What You Need to Know BEFORE You Visit Iceland

I just got back from eight days in Iceland but before I recap how the trip went, I thought I would take the time to share some things I learned while traveling in the land of fire and ice. Our trip was during the month of October, so you may find that if you go earlier, you won’t have to worry as much about winter weather or a chance of snow.

Car Rentals/Gas/Driving
If you’re traveling from the United States, you may be surprised to find that automatic transmission cars are few and far between. Just like the rest of Europe, Icelanders own and drive manual cars. Take this into consideration when booking a rental – automatic is normally much higher and since there are fewer available to rent, book your car before you go.

We rented a manual because that’s what my brother-in-law drives anyway, so he did all the driving and that worked out fine for us. But if you have a group going and want to take turns but not everyone can drive a stick shift, make sure your driver gets breaks along the way.

Pay attention to the road conditions. If you are driving the Ring Road or Golden Circle, most of it is paved. We ran into a few spots on Ring Road that were gravel, but had no issues driving them. We did not need a 4×4 since the F roads inland were closed (those are all gravel) and we couldn’t venture off road anyway. Check the road conditions online and note that weather can change in an instant.

The wind can be extreme. Along the east coast, our car was being blown around the road quite a bit and if you aren’t an experienced mountain driver, that can be intimidating to feel like you’re going to be blown off a cliff and into the ocean. The Iceland Road conditions web site will also notify you of extreme wind conditions.

Make sure you don’t run the car down to E. Once you get past the Ice Lagoon, there aren’t many gas stations between there and Akureyri. If you use your credit card at a self-service, unmanned station (there are a lot of those), you will need a PIN # for it to go through. Gas is also VERY expensive compared to the US. Expect to pay $9/gallon.

Get the optional car insurance. You will drive on gravel and it will chip your car. Each chip is up to $500 but if you add the optional insurance, you can basically total the car and not have to pay a dime. Everyone recommends it and while I’m not normally one to add the insurance, everything I read said you need it and they were right. We got hit by loose rock every single day.

Roundabouts are EVERYWHERE. We saw maybe four or five stop signs the entire time and that was it. The larger cities have traffic lights but if you can’t navigate roundabouts, you’re going to be in big trouble when driving through Iceland.

Weather/Clothing
You will absolutely need weather appropriate gear. I took a pair of rain boots, waterproof snow boots and a pair of winter Toms boots for airport travel and sunny days in the city. Tennis shoes were much too cold for October in Iceland.

It rained the first couple days pretty much all day, then we had periods of showers a couple days after that. Invest in a good waterproof, warm coat and it will be a lifesaver! I bought a North Face down filled parka off Poshmark and it worked wonderfully. Wind resistant, water proof and warm, I wore it nearly every day. If you go in summer, a lighter rain jacket should be fine.

Take scarves, gloves, and hats too – you will need them! I did not invest in waterproof gloves and they got soaked on day two and didn’t completely dry out until day five.

I also took every fleece pullover I owned and layered over thermals and tanks. Jeans weren’t great for keeping my legs warm, so I’d invest in a good pair of fleece lined leggings. I found the pair I have kept the cold out nicely and dried faster than denim.

Like I said earlier, the weather can change instantly. We had rain the first couple days, sunshine and wind the next, then drove through snow more than once in the northern part of the country. At one point, we were driving through mountains in snow and a few miles down the road the sun came out and we had to drive through sand blowing over the road!

Also, Iceland is not the place to go to look glamorous. The wind and rain are not compatible with make-up or hair and I just gave up after a couple days. If you can’t go out in public without make-up on, you better get you some heavy duty waterproof stuff or else stay home.

GPS
I used WAZE the entire time and was shocked at how well it worked. We didn’t get lost once and even when my cell service was spotty, the maps kept on working. Google Maps wouldn’t connect very often so I gave up on it with the exception of using it for walking directions in Reykjavik. I also took paper maps just in case.

Food
After gas, food is the next shockingly expensive item. Unless you’re swimming in cash, you can’t eat out every meal. A Subway sandwich was about the cheapest fast food item we found. Two street tacos at a Mexican restaurant cost me $24. If you’re looking to travel cheap, I suggest stopping at grocery stores or gas stations with good food selections – we often ate one meal that way so we weren’t spending outrageous amounts of money on food. You could easily spend over $100/day if you eat out every meal.

Lodging
We didn’t do hotels at all, instead opting for a mix of hostels and Air Bnb. Every place we stayed had shared kitchen space, so we could cook food and some even had shared bathrooms/shower space. If this bothers you, look to spend about $200/night on a hotel.

Currency
Iceland is pretty much cashless. I took some krona with me just in case but did not need it at all. Everywhere I went, credit cards were accepted.

Sheep!
Sheep are EVERYWHERE. They outnumber the people and many are free range. Watch out for them when driving as some are grazing by the side of the road. Most seem aware of traffic but we did have a couple run out in front of us so just make sure you’re paying attention to them.

I think I hit on the major things one should know before traveling to Iceland! Full trip recaps by region coming soon 🙂