1. Plan realistically
If you’re like us you don’t envision yourself getting a whole lot of chances to go to Iceland. We only got to go because we won a contest from SadCars. Although it is sometimes seen as a stopover on the way to European destinations most people who do that only spend a couple of nights in Reykjavik. (And that would be worth doing.) However, if you have say 10 days or more you can see many of the highlights of the country – but you can’t see them all. And we don’t even mean that in a “can’t see them all properly” snooty way of telling you to savor each place for days. We tell you that literally because you’ll stop a million times for pictures, a lot of times for sheep to cross the road and your guesthouse owner will not wait up late for you if you end up rolling into town at midnight.
Take the time to do some research on the highlights you want to see and carefully plot them all on Google Maps or some other similar tool that tells you distances and drive times. Then add 50% to the drive times due to the aforementioned stopping a lot and sheep! In the course of 10 days we had one day that was supposed to be 6 hours of driving and was closer to 12. It’s a beautiful country and you need to give it its due. If you’re a woman pretend you have a chance to look at George Clooney in person and you know you will probably never get the chance again. Do you take a quick glance and keep going or do you let that glance linger until someone asks George if he’d like to take out a restraining order against you? For Iceland the answer is: B- restraining order.
2. Register your plans
No, we don’t mean set up a gift registry for people to buy you long underwear (although that isn’t the worst idea) but register with http://www.safetravel.is and then check in along the way using the 112 Iceland App. Like so many things in life (back to George Clooney) what makes Iceland so interesting and gorgeous is also what makes it dangerous and tempting. That mountain might be a great choice to climb or you may end up hanging on by your fingernails repenting your sins and waiting for the SARS (safety and rescue) volunteer to come save you. And they gladly will do it. They will do it with some of the most impressive skills and training you can conceive of and they will do it for free. The free part is important as they don’t want to deter people who need help from calling to get it. This is an amazing group of approximately 4,000 volunteers and they take immense pride in saving people from themselves.
3. Bring or buy the right clothes.
Leave your cute stilettos and slinky LBDs at home. You’ll look silly in them even in the capital and you’ll end up dead in them anywhere else. This is a place for serious clothing that you can layer. And yes, it doesn’t always make you look good in pictures.
Bring waterproof (not water resistant) pants and shoes. Definitely plan on layering and have clothing that wicks away any wiffiness you may produce after a long day of activities.
If you decide to wait and buy some of your outdoor clothes when you get to Iceland two good Icelandic brands are Cintamani and 66North. Blonde came home with an impressive collection of each and made sure to get her VAT tax refund at the airport. (And was glad to have the clothing from Iceland on a recent trip to western Ireland.)
4. Bring your sense of humor and try to subdue your modesty!
Icelanders are funny on purpose as well as unintentionally. On purpose they will often tease you in a very pleasant but somewhat sardonic manner. They get a good laugh out of themselves and their quirks. We saw a show one of our first nights in Reykjavik at the beautiful waterfront Harpa theater. It was titled “How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes“. Bjarni Haukur Thorsson gives you a fast-paced primer on “everything you need to know about being Icelandic….. You will learn how to walk, talk and behave like a regular Icelander. Additionally you will learn why eating sour sheep balls might save your life.”
The unintentional humor is things such as people cannot name their kids whatever they choose. No little Moon Units or Apples are running around Iceland! Iceland has the Mannanafnanefnd, Iceland’s “Personal Names Committee” that provides lists of acceptable names for boys and girls. Their reasoning for this law is:
“Rules for Icelandic personal names provide that names must:
- be able to have a genetive ending or have been adopted through custom in the Icelandic language,
- must be adaptable to the structure of the Icelandic language and spelling conventions and
- does not cause the bearer embarassment.
- Girls should be given a female name and boys should be given male names.
- No person can have more than three personal names
So no matter what she tells you, Bjork most likely isn’t her real name. There are also all sorts of rules around how, when and by whom the names must be bestowed.
Another thing we had to stifle a few giggles about is the very serious belief in elves and trolls. One story (of many) we were told was of construction crews building a golf course on the outskirts of Reykjavik and moving a rock believed to be the dwelling of elves. Bulldozers started failing and workers became victims of strange injuries, and so the chief engineer eventually issued a grovelling apology to the elves and vowed not to trouble them again. The event was made public by the media and the accidents stopped occurring and the golf course was completed on schedule. (We don’t fact check this stuff – you need to do some of the work around here!)
The modesty issue is around swimming, using hot tubs or any of the thermal lagoons. Prior to doing so one must shower in the nude with strangers (of the same gender at least) and in some cases with “shower police” making sure you’ve thoroughly scrubbed any of the bits that particularly concern them. Yes, you know what we’re saying here. All we can do is say get it over with as fast as you can and don’t make eye contact with anyone!
5. Bring your camera and be ready to use it at all times
OK, don’t use it during a Shower Police episode but don’t even bother putting it in the backseat of your car. You will overuse every superlative in your vocabulary when you witness the scenery in Iceland. And it pops up absolutely everywhere and you need to be ready to capture the moment. Take a large capacity photo card and extra power chargers so you don’t end up with a dead iPhone or camera as you drive for more hours than you intended because you didn’t listen to us in Point #1.
6. Know if it’s going to be dark or light
This probably should have been earlier in the planning section but it isn’t, it’s here. Before you schedule your trip look up and understand the temperatures, rain and lighting conditions you can expect. We went in June which was when the sun literally never sets. That was very freaky as we lost all sense of time and stopped for lunch at 3:30 p.m. and wondered why the little market in the middle of nowhere was closed at midnight and other dumb things. But it did give us a lot more time to see things and take pictures. It also made it important to sleep somewhere that either had blackout curtains on the windows or to wear a good eye mask to keep out the light (or both).
Alternatively, if you go later in the year to see the Northern Lights, or just to test your endurance abilities, know that you could encounter as few as zero hours of light in a day. This site can help you figure it all out.
7. Read reviews and make reservations for your lodging
Because so much of Iceland is very remote and the tourism season is basically two months in the summer there are not a lot of hotel chains. In fact the only one we noticed, and used, was IcelandAir Hotels. They were by far the closest to luxury that we experienced and they were not luxurious but they were nice. They were also expensive but even very modest lodging is in Iceland. If you’re on a very tight budget you may want to consider camping in which case you want to listen to someone other than us!
Mostly you will be in little guest houses in small villages. Go to Trip Advisor or Booking,com or Trivago or whoever you trust and read the reviews. See how current they are and assume all photos of the places have been photoshopped more than Britney Spears on one of her album covers.
Free wi-fi is available some places but not others so if that’s important to you check before reserving and then remember what your anger management coach taught you when you get there and it doesn’t work.
Also, just because you’re out in some deserted outpost in Iceland in a place that looks spotless, don’t forget to check for bedbugs! Nola had the presence of mind to check each place and in one guesthouse that looked very, very clean the beds were teeming with the horrid little buggers! In that case we had used Booking,com and called them and they were amazing and got us another place in the same small town and made sure we weren’t charged for the bad place. I have never gone into a hotel room without doing this check since and hope I’ll never forget!
Don’t let all of this advice convince you that if you don’t spend years planning you can’t enjoy Iceland. We put horrifyingly little planning into it because we had about a week to plan the whole 10 day trip and were both very busy with other things at the same time. And we had a wonderful time. Some of that was because we’re experienced, beautiful travelers (didn’t know if you read this far so slipped in the “beautiful” part to see) and Nola is one calm cookie who can problem solve like nobody’s business.
We had an amazing amount of fun and loved the country and its people. And we are now trying desperately to win another contest to go back and see what we missed the first time!