If you want to go to Iceland to see the Northern lights, you have a better chance during the winter. If you want to see the puffins, then you need to visit Iceland in the summer months. We went in October and we had a mix of wind, sun and rain but no snow. Temperatures ranged from -2 to +8ºC. The roads were clear. Summer months are pleasant but there are lots more tourists. The days are short in the winter months with 4 hours of daylight on 21st December (winter solstice) and longer in the summer months with 21 hours of daylight on 21st June (summer solstice).

6. Driving in Iceland

The easiest way to get around is to drive yourself.  There are many tours but they are expensive and you are working to someone else’s schedule which, if you have kids, does not always work so well as they usually have their own schedule.

If you stay on the Ring Road or the Golden Circle route, the roads are very good and you should be able to get around in a normal 2WD during most of the year. There is hardly any traffic on the roads. There are a few smaller roads that would require 4WD but this is not necessary for the main sights. We travelled to Iceland in October and opted for a 4WD just in case.

In Iceland, you drive on the right-hand side. The speed limit on main roads is usually 90km/h. There are speed cameras and police can catch you with a radar as they drive towards you. Many of the roads are long and straight with no traffic so don’t be tempted to speed. The speeding fine is close to £400.

A big no-no is stopping in the middle of the road to take a picture of the spectacular scenery. As tempting as it is, it is very dangerous. You should also beware of other people suddenly stopping to do just this.

Roads in Iceland

Ring Road in Iceland

7. Iceland Car Rental

There are many articles about hiring a car in Iceland, mainly about the number of scams people have encountered. We can confirm that the scams are a real issue, but being aware of them is key. Our tips for car rental in Iceland are:

  • Check on RentalCars to compare car rental prices
  • The Dacia Duster is a good all-round 4WD and more economical than most
  • Hire your car from one of the car rental companies in the airport terminal. The companies in the terminal are Budget, Avis, Hertz and Europcar.
  • Make sure you take out extra insurance, either from the rental agency or with a third party. We prefer to use icarhireinsurance and we get an annual policy because we usually rent a car whenever we travel.
  • Take photos of your car when you first pick it up so you have a record of the damage. Make sure the damage is noted on the rental agreement.
  • Be careful opening doors on windy days. They have been known to suffer a lot of damage and this is very costly if you don’t have full insurance cover.
  • Take photos of the car when you drop it off for your records in case you need it when back in your own country.
  • Leave extra time when dropping the car back for the company to check the car over and provide you with a final statement to make sure they don’t add extra charges.

Read our car rental in Iceland post for more information.

Car rental in Iceland

Our 4WD Dacia Duster rental car in Iceland

8. Accommodation in Iceland

There is a great choice of accommodation in Iceland from hotels to farm stays, self-catering chalets to campervans. The hotels in Iceland are quite expensive, but if you book well in advance, you might find a good deal. We spent our first two nights at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura. They had a deal offering free breakfast for the kids with a paying adult and a ISK 2500 credit towards food and drink. It was just a little out of the centre of town next to Reykjavik airport (not the main Keflavik airport) and was friendly and cosy and their breakfast was outstanding.

We also stayed in The Garage in Vermahlio which was set on a farm between the famous Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. It was a converted hay shed and very tastefully done with a well-equipped kitchen and washing machine and dryer which came in very handy after getting too close to the waterfalls. There was chocolate cake waiting for us in reception at check-in and they even had their own waterfall.

For a great budget-friendly option, we also stayed at Horgsland Cottages located between Vik and Hof. Going down the self-catering route is a great way to keep your overall budget down.

9. Crime in Iceland

This probably doesn’t really deserve a section because Iceland is an incredibly safe country – but now you know!

10. Language in Iceland

English is widely spoken and there were times when we weren’t even sure if someone was Icelandic because they seemed to switch between perfect English and to chat to each other. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try a polite hello or thank you in the local language.

11. Water in Iceland

The tap water in Iceland is perfectly safe to drink. Don’t forget to take your refillable water bottle with you so you can fill up before heading out for the day. This will save you the expense of buying bottled water and will help the environment. We love our sturdy Camelbak bottles.

Water filling station at Keflavik airport

Water filling station at Keflavik airport

12. Eating in Iceland

Eating out in Iceland is expensive. There are no two ways about it. If you’re a foodie, you’ll find some great restaurants in Reykjavik serving up lovely, fresh, traditional food with a modern twist. The emphasis is on seafood. Sadly our kids are not into seafood so we didn’t try one of the recommended restaurants, The Fish Market, but we did eat out a couple of times whilst in Reykjavik.

For lunch one day we went to the Icelandic Street Food where we had delicious and warming soup served in a bread bowl. We can highly recommend it for a relatively cheap eat. We also went to Burro and had lovely Mexican Tapas. It’s not cheap but is very tasty and they have a happy hour between 5 pm and 7 pm.

If you don’t have the budget to eat out for the whole of your stay, make sure you book accommodation with self-catering facilities and prepare meals yourself. Despite what you may have heard, supermarkets in Iceland are not that much more expensive than the UK. Make sure to pack a few snacks in your luggage to keep you (and more importantly the kids) going on long road trips.

Icelandic Street Food soup

Icelandic Street Food soup

13. Things to do in Iceland

Iceland is predominantly an outdoor country and people come to see its natural beauty. Be prepared to spend a lot of time outdoors visiting natural sights. The great thing is that these are mostly free (except for some hot springs). There is so much to do but these are the absolute highlights.

Iceland waterfalls

The most famous waterfalls in and around the south coast are Gullfoss, Skogafoss, Sejalandsfoss, but you can see smaller waterfalls all over the place. You may even be lucky enough to have a waterfall in the grounds of your accommodation.

Skogafoss Waterfall in Iceland

Skogafoss Waterfall in Iceland

Iceland northern lights

One thing to remember is that seeing the Northern Lights is not guaranteed. There are forecasts you can check. You can go on tours and they will locate the best spots for seeing them on a given night.

Northern lights in Iceland

Northern lights in Iceland

Iceland hot springs

Hot Springs are a thing in Iceland and we became huge fans. What better way to warm up after a chilly day of sightseeing? Things to know about hot springs: You must shower naked before you go into the springs. There are very hot patches where the hot water feeds into the pool. Keep the kids away from these areas as the water is scalding.

The most well known of all the hot springs is the Blue Lagoon Iceland but this has become very commercial and expensive.  We preferred the Secret Lagoon which was less commercial and less busy. There are hot springs dotted all over Iceland and some are free although most charge a fee.

As an alternative, you could try one of the municipal geothermal pools which have fantastic facilities. There are slides and various hot tubs and saunas. We loved the one at Hvolsvöllur and Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik.

Secret Lagoon in Iceland

Secret Lagoon in Iceland

Iceland beaches

The most famous beaches in Iceland are Reynisfjara next to Vik (otherwise known as the Black Sand Beach) or Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon where you will see lots of smaller chunks of ice that look like diamonds on the black sand.

Diamond Beach in Iceland

Diamond Beach in Iceland

If you have any other questions you’d like to ask, please leave a comment below and we will reply as soon as possible.

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Visiting Iceland: 13 things you need to know

Visiting Iceland: 13 things you need to know

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