When you’ve lived in the Bay Area all your life, snow is a rare sighting. My sister and I had been discussing where we wanted to travel for her birthday ever since I got back from Thailand last March. Neither of us had traveled to Europe before, and Iceland’s breathtaking geology was attractive to us. Not to mention it is a dream for us both to witness the Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis in person. We had our destination– the countdown began!
Flash forward to November and post-Iceland. The trip was one of the best experiences of my life. Iceland is now my favorite out of all the international trips I’ve been on (I’ve only been to 3 other countries, but still). The people, the sights, the food– everything exceeded my expectations. It’s no surprise that more tourists visit Iceland all year around than there are people living in Iceland (only a 320,000 population!)
Here are some tips to make your trip there just as magical or even better than mine!
When to Go
We traveled to Iceland during the second week of November 2016. As I mentioned before, it was a birthday celebration for my sister. Fortunately, November is the start of winter for Iceland. That meant snowfall and a magical coat of snow mostly everywhere we visited. There was rain during our first few days in Reykjavik, but rain turned quickly into snow the following days. Luckily, winter in Iceland also means a better chance to see the Northern Lights! The only downside of traveling during the winter is the limited sunlight during the day. Less sunlight means less time for adventuring!
How to Get There
We booked our flight with Iceland Air. We did see many other cheaper options with WOW Airlines; however, the new budget airline had mixed reviews that turned us off from booking with them. Meeting some fellow Californian tourists on the trip, they mentioned that their experience with WOW Airlines wasn’t bad. It might be safe to give it a try next time! Just keep in mind the airline makes you pay for carry-ons, luggage, water, food, and even an optional 3-inches of seating space.
Iceland Air may be the safer, less worrisome option. They give you 2 free checked bags which definitely helps when you’re packing many layers for the cold winter weather. We even bought a SIM card to use while in Iceland that you can buy for less than $25 on the flight and install on your phone before you land.
How to Get Around
Doing my research on Iceland and asking fellow travelers for advice, it seemed like car renting was the best option to get around. However, seeing as both my sister and I have zero experience driving in heavy winter weather, we were not comfortable driving a car around unpredictable Iceland. A decision we were glad to have made after witnessing a car spin out of the road due to snowy roads and bad tires. If you have the same fears, then I would just book tours each day and leave it up to the experts. I would 100% book a car rental next time if I were visiting in the summer time.
Where to Stay
- Skuggi Hotel
- Silica Hotel at the Blue Lagoon
Skuggi Hotel is located in the capital city of Reykjavik. The central location, affordable price, and beautiful minimalist design of the hotel is what captured my attention. The staff are very friendly and helpful (as most people are in Iceland). The hotel offers a great continental breakfast every morning which is very convenient before starting your adventures each day. We opted to stay at Skuggi Hotel for most of the time in Reykjavik since we were doing tours each day, and all the tour companies do pick up here. Switching hotels, especially when you’re staying in one city, can be very inconvenient. Skuggi Hotel is located a block away from the main shopping street called Laugavegur with many shops and restaurants to keep you busy. There’s also a market one block away incase you need any food or supplies.
During our last day and a half, we stayed at the beautiful Silica Hotel at the Blue Lagoon. While a bit pricey, you get every bit of your money’s worth by staying here. If visiting the Blue Lagoon is important to you, I would suggest staying at the hotel for at least one night. The rooms are gorgeous with a great patio view of either the vast moss covered lava fields or a small blue lagoon. The best amenity at this hotel is the private lagoon access for hotel guests. We found that the private lagoon was almost empty or nearly empty most of the day. Each hotel guests also receive a premium ticket to the public Blue Lagoon (7-10 minute walk from the hotel) as well. The hotel offers a complimentary continental breakfast as well as a bistro if you don’t have a car to drive around for lunch and dinner. The helpful front desk staff member also informed us that we could get pick up and drop off from a restaurant in the nearby village if you wanted to explore outside the area.
What to Do
- Golden Circle Tour with GeoIceland
- SouthCoast Tour with GeoIceland
- Icelandic Horseback Riding with Íslenski Hesturinn
- Northern Lights Tour with SuperJeep
- Into the Glacier with ExtremeIceland
- Explore Reykjavik City
- Blue Lagoon
What to Eat
- Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
If you want to eat Icelandic food, eat allllll the SEAFOOD!
How to Prepare
- Everyone speaks English: In addition to Icelandic, most Icelanders speak English and Danish. Communication is very easy if you are an English speaker. I could barely hear any accent with some Icelanders because of how well they speak English!
- Credit card is accepted pretty much everywhere: No need to take out Icelandic money when you arrive as most places take credit card. I did not go to one place that didn’t accept credit card. Even one of the tourist spots that charge a small fee for bathrooms accept credit! Just make sure you have a credit card that has no foreign transaction fees and add a travel notification to the credit cards you use before you go. You may want to take out cash if you want to tip.
- Tap water is safe to drink: I had read before coming to Iceland that the tap water is safe to drink here. My sister tends to be paranoid so we ended up trying to buy water bottles at the nearby market. When we got to the register, the cashier gave us a blank face and said, “Why are you buying water?” He told us that the water in Iceland is one of the cleanest in the world. The water in the bottles are tap water! We laughed and thanked him and put the water bottles back with embarrassment.
- Prepare to dress for the worst: It is no surprise that Iceland is cold. If you are used to snowy weather, you will know how to prepare. For the privileged Californians like me, prepare for the worst and bring waterproof parkas/jackets, waterproof hats, waterproof hiking shoes, and LAYERS! My sister and I bought lots of heat tech clothes from Uniqlo and layered up for the ice cold wind.