Iceland is one of the most incredible countries in the world, and despite it’s wild landscapes and remoteness, it has become one of the best and easiest countries for solo travellers. If you are thinking about heading to Iceland in the future, here is a short guide with practical and useful information to help make it as stress free as possible!
Language barriers are almost completely non-existent in Iceland. Icelandic people all speak fluent Icelandic but almost all native Icelanders also speak fluent English. However, like anywhere else in the world, if you are planning to stay or travel with a group of Icelandic people for more than a few days it is polite to learn a few Icelandic words and phrases.
The Icelandic Krona is the official currency in Iceland. There are ATMs inside Keflavik International Airport where you can obtain the native currency; however, credit cards and debit cards are the most popular form of payment in Iceland – even in the remote northern areas – so having cash isn’t essential. The few exceptions to this rule are flea markets and some food trucks.
EU electrical plugs and EU two pronged adapters are all you need to recharge your devices in Iceland. Buy them in advance as these are more pricey once you get to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Tipping is not essential in Iceland, but as in most places, widely appreciated. If the service is exceptional – feel free to give a tip, if not – don’t feel obliged.
Tours can be booked pretty spontaneously – but accommodation can be harder to guarantee. In Reykjavik, the cheaper dorm bunks get booked up pretty quick and hotels are pretty pricey – so if you are on a budget – booking ahead isn’t a bad idea. Outside of Reykjavik accommodation can often be booked spontaneously – but if you are travelling in high season (the summer months) accommodation can still book out in advance.
If you have visited other Scandinavian countries the required budget won’t surprise you too much – it’s pretty on par with Oslo. However, if you haven’t had a Scandinavian adventure before, the cost of things may shock you. Expect to spend at least $120 AUD each day – potentially more. Set aside up to $40 per day for a bunk in an 8 bed dorm, getting a meal for less than $15 is considered a bargain, expect to pay around $15 per pint of beer in a pub and tours start at around $120 for a full day. If you are on a tight budget, planning and booking ahead will be your best bet at saving some dollars. Also, find the nearest Bonus supermarket and cook in your hostel for the cheapest eats. Iceland is definitely not a budget destination, but if you can spare the money, it is worth every cent.
The amount of tour companies in Iceland is absolutely huge. There are lots of different companies offering lots of different tours for lots of different prices. The choice can be overwhelming! As a general rule of thumb, the smaller companies are more expensive but provide a far superior experience in smaller groups, whereas the larger companies take huge tour groups in enormous buses for a cheaper price. I personally hate feeling like cattle on an enormous tour bus, so I usually avoid the larger companies like the plague, but if you are on a budget and don’t mind large groups – these trips may be perfect for you. Work out your budget and what you want to get from the tour – then book a trip.
Icelandic weather does what it wants – when it wants. Regardless of what time of year you travel, be prepared for unseasonable warmth, freezing cold, rain and snow. I personally preferred to travel in the winter as I experienced less rain and more snow; however I have met people who love the Icelandic summer – go with whatever you prefer – the winter does mean better chance of seeing Northern Lights though!
Like everything in Iceland – taxis don’t come cheap, they are pretty pricey as far as taxi drives go – but they are safe, abundant and easy to find. Most cities are pretty walk-able, so if you can do the walk, do it and save the money for more important things.
Icelandic food is expensive and there isn’t any way around it. Bonus supermarkets have the cheapest grub but if you aren’t accustomed to Scandinavian prices the cost of goods will still probably be a shock to the system. One of the best semi cheap (yet filling) meals in Reykjavik is at Noodle Station where you can get an enormous bowl of delicious ramen noodles for around $14. If you are heading to a more upmarket restaurant be prepared to fork out at least $60 – even more if you plan on drinking.
If you want to immerse yourself in the culture and eat what the Icelanders eat, be sure to try the following:
Skyr is a sweet dairy product that is thicker and sweeter than a strained yoghurt. It is eaten for breakfast, as a snack and also put into smoothies. It is delicious and you will miss it when you leave!
Fermented shark is the food of the Vikings and I will be honest – tastes truly disgusting! Many restaurants will offer a small sample of the dish (for a fee) so that you can say you have tried it.
It is not uncommon to see puffin and whale on the menu in Iceland. I have not tried whale but I have tried puffin and if you can ignore the fact that you are eating the adorable clowns of the sky – it is pretty tasty.
Traditional fish stew is absolutely delicious and available everywhere – eat it with the Icelandic rye bread. The rye bread is made in the traditional Icelandic way – dough is put in a pot which is buried near a hot spring – after 24 hours the earth will have baked a beautiful bread! It is sweeter than the bread most people are accustomed to but definitely worth trying.
Seafood in general is of a high quality in Iceland – sushi and sashimi is usually pretty top notch.
Social taboos about eating horse meat don’t exist in Iceland so don’t be shocked if you see it on the menu.
Lastly, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is a hotdog stall next to the Kolaportid flea market and is famous for selling the best hotdogs in all of Europe. They are cheap, cheerful and so damn tasty that they are pretty much worth making the trip to Iceland for on their own!
Alcohol is pricey in Iceland – what a shock, right? However, as an Aussie who is used to alcohol being pricey due to an increased Goods and Services tax – the prices didn’t phase me too much. Americans and Canadians from across the pond however may find the prices a little ridiculous. “Pre-drinking” at home is standard Icelandic practice in order to save money.
Brennivín – or the ‘Black Death’ – is considered by many to be the national drink of Iceland. It is an unsweetened schnapps and certainly not the most easily downed of the hard liquors! Try it with some fermented shark to feel like a real Viking!
Gull is one of the most highly consumed beers in Iceland and is of a pretty fantastic quality – supposedly due to the purity of Icelandic water. It is available on tap almost everywhere and is popular for good reason.
There are many different types of accommodation in Iceland – from your fancy five star hotels to your boutique hostels and your budget b & b’s. I am mostly a hostel sleeping, budget backpacking kinda gal and as a result, can only comment on the quality of the hostels.
I have stayed in the following places and highly recommend them:
Loft Hostel in Reykjavik is centrally located, close to pubs, easy to locate, clean and reasonably priced. The staff are helpful, the beds comfortable and the bar upstairs has damn good prices during happy hour.
Located in downtown Reykjavik, KEX hostel is a bit on the ‘hipster’ side of life – but has comfy beds, modern amenities and absolutely gorgeous shared lounge areas.
Akureyri Backpackers is located in Northern Iceland and is absolutely fantastic. The shared kitchen facilities have everything you could ever possibly need and the showers (though a little cramped) have the most wonderfully hot water and amazing water pressure!
Hlemmur Square is in a great location, has big lockers, free Wi-Fi and particularly attractive staff! The sheets are clean, the mattresses comfy and the showers hot. What more do you want?
Iceland has one of the highest rates of internet access in the world. Free Wi-Fi is abundant and usually of pretty decent quality. Don’t go looking for an internet cafe, with free internet access so accessible, paying for Wi-Fi would be a waste of money.
When To Travel
There are pros and cons to travelling in Iceland in all seasons.
The summer months bring the midnight sun, milder weather and decreased likelihood that mother nature will throw a wrench in your plans; however the summer is high season – which means many more travellers and higher prices. Also, if you want to see the Northern Lights then it goes without saying that this is not the time for you to visit!
Shoulder season brings less people, cheaper prices and during the autumn months the Aurora will begin her dancing through the sky. The weather is much more unpredictable during these months though – be prepared for anything.
Winter is my favourite time to visit Iceland. Hostels are cheaper and less crowded, snow falls, the northern lights are always a possibility and major attractions such as Strokkur geysir have far fewer visitors. It does get pretty damn cold during these months – especially at night – be sure to pack thermals and heavy duty gloves or mittens.
Flights to and from Iceland have never been more accessible than now. There are regular flights from many European and American destinations with a variety of airlines. Iceland Air is the airline of choice for many – often offering multi day stopovers in Iceland at no extra cost. If budget is your middle name, WOW Air have pretty cheap flights from London to Reykjavik and are pretty great for a budget airline.
If you want to get away from the capital city but don’t have the time or means to drive – domestic flights with Air Iceland (not to be confused with the similarly named Iceland Air) are the way to go. Air Iceland is also the only airline to get you to Greenland from Iceland – a side trip that I’d highly recommend you take.
Don’t be alarmed if you notice a strange smell while showering in Iceland. What you are smelling is sulphur! It is naturally occurring in Icelandic water and only noticeable when warm. It isn’t harmful and you’ll adjust to the smell before you know it.
Wildlife is abundant in Iceland. Keep your eyes peeled for puffins if you are travelling to the west fjords during the spring and summer months. By autumn all these migratory birds will be long gone.
Minke whales and humpback whales can be seen all year round (though less in winter), and orcas and blue whales can sometimes be spotted in the summer months. Dolphins and seals can also be spotted most of the year if you are spending time out on the water.
Arctic foxes can also be spotted – particularly in the northern parts of the country. It is interesting to note that Icelandic arctic foxes do not turn white like foxes native to areas further north – instead they stay grey!
When many people think of Iceland, Icelandic horses are the first things that spring to mind. This unique breed of horse is much smaller than the horses most people would be familiar with. It is Icelandic law that these horses can not be exported in and of the country and no horses can be imported from elsewhere.
If you find yourself being propositioned by locals quite blatantly – try not to be offended. Native Icelanders are very open with all things sexual and casual sex is considered quite normal. Icelandic people can be quite blunt and to the point – so it makes sense that they would be this way in regards to sex too. If you aren’t down to get lucky while travelling, just tell them you aren’t interested – it’s no big deal.
What To Pack
In addition to packing all your usual travel essentials, make sure you pack the following: thermals, thick woolen gloves/mittens, thick and warm socks, strong hiking boots, a waterproof jacket and some fleece lined stockings to wear under your pants.
Why To Travel
I have been posting over the past few months about all the incredible places I have seen, experiences I have had and people I have met whilst in Iceland. The country is like no other in the world and so special. Boasting stunning geothermal wonders and out of this world landscapes, a vast array of arctic wildlife, glaciers to hike, dogsleds to ride, volcanoes to climb (or descend), mountains to hike, tectonic plates to touch, northern lights to marvel at and more waterfalls than you can poke a stick at – Iceland is a place that gets under your skin and into your soul.