Iceland is a place of natural wonder; raging waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, black-sand beaches and dancing northern lights. I know all too well that it can be easy to get distracted by the endless attractions and activities when you’re planning your upcoming trip and overlook some of the most critical details. Preparing correctly and doing your research before visiting Iceland could be the difference between a once-in-a-lifetime adventure or a nightmare you would rather forget. My recent trip certainly wasn’t void of any nightmarish situations, so to help you escape the mistakes that we made, here are some important things I wish I knew before visiting Iceland.
1. It’s Really Expensive
Iceland is the world’s 4th most expensive country, due in part to its geographical isolation and small population. Accommodation, transport, tours, petrol, groceries… you name it, it’s expensive in Iceland. (A 10 pack of bacon rashers for over $100 AUD, you must be kidding…) Don’t panic though, there are a few ways to ease the squeeze if you’re on a tight budget that could make the world of difference to your expenses.
Stay in cottages. Accommodation will be, without a doubt, your biggest expense of the trip. When booking our accommodation, we opted for a range of Airbnb apartments, hostels, cottages and guesthouses. Without a doubt, cottages proved to be the most enjoyable, and often the cheapest. You don’t have to share a bathroom or kitchen with strangers, check-in times are usually flexible and some of them are in spectacular locations! Oh, and aren’t they just the cutest, cosiest things you’ve ever seen?
Cook your own meals. Groceries are expensive, but eating out will send you into bankruptcy. If you opt to stay in cottages, there will often be a small kitchen with just enough appliances and cooking facilities to creatively concoct a meal on the cheap. Food is probably also the easiest way to save on spending, so make the most of it!
Self-drive over tours. Car hire and petrol can be expensive but if you have a group of three or four others to split the costs with, it will definitely work out cheaper than tours. You’ll probably spend less time in the car than on tour buses out of Reykjavik, you get to stop where and when you want and can escape the crowds by heading further North than the tours will take you. This is where you’ll find the real and untouched Iceland.
2. The Weather Can Get Real Wild, Real Quick
If you’re visiting Iceland in Winter, hoping to witness the aurora dancing above a snow-drenched landscape, be prepared for some truly crazy weather conditions. The first thing you have to do when visiting Iceland is throw away your normal travel expectations and be prepared for surprises. It might be the most stunning time of year, but it is also the most dangerous and temperamental. Icelanders have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”, and it’s absolutely true. One minute you can be enjoying a warm sunny day, clear skies and no wind, only to find yourself in the middle of an unforgiving snowstorm just minutes later.
Always carry the right gear. A short walk to a waterfall, around the nearby lake, or even just a stroll along the beach can turn into a nightmare in minutes if you get stuck out in the elements without the right gear when the weather changes. Speaking from experience, I recommend you always carry your gloves, beanie, scarf, jacket etc. no matter where you are heading or how long you plan on being out. We found out all too well that a short walk to a waterfall just off the main road can quickly turn into a brutal survival-of-the-fittest expedition through freezing, blizzard-like conditions just to get back to the car where we had left most of our warm gear. Smart move I know… don’t make the same mistake.
Helpful tip: A pair of Gumboots/ Wellies will become your best friend if it snows while you’re in Iceland. They might not look great, but function over fashion is definitely the way to go when the conditions are not in your favour.
3. Electronics and Iceland Really Don’t Mix
If you plan on taking a camera/ phone to capture your Icelandic adventures, be prepared to kill it. Iceland is probably the perfect enemy, with freezing temperatures, wild weather, frequent snow, an abundance of waterfalls and a stunning landscape that will convince you to use your camera despite the obvious hazards. Make sure to purchase insurance on the things you can’t afford to lose before visiting Iceland, and try (as much as possible) to keep your gear protected from the elements. This means NOT venturing into waterfall canyons and drenching your camera with mist to try to get a photo.
If you are planning on photographing waterfalls, particularly Seljalandsfoss in the South, be sure to bring a pile of lens cloths to wipe the water droplets away between each photo. If your camera does get drenched, a bowl of uncooked rice will be your best friend and may just be enough to resurrect it from the dead. My camera is currently on its fourth life and still going strong.
The cold temperatures will also have an effect on your camera, particularly the drastic change in temperature when getting out of a car or leaving the cottage. To avoid your lenses filling with condensation, try to slow down the radical temperature change by keeping the camera close to your body for the first few minutes (I found that under the armpit works best). Also, keep your batteries close to your warm body to prevent them from losing their charge.
4. Driving In Winter Is Not For The Fainthearted
If you choose to hire a car and navigate the ring road in winter (highly recommended, despite the next paragraph of horror), something will eventually happen, so be ready. Icy roads, blizzard conditions, gale force winds and car issues are all likely to hit at some point in the journey, so make sure you’ve planned for it and don’t be too ambitious with your itinerary.
It’s best to play it safe and avoid risks like driving in poor conditions, overestimating your driving ability, planning huge days on the road or exploring locations that are a long way from help. The number of cars that we saw slide off the road or being assisted back onto the road is way too many for me to confidently say that everyone reading this will avoid these mishaps.
You should always opt for insurance on any hire car; damage is inevitable. We completely killed our first car and handed our second car back with a broken central locking system, a huge ice chunk dent on the bonnet, a chipped windshield and too many scratches to count.
5. There Are HEAPS Of Tourists In The South
The first thing I realised when landing in Iceland after 30 hours of non-stop travel from Sydney was that it’s not as off-the-beaten-track as I may have thought. Thousands of tourists arrive every day with the same bucket list of spots to visit, and it can actually get quite hectic at the most popular ones. The sites of the Golden Circle, Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss and even as far East as the black sand beaches of Vik see a steady stream of packed tourist buses, so much so that it can be almost impossible to get a photo without someone stepping in front of your shot.
Luckily, this isn’t the case in the Northern parts of Iceland. As soon as we passed Hofn, the crowds seemingly disappeared as we reached parts of Iceland that are too far for day trips or tours from Reykjavik and are probably only seen by those attempting the full ring-road road trip.
Don’t bother with the Southern attractions. If you’re planning on heading to Northern Iceland during your trip, I would definitely suggest skipping the Southern attractions such as Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss (or at least spending as little time there as possible) and get North ASAP. There are waterfalls all over the country just as impressive and the stunning variety of landscapes in the North will leave you wanting more time no matter how long you’ve spent exploring. As a bonus, you’re way more likely to witness a brighter, larger & more colourful aurora display up North.
Splash out on a couple of small group tours. If you do plan on spending some time in Southern Iceland and plan on booking any ice cave tours, glacier walks, whale watching charters etc. don’t bother with the popular ones. Pick a few activities that you really want to do, and spend a little extra on the small group tour options that take participants to private spots away from the hoards of tourists. There’s nothing worse than driving half an hour over a snow-drenched glacial landscape only to find that you have to share the ice cave with hundreds of other tourists.
…Or skip the tours altogether. You don’t need tours to experience the stunning natural beauty of Iceland; there is so much on offer that is completely free to see! With a treasure trove of helpful information online, it’s easy to find some awesome spots dotted along your chosen route that you can visit on the cheap and without a trail of other tourists following closely behind.
6. Reykjavik Is Great… For One Night
The capital city is the perfect place to spend your first night in Iceland as you recover from jetlag and adjust to the culture of the country. Laugavegur is the main street in the city and hosts a selection of interesting shops, casual restaurants, and lively bars. Beyond Laugavegur, there isn’t a lot that would interest tourists, so if you’re staying a night in Reykjavik… stay as close to the centre as you can get.
Your second night should be further afield, beyond the city streets and closer to the natural attractions that are (probably) the reason you chose to visit Iceland in the first place. I recommend these cute cottages right on the famous Reynisdrangar black sand beach in Vik. They are quite affordable, could not be in a better location and are the perfect stop for your first night on the ring road. Ragnar, the owner, told us they’d been fully booked every day of the year for 18 months straight… so get in early and book well before visiting Iceland to avoid missing out.
7. Seeing An Aurora Is More Difficult Than You Probably Expect
I wouldn’t say that I was absolutely certain before visiting Iceland that I would see an aurora, but I would have been pretty disappointed if that had been the case. Luckily we were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time… twice! In saying that, we were always planning where and when we’d have the best chance of seeing the lights each night, and were disappointed more often than not by heavy cloud cover or just a plain lack of aurora activity.
Below are a few of the methods we used to help maximise your chances of seeing the aurora:
- ‘Predict’ where and when the aurora will strike using apps and online aurora forecasting sites
- On nights of high forecasted activity, take shifts to watch the sky for any sign of the lights and be ready to leave the hut at any time.
- Take a gamble on the promising nights and set-up in areas away from light pollution. The darker the sky, the more vivid the aurora will appear.
- You’ll have to suffer a little bit if you want to be rewarded. Long sleepless nights camped out in the cold are a small price to pay for seeing one of the most incredible sights on Earth. You’re in Iceland… make the most of it!
Photographing The Aurora. As bright as the aurora may seem, it is still way too dark to be able to take a photograph without a few strategic steps. A long exposure will be needed to capture enough light, which means you’ll have to set up on a tripod or somewhere solid that will prevent any camera movement for 15-30 secs. A remote trigger or cable release will also help fire the shutter without touching the camera. Use a lens with a wide aperture capability (f.1.8 or wider is ideal, but f/3.5 should still be able to capture to aurora) and a high ISO to let enough light into the camera as possible. Switching the camera to live view and manually focusing on the stars will be the easiest way to ensure a sharp photograph as the focusing system on your camera will not be able to operate well under such dark conditions. Lastly, the freezing conditions and long exposures will churn through your batteries in no time, so keep plenty of spares handy. Put them in your pockets, or somewhere close to your body, to keep them warm and help prevent the cold from draining their charge.
Just a heads up, the aurora probably won’t look like it does in the photos you’ve seen due to the incredible capabilities of modern camera technology. However, watching it dance across the sky above a snow-drenched landscape is a spectacular and unforgettable experience that will stay with you for life.