Planning a trip to Iceland can be as rewarding as the trip itself. Here are our tips for planning your epic Iceland trip including the best areas to visit, how to get around and what to do.
After 4 trips to Iceland, we’ve seen a lot of the country in very different conditions.
We’ve road-tripped around the Ring Road (three times), explored the mountainous f-roads, visited popular attractions, and discovered a less-visited side to Iceland.
We’ve enjoyed the country’s breathtaking scenery under the midnight sun; stood in awe under the northern lights; soaked in thermal pools and hiked into remote wilderness areas.
Over the years we’ve learnt that making the most out of an Iceland trip requires careful planning.
Some places can only be visited in summer, and some are difficult to get to. The weather can scupper plans, and hotels in remote regions can book out months in advance. Additionally, deciding how you are going to get around can determine the type of trip you’re going to have.
Here’s our guide to planning the ultimate Iceland trip. It includes the best areas to visit, when to go, how to get around, travel tips and what to expect in terms of costs.
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IN THIS GUIDE
ICELAND TRIP PLANNING
HOW TO GET THERE
WHERE TO GO
WHEN TO GO
HOW TO GET AROUND
WHERE TO STAY
WHAT TO PACK
HOW TO GET THERE
The main airport in Iceland is Keflavík International Airport which is 30 miles (50 kilometres) southwest of Iceland’s capital – Reykjavík. Many US-based airlines include Keflavík as a layover between the US and Europe. The full list of airlines that operate at Keflavík is available at isavia.is/en
A regular bus service operates from the airport to Reykjavik which takes around 45 minutes. Car rental companies are located either in the arrivals hall, or in a separate building a short shuttle bus away. The taxi service runs 24 hours a day.
The other way to arrive in Iceland is by ferry from Hirtshals in Denmark. It takes two days, making a stop at the Faroe Islands before disembarking at Seyðisfjörður in the east of Iceland. It’s a long trip but the advantage is you can bring your own car.
PLANNING WHERE TO GO IN ICELAND
Iceland covers an area of around 40,000 miles2 (103,000 km2), about the same size as the state of Kentucky in the US. The Ring Road which roughly circumnavigates the country is 828 miles (1,332 kilometres) long and takes about 17 hours to drive.
Many of the most popular places to visit in Iceland are spread out along the Ring Road, but the centre of the country – the highlands – has some of the most dramatic scenery.
Here’s a breakdown of each of the main regions in Iceland.
REYKJAVÍK & SOUTHWEST ICELAND
45 minutes from the airport
Reykjavík is 30 miles from Keflavik airport in the southwest of the country. By far the largest settlement in Iceland, it is an attractive city with charming old streets, museums and a huge harbour. It’s a popular destination as a base to see lots of nearby attractions.
They include the Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss), as well as the Blue Lagoon, the Fagradalsfjall Volcano and the thermal river of Reykjadalur. Tours regularly depart from Reykjavik including day trips to the amazing scenery of Landmannalaugar or the green valley of Thórsmörk in the Highlands.
VÍK & SOUTHERN ICELAND
2 hours, 30 minutes from Reykjavïk
Vík is a seafront village in the south of Iceland. Occupying a remote location near the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, Vík has become a popular stop on the Ring Road (2 hours 30 minutes from Reykjavík) as the only centre within a 50-kilometre radius with services.
It’s a great base for visiting the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and the Dyrhólaey Peninsular which is home to a colony of puffins. Two of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss are easily visited from Vík as is the famous DC3 plane wreck. Ice Cave adventures or hiking tours to the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier also depart from Vík.
HÖFN & SOUTHEAST ICELAND
3 hours, 3 minutes’ drive from Vík
Further east along the Ring Road the massive glacier of Vatnajökull dominates the horizon. There is little civilisation here and accommodation books up fast. But the area includes one of the largest ice caps in Europe (Vatnajokull), excellent hiking in the Skaftafell National Park and the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
Another great attraction is Vestrahorn where rocky mountainous peaks, including the famous Batman Mountain, meet the ocean. The main town in the region is Höfn which is 3 hours 30 minutes’ drive from Vik.
SEYÐISFJÖRÐUR & THE EASTFJORDS
3 to 4 hours’ drive from Höfn
Seyðisfjörður is a charming colourful village in the east of Iceland (3 to 4 hours from Höfn) and the most attractive base for visiting the East Fjords. It’s beautifully set, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and waterfalls.
East Iceland is characterised by dramatic coastlines, narrow fjords and a slower more local pace. Although it gets fewer visits than the southwest, some of the standout attractions include Hengifoss – one of the best waterfalls in Iceland and the basalt columns of Stuðlagil Canyon.
HÚSAVIK, MÝVATN & THE NORTH
2 hours, 45 minutes’ drive from Seyðisfjörður
Mývatn is a region in the central north of the country (2 hours 45 minutes from Seyðisfjörður or 6 hours from Reykjavík). It includes a host of natural attractions including lava formations, a unique geothermal wasteland, and Pseudo craters.
An hour north of the main Mývatn area, the charming seaside port of Húsavík is where whale-watching tours depart. Known as the Whale Capital of Iceland, up to 23 species of whale can be spotted here, and sightings are almost guaranteed in the month of July. More details are in our guide to Myvatn.
The Iceland Highlands is the mountainous region in the centre of the country that is only accessible during summer (unless you take a super jeep tour). It is empty, vast and remote but contains some of the most amazing scenery anywhere in the world.
Landmannalaugar is one of the most accessible areas with sweeping colourful mountains situated in a massive caldera, backed by the rusty-red Ljótipollur crater. The drive here is an achievable adventure, and it has several great hikes.
Other highland highlights include the dramatic valley of Thórsmörk, steaming rusty-coloured Kerlingarfjöll, and the volcanic craters and calderas at Askja.
ÍSAFJÖRÐUR & THE WESTFJORDS
5 hours, 35 minutes’ drive from Reykjavík
Ísafjörður is the main town in the Westfjords – a large peninsula in the northwest of Iceland. It has a cute high street and a respectable maritime museum, but the charm of this area is its local feel. Only 10% of visitors come here so this is a place to get to know the locals.
Stretching out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Westfjords are a series of rugged peninsulas and massive mountains including spectacular but remote scenery. It’s home to one of the best bird-watching areas in Europe and there are several natural hot springs that feel isolated and supremely local.
There are lots of great things to do in the Westfjords but it’s a long way to drive. First-timers with 10 days or less should save the region for a second visit.
SNAEFELLSNES & WEST ICELAND
2 hours’ drive from Reykjavík
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is often described as a mini-Iceland. Here you’ll find a large glacier, red craters, basalt columns, dramatic coast roads, beautifully shaped mountains and one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland, Kirkjufellsfoss.
In our opinion, none of it is the best of what Iceland has to offer and most of the region’s popularity is due to its proximity to Reykjavík. Nonetheless, if you are short on time, it makes for a good whirlwind 1- or 2-day trip from Reykjavík.
WHEN TO GO TO ICELAND?
Deciding when to go to Iceland is determined by what you want to see. In winter you can catch Iceland in frosted glory with the potential to see the Northern lights. In summer, when the snow has melted, much more of the country is accessible allowing you to get further off the beaten track and see more of its amazing scenery.
ICELAND IN WINTER
In winter, the days are short and dark, and road closures make access to some areas difficult. November and December see the temperatures plummet to 14°F (-10°C), but it’s a great time for ice caving, enjoying the frosty festive atmosphere and soaking in geothermal pools.
February and March are good months to see the Northern Lights, however, the average temperatures are around 21°F (-6°C). Disruptive snow is still possible in April, but by May, Icelanders are starting to get out to enjoy some easy hiking and hot springs in cool sunshine.
ICELAND IN SUMMER
In summer, the snow melts, the mountain roads and hiking trails open, and a whole host of wonderful landscapes become accessible. June and July have almost 24 hours of sunlight and are great months to see wildlife with puffin and whale watching at their peak.
August is peak tourist season but with all the mountain roads open it’s a great time to explore the remote highlands and for heading out on some of Iceland’s epic hiking trails. September begins to get quieter, and the Northern Lights once again become a possibility.
In October, the changing seasons and low visitor numbers are attractive for landscape photographers, but the snow can arrive quickly in high areas.
HOW LONG DO YOU NEED IN ICELAND
How long you need to spend on your Iceland trip will be determined by what you want to see and the time of year you go.
If you just want to see the main tourist sites around Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, you’d need to allow 3 days. You won’t be able to leave the crowds behind, but this is the minimum amount of time you could realistically spend in Iceland.
If you have 5-7 days you’ll be able to venture past the Golden Circle towards Vik and Höfn to see Jökulsárlón Glacier, Dyrhólaey Peninsular and some of the most impressive waterfalls in Iceland.
In 10 days you’ll be able to complete the Ring Road and not only see what’s in the 5 – 7 day itinerary but also visit the east fjords, Myvatn and Kerlingarfjöll.
We have some suggested itineraries further down in this guide.
HOW TO GET AROUND?
One of the most important considerations when planning a trip to Iceland is how to get around. This will largely determine what you can see and how much free time you have to explore.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT & TOURS
Most public transport in Iceland is based around the capital of Reykjavík. Regular buses and tours head out all over the southwest of Iceland allowing you to visit almost all the attractions of the area without too much hassle. However, once you leave the southwest, bus routes get less common and more infrequent. Some only go once a day or even less.
Fortunately, southwest has some of the best things to do in Iceland. Spending 3 to 5 days in this area and using tours and public transport to get to places like the Golden Circle, Landmannalaugar, and Thórsmörk is an excellent option.
If you are planning on seeing more than just the area around Reykjavík and don’t have a huge amount of time, then driving yourself is by far the easiest, quickest and most efficient way to see the country.
Many of Iceland’s attractions are scattered around the Ring Road, which is paved and easy to drive in any 2wd car. You can find more information including rough costs on our driving in Iceland guide.
If you want a bit more adventure, then consider hiring a 4×4. This would allow you to see many more places in the Iceland highlands. To do this, you’ll need to drive on the mountain roads – called F-roads. Read our comprehensive guide to understanding the F-roads in Iceland to see if this adventure is right for you.
WHERE TO STAY
Iceland is an expensive destination and accommodation takes up a big chunk of holiday costs. Prices rise dramatically over the summer months with many places booked up well in advance.
Camping // By far the most cost-effective way to see Iceland is to camp. There are over 170 campsites across the country costing about US$10 to 20 per person per day. However, be aware that it rains a lot in Iceland and the temperatures are well below freezing in winter and rarely get above 10°C at night in summer. If you are camping in the Highlands, it will be colder still.
Campervans // A great way to combine the cost of accommodation, food and transport is to hire a campervan. Prices roughly start around US$80 a day off-peak rising to US$150 in summer (sleeps 2).
Hostels // Hostels in Iceland are generally good quality and offer a mix of dormitories and private rooms. Prices start at around 35 EUR per person per night but can rise quickly in summer and book up well in advance.
Hotels // There are a wide range of choices of hotels in Iceland. Prices are expensive and rooms are often small. The Fosshotel runs a well-respected chain of properties right across the country.
Guesthouses // These are a great way to meet other travellers and the locals. Run by families, many include meals prepared in-house and served at communal tables. Expect to pay roughly US$150 upwards for a room for two people, with dinner charged on top of the advertised room rate. (Unless otherwise stated).
You can find all our recommendations here – where to stay in Iceland. (Coming soon).
SUGGESTED ITINERARIES FOR YOUR ICELAND TRIP
3 DAYS IN ICELAND | REYKJAVĪK & THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
- Base yourself in Reykjavík and spend 1 day visiting the sites of the Golden Circle – the waterfall at Gulfoss, the geyser at Geysir, and the fissure at Thingvellir.
- On day 2 head to the new lava flows at Fagradalsfjall, and either the hot springs at Reykjadalur or the Blue Lagoon.
- Take a day trip or tour to Landmannalaugar on Day 3 to get a taste of the amazing highlands.
5 DAYS IN ICELAND | SOUTHWEST HIGHLIGHTS
- Follow the 3 days above.
- On day 4, drive along the south coast to Vík collecting Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss then explore the Thakgill canyon.
- On day 5, visit the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and the Dyrhólaey Peninsular to spot puffins on the cliffs and head up onto the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier.
7 DAYS IN ICELAND | SOUTH ICELAND
- Follow the five-day itinerary above.
- Continue east to the town of Höfn and visit the glacial lake of Jökulsárlón and hike in the Skaftafell National Park with stunning views over the mighty glacier of Vatnajökull.
- On day 7, explore the black spiky pinnacles of Vestrahorn.
10 DAYS IN ICELAND | RING ROAD
In 10 days, you’ll have enough time to complete the entire Ring Road. The circular route makes a loop around the entire country collecting all the main tourist attractions in the south, plus the East Fjords, Myvatn, and Húsavík before returning to Reykjavík.
2 WEEKS IN ICELAND | RING ROAD +
If you have the time (and money) to spend 2 weeks in Iceland, you’ll be able to complete the Ring Road at a slower pace and add another couple of destinations. Either head into the highlands and see places like Kerlingarfjöll, Askja and Thórsmörk, or visit the Westfjords or Snaefellsnes peninsula.
You can find more details on our Iceland itinerary.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Make no mistake, Iceland is an expensive country. While it’s possible to travel more economically around Reykjavík, if you want to get off the beaten track and explore more remote areas, the cost of transport and accommodation quickly rises.
Restaurants are expensive too. The ability to cook your own meals either in a campervan or guesthouse will help reduce the costs of your vacation. Taking your own lunch out on day trips is also a good idea.
Here is roughly what you can expect things to cost in Iceland:
- Coffee in a café – Kr580 ($4.45 / £3.35)
- Local beer – Kr1,200 ($9.20 / £6.90)
- Main meal – Kr2,500 ($19.15 / £14.50)
- Fuel (per litre) – Kr226 ($1.70 / £1.30)
Fortunately, once transport, accommodation, and food has been paid for, practically all the main natural sights are free to visit except for parking costs. Parking generally costs Kr 600 – Kr 800 for the whole day ($4.50-$6 / £3.50-£4.50 / €4-€5.50).
The Blue Lagoon is US$60 and the Myvatn Nature Baths are US$41, but there are lots of free thermal pools in Iceland including Reykjadalur.
WHAT TO PACK
The volatile weather conditions and remote locations mean there are different scenarios that you need to be prepared for when travelling in Iceland.
Even in summer, the weather in Iceland can be unpredictable. Icy blasts, torrential rain and snowstorms can appear out of even the sunniest of days. Travelling to the highlands can put you in a completely different weather system to the one you left just a few hours ago.
So, our top Iceland packing tip is to prepare for a few different scenarios you can expect throughout your vacation.
For the cold // You’ll encounter a variety of different temperatures throughout the day, so pack layers including a waterproof, fleece, gloves, woolly hat and a substantial jacket for when the temperature really drops.
For the rain // If you’re out on a hike in Iceland, the chances are at least some of the day will involve a bit of rain. Make sure you have decent waterproof hiking boots, raincoats and waterproof covers for your backpack and camera.
For swimming // In all weather conditions, swimming in the natural thermal pools is a fantastic thing to do. Even in the rain, it’s wonderfully atmospheric, so don’t forget your swimming gear and a towel.
For the outdoors // Sturdy walking shoes with a good grip are essential for many parts of Iceland as the unique volcanic surface can be difficult to navigate in flimsy footwear. To save some money you may want to do some self-catering so bring cutlery with you and a bottle to fill up with tap water.
PRACTICALITIES – PLANNING A TRIP TO ICELAND
The whole of Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time (Western European Time) with no clock changes for Daylights Savings.
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Iceland and everything can be paid for on your card, including very small purchases. A chip & pin card is necessary to pay for fuel in most gas stations.
Accommodation in Iceland can get booked up very early. This is particularly the case in the south and southeast of Iceland which has very limited accommodation options and easily accessible from Reykjavik. If you are planning to visit some of the main attractions including Jökulsárlón or Fjaðrárgljúfur, make sure you book your accommodation 6 months or more in advance.
Iceland has a two, round pin power plug. A standard universal travel adaptor will work.
We used global roaming on our UK SIM and had pretty good mobile coverage in most places, even in some of the more remote locations. If you don’t have roaming, pocket Wifi devices can be ordered in advance for around $8US per day. We have more details on this in our Iceland travel tips guide.
If you live in the EU, you should get a free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) before leaving for Iceland. This will entitle you to free medical care should you need it while you’re away. However, the EHIC is not a substitute for travel insurance which you will still need if you require non-urgent treatment, ongoing care or repatriation.
If you live in the US, travel insurance is not required to enter Iceland, but it is recommended. With interruptions due to weather and volcanos, it’s a good idea to have some cover for travel disruptions. Additionally, your US health care plan most likely has no coverage in Iceland.
GOOD TO KNOW
Here are a few important things to know about visiting Iceland.
Leave no trace // Iceland is a fragile environment which sees well over 2 million visitors per year. It’s also a wild destination with few facilities in some of the remote places. It’s important to leave no trace. Take all rubbish with you, stick to the hiking trails and be prepared for all weather conditions.
Don’t eat whale // Whale numbers have been decimated by a century of commercial whaling which uses cruel methods to hunt them. Around half of whale species are vulnerable to extinction. Don’t order whale if you see it on a menu in Iceland. You may think you’re enjoying a traditional side of Icelandic culture but only 2% of Icelanders eat whale. It’s the tourist industry that is keeping whale meat on the menu.
Crime is low // Iceland is a very safe country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
The water is good // Iceland has great water everywhere so there’s absolutely no need to buy bottled water. Instead, take a refillable bottle which you will be able to fill up in all hotels, guesthouses and cafes.
Don’t feed or pat the horses // Iceland horses are a unique purebred thanks to laws preventing horses from being imported into the country. They’ve become something of a tourist attraction in their own right but feeding or patting them can be dangerous, so don’t do it.
Stay on the road // Driving off-road is illegal in Iceland due to the delicate nature of the ecosystem. The few plants and moss that manages to grow on the side of the road can take years to recover.
Iceland is an excellent destination for semi-adventurous travellers who like to get off the beaten track and immerse themselves in stunning scenery. Here’s some more reading from us to help plan your journey to the land of fire and ice.
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GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS
15 useful tips for visiting Iceland
Our tips for driving in Iceland
How to drive on the F-Roads of Iceland
EXPLORING THE HIGHLANDS
Top places to visit in the Iceland Highlands
7 Amazing Landmannalaugar hikes
Incredible waterfalls in Iceland
Epic adventure self-driving to Askja
Our complete guide to Thorsmork
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