Iceland presents few difficulties for travelling with children. Icelanders are very child-friendly people; cities and towns are relatively safe, low-crime places with familiar amenities; and supermarkets and pharmacies are well stocked with nappies, formula and anything else you might need (though do keep in mind where the next shops might be in the countryside). Boredom might be a problem on long car journeys between sights, though the many swimming pools – some sporting waterslides – make great places to let off steam once you arrive somewhere.
However, given the lack of warning signs or barriers at waterfalls, hot springs, cliffs, crevasses and the like, children must be closely supervised at all times in the countryside. Along with everyone else, children also need to come prepared for the weather, with plenty of warm, waterproof clothing and tough shoes for use outdoors.
Due to its small consumer base and dependency on imports, Iceland is an expensive country. To minimize costs, you need to be as self-sufficient as possible: bring food and a sleeping bag if you’re intending to use self-catering budget accommodation, along with a tent and all camping gear if camping. Bus passes will minimize transport costs, and a Hostelling International Card will get you a few hundred krónur a night off youth hostel rates. Seasons also affect costs: places to stay and car-rental agencies drop their prices between October and June, though at that time inexpensive summer-only accommodation will be shut, campsites will probably be under snow, and bus services are infrequent or suspended.
Budget travellers who camp out every night, use a bus pass and cook for themselves, can keep average daily costs down (and less for cyclists). Throw in a few nights in hostel-style accommodation and the occasional pizza and you’re looking at a little more. Mid-range travel still means using a bus pass to get around, but favouring hostels and eating out cheaply most of the time. Staying only in guesthouses or hotels and eating in restaurants for every meal will increase your daily expenditure somewhat significantly.
None of the above takes into account additional costs for entertainment such as tours, entry fees, drinking or alternative transport such as flights and ferries, for which we’ve given prices in the Rough Guide to Iceland. Car rental will also add to costs, plus fuel.
Crime and personal safety
Iceland is a peaceful country, and it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter much trouble here. Most public places are well lit and secure, people are helpful, if somewhat reserved, and street crime and hassles are rare. Needless to say, hitching alone, or wandering around central Reykjavík late at night, is unwise.
Most incidents involve petty crime and are largely confined to Reykjavík. Many criminals are drug addicts or alcoholics after easy money; keep tabs on your cash and passport (and don’t leave anything visible in your car when you park it) and you should have little reason to visit the police (lögreglan). If you do seek them out, you’ll find them unarmed, concerned and usually able to speak English – remember to get an insurance report from them if you have anything stolen.
As for offences you might commit, drink-driving is taken extremely seriously, so don’t do it: catch a taxi. Being incoherently drunk in public in Reykjavík might also get you into trouble, but in a country campsite you probably won’t be the only one, and (within reason) nobody is going to care. Drugs, however, are treated as harshly here as in much of the rest of Europe.
Sexual harassment is less of a problem in Iceland than elsewhere in Europe. Although you might receive occasional unwelcome attentions in Reykjavík clubs, there’s very rarely any kind of violent intent. If you do have any problems, the fact that almost everyone understands English makes it easy to get across an unambiguous response.
Culture and etiquette
Iceland is an egalitarian, outgoing country, and public behaviour is much the same as wherever you’ve come in from. Icelanders are proud of their country’s modernity, its written culture and the fact that many people can trace their family histories right back to Saga times: they are thin-skinned about depictions of Iceland as a nation of backward, axe-wielding Beserkers in horned helmets.
Discussing the environment can lead to heated arguments; over-grazing of sheep has caused widespread erosion over the centuries, countered by the importation of arctic lupins to help stabilize and revitalize the soil – which are themselves now spreading out of control. The right to continue whaling is also pursued as a cultural issue. Pride in Iceland’s Nordic heritage occasionally surfaces as low-level racism, though with noticeable populations of Chinese, Thai and Filipino migrants settled in Reykjavík, not to mention tourists of all nationalities passing through, this is not a major a issue.
The major social blunders made by visitors are usually at swimming pools; forget to follow the rules about shoes, towels and showering (see Swimming and hotspots) and you can expect to be soundly rebuked by locals.
Electricity is 240v, 50Hz AC. Plugs are round-pin with either two or three prongs; appliances fitted with overseas plugs need an adaptor.
Citizens from Schengen countries, the European Economic Area, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other nations require no visa to visit Iceland for up to ninety days providing that their passport is valid for at least ninety days after the date of arrival. For the full list, and information on how to apply for a visa if you do require one, contact the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Iceland is a very small and close-knit society, where it’s generally said that two Icelanders meeting for the first time can usually find people they know in common – not exactly ideal conditions for a thriving gay scene to develop. Indeed, for years many gay people upped and left for the other Nordic capitals, most notably Copenhagen, where attitudes were more liberal and it was easier to be anonymous.
The Icelandic gay and lesbian association, Samtökin 78, at Laugavegur 3 in Reykjavík, promotes awareness of homosexuality and gay rights at a political level and also offers a support network in the capital and out in rural communities, where attitudes towards homosexuality are not nearly as enlightened. In line with other cities where the gay scene has moved online, there are no longer any specifically gay bars in Reykjavík or the rest of Iceland.
Samtökin’s efforts have certainly paid off at the political level – after much lobbying, Iceland’s politicians not only agreed to allow gay marriage in 1996 (in effect the right to register legally a partnership between two same-sex partners, thus granting legal parity with straight couples), but also to allow gay men and lesbians to adopt children, making Iceland the first country in the world to pass such progressive legislation.
Iceland’s healthcare system is excellent and available in most communities. Tourist offices or accommodation can recommend doctors and hospitals – all of whom will be English-speaking. There’s at least one pharmacy, or apotek, in every town, as well stocked as any you’ll find at home. Most open during normal business hours, though some in Reykjavík and Akureyri stay open longer. No vaccinations are required for visitors to Iceland.
To avoid being charged for emergency healthcare in Iceland, Scandinavian citizens must show medical insurance and a valid passport, while citizens of the European Economic Area can simply show their European Health Insurance Card and passport at a health centre or hospital for free treatment. Citizens of other countries need to contact the nearest Icelandic Embassy or representative for information on whether they qualify; if not, you’ll have to pay at the time and then claim back the money from your travel insurance.
If you’re spending much time outdoors, be aware that the weather and distance might cause difficulties if you need medical attention in a hurry, and it’s wise to carry a first-aid kit. Two important items to include are a roll of elasticated sticking plaster (band aids) and crepe bandages – both vital for supporting and splinting sprained muscles or broken bones.
Most problems you’ll encounter, however, are minor. Though you might not think the northern sun would be much trouble, it’s still strong enough to cause sunburn and eye strain – especially when reflected off ice or snow – so use sunscreen and sunglasses. Hand cream or moisturizer and lip balm are a good idea too, as the cold dry air, wind and dust can painfully crack exposed skin. Eye drops will also relieve irritation caused by dust. Flies are not the problem in Iceland that they can be in Scandinavia; Mývatn is the only place you’ll encounter them in plague proportions, though very few bite. Water is safe to drink throughout Iceland.
The most serious thing to worry about is hypothermia, wherein your core body temperature drops to a point that can be fatal. It can occur if you get exhausted, wet and cold while out hiking or cycling; symptoms include a weak pulse, disorientation, numbness, and slurred speech. If you suspect hypothermia, seek shelter from the weather, get as dry as possible, and prevent further heat loss – aside from clothing, a foil “space blanket” available from camping stores will help. Sugary drinks can also help (alcohol definitely doesn’t), but serious cases need immediate hospital treatment. The best advice is to avoid hypothermia in the first place: while hiking, ensure you eat enough carbohydrates, drink plenty of water and wear sufficient warm and weatherproof clothing, including a woollen hat and gloves. During the colder parts of the year, motorists should always carry a blanket and warm gear too, in case they get stranded by snow.
Travel insurance policies provide a level of cover for medical treatment and loss of personal items, as well as unforeseen cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Cover for adventure activities such as whitewater-rafting, snow sports and trekking, usually incurs an extra premium. Read the small print of prospective policies carefully; cover can vary wildly for roughly similar premiums. Also make sure you check the level of excess, the amount of each claim that you have to pay. Note that no vehicle of any kind is insured against damage incurred while crossing a river.
With medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Iceland is one of the highest per-capita users of the internet, with most homes and businesses connected. Many Reykjavík cafés and most accommodation around the country provide free wi-fi for customers, while public libraries and tourist offices often have terminals with access at a fee.
Living in Iceland
European Economic Area nationals may stay in Iceland longer than three months on condition that they secure work for a further period of at least three months. Once in employment, there is no time limit on the length of stay in Iceland but residence and work permits are required; check with the Directorate of Immigration and the Directorate of Labour for information. Non-EU nationals must apply for residence permits before leaving home, and must be able to prove they can support themselves without working.
Post offices are located in all major communities and are open from 9am until 4.30pm Monday to Friday, though a few in Reykjavík have longer hours. Domestic mail will generally get to the nearest post office within two working days, though a recipient living out on a farm might not collect it so quickly. For international post count on three to five days for mail to reach the UK or US, and a week to ten days to reach Australia and New Zealand. International parcels aren’t outrageously expensive – check postur.is for rates – but not particularly fast; ask at any post office about Express Mail if you’re in a hurry, though you’ll pay far more than for the normal service.
A range of excellent maps of the country are available for all types of use – if you can’t find what you want overseas, you’ll be able to pick it up in Reykjavík and Akureyri, or sometimes from local tourist offices and fuel stations. In addition to the maps detailed below, Iceland’s hiking clubs and national parks put out a few maps of varying quality for popular nature reserves and national parks (available from park offices).
Maps are published by Mál og menning and Ferðakort/Iðnú. Both produce single-sheet road maps of the entire country, along with four or five separate regional sheets at around 1:250,000. Ferðakort’s speciality is detailed maps, suitable for hiking, of specific areas such as Westman Islands, Hornstrandir, Skaftafell and so on at 1:25,000–1:200,000; Mál og menning has a similar 1:100,000 series with 1:50,000 inserts. The best available road atlas is Mál og menning’s 1:300,000 Kortabók, which breaks the country down into sixty pages as well as including plans of larger towns.
Iceland’s currency is the króna (krónur in the plural), abbreviated to either Isk, Ikr or kr. Notes are issued in 5000kr, 2000kr, 1000kr and 500kr denominations, and there are 100kr, 50kr, 10kr, 5kr and 1kr coins, decorated with fish. Check current exchange rates at xe.com.
Banks with ATMs are found around the country, including in many single-street villages. Normal banking hours are Monday to Friday 9.15am to 4pm, though a few branches in Reykjavík open for longer. All banks change foreign currency; some stores and accommodation in Reykjavík also accept US dollar, Euro or UK sterling.
You can get around Iceland without ever touching cash: almost everywhere takes credit cards (Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted), and many businesses’ tills – and all ATMs – are wired into the Cirrus/Maestro/Electron network, which allows you to pay, or draw cash from ATMs, direct from your home bank account using a debit or bank card. Cash withdrawals will be charged a fee per transaction; check with your bank for their rates.
Alternatively, you can use travellers’ cheques to carry your funds around. Some banks issue Travel Money Cards, basically an ATM card which has been precharged to a certain value, and which you can draw on until the funds are exhausted. Again, check with your bank for details, especially regarding compatibility with Icelandic machines.
Shops are generally open Monday to Friday 10am–6pm and Saturday 10am to mid-afternoon; if they open on Sunday, it will probably be after noon. In cities and larger towns, supermarkets are open daily from 10am until late afternoon; in smaller communities, however, some places don’t open at all at weekends.
Out in the country, fuel stations provide some services for travellers, and larger ones tend to open daily from around 9am to 10pm. Office hours everywhere are Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm; tourist offices often extend these through the weekends, at least in popular spots. Most businesses close on public holidays.
All phone numbers in Iceland are seven digits long, with no regional codes. Phone book listings are arranged in order of Christian name – Gunnar Jakobsson, for instance, is listed under “G”, not “J”. Normal landline rates are reduced on domestic calls at weekends and evenings on Monday to Friday.
Iceland uses both GSM and NMT mobile phone networks. GSM covers most coastal regions, including all communities with over 200 inhabitants. Coming from the UK or EU, your own country’s pay-as-you-go sim cards might work in Iceland with varying roaming rates. Alternatively, buy a new sim from fuel stations or newsagents in Iceland. You’ll only need NMT coverage if you’re spending a lot of time in Iceland’s Interior; contact Icelandic car rental companies or hiking organizations for more information.
Iceland is staggeringly scenic, as well as being packed with birds and enjoying weird atmospheric effects such as the Northern Lights (in winter) and the Midnight Sun (seen in late June only in the extreme north of the country). Prime landscapes to catch on camera include icebergs at Jökulsárlón; Strokkur erupting at Geysir; the rift valley at Þingvellir; desert along the Sprengisandur route; one of Vatnajökull’s glaciers; the West Fjord’s flat mountain tops; and Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall. As for birds, you simply must go home with a snap of a puffin (easiest on Heimaey or at Ingólfshöfði), while Mývatn’s ducks, teeming seabird colonies anywhere around the coast (though best perhaps at Látrabjarg in the West Fjords) and white-tailed eagles (try on Snæfellsnes) are all worthy targets.
Icelandic woollen sweaters are a popular practical memento of a trip here. Many are now machine-made overseas (causing much indignation in Iceland), though it’s still possible to find sweaters made by hand in cottage industries, where consistent patterns, colours, sizes, shapes and fittings are nonexistent – shop around until you find the right one. Other good clothing buys include woollen hats and mittens, and stylish – but extremely expensive – weatherproof outdoor gear made by local brands 66°N, Icewear and Cintamani.
Stores in Reykjavík also stock a range of silver and lava jewellery, in some intriguing designs. And Iceland’s wild-caught smoked salmon is probably the best you’ll ever eat, firm-textured and robustly scented without being too oily – it costs much the same as you pay at home for farmed versions.
Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) throughout the year. GMT is 5 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time and 10 hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time.
Reykjavík’s tourist information offices have brochures for the whole country, with independent tourist offices in almost every other town, often housed in the bus station. Your accommodation can be another good source of local details, as families may have lived in the region for generations, and have very thorough knowledge.
Travellers with disabilities
Iceland is fairly well prepared for disabled travellers. New hotels are required by law to make a percentage of their rooms accessible, while transport – including coastal ferries, airlines and a few public tour buses – can make provisions for wheelchair users if notified in advance.
Your first contact in Iceland is Sjálfsbjörg, Reykjavík’s Disabled Association, whose staff can advise on accessible accommodation and travel around Iceland. Alternatively, contact service operators direct; details are listed throughout the guide.