A bewitching Nordic nation of volcanoes, glaciers, cosmic winter light shows and endless summer twilight, Iceland is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. The island’s mercurial weather means you’ll need to prepare for quick changes in advance. And the spectacularly dramatic landscape can bring its own challenges too. As they say, it’s good to know before you go, so read on for our top Iceland travel tips. From saving money to keeping safe and everything in between, find out all you need for unforgettable trip.
At just 103,000 km2, Iceland is a small but extremely popular island. Tourism has soared over the last few years with visitor numbers in recent years topping upwards of two million a year. Many choose to base themselves in Reykjavik and explore from there. This means there’s often a lot of competition for accommodation. And if you plan on staying in one of Iceland’s smaller towns, you may end up having to base your travel plans around the scant availability of small guesthouses. The same goes with activities – both the Golden Circle Tour and the Blue Lagoon now routinely book out a day in advance.
To make sure you don’t have to compromise on your plans, our Iceland travel tip is to book ahead. Aim to secure your accommodation at least six months before you go and activities one month prior. Alternatively, choose a Rough Guides tailor-made trip to Iceland and we’ll take care of everything for you.
With a name like Iceland, it’s no surprise that winter on the island is pretty damn cold. Temperatures regularly drop to -5°C even in the city, so you’ll need to make sure that your coat and winter woollies are up to scratch. Whether it’s winter or summer, sleet and a wicked wind can strike at any time. Indeed, the locals commonly say that the island regularly experiences all four seasons in one day. But even if it’s freezing outside, Icelandic interiors are famously cosy. Stay comfortable and make sure you can strip down to a lighter layer when you head inside or if the sun decides to come out.
Here’s one of our best Iceland travel tips: before you zip up your suitcase, throw in a raincoat and a pair of flip flops. You’ll be glad of these extra additions when visiting Iceland’s unmissable but splashy waterfalls and after taking a dip in a hot spring or the Blue Lagoon.
Don’t be fooled by the fleet of low-cost flights from both mainland Europe and North America; Iceland is an expensive place. According to Statistics Iceland, prices today are 66% above the European average. The better news is that whether you’re spending large on food or crafts, Icelanders take pride in their produce. All in all, you’re likely to walk away with something of good quality.
When it comes to shopping, our Iceland travel tip is to splash out on a ‘lopapeysa’ jumper. These iconic woollen sweaters may come with a large price tag (expect to drop between 20,00 – 30,000 ISK or around £160 – £200), but they’re warm and water resistant and will last you a lifetime.
The first of our monetary Iceland travel tips is to use a prepaid travel card rather than exchanging your currency for paper Icelandic króna. Chip and pin cards are accepted pretty much everywhere on the island so you don’t have to worry about carrying cash (and spending whatever is in your wallet). Tipping at restaurants and bars isn’t required either. Service charges are usually included in the bill so there’s no need for smaller denominations of cash.
The second of our money-saving tips is to hit a budget supermarket such as Bónus or Krónan before a day of sightseeing. Lunch and snacks can be terribly overpriced at the island’s main attractions, not least at the rather swish restaurant in the visitor centre at Geysir on the Golden Circle. What’s more, the tap water in Iceland is completely safe to drink. Pack a reusable water bottle and fill it up as you go. As well as saving money, you’ll be doing your bit to keep the incredible Icelandic environment plastic-free.
With the drama of the landscape comes an element of danger. It’s important to respect the island’s natural forces no matter how tempting it is to get a closer look. When it comes to glaciers, never, ever wander or drive onto them without a guide. They are far more fragile than they appear. What's more, hidden crevasses, glacial mud and fast-changing conditions can turn an incredible adventure into an utter disaster in the blink of an eye.
It’s not unusual here to find plunging waterfalls, cliffs and other perilous ledges without so much as rope or safety rail to keep you away from the abyss. Rather than ruin the view with ugly barriers, the authorities rely on tourists using their common sense and keeping their distance. The most important of our Iceland travel tips? Don't risk your life for Instagram.
Similarly, stay well back from the waves on black sand beaches such as Djúpalónssandur. Here, as at many of the island’s enchanting strands, the conditions are unpredictable. Unexpected waves have been known to snatch tourists posing by the water's edge. Once caught in the treacherous undercurrents, your chances of escape are slim.
Back in the civilisation of Reykjavik or Iceland’s smaller towns, you’ll be pleased to know that the island has an exceptionally low crime rate. However, as with anywhere, the usual rules apply. Don’t walk back to your accommodation late alone and always watch your drinks and belongings when out and about.
Thinking of visiting Iceland? Let Rough Guides take care of all the details for you on a tailor-made trip to Iceland, designed with the help of local expert.
Top image: Atlantic puffins © Frank Fichtmueller/Shutterstock