Iceland is an absolutely breathtaking country that should be at the top of your bucket list. Of all the places we have visited, it is one of my favorite places and definitely the most unique. Iceland is geographically unlike any place in the world. It is an island made up of many volcanoes and glaciers and the way they interact creates some pretty marvelous natural wonders. The Icelandic people, like their culture, are exciting and interesting with tons of funny stories and quirks.
Here’s what you need to know to start planning your trip:
Deciding between winter and summer
The first big decision you need to make is what season to go. Visiting in winter vs summer will give you a very different experience with the weather, the landscape, the activities you can do, and the number of travelers who will be there. While Iceland has a fairly cold climate year round, it is definitely much colder in the winter time. I’m talking blizzards and 50 mph winds. Although it’s cold and you run the risk of bad weather and having roads closed or tours canceled, Iceland is absolutely gorgeous in the winter time. It’s like being in the clouds or in a winter wonderland. The waterfalls are backed with thousands of giant icicles, you get to snuggle up with a cup of coffee or cocoa, and you can warm up in the country’s natural geothermal springs. Doesn’t that sound amazing?? Believe me, it was!
The winter time also gives very short days with sunrise around 9 or 10 am and sunset at 5 or 6 pm (the day getting longer as you enter into spring). This could be a negative thing in the eyes of some, but I thought it was amazing because we got to see the sunrise and sunset every day without having to wake up early. I’m always a fan of not having to wake up early!
The long nights also mean you might get to see the northern lights. While there’s a chance of bad weather or no northern lights activity while you are there, winter is the only time you’ll get the opportunity to see them. In summer, the days are too long and it’s never fully dark so you can’t see the northern lights. The northern lights are absolutely stunning and it’s something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
Summer time will give you a whole different experience! The waterfalls are flowing stronger and there is greenery everywhere. There is also nearly 24 hour sunlight during the summer. You can rent a car if you want, exploring the island at your own pace.
That being said, the weather is very unpredictable in Iceland, so you may have perfect days in winter and you may have rain storms in summer. You may even have blizzards and sunny days just a few days apart. So whatever you choose, be prepared for either type of weather. I have only been to Iceland in the winter, but I would definitely love to go back to see more of the Island and have 24 hours of daylight to explore.
If you’re curious what the weather will be like in a certain month, Weather Spark is a great resource. You can find average temperature and rainfall/snowfall in addition to the amount of sunlight per day.
Choosing your flight
The next big decision you will make is what flight you’ll take. Do you want a budget airline? Would you prefer a more upscale experience for a 9 hour flight? The choice is up to you, both come with their own pros and cons. This will also partly be dictated by the time of year you decide to travel. There are a lot less tourists traveling to Iceland during the winter, so the flights tend to be cheaper.
We took WOW airlines, which is a budget airline. Our flights were a whopping $425 round trip from San Francisco in February. When they say it’s a budget airline, it’s definitely a budget airline. No food, drinks or water are included (they have them available for purchase), no fancy screens with movies and music like other airlines and the seats are pretty tight. But it was so cheap!
We actually had a pretty good experience because we were nice to the check-in gal at the airport and she upgraded us to exit row seats which had leg room for days. Since the flights were not full, we were downgraded to a smaller plan, a 3 and 3 configuration, which was a bit tight for a 9 hour flight. They did give us 1 round of complimentary soft drinks and a snack to make up for it. One bummer was that we had to stop over in Canada to refill the gas tank, making our 9 hour flight an 11 hour flight. But the price was right. If you are on a budget, WOW airlines in the way to go.
**I would be hesitant to take WOW airlines to Europe with a connecting flight through Iceland. The flight to Iceland is often delayed, leaving little (or no) time to transfer. And if you miss your connecting flight, WOW airlines often does not have any other flights until the next day.
How will you get around?
There are number of options for transportation in Iceland. My dream trip to Iceland is to rent a camper van, drive around the ring road camping, hiking, stopping wherever we want to stop for however long we want to stop, and doing our own exploration trip. Since we went in February, this was not a feasible option as the temperatures were usually around 27 °F , or -3 °C. Exploring the ring road by camper van is more of a summer activity.
If camper vanning (is that a word?) isn’t your thing, you basically have two other options: rent a car and drive around the country staying in hotels and bed and breakfasts along the way or stay in Reykjavik and take day tours outside of the city. For our most recent trip, we stayed in the city. We normally aren’t tour type of people and like to do our own thing, but we felt it was the best option since neither of us are familiar or comfortable with driving on icy roads in winter conditions. I am really happy we made that decision.
There was a big storm the day we landed and 100 tourists got stuck on the roads in their rental cars and had to be rescued. Now if that sounds like your kind of adventure or you are comfortable driving in the snow, a rental a car would be a great option to see more and explore on your own terms. If you go that route, make sure to inspect and photograph any dings or marks in the car. In our research, we heard they are notorious for saying you made a mark that was already there. Gas is pretty pricey in Iceland as well. Right now its around $7.50 per gallon. Make sure to budget that into your cost when mapping out where you want to go.
One pro of staying in the city is that we were able to rent an Airbnb for the whole time we were there. This was much cheaper than staying in a hotel and we were in the middle of the city. We also used this opportunity to cook most of our meals. This was great for me since I could count my carbs and prepare low carb meals easier. Plus it saved us a bunch of money.
Now would be a good time for me to tell you that Iceland is EXPENSIVE! Like, crazy expensive. The cheapest meal we ate was a $4.50 hot dog from a hot dog stand, and the going rate for a regular meal of a burger and fries is $18, with nicer restaurants costing upwards of $30, $40 or $50 per meal. Staying in an Airbnb with a kitchen allows you to shop at the grocery store and cook your own food. Even if you decide to rent a car or camper van, making your own meals like sandwiches or preparing snacks in an ice chest can save you a lot of money.
If you decide to stay in the city and take tours we used the company Your Day Tours for both of our tours and had great experiences! It’s a small company run by a 3 guys with 4 tour guides on staff. Both guides we had were fun, entertaining and had a lot of fun, quirky knowledge to share with us about the sights and the culture.
If you’re on the fence because of the cost, I would say that in our research, the cost would be very similar for renting a camper van vs. staying at an airbnb in the city, as long as you plan to prepare some of your own food from the grocery store. So choose the trip that suits your desires. Do you want to have someone to take you on tours, drive for you and teach you all about the culture? Or do you feel more adventurous and want to explore the beautiful country on your own timeline?
Whether you choose to see Iceland in the winter or summer, by tour bus, camper van or car, you’re sure to have an incredible time. It really is unlike any other place in the world.