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11 Tips For Exploring Iceland

Updated on January 19, 2014
The colors of Iceland's flag represent the blue water, white ice, and red volcanic fire.
The colors of Iceland's flag represent the blue water, white ice, and red volcanic fire. | Source

Iceland has one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. You will not be disappointed if you go. However, it is a bit out of the way and can be quite desolate in many areas, so there are a few things you should know before you go.

1. Budget for higher prices. Since the country is an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, it has to import almost everything, making any trip expensive. Whatever you would budget for on a typical vacation, double it. Things like fresh fruit and gasoline can be especially costly, although some prices seem to have dropped in the past couple of years. If you're on a tight budget, check prices on the web when planning your trip. On the other hand, Iceland has cheap hot water and electricity, both of which come from geothermal energy.

2. Rent a car. The best way to see Iceland is by car. Although there are buses and tour companies, they are too limiting for such a varied and imposing geography. To properly explore it, you need to be able to go where you want, when you want. If you can afford it, rent a car or SUV with four-wheel drive. It will make the dirt roads much more manageable and you'll be able to go into the rougher interior roads and 4WD tracks (any road number that starts with "F"). But other than that, any car will do.

Gullfoss is one of the most impressive of Iceland's many waterfalls.
Gullfoss is one of the most impressive of Iceland's many waterfalls. | Source

3. Get a detailed map. Driving is generally easy, although most of it will be on dirt roads. You can stay on the paved highway, but many of the interesting sites are reachable only by unpaved roads. The roads and direction signs are well maintained and everything is clearly marked. But you must have a map. When you arrive in Reykjavik, go to the tourist office and get the 1:300,000 scale map book. It's more expensive than one of the single-sheet folding maps, but it's much more detailed and has all the town maps included, which you'll need in and around Reykjavik. Getting out of the capital and the suburbs can be a little tricky, but once you're on Highway 1, it will pretty much take you all the way around the island.

4. Keep a travel guide with you. Buy a travel book ahead of time and make a rough outline of where you want to go. It's a life-saver when you're in the middle of nowhere looking for a hotel or gas station. There are a few stretches of highway where there are no services for several hundred kilometers. In particular, the Westfjords region in the northwest is sparsely populated. You can drive for 4 or 5 hours without so much as a gas station, so keep your tank at least half-full at all times.

Map of Iceland

Further Reading

Lonely Planet Iceland (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Iceland (Travel Guide)

The Lonely Planet guide is indispensable on your first trip to Iceland.

 

5. Watch for animals. There are sheep everywhere, free ranging, and often on the roads. There are tons of arctic birds, some species of which are very tame, not even getting off the road until the car is almost on top of them. Other species are downright aggressive and will not hesitate to swarm and attack if you get too close.

6. Bring lots of memory for your cameras. There's so much varied geography and geology that you'll be pulling over every half hour to take pictures or check out a point of interest. It's common for tourists to pull over, so you have to watch for parked cars. There are frequent turn-offs, but shoulders are minimal.

7. Dress for Arctic conditions. Temperatures are quite cool, even in mid-July, so be prepared to dress warmly. Make sure to bring a good jacket. It rains a lot, and it's often very windy, especially on the west half of the island. Aside from warmer temperatures, another advantage of going in summer is that the sun never sets, which makes driving less tiring.

Visiting Iceland

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8. Consider camping or renting an RV. Accomodation can be difficult to find in summer, especially in Reykjavik and the larger towns, so you should book ahead for the first couple of nights. You could book hotels for your whole trip if you wanted to, but there are so many places to go and see, that it's better to take a chance and see where the roads take you, booking only a day or two at a time. Since hotels and even guesthouses are expensive, you can save a lot of money if you bring a tent, or rent a larger car or RV that you can sleep in. There are many campsites.

9. Iceland loves credit cards. You should get some cash at the airport or a bank for emergencies, but you can get away with using credit cards for almost everything. However, if you're from North America, you may need to pay inside at the cashier at gas stations. The customer-operated card terminals at the pumps may have trouble with North American credit cards. However, all the merchant-operated point-of-sale terminals usually work fine. Make sure you know the PIN for your credit card.

10. Take your time. If you're just stopping over for a few days, there are many things to do and see around the capital. If you have more time, you can fit most of the highlights and make a giant loop around the entire island in under 2 weeks. But if you really want to see everything without being rushed, and have the time and money for it, then 3 or 4 weeks should be adequate.

11. Fly with Icelandair. Getting to Iceland is pretty straightforward, by booking a flight on Icelandair from one of various major airports in North America and Europe. It's also possible to arrange a stopover in Reykjavik on a flight between Europe and North America. Most Icelanders speak English. Iceland is definitely a "must-see" destination and should be on any explorer's to-do list.

© 2012 ArchonCodex

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