We had been waiting for six months for this trip. We bought tickets back in January when we discovered that Icelandair would be flying out of Montreal starting in May. We had big plans! Big plans of the non-plan kind. We only had three things officially booked – a walking tour of Reykjavik the day we arrived, snorkelling in Silfra on Day 5 and the Blue Lagoon on our last day in Iceland. The rest was going to be completely spontaneous. We brought our minimalist camping gear and we had rented a car. Our plan was to just drive and see where the road took us.
We fell in love with Iceland. We have travelled to many places around the world and this was one of the easiest and most naturally awesome (in the true sense of the word) places we’ve ever been.
Here are some things that you might want to know if you are planning on going.
1. If you like to drink, your first stop should be the airport duty-free shop.
We arrived around 6 am and the first thing we bought was six bottles of wine at the duty-free shop. The prices in the duty-free shop are considerably cheaper than in the city so if you enjoy a glass of wine (or two) in the evenings that never get dark, then stop here first. There is a variety of different combinations of beer, wine and spirits you are allowed to buy but since wine seemed the easiest, I bought the allowed 6 bottles. The prices at the duty-free shop were between 1300 and 1900 Icelandic Krona (ISK) per bottle and in the city between 1700 and 2900 ISK.
(As a side note, the exchange for the Canadian dollar was such that we could simply take off the last two digits of the Icelandic price to get an approximate dollar value. So a bottle of wine that cost 2900 ISK was approximately $29 CAD. Yikes! This helped us keep an eye on our spending. If I mention something in dollars, it’s using this “formula”.)
2. Getting from the airport to the city is easy.
The next step was actually getting into the city. We bought a ticket with Gray Line for drop-off at our accommodation, the Reykjavik campsite. Someone told us that Flybus was cheaper but we didn’t know if they dropped us off at the campsite and the line up was really long. So we just bought Gray Line tickets for 5700 ISK each person. In the end, I think the difference between the two bus lines was only around $10. I’m thrifty, but when it comes to being dropped off with all my luggage, and two duty-free bags filled with wine, then I don’t really care about $10. It took about 50 minutes to get to the campsite.
3. Consider camping.
Camping is very inexpensive compared to getting a hotel, an AirBnB or even a bunk in a hostel. Not only that but Icelanders LOVE camping so the campsites are usually very well taken care of and have comfort amenities like showers, laundry, kitchens, and eating areas. These are also great places to meet people, get information on weather, roads and sightseeing opportunities as well as pick up free supplies that have been left by other campers. You can buy a Camping Card online and have it mailed to you before you leave or you can buy one at your first campground. This gives you free camping for 30 days at 42 campsites around Iceland. (The price per person per night is about 1200 ISK so do the math and make sure it’s worth it. For 2 people, that’s at least 6 nights.) The Reykjavik Campsite is not included in it but it is 2100 ISK for 1-2 nights, 1900 ISK for 3-6 nights per person. We did not have an issue with any campground we visited and they are all very situated close to the town or near something worth visiting (a waterfall, hiking trails or a thermal hot spring).
4. If you like to do touristy things, then buy a Reykjavik City Card.
This card starts from the moment you buy it so don’t buy it too early. It pays for your public transit, entry into a number of museums, the swimming pool (with the geothermal hot baths), the ferry ride to Viðey plus discounts in a variety of different restaurants. We bought a three day pass and definitely got our money’s worth. Just don’t lose it because there is no replacing it.
5. Book a walking tour for your first day.
In preparation for our trip, I often read posts on the I Heart Reykjavik blog. Auður is from Reykjavik and her blog was my go-to. We booked a walking tour with the I Heart Reykjavik team for 5500 ISK each. I would highly recommend doing a walking tour of the city on the day you arrive. It’s a fabulous way to get to know where things are and to ask a local questions about the city and Icelandic culture. I can’t vouch for any other walking tour and I know that there are “free” walking tours but we had a great time on this tour and felt it was worth it. We chose to pay for this tour for a couple of reasons. First off, the tour only books a maximum of 12 people, which meant that it could have fewer people. We did see some walking tours with huge groups of at least 20 people, which I think would not have been as enjoyable. Secondly, having a local walk us around the town on the first day, gave us a good idea of what we wanted to go back and see later. And lastly, I could pre-purchase an Icelandic SIM card and pick it up at the walking tour. (This was the first time I’d used a different SIM card and really didn’t know what to do.) Ásta was our tour guide and she answered all of our questions in detail with great information and helped me get my phone set up for data in Iceland. She also knew a lot about the rest of Iceland as well since she wasn’t from Reykjavik. And her English was perfect. Which brings me to my next point…
6. Everyone speaks English.
I’ve been to a lot of places in the world where people say, “Don’t worry, everyone speaks English.” and I know what that statement really means. It means that everyone in the tourist industry speaks enough English to get you what you need. Some speak it very well, others not so much. Accents can be hard to understand and sometimes actions help make oneself understood. But in Iceland, EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. If not fluently, then at least enough to tell you directions, the town history and all about Iceland’s exciting Euro 2016 run, even in the most remote fishing villages we drove through. Their accent is closer to Canadian English than British English is and their vocabulary and grammar is almost perfect. I started to forget that I was actually in a foreign country. We met people from all over the world working in Iceland with absolutely no Icelandic language skills at all. We heard people all over Reykjavik speaking to each other in English. They learn it in school and they use it on a regular basis. Coming from a country that is supposedly bilingual but has a really hard time doing it, I am still amazed.
7. Buy a SIM card.
This was SO. WORTH. IT. While it is very handy to post photos and keep in touch with family, it became REALLY worth it when we blew a tire in the middle of the Westfjords and had to figure out where the closest mechanic was. We also used it to get a rough estimate of driving times and to check opening hours for our next destination. Because we had no plans for where we would go next, having a data plan was perfect. You can buy them and top them up in convenience stores and gas stations and you can find your balance and top them up online as well. We bought a Siminn prepaid card.
8. Gluten-free isn’t a problem. Egg-free is.
Eating in foreign countries is always a source of stress for me and I hadn’t yet figured out how Iceland felt about gluten-free. As with many other European countries, the food in Iceland is fresh and real and therefore, if a dish isn’t meant to have wheat in it, it generally doesn’t. We did come across a different issue – one we hadn’t before. Egg. I am not allergic to egg but Bob is. And egg is in almost every mayonnaise and sauce that is made in Iceland. In fact, we had a harder time determining whether something had egg in it than if it had gluten in it. Not only that, when I mentioned being gluten-free, the vast majority of servers knew exactly what I meant, knew whether the dishes were gf or not and whether the could be made gf and in every restaurant we went to, accommodations were made for my allergy. When we mentioned Bob’s egg allergy, they generally had to go ask. Also, Bob generally doesn’t mention his allergy because egg isn’t found in a lot of foods. But here, he had to mention it every time. Even at the hot dog stand.
9. Rent a car and see the country.
All the rental companies we have here are there. The big international names (ex. Budget, Hertz, etc.) are located conveniently at the airport or in the city. There are other companies that you need to shuttle to so when you book, make sure you know where you are going. Make sure you book ahead. The summer months are prime travelling for everyone in Iceland and vehicles (especially the 4×4’s) get booked quickly. Prices are cheaper online. We rented a car with SADcars, which was the cheapest company but we discovered why. The vehicles are old and are acquired second-hand and some are in pretty rough shape. If you rent a car, make sure that you are physically comfortable in it (ours felt very small) and that you are mentally comfortable driving it (learning to drive a standard in Iceland may not be the best idea). Have a basic idea of the sights you’d like to see because some cars are not allowed on certain roads. We found that many of the sites worth seeing were off the main road and travel on unpaved roads was fairly frequent. And even though some gravel roads are considered fine for small cars, there can still be issues with blown tires, scraping the undercarriage with protruding rocks, and flying gravel chipping the windshield. Not only that, there are some very large hills in some areas. There were times we wondered if our little Yaris was going to make it all the way up!
10. Don’t plan too much.
Iceland is spectacular. You don’t need to book an expensive activity every day to enjoy its beauty. Just drive two more minutes and you’ll find another waterfall or trailhead. Or an information stop that also has a spectacular view. Or a small cafe that is also a tourist office that is also a museum that is also a used bookstore that also sells handknit hats and sweaters. Snorkelling between the two tectonic plates, going inside a volcano or hiking over a glacier are very cool things to do, no doubt about it. But part of Iceland’s beauty is in its peaceful lifestyle and incredible, fresh food, its spectacular scenery and its unique natural wonders. In Olafsvik, we met a Dane who had been leading month-long Land Rover tours all over Iceland for over twenty years and he said that there is no other place on Earth as naturally unique, fascinating and awe-inspiring as Iceland. After only 12 days, I wholeheartedly agree.