Monday, June 16, 2014

12 Tips for Going to Iceland

I was writing this post in my head the entire time I was in Iceland.

I just kept thinking, "I should tell people that in case they come...." about random little things here and there. So, here it is! All my best advice for traveling to Iceland, based on my inestimable wisdom and expertise after 6 days on the south coast. Ha. I am going to publish a couple other posts with pictures and my favorite spots I visited, but this post is all about the logistics and little details.

If you're looking for a more adventurous backpacking/rugged-flavored trip, try out my friend Justin's blog here (he has several posts on his trip, so click around). If you're looking for a really organized thing with tour buses and large groups of people.....google it, because this post will not help you out with that. BUT If you're looking for something somewhere in the middle, where you're pretty much still on the beaten path but have your own car and get to manage your own time/stops/sleeping/etc. .....hi, welcome! I will now impart my wisdom.


1. Iceland Tours
After poking around at all our Airbnb options, car rentals, etc., my travel buddy (Cami) and I decided to book the Pearls of the South package through Iceland Tours. I seriously cannot say enough good about this decision! We ultimately saved $$, in the end, by booking this because it included the lodging, rental car, breakfast, GPS, and sample itinerary. I would also say that the lack of hassle by having all of the above taken care of for us was priceless. (Seriously, I had personal email conversations with someone who worked there to sort out every detail. I like these people.) And with a self-guided tour, we were basically just given a car (a manual! because I can do that now, fools!), told where to sleep every night (which we could make changes to before the trip, if we wanted), given sample ideas of things to do each day, and then left to our own devices. I loved the freedom to do our own thing (boo tour buses!) while still having the security of having so much mapped out for us. You guys.....that sample itinerary. The navigation tips in those papers were priceless. I began referring to that stack of info as "my precious" by the end of the trip.

2. The Moneys
The Icelandic unit of currency is called a krona (plural kronur). It helps to know that 1.000 (one thousand) is just under $10, and 2.000 is just under $20, etc. That usually gives you a helpful ballpark. I downloaded a currency converter app on my phone and used it religiously. I was told that Iceland was expensive, and I'd agree, but I don't think it was INSANELY expensive. Eating out was between $10-20 at normal restaurants. So, living in the bay area, it didn't really faze me :) Also, everywhere takes credit (speaking for locations along the south coast -- I don't know about more remote areas up north or in the middle). I used my Southwest credit card (hello flight points! I use that thing for all purchases anyway) because one of its perks is no foreign transaction fees. Definitely check out the fee policy on the card you plan to use or you might get hit with a couple extra dollars for every purchase you make when you check your bank account later. I never bothered using cash/coin, though I kind of wish I had gotten some currency as a souvenir (anyone going soon want to bring me some back? kthx). Be warned that when you buy gas, you have to use a card with a pin #. We used our debit cards and just dealt with the couple dollars we lost on foreign transaction fees -- it wasn't a big deal since we only filled up a couple times.

3. Lodging
The Iceland Tours company offered choices for different levels of accommodation, and because we spoil ourselves we went with the "budget" option ;) Since I was planning on staying in hostels or Airbnb otherwise, I was pretty much game for whatever. In Reykjavik we stayed at Hotel Gardur, which is a dorm for the University of Iceland. It is newly renovated and clean, and the people who work at the desk were SUPER helpful (one of them even ordered pizza for us in Icelandic! so great). There's wifi, but only out in the common area, but it was kind of fun to get out and sit among other people rather than hiding in our room. If you don't care about sharing a bathroom with the whole floor (I've even stayed in hostels in places like Portland/Seattle because this doesn't bother me in the least and I love the home/coziness of this type of lodging over a sterile hotel in most cases), and you want to save some $$, then I say go for it! Our other place, Sólheimahjáleiga, was.....the stuff all of my dreams are made of. A country farm inn! Out in the hills among the sheep and horses and fog and waterfalls! We had our own shower in our room in this one, but it was still standard dorm sized with two twin beds, a common area with a TV (and cute mismatched furniture and a pile of blankets like a real home, I couldn't get over it), etc. We did laundry in our shower and hung it out on the picturesque clothesline. I got super emotionally attached to this place and was sad to go, but that's not abnormal for me and farms, haha.

4. Music/Car Time
Something to keep in mind in Iceland is that you are basically driving 2-4 hrs a day, total, to get to all the magic you're going to see. It's basically like a roadtrip.....a really kicka$$ roadtrip with stops at the most amazing things you've ever seen in your life.....but a roadtrip, nonetheless. Cami and I filled our time easily with chatting or pondering all the gorgeous views, but we both wished we would have had a book on CD or better access to music. I brought a car charger for my iPhone (do that!) and my aux cable, but there was no plug-in for the cable so we just listened to the music on my phone speakers.....OR, we turned to the radio. You guys....the radio. It's basically a smattering of 90s pop music (in both Icelandic and English), mixed with Katy Perry. Then there were traditional Icelandic music stations (accordions!). The first song we heard when we turned on the radio in Iceland? The "Macarena." Followed by some Ricky Martin, and "Let's Talk About Sex." Haha (I love the 90s and pop music, SO much, but there's only like 20 songs on loop the whole time.)

5. Power Adapter
I learned the night before our trip that the electrical outlets in Iceland are not the same as America. People who travel abroad frequently would probably know that, but I didn't! Luckily my friend had one I could borrow. Honestly, I'm going to instruct you to google it to figure out the different rules for things you can plug in and things you can't (you need an adapter AND a converter, depending on the appliance) (the little white box on iPhone plugs works as a converter, so you only need an adapter for that), but I just wanted you to be aware that this is something to plan for!

6. IcelandAir
I l-o-v-e-d flying IcelandAir! I wished every leg of my trip was on one of their airplanes (but then we might not have had THIS). Each seat has its own screen with a headphone jack (located on your armrest, to save you some time hunting for it) with FREE movies and TV shows. Good ones! Not lame ones. Seriously the time on IcelandAir went by super fast -- I didn't get cabin fever at all. I basically stalked their website for several weeks before booking my trip to watch the prices fluctuate until I picked travel dates that worked for both me and Cami (she was coming out of a different city, which made it tricky to coordinate). The only downside of this airline, I would say, is that there's no free meal -- the food is expensive, and not very delicious. I would buy a meal in the airport beforehand (or pack one from home), and eat that instead. Oh, and bring a pillow. They give you a small pillow but I am in a VERY attached relationship with my regular pillow (gray jersey pillowcase forever!), and I was happy to have that thing every step of the way, both on the plane and off. I didn't mind carrying it around because...."he ain't heavy, he's my brother." True love, guys.

7. Food
I can't claim that I'm much of a foodie (other than just really loving food and knowing love when I find it), so you might find better sources for this. But I can tell you that Iceland's claim to have the best hot dog stand in Europe.......that feels true. Granted, I've never had a hot dog anywhere else in Europe, but YOU GUYS. This place. It was a happy, happy moment for my mouth. Tell them you want everything on it and you will not regret it. My other favorite place in Reykjavik was Eldur & Is, a crepe/ice cream/gelato shop at the end of a long street facing Hallgrímskirkja. We may have gone to both of these food places....three times. Shhhh. We also made sure to try fermented shark meat (yes) at one point because "when in Iceland," you know? (It tasted like cleaning products.) (No regrets; it'll put hair on your chest.) (Note: It did not actually put hair on my chest.) Like the U.S., you can find all kinds of food in Iceland -- Subway, KFC, grocery stores, etc. There's definitely moments that you know you're in another country (like when you see a tube of caviar at breakfast every morning, or try and decipher sauce packets, or discover that they don't have ranch dressing or Dr. Pepper), but overall the food isn't too difficult. Gas stations with little convenience stores are plenteous, so it's easy to stop and grab granola bars or some meat/bread/cheese along the way. I packed a LOT of snacks (trail mix, fruit leather and Larabars) for this trip and don't regret that -- though I could have saved the weight and just bought some in Iceland at Bonus (the Icelandic Piggly Wiggly). Basically I just love snacks and that trail mix was my best friend, regardless of what country it came from. (Take another moment to think about the fact that an Icelandic Piggly Wiggly exists. Dreams coming true left and right over hurrr.)

8. Clothing/Weather
We traveled during the first week of June, and the weather was usually in the 50s. Honestly, the weather in this country just fluctuates like crazy -- one hour I'd have my down jacket and a beanie on, and the next I'd want to peel down to my T-shirt and wished I had packed shorts. I don't really know what to say other than be prepared for anything, pack/wear layers every day, and watch out for rain! We didn't get hardly any, but some of my friends got blasted by it a couple weeks before us on their own Icelandic trip, so I was glad I had a slick jacket with a hood just in case. I packed light (backpack and one small carry-on) and just handwashed some clothes along the way. Just one pair of jeans, a couple pairs of leggings, a few tshirts/tanks/sweaters, a scarf, a couple hats and plenty of wool socks. If I went again, I'd definitely repeat my packing choices. I didn't want to check a bag or lug a ton of clothes around. For footwear, I brought one pair of hiking boots and one pair of regular boots (Cami went with regular tennis shoes instead of hiking shoes and was totally fine, but I appreciated having something waterproof with grip for traipsing around random landscape). I cannot say enough good about my bright blue ultra light down parka from Uniqlo. I actually wear that jacket all the time -- to camping, baseball games, etc. It's so super warm and squishes up so small, it might be this cold-blooded girl's best friend.

9. Navigation
Driving in Iceland is pretty similar to the U.S., because you drive on the right side of the road, use traffic lights, etc. There's just some small differences here and there, e.g. high # of roundabouts, a yellow light between the red and green light (which is genius when you're driving stick and would like a little warning that your light is up next, holla at me Iceland!), it's illegal to turn right on a red, and most of the bridges out in the country are only one lane....e.g. you have to stop and make sure no one is coming from the other way, then take turns crossing. As for reading the Icelandic signs? GOOD LUCK. Haha. The words are long, and not latin-based, so virtually nothing was recognizable for this English/Spanglish speaker. It's incredibly disorienting to not have the faintest idea if a sign says the name of a road, the local dairy, a political message or something about goat crossing. It's anyone's guess. Our GPS (Garmin) was....our greatest frenemy. It was helpful when it wanted to be and got us out of a couple binds, but a really good map would have been more helpful because....dude, I wanted to throttle that Garmin. Honestly, I'd look into buying international data from Verizon beforehand so I could use Google maps out there, given a do-over. Any time I had wifi I would look things up on Google maps because it gave me the best directions. I would even recommend mapping out your whole route before your trip and print up step-by-step instructions with road names, etc. You can make changes along the way (and ask for directions), but you'll save a lot of frustration to plan that aspect more thoroughly than I did.

10. Souvenirs
Two words: flea market. There are about a zillion tourist shops in Reykjavik (and randomly along the road all over the south coast), and most of them have the same stuff as all the other places, at all about the same prices. And then....there's the flea market! I wish I had found it on the first day. It's located near-ish to Harpa and the harbour. Tons of great things! And if you want clothing, a sweater or a blanket? Two more words: Red Cross. It's disguised as just any ol' shop on Laugavegur, but you'll notice the Red Cross logo in the corner of the front window. We're talking $60 sweaters that normally cost $200, and $50 blankets that normally cost $300. Icelandic wool sweaters and blankets are iconic (and beautiful) but not cheap, unfortunately. I ultimately decided against getting one because I had to be honest that an itchy wool sweater, however cool it looked, wasn't something I was going to wear. I did, however, get a Viking ship in a bottle that sits on my desk at work at makes me happy all day every day. (And it came from the flea market, of course!) Wait and buy your souvenirs on the last day unless you find something you can't live without on the first day -- you have plenty of time, you'll have less to carry, and you're highly likely to come across the same thing again if you pass it up on the first day.

11. Sleeping
If you go in June or the surrounding months, you can expect it to get dark approximately.....never. Haha. For this I recommend a sleeping mask, ear plugs and Tylenol PM. Since most of the stuff we did was outdoors, and it was light all hours of the day, it really didn't matter when we went and did things (shops/food in Reykjavik are typically open 11am - 11pm). So really, I'm pretty sure we just took random 5-hr naps here and there for a whole week. I think I'm still recovering from that, but it worked at the time. haha

12. Speaking Icelandic
Good news: almost everyone speaks English! On the downside, it means I didn't learn a lick of Icelandic while I was there....except "godan daginn," which is a generic greeting meaning good morning/afternoon/evening, and "takk," which means thank you. (OK, I guess I did learn two licks of Icelandic.) There were a couple language barrier moments here and there, but for the most part, it was really easy to communicate with everyone. Just don't try pronouncing any of the road signs or you're going to feel like an idiot :) The words are long and half the letters are foreign. Go get 'em!

...and there you have it!

I probably forgot some things, and like I said, this is just one girl's take on one kind of Icelandic trip. If you've been and want to add anything, let me know! And if you're going and have any specific questions........gosh, I'll be your best friend and talk your ear off. Just shoot me an email (or comment and include your email) so I can respond!

Seriously, this place got in my blood. But more of those sappy thoughts are available in the links to my photo posts below :)
See also:

8 comments:

The Suzzzz said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, now I want to go even more! Some day I'll make it. Thanks for sharing.

Mikaela D said...

I can't wait to see pictures! Such a cool place to go!

Also, this app saved our butts many times on our trip to Spain last year. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/forevermap-2-worldwide-offline/id424183595?mt=8

Basically, you download maps ahead of time and you can use them whether you have cell service/wifi or not. Fun fact: the GPS signal on your phone works worldwide, whether you have cell reception or not, and it doesn't cost you anything. I posted my other favorite apps for traveling abroad here if you need some tips for your next #katiemitty adventure. :) http://brightlybeautifulblog.blogspot.com/search/label/App%20Reviews

Melanie said...

I am so excited for all of your posts about Iceland. I'm now planning on an Iceland 2016 trip (right after Machu Picchu 2015).

K&R said...

will definitely be using these in the future. i have always wanted to go to iceland, hopefully in the next few years. i cant wait to see more posts.

The Suzzzz said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, now I want to go even more! Some day I'll make it. Thanks for sharing.

Tibby said...

Hi! This was so super helpful! Thanks for the inside tips! My friend and I are heading to Iceland in just a few weeks! I would love to ask you more questions and pick your brain a bit more if you are willing. My email is kewl_beans1990@yahoo.com
Hope to hear from you soon!
Thanks!

David Kozlowski said...

Greetings from Texas!

What's your feeling about someone traveling there solo? I'm going in late May and will be doing Route 1, and probably not venturing off-road.

Great post...really helped me with some questions.

Brandon said...

Thank you for sharing! I've always been interested in visiting Iceland and based on your experience it sounds very possible, reasonable, and fun :)

I agree that a self driving tour sounds way better than a bus and better than roughing it.

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