Iceland is a HOT destination at the moment (pun intended). In the last decade, Iceland’s tourism industry has doubled and is credited with helping the country recover from the 2008 financial crisis. According to the Icelandic tourism board, 2014 saw a 23% increase in visitor numbers from the year before. Knowing that, I guess it’s no surprise that my newsfeed has been filled with photos from friends visiting this beautiful country over the last year and a bit.
Iceland is a great stopover over or, in our case, final destination. We went for 10 days at the start of September and rented a campervan to drive around the country along Ring Road. We camped most nights, and stayed in Reykjavik for our last weekend. It was a trip that I actually researched, so I wanted to share some tips that I found helpful, plus my personal experience.
- Pick Your Season
From what I learned, there are a number of pros and cons for visiting Iceland at different times of the year. So I’ll give you some context on how we landed on early September. The busiest travel season is summer (June–August). The weather is best, and you also get the famous “midnight sun,” which means long days of sightseeing and businesses with longer hours. The downside we noticed was also that prices were higher for these months. KuKu Campers, who we rented our campervan from, dropped all of their rates starting September 1st, and that seemed to translate across a number of areas. So going in early September did save us some funds, and it wasn’t too cold yet.
We also chose September knowing this was the first month we could have a shot at seeing the Northern Lights (which we did). Obviously, Iceland is a totally different holiday come wintertime. You do have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights, although everything I read also said not to plan your trip for the Northern Lights (a little too unpredictable). You also get the opportunity to see things like the ice caves, which look so spectacular but aren’t an option year-round. We wouldn’t have been able to camp through the colder months, and would have planned a very different trip during that time of year.
- Research Flights
We ended up booking flights with WOW Air. They are a low-cost carrier that currently only flies in and out of Boston and Washington D.C. for US stops. We bought a separate Southwest flights to Boston, gave ourselves a short layover for the day and then took the red eye that evening to Reykjavik. It was exhausting but very competitive in terms of the price. One thing to note when looking at the WOW Air prices is that those exclude any real baggage. They only allow a very small checked cabin bag with your ticket, and no checked bags. So you will easily add on another $100 in luggage to that listed price. They are certainly a “no frills,” low-cost carrier, but our flight was good and solid value for the price. All that being said, you may find more affordable flights elsewhere especially if this is part of a stopover for you.
- Design your Trip
I really wanted to road trip and camp around Iceland. It’s not my usual holiday style and, honestly, I think I’m more of a city girl. However, everything I read during my research made me want to take time to see as much of the country as possible and spend time exploring the natural aspects of Iceland. A road trip around Ring Road is a great way to do that, and it felt like Iceland was made for road trips and camping. Again, as someone who is not necessarily a “camper” or outdoorsy person, I got along just fine.
This is certainly not the only way to see the country. We drove past so many adorable bed and breakfast style spots along Ring Road. You can also book tours from Reykjavik to see a lot of the country. I think this is a great option if you are there in the winter during less favorable weather. I can’t imagine doing all the driving time we did through ice and snow. I think a tour from the capital is also a smart choice if you are short on time. We did our loop around Ring Road in about a week, which is pretty much the minimum amount of time you would want to take. That’s counting around two to three hours driving each day, plus there is a lot to stop and see along the way.
- Create a Budget
I must confess, some holidays I’m not very diligent about creating a detailed budget beforehand. I might know airfare and accommodation, but then leave the rest flexible as I go. I did a lot more planning for Iceland. Everything I read said it was an expensive place to visit, and I found that pretty accurate. I found that creating a budget beforehand helped me not only plan, but also managed my expectations on the cost of what the trip would be. So for those reasons, I would definitely recommend it.
I pre-booked our campervan and hotel for Reykjavik, but I didn’t book campsites or any other activities until we arrived. From what I read, bookings are more essential in those popular summer months. They are also essential for the Blue Lagoon if you want a specific day and time that aligns with your flight. We booked the Zodiac Tour at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon the day before so we could get the time that worked for our driving schedule.
- Have a Packing List
It’s tough to advise on packing for a trip to Iceland since it does depend on the season. However I am happy to give some tips for late summer/early autumn that helped us. Like many trips with changing weather, layers are key, and this proved especially true for Iceland. We would be stuck in the rain, and then 20 minutes later the sun was out and we were sweating on a hike, followed closely by high-speed winds that left you cold again. I was happy to have a variety of layers packed for the week.
Another item that I was very happy to have was a protective rain shell. I could always wear more or fewer layers underneath depending on the temperature, but having a waterproof layer was a lifesaver. It rained at least for a little bit almost every day we were there. Similar to the rain shell, I was so happy to have a pair of wind-proof and water-resistant pants with me. As someone who does not camp, hike or typically enjoy the great outdoors on a regular basis, I felt like I was in a cliché ad for Columbia or Northface until I started seeing other travelers around the country all wearing a very similar getup. This write-up gives a good run down if you want more detail on what to pack.