When I was reading through the notes I’d made about our recent travels in Iceland I realised that I had so many of them I would need to think carefully about how to present them to you. And so I figured my readers would fall into two categories – those who were simply interested in hearing about what we’d go up to and those people who were after some advice ahead of their own trips to Iceland. I know just how useful it was talking to friends who had already been to Iceland and were able to share some top tips with me, and it would have been even more useful if I had been able to find all of that information in one place online. With that being the case I have compiled my own tips, ranging from what to pack, how to save money, right through to how to fit in with the locals at the geothermal swimming pools (trust me you’ll thank me for the advice!). This information is based on traveling to Iceland during the Winter season, when the weather is at it’s most extreme so remember to bear that in mind if you are intending to go during the Summer.
I truly hope it helps you enjoy your own Icelandic adventure!
What To Pack
There’s no getting away from the fact that Iceland is cold during the Winter, but the problem is the minute you go into any shop, café or restaurant etc. and it’s flipping boiling, so it is ALL about those layers! You will deffo need underlayers (a long sleeved top and leggings) and the ones made from Merino wool are the best as wool is lightweight, warm and absorbs moisture. Wool isn’t generally the cheapest of materials granted, but it’s well worth paying a little extra for the comfort and warmth factor it gives. However that being said, I did manage to get some from Mountain Warehouse that were half price in the sale so it’s worth looking around.
On top of your base layers you want a normal t-shirt or long sleeved top, then on top of that a fleece (zip up is good purely for ease of removing it multiple times throughout the day). Finally you’ll need a padded, waterproof coat like a ski jacket and of course ALL the accessories – gloves (ski ones better that woollen – you need them to be waterproof for all that snowball fighting you’ll be doing!), hat (bobble obvs. ;0), scarf/snood (I personally think snoods are the better option as there are no dangly bits and you can pull it over your head and mouth for extra protection from the wind and snow), 2 pairs of socks (1 normal, 1 thick to go over the top) and a pair of good solid waterproof walking boots…with good grip!
To Drive Or Not To Drive
Driving in icy, snowy conditions isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and trust me I know because I wouldn’t have done it myself – thankfully the hubby stepped up to the steering wheel – but it will save you a pretty penny or two and actually the roads really aren’t as bad as you might think.
We hired an automatic Suzuki from Holiday Autos, which searches all of the best car rental deals and comes up with the best for your requirements, and as you’d hope it was equipped with good grippy tyres and heated seats. The main highways are fine, well lit and signposted well, so even though we arrived late at night in a snowstorm and at times it was a bit scary (you literally couldn’t see anything out of the windscreen) as long as you’re careful and follow the main roads you’ll be fine. You can check out which roads are shut due to bad weather on this website – http://www.road.is/. Definitely worth doing, not just for your own safety but also because if you are caught driving on a closed road you will be fined.
In fact talking of fines, here are a couple of other things you need to be careful of:
- There is a zero drink drive policy so if even a drop of alcohol has passed your lips, don’t even think about driving.
- They are hot on speeding, which quite frankly would be ridiculous to do in icy conditions anyway, so don’t put your foot down. Speeds vary between roads, but they are always well marked.
- Some roads are only accessible by big 4×4 beasts of a car – don’t attempt to do it in your little Ford Fiesta.
Drive carefully, take your time (the amount of cars we saw stranded in ditches was ridiculously), and enjoy the many sights that Iceland has to offer without being tied down to a hideous tour bus.
Costwise, we’re talking about £250 for the week, which is not far off the price of an airport transfer and plus it frees you up to come and go as you please and experience Iceland on your own terms – well worth considering.
Saving Money On Food and Drink
This is probably what will sock you the most, especially if you like to relax with a few vinos when you go away on your hols. There’s no getting away from the fact it’s expensive, but don’t worry as there are couple of things you can do that will mean you can still eat and drink when you go to Iceland 😉
For the first day or two it is virtually impossible to stop yourself working from out how much you’ve spent and what the English equivalent is, but seriously the sooner you stop this the sooner you’ll start relaxing and enjoying yourself. Just accept everything costs more…and move on
If you haven’t had the good sense to buy your alcohol in duty free at a UK airport, then make sure you buy it before you pass through customs at Keflavik airport. You can’t miss it and as the big poster above the escalators states “Do what the locals do and buy your alcohol at the airport”. Those Icelanders are clever folks and it’s well worth stocking up, because the minute you leave that airport you’re looking at paying triple the price. I should also point out that trying to find shops that sell alcohol isn’t exactly the easiest thing anyway, as the supermarkets in Iceland don’t sell alcohol, in fact only a couple of specific licensed shops are allowed to sell it.
When you’re on holiday though you want to be going out to bars and restaurants right, not stuck in with an overpriced bottle of plonk. So what are the prices of drinks like when you head out for an evening? Extortionate that’s what. Think London prices doubled and you’re almost there – roughly £60-70 for a standard house bottle of wine, £12 odd quid for a pint of beer. But fear ye not drinkers ‘cos happy hour exists in Reykjavik and the hours are quite extensive so much complete and utter use of these precious hours and you’ll see your bar bill coming in at what you would expect to pay normally over here. Most cafes and restaurants have happy hours and they are well advertised on the front of the buildings or on pavement signs.
Oh and guess what? Tap water is free!! Whoop whoop yes there’s something in Iceland that you don’t have to spend money on. Icelandic water is one of the purest in the world and it is completely safe to drink from the taps, so don’t worry about buying any of the bottled stuff. It is also readily available in cafes, bars and restaurants, often situated on the side in jugs or big dispensers where you can help yourself to as much as you like as often as you like.
Food is also expensive but again you just need to get over it. We saved some money by buying food from the local supermarket and eating back at the apartment on a couple of lunchtimes/evenings. The cheapest supermarket is called Budget (it has a logo of a slightly demonic winking piggy bank) and it reminded me a bit of the Pound shops we have over here, although I don’t remember seeing anything that came even remotely close to costing a pound. There’s also a chain called 1011, which is slightly more expensive than Budget, but has later opening hours and there’s one that’s open 24-7, which is handy if you have a late flight and need supplies.
Another top tip, which I’ve totally stolen from the advice a friend gave us, is to pack as much food as you can fit in your suitcase to take with you. Things like tea, coffee, hot chocolate sachets are a no brainer, but also cereal bars, packets of porridge, and packets of flavoured pasta/rice/soup/couscous etc. are small enough to fit in the suitcase nooks and crannies but will save you a bit of money and means you’re covered for those snack hangry moments.
In terms of eating out, most restaurants do fairly decent kids menus so I would recommend encouraging kids to choose from these as portions are big and obviously the prices are lower than the adult menu – the last thing you want is to pay a fortune for a meal that doesn’t get finished! However, if you have an adventurous child who wants to try the local food then it’s worth sharing an adult meal between them or another adults.
Our favourite place, which was cheap in comparison to others, was called Svarta Kaffid on Laugavagur. It’s a small unassuming wooden building that looks a little like a German hunting lodge and there are simply two things on the menu – in fact there isn’t even a menu. The waitress seats you, tells you the two soups of the day – a veggie and meat option; the day we went the veggie option was mushroom and the meat option was beef, lamb and pepperoni – then within the space of 5 minutes she returns with a massive crusty round bread roll containing your soup. It’s genius and the best thing you could eat when you’re trying to warm up and fill your belly. We ordered three between the four of us, which was the perfect amount and not a scrap was left as it was just so darn good. It cost roughly £12 per soup, not including drinks and was by far our cheapest meal, and most enjoyable.
Another cheap and cheerful restaurant is 100 Restaurant, so called because it’s located on 100 Laugavegur. It’s a Chinese buffet, so nothing fancy and not great if you’re trying to be healthy, but if you simply want to fill your belly without emptying your wallet then this is the place for you. With a choice of 12 cooked dishes, salad bar and soup there was something there to suit all of our tastes, even the fussiest, smallest member of the family. It works out as £15 per person (half price for the kids) not including drinks and you can go up as often as you want. It does what it says on the tine and trust me we certainly got our money’s worth that night!
And finally, if you want to try out some local delicacies without paying a penny, head to the indoor market by the harbour at the weekend to sample things like fermented shark, fishcake, dried fish, cakes, chocolate etc. If you’re really sneaky you can get the kids filled up in no time and before you know it that’s lunch sorted 😉
Swimming Pool Etiquette
If you fancy trying out one of the many geothermal pools in Iceland, and I strongly recommend you do, as they are freakin’ amazing, then you need to get used to the Icelandic cleanliness rules – and that means public locker room naked showering. The pools are completely natural and don’t use chlorine or any other chemicals, so it is absolutely imperative that they are kept as clean as possible. Which means you need to have a good old scrub down before you get in, and trust me there’s no avoiding it as they have shower room attendants who will chastise you if they see you’re not following the rules. It basically involves having a shower without your swimming costume on, using the supplied shower gel dispensers and following the massive poster guides showing you the important areas to wash – we’re talking face, hair, feet, pits, bum and bits. You can then put your swimmers back on and go out and enjoy the pool. The same process is to be completed once you get out of the pool and you must dry yourself before heading back to the changing area where your locker is so that you don’t trek water into the changing area. For us prudish Brits, being naked in front of strangers doesn’t exactly fill us with the greatest of joy, but you kinda just get on with it, avoid eye contact and get washing…plus once you’ve done it once it’s a breeze the next time I promise.
Oh and everywhere has a fab system involving digital wristbands that get you through the entrance turnstiles, locks and unlocks your locker, plus at the Blue Lagoon you can charge any drinks you buy to it and then pay the bill at the end. The wristbands are returned at the exit turnstiles where a little hatch opens up and you simply pop them in. Such a genius idea and don’t worry about not being able to get back into your locker, as they work really well, just have faith!
And finally here are my top tips for all those fab tours you’ll want to do when you’re in Iceland.
- Make sure you book the Blue Lagoon in advance. The daytime slots fill up fast, so much so that when we came to book a fortnight before we were going, there were only night time slots available.
- If you’ve hired a car, do the Golden Circle tour in reverse, that way you should avoid most of the tour buses and hoards of Japanese tourists.
- There are cafes at the various tourist spots, but to save a few pennies be prepared and take a picnic or plenty of car snacks.
- Reykjavik is packed full of various museums and art galleries, unfortunately you have to pay an entrance fee to get into most of them. Some of them are linked to one another however, and offer joint tickets to be used within a certain time. Take full advantage of this and get your money’s worth!
- Yes you can pay a hundred odd quid to join a Northern Lights tour, and yes they’ll throw in a cup of hot chocolate (oooo aren’t they generous!?!), but really what they’re charging you for is their knowledge of where the lights might (and let’s be honest it is only a might) appear. Well the thing is if you have a car and you’ve checked out the aura forecast here http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ then you’ve got just as much info as the experts have. Spotting the Northern Lights is all down to the sky being clear, the aural activity being high and more than anything else, a whole heap of luck.
Hopefully these tips will help you plan your trip to Iceland and save you a few pennies along the way.
Have You Been To Iceland?
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