Iceland tips - travel guide for your first trip to Iceland

27 Iceland Travel Tips & Tricks to Know Before Your First Trip

In Iceland by JurgaThis post may contain affiliate links, which means that we may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. More info: Disclosure.

Thinking of visiting Iceland and have any travel-related questions? This guide with our top tips for Iceland should give you a better idea of what to expect when traveling to Iceland for the first time. These are experience-based Iceland travel tips that should answer all your practical questions and help you prepare for your trip to Iceland.

Good to know: We have been to Iceland multiple times. In winter and in summer; alone, as a couple, and with kids; we traveled in a regular car and with a 4WD, driving the Ring Road and exploring the highlands… So this Iceland travel advice is based on lots of travel experience and not on a single trip. It contains all the most important things that we think are essential or interesting to know before going to Iceland.

Furthermore, we run Iceland and Scandinavia travel group on Facebook where we see many similar questions coming up again and again. Do I need to take cash to Iceland? Do I need a 4WD or can I drive the Ring Road in a regular car? What kind of boots do I need for Iceland? Do I need a travel adapter or a converter for Iceland? What kind of weather can I expect? Can I drive the whole Ring Road in 5 days in winter? And how come I don’t find any affordable hotels for my trip next week?….

So in this article, we collected all the Iceland FAQs in one place. I hope that these tips will help you better prepare for your trip to Iceland and make the most out of it. Find out!

Iceland travel tips

1. Book in advance

This is probably one of the most important travel tips for Iceland. You really need to book everything for your Iceland trip well in advance!

From flights to rental cars and from accommodation to tours – make sure that you book everything well upfront. The longer you wait, the less choice you have and the more you’ll pay.

The best price/quality hotels are the first ones to get fully booked, the best deals for car hire cannot be found upon arrival at the airport (in fact, there might not be any cars left at all – happens all the time), and the best tours sell out too. And yes, even the famous Blue Lagoon has to be booked in advance.

So if you want to keep your Iceland trip more affordable and stress-free, do yourself a favor and book as much as you can upfront.

LEARN MORE: Where to Stay in Iceland

2. Don’t use cash

One of the most frequently asked questions I see again and again is ‘do you need cash in Iceland?’. It’s as if people read about it and still cannot believe that you don’t. So, once again, no, you don’t need cash in Iceland. 

Nordic countries are famous for their almost nonexistent cash payments and Iceland is no exception. 

Paying by credit or debit cards is possible everywhere in Iceland. EVERYWHERE. Even a 200ISK (1.5EUR) fee for the use of a bathroom in Thingvellir National Park can be paid by credit card. This is probably a bad example because now you think that using a bathroom is expensive in Iceland. Thingvellir is actually one of the few places where you have to pay for the bathroom.

Agreed, having foreign money in your hands might make your traveling experience feel more authentic. But if money is just a means of payment to you, save yourself all the trouble and unnecessary spending at the end of the trip in order to get rid of the cash, and use your credit card instead.

Good to know: Iceland uses Icelandic króna and no, you cannot pay in euro or in the US dollar. If you absolutely want to take cash, take an equivalent of some 50-80 USD. That should be more than enough for small expenses where credit cards aren’t accepted. As I write this, I really can’t think of one single example where we couldn’t use a credit card in Iceland. But some people in our FB group reported that ‘some toilets only take cash’.

Icelandic krona - you don't need cash money in Iceland, just use credit cards
You don’t really need cash in Iceland
 

3. Use credit cards with a pin

You can use all major credit cards in Iceland, but VISA and Mastercard are by far the best. Amex is not widely accepted and Diner’s Club is pretty much useless. Debit cards (or cash-only cards) are also widely accepted.

One thing you should know is that you really need a card with a chip and a 4-digit PIN. Make sure that you know your PIN number by heart! You’ll need a credit card with a pin for all the payments all over Iceland – from restaurant bills to petrol stations.

TIP: If you don’t have the right credit card, check out this selection of the best American credit cards for travel. I recommend choosing a card with no foreign transaction fees.

4. Be prepared for the ever-changing weather

It always makes me smile when people ask what kind of weather they’ll get in a certain travel period. It’s just impossible to answer. Yes, it will be colder in January than in July, but that’s pretty much an accurate prediction as anyone can give you…

Icelandic weather is so unpredictable that it can change from winter to summer in just a day. Gulf Stream keeps Iceland cool in summer and mild in winter. The average temperature in Reykjavik is around 0°C (31°F) in January and only 13°C (55°F) in July.

No matter when you visit Iceland – in summer, in winter, or any time in between, you ALWAYS have to be prepared for all types of weather. It can (and it will) change multiple times a day. You may start the day in glorious sunshine, get soaking wet in a torrential downpour or blown by the indescribable wind an hour later, and end up driving in a mist with zero visibility another couple of hours later… You just never know.

Also, don’t trust the weather forecast alone. Often, the temperatures might look ok, but the wind makes a huge difference.

READ ALSO: When to Visit Iceland: Summer vs Winter

5. Dress in layers and wear a waterproof outer layer

You will need casual clothing in layers for excursions and some smart clothes if going out. Warm wind- and waterproof jacket and a swimsuit are necessary all year round.

In summer or in winter, always dress in layers and always have a waterproof outer layer at hand, A good waterproof jacket is essential. So are good waterproof boots and waterproof rain pants. You should also always have a buff, a pair of gloves, and a warm hat with you.

Below you can find our tips for what to pack for Iceland in every season. The summer list is for mid May to mid September and the winter list applies for the rest of the year (October to April-May). Bookmark these articles or download our packing lists to make sure you’re not forgetting anything essential.

LEARN MORE: What to Wear in Iceland in Summer & What to Wear in Iceland in Winter

6. Pack waterproof shoes

If you want to enjoy your Iceland trip to the fullest, good sturdy shoes are a must. In summer, I recommend good waterproof hiking boots and in winter – warm sturdy winter boots with a good grip.

I wore these Lowa hiking boots in Iceland in summer and these UGG waterproof winter boots in Iceland in winter.

Once, I packed water-resistant hiking boots to Iceland but found that it really wasn’t enough. Waterproof shoes are really a must in Iceland in any season!

LEARN MORE: Best Winter Boots for Travel

Walking through the water on Raudasandur beach in Iceland
You really need good waterproof shoes in order to enjoy your Icelandic trip to the fullest!
 

7. Keep an eye on weather alerts and road closures

Make sure to always check if there are any weather alerts or road closures when traveling in Iceland. While it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and any safety warnings, it’s absolutely essential to do this if visiting Iceland outside of the summer season.

In winter, many roads in Iceland are closed. And even sections of the major roads like the Ring Road might get closed due to snowfall or similar. It’s essential that you check if there are any 

TIP: Bookmark safetravel.is and road.is websites or download their apps and check them every single day!

Waterfall along Fjallabaksleidsydri scenic road in Iceland
You can expect all kinds of weather in Iceland, but it’s always amazing, even on the gloomy days

8. Know how much to budget for your trip

Iceland is not a cheap country, but most costs can be compared to how much everything costs in the other Scandinavian countries or Switzerland. The most expensive things are accommodation, dining out, and organized activities.

TIP: You can save a lot of money by booking things in advance.

LEARN MORE: How expensive is Iceland + Budget Tips

9. You don’t have to tip

It’s not customary to tip in Iceland and tips are not expected. Your restaurant bill is high enough as it is and service is already included in it. 

Many people like to tip tour guides in Iceland. However, while always appreciated, it’s also not a must. If you absolutely want to tip your tour guides, you may want to take some cash. Many people just tip in USD or in EUR.

How expensive is Iceland - price examples for food, hotels, car rental, activities, and more
Icelandic sweaters – one of the most expensive, but also useful souvenirs you can buy in Iceland
 

10. Drive carefully

Iceland has right-hand traffic. Driving in Iceland is very relaxing as there is hardly any traffic outside of Reykjavik. In summer, it’s easy to explore Iceland along the main Ring Road by car. 

However, most main roads in Iceland, including the biggest parts of the Ring Road, have just one lane in each direction and no shoulder. It’s therefore extremely important that you drive carefully and keep your eyes on the road all the time. You have to anticipate for sheep and tourists on the road – the latter often even more careless and unpredictable.

Do not stop on the side of the road, because others won’t be able to easily pass you. 

It’s also good to know that Iceland has many single-lane bridges and also some single-lane tunnels. There are always signs indicating who has priority and how to approach it, but you have to drive slowly enough to see those signs in time!

Just on our last trip to Iceland, we saw three drivers in one day (yes, 3 in 1 day!) driving on the wrong side of the road. If you don’t even know on which side of the road they drive in Iceland, you really shouldn’t be renting a car and driving. Iceland is not the country to start to learn to drive!

Good to know: Driving in winter is yet a whole other story. You can expect icy roads, snow on the roads, the wind blowing so much snow that you can’t see anything, and also darkness. Even if you have winter driving experience at home, driving in Iceland in winter is a whole other league. If you don’t have any winter driving experience, please do yourself and others a favor, and do not drive. There are plenty of organized tours. It’s just not worth your life!

LEARN MORE: Driving in Iceland in Winter

Driving in Iceland in September - road conditions are generally very good
Part of the Ring Road
 

11. Know when you need to rent a 4WD or 4×4

No, you don’t necessarily need a 4WD or a 4×4 in Iceland. The Ring Road is paved and most attractions along this popular road can easily be reached in a regular 2WD car.

That being said, if you are traveling to Iceland in winter (October to April/May), a 4WD or a 4×4 is always a good idea.

Also in summer, if you are planning to get a bit off the beaten path and visit some places like the lighthouses of Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the cliffs of Reykjanes Peninsula, or the Westfjords, to mention just a few, you should also consider renting a 4WD. You need a car that is allowed to drive on the F-roads. It just makes your trip so much less stressful and more enjoyable!

12. Know what the F-roads are

You may have heard about the F-roads in Iceland, but what are they? The F-roads are secondary roads in Iceland and usually, they are gravel. However, one F-road is not equal to another. While some F-roads are just simple gravel roads, some others are extremely bumpy, yet others have serious river crossings.

Driving the F-roads requires a 4WD or a 4×4. In some cases, it requires a 4x4super jeep.

Most F-roads are usually only open from mid-June to approx. end September (weather dependent). If you are planning to drive any F-roads, make sure that you do proper research and know which roads are ok in a regular 4WD or a small 4×4 and which ones require a 4×4 super jeep.

Make sure that you rent a car that is suitable for the roads you are planning to drive and that your rental agreement allows you to use that car on the F-roads. Please also note that even the best and the most complete insurance does not cover river crossings.

LEARN MORE: Bucket-list trip in the Highlands of Iceland with a Private Driver

Super jeep crossing a river in the Icelandic Highlands
Driving in Icelandic highlands is best done with the right car and a local driver
 

13. Take full insurance for your car

I can’t even tell you how often I see this question – ‘Do I really need 100% insurance coverage for my rental car in Iceland?‘. The answer is yes!

While it is very likely that nothing will happen and you won’t need your car insurance, the chances are quite high that you will need it. And in that case, the repair costs will be huge…

I’ve seen tens of stories from people whose car window got smashed by flying rocks or whose car doors were ripped-off by strong winds in Iceland, and those who didn’t take full insurance, end up paying a lot of money for these accidents that they couldn’t even do anything about…

Our experience: We’ve been to Iceland several times and luckily we had full insurance every time. On our first trip (end of May-beginning of June), we encountered a snowstorm and icy roads and our car slid off the road. Luckily, there was no damage to the car or the people, but at least we didn’t have to worry about the insurance, just getting our car back on the road…

On our most recent trip, we got a flat tire in the Westfjords. It was completely ruined beyond repair and our insurance covered the new tire that we bought. We didn’t even have to prepay for it – the car rental company contacted the garage and sorted it all out.

TIP: Since the travel market is so uncertain at the moment, I recommend renting your car via the RentalCars website. Not only can you compare different providers and find the best deals for your rental car, but you are also much better protected in case a local company goes bankrupt as it recently happened with our favorite local provider in Iceland. Our experience with Rental Cars has always been great.

Driving on the F-roads in Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland
Driving on the F-roads in Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Having full insurance lets you truly enjoy your trip and explore the most amazing places without any worries.
 

14. Make a road trip

Now that I told you that driving in Iceland isn’t always easy or advisable, I also want to say that renting a car and road-tripping is also the best way to explore Iceland. 

Public transport options are very limited and day tours are quite expensive. In winter, I recommend taking tours from Reykjavik or a multi-day organized trip like this, but in summer you can easily explore Iceland on your own.

Staying in Reykjavik isn’t ideal (unless in winter) and I really recommend exploring Iceland by taking a road trip. The most popular places along the South Coast can be visited in as little as 4-5 days. Here you can find a very detailed itinerary covering all the must-see places in the south of Iceland: 4 days in Iceland.

LEARN MORE: Iceland Itinerary Suggestions

15. Research where to go and what to see

Iceland is so big and there is so much to see that it’s really hard to visit all the best places in just a few days. A lot depends on the season when you’re traveling as well. It’s, therefore, important to do some research in advance.

The most popular places to visit are Reykjavik, the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon, the waterfalls and the black sand beaches of the South Coast, and also Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. Our 4-day itinerary mentioned above covers all these must-see places.

If you have the time, however, I really recommend that you explore Iceland deeper. Because it has so much more to offer than that!

LEARN MORE: Best Places to See in Iceland

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon should be included in every Iceland trip itinerary
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
 

16. Get off the beaten path

Iceland has become such a popular destination and some places are really busy. Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon, and the main attractions along the south coast can get really crowded at any time of the year… And also the Myvatn area in summer…

The good news is that there are still plenty of incredible places in Iceland that are not yet overrun by tourists and where you can experience the most beautiful nature and local life without the crowds.

Icelandic highlands are, of course, like that, but most places there aren’t easily accessible. However, there are plenty of easily accessible places that are not busy at all. Here are just a few examples of some incredible less-visited destinations in Iceland that we absolutely love:

Westfjords in Iceland
Westfjords – one of the lesser-visited regions in Iceland
 

17. Get Wi-Fi hotspot or a local SIM card

There is good mobile network coverage pretty much everywhere in Iceland. Even on my trip exploring the Icelandic Highlands, we had 4G mobile network coverage almost everywhere. I was making video calls with my kids from some of the most amazing locations in the middle of nowhere.

All hotels and most restaurants in Iceland have free high-speed Wi-Fi.

If you have a SIM card from any of the EU countries, you won’t be charged any roaming fees in Iceland.

If you are coming from the US, I suggest that you rent a portable Wi-Fi device. They are available for hire at the airport and some car rental companies offer them as well. You can connect multiple devices to it and enjoy good internet during your entire trip.

Some people choose to also buy a local SIM card, but I don’t really see why you’d need one if you have a portable wifi device. You can make calls via WhatsApp or other apps on your phone.

18. Learn a few words of Icelandic

If you speak English, you have nothing to worry about when visiting Iceland. Everyone seems to speak English so you will not need to learn Icelandic. However, it might be useful to learn a few words of Icelandic. Even if just to better understand the names of the places you’ll be visiting.

Remember the impossible name of the volcano that erupted a few years ago – Eyjafjallajökull? Ask Icelanders how to pronounce it so you can impress everyone back home.

Just a note on Icelandic place names. The long seemingly impossible words are actually just a combination of shorter words. 

So, for example, the above mentioned Eyjafjallajökull means ‘the glacier of an island mountain’: eyja (island), fjalla (mountain), and jökull (glacier). Reykjavik means ‘bay of smokes’: reykja (smoke) and vik (bay), etc.

Here are some other popular words that you’ll see used in the place names all over Iceland: foss = waterfall, vik=bay, fjordur= fjord, dalur= valley, Vegur=road, gata=street, gljúfur=canyon, jökull=glacier, fjall=mountain and fjöll=mountains…

19. Drink tap water

Tap water in Iceland is safe and it’s really good. Make sure to pack a reusable drinking bottle for your day trips and fill it with tap water.

There is really no reason to buy bottled water in Iceland. All restaurants serve tap water for free – here is a healthy way to save money.

20. Enjoy the best of Iceland for free

The best things in life are free, and so are the best things in Iceland. There are no entrance fees to any of the most famous landmarks. Waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, national parks – you can visit them all for free.

21. Don’t miss local pools and hot springs

While everybody always talks about the famous geothermal pools such as the Blue Lagoon, Myvatn Nature Baths, and a few others, most people forget that Iceland is a country of swimming pools. Every town and most smaller villages in Iceland have a pool. And not just any pool!

Most local pools in Iceland are first-class facilities. Often, they are outdoor pools that also have multiple hot tubs, saunas, steam baths. Many local pools also have baby pools, water toys for kids, or even water slides. Furthermore, these pools cost just a fraction of the popular ones, and there hardly any people there.

There are also many natural hot springs all over Iceland where you are allowed to swim.

So when planning your trip, make sure to check for local pools or hot springs. It’s the best way to end your day of sightseeing! Every day!

Hofsos swimming pool in Iceland
Hofsos swimming pool in Iceland

22. Pack European travel adapters

In Iceland, the electricity is 220 volts and you have to use European type C adapters.

For regular devices such as mobile phones, a simple travel adapter is enough. For heavy devices, you’d need a converter, but I’d say leave such devices at home. Most hotels provide hair dryers.

23. Prepare for endless days in summer and just a few hours of daylight in winter

Here are just some examples of what to expect in terms of daylight when visiting Iceland:

  • In summer, the sun never sets in Iceland, so the days are endless. If you visit in May or June, you have pretty much 24 hours of daylight.
  • If you travel to Iceland at the beginning of April or the beginning of September, you will have about 14 hours of daylight.
  • In December, you’ll have just 3-4 hours of daylight in Southern Iceland and just 2-3 hours of daylight in North Iceland. It’s essential to plan your winter trip to Iceland well, or you won’t see much.

24. Know what time it is

Iceland in on GMT time zone, so there is a 1 hour difference from the UK and 2 hours from Western Europe. Local time in Iceland is 4 hours ahead of New York.

Travel Tips for Iceland
Black sand beach in Vik, along the South Coast
 

25. Pack sleeping masks in summer

I think I mentioned this a dozen times in so many articles about traveling to the Nordics in summer. If you want to enjoy your summer trip to Iceland, you really should pack a sleeping mask. Most hotels and accommodations do not have full black-out curtains and since it stays light the entire night, you won’t get any sleep without covering your eyes.

TIP: After lots of trial and error, we now have these sleeping masks that we use for our Nordic vacations. They are excellent – comfortable, not too warm, and they stay on your face really well.

LEARN MORE: What to Pack for Iceland in Summer

26. Pack crampons in winter

Most locals and tourists who have experienced a true winter wonderland in Iceland recommend packing crampons or stabilicers when visiting Iceland in winter. The pavements in town can be ice and walking paths around the waterfalls often look like an ice skating rink. If you want to safely enjoy your winter trip, it’s really advisable to wear ice cleats over your shoes.

TIP: You don’t have to buy really heavy or expensive crampons. I now use this type of ice cleats for my winter trips and they do the job just fine. Furthermore, they are light to pack, fit in your pocket, and are very easy to put on or take off.

LEARN MORE: Iceland Packing List for Winter

27. Stay safe

Iceland is a very safe country and the crime rate is very low. To give you an idea, the total prison capacity in Iceland is about 120 prisoners, and it’s more than sufficient. If there is one country in the world where you don’t have to worry about safety, then it has to be Iceland.

That being said, recently there have been quite a few cases of people being robbed by pickpockets at the popular natural attractions along the Golden Circle. So it never harms to be extra careful.

The biggest danger for tourists is driving, unpredictable weather, and reckless behavior in nature. So keep an eye for alerts, obey the signs at the cliffs, waterfalls, and beaches and make sure to drive responsibly.

So, these are some of our most-essential travel tips for Iceland. Do you have any other practical questions about visiting Iceland? Feel free to leave a reply below and I’ll try to help. You’re also welcome to join our Iceland and Scandinavia Travel group on Facebook that has thousands of members, so there is always somebody who can help you out.

More tips for your trip to Iceland:

If you found this post useful, don’t forget to bookmark it and share it with your friends. Are you on Pinterest? Pin this image!

Tips for visiting Iceland for the first time
 

Comments

  1. I’m from Malaysia. I’m interested in the Zodiac tour. I plan to visit Iceland 6th June 2020 to 13th June 2020. I can’t book a ticket now as I can’t exactly confirm which day I will be there. Can I have a ticket with flexible date of visit?

    1. Author

      Hello, we are just a travel blog and we don’t book tours. If you want to book a zodiac tour on Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, you can do it here.
      I don’t think that you can book a flexible ticket, however. It’s best that you figure out your trip itinerary and then book your tours based on that. You can find some suggestions for Iceland’s South Coast itinerary here, if that helps.
      Have a great trip!

  2. Thank you very much for the links and info! I really appreciate it.

  3. I wanna go to Iceland after reading this 🙂

    1. HI Jurga, I am planning an Iceland trip in August. We want to drive down to the Glacier Lagoon and take a boat tour. Do you have any boat tours or companies to recommend? We are interested in the RIF or zodiac type tour. Do you have any advice about types of boats? I assume it’s good to have a reservation. Thank you very much.
      Bless, bless. Carmen

      1. Author

        Hi Carmen, you should indeed try to book in advance. Here’s the website of the place that runs the boat tours on Jokulsarlon. I don’t think there are more options there – it used to be all the same company as far as I know.
        We did an amphibian boat tour there years ago and it was quite special. Nowadays we really love zodiac boat tours as well, but we haven’t done one at Jokulsarlon, so I can’t compare. From what I see, zodiac is a lot more expensive than the amphibian boat, so it’s really up to you. Keep in mind that sometimes zodiac tours get cancelled due to high winds and (if I understand it correctly) it’s a bit less the case for the amphibian boats.
        Even if you don’t do a boat tour and just walk around the lagoon, you’ll love it.
        Nearby you can also find another glacier lagoon – Fjallsarlon. There you can also do (cheaper) zodiac tours (you can book them directly with the company that runs them), so maybe it’s worth looking into that?

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.