How to Plan a trip to Iceland: Everything you Need to Know!

Everything you need to know to plan a trip to Iceland, the land of fire and ice!

If you want to plan a trip to Iceland you may also be interested in Driving the Iceland Ring Road.

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Plan a trip to Iceland

The People

Plan a trip to Iceland

What kind of people would inhabit such a bleak and unforgiving landscape? Happily, some of the most fascinating and progressive people I’ve encountered in my travels so far. Icelanders enjoy one of the highest standards living, with one of the longest life expectancies and among the highest levels of literacy in the world. Studies suggest they are one the happiest people in the world and it is rumoured that the prime ministers’ phone number is listed in the phone book. A poll revealed that 80% of Icelanders believe in elves, and cherish their history of legend and folk lore.

It is also a wonderful place to be female. Women have children young then continue to work outside of the home thanks to excellent schooling and day care. Maternity and paternity leave schemes support the family unit and blended families are common and without stigma.

Iceland Geology

Travellers who plan a trip to Iceland, know that it is the most active volcanic area in the world. A volcano erupts (on average) every 5 years. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull caused havoc in the Northern Hemisphere when the resulting ash cloud disrupted air travel in many countries. Of course, true to my luck, the day I sat down to plan a trip to Iceland, Bárðarbunga began belching torrents of lava (and continued to erupt throughout my trip). The ever adaptable Icelanders have channeled these resources ingeniously into geothermal and hydroelectric power.

It is this attitude of practicality, a necessity in this unforgiving landscape, with a cool, unpretentious design aesthetic which sums up Iceland. Science and art converging with simplicity.

Iceberg bridge Iceland Atlas Introspective

Plan a trip to Iceland to Drive the ring road

There are plenty of quality tours on offer, but the best way to see Iceland is to hire a car and take a world-class road trip.

When you plan a trip to Iceland, one of the major logistical questions is how much time to allocate. Route 1 or ‘the Ring Road’ covers 1339 km of sealed and gravel roads. 10 days allows ample time to take the journey and make stops along the way.

We spent thirteen days in Iceland (including days spent flying) to drive the Ring Road and spend a couple of days in Reykjavík. However, our days were long. No matter how carefully you plan a trip to Iceland, unforeseen circumstances crop up. Perhaps you’ll get lost, have car trouble, bad weather, experience roads blocked by herds of sheep. To maintain a good pace, aim for two nights each in the West, North, East, Southeast and Southwest regions.

Road trip Iceland Atlas Introspective

Plan a trip to Iceland driving the Ring Road

As the name suggests the Ring Road is a circuit. When you plan a trip to Iceland to drive the Ring Road, first decide if you will travel clockwise or anticlockwise. We chose to go clockwise as the warmer weather lasts a bit longer in the south.

Plan a trip to Iceland: When to Go

Peak season

Mid-June to August is the most popular time to plan a trip to Iceland, as it offers the opportunity to experience the midnight sun and longer days translate to more time to explore the great outdoors. Driving is also easier for visitors not used to driving in icy conditions and camping is more comfortable in the warmer months. Milder weather reduces the risk of roads being blocked in the highlands and more of the country can be explored.

Shoulder season

May and September is the off-season/ shoulder season. Many travel expenses are cheaper and travellers can enjoy popular sites with less crowds.

Car hire is typically the biggest expense for those who plan a trip to Iceland and many car hire companies drop their fees by almost a third on the first of September. Accommodation is also more affordable during the off-peak season and places are less likely to be operating at full capacity.

Plan a trip to Iceland in September

Fiona holding iceberg Atlas Introspective

In my opinion September is the best time to visit because the sun sets around 7.30-8pm which is plenty of time on the road. Prices drop in the shoulder season and the night-time darkness offers the opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis. Whilst this is more common from October onwards, I was lucky enough to see the northern lights two nights in a row during late September. There’s a good chance most roads will be open and you’ll share the sites with fewer visitors.

Plan a trip to Iceland: Getting there

At the time of writing 3 airlines were operating between the UK & Iceland:

  • Icelandair
  • EasyJet
  • Wow air

At the time of writing (2024), Icelandair offer a free stopover in Iceland for 7 nights for tourists on transatlantic flights.

Climate- September

Aurora Borealis Atlas Introspective

There’s a saying ‘Iceland is green and Greenland is Icy’. Technically the weather isn’t as cold as you’d expect, thanks to the Gulf Stream, but Iceland is windy and wet. For the majority of our trip (late September) the temperature hovered between 5-7 degrees Celsius during the day. Most days I wore trousers, woollen socks, hiking boots, gloves, beanie, long sleeve Icebreaker base layer with a North Face down vest or my locally made Lopapeysa. I took my rain jacket with me everywhere, because the weather is erratic and there’s always a chance you’ll get caught in a shower

Plan a trip to Iceland: Cost

Iceland can be expensive, but there are a few ways to cut costs when you plan a trip to Iceland:

  • Camp if weather permits
  • Book sleeping bag accommodation (many guesthouses offer a discount if you BYO sleeping bag & save the hosts from washing your linens)
  • Self cater (many guesthouses have a kitchen/ shared kitchen facilities)
  • Bring your allocated 3kg food per person with you (see ‘food’)
  • Enjoy the large variety of sites that don’t have an entrance fee
  • Hire a car rather than taking tours if travelling in a group
  • Be smart about car hire. Prices vary considerably from a Toyota Yaris to a 4WD. However, you probably only need a four-wheel drive if you are planning to explore the highlands and driving on f roads. A smaller car or a diesel, is cheaper to rent and more economical to run.

Plan a trip to Iceland: Road trip & Car Hire

Public transport is almost non-existent in Iceland so if you plan on seeing the sites outside of Reykjavík, car hire is the best (and only) choice for independent travel. If you’re travelling in a group splitting the cost of car hire may be cheaper than a tour, with the added bonus of tailoring the journey to your own interests and schedule. Travel in the off-season (Sept- May) and you may reduce your car hire expenses by a third. Overall our experience was positive with the exception of a flat tyre, resulting from a leak in a previous repair.

The extreme weather conditions are tough on cars and foreigners don’t always have the necessary skills for driving in Iceland. Consequently, car hire companies take measures to protect themselves from damage and that leads to tourists receiving unexpected fines. To avoid fines and additional fees:

  • Take photo’s of your hire car at the beginning and end of your trip to avoid being charged for pre-existing damage
  • Inspect your car at pick up and highlight marks and damage on the rental car document. Request that staff initial the identified damage. Pay particular attention to the windscreen & car hinges
  • The strong wind in Iceland has been known to rip off car doors or damage car door hinges. Be extremely careful getting in and out of the car and don’t leave the car doors open
  • Insurance: take out all extra insurance, especially gravel, sand and ash, as many long stretches of the Ring Road are unsealed. Storms and ash clouds can damage car paint and are a common in some parts of Iceland. Theft on the other hand is quite rare.
  • Read the fine print: know what your insurance policy covers, and what it doesn’t
  • Choose a company that offers unlimited mileage
  • There are free car washes around Iceland at many fuel stations. Give your car a good wash before returning it to avoid cleaning fees
  • Return your car with a full fuel tank to avoid added fuel charges on your credit card

Suspicious fees

Geysir 2 Atlas Introspective

Online travel forums are full of stories of unsuspecting travellers getting surprise bills from Icelandic car rental companies months after their trip. To protect yourself from this situation pay for your car hire with a credit card. Then if the fee seems suspicious, the credit card company can cancel the payment as an ‘unauthorised charge’. Fines for speeding or travelling on particular roads (such as ‘f’ roads) may attract fines, which will find you sooner or later. So when you plan a trip to Iceland, know your policy and follow the road rules

Tips for Driving in Iceland

  • Hire a GPS when renting your car & buy a road map. You will need both
  • Bring a valid drivers licence and/ or international drivers licence
  • Icelanders drive on the right side of the road/ overtake on the left
  • In cities the speed limit is 30-50 km/hr; 80km/hr on gravel roads; 90km/hr on paved roads
  • Turn car headlights on for both day and night driving
  • It is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The blood alcohol limit for driving is 0.00
  • Always wear a seatbelt
  • Highland driving and travelling on ‘f roads‘ is strictly for 4WD
  • All off-road driving is illegal. The landscape is delicate and damage caused to the vegetation can last for decades
  • When approaching a single lane bridge, the first car to reach the bridge has right of way
  • Regularly check updates for road conditions and weather
  • The majority of the ring road is a single carriageway with no shoulder. Wait until there is a safe place to park before stopping to admire the view.
  • Slow down on gravel roads to avoid damage to other vehicles
  • Animals on the road have right of way
Fiona with glacier background Atlas Introspective

Plan a trip to Iceland: Food

Tourists who plan a trip to Iceland, should consider their food budget ahead of time to save money. Customs allow visitors to import 3kg of food duty-free into Iceland (no raw egg, raw meat or milk), but not exceeding the value of ISK 25.000. Bring as much as you can as it will probably be cheaper in your home country. Keep food in its packaging to help with declaration at customs. Alcohol is also expensive so you may like to make a stop at the duty-free.

Food to bring through customs

Ultimately the kind of food you’ll bring when you plan a trip to Iceland won’t be the most nutritious but there will be nights where you arrive at your guesthouse late and may not have been able to pick up some groceries. A pot noodle will never be more welcome.

  • Breakfast/ muesli bars
  • ‘Just add water’ meals (soups, ramen, pasta)
  • Sweets & chocolates
  • Dried fruit & nuts
  • Tea bags & just add water coffee sachet
  • Multivitamins for those days where you feel like you’re one hotdog away from scurvy

Supermarkets

Many guesthouses have self cater / shared kitchens so you can make your own evening meals. Bonus and Kronan supermarkets are reasonably priced and are in most villages. In a pinch, basic supplies can be purchased at fuel stations.

Reindeer burger iceland Atlas Introspective

Dining Out

There are many budget-friendly dining options. Reykjavík has a number of Thai restaurants and Pizzeria’s are in most villages. Fuel station hot dogs are perfect for a meal on the road, and for dessert? You can’t go past Skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, which eats like yoghurt but which is actually a variant of cream cheese.

When your budget allows, try some of the local cuisine: lamb soup, seafood stew, reindeer burgers… but give the fermented shark a wide berth…

Plan a trip to Iceland: What to Pack

  • Food (see above)
  • A few scoops of laundry detergent in a zip lock bag for hand-washing
  • Cooler bag for picnics on the road
  • Water bottle- glacier water is available free on tap
  • Thermos mug for BYO coffee on the road
  • Music & podcasts
  • Drivers licence &/or international drivers licence
  • Camera/ smart phone
  • Book- most cabins we stayed at didn’t have a TV or any entertainment

To find out more about my favourite travel gear: Travel Gear for Multi Day Hikes.

Clothing

  • 3 merino base layer shirts, (2 long sleeve, one short sleeve)
  • 3 pairs of trousers/ hiking trousers
  • Down vest /down Jacket
  • Fleece/ woollen jumper/ Lopapeysa (see below)
  • Merino/ woollen socks x3
  • Rain shell (don’t bother with umbrellas, the wind destroys them)
  • Hiking boots 
  • Gloves, beanie, scarf
  • A nice outfit for Reykjavík
  • Bathers & quick dry towel (thermal pools)
  • Sunglasses & sunscreen
  • Small backpack for day trips

If you plan a trip to Iceland in winter, or will be doing a lot of hiking you may also consider taking thermal underwear, merino socks, gaiters and hiking poles. Take woollen clothing wherever possible.

Fiona E geysir Iceland Atlas Introspective

Language

Like many European countries, most Icelanders speak English well and are very accommodating to foreigners. Learn a few Icelandic phrases and have a crack. Even if the locals can’t understand your pronunciation, the gesture will be appreciated.

Já = Yes
Nei = No
Góðan daginn / Góðan dag = good day
Gott kvöld = Good evening
Hæ / Halló = Hi / Hello
Bless = Goodbye
Takk = Thank you 

Lopapeysa

Lopapeysa is a woollen jumper knitted with undyed lopi wool in white, grey, black or brown, and with a distinctive ‘yoke’ at the neckline. Lopapeysa can be itchy to begin with, but softens with wear. The Lopapeysa has only been around since about the 50’s and it’s unclear what inspired the design, despite its short heritage. However, it has recently experienced a resurgence and is popular among farmers and urban Reykjavík hipsters alike. Prepare to fall for its understated cool.

Waterfall selfie small Atlas Introspective

Plan a trip to Iceland and invest in a Lopapeysa

When you plan a trip to Iceland, allow enough space in your pack for a Lopapeysa. The wool of Icelandic sheep known as ‘lopi’ is unique in that it has both wind hairs and fleece. The unspun wool has better insulating properties than traditional wool. The inner fibres provide warmth whilst the long outer fibres keep the garment water-resistant. These distinctive qualities mean that Lopapeysa are light and will keep you warm, even when wet.

Pick one up on your first day in Reykjavík so that you can make full use of it in the Icelandic climate. I still wear mine although I don’t get as many opportunities as I’d like in Australia. But it’s now 10 years old and still looks as good as the day I bought it and is one of my favourite travel souvenirs. Read on to find out the best places to buy a Lopapeysa.

Where to buy your Lopapeysa

Whilst Lopapeysa are everywhere, there are a few shops that don’t stock locally made sweaters. I recommend purchasing your jumper from either Álafoss or the Handknitting Association of Iceland (addresses below). They have the best variety and only stock garments hand-made by Icelanders. Both stores provide Value Added Tax receipts to claim back VAT when you leave Iceland (see VAT below).

Álafoss

Álafossvegur 23
270 Mosfellsbær
alafoss@alafoss.is

Handknitting Association of Iceland

Skólavörðustígur 19
101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Tel. +354 552 1890
handknit@handknit.is

Tectonic plates Iceland 2 Atlas Introspective

DIY Lopapeysa

If you honestly can’t spare the 30.000ISK for a ready-made, do as the locals do and knit your own. Wool and patterns are available for purchase at the Hand-knitters Association of Iceland.

Second-hand Lopapeysa

Alternatively many charity shops stock second-hand Lopapeysa for a fraction of the cost and are retro-chic. Vendors at the Kolaportið flea market (open weekends) by the harbour also sell Lopapeysa slightly cheaper than the stores.

Plan a trip to Iceland: VAT

Value-added Tax (VAT) is approximately 25.5% charged for goods and services and refundable to tourists who leave Iceland within 3 months from the date of purchase. Simply show your passport as evidence of permanent residence outside of Iceland.

The purchase price must be over 4.000ISK (including VAT) for items purchased in one day at a single store. Look for the ‘Global Blue Tax Free’ logo at stores and ask for a ‘tax free form’ when you pay. This refund is only available for VAT paid on store items, not food or accommodation. You can expect to get up to 15% back from what you paid. If your refund on an item is higher than 5.000ISK you may need to declare the items at customs before check-in (with the exception of woollens).

Claiming VAT at the airport

VAT is refunded in cash (ISK) at the National Bank of Iceland (Leifur Eiriksson Terminal) on the second floor after weapons control (Customs). Cash refunds are provided on the spot or you can request a credit card refund. Some tourists on travel forums have cited a 10+ week wait for their refund, so for peace of mind, cash may be the most convenient option if you don’t mind converting the currency.

Claiming VAT in Reykjavik

VAT refunds can also be processed at the Kringlan shopping centre. Simply pay a visit to the information desk with your receipts, passport and credit card to receive your refund. Then upon departure, post your receipts in the envelope provided after you have cleared customs. Failure to post your receipts may result in you being recharged your VAT.

Fiona selfie waterfall Iceland Atlas Introspective

Locations that offer VAT cash refunds:

  • Thjonustumidstödin vid Skarfabakka, Skarfagördum 8, 104 Reykjavik
  • Kringlan 4-12, 103 Reykjavik
  • Menningarhúsinu Hofi, Strandgötu 12, 600 Akureyri
  • Hagasmára 1, 201 Kópavogur

Happy Trails!

 Need more help to plan your trip to Iceland? You may also be interested in: Iceland Itinerary and Iceland with children.