Iceland is an absolutely amazing country and offers so many unique attractions from raging waterfalls and snorkeling between tectonic plates to relaxing in natural hotsprings and admiring the northern lights. I did a ton of research before our trip and wanted to share advice that I found most useful and that I discovered along the way. Here are my tips for traveling to Iceland in the winter.
Rent a car + wifi and buy ALL of the insurance.
I know it seems like I always recommend this, but it really is true. Renting a car gave us so much freedom in Iceland and really took our trip to the next level. Our car rental company, Lagoon Car Rental, offered a 4g wifi hotspot that was incredible and roughly $13/day. This allowed us to frequently check the weather, route our directions, and surf the web without being at a cafe. Outside of Reyjkavik, Iceland is fairly remote, easy wifi connectivity made us feel safer.
The main roads in Iceland are well maintained and there are several apps/websites to help you with driving. That being said, the weather changes in an instant. We saw people stuck in snowbanks and with blown out windshields/windows due to gale force winds throwing around rocks. While we didn’t need it, having the extra insurance is only to your benefit in case something like this happens.
Be flexible with your itinerary.
Like I mentioned, the weather in Iceland is unpredictable. The saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” is popular in Iceland. Within an hour period you can experience rain, snow, hail, and sunshine. Recognizing that I can’t enjoy a hike if there are 25 mph winds and a torrential down pour, we left room to change around our itinerary. Did we get to do everything we planned? No, but we did get to do most of it and actually enjoy it.
Download Weather and Aurora Apps.
Continuing with the theme of flexibility, the weather and aurora apps were invaluable during our trip. We used Vedur and Aurora Forecast, as well as the vedur.is website for the cloud coverage aspect during our aurora hunts. We would alter our plans based on where the weather was better or when it would improve. It wasn’t always spot on, but it definitely saved us time and helped us to plan much better.
Skip the tours unless required.
I really wanted to see the Norther Lights. Like, realllllllly wanted to see them and get some awesome shots. I went back and forward with booking a $500 dollar super jeep photography tour for me and Martin, but ended up deciding to watch the forecast and try my own luck. Best decision ever! The first night we saw them all the tours were cancelled, yet we saw them anyways. We also got an amazing show another night and were able to drive around as we wanted to get all sorts of cool shots. Use the aurora app and scout out places yourself.
While I am definitely glad I saved $500 on an aurora tour, I am so, so, so glad that I booked a tour for snorkeling the Silfra Fissure and an ice cave and glacier hike at Vatnajökull. Both of these activities require guides and are definitely worth the price. Trying to find an ice cave on your own is dangerous and snorkeling without a guide is flat out impossible plus you would freeze without a dry suit! For these tours we used Viking Adventures and Arctic Adventures.
For other tourist attractions, ie the Golden Circle, I really recommend exploring on your own as it gives you freedom to go where you want and take the time you need to explore.
Pack extra gloves, socks, and boots.
Iceland can be cold. Like so cold you lose the feeling in your hands only to then have it come back as fiery burning sensation in your bones. Between the snow, rain, and waterfall spray I was continually soaked. Cold, wet gloves only made the problem worse. I continually rotated the three pairs that I had while another pair dried.
Prior to the trip, I thought I bought waterproof boots. During the trip, I realized this was not true. I have never been more thankful for packing an extra pair of boots! We trekked through mud, snow, and rivers and like my gloves, I frequently rotated my boots while blasting the car’s floor heater to dry out my other pair. Wet, cold, and frozen feet will ruin your trip so take care to keep yourself dry and warm!
Invest in hand warmers, moisturizer, and a great chapstick.
Another life saver! I bought a variety pack of foot, hand, and body warmers before we left and they were one of our best purchases. They last for about 12 hours and are perfect in your gloves or pockets. They also come in handy during emergency situations. Our friends went hiking at night and needed to use their phones as a flashlight. It was so cold that they said the only way their phones would stay on was if a hand warmer was up against it.
The frequent change between ice cold and the blasting the heater, along with the rain and snow left my skin so dry, to the point where the skin on our hands started to crack. Tourists shops offer a ton of moisturizers and balms, but they are pretty pricey. To save money, I recommend packing your own. Extra chapstick is always a plus, especially if you are like me and always misplace yours.
Fill up on breakfast and pack your own snacks.
If you haven’t heard, Iceland is expensive. As in a soup, sandwich, and 2 lattes at a cafe will run you $45. Every hotel/guesthouse we stayed in included breakfast. It was always plentiful and with a decent variety (including lots of vegan options). To make the most out of our money we would eat a HUGE breakfast, split entrees for lunch and dinner, and eat our own snacks in between. We brought in a ton of dried food items like clif bars and just add water soups, as well as shopped at local grocery stores for items like almond milk and additional snacks. This definitely helped ease the foods costs. We aren’t huge drinkers, but if you plan to drink, I highly recommend buying alcohol at the duty free/tax free airport shop on your arrival. A glass of beer in Iceland will run you about $16!
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