Part 3 of Iceland travel blog series: 5 Tips on Planning a Trip to Iceland is guide to begin your travel journey to Iceland. Yes, it’s a journey and you will know why in the article. Learn more about the right season to travel, visa, tours, type of cars to rent etc.
Part 1: 18 Breathtaking Photos of Raw Iceland is our compilation of Iceland’s incredible landscape through our eyes and lens.
Part 4: Itinerary for Winter / Spring Road Trip in Iceland which is of course customizable.
Part 5: Accommodation Guide for Self Drive Road Trip in Iceland with tips to choose the right accommodation. Read this in combination with part 4.
Part 6: Currency Exchange and Tips to Save Money in Iceland is a guide which will help you spend your money wisely in Iceland.
For me, Iceland planning started two years back when we thought of traveling the first time. I would see videos or read articles and make a mental note of places I wanted to visit. As a result, my list kept growing longer and longer. But then still, there were quite a few unknowns like when to travel, where to stay, renting a car or booking tours etc. This article ‘5 Tips on Planning a Trip to Iceland’ covers all these points, as it is the first step to planning a trip. Iceland is one of those countries that requires a thorough planning and taking it step by step would be the best way to approach this trip of a lifetime!
5 Tips on Planning a Trip to Iceland
Deciding when to travel
First thing first, you have to decide what are your priorities. Iceland is one of those countries which is worth visiting throughout the year for different reasons, of course. Let us divide the entire year into seasons, which will make it easier for you to decide. We traveled in mid-March and got to see the best of both worlds!
Summer season (mid-May to mid-August):
This is the season of midnight sun! The sun only sets for an average of 3 hours in a day which means there is daylight 24 hours a day. This gives you more time to explore and an opportunity to see midnight sun in person. The weather would be slightly warmer, so you will be wearing 2-3 layer instead of 3-5. F-roads will be open, so you can drive into parts of the highlights by renting a 4×4. Of course, you will get to see greener landscape, spot Atlantic Puffins, go whale watching, experience less rainfall and do adventure activities like hiking, going behind the waterfall etc.
Read Also: First Impressions on Iceland
Autumn season (late-August to early-November):
This is a shoulder period with normal day light hours (average of 11 hours per day) and not brutally cold temperatures. It starts snowing from as early as September and most of the F-roads would start closing from October, so you probably won’t be able to drive into the highlands. You can still go whale watching till September and Northern Lights start showing up from September on-wards.
Winter season (mid-November to mid-March):
Being so up north, winters in Iceland are brutal. From late November till end of January, you would hardly see any day light (about 4-5 hours). Months of January and February are extremely icy as well. But shorter daylight means more chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Also, activities like ice caving and glacier hiking & snowmobiling start from November on-wards. You will also get a chance to see frozen waterfalls which are a wonder to look at and photograph. Since this is off-tourist season, prices are lower for airfare, accommodation and car rentals. Of course, this also means that you will have to drive on icy roads and be prepared for really cold temperatures.
Read Also: Breathtaking Photos of Raw Iceland
Spring season (late-March to early-May):
Spring is also a shoulder period in Iceland with normal day light hours (average of 11 hours per day) and moderately cold temperatures. It can be snowy till as late as May and most of the F-roads will remain closed due to thawing. You can see Northern Lights till mid-April as there would still be a good few hours of darkness and activities like glacier hiking and ice caving will close by March end. The accommodation and flight prices would still be moderately low as it’s still not peak season.
Planning your visa
The next step would be to plan your visa and book appointments in advance. Iceland comes under Schengen, so if you already have a valid Schengen visa or a strong passport like EU, US etc you are all set. For others and people like us, unfortunately, it’s not that straight forward. In Ireland, we had to book an appointment at the Denmark embassy because Ireland does not have a embassy for Iceland. So you need to check if there is an embassy in your country or explore best alternate approach. And as you are aware, you need to provide all valid proofs of tickets, accommodation etc when you go for your visa appointment, which brings to our next step.
Deciding if you want to take tours or do a self-drive road trip
Your entire travel planning depends on this decision! For us, the decision was straight forward. We both hate tours because we feel they are always rushed for time. We like our flexibility way too much! That was one of the reasons why we decided to travel in mid-March, because driving was much easier with almost no ice on the road. However, that can change from year to year so it’s good to be prepared. March 2017 was way more snowy as compared to the current year (2018) and hence we were prepared for any kind of climatic conditions.
Self-Drive road trips
If you are doing a self-drive road trip, you can plan your own itinerary and spend as much time as you want at each location (and that’s what we did!). You have all the flexibility in the world, as you can wake up late one day or pack up early the other day. You can pullover anywhere to take a couple of photographs or just to enjoy the beauty of nature. It’s also good to know that Iceland has left hand side driving. For folks from UK, Ireland and India, who are not used to driving on the other side of the road, it might take a couple of minutes to get accustomed. We haven’t done complete calculations but self-drive road trips would probably work out to be cheaper than guided day tours.
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Day tours are very helpful if you are planning a trip in thick winter and have no snow driving experience. You can let the tour guide do all the hard work (which includes driving in the night due to shorter day light) while you relax inside a heated bus. They can also be your personal photographer and help take couple of shots all way along. Tours also provide you convenience if you haven’t had the time to do proper research. They know exactly where to take you! But if you are reading this article, be assured we will help you plan well.
There are some activities for which you have to take a guided tour like glacier hiking, ice caving, whale watching etc as it’s for your own safety. These guides provide all the gears like crampons, axe etc, know which path to take you on (so that you are saved from falling into a sink hole) and exactly know where the ice caves are and if they are safe to visit (so that you don’t spend hours searching for them or saved from getting crushed by tones of ice).
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There are a lot of companies that provide various tour packages. Take a look at artic adventures, as they seem to be one of they more reputed ones.
Deciding on the kind of car to rent – is 4×4 a must?
If you have decided to do a self-drive road trip, the next big question would be which car to rent. Should you choose a 4×4 or a regular car? We faced the biggest challenge here as a lot of online articles were suggesting a 4×4. 4x4s are more expensive than a regular car and we wanted to make sure that we make an informed decision.
F-roads and 4WDS
A 4×4 or a 4WD is a must if you are planning to drive into the highlands or the F-roads. These roads are rocky and you might be crossing a river on the way. Of-course a regular car won’t cut the bill and it’s illegal as well to drive a regular car on highlands. But the F-roads are open from from June till October. So, unless you are planning a summer trip, a 4×4 is pretty much useless. Of course, a 4WD would be useful if you are planning to do a self-drive road trip in thick winter and have plans of driving on side roads. There are chances that you might get stuck in snow and due to high clearance, it might be helpful to get out.
Read Also: Road trip in the Scottish Highlands
If you plan on staying on regular highways or A-roads as they call it, you really don’t need a 4×4 through out the year. In fact, we rented a regular car with snow tyres and got a full insurance and that was more than enough. Snow tyres are all you need to drive on icy roads. All cars in Iceland actually come equipped with snow tyres due to harsh climatic conditions. On our trip we even saw people with tiny cars and camper vans (which of course are not 4WDs) and they were doing just fine.
We spoke to friends who had traveled before us and that gave us more confidence to rent a regular car.
If you are planning to do a self-drive road trip from November to February, I would suggest contacting the car rental company as well and they will definitely be able to suggest on the car you should go for. Also, before driving always check the road and weather conditions. Road.is and Vedur.is are the websites that you should regularly check, especially during winter.
For rest of the year, a regular car is more than enough if you have no plans of driving into the highlands.
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Planning which spots to cover / places to visit
We are planning to write a detailed 8 days itinerary for Iceland, but here I wanted to quickly cover some of the popular areas of interest..
Depending on the time you have in hand, you can either stay in Reykjavik (capital city) and do the Golden Circle and some of the spots near by. Golden circle is just the shorter route around Reykjavik and gives you highlights of Iceland. But it’s just highlights as Iceland has so much more to offer than just the Golden circle.
If you have more time in hand, planning a trip through part of the Ring Road or the complete ring road would be the ideal way to go about it. A ring road is a road that covers the complete island and takes you through the coastal route (without entering into the highlands). A lot of people drive through the entire ring road in 8-10 days.
There is another smaller circle called the Diamond Circle near Akureyri and is similar to the Golden circle. It is less famous at this stage but a good option if you are driving through the complete ring road.
We mostly stayed on the south of Iceland, did the golden circle and also drove till Snaefellsnes peninsula in the north west. We will provide more details on the places we visited soon!
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