*This is a string of guidelines and tips to help with planning your extraordinary trip to Iceland*
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE:
Wowair is probably the best, and at times, the most affordable when it comes to deals to Reykjavik, Iceland. What better way to get to Iceland than to utilize an airline that is based there? Being proactive and checking prices often is key to finding deals that could amount to as little as $450 USD for a round trip ticket. The biggest caveat is that if you’re booking from within the U.S., deals will only apply to limited U.S. cities.
Signing up with Wowair’s Wow Club is another way to keep track of the deals they feature. Links to sign up for the Wow Club are located on the main site. Apart from deals to Iceland, this online email subscription will also allow you to receive promotions and bargains for other countries that the airliner might frequent. Keep in mind, Wowair does have a weight limit for luggage. So pack light.
Instead of overpacking your carry on, one way to beat the system is to wear as much as you can before boarding the plane. When deciding on what to pack or wear, I’d suggest lots of warm, waterproof, and comfortable clothing. Given that most activities reside outside, I would also suggest bringing a pair of durable/comfortable hiking boots.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?:
If you have a smartphone then this is one of the first things to take care of when you land in Iceland – getting yourself a temporary SIM card. Luckily, the airport houses a few convenience shops and they can assist you with buying the right one for your phone. Normally, individual SIM cards will run you $20 USD. The initial card plus data installation will cost around $40 USD. Should you exhaust your data, top-ups (adding more data) will cost an additional $20 USD.
THE MYSTERY MACHINE:
It is in your best interest to book a vehicle preferably days or even weeks in advance. You don’t want to take the chance on most vehicles being booked out due to a busy season or because you are a professional procrastinator. Plus, the earlier you book the more cash you’ll save by avoiding those last minute price hikes.
We booked our vehicle through Sixt car rental a month or two before departing for our frigid destination. Sixt’s rental site is right outside of the airport (a six to seven-minute walk) if that suits you. If walking is not part of your airport exit plan, standby because shuttles regularly do drop-offs and pick-ups.
Before you roll out check the vehicle thoroughly and make sure everything is in order. This means all functions are working as they should be — there should be no dents or paint chips that are unaccounted for and make sure to note any interior stains/damages. Also, renting a GPS along with your car rental is worth it. It’s not super low-cost, but it’ll make your trip less complicated and it’ll save you from using all of your phone data.
For those driving during the winter months be careful! The combination of ice, gravel, and freezing temperatures creates some very hazardous conditions. At times during our trip, random blizzard pockets would blow in and leave everything in our field of vision completely whited out. In those situations where you find yourself uncomfortably sliding, it’s hard to tell what’s up, down, or near the cliff side. Besides not speeding, my best advice during these instances is to lightly apply the brakes for a gradual slowdown. If you’re not comfortable, just STOP DRIVING! If the weather is horrible or there’s a large dumping of snow, find a local hostel and cozy up for the night. Ordinarily, the roads will be cleared and drivable by 12pm the next day.
Believe me when I say this: Iceland’s winters are full of butt-clenching moments, and it’s notably far more extreme than a whole year of “Snowmageddons” in the U.S.
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF:
Weather.com and other similar sites are good ways to determine the min/max temperatures for your trip to Iceland, or wherever you might be traveling to. Checking the weather often will make sure you’re well-suited and prepared for any fickle weather pattern that might develop during your trip.
By the time you’ve made your first food stop you’ll quickly realize that everything is expensive, and stores generally close pretty early. When time permits pick up what you can when you can. Grocery stores usually open between the hours of 10-11am and close around 6pm. Once they close you’re SOL – that means almost no convenience store, grocery store or food mart will be open after 6pm…the ones that are will be very few and far in between. Not much is labeled in English, so, just close your eyes and easy pickings. The two cheapest grocery stores we found and frequented were Bonus and Kronan. There are others, but we didn’t have time to try them all. The exploration of this venture is left up to you to figure out.
PLASTIC! IT’S FANTASTIC:
Everywhere takes debit/credit cards, so you won’t necessarily need any greenbacks. Even so, to be on the safe side carry at least $80-100 USD for a currency backup plan, for the occasional toll or whatnot. During our travels around the island, we only hit one toll on our way back to Reykjavik. Other than that, hard cash was rarely used.
THINGS TO SEE IN, AND OUTSIDE OF REYKJAVIK:
Note: people dress really well in this city, so leave your fashion sense at home and don a brown blanket, or old snowboarding gear like we did. Bring at least one or two nice outfits for going out to the bar or club….you might not gain entrance otherwise. Ladies, no heels! The city is filled with lots of cobblestone walkways. This could be a struggle, especially when it’s icy.
For convenient travel within the city, I suggest using taxis. Unfortunately, Uber hasn’t extended out to Iceland yet, but the latter is still available. Even though we didn’t use this option, here is a link to some of the taxi services that are available.
Hallgrímskirkja Church is another popular spot. Go inside and marvel at its architecture. Don’t pay to take the elevator up to the top – it was said by some locals to be a waste of money so we avoided this particular trap. If you wait around long enough you might get to hear the organ player play. It’s cool to hear the medieval blare of the organ resonate off the ceiling arches.
When you leave the church, check out Cafe Loki. From the entrance of the church, the cafe is located directly across the street. I’ve pinged it here for you. Go to the cafe and order a traditional Icelandic platter — a plucky meal of epic proportions! The introduction of this platter is a testament that maybe the olden days of Icelandic life were indeed rough. Besides the whale blubber, sheep testicles, and other assorted meats and treats, the most notable delicacy on this platter is the 4-5-month-old fermented, ammonia-rich Kæstur hákarl, or “treated shark”.
An aneurysm is likely to result from attempting to pronounce its full Icelandic name so don’t attempt it by any means. And yes, this shark meat tastes and reeks of ammonia. Hold your nose, chew, vigorously swallow, and quickly follow with a shot of “Black Death” aka Brennivín potato mash vodka. Your waitress/waiter will better explain the assortment of edibles that make up your platter.
There are few nightclubs to go to. Apart from the more uppity ones, there is only one that stood out. Unfortunately, I do not know the exact name of this club. This is because there was no advertised signage of any kind. We were just drawn to it by the loud thud of hip-hop music, and the red lights that lit up the brick-faced wall of the entrance. Once you’re in the central area on Laugavegur Street it won’t be too hard to find. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a bunch of food stands that seem to create a metaphoric wagon fort. If you don’t spend the entire night pillaging and gorging on delicious goodies, walk to that area and you’ll see a brick wall lit with red lights.
The unnamed club exudes all the qualities you would expect from an establishment of its caliber. Be warned, first impressions will come off as seedy, but don’t be alarmed. It’s pure unadulterated madness lends a large dose of ‘real’ Viking fun.
WATER RUNS DRY:
If you’re into more nightlife I’ve included a link to some bars that might be able to quench your thirst and drain your pockets.
For groups larger than three I would suggest purchasing your own alcohol from the Duty-Free before leaving the airport. Spirits/alcohol will be fairly expensive and sparse once you begin traveling around the countryside (don’t forget to sample the local fav, Brennivín, as mentioned above). This is one unsweetened schnapps that’ll prove to come in handy when chasing or pairing with some valiant Icelandic cuisine.
The Blue Lagoon definitely resonates well with the mass of tourists that visit the country every year. It is a good way to unwind after a long day of walking, hiking, or doing some type of daily activity. Once wading in the vast heated connection of thermal pools you’ll see what I mean. There is a hut at the center of these connected pools that gives out free samples of their famous white enriching mud – try it before purchasing your own or scraping for questionable slop at the bottom of the pools.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE:
The links within this section will provide you with a list of things to see along this route. There are so many adventurous detours you can take. Many of those scenic spots can be found listed online. For others, you’ll just have to ask the locals for advice or keep persisting and luckily stumble upon them.
There are definitely more sights to visit outside of the Golden Circle, but it’s a good touring circuit to start with. All three links below are accompanied with maps to guide you to various destinations. I’ve also included a link that provides insight on some detours that can be visited. Plan accordingly and explore Link one / Link two / Link three.
The most enticing thing to see in Iceland are the Northern Lights and so it should be. Why miss out on a once in a lifetime chance to witness a battle dance between the earth and the cosmos? Although I can’t provide you with a direct ticket to see this heavenly occurrence, I can provide you with two links that will a) help you map the lights’ intensity and b) show you the daily cloud coverage.
This first link shows the intensity of the lights – the ‘active’ meter ranges from 0-9 with zero being the lowest and nine being the highest.
This second link shows the local cloud coverage. If you’ve figured it out correctly with the second map you will want to be in areas of white. The lightest or whitest areas on the map indicate the least amount of cloud coverage on any given day/night – white indicates the area has zero cloud coverage. Dark green indicates heavy cloud coverage.
Once you track the cloud coverage your next move is to get somewhere with little to no light pollution – outside of the city is preferred. Keep in mind, the weather is extremely fickle, so tracking is key to getting your ideal chance for the best nightly visibility.
On low-intensity nights the lights could resemble nothing more than an oddly white pearlescent cloud in the night sky (sounds weird, but trust me). On nights of high intensity, it will dazzle you with all sorts of brilliant hues. All it takes is a little tracking and a whole lot of patience to what hopefully will be a dazzling show.
Well, there it is folks. Though I haven’t spilled everything, I’ve given all I can think of and I hope this helps with planning an unforgettable trip. In the end, Iceland is what you make of it so go out and make it something special. Happy tracking!