Every settlement in Iceland has somewhere to stay in the shape of a hotel, guesthouse, hostel or campsite, with farms and some rural schools providing accommodation in between. Almost all formal lodgings are found around the settled coastal band; if you’re heading into the wilds at any stage, you’ll need to camp or make use of hiking huts.
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Always book accommodation in advance. Tourism to Iceland has rocketed in recent years and during the peak season (June–Aug) the industry can struggle to cope with demand. The only exceptions are campsites which – aside from Reykjavík’s – don’t usually require advance reservations.
City hotels tend to stay open year-round, and though the habit is spreading to smaller settlements, many places still shut down in winter, or at least through December. Where accommodation does stay open, winter rates are cheaper than summer ones.
Budget accommodation options in Iceland include made-up beds (with linen supplied) and even cheaper sleeping-bag accommodation (where you bring your own bag). In both cases you’re paying for a bed in a dorm or shared room for less than the price of a single room. So, even if you don’t intend to camp, consider bringing a sleeping bag to Iceland.
It’s worth picking up the Áning and Icelandic Farm Holiday booklets from tourist information outlets, which between them cover the majority of accommodation and campsite options across the country.
Icelandic hotels are typically elderly and gloomy or bland, modern, business-oriented blocks, though rooms are comfortable and well furnished as a rule. Bigger establishments might have their own pool, gym or sauna, and there will always be a restaurant, with breakfast included in the cost of a room.
A few country schools open up during the summer holidays as hotels, twelve of which come under the Edda banner. They’re aimed at the mid-range end of things, though a few also provide sleeping-bag accommodation with shared facilities. Most have a thermally heated pool in the grounds and there’s always a restaurant.
Guesthouses (gistiheimilið) tend to have more character than hotels, and they’re often family-run. Rooms range from the barely furnished to the very comfortable, though facilities are usually shared, and you’ll often find some budget accommodation available too. A breakfast of cereal, toast, cheese and coffee is included, or offered for an extra fee; some places can provide all meals with advance notice.
You’ll find plenty of farms in Iceland (some with histories going back to saga times) which offer accommodation of some kind, ranging from a room in the farmhouse to hostel-style dormitories or fully furnished, self-contained cabins. Many also encourage guests to take part in the daily routine, or offer horseriding, fishing, guided tours or even four-wheel-drive safaris.
For the most part, farm prices are the same as for guesthouses; cabins sleeping four or more can work out a good deal for a group. Come prepared to cook for yourself, though meals are usually available if booked in advance.
Hostelling International Iceland runs 33 hostels, ranging from big affairs in Reykjavík to old farmhouses sleeping four out in the wilds. All are owner-operated, have self-catering kitchens and either offer bookings for local tours or organize them themselves. Some provide meals with advance notice and have laundry facilities. Many open all year too, though you’d be hard-pushed to reach remoter ones until winter is well and truly over – turn up out of season, however, and you’ll often receive a warm welcome.
Dormitory sleeping-bag accommodation is the norm, though doubles are sometimes offered.
Holders of a Hostelling International membership card can often get a discount – you can buy cards at Icelandic hostels or from hostelling associations in your own country.
Camping is a great way to experience Iceland, especially during the light summer nights, when it’s bright enough in your tent at midnight to feel like it’s time to get up. You’ll also minimize expenditure, whether you make use of the country’s hundreds of campsites or set up for free in the nearest field.
Official campsites are only open between June and some point in September – though you’re welcome to use them out of season if you can live without their facilities (just shower at the nearest pool). They vary from no-frills affairs with level ground, a toilet and cold running water to those sporting windbreaks, hot showers (always for an extra fee), laundry and sheltered kitchen areas. Electricity for motorhomes can also be added for an extra fee. On-site shops or cafés are unusual, so stock up in advance. Campsites in the Interior are very barely furnished, usually with just a pit toilet.
While a few campsites are free, you will normally have to pay to stay at them. If you plan to spend every night in a tent, a Camping Card might save some money.
If you’re doing extensive hiking or cycling there will be times that you’ll have to camp in the wild. The main challenge here is to find a flat, rock-free space to pitch a tent. Where feasible, always seek permission for this at the nearest farmhouse before setting up; farmers often don’t mind – and might direct you to a good site – but may need to keep you away from pregnant stock or the like.
Note, however, that after years of having to repair damaged verges and tidy up campers’ garbage, toilet paper and raw sewage, some understandably irate landowners have erected “No Camping” signs on their properties. When camping wild, you must bury anything biodegradable and carry all other rubbish out with you. It’s also forbidden to camp in reserves and at many popular tourist destinations, except at designated areas.
Your tent is going to be severely tested, so needs to be in a good state of repair and built to withstand strong winds and heavy rain – bring along a good-quality dome or tunnel design, with a space between the flysheet and the tent entrance where you can store your backpack and boots out of the weather. Whatever the conditions are when you set up, always use guy ropes, the maximum number of pegs and a flysheet, as the weather can change rapidly; in some places, especially in the Interior, it’s also advisable to weight the pegs down with rocks.
Also invest in a decent sleeping bag – even in summer, you might have to cope with sub-zero conditions – and a sleeping mat for insulation and comfort. A waterproof sheet to put underneath your tent is also a good idea. Unless you find supplies of driftwood you’ll need a fuel stove too, as Iceland’s few trees are all protected. Butane gas canisters are sold in Reykjavík and at many fuel stations around the country, but you’re possibly better off with a pressure stove capable of taking a variety of fuels such as unleaded petrol (býlaust) or kerosene (steinolía). White gas/Coleman Fuel, a naptha-based product recommended by several pressure stove manufacturers, is increasingly available; don’t confuse it with the widely available thinner, white spirit/shellite.
As for food, never buy purpose-made freeze-dried stuff from Reykajvík’s specialist camping stores – most brands are expensive and barely palatable even when you’re too exhausted to care after a hard day’s hike. Normal boil/microwave-in-the-bag meals from the nearest supermarket are far cheaper and can’t taste any worse.
At popular hiking areas and throughout interior Iceland you’ll encounter mountain huts, which are maintained by Iceland’s hiking organizations. These can be lavish, multistorey lodges with kitchen areas and dormitories overseen by wardens, or very basic wooden bunkhouses that simply offer a dry retreat from the weather. You’ll always have to supply bedding and food and should book well in advance through the relevant organization, particularly at popular sites such as Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar. If you haven’t booked – or can’t produce a receipt to prove it – you may get in if there’s room, but otherwise you’ll have to pitch a tent; wardens are very strict about this, so if you don’t have a tent to fall back on, you might find yourself having to hike to the next available hut late in the day.
Emergency huts, painted bright orange to show up against snow, are sometimes not so remote – you’ll see them at a few places around the Ringroad where drivers might get stranded by sudden heavy snowfalls. Stocked with food and fuel, and run by the SVFÍ (Iceland’s national life-saving association), these huts are for emergency use only; if you have to use one, fill out the guestbook stating what you used and where you were heading, so that stocks can be maintained and rescue crews will know to track you down if you don’t arrive at your destination.