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A Guide to Plan Your First Trip to Iceland

Europe's most sparsely populated country is, in fact, one of the most fascinating and diverse of the lot. Here's how you can plan your first trip to Iceland.
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Tip for first trip to Iceland
Icelandic is the official language of Iceland; however, English is widely understood and spoken in the country. So, first-time travelers need not worry as far as language is concerned.
Located just south of the Arctic Circle, in the North Atlantic Ocean, is Europe's most sparsely populated nation, Iceland. Rightly termed as 'the island of fire and ice', the country features a delightful symphony of elemental forces. Despite the fact that almost one-third of Iceland is covered by ice, a lot of volcanic activity still continues there to create natural geysers and hot springs in abundance. But in spite of such powerful oddities of nature, the beauty of the island never ceases to stir the souls of visitors. As Lonely Planet has stated, "Iceland has that effect on people―it turns brutes into poets, and skeptics into believers", and the warm and welcoming nature of the Icelanders is a bonus to the magic that the place creates.

Carrying the rich baggage of their glorious Viking past, the current generation of Icelanders have evolved into an independent and nationalistic creed, and have helped transform Iceland into a more socially and technologically advanced nation. The current high standards of living in the country do make it an expensive destination for tourists, but once you are there, Iceland will keep you craving for more.

Iceland for First-timers

Be it just relaxing in a geothermal lagoon, an adventurous glacial trek, or camping out in a quiet night to experience the magic of the Aurora Borealis or the Midnight Sun, Iceland will overwhelm you on plenty of occasions. If you are planning to visit this Nordic paradise for the first time, this Buzzle guide will help you plan a hassle-free trip.

The Icelandic Climate

The weather in Iceland is unusually volatile and unpredictable, so much so that a beautiful bright, sunny day may suddenly become dull, wet, and miserable in just a matter of hours. Weather shifts happen so abruptly and all of a sudden that one may come to experience all four seasons in just a single day.

Iceland receives consistent rainfall all through the year; however, from September to May as temperatures drop below freezing, rain falls in the form of snow. It rains the most between October and February, and the least in the months of May and June.

The regions that receive most rainfall are located on the country's southern and western coasts. On the other hand, the northern and the eastern coasts are drier, and even much colder during winter.

Regions, which experience geothermal activity are obviously much warmer than those which are more hilly and are surrounded by ice caps.

Best Time to Visit

Off-season Travelers, Beware!
Only those people, who can stand the chill of the northern European winter should opt to travel in the off-season. While it is a great time to travel for budget travelers, do not underestimate the Icelandic winter for saving a few bucks.
The peak tourist season falls between late May to early September. This is the summer season in the country, and during the first half of this period, up to mid-July, the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun can be witnessed. This means that the Sun does not seem to set at all, and there is a harmonious and subtle interplay of light and shade on the country's varied landscapes.

From mid-summer onwards, temperatures begin to drop slowly, and the sky starts getting cloudy. Moreover, the nights also start getting colder and longer.

Winter lasts from about early August to early late March, and it is the so-called off-season to visit Iceland. Characterized by exceptionally long nights with only four to five hours of daylight, the Icelandic winter boasts of immense frozen expanses of land and water, and the dramatic display of the Aurora Borealis in the clear skies.

The months of April, May, September, and October constitute the shoulder season to visit Iceland. For those wanting to escape the crowds, but not wishing to compromise much with the climate, this is the best time to travel; however, it needs to be noted that Iceland may be inaccessible during this period.

It is needless to mention that Iceland, like most other destinations, is crowded with tourists in the peak season, owing to which, hotels and airfares also tend to be expensive during this time. So, if you plan to visit during the high season, it is advisable to book well in advance to obtain the best possible deals.

In the off-season, many tourist facilities outside Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, shut shop, owing to hostile weather. The tourist influx also tends to fade out, with few opting to travel during this time. Airlines, hotels, car rental companies, etc., slash their prices, and there are no crowds at popular attractions.

Despite the harsh climatic conditions, people from across the world are increasingly choosing to travel to Iceland in the off-season. While most activities during this time are centered around Reykjavík, several other activities are also coming to the forefront of late, such as back-country skiing, glacier snowmobiling, dog sledding, and aurora tours.

Is a Visa Required?

Iceland Visa Information
For information on Iceland's visa, click here or contact your nearest Icelandic embassy.
Iceland is one of the member states of the Schengen Agreement, which states that the nationals of all other Schengen countries can enter Iceland without a visa.

Citizens of the Schengen nations can enter Iceland with a valid identity card issued by their home country, and can stay there for not more than three months.

Nationals of the countries belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA), including Ireland and the United Kingdom, also do not need a visa to enter Iceland. All they need is a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond their proposed stay in the country.

Citizens of all the other countries of the world require a valid visa to travel to Iceland.

Where to Stay

Book Your Stay Online!
Because accommodations in Iceland tend to be on the expensive side, it often becomes difficult to save a large amount of money on them. Know that several Icelandic accommodations give out Internet-only discounts and so, it is a good idea to book your lodging online. You may not be able to avail better discounts, if you book personally.
A great variety of accommodation options are available in Iceland, right from the most lavish choices to the ones which barely offer any facilities. While hotel and guesthouses continue to be popular choices, several non-conventional options are also gaining ground all over the country.

The concept of farm holiday is becoming popular all over the country, wherein people get to stay in local farmhouses (often guesthouses in farm surroundings), and indulge in the day-to-day activities of the hosts; a way to make the guests feel more in tune with the local culture. Many farms also offer activities such as horse riding, etc.

Sleeping bag accommodation is a very interesting form of lodging in Iceland, wherein people possessing sleeping bags and/or linens get to avail heavy discounts on room rates, ranging from 35% to 50%. While this is an excellent option for backpackers and other budget tourists, it should be noted that sleeping bag rooms offer very frugal or rather no facilities to guests, except of course, a place to sleep.

There are 32 youth hostels across Iceland, and you can book an affordable accommodation in one or more of them online through the Hostelling International Iceland website. You can also book car rental packages and tours across the country via this website.

While hostels also provide you with an option of sleeping bag rooms, there are also better private rooms with more facilities, which you can choose according to your budget. Moreover, if you are traveling to some remote location of Iceland, you may perhaps have no other option to lodge or dine other than the hostel you are staying in.

But remember that, owing to high prices in Iceland, hostels (as budget accommodations) tend to fill up much faster than most hotels and guesthouses during the peak season (many of them close down during the off-season). So, you may have to book early.

Camping, of course, is always an option, especially for backpacking enthusiasts (it is not bad for families either). Iceland has several campsites, most of which are open from about June to mid-September. The facilities that they provide greatly vary, depending on their location and the prices―some of them offer amenities such as laundry, hot showers, and a private kitchen, whereas others barely provide cold water taps.

Camping in winter is generally not recommended, owing to the harsh weather, and some of the campsites even close down at this time; however, despite the season you are camping in, it is advisable to consider the unpredictability of weather and to be well-equipped with a waterproof tent, a good cooking stove, and so on.

If you plan to travel with your family or a group of friends, vacation rentals may prove to be the most economical accommodation option. You can hire a spacious house or an apartment, with large rooms, a well-equipped kitchen, and other facilities, all for yourself, and this will be better in terms of privacy than all the other forms of accommodation.

Those who are on a very tight budget will be happy to know that Iceland also offers an option of house-swapping, which enables you to get free accommodations in the country. During the vacation, you can swap your house with that of a local Icelandic family; while you occupy their house, they occupy yours and so, none of you will have to pay for the accommodation.

Where to Eat

Tip for Vegetarians
Vegetarian dining options in Iceland are limited, in that there are very few vegetarian restaurants in the country, which are mostly concentrated in places like Reykjavík and Akureyri―these offer a wide range of vegetarian pastas. Moreover, it needs to be noted that Icelandic meals contain a high proportion of meats, so you will have to very specifically mention that you want a vegetarian meal without any meat content.
Iceland's food is one of its best-kept secrets. In fact, about 80% of the country's economy thrives on its highly specialized food industry. So, it is needless to mention that Iceland is a treasure trove of eateries, large and small, upscale, and mid-range.

Food is not cheap in Iceland, and so, while you can consider splurging out on a couple of nights by dining in good restaurants, this may not be possible everyday, especially if budget is your constraint.

If you are on a tight budget, opt for a room that comes with a private kitchen, and cook your own food. This way, you will be able to save a substantial amount of money.

Reykjavík is particularly expensive, as far as eating out is concerned. However, there are several Thai restaurants out there, which are kind of affordable than most others, and also provide fresh, healthy food.

The fast food scene, especially in downtown Reykjavík and other Icelandic cities is quite savory. Fast food is available at the numerous street food stands which line the streets of the capital city. Try out some hot dogs and tacos on these stands; they are pretty filling and cheap as well.

One of the best ways to save money of food in Iceland is to take a heavy lunch, and indulge in some fast food/salad for dinner. Dinner is usually pricier than lunch in most Icelandic restaurants and eateries; however, there are affordable salad bars in many convenience stores, which you can consider for dinner.

The Transport Scene

Go on a Walking Spree in Reykjavík
If you intend to just stay in the Icelandic capital, take self-guided walking tours across the city, rather than renting a car or opting for public transport. This way you will be able to experience the local flavors of the city, and enjoy them to the fullest.
Public transport in Iceland also tilts towards the expensive side, by American standards. The country has an extensive bus network, and there are several routes operated by a number of private companies. In the peak season, these buses run on a regular basis and connect all the accessible locations throughout the country.

From the shoulder season onwards, fewer buses remain operational, and by the high winter season, the services are nearly nonexistent.

Owing to Iceland being an island nation, there are a good number of passenger ferries that operate in the country. However, most of them are functional only in summer.

Car and motorcycle rentals are also popular ways of commuting across the country, in fact, if your itinerary consists of far-fetched places, which are difficult to access or where the public transport is sparse, these can prove to be very beneficial. While car rental rates are expensive by international standards, they do offer a good value for money in comparison to long-distance buses and domestic flights.

Cycling across the dramatic terrains of Iceland is a one of its kind experience, and it is also the cheapest way to get around in the country. While most backpackers choose this option, it should be noted that in certain seemingly remote areas, Iceland's roads can be very challenging. Moreover, the harsh climatic conditions may also restrict one's progress. If you wish to cycle around in Iceland, remember to be equipped with items such as puncture-repair kits and spares, etc.

If you are in the Icelandic countryside or in one of the interior parts of the country during the off-season, it is best not to rely on public transport at all. In the absence of your own private transport, you may have to wait for long hours in certain remote areas; however, you can consider hitchhiking in such cases. While this is not completely safe and is also not really recommended, it may be your only choice in some areas. So, inquire properly before visiting certain regions.

The domestic air network in Iceland is extensive, and it is of course, the quickest way to get around the country. While this is the most expensive way of domestic transport, it can be your only way to get around, especially during winter. Do consider this before you decide to visit in the off-season.

Safety Tips

It is required that all the international travelers to Iceland take certain vaccination shots before entering the country, apart from being updated on the routine ones, recommended by the WHO. For details regarding the immunizations required before traveling to Iceland, visit CDC's official website.

Furthermore, do not forget to buy an appropriate travel insurance before embarking on your journey. It should cover for health issues as well as general contingencies such as loss of baggage, cancellation of journey, and so on. Make sure that you carry the documented proofs of your vaccinations and your travel insurance along, as you may be required to produce them if the need arises.

Iceland is one of the world's safest countries; however, petty crimes have been on a rise since the recent past. Avoid keeping your luggage unattended, be careful about where you keep your wallet and other valuables, and do not trust strangers.

Glacial hiking in Iceland can be a challenging task, and it is always advisable to seek local advice before beginning. Moreover, opt for guided hiking tours, to avoid the chances of accidents, owing to the presence of several spots having quicksand.

If you are visiting a geothermal area, watch the hot springs, etc., from a safe distance. Do not get off the boardwalks and/or try to go near mud-pots and steaming fissures.

The weather, as mentioned before, is highly unpredictable, and you will need to remain prepared for the sudden, drastic changes that may occur. Carry a sunscreen, an insect repellent, rainy gear, waterproof tents, good sleeping bags, and a sleeping mask, while traveling within the country.

In the end, carry all your routine medicines, apart from the special ones, in case you have been prescribed any. Get a prescription from your physician, with the generic names written on it. Make sure that you carry enough stock of the medicines, as you might not get them at all places.

Things to See/Do

Since it is going to be your first visit to Iceland, here's our brief list of some of the interesting things to see and do in the country.

Golden Circle

Take the Golden Circle route in South Iceland. It is a popular tourist route that takes you from Reykjavík into central Iceland and back. The major attractions on this route include, amongst others, the Strokkur geyser (left), the Thingvellier National Park (top-right), and the Gullfoss waterfall (bottom-right).

Church of Hallgrimur

Pay a visit to the Church of Hallgrímur in Reykjavík. It is Iceland's largest church and a very bold example of the European Expressionist architecture.

Askja volcano

Located in a relatively remote part of the central highlands of Iceland is the famous Askja volcano. Only accessible from late June to early October, you can get dramatic views of the surrounding Dyngjufjöll mountains from this stratovolcano.

Blue lagoon

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula boasts of being one of the main tourist attractions in Iceland. It is an artificial lagoon, which tends to be filled with tourists during winter.

Jokursarlon lagoon

Southeast Iceland is home to the famous Jökulsárlón lagoon, situated on the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park. Apart from savoring its luminous blue icebergs, visit it on one of the clear winter nights to see the enchanting northern lights brightening the sky.

Reykjavík

If you are in Reykjavík, make it a point to explore the city. It boasts of a number of high-end restaurants, museums, and several other attractions.

Whale watching

Also, while in Reykjavík, indulge in some whale watching. Take one of these tours; we bet you will never regret it. Reykjavík is, in fact, one of the best places in Iceland to go whale watching.

Souvenir store

Lastly, go souvenir shopping in the capital; it is fine to splurge a little, when it comes to out-and-out Icelandic items.

One single trip to Iceland is never enough, as each season has its own set of highlights. Nevertheless, we hope that you make the most of your vacation, and return with plenty of beautiful memories. So, bon voyage!
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Published: February 19, 2014
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