You’ve seen it on the Gram, on Pinterest, on Game of Thrones…Iceland looks so stunning that you decide you have to see it for yourself. (At least, that’s what I did.) So you start to plan your first trip to Iceland!
Actually, it was during the 2020 lockdown that I planned my Iceland road trip, though obviously, I didn’t have a date or plane tickets. Planning how I was someday going get to this beautiful place gave me something to look forward to.
I came up with a very detailed itinerary, which would hit most of the things on my bucket list. (Spoiler alert, we did indeed get to most of them.) However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing (or driving).
The Land of Fire and Ice is beautiful indeed, but can also be harsh. No matter how well one plans, there are still some things you have to learn by experience. So allow me to impart the things I learned on my first trip to Iceland!
Some of these tips I was told ahead of time, and I found them to be incredibly valuable. Other tips on here are born from my own mistakes, so learn from them!
May you use what I learned on my first trip to Iceland to help you plan your own epic Iceland adventure.
15 Things I Learned On My First Trip to Iceland
The Weather Really is Unpredictable
This is probably one of the first things you hear when planning a trip to Iceland, and that is because it is absolutely true! The weather in Iceland is absolutely wild and should be treated with the utmost respect. (Seriously, the wind can be so strong it can flip cars!)
For such a small country, the weather can vary greatly from region to region. At any given hour it could be lovely in the south, windy in the east, and snowing in the north. Thus, it can be tricky if you are planning a road trip around Iceland.
Be flexible with your plans! Unfortunately, Mother Nature has a mind of her own, and we just have to live with it. During our recent Iceland road trip, we got snowed in at Húsavík and had to spend a day in a hotel because the roads were too icy to drive. It wasn’t part of the plan, and there were some things we didn’t get to see, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
That said, the weather can turn on a dime and be a pleasant surprise. It rained so much during our road trip that we were convinced we weren’t going to see the Northern Lights. Then, on our second to last night, the skies cleared, stars came out, and suddenly there were glowing green ribbons across the sky!
These are the websites that are recommended you check before hitting the road:
- Icelandic Meteorological Office’s site for weather forecasts (they also have a map for Aurora forecasts)
- Icelandic Road site for road closures and road conditions
You Will Get Wet
As I said, it rained almost the whole time we were in Iceland. Sometimes it was a passing shower, and sometimes it was a steady pour all day. However, even if you have gorgeous weather the whole time you are in Iceland, you will still get wet, and here’s why:
There are so many stunning waterfalls in Iceland!
You can walk up to, around, and behind some of these waterfalls. The spray from these waterfalls is substantial though, and you will get wet. (Still totally worth it; I mean, these waterfalls are epic!)
I highly recommend bringing both a waterproof coat and waterproof pants. To heck with fashion. You want to stay warm and dry, so embrace the waterproof pants!
Splurge on 4-Wheel Drive
If you are renting a vehicle for your first trip to Iceland (and I recommend that you do), it is worth splurging on the four or all-wheel drive vehicle. (Especially if you are visiting in winter or the shoulder seasons.)
While the Ring Road, the main road that connects all of Iceland, is paved, many other roads are not. Gravel roads are extremely common in Iceland, even if they are not F-roads.
Icelandic F-roads are unpaved roads that crisscross the country, usually in the highlands or mountainous regions. They are only accessible with 4×4 (four-wheel drive) vehicles. They are noted on road signs with an “F” before the route number.
We weren’t allowed on F-roads with our campervan (which we abided by), but we still traveled some pretty uneven roads and had to go super slowly and carefully.
Even if you aren’t planning on driving any F-roads, with unpredictable weather and unreliable paving, going with the all or four-wheel drive will give you some extra peace of mind.
Note: Rental car companies do not legally have to put snow tires on until November 1st, but you can bet it will snow in Iceland before then!
Don’t “Fill Up” at Gas Stations
It sounds weird, but don’t select the “fill up” option at gas stations in Iceland…unless you don’t mind a large hold being placed on your card. We’re talking a $200-$250 (USD) hold on your account, which does get returned to you, but still.
It’s just as easy to select one of the levels of fueling options such as 5,000 ISK and be refunded the difference if that’s more than you need to fill up. This way you won’t have a big hold on your card every time you fill up!
Speaking of cards- to refuel at gas stations in Iceland you will need a card with a PIN number. Whether credit or debit, make sure you have a PIN number before your trip.
Eat Gas Station Food
While we’re on the subject of gas stations, one thing we learned on our first Iceland trip is that gas stations are not only a great place to stop for restrooms and fuel, but also for food.
Food in Iceland can be quite expensive, so instead of eating out, try grabbing some smaller meals at gas stations! They have coffee and pastries available for breakfast, and salads and sandwiches for lunch.
Plus, if it’s your first time in Iceland (and you eat meat), you must try a gas station hotdog. Hotdogs in Iceland are a *thing*. Not only are they delicious, but they’re inexpensive, as well. Try one with fried onions!
Don’t Buy Water
One thing you should not buy from a gas station, or anywhere else in Iceland for that matter, is water. There’s no need!
You know how you can buy Icelandic glacial water in plastic bottles? That’s what comes out of the tap in Iceland! And you can drink this wonderfully clean water for free!
So please, save your money, save the environment and just bring a reusable water bottle. You can fill it up at campsites, gas stations, hotels, etc. Just be sure to let it run cold for a while- you want the cold glacial water, not the sulfuric warm water.
Take Off Your Silver Jewelry
Speaking of sulfur, one of the biggest things I learned on my first trip to Iceland is to take off any silver jewelry when using hot water. The sulfur in the geothermically heated water can cause silver to tarnish.
Though I was fully aware this chemical reaction exists, I have a silver ring I wear so often that I forget I have it on. Imagine my surprise after taking a shower and realizing my ring was almost a copper color! Luckily, this reaction can be reversed, either with polishing cloths or a baking soda soak.
You Won’t Need Cash
For your first trip to Iceland, you won’t need cash. There are exchange counters at the airport, but we ended up not needing any of the cash we exchanged. Everywhere we went, from Reykjavik to tiny towns in the east, all took cards.
There was one campsite (which we never reached because of the aforementioned storm) that had coin-operated showers, but that was the only time we were going to need physical currency.
Plus, when we went to exchange money back, we ended up with a few coins that weren’t even worth exchanging since they amounted to less than a penny!
Depending on where you go in Iceland, parking may not always be free. You will have to pay an entrance fee to most national parks and other historic or natural sites.
Two helpful apps to download before your first trip to Iceland are:
- Parka: Fast and easy way to pay for parking in Reykjavik and tourist spots around Iceland
- EasyPark: We saw this mostly in parking garages in the city of Reykjavik
A photo of your license plate is taken when you enter a parking lot to ensure that you pay the parking fee. It will verify your license plate with the info you have entered into the app.
Be sure to look for signs saying how and where to pay! We accidentally thought we could pay at a garage in Reykjavik when we left, but we should have been using EasyPark.
Where to Pay the Bill?
When you do eat out in Iceland, and it’s time to pay the bill, be aware that it may not be the same in all bars and restaurants. In America, it’s customary for a server to bring you the check, but in Iceland it depends on the establishment.
Some places will have you pay at the bar, sometimes a server comes over, and at other places, you can pay via the QR code menu. If you don’t see a sign saying, “pay here,” it’s totally okay to ask an employee! (Don’t be like us and try to flag down our server long after we were ready to go…only to discover we could have paid at the bar. *facepalm*)
Book Things in Advance
If there are certain things you want to do on your first trip to Iceland, book in advance! Tourism is a major industry in Iceland, and there will be other people no matter what time of year you go.
Places like the Blue Lagoon can fill up, so to ensure you get to the things on your bucket list, book ’em early.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, since I just told you, “keep your plans flexible!” But it’s likely that companies will be flexible as well (particularly if it’s because of the weather).
For example, we went on a fantastic whale-watching tour in Húsavík. We were able to sail that day (thankfully). However, if the weather had made things unsafe, the tour company would have either rescheduled or refunded us.
Buy Duty-Free at the Airport
This was one of the most common tips we got before our first trip to Iceland. Alcohol is rather expensive in Iceland due to the high taxes on it. So if you are going to want any during your trip, swing by the duty-free section of the airport. (They make it easy for you and put it right near the arrivals.)
If you had an overnight flight to Reykjavik, it may feel odd to be picking out liquor in what feels like the wee hours of the morning. You will also likely be tired and punchy (we were), so maybe have an idea of what you want to buy before you arrive.
Alcohol in Iceland
Did you know Iceland had its own era of prohibition? In the early 1900s, all alcoholic drinks were banned. Throughout the next century, bans were eventually lifted on spirits and wine. The last drink to be legalized, however, was beer (with an alcohol content higher than 2.25%).
It was argued that since beer was cheaper than spirits, it would be easily accessible and lead to more debauchery. Stronger beer wasn’t legalized until 1985. Now March 1st is considered “Beer Day” in Iceland, in which participants celebrate with bar crawls.
However, almost a century of low-alcoholic beers seems to have had an effect. In grocery stores, you will still only be able to find light beers. For anything stronger, you will need to shop at the state-run chain, Vinbudin.
Keep Your Receipts
If there is one thing I learned on my first trip to Iceland it is to save your receipts to get your VAT refund! (VAT stands for Value-Added Tax.) Buying one of those cozy lopapeysa sweaters? Keep your receipt.
When you spend 6,000 ISK (about $42 USD) or more on a product, you are eligible to receive a tax refund. Ask for a tax-free form at the store when purchasing your item(s). Fill it out, have the store sign it, and attach the form to your receipt.
On your departure day at Keflavik Airport, before you go through security, swing by the Tax Refund counter. You will need to give them your form, your passport number, and the credit card number to which you want your refund applied. You will also want to have your purchased items on hand, just in case the counter needs to verify them.
It can take six to eight weeks to receive your VAT refund.
Iceland Lives Up to the Hype
The thing I was most happy to learn my first time in Iceland is that the country really does live up to the hype. All the stunning photos and drone shots really do the place justice.
Yes, the ice really is that blue, the sand really is black, and yes, the horses really are that cute.
I have not met anyone who has been to Iceland and returned saying, “Meh, it’s okay.” Thankfully, I didn’t come home saying this either.
Instead, I proclaim, “Iceland is beautiful and you should absolutely add it to your bucket list!” (Unless you already have and are thus reading this post.)
I hope you found this post useful! These are all things I wish I had known before my first trip to Iceland. I guess I’ll just have to apply them to my next trip! Because, of course, I have to go back.
What was one thing you learned in Iceland? Let me know!
Planning your first trip to Iceland? Save this post for later!