Although 2 million tourists are expected to visit Iceland this year — heck, you probably have people in your Instagram feed there right now — there's still a big mystery on what to expect and how to prepare for travel there. Deb and I looked at various blogs and consulted with people who had been there, but not every tip we got was useful or accurate and we didn't maximize our time or funds in the most ideal way. To be honest, we should probably do our trip over, now that we know better. Hopefully you can add my blog to the mix of tips when you do your research.
As mentioned previously, there are a number of ways to get to Iceland, inexpensively. We flew on WOW Airlines, which is an Iceland-based discount airline. At first glance, the fares are cheap, but everything adds up. You get charged for your carry on as well as a suitcase, and then for anything else you want on the flight ... even water. Do your research, because you can probably get a similar price on Iceland Air, which is full service. Usually, people will book a flight to Europe via Iceland Air and use the free layover in Iceland to stay a week before heading to their next destination. Flights leave from major West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle and are about eight to 10 hours.
How to pack
We were there from March 14 to 20, which is still considered winter, and my sister-in-law was there two weeks before me, when it was colder and prone to more extreme snowy weather. Many people put the fear of God into us on how to dress. They told us to buy rain pants or snow pants to guard against windy rain, and I need to tell you that it was overkill. Do you know how expensive and heavy snow pants are? And what are the chances you'll use them again if you're from Hawaii? Temps were mostly in the low/mid 30s (F), and we didn't deal with much rain or wind at all. The only time we felt really cold was when we were at the Gullfoss waterfall. So again, check the temps before you go.
PANTS. Before I tell you how to pack your pants, I'm going to share the most amazing piece of knowledge I learned on this trip: Your legs have fewer nerve endings than your torso and arms, which is why you often can handle running around in cold weather wearing a sweatshirt and shorts. DO pack one or two pairs of Uniqlo Heat Tech thermal leggings. When you go to places like the ice caves, just wear the thermal leggings and a pair of light, water-resistant hiking pants or sweat pants. In fact, you can probably get away with thermal leggings and a sturdy pair of jeggings, my new favorite piece of clothing. DON'T pack jeans. I mean, you can, but if you somehow get caught in a snow or rain storm, they'll get wet, and take forever to dry. (Thank you to my sister-in-law Lisa Konove for the useful tips on hiking pants.)
TOPS. I was fine with Uniqlo thermals and a sweater each day, covered with a puffy jacket. In fact, some days I didn't need the thermals. Personally, I don't think an ultralight down jacket will do the trick; you'll need a puffier one. But just bring one jacket and commit to it. Deb was comfy with a winter beanie to cover her head; however, I have a big head and that doesn't work for me. I was fine with the hood of my puffy jacket. And yes, bring a scarf and gloves.
TOILETRIES. Bring a good hair conditioner and skin moisturizers, as the cold air and the hot springs will dry you out.
Pack a microfiber towel, the largest you can get. You'll want this for yourself to dry off at the hot spring and other places, like the Buubble. They do provide towels at the hot springs, but you may need more. This doesn't take up a lot of room or weigh much and you can always use it at home for other things.
PROTECT YOUR PHONE. No need to buy an expensive plastic waterproof case for your phone. Just get a clear waterproof phone pouch with a neck cord from Walmart before you leave home, as these cost between $5 and $14. You'll need it when you go to the hot spring and any other outdoor activity that involves water. These are sold all over Iceland for $30 or more. You'll also want to bring about a dozen hand warmers (the kind that you rip open and starts heating up when air hits it). This is not just for your hand warmth, but for your electronics. Your camera and phone battery drains in extreme cold, so you'll need to keep them warm (not hot).
Should you rent a car? Depends on the weather, but I'd say in most cases, yes. Driving is easy in most of Iceland because the roads are not busy and they drive on the same side of the road as we do. The only time it's a little challenging is when you're in Reykjavik, but you shouldn't spend much time there or make it your home base.
Note, car rentals are cheap but gas is expensive. Also in the midst of winter, if there are snowstorms, renting a car can be a gamble.
One last thing regarding car rentals: Don't do it if you're a total tourist. There are warnings at the car rental places and other spots to drive carefully and not make sudden stops, but we saw many obvious tourists driving and gawking or making crazy moves. The country roads are empty and there are many opportunities to pull over safely. Don't make bonehead moves — most of the accidents in Iceland are caused by tourists.
Where to stay
Scott Culbertson, who was there last fall, had the right idea: Just stay one or two days in Reykjavik, then keep moving. It takes a little more planning and it's a little humbug to keep changing lodging, but the sights are so far apart that it's much more efficient to keep driving. If you plan to do the Buubble, I'd recommend you book the tour for the day after you get in, since they pick you up in Reykjavik. TIP: You'll need to leave your car in Reykjavik, so just park it on the street directly behind the main church in the middle of the city, as the parking there is free. From there, just keep driving in the direction you need to go as most other tours do not have pickup service. For us, we needed to get to Jökuskárlón on the south coast, which was 4.5 hours away. Break up the trip by staying in Vik, which a fellow tourist said was amazing, then Eyjafjallajökull or even a little farther, like Höfn. There are quite a few AirBnBs along the way, many of which are farm houses. These are adequate, but if I had to do it again, I'd also search FossHotels, which seems to be like the Outrigger hotels of Iceland. After I saw the signs along our drive, I did a random price search, and I think the prices were comparable to our AirBnB, which was kind of dorm-like. The closer you stay to Jökuskárlón, the earlier you can take your ice cave tour, and fewer tourists will be there.
What to see
This depends on you. Most tourists will do the Golden Circle, the Ring Road, and the south coast to Jökuskárlón as we did. If I go back, I'd go to the east side or north to Akureyri. This will probably require flying to the local airports there, although I guess you could drive it if you have the time. Click here to see a map with descriptions of the areas.
In Reykjavik, take a walking tour so you can hit the highlights, like the church, the town square, Harpa, etc. If you have dinner at Laekjarbrekka, check out the Punk Rock Museum located just a few steps away. You can't miss it, as the markers are very distinctive.
I didn't know what to expect, but it's a very well-written, super entertaining tribute to punk rock in Iceland, paying homage to Bubbi, The Outsiders, and of course, Björk. It's located in the Hotel Borg's former public restrooms, so it's very small and cramped, but somehow very appropriate. Don't go out of your way just to visit, but if you're in the area, it's a fun distraction. Admission is just $10.
As a blogger, I was able to get my pocket wifi sponsored by Trawire, which seems to be the main company for providing connectivity there. I'm not just saying this because of the sponsorship, but they were definitely one of the best international wifi companies I've used in my travels.
In emailing to set up my pickup, they were very helpful in figuring out which spot would be best for me. If you arrive on a flight that's in the middle of the day, you can simply pick it up at the airport. If you arrive early, as we did, you'll have to pick it up at one of the gas stations they work with, and they give you directions on how to get there. The wifi worked everywhere except in the ice cave (naturally), the connection was fast and consistent, and its internal battery lasted all day. Best of all, not ONCE did I get a notice that they were going to shut off my service or limit the speed on my device because I was using too much data. Plus Deb was sharing the device with me, and we are both very prolific on social media! "Unlimited" really does mean unlimited in Iceland. Depending on the package you choose, Trawire is actually very reasonable as a rental. I don't know why Trawire's device is dramatically better than any other international wifi I've used, but other countries could certainly take a lesson from them. (Listen up, Singapore.) You can save on international roaming charges, too: Once you land, set your phone to “Airplane” mode, then turn on the wifi. This essentially makes your phone an iTouch, so you can’t make calls (you can send and receive text messages with other iPhones). If you take calls, you need to turn your phone off “Airplane” mode, but this means you will incur international charges.
Tourism is now one of the main industries in Iceland, so there are souvenirs of every kind, everywhere, and most are the same. Shop at Harpa first to see what they carry, because that is where the cheapest souvenirs are located — we think it's because it's a government-owned building. Once you know what they sell, you'll know to buy a special souvenir (or not) if you see it outside.
Popular omiyage includes Icelandic salt, lava cheese, licorice with chocolate, blueberries, crowberries, and kelp. If you buy alcohol, buy some for your trip and after your trip at the duty free store in the airport, because they tax the hell out of it outside (thus why their cocktails are so expensive) in an effort to curb alcoholism. Exclusive liqueurs to bring home include Brennevin, Björk, Valhalla (like fernet) and other infused vodkas.
You'll see lava jewelry everywhere, and it's really expensive. Most Hawaii people won't even think of taking lava home, but in case you do, here's another interesting factoid: The lava isn't even from Iceland. It's from Indonesia, and they bring it to Iceland to re-melt and mold into the bazillions of perfectly round beads that you'll see everywhere. That way, they can say it's made in Iceland, since it technically is.
They're so efficient that cards are used for everything — even hot dogs. When you get to the airport, you can exchange about $100 for pocket change, but expect to use your credit card for every transaction. You get the best rate of the day that way, too.
Learning the language
The street signs are in Icelandic, but pretty much everyone speaks English, so don't worry about getting around. And that's it from our amazing, beautiful vacation! To see more from our trip, click here or check out the #AlohaIceland hashtag on Instagram.