How to plan a trip to ICELAND? Start here.

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

Traveling to a different country always needs planning. And some countries like Iceland – need a bit more thought and effort than others. Located at a distance of 1800 miles from the North Pole, locals in Iceland often refer to Reykjavik as the northern most capital of the world. While thinking of a trip to Iceland the top most fact to consider about this Nordic island is its dramatic landscape with volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, hot springs, craters, lagoons and lava fields.

Owing to its dynamic geography, when I started planning our trip this new year – I realized that a vacation in Iceland needs some strict decisions, made well in advance. From my experience – Iceland is not a country you can visit only once, or can get enough of in a single week or so. But it is not impossible to enjoy it thoroughly in a span of 7 days – if you plan like a pro! And therefore, we pinned down a list for you – of crucial questions you need to ask yourself before you book – and use them as your core plan of action:

Are you traveling solo? with family? OR with kids? 

Traveling solo or with company can significantly alter your Iceland experience, and also lead to some serious changes in your stay plans and dents into your vacation budget. If you are planning to travel solo or as a young couple – you can achieve a lot more from your Iceland visit than traveling with kids.

Iceland is extremely cold in winters and therefore the terrains are often icy, slippery and dangerous for children or older-age family members. This means while you travel to Iceland with family, especially your young ones – you won’t be able to take up treks, walk on glaciers or do all the edgy adventurous stuff Iceland has on offer. In this scenario I would suggest visiting in summers – as the weather is a lot more welcoming and the roads are drive and family friendly. But if you are heading out solo or as a couple – Iceland is for you.

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

Do you need a Visa?

Iceland is Schengen Visa. And you will need a valid Schengen area Travel Insurance without exception. 

  • If you already have a valid visa stamping – go ahead and book your trip. I would still advice to check up on the visa website for any additional requirements.
  • Many countries have a visa-exemption for visiting Iceland. Check this list to see if you need a visa or not.
  • Looking for a reliable platform to get your insurance at cheap rates? We used https://www.insubuy.com/
  • If you are planning to apply for a visa – our advice would be to apply VERY early. The Danish embassy loves it holidays and with the amount of visa applications their receive in a year – trust me its a pain to get a visa on time if you are not pro-active.

Winter OR Summer?

Iceland in summer and winter are two different experinces altogether. While summers have ‘longggg’ days, winters have longer nights and hardly any daytime. While summers are comfortable and drive friendly, winters can be gloomy, wet, and cold with icy roads. But then winters in Iceland have their own charm and once in a lifetime moments of witnessing the Northern lights.

This year we visited Iceland in January – yes, extremely cold and dark (approx. 2 hours of sunlight). But we loved it and honestly it wasn’t bad at all. If you live in a cold city like us (Boston), you would probably not even feel the difference. To give you a bit more assurance, let me tell you I did hours of research reading if Iceland is a wise decision in the winters – and the conclusion was YES. The lagoons feel a lot more romantic, the trails are a lot more adventurous and the Northern lights of course! But in the end – the decision is totally yours. 

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

Drive yourself OR take up tours that include pickups and drop-offs?

So let me tell you, Mr. StreetTrotter hates driving on vacations. We prefer staying in the heart of the city and exploring the downtown and nightlife by foot in the evenings, and taking the public transport in the day for all our sightseeing. But Iceland has NO Uber. And taking cabs is impractical and expensive. So yes we needed a plan.

Most visitors drive in Iceland. So if you are the driving types – go ahead and book a car. If its summer – you are good to go! BUT if you are visiting in winters – the roads are icy and dark, and the drive is slippery with heavy winds. You will need a heavy vehicle with special tires that are meant for icy roads. The one thing we observed this January in Iceland was that as you start going farther from the city – which you obviously will – there are no street lights and long stretches on the road when you will be the only car driving down.

Our advice: Take a car for backup. Park it in the city for shorter distances and getting around in the evenings. But for the sightseeing far into the island – take up tours and enjoy the view. There are a plethora of tour companies in Iceland for every possible location and all kinds of budgets. 

What did we do? – We used the busses, airport shuttles, and un-guided tours with pickups and drop-offs. Mr. StreetTrotter is not much of a driver in a cold dark winter. 

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

Hostel? Hotel? OR Airbnb?

This was our first time staying in a hostel as a couple. And we loved every bit of it. Iceland has a huge inflow of solo travelers which makes its hostel life almost perfect and very welcoming. If you are the kinds who loves meeting new people, or if you want to escape the gloominess of the Icelandic winter and hang out in the company of fellow travelers – Try the KEX Hostel or something similar.

If a hostel is not for you, then Iceland is full of hotels from bread and breakfast affordable prices to luxury resort kinds. Our advice would be to book early and look for deals well in advance. For Airbnb lovers – Iceland is for you too. Locals in the country are warm and very polite. Crime rate is very low and violent crimes are almost non-existent in Iceland.

What did we do? – We divided our trip half and half between the KEX Hostel and an Airbnb right next to the main street in Reykjavik. Both our accommodations worked out perfectly as everything was walking distance for us and our location was always pickup and drop-off friendly for the tours we booked. In our experience, the closer you stay to the city – the more enjoyable your trip will be as almost 2/3rd of Iceland’s population stays in Reykjavik. The next town where you can stay and have fun is Akeyuri.

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

Do you have the right clothes to wear in Iceland?

Finally, we come to the most crucial point of visiting Iceland in winters. Do you have the right clothes? Iceland needs special clothes, much warmer and significantly beyond your average winter wardrobe. If you don’t already have that suitcase ready, then you must plan in advance and throw in some extra expenses into your trip budget.

A quick checklist includes a waterproof, windproof, extra-warm and heavy-duty PARKA; Heavy-snow BOOTS meant for -10 to -30 temperatures, a FLEECE jacket as your middle layer, WARMERS for both upper and lower torso, 100% wool SOCKS, GLOVES, a woolen BEANIE cap, and WATERPROOF TROUSERS.

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

What kind of traveler are you? – Adventure? OR Sight-seeing?

Did you know? – Iceland tourism’s share of foreign exchange earnings has grown from 18.8% to 31.0% between 2010–2015 according to measurements on the export of goods and services. At present, tourism accounts for more foreign exchange income than the fisheries industry and aluminum production. To put it in numbers – revenue from foreign tourists amounted to ISK 208.4 billion in 2015, i.e. ISK 49.3 billion more than in 2014. This represents a year-on-year increase of some 31%.

By now you know that Iceland is a place for every kind of traveler – with numerous options to save or splurge. If you are a sight-seeing kind of person start looking for tours – one a day. The tours take up more than half a day each and you will end up exhausted by the end of it. Alternatively, if you are the adventurous kinds, you will need to plan your trip differently, looking for activities like glacier walks, hikes and treks which may go on for a couple of days, after which you will need to rest for a minimum of 24 hours. Putting all this in a single itinerary of a week or so is impossible and you will end up hating your trip – exhausted completely.

Get my point? – You need to know the kind of trip you want to take up in Iceland which will affect everything from your budget, staying options, comfort to overall experience. Our advice: Do not over-indulge or try to over-achieve from your vacation. You really can’t do everything at once. 

Iceland - photo by streettrotter

What is your budget?

I will keep this short and simple because “budget” as I see is highly individualistic. But for a general idea – a fun trip to Iceland from the East Coast, hostel and Airbnb stay, with affordable tours and splurging on food is all possible within $4,000 for TWO or less.

If you want to have a detailed idea of our itinerary and how we planned our budget – stay tuned for more upcoming posts. 

Iceland - photo by streettrotter