20+ Important Iceland Travel Tips to Know Before you Go

Iceland is a very popular travel destination, but it takes a fair amount of planning. Unlike visiting Paris or Rome where everyone is familiar with the main attractions, Iceland is a bit of an unknown. To get you started, I’ve shared how to plan an Iceland itinerary, what to pack, reviews of different activities, and the best ages to take kids to Iceland, but first I wanted to start with a few tips for traveling to Iceland. After two trips to Iceland and planning trips for a dozen families, here are my best Iceland travel tips. If you still need help, I also offer travel planning and travel consulting services.

20 Iceland travel tips -- what you need to know before traveling to Iceland.

I also recently shared some of my top Iceland tips over on the Ciao Bambino Facebook page in a Facebook Live session. You can watch the replay here:

Or just read them below!

20+ Iceland Travel Tips

Plan early!! Seriously. Hotels book up at least six months in advance, especially in the summer as tour operators will block off much of the available inventory.

Budget wisely. Don’t let cheap airfares fool you, Iceland is expensive. Unless you are camping or using vacation rentals, a week long trip can run anywhere from $6000-20,000+ depending on the number of people, where you stay, and how many activities you choose to do.

Plan on a lot of driving. Unless you have at least a week or more, you are best off renting a car and choosing one region of the country to visit. Even that will be a lot of driving. It may not look big on the map but with narrow, winding highways it takes a long time to get from place to place. Plan ahead (or follow my Iceland itinerary.) If you want to drive the entire Ring Road, plan to spend at least 10 days in Iceland.

Expect to move. Unless you want extremely long days, you will need to move around a bit. Plan on spending one-to-two nights in about three-to-four locations on an average trip. This means a lot of moving around so pack accordingly.

Choose wisely. There are so many activities to do but tours are expensive and can add up fast so choose wisely. For example, you will need to take a tour if you want to walk on the glacier but if you just want to see the glacier, you can do that on your own. Same with the iceberg lagoon — you can see lots of icebergs from the beach but if you want to get close you’d need to take a boat tour.

Touring the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland -- getting up close with icebergs

Craft an itinerary. Iceland is the kind of country where you really need to plan ahead a bit and know what you want to do. Everything is so spread out that you’ll need to organize your itinerary to minimize driving time. But you should also leave yourself enough time to hop out and explore a waterfall, take pictures, and enjoy nature along the way.

Don’t exchange much cash, if any. You can use a credit card for nearly everything. The only things we paid cash for were tolls (a tunnel on the Ring Road north of Reykjavik) and tips for tour guides.

Know your PIN. If you have a credit card with a chip and PIN, makes sure you know your PIN, you will need it to get gas.

Get your VAT back. If you purchase souvenirs greater than 6,000 ISK, you should get a form to get a refund on your VAT (value-added tax). Even if you don’t, it is easy to take care of this at the airport. BEFORE you check your luggage, look for the signs for the VAT refund office or Arion bank, fill out the form and drop it off. They may need to see the goods before approving it but chances are, they will just ask if you want a credit or a check — it is simple and saves you money.

Tipping not required. Tipping is not required, but appreciated. The service and VAT is included in the price, but I know when I’ve tipped, especially our tour guides, it was always welcomed with a smile.

Buy a prepaid gas card. If you don’t have a chip and PIN card, stop for gas near Reykjavik, Selfoss or another large town and buy a gas prepaid card because many gas stations around the country are unmanned and if you don’t have a prepaid card or chip and PIN credit card you are out of luck. N1 seems to be the most common brand so I would suggest an N1 prepaid card.

Plan ahead. Most of the gas stations with convenience stores and facilities close at 9 or 10pm so fuel up early if you are making a long drive. It is very difficult to find a public restroom after the gas stations close so be prepared! The landscape is also wide open so it is hard to find a bush to go behind. 🙂

Iceland in winter

Obey the law. You won’t see many police cars but there are traffic cameras so watch out! We got a speeding ticket and we couldn’t have been going very much over the limit at the time. We found out from an email from the car rental agency who also tacked on their own penalty fee — not cool.

Be prepared. Pack protein bars and snacks. When you are driving through the country you may not see a place to eat for an hour or more. Also, bring waterproof pants and a rain coat (we found great deals at Columbia) for visiting waterfalls or you will get soaked! And don’t forget flip-flips if you are going to the Blue Lagoon! (See my complete list of what to pack for Iceland!)

Stay connected. I’d recommend renting a MiFi device for WiFi access throughout the trip from your car rental agency or a service like Tep Wireless.

Check directions. Don’t rely entirely on Google Maps. Chances are it will send you on the most direct route, which may include roads that are closed due to snow (even in the summer.) If you are meeting a tour operator, ask them for the best route.

Drive carefully. Before you head out on your drive, check for road closures and conditions on road.is website. If heading off-road, log your plans on safetravel.is and download the 112 Iceland App. If you do run into trouble, the Icelandic emergency number is 112.

20 Iceland travel tips -- what you need to know before traveling to Iceland.

Check the holidays. If you are visiting during June, National Independence Day is June 17th, and many businesses will be closed. In Reykjavik, you can join in on the parades and festivities but be aware that there may be some political demonstrations too.

Get ready for light (or dark.) If you are visiting in the summer, you won’t see the Northern Lights but you will have the benefit of Midnight Sun so you can take advantage of the long days to fit in a lot of sightseeing and you don’t need to worry about driving narrow winding roads in the dark. Just bring a sleep mask and maybe some melatonin to help your body know it is time for sleep.

Be careful. When visiting the black sand beaches, stay away from the water’s edge, especially if you turn your back to the water. They tend to get rouge waves and strong undercurrents that can take people unaware and pull them out to sea.

What to wear in Iceland in the winter

Not for picky eaters. Icelandic food is predominantly lamb, seafood and their traditional meat soup (lamb.) But if you have a picky eater in your group you can find mediocre hamburgers in most places and even some pizza. What you won’t find are American fast food chains or Starbucks.

Get your camera ready. Bring extra batteries for your camera and a car charger for your phone, and maybe even an extra SD card because you will take a lot of pictures! Some type of waterproof case or bag would be helpful near the waterfalls.

English is welcome. While it is always nice to learn a few words of the language of the country you are visiting, you don’t need to worry too much about a language barrier. Everyone we met spoke excellent English.

Get road trip ready. If your kids get bored of looking at the beautiful scenery, have them count horses or sheep — that will keep them busy for a while! Bringing along some road trip games and activities would be helpful too.

Bring a bottle. Don’t buy bottled water, just bring a refillable bottle and top it off at any tap.

Pack smart. Be prepared for vastly different landscapes and weather conditions. You might need a jacket in the city but not on the glacier or vice versa. If you have tips for packing light in Iceland I’m all ears! I found it helpful to be prepared for whatever weather we might encounter. Our Columbia omni-heat lined jackets were warm but very lightweight and didn’t take up a lot of room in the suitcase. Find my packing lists for Iceland in summer and winter.

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47 Comments on “20+ Important Iceland Travel Tips to Know Before you Go

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  1. Great tips and a much needed post since as you said it’s not like visiting Rome or Paris. I have to say that after visiting Europe it would be really refreshing to be in a place that hasn’t succumbed to American fast food and Starbucks!

    Love these practical tips for visiting Iceland! I’ve been considering a trip there with their low air fares!

    Thanks for the great tips! I’m filing them away for the trip that we hope to take to Iceland soon!

    These are fantastic very practical tips! I haven’t been, but would like to go. Now I know careful planning (especially with gas and kid-friendly meals) is in order

      Definitely careful planning! More on that coming soon.

    I was just looking at some crazy deals on flights to Iceland! Thinking about a quick trip there, no kids though:)

      The deals on wow are great if you can get them. It is an amazing place with or without kids!

    I love a good road trip AND an exotic destination. Iceland is both! Thanks for the tips!

    Great list of tips, I am dying to go to Iceland and determined to make it happen soon, but as you say, it is a less obvious destination that requires a little more research and planning!

      I just finished up a nearly 3000 word post on all my research and planning so stay tuned!

    Iceland is definitely on the bucket list!

    We loved our visit to Iceland! We did a home exchange that included a car. And the people who owned the home told us all the best places. Even got us passes for a day at The Blue Lagoon. We say, MANY waterfalls, and road the Icelandic Ponies! Great Trip!

      Sounds fabulous! We loved our time there too.

      How did you go about arranging the home exchange? How long did you spend in Iceland?

        We didn’t do an exchange, just rented an apartment and cabin through Homeaway.com and airbnb.com. We were there for 6 days total.

      We are looking for a vacation rental home (not exchange) with car for fall 2015. Any suggestions? This will be our 2nd trip so we want to focus on one area, plus fall is probably not the best time to redo the circle road!

        We stayed out in Geysir, where it is still accessible in the fall. Plus in the fall you could probably see the northern lights. The place we stayed didn’t have a car though.

    Great Tips! We hope to make it to Iceland next year so I’m saving this as a reference!

      I hope it helps, much more to come that might help with your planning

    What a great list full of fantastic suggestions! Thank you for putting it together, especially the suggestions to buy prepaid cards, packing snacks, and of course obeying the speed limit.

    My husband told me last week that he wants our next trip to be to Iceland. I don’t see that happening due to timing, but we are seriously looking at planning a trip next May (late) or June. Thanks for all your tips. I’ll look forward to hearing more of your experience in Iceland.

      June is a great time to go. In May a few more roads are still closed due to snow.

        We went the end of May clockwise and found it busier on the Golden Circle after June 1 as their school is out May 31 and the tourists on cruise ships come after June 1. One suggestion is to go the end of May but go counter clockwise if you travel the Ring Road around the whole country as we did. Highly recommend doing the whole Ring Road!

          Great tip, thanks! I wish we had more time to do the whole ring road.

    Iceland is totally on my bucket list!!!

    I am leaving for a trip to Iceland next week, and would love to know your favorite things you did while there. Hurry and post the itinerary tips!

      It is going up today! Favorites are hard to pick but I would say dog sledding, the waterfalls, reynisfjara, jokursalon, and dyrhaloey.

    We completed 1275 miles in an RV around Iceland in August and would definitely recommend that trip. Having the RV allowed us to vary the trip by how we were progressing and take a few unplanned side trips based on recommendations of people we met without having to stress about getting to a specific location each night. Plus we only had to unpack & pack once 🙂

    My top picks are Jokulsarlon Lagoon (iceberg lagoon), Godafoss, lava caving, Lake Myvatn (worth a full day or more), Reynisfjara (“black sand beach”) and riding the Islandic horse through lava fields!

      That sounds fantastic! How long were you there? I definitely see the advantage of the RV!

    Me and my partner are going to Iceland for 14 days in Sept, we’re thinking of hiring a car and travelling around, would you recommend agaisnt this? Also is it expensive in iceland?

      It is very easy to rent a car and drive around Iceland, especially if you stick to the Ring Road. Just buy a map! It is expensive for sure, although there are plenty of hostels, no frills guest houses and lots of people camp. Plan on spending about $12-15 on a mediocre burger and if you want a sit down dinner, much more. It is worth it though!

    We just returned from a quick 24 hours in Iceland, loved it so much! Would love to return in the summer and explore a lot more, great tips!

    thanks for the tips. We go on 26 June for one week, and we can’t wait. Got some good advice from your site – and for things I had not even thought about. Thanks again

      Have an amazing time! I’m glad you found the info helpful!

    My sister and I are going to Iceland September 30-October 03, 2018. We plan to rent a car but not sure it’s necessary. We’d like to see the blue lagoon however still trying to figure out the rest. Accommodations more specifically and whether it’ll be necessary to switch where we stay based on what we plan to visit? Are hostels readily available on a walk in basis? Should we book in advance? Are they clean? Is it cheaper to rent the car instead of purely doing tours? Anything else we should know? Thank you

      I would recommend getting a car, otherwise you are stuck on bus tours. The airport is 45 minutes from Reykjavik and it is a $150 cab ride. You definitely need to book hotels in advance, maybe not if you are looking to do hostels. Hotels fully book, even during the shoulder seasons. I haven’t looked into hostels.

    thanks for the tips. We go on 26 June for one week, and we can’t wait. Got some good advice from your site – and for things.

    I would say thanks for written this type of amazing and informative article. I am also planning to go Iceland in the upcoming month and these above-mentioned tips will so helpful for me…..thanks again

    Few things I didn’t know about Iceland, thanks! I’ve actually been dying to go since I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Gonna have to start a money jar.

    Truly not for the picky eaters, there isn’t much variety in Iceland compared to other destinations so you’ll have to get your stomach ready with what’s available. May I say beautiful pictures, thank you for sharing the awesome tips! Very helpful and informative, some fun facts were learned along the way as well.

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