First of all, if you like to explore Iceland, you have to decide in which season.
The high season is from about mid-June to mid-September. During this time, most roads are usually free of snow and most places are accessible. For example, Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk or Hornstrandir – take a look at the Iceland Travel Guide – Breathtaking Places for more information. Only some highland regions can still or again be impassable, depending on the weather and road conditions. As a result, a lot of travellers visit the country at this time and prices are often more expensive.
Also note that due to Iceland’s location near the Arctic Circle, the day length around the summer solstice (approximately 21st June) can be up to 21 hours. Which means there’s no night between sunset and sunrise, only twilight. The highest temperatures are usually reached in July, with an average during the day of 13.3 °C (55.9 °F) and 8.3 °C (46.9 °F) during the night in Reykjavík. However, a very strong wind is quite normal in Iceland, which is why the perceived temperature is lower. This effect is also known as wind chill.
In the low season, from about November to March, some minor roads in uninhabited areas, as well as the mountain roads in the highlands, are usually closed because of the snow. Nevertheless, Iceland can be quite spectacular. A marvellous winter landscape, partly frozen waterfalls and with some luck, you can observe the Aurora Borealis, also known as Northern Lights, on the night sky. In addition, visiting ice caves at the Vatnajökull glacier is only possible during this time. Take a look at the Iceland Travel Guide – Breathtaking Places for detailed information. Furthermore, fewer travellers usually visit the country in low season and prices are often slightly lower.
In contrast to the very long days in summer, the days in winter can be very short and the nights very long. Around the winter solstice (around December 22), the length of the day is only about 4 hours. Furthermore, the temperatures are lowest in January. The average during the day is 1.9 °C (35.4 °F) and -3 °C (26.6 °F) during the night in Reykjavík. However, the temperatures near the highland regions are lower, with temperatures averaging around -10 °C (14 °C).
Visiting Iceland in April, May or October is of course also possible, but there are some disadvantages. Some minor roads in uninhabited areas, as well as the mountain roads, are probably still or again impassable, depending on the weather conditions, and it’s not safe enough to visit ice caves. However, the autumn colours in October can create a beautiful and melancholy mood before the first snow falls.
In order to calculate the sunrise, sunset and day length for a specific date, use the tables on the website Time and Date.
Weather and Northern Lights
The weather in Iceland is known to change quickly. In addition, a very strong wind is quite normal. Therefore, you should bring appropriate clothing and check the local weather forecast on the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (Veðurstofa) at least once in the morning. Possible travel warnings should be taken very seriously.
The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, can be visible on the night sky from about September to the middle of April. However, the chance increases towards the winter solstice (approximately 22nd December), since the daylight decreases continuously and thus, the nights lasts longer. But even then, there is no guarantee that the Northern Lights will be visible since their activity vary. In addition, an at least partly clear night sky is prerequisite. In order to check both activity and cloud cover, simply take a look at the Aurora forecast on the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
Also important to know is that artificial light deteriorates the view of the night sky. Thus, the view on the Aurora Borealis and the stars is much better in rural areas, with less or no artificial light at all, than near towns. In this regard, the NASA Worldview map is very helpful. This tool shows you the nighttime lights on the entire earth and thus, the places you should avoid in order to watch the Northern Lights and the stars.
Furthermore, the company Icelandair has dedicated an entire website to the Aurora Borealis, with additional information about this marvellous event on the night sky.
In order to enter Iceland, there are different requirements depending on your nationality. Citizens of European countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement or associated agreements, can enter Iceland with a passport or a biometric ID card. However, both must be valid for the entire duration of your intended stay. This applies to the following countries:
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.
Citizens of the following countries do not need a tourist visa, only a valid passport, which must be valid for at least three months beyond the intended stay. The passport entitles the holder from the date of arrival in Iceland for a stay of up to three months in the entire Schengen Area. This applies to the following countries:
Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Dominica, El Salvador, Georgia, Great Britain, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kiribati, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, Samoa, San Marino, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City, Venezuela.
Citizens from other countries do need a tourist visa in order to enter Iceland. Take a look at the website of the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration (Útlendingastofnun) for further information in this regard.
The Keflavík International Airport (KEF) handles all international flights and is located about 50 kilometres (31.1 miles) southwest of the capital Reykjavík. Well known Icelandic airlines that operate from this airport are Icelandair and WOW air.
In order to get to Reykjavík or to the Keflavík International Airport, you can choose between several bus companies. Well-known is the Airport Express of the company Gray Line and the FlyBus of Reykjavík Excursions. Furthermore, you can also use bus 55 of Strætó. The use of a taxi is not recommended since their service is expensive in Iceland.
In addition, domestic flights to several destinations around Iceland are offered by the companies Air Iceland Connect, Eagle Air and Norlandair. Flights to the nearby Faroe Islands as well as to several destinations in Greenland, Scotland and Northern Ireland are also possible with Air Iceland Connect.
For scenic flights, take a look at Norðurflug Helicopter Tours in Reykjavík or the company Atlantsflug, which offers flights from the airport in Reykjavík as well as from the runways at Bakki and Skaftafell.
Iceland is also accessible by sea. The company Smyril Line International operates a ferry line among Hirtshals (Denmark), Tórshavn (Faroe Islands) and Seyðisfjörður (Iceland) for the entire year. The direct passage from Denmark to Iceland is operated once a week and takes about 47 hours, whereby the transport of a car is also possible.
In addition, there are also some domestic ferry lines that are worth mentioning. The ferry Herjólfur connects the Vestmannaeyjar islands in the south of the country with the harbour Landeyjahöfn or alternatively Þorlakshöfn. The Sævar operates between the island Hrísey and the village Árskógssandur in the north, while the Sæfari connects the island Grímsey with the village Dalvík. And last but not least, the ferry Baldur connects the town Stykkishólmur, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland, and harbour at Brjánslækur, in the south of the Westfjords. In addition, this ferry also stops on the island Flatey during in summer.
Iceland is a marvellous but rather expensive travel destination, like most other Scandinavian countries.
The “króna” (plural “krónur”) is the currency of Iceland. Payment by credit card is common practice, whereby cash payment is of course also accepted. Credit cards like Visa or Mastercard work almost everywhere in Iceland, but a PIN is indispensable in some places, for instance at self-service petrol stations without staff in rural areas, where you have to pay directly at the petrol pump. An American Express credit card does not work at these stations and is usually only accepted in more expensive hotels and restaurants. Well-known banks are Landsbankinn, Íslandsbanki and Arion
Also worth mentioning is that Iceland uses the metric system. Therefore, the information is displayed either in metres (m), kilometres (km), kilometres per hour (km/h) or in litres (l).
The electrical standards are the same as throughout Europe (230V, 50Hz), whereby type F plugs and sockets are used like in Germany, Norway or Sweden. In addition, travellers from North America and some other countries need a travel adapter with a voltage converter.
Iceland is located in time zone UTC±0h, the same as the United Kingdom. However, Daylight Saving Time (DST) is not used.
Water and Food
First of all, the tap water in Iceland is safe to drink. There’s no need to buy bottled water.
Regarding the purchase of groceries, stores like Krónan, Nettó or Bónus are rather cheap, while others like Kjarval, Samkaup or 10-11 are rather more expensive. However, the latter sometimes offer better quality, especially in terms of vegetables and fruits. The opening times
If you like to dine in restaurants, keep in mind that tipping is not common in Iceland. The service and the value-added tax (VAT) is already included in the price.
There are public bus routes to some
Renting a car is definitely the best way to explore Iceland since this will give you the freedom to explore the entire country in your own time and not just some of the well-known tourist spots with busloads of other tourists. And Iceland offers so much more marvellous nature attractions – take a look at the Iceland Travel Guide – Breathtaking Places for more information.
The requirements for renting a car in Iceland are usually a valid driving license, which must be held for at least one year, and a minimum age of 20 years. For a 4×4 vehicle, the minimum age is 23 years. An International Driving Permit is not necessary unless your driving license does not use the Latin alphabet.
My first recommendation is the company Blue Car Rental, which is located in a building next to the Keflavík International Airport. I have had good experiences with them and the prices are fair for Icelandic standards. In order to learn more about your rights and obligations, read the terms and conditions and the rental agreement completely.
My second recommendation is the company KúKú Campers with their unique campervans. Although their office is located in the town Hafnarfjörður, about 40 kilometres (24.6 miles) east of the Keflavík International Airport, you can request a
A general note, no matter where you rent a car, always check it thoroughly when picking up. Have the car rental representative make a note of any existing damages in the rental agreement and keep this document in a safe place. In addition, take photos of the rental car to prove the condition at the pickup.
In terms of car insurance, it’s always recommended to book a high insurance cover when driving through a foreign country. The Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is mandatory for rental cars in Iceland as well as in many other countries. This standard insurance limits the drivers liability in case the car is damaged by certain incidents. Accordingly, the Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW) lowers the liability of the driver. The Gravel Protection (GP) covers, as the name suggests, possible damage caused by gravel that can be thrown up by passing cars. This insurance is well worth the money since there are a lot of gravel roads in Iceland. The Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP) is not essential, depending on your travel date and plans. Sand and ash storms can occur along the south coast due to the last eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull as well as in some highland regions from about February to April. These storms can cause great damage to the exterior of a car, so check the weather forecast and road conditions at least once in the morning and travel accordingly. Theft Protection (TP) is optional since Iceland is quite a safe country. However, use normal safety precautions and do not leave valuables visible in the car.
In addition, there are also credit card contracts, which include a limited insurance coverage abroad. However, read the terms and conditions very thoroughly before travelling.
Regardless of which car you use, there are more than enough petrol stations throughout Iceland. Accordingly, it’s unlikely that you will run out of fuel. Well-known operators are N1, Olís/ÓB, Orkan and Atlantsolía. A comparison of the current petrol prices per litre can be found on the websites Gasvatkin and GSM bensín.
Besides, it’s important to mention that there are many self-service petrol stations without staff in rural areas, where you have to pay directly at the petrol pump with a Visa or Mastercard and the associated PIN. An American Express credit card does not work at these stations. To refuel, follow the instructions on the screen at the petrol pump: insert your credit card into the card reader, enter your PIN and then the maximum amount of money you want to spend. This amount will be temporarily reserved on your credit card, but of course, only the exact amount of fuel you have received will be charged at the end. But please note that it may take a few days before the correct amount appears in your bank account. For a receipt, reinsert your card after refuelling. Entering your PIN a second time is not necessary.
Alternatively, you can buy prepaid fuel cards at N1 petrol stations, with a value of 3,000, 5,000 or 10,000 ISK.
Driving in General
The road 1, which is also known as ring road, is something like a highway in Iceland that leads once around the country. You have to drive on the right side of the road, while the speed limit in rural areas on paved roads is 90 km/h (56 mph) and on gravel roads 80 km/h (50 mph). In populated areas, it’s usually 50 km/h (31 mph). The headlights have to be turned on at all times while driving and the use of seat belts is mandatory.
Information about the current road conditions can be found on the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (Vegagerðin). Check them at least once in the morning besides the weather forecast and drive accordingly. Possible travel warnings should be taken very seriously. If the weather does not permit safe travel, for example during a storm, even parts of the road 1 can be closed.
Do not park your car along the road 1 or another main road outside of towns in order to take photos, even if the landscape is marvellous. Always use a safe road lay-by instead.
Also worth mentioning is that there are several single-lane bridges in Iceland, even on the road 1, which can be recognized by the road sign “EINBREIÐ BRÚ”. The rule for handling oncoming traffic is that the car closer to the bridge has the right of way, however, it’s always safest to stop and evaluate the situation in order to see what the other driver plans to do. Furthermore, the road sign “BLINDHÆÐ” means a blind hill is forthcoming, while “MALBIK ENDAR” indicates a changeover from asphalt to gravel. Therefore, reduce the speed in order to keep the control over the car.
Most nature attractions along the road 1 are accessible with a normal car, however, there are also places in the highlands of Iceland – the uninhabited regions in the centre of the country – for which a 4×4 vehicle is essential. The associated mountain roads are always signposted with the letter F in front of the road number, like F26 for example. This refers to the Icelandic word “
In addition, popular places like Landmannalaugar or Þórsmörk can be reached by special highland buses during the high season, if the weather and road conditions permit. Known operators are Reykjavík Excursions, Sterna Travel (Iceland by Bus) and TREX.
There are no toll roads throughout Iceland. The toll for the Hvalfjörður tunnel between Reykjavík and Akranes ended in October 2018.
Last but not least some words about sheep. Yes, everybody loves them. But besides that fact, there are a lot of sheep in Iceland and they roam freely through the entire country from about mid-May to mid-September. Until the annual sheep roundup, which is called “Réttir”. Most of the sheep are rather shy towards people, however, they are used to cars. This is one reason why it’s quite normal that a flock gathers beside a road or sometimes even on a road. So be alert when you approach them and reduce the speed! The majority of the sheep will not move until the last moment and it’s also possible that a ewe runs to the opposite side of the street to their lambs or vice versa.
Discovering wild reindeers is possible in the east of Iceland in winter. They inhabit the eastern highlands and only venture into lower regions in order to find food.
Driving in Winter
In winter, the greatest danger is the wind. In conjunction with perhaps icy roads, exceptional strong gusts of wind can blow vehicles off the road, especially in rather exposed areas like in the south of Iceland. Approximately between the waterfall Skógafoss and the town Höfn í Hornafirði. Another danger is blowing snow, which can reduce the visibility while driving. This occurs either through snow that is lifted from the ground by a strong wind or through falling snow that is accompanied by a strong wind. Under extreme conditions, both can also lead to a whiteout, in which the horizon disappears completely and leaves no reference points at all. Therefore, always pay attention to the road conditions and the weather forecast.
A 4×4 vehicle is not essential to travel around Iceland in winter, but it’s recommended. The better traction on level roads and uphill is a clear advantage in icy and snowy conditions. However, this no guarantee for safety. You still have to pay attention to the road conditions and the weather forecast and drive accordingly.
Furthermore, the main roads to towns and villages are regularly cleared of snow, but this might take a while depending on their location and the weather. Also keep in mind that the day length is rather short in winter. Around the winter solstice (approximately 22nd December) there are only about 4 hours of daylight for example.
Navigation and Smartphones
The use of a turn-by-turn navigation app is reliable for most parts of Iceland, as long as you also use common sense. Google Maps is a solid choice in this regard and also offers the option to download areas and navigate offline. However, the most accurate and reliable data is provided by
But regardless of which navigation app you use, never rely blindly on the estimated driving times. Always plan some extra time in case of adverse weather or road conditions, especially in winter.
In addition, there is a very reliable online map on Já.is, which also offers a 360° street view.
WiFi is available for free in almost every accommodation and restaurant in Iceland. In addition, the Icelandic providers Síminn, Vodafone and Nova also offer prepaid SIM cards for your smartphone, which can be bought in many stores and petrol stations.
First of all, keep in mind that over 2/3 of the Icelandic population lives in the capital Reykjavík and the surrounding regions in the southwest of the country. This means that large parts of Iceland are rather sparsely inhabited, while the highlands are even uninhabited. Therefore, the number of available accommodations is rather small in some regions, which is also why some accommodations are booked up months in advance. The best way to find available and favourable accommodations is to book as early as possible. Furthermore, rather look at smaller towns along the road 1 instead of the larger ones.
Hostelling International operates a lot of fantastic hostels throughout Iceland. A private room for two persons costs about 14,000 to 18,000 ISK per night in the high season – click on the price to see the current exchange rate. But please note that the prices on the website are member prices. You do not need to be an HI member to book a room, but I always recommend to apply for a membership in your home country, since you get a discount in most HI hostels worldwide and you support your national hostel organisation as well as their projects. The annual fee varies by country but is usually not expensive.
Hey Iceland, formerly known as Icelandic Farm Holidays, is a local travel agency that was founded in 1980. You can find a lot of accommodation on their website, from cosy bed and breakfasts to lonely cottages.
The Hvoll Guesthouse is located in the southeast of Iceland and a personal recommendation. The place is fantastic and well-equipped guest kitchens are also available. The bed linen is usually not included in the reservation, but you can rent a set for a small additional fee. Otherwise, you need to bring your own sleeping bag.
Moreover, a sleeping mask can be useful, depending on your travel date. Remember that there are up to 21 hours of sunlight around the summer solstice (approximately 21st June). Some earplugs for sleeping might also prove useful, depending on your travel plans, the accommodation and the other guests.
The legal regulations for campervans, caravans or similar vehicles are strict: for overnight stays, you must use the official campsites or you must have the permission of the rightful landowner. Therefore, overnight stays in public parking lots or somewhere along the road are prohibited by law, unless you have a permission.
For traditional camping with a tent, the legal regulations are a bit more complex: you are allowed to camp for one night with up to three tents on uncultivated land, unless there’s a campsite in the immediate vicinity or it’s prohibited, for instance by a sign. For overnight stays longer than one night OR with more than three tents OR near inhabited areas, farms and on fenced farmland, you must first obtain the permission from the landowner. The use of the official campsites is always recommended though, in order to preserve the natural landscape. And of course, you can stay on them as long as you like.
Moreover, there are protected areas in Iceland, where camping is not allowed. Therefore, take a look at this website of the Environment Agency of Iceland (Umhverfisstofnun) for more information.
A map of all available campsites can be found on the official tourism website Visit Iceland, along with additional information like the respective opening times, available services, rates and photos. Most of them open in May or June and close around the end of August or September. Only some campsites are open throughout the year. Yet many campsites remain accessible even if they are closed, but of course, there is no staff around at this time. Furthermore, a reservation is usually not necessary.
There is also an association of campsites that publishes a camping card each year. This card entitles two adults and up to four children to the age of 16 to use the associated 42 places for up to 28 nights. Take a look on the website for detailed information.
In addition, several touring associations in Iceland maintain mountain huts along popular hiking routes. The best known are the Iceland Touring Association (Ferðafélag Íslands), the Outdoor Touring Association (Ferðafélagið Útivist) and the Touring Club of Akureyri (Ferðafélag Akureyrar), but there are also a couple independent operators.
Renting camping equipment in Iceland is possible at the company Icelandic Camping Equipment in Reykjavík. In addition, replacement gas cartridges for camping stoves can be bought at most petrol stations with staff.
But regardless of how, when or where you are camping, please treat nature always with respect and leave the place like you have found it. Take all your belongings and your garbage with you when you leave. Also note that campfires are prohibited throughout Iceland, you have to use camping stoves.
Some areas in Iceland, like the Eldhraun lava field for instance, are covered with thick layers of green to greyish moss. Even if it looks incredibly soft and inviting, please do not step on it. The moss took hundreds of years to grow like that and it will take another hundred years to cover the tracks of one person. And while you may think that one person makes no difference, imagine how such a place would look like if only every hundredth person of the millions of visitors each year would think the same.
Clothing and Footwear
Due to the weather, which can change quickly, the very strong wind and the rather low temperatures– see the section “Weather and Northern Lights” for detailed information – layers are the key to keep you warm. As a base layer, start with a shirt, leggings and socks made of a wool or synthetic. Unlike cotton, these two materials have the advantage of keeping you warm, even when the fabric is damp. For the middle layer, take fleece jackets or pullovers with you, preferably made of wool or synthetic, that you can put on or take off depending on the weather. For the shell layer, a waterproof jacket is essential for a trip around Iceland. Waterproof trousers are optional, but in winter recommended. Furthermore, outdoor trousers made of synthetic material are also a good alternative to jeans made of cotton, since they dry much faster. In addition, also take a cap, a pair of gloves and sunglasses with you. Last but not least, do not forget your swimwear if you want to visit some geothermal pools.
Concerning footwear, a pair of hiking shoes or hiking boots are essential for exploring the outdoors of Iceland. In winter, it is also advisable to bring crampons, as the ground can be covered with ice, especially near waterfalls.
Well-known Icelandic clothing brands are 66° NORTH and ICEWEAR. Both have several retail stores throughout Iceland. In addition, the Icelandic Store in Reykjavík is a good address if you are looking for a classic wool sweater.
Iceland has volcanically and geologically active regions due to the fact that the country is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent tectonic plate that stretches along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. This means that sooner or later there will be another volcanic eruption in Iceland. However, it’s not possible to determine exactly when or where this will happen. Maybe within the next ten years, but maybe not for another hundred or thousand years. A reliable indicator of volcanic activity, however, are earthquakes and their frequency, which is why they are closely monitored by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Accordingly, an imminent volcanic eruption could be predicted some hours or some days in advance. More information about the various volcanic systems can be found in the Catalogue of Icelandic Volcanoes.
In case of problems with a rental car or a breakdown, first contact the car rental company. Most, if not all, companies offer a 24-hour road assistance and can inform the nearest car garage or guide you to them.
For everything else, call the Icelandic emergency number 112. In addition, you can use the app “112 Iceland” to send an SMS with your current GPS location to the emergency service. The app is available for free in the App Store as well as at Google Play.
Note: The hatched area in the middle of the country can be referred to as the highland.
© 2015–2018 Eric Hoffmann – Iceland Travel Guide – Basics and Advice