ONE DUMMY'S OPINION
Recommendations for Visiting Iceland
After 24 days in Iceland, I'm certainly no expert, but as an American tourist fresh from visiting the island, these are my recommendations for those looking to do the same.
Get one. You see so much more, and you have the option of taking back roads when you get the chance and can stop and go as you please. I’m allergic to tour buses and their over-long planned stops at souvenir shops. Save some cash up and rent. I rented from Blue Car Rentals at Keflavik Airport. Aside from the 5 minute walk outside the terminal to get to their office, the car was superb, had all of the insurance included, and they were very straightforward. Most rental car agencies had a teaser rate to draw you in, but once you added in all the insurance, it gets a lot more expensive. Blue Car was one of the most transparent agencies on cost.
I noticed when researching rental cars that there are a number of companies branded under many different names that are really all the same company. This isn’t really good or bad, but do a little bit of research, as if you’re trying to compare deals between some of these companies, you’ll likely be wasting your time, as all the prices will be very, very similar. I generally lose a bit of trust when there’s something slightly deceptive in the marketing so I avoided them overall. I don’t remember the names of these companies, as it was months ago that I booked a car, but it isn’t head to figure out. They’re not brand names like Budget, Hertz etc.
I rented a nearly new Mercedes-Benz Diesel SUV. It was expensive, but not much more than what a similar car would cost in the states. We were going to spend a lot of time in the car over this trip, so we went for something bigger for comfort. The upside - for such a big car, it was insanely efficient. We got over 40mpg and saved a fair amount on fuel.
If you’re worried about using unmanned gas stations with your credit card, buy some pre-paid gas cards at N1. Be aware Olis isn’t as prevalent out in the countryside. Stick with N1 or Orvan.
Unlike in the US, diesel is cheaper in Iceland by a small amount. Still, fuel is very expensive compared to the US - as of this writing (June 2015), diesel fuel is US$6.17/gallon and petrol is US$6.46/gallon.
Sand and Ash protection - the rental car company will warn you about sand damage. You’ll find different opinions online about it, but it’s one of those things that you don’t think you need until it’s too late. If you’re driving along the south coast past Vík, there is about 100km of open sand landscape, and if the winds are up you can easily find your car sandblasted. I think you have two options - if you go without, stay updated on weather and wind conditions on Belgingur, and be willing to change your travel plans if the conditions don’t allow it. Still, even with the protection, it’s a bad idea to drive into a sandstorm. If nature is’t going to let you get somewhere, don’t fight it. We changed plans a few times on this trip due to weather. It is what it is.
Driving In Iceland
Check Vegagerdin and Belgingur everyday before you drive. If Vegagerdin says the road has wet snow and ice, it’ll have it. If it says impassible, find something else to do. They don’t mess around or sugarcoat road conditions, and you definitely don’t want to find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere. Yes, someone will eventually come around, but you’ll likely be waiting a long time for help.
Don’t drive off road, unless it’s a marked area for doing so. Expect to drive on gravel roads, some of which will be bumpier than others. Unlike in the states, where speed recommendations for upcoming turns are usually much lower than what you can comfortably do, in Iceland, when they warn of speed reductions for an upcoming turn, it’s a good idea to stick to it. When they say a corner is best taken at 40km/hr, they mean it. There are also very few guardrails in Iceland; poorly planned curves can end very very badly. Just chill, slow down, and relax. Be on vacation. I just set the cruise control at the limit and relaxed a bit. Iceland isn’t a big country - I’m so used to distances we typically drive in the US, that “long” distances in Iceland were no big deal. If we weren’t stopping to take pictures constantly, we would have have relatively short days.
There are roads in Iceland that will test the nerves of the most hardened drivers. The road to Rauðisandur (near Látrabjarg in the Westfjörds) is a set of steep dirt 20km/hr switchbacks that have a definitely fatal cliff along one side of the road with no guardrails to speak of. The road to Látrabjarg, one of the most popular and scenic spots in the Westfjörds, has its own series of challenges, tight curves and drop-offs along a sometimes single-lane gravel track. Check the weather first, go slow, and if you’re a nervous driver, maybe let someone else handle it. But ALWAYS check the weather and road conditions.
If you need to turn around, and have to execute a multi-point turn on the road to do so, get out of the car and check the stability of the shoulder of the road, so you don’t sink into mud or sand and get stuck. NEVER trust snow - what looks like a small dusting might be a snow drift that swallows your rear tires. Don’t ask how I know this.
Watch this video on driving in Iceland from Vegagerdin. Swallow your pride about knowing how to drive a car and I’ve been doing it for 30 years yadda yadda yadda….just watch the video, as it is definitely informative in what to expect in Iceland, like transitions to gravel roads, blind hills, single-lane bridges and tunnels.
Unless you’re heading into the interior of the island or other places that are isolated, you definitely don’t need a GPS.There just aren't that many roads in Iceland, and the ones they have are very well marked. All you need is a good map. Don't spend your money on a GPS - put it toward fuel instead.
You really don’t need much, other than for really small purchases or for paying a small amount to feed the meters in Reykjavik. I converted US$200 at the airport to Króna, and I still had Kr7000 left after nearly a month. You DO need a debit card or a VISA card. If your credit card doesn’t have a PIN number, call your credit card company and get one - it might take 7-10 business days to do this. Generally you won't need the PIN for the credit card, but the unmanned gas stations can sometimes require one. Be sure that you notify your credit card companies that you’re traveling so they don’t flag you once you start buying rounds of Gull Lager halfway around the world. If you have a credit card with an encrypted chip on the front, no need to worry about the PIN; you’re golden.
For some reason, as of this writing, Iceland doesn’t take American Express very much - many merchants and hotels are VISA/Mastercard only. Plan accordingly.
Bottles of wine in restaurants are exorbitantly expensive - almost comically so. Cocktails are generally pricey as well. Beer was generally reasonable.
If you’re used to buying rounds of drinks in New York / LA etc., some of the prices may not be that shocking, but overall it's expensive to drink alcohol in Iceland, particularly in bars and restaurants. Your best options when dining are beer and sometimes wines by the glass, depending on the restaurant. If you're staying in, you can save a lot by going to the liquor store - Vinbudin - and picking up wine and beer there. Hard liquor is expensive. Even the local vodka, Reyka, can be gotten cheaper in the States. Surprisingly, wine prices at Vinbudin were not much more expensive than what I pay in California. Beer was more reasonable as well.
Don’t know. I took the trip as an opportunity to disconnect from social media etc. I didn’t bother with a SIM card and didn’t use the cell service at all, instead only connecting to email when in Wifi, which you can find in nearly every hotel and coffee house. Get a wifi calling app like Viber and buy some minutes on that for any calls you need to make. I made exactly 1 phone call for nearly a month, and had my cell phone forwarded to a google Voice mailbox that sent me an email when I had a message. Email and messages was my connection to back home, and it worked fine. Go on vacation and disconnect if you can.
Where To Stay
This trip had three people - myself and my parents - and it was less expensive to rent apartments and houses that would hold the three of us rather than book two hotel rooms. So, if you can do that, I definitely recommend it. The upside - you get a lot more space, you have a kitchen and sometimes a washer/dryer, and you’re on your own. I find it far more relaxing than checking into and out of hotels. During this entire trip we stayed at only two hotels and one guesthouse. Everything else was a rental. There are downsides - communication with all the homeowners was not optimal, so at times it was a scramble to get in touch regarding location and code for a keybox, but most of the towns are so small that it’s not hard to find where you need to go. You need to bring food with you, so it’s more to pack. Obviously, there's no maid service or a boutique or a swingin' hot spot.
My favorite places on the trip:
Reykjavik - Reykjavik4you Apartments. Not cheap, but a nice modern space right on Lagurvegur. Only downside was there was no private parking, and you had to be wary of the meters during the day.
Höfn - Guesthouse Dyngja. Run by a really nice couple, everyone has trays of food for breakfast waiting for them in the kitchen, and the living room has a stereo to sit back and play records on. It was a great place to meet other tourists. Some rooms are a shared bathroom. I don’t mind, but it might not be for you.
Eastfjörds - Myoeyri Cabins (Eskifjordur) Little cottages at the far end of town, on a spit of land just jutting into the fjord. They have a sauna as well as a hot pool fashioned out of an old boat. Plus a chocolate lab.
Akureyri - Hrímland New development up on the hill on the way to the ski resort. We were in number 10, which was on the corner of the development looking down on the town. Big soaking tub, washer/dryer, and a full kitchen. We stayed here for 4 nights and used it as a base to explore the area.
Borgarnes - Eglis Guesthouse. Beautifully restored 3-bedroom house (#8) in old town. We didn’t want to leave.
Where To Eat
This will constantly change with time, so I won’t go into detail on restaurants here. I only have two things to say:
1/ Sometimes the #3 restaurant in (insert small town here) is the #3 restaurant because there’s only 3 restaurants in that town. After a while, nearly all of the restaurants outside the city become similar - they all have pizza, burgers, and arctic charr.
2/ If you find yourself in Ísafjörður and don’t go to Tjöruhúsið, I don’t know what to do for you.
Handpicked Iceland (iOS) - a curated collection of design shops, places and activities around Iceland.
112 (iOS / Android) - the app need updating, but it works. 112 is the emergency number for Iceland. This app allows you to send your GPS data to “check-in” if you’re heading into remote areas. It also has a button to contact emergency personnel if you get into trouble.
Bookmark Vegagerdin - The Icelandic Road Authority.
Bookmark Belgingur - Wind and precip maps and forecast.
There are a lot of blogs about Iceland and tours etc. They were all helpful in some way, but these really guided this trip:
Iceland For 91 Days - a $8. e-book of two guys’ travel through Iceland and what they saw and did over 3 months. Highly recommended.
Zig Zag on Earth - a catalog of natural sights and wonders that helped me plan this trip immensely.
Reykjavik Grapevine - the alternative newspaper in Reykjavik. Perfect source for what’s going on, who’s playing where, and where it’s cheaper to drink.
VisitingIceland on Reddit - ask questions of Icelanders. For gods sake, read the FAQ first, please.