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The Ultimate Travel Guide to Iceland

Everything to know before travelling to Iceland.

Iceland is a land of delightful oddity, from its otherworldly glacial landscapes to its surreal folklore and distinctly different cuisine. Whether you're travelling in winter for a spectacular view of the Northern Lights, or in summer for white nights, whale watching, and scenic cycling, Iceland is a truly unique place to spend anything from a long weekend to a month.

Flights to Iceland

Getting to Iceland from the UK

Most travellers to Iceland choose to fly; the national carrier, Icelandair, flies from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. EasyJet also flies from London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Expect to be in the air for around three hours and to pay around £50-100 each way, depending on season.

Getting to Reykjavik from the Airport

KeflavÍk International Airport is about 30 miles from Reykjavik city centre and well-connected to the capital by public transport. Public buses run nine times per day; for a quicker and more direct option, book either a Flybus or Grayline Airport Express to Reykjavik city centre. These shuttles are timetabled according to flight arrivals so are very convenient, and you can book to the city centre or direct to your hotel or guesthouse. Expect to pay 2,000 - 3,000 ISK (£14-£20).

Local taxis from the airport are all metered; a private taxi from Keflavik to Reykjavik takes around 45 minutes and costs in the region of 15000 ISK (£100), meaning this option is only really good value if there are a few of you travelling together.

If you're picking up a hire car to do some road-tripping around the country, collecting the car at the airport before you head into town can make excellent sense - all major car rental companies including Hertz, Alamo, Europcar and SixT have airport pick-up and drop-off options. Hiring a car (see below) is a great way to see more of Iceland; rental prices for a small city runaround start around £40 per day.

Iceland Ring Road

Getting Around Iceland

It's possible to get to the major towns and visitor highlights in Iceland by public transport; a bus fare costs 350 ISK (£2) and if you ask for a skiptimidi you can transfer your ticket to a second bus within 75 minutes to continue your journey. Plan your journey at Straeto.is; there's also a handy free app available for iPhone and Android to help you get around. Search for Straeto in your phone's app store.

If you really want to take in the beauty of Iceland and get off the beaten track, however, a hire car is by far the most convenient way to get around the country. Iceland's famous Ring Road (Route 1) will take you through many of Iceland's highlights, including the scenic attractions of Skógafoss and Jökulsárlón and most of the country's major towns. The 800-mile Ring Road takes around 17 hours to drive, and can be completed in a week but a longer trip will allow you more time to explore. Summer is the best time for a driving holiday as the roads are open, conditions are good and there's plenty of daylight. Self-driving in winter is not recommended as weather conditions can be hazardous.

If you're driving on Route 1 or other paved roads only, you don't need any special vehicle or equipment. If you're heading inland, where gravel tracks significantly outnumber paved roads, you'll need a four-wheel drive (all roads marked "F" are for four-wheel drive vehicles only). Off-road driving is strictly forbidden, with a hefty fine for offenders. Stick to marked roads and tracks only.

Watch out for a few rules of the road: Icelanders drive on the right. As in other Nordic countries, it's mandatory to have dipped headlights on at all times, even in summer during the daylight (you may find the headlights on your hire car come on automatically for this reason). The speed limit is 50km/h in built-up areas, 80km/h on gravel roads and 90km/h on paved roads. Petrol stations are often automated - pay at the pump using your credit card, and keep your tank topped up as stations can be few and far between.

Take a look at road.is for more information about driving safely in Iceland.

Iceland waterfall

When to Visit Iceland

High season in Iceland is from June to August, when the days are at their longest and the weather is at its warmest. Average temperatures range between 13-20C: similar to a pleasant spring day in the UK. The true midnight sun only appears in the north of the country within the Arctic Circle, but during summer the whole of Iceland experiences long days and light nights.

The summer solstice (Jónsmessa), on 24 June, is celebrated in Iceland with parties and bonfires. From May to August, the long evenings create extended 'golden hours' for photographers and are very pleasant to sit and enjoy even if you don't have a camera. Summer is the best time to go whale-watching, cycling, horse riding and road-tripping.

Winter is the time to visit if you want to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). The lights can be seen from September to March; the midwinter months have the longest nights, but also a greater chance of cloud, so the shoulder seasons of autumn and early spring can often provide a better chance of actually being able to see the sky.

To maximise your chance of seeing the lights you need a dark night, so head away from the city lights. Specialist Northern Lights tours will take you to locations with less light pollution. If you visit for a long weekend you might be lucky, but the longer you can stay, the better chance you have of catching a dark, clear night and seeing some aurora action.

The aurora require the right atmospheric conditions and are quite unpredictable, so however long you're going for - make sure you plan some other activities so your holiday is a good experience with or without the lights.

Wild horses in Iceland

Things to Do in Iceland

There's lots to do in Iceland whether you're travelling in summer or winter. Must-do activities and sights include sightseeing at the otherworldly Glacier Lagoon and at the Gullfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls; bathing in the hot springs at Reykjadalur and the famous geothermal Blue Lagoon where you can also enjoy relaxing spa treatments; and year-round whale watching. If you're travelling in summer, it's even possible to spot humpback and minke whales on a magical late evening whale watching trip - bring warm clothing and a camera!

Mountain biking and horse riding excursions are popular choices during summer. Hill walkers and hikers are also well catered-for in Iceland; in the winter months, you can also try your feet (wrap them up warm) at glacier walking.

For more ideas, read our post on things to do in Iceland.

Tourist in Iceland

What to Pack for Iceland

Whatever time of year you're travelling to Iceland, take plenty of comfortable layers. Thermal underlayers are a good idea in winter, and a fleece will keep you warm on chilly days and out on the sea if you head out for some whale-watching. Top off with a waterproof jacket and trousers - you'll really value these if the heavens open! Walking boots are a must if you're hiking in summer. Iceland's climate means that warm socks and woolly hats are a good idea year-round, as are sunglasses, sunscreen to protect against sunlight bouncing off the snow. Take swimwear if you plan to visit the thermal pools.

Photographers should bring a tripod or monopod and pack plenty of memory cards - Iceland is incredibly scenic! If you're travelling in summer you may find you need an eye mask to help you sleep, as the light at night can confuse your body clock. In winter, it can be a good idea to bring a torch for the opposite reason - the days are short and the nights get very dark. If you're driving into the interior, pack an old-fashioned paper map: smartphone maps will get you around the cities, but you won't be able to reliably get a signal in rural areas.

Iceland uses European-style two-pronged plugs, so bring a plug adaptor or two to charge your electronics. Finally, pack any over-the-counter medicines you use regularly, as not everything is reliably available in Icelandic pharmacies.

Fish drying in Iceland.

What to Eat in Iceland

As you'd expect from a country surrounded by ocean, fish is an important staple of Icelandic cuisine. Salmon, herring, haddock and cod are all commonly found on Icelandic menus; as well as being caught and eaten fresh, fish may be preserved by curing, pickling or salting; salt cod has a distinctive flavour quite different to fresh cod, and appears in hearty fish stews.

More unusual Icelandic recipes use fermented shark (hákarl), smoked puffin (lundi), whole boiled sheep's head (svið) and minke whale (which can be eaten raw like sushi or lightly cooked). þorramatur is a buffet of cured meats and fishes served at midwinter. Wash your meal down with a glass or two of brennivin, a schnapps-like drink served chilled.

Iceland currency

Money in Iceland

The currency of Iceland is the Icelandic Kronur (ISK), but you won't need to bring pockets full of cash with you as almost all shops and businesses take cards. In rural areas, you may find unmanned, completely automated petrol stations at which you have no option but to use a credit or debit card, so make sure you have yours with you at all times when driving. If you're planning to travel by bus, you'll need the right change to buy your ticket on board - ATMs are widely available in town centres.

Iceland can be a pricey destination for travel, but you can avoid some of the bigger costs by doing your research and booking early. Hire cars are always cheaper off-season, so consider travelling outside of the June-July peak and book as far in advance as you can to get the best deal. Many destinations can be reached by public transport if you don't mind a slightly slower journey - it will be cheaper than a booked tour or a pricey taxi. Meals out are moderately expensive but worth saving up for as a special treat - expect to pay ISK 2500-3500 for lunch in a cafe and around £70 for dinner for two.

Blue Lagoon

Language in Iceland

Icelandic, a variant of Old Norse, is one of the world's oldest recorded languages. The pronunciation isn't easy for non-natives; fortunately, the majority of Icelanders speak English and you shouldn't have any difficulty getting around or finding what you need. If you'd like to try a few local phrases, here are some for starters:

  • Hello --- Halló/Góðan dag
  • How are you? --- Hvað segir þú?
  • I'm fine --- Allt gott
  • What's your name? --- Hvað heitir þú?
  • My name is... --- Ég heiti ...
  • I'm from... --- Ég er frá ...
  • Goodbye --- Vertu blessaður
  • Cheers! (to toast) --- Skál!
  • Yes --- Já
  • No --- Nei
  • I don't know --- Ég veit ekki
  • Excuse me --- Afsakið!
  • How much is this? --- Hvað kostar þetta?
  • Sorry --- þvÍ miður
  • Please --- Gjörðu svo vel
  • Thank you --- Takk
  • Help! --- Hjálp!
ð is pronounced like "th" in "that"; þ is pronounced like "th" in "thistle".

Staying Connected in Iceland

Many hostels, hotels and even campsites throughout Iceland offer free WiFi, as do cafes, bars, public buses and even petrol stations, so with a laptop, smartphone or tablet it's easy to stay connected wherever you are.

Useful apps for travel in Iceland include:

  • Straeto: public bus journey planning app with route information, timetables and live departure information;
  • Iceland Travel Guide: with a comprehensive city guide to Rekjavik and information on Iceland's other major tourist attractions;
  • Iceland Road Guide: your one-stop guide to driving in Iceland, whether you're heading around the Ring Road or deep into the interior;
  • Vedur: up-to-date weather information from the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Essential to help you plan your daily trips and road travel;
  • Triposo: travel guide with a handy currency converter, an Icelandic phrasebook, places to see and visit and local maps.
  • Reykjavik Appy Hour: if you're planning to go bar-hopping in this fairly pricey city, this app will tell you where there are bargains to be found!

Now you're prepared for an enchanting trip to the land of ice and fire - Góða ferð!

If you found this post on travelling to Iceland helpful, you may want to read more of our Wanderlust articles. Also check out our travel blog for additional inspiration and travel tips to make your holidays hassle-free!

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Written by Lise Smith, a former contributor to Lonely Planet's India guidebook - she's seen her fair share of hotel rooms (both grotty and glamorous!). She learned to walk in a hotel corridor in Tunisia, and at the age of three had been on more aeroplanes than buses. Lise writes for a number of local news, technology and arts publications.

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