Iceland has become a popular tourist destination in recent years and once you see the photos, it’s easy to understand why. Lush untouched landscape is a foreign sight to majority of people who live places with lots of commercialization, so it’s a breath of fresh air to know that places like that still exist.
My trip to Iceland was spontaneously decided when my friend and I came across a cheap round trip flight and booked it. Getting there is half the battle, so my friend and I had to find a car to rent in Iceland, plan our winter route, book accommodation for each town we decide to stay in, and create a flexible itinerary, because it’s been said that Iceland weather is unpredictable.
The time of year you decide to visit Iceland makes a huge difference in your overall experience. For starters, going in the winter means that there is only 6 hours of daylight making it difficult to explore for hours but on the plus side, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are greatly increased. Traveling during the summer months means a lot more daylight to travel around but definitely no Northern Lights.
Winter in Iceland is considered the off-season so prices are relatively cheaper in comparison to going during the high season. Spring begins in April, Summer begins in June, Fall begins in September and Winter begins in December. Iceland is already expensive as is (meals cost an average of $30 USD), so if you’re on a budget I would recommend traveling to Iceland during the winter. You can use that extra money to get yourself a nice winter coat!
The great thing about Iceland is that you’re forced to rent a car, because there’s pretty much no public transportation outside of Reykjavik and that means you’re in complete control of how you want to spend your time in Iceland.
The idea of road tripping across foreign lands where you might not see another car or building for miles may seem daunting at first, but there are tons of people out there who have done it before you. The epic Iceland road trip is called the Ring Road and it goes around the perimeter of Iceland in a perfect loop.
If safety is your concern, don’t bother stressing because Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world. The crime rate is so low that parents leave their babies outside alone in their strollers to enjoy the fresh air in the warmer months and while we were there we saw children walking around the city by themselves. That’s definitely not something you’ll hear about in America.
Are you convinced? Here’s how to plan a trip to Iceland in the winter.
1. Find airfare
My friend and I paid $298 each for round trip tickets from New York, New York to Keflavik, Iceland and one checked bag. We snagged this great deal from Scott’s Cheap Flights, but also paid $93 and $99 respectively for one-way tickets to New York from Houston and back.
Scott’s Cheap Flights is an email subscription where you get daily email alerts about mistake fares, sales and deals from multiple U.S. cities and Canada to places all over the world. There are different price packages depending on how many deals you want to get daily, but if you’re a true travel bug you’ll get the yearly subscription. The best deal I’ve seen recently was $315 mistake fares from Houston, Texas to Wellington, New Zealand!
Other great sites for cheap flight deals include StudentUniverse which offers flight deals to students both domestic and international and more common comparison sites include Orbitz, Expedia, Momondo, and Skyscanner can help you find great flight deals to Iceland.
We flew with Icelandic Air and it was a 6 hour flight from New York to Keflavik, which isn’t that bad of a flight at all. Obviously I slept the whole time, but the experience was pleasurable none the less. There are no meals included, but you can grab a bottle of fresh Icelandic water when you walk onto the plane and there’s a nice blanket and pillow waiting for you in your seat.
If you’re planning a trip to Europe with Icelandic Air, you can do a stopover in Reykjavik for a few nights at no extra cost, so I would definitely look into that if you’re trying to save some money.
2. Book a car
Finding a rental car in Iceland was probably the most difficult task in my opinion because there’s so many different questions you have to ask yourself and tons of different rental companies to choose from.
The three rental sites I was choosing between were NÜ Car Rentals, SADCars and Sixt Car Rental and I ultimately went with SADCars, because we got a 20% discount for booking a week long rental, there was no under age driver fee, and unlimited kilometers was included. In total, we paid $464 for 9 days which was 393 euros at the time.
Most rental companies offer third party insurance with rentals, but there are tons of different add-ons that can make it hard to decide what is worth spending extra on. Make sure to pay attention to the type of transmission, because a majority of the rental cars available in Iceland are manual, so they often charge a higher amount for automatic vehicles.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Do I need to purchase additional insurance?
Do I need a 4×4 car?
Should I get gravel protection or sand and ash protection?
How can I receive a discount for week long rentals?
Is unlimited kilometers worth it?
Is there an under age driver fee?
Do I need to purchase optional extras?
My recommendations would be to get a 4WD unless you plan on going off roading, because then you’ll need a car made to drive on F-roads. They should all come with winter tires, but it doesn’t hurt to double check. We paid an additional fee for gravel protection and an extra driver since there was two of us and I would recommend both of those just in case loose gravel damages the car and so that more than one person can drive the car.
If you’re going to be near active volcanoes or there’s a chance of there being high wind during your time in Iceland then I would get sand and ash protection too, because the wind can be pretty nasty out there. There’s a ton of different add on options depending on what you need for your trip, but it can really add up, so choose wisely and pack items you can bring yourself.
Be sure to take into consideration how much space you’ll need for your suitcases in the car, because we each had two big suitcases, a carry on suitcase and a personal backpack and it filled the entire trunk and back seat.
Renting a car in Iceland was my first car rental experience and it was super easy and straight forward. Once we landed in Keflavik, we took a free shuttle from the airport to the rental site which was about 5 minutes away from the airport. I gave the teller my ID and a credit card to put on file and he handed us the keys and we were on our way.
Originally, I had chose a Ford Focus but upon arrival we got a Nissan, but no complaining here because it was completely up to date with Bluetooth and it had seat warmers. Through rocky roads, monsoon rains, and snow filled paths we had no problems with the car, so I would highly recommend SADcars if you’re looking to rent.
Overall, my #1 tip would be to do a lot of comparison shopping between different Iceland car rental sites, because they each charge different amounts for the same offerings, have different vehicle options, and some have better discounts than others.
Also, beware that gas in Iceland is expensive and they sell by the liter, so about $100 USD is what it will cost to fill a tank.
3. Plan your route
The most popular routes in Iceland are the Golden Circle which includes southwest Iceland and the Ring Road, which is a path that goes all around Iceland. It’s 2,087 km and an 8-10 day road trip is usually necessary to complete this.
Icelandroadtrip.com is a great site to get started because they have various self driving tours based on amount of travel days and popular attractions. Take a look and you can easily pick and choose to make it work for your timeline. In each itinerary they offer highlights, the driving distance and a suggestion for areas to stay overnight.
Originally my friend and I planned on doing the Ring Road, but since we were traveling during the winter there ended up being a huge 2 day winter storm and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck in the middle of nowhere (literally). It’s important to check the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website to see updates on road conditions all throughout Iceland while your planning your trip and while you’re there. In addition, since we rented a car I got an email from Reyjavik rental cars when there was a weather warning.
The joy about renting a car is that you can be extremely flexible with what you want to see and where you want to go, especially since the Iceland weather can be so unpredictable, so I would recommend playing it by ear when you get there just in case the weather isn’t on your side.
4. Choose your accommodation
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Iceland has lots of options for accommodation such hotels, Airbnb, hostels, couch-surfing, guesthouses, camping and if you’re really on a budget sleeping in your car is a possibility. It all really depends on what kind of experience you want to have and how much you want to spend.
Since we wanted to do the Ring Road, but would only have 5 hours of daylight to explore, we had to pick a city to stay in overnight as we made our way around Iceland instead of having a home base and doing day trips.
We used Booking.com to see our various lodging options in Iceland and compared prices on the hotels’ actual website since some offer a discount if you book directly through their site. In addition, we searched Airbnb for housing in the larger cities and I would recommend it if you don’t want to spend a lot on accommodation and want the option to go to the grocery store and cook your own food. Click here for a $40 travel credit on your first trip with Airbnb!
The three things you definitely don’t want to skimp out on is free WiFi, free hotel breakfast, and free parking.
Accommodation we stayed at in Iceland:
If you’re looking for a really unique Iceland experience then check out these options:
Oddsson in Reykjavik which is a 1940’s warehouse remodeled into hostel/hotel hybrid and offers an eclectic and off-beat vibe.
Apartment K in Reykjavik offer various funky styled fully decorated apartments with exposed wooden beams and Tempur-Pedic beds.
Buubble where you can sleep under the stars in bubble inflated by a noiseless ventilation system that prevents humidity and thermostat so it stays warm all winter.
5. Create a vague itinerary
The best thing about traveling in Iceland is the freedom to stop and explore at your leisure, so you don’t want to restrict yourself with a strict itinerary, especially when you’ve got limited daylight.
There are tons of amazing sites in Iceland such as Jökulsárlón, Gullfoss Waterfall and Reynisfjara Beach that require you to park your car and walk and you honestly never know where the off beaten path will take you. On of the days we turned down a random road and were greeted with views that looked like they were out of a winter wonderland.
Make a list of places you want to see and things you want to do and figure out if you need to schedule a tour guide to do so. Be sure to check online and book in advance for any attractions that are popular for tourists such as the Blue Lagoon in Grindavík.
If you love music festivals, check out Music Festival Wizard to see a list of music festivals all over the world that you can search for by month, location, cities, genre, and type. Secret Solstice is a music festival happening in Reykjavik on June 16-June 18, 2017 which would be a really cool experience if you love music festivals.
Once you’ve completed all these steps, you’re all set for your trip to Iceland! If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments and check out my post on what to pack for a trip to Iceland.
Thanks for reading and stay hungry to learn, create and grow!