Call it being spoilt for choice or plain indecisive, but our usual vacation planning involves a fortnight of contemplating, planning, trashing the plan and then panicking. So, this summer, while we were mentally preparing to chill for a week in Tuscany and spend another week exploring Cinque Terre, we did have an inkling that we may not actually end up in Italy. But to land up in Iceland, was something we did not see coming. We knew nothing about the place except that it was completely off the average tourist’s radar and fairly remote. But after an endless slew of city breaks, that sounded perfect.
It took another two weeks to prep for this vacation. Iceland is a large country and the spadework to get here intensifies when you can’t even pronounce the name of a place you’d like to visit, leave alone remember its spelling. Fortunately, for you, we are giving you all the tips you need before you go.
So, what’s the best time of year to be there?
May and September are shoulder months which means rates are lower but then, so are temperatures. June to August is peak season. And from November to February, you will almost definitely get to see the Northern Lights.
We went in the first week of June and were lucky to have good weather throughout our entire trip barring a few hours of rain one evening. The average temperature was about 9 degrees Celsius and the sun barely set at all. As we repeatedly heard from the locals, summer is the best time to explore the island. The Northern Lights are no doubt a spectacle that must be witnessed at least once but that is the sole attraction of winter. A lot of the other sights and even some roads remain closed.
How long is too long?
We wish we could have spent an entire month in Iceland but were happy with even the ten days that we had there. We spent seven nights and eight days driving the Ring Road, which literally takes you around the entire country. And we spent our last two nights in Reykjavik. In retrospect however, even one night and two days would have been enough in the capital.
If you’re going in winter, we reckon 4-5 days may suffice. In summer, however, you would need at least an entire week.
Will it break the bank?
Iceland is expensive. The average hotel or B&B costs approximately 150 Euros, a meal for two (unless it’s a Panini from the supermarket) costs 70 Euros, and when you couple that with your car rental, fuel and miscellaneous costs, you can expect to spend a little under 400 Euros a day.
Then again, these are peak season rates and costs of slightly last minute bookings. There’s always a way to do it cheaper. Choose a hatchback over an SUV, don’t cringe at the option of a room with a shared bathroom and go when it’s marginally colder and you won’t end up spending as much as we did. And if you enjoy backpacking and camping, the cost comes down substantially. It also helps that most little towns and major attractions have camping grounds with great facilities on site.
What’s the best way to discover the country?
We have two words for you: Ring Road. Walk it, hitchhike your way through it or just drive along it. Another pro tip: do it anti-clockwise. There are tons of things to see in the south and consequently, more tourists than we had expected. Seeing so many people may be overwhelming at the end of a trip as opposed to the beginning of it. There’s also the longer route which takes you all around the island, and the shorter which allows you to skip the bits you may not have time for. Most tourists in fact, skip the relatively untouched northwestern fjords and the Snaefellsnes Peninusla altogether. While we managed to squeeze out time for the latter, we would have needed an additional two days for the northwestern bit.
What do you need to know if you are driving there?
Off-roading is a strict no no in Iceland. There are a few gravel roads, which are strictly for 4WDs, but we probably took those just a couple of times. Consequently, you can easily save yourself some cash and rent a hatchback. Speed limits MUST be followed. They have sneaky hidden speed-cameras all across the country and too many tourists come home to whopping fines, which sometimes exceed the entire cost of their holiday.
We got the best car deal from Blue Car Rental. We got all kinds of insurances for the car barring the one for volcanic ash, but you are in Iceland so most people get that one too. Also, when you’re filling fuel and you opt for a full tank, you end up with a double transaction on your credit card – one which is a rather large security deposit and the other, the actual fuel cost. The deposit does get cancelled but it takes about two days for the refund to come through so keep that in mind. Or just don’t opt for a full tank.
What should definitely go into that suitcase?
Layers. A super warm, wind-proof jacket. Hiking shoes. Fleece anythings. Mittens. Waterproof pants and jackets if you have them. And cotton t-shirts for when the sun comes out. When you get near the glaciers, or into a cave, you will need all that unless you want to end up with hypothermia.
Is the food totally weird?
On the contrary, the food is shockingly good. We tried everything from trout to puffin and all of it was sensational. Every restaurant we went to, even the seemingly nondescript, average ones, had us floored. Vegetarians however, will probably end up living on soup and pizzas.
Iceland was just so damn brilliant that even one post cannot quite sum up the highlights. So watch this space because we’ll be posting about our itinerary; where to stay; must-go-to restaurants and other unmissable experiences. In the meanwhile, you can practice pronouncing Eyjafjallajokull.