I talk about Iceland a lot, and have been known to interrupt strangers’ conversations because they were talking about traveling in Iceland and that’s basically my favorite topic.

Since it’s a trendy destination right now, I’ve had a lot of friends ask for my advice when planning trips. So here are all of my Icelandic recommendations, finally written down in one place.

Photograph of Kirkjufell in fog


Yes, rent a car when traveling in Iceland

They drive on the correct (sorry, Brits, that is pretty ethnocentric … I mean they drive on the right) side of the road. My first time in Iceland, I stumbled off a red-eye needing coffee, and by some miracle the rental car rep found me and got me into a Hyundai SUV. I had never driven abroad before but had absolutely no trouble navigating my way around the island.

On both my trips there, I’ve rented from Iceland 4X4 Car Rental. They seem to be the cheapest good cars available. There are some other services that offer even cheaper beater cars, but I didn’t want to risk wasting precious vacation time dealing with car trouble. 4X4 is off-airport, but they send a rep to pick you up and take you to the office.

The reps I’ve talked to are all super friendly, and will answer any questions you may have. My first trip, one even spend time with me and a map, pointing out some wonderful waterfalls to visit.

Funny story: that first trip, they asked me to please not “ford any rivers” in the car. That seemed like a strange request, but on my last day I did take a turn off the main “ring road” because I wanted to get some photos of the Icelandic horses. I encountered what they would call a “river.” It was more of a gully, not some raging river, but I had promised not to ford any rivers so I backed out of there.

Another funny story: That first trip, I was also informed that if Iceland’s rescue crew had to retrieve me, I would be fined $10,000. (Subtext: please don’t do anything stupid).

Drive the RingRoad in Iceland (as if you had a choice …)

Iceland is an island (obviously). Route 1, or as it is so aptly named, the RingRoad, is the main highway that circles the whole country.

I desperately want to do a road trip around the entire RingRoad. There will be camping. There will be photo taking. Let me know if you’re interested in joining 🙂

Weather in Iceland 

I’ve traveled to Iceland in November 2014 and August 2015. Every season offers something different in Iceland, so when you go depends on what you want to see. Northern lights? November through March is your best option. Puffins? June or July. We saw a few puffins in August but we got there too late for most of the puffin magic.

The warmest months (June/July/maybe August) have highs in the 60sºF
and lows in the 40s ºF. The coldest months (December/January/February) have highs in the 30s ºF and lows in the 20s ºF. Check Accuweather when planning, understand they measure in Celsius

I was there for almost a week in November, and experienced everything from biting cold to perfectly pleasant sweater weather.

In August we were pretty far north (at one point only a few kilometers from the north pole …) so we needed layers and jackets.

Both trips, wind was the biggest challenge. On the southern coast in November, winds were strong I could not open my car door at one point. Tripods, no matter how weighted down, were unusable.

I’ve never been in Iceland when there was snow/ice on the ground. I do know people who have, and they say this was some of the most challenging driving they’ve ever done. So do be aware of that and if you’re planning on going in the winter, consider signing up for tours so someone more familiar with Iceland is doing the driving. More on tours later!

Yes, you can get by speaking English in Iceland

Everyone in the super-heavy tourist areas (Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city, the areas in and around the Golden Circle, and of course the Blue Lagoon) speaks in English. Well, not quite everyone because on our first trip we met a native Icelander in a bar and his friend had to translate for us because the guy had grown up in a more rural area and never spoke English. But everyone in the hotels, shops, restaurants, etc. speaks perfectly good English. You will be fine.

On my second trip to Iceland, Courtney (my roommate) and I went to the West Fjords. This area is way less-visited by tourists. Only three percent of foreign tourists visit the area, according to Rough Guides. We still didn’t have any trouble communicating, though we noticed people were less likely to greet us in English. Once it was clear we were not Icelanders, however, people kindly switched to English.

Iceland’s currency is Icelandic Krona (written as ISK). Download a currency converter before you go. Right now, $1 = kr122.99. Just try to keep that straight.

My lower-tech method is as follows: kr900 is a reasonable amount of money to pay for a beer in a bar. So, whatever you are buying, consider its worth relative to a beer, multiply up or down, decide if that’s a reasonable price. Worked for me.

There’s a nasty rumor going around that Iceland is a really expensive place. Don’t believe. It’s an island and, as on all islands, it costs to import things, so some things are a bit more expensive than mainland US.

But for your average traveler, visiting Iceland is not at all out of reach/unreasonable/whatever else you’ve heard. Keep in mind that, as in some other European countries, the cost of servers’ wages is built in to the cost of food in sitdown restaurants. So while the price on the menu may be more than what you would pay in the US, because you don’t have to tip in Iceland, the bill at the end will be roughly equivalent.

That being said, tipping in Iceland (again, not expected) is not considered rude either. I’ve tipped a bit a couple of times if I had a complicated order or someone was especially lovely, but you don’t have to.

OK, apparently I had more to say about Iceland than I thought. Will do another post. So everything will be written down in two places …