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FIRST TRIP TO ICELAND - ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

Since 2018 we have been frequent travellers. After discovering England, our first foreign trip was to Iceland. Despite the October weather not being too kind to us, we had a wonderful experience and fell in love with the country. We felt that we had to return. Since then it is the only place we visit regularly, several times a year.

With our experience and knowledge of the place, we try to provide useful answers to the questions of newbie travellers planning their first trip to Iceland:

- where to go for the first time,

- what to see,

- how long to stay and when to go,

- what to look out for when organising your trip,

- what preparations are necessary,

- what to take with you,

- is it advisable to organise it yourself or should you use a travel agency?


Iceland is a very safe country, with high quality services, great hospitality and professionalism, so we can organise the tour ourselves. From home, we can book flights, select and book accommodation, car rental, buy entrance tickets, tours such as whale watching, ice cave tours, etc. To organise a tour, you need to have at least an intermediate level of English, which you will need once you are there. Click here for some smart tips for cost-effective organisation.



When should we travel?

Choosing the right time can depend on the size of your budget, the weather, your interests and your destination. Cheaper flights are available before and after the peak summer season. It is not advisable to plan a winter stay for the first time, but rather to choose the safer, more pleasant weather periods, when the days are longer, allowing more time for outdoor activities. If you can afford it, travel in the summer months, from May to August, when the weather is at its most pleasant and the wildlife is most active, making it the best time for birdwatching, for example. If hunting for the aurora borealis is an important goal, the second half of August to early September is an excellent time to observe this wonderful celestial phenomenon, when the weather is still pleasant. Winter comes early, even snowing as early as September, but from mid to late October at the latest, winter weather prevails with lots of precipitation, wind and cold. The last month with winter weather is April, which is very unpredictable and changeable.


Icelandic landscapes in October and December (Vík y Myrdal, Skógafoss waterfall)



Suggested locations

In our opinion and experience, a 3-5 day trip with the "must-see" classic attractions, accommodation near the airport, and a rental car may be sufficient for a first visit. For the first time, a visit to the easily accessible south-south-western coast and the "golden circle" is the most obvious, with sightseeing in Reykjavík, supplemented by guided tours, e.g. ice cave, whale watching, wildlife etc.


Our suggestions:

- Reykjanes volcanic area (details below)

- Sky lagoon or Blue lagoon spa (details below)

- Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir national park

- Kerid crater

- Seljalandfoss, Skógafoss waterfalls

- Solheimajökull glacial lake

- Vík y Myrdal

- Reynisfjara, Dyrhólaey

- Diamond beach (5 hours drive from the capital!)

- Sightseeing in Reykjavík (details below)

- additional guided tours, according to your interests.


You can do a full circle in Iceland in seven days on Route 1 (1400 km in total), with varying accommodation every day, but in our opinion there's no point in rushing around the whole island so quickly, especially not for the first time.


Photo locations: Roadside horses near Gullfoss, Geysir during eruption, Vík church in October, Reynisfjara beach, Troll rocks, Solheimajökull, Vík church in December, Lake Tjörnin in the capital on New Year's Eve



Specific conditions and hazards in Iceland

Iceland has active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. New eruptions can occur at any time, accompanied by sulphur dioxide and other volcanic gases. A frequent consequence of volcanic activity is the melting of glaciers, which causes flooding. Current warnings for the fresh volcanic area on the Reykjanes Peninsula can be found on safetravel.is by clicking here. When planning your visit to the fresh lava field, please note that a considerable amount of walking will be required, appropriate hiking boots, water and windproof clothing and a headlamp are recommended. Persons with respiratory problems should pay particular attention to the gas emission warnings. All the important information on the Reykjanes eruption is available in one place by clicking here.

It is important to note the importance of monitoring the frequently changing weather and local road conditions. The weather can change rapidly in space and time, always check the Icelandic Meteorological Service site before taking a trip, or check the Icelandic Road Info site for road closures on the planned route. When planning your itinerary, also take into account the current wind conditions, avoid travelling to areas where the wind force is very high, which could cause the car to tip over or the car door to come off when opening the door. To plan your journey safely, use safetravel.is.


Useful advice for beginners:

  • Pay attention to speed limits, otherwise you could face a heavy fine.

  • We are playing with our lives when we walk on cliff tops or too close to the ocean. On many beaches there is a risk of sneaker waves, which can suddenly splash out over long distances and sweep people into the ocean. Never turn your back on the ocean and obey the warning signs.

  • Never attempt to bathe in geyser water or mudflats. Only swim in designated bathing areas or in well-known baths (Blue Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Sky Lagoon, Myvatn Baths, etc.), subject to the payment of a fee. Hot springs are lethal to the human body because of their chemical composition, their chemistry and their temperatures of several hundred degrees Celsius.

  • Not recommended for beginners: driving on highland F-roads, crossing rivers.


Preparations: checking travel documents, changing money (?), insurance

Check the validity of your documents before you travel. We can enter the country with a national identity card (inside EU and EEA countries) or passport, and both are also suitable for car rental. An EU driving licence or international driving licence is also valid for driving on Icelandic roads.

You should check the conditions before renting a car. Most rental companies only accept credit cards, some will accept debit cards, but will require a substantial deposit. For useful advice and information on driving a car, visit https://safetravel.is/driving.

Click here for our article on driving by car in Iceland in October.

It is not advisable to carry cash, you can use your credit card anywhere in the country.

Given that Iceland is not your average European destination, but has parameters that are very different from the continent and unusual for Europeans, it is recommended that you take out travel insurance for the duration of your trip. It is also advisable to take your European Health Insurance Card issued by your country of residence with you, or if you do not have one, to apply for one before you travel (if you live in an EU or EEA country or the UK). The card is valid for emergency or urgent care and other medically necessary treatments and interventions in the Icelandic public health service. It is important to know that these treatments are not always free. The EU health insurance card is not a substitute for travel insurance and should be taken out separately.

No cash needed in Iceland, credit card payment preferred


What to wear in Iceland

In terms of clothing, it is advisable to dress in layers and to buy windproof and waterproof clothing to protect you on a bad weather day. Underwear is very practical and important, long-sleeved cotton tops on top and leggings underneath. If you are planning serious hikes, spending hours in nature, it is recommended to wear professional dress and shoes or boots. If you're just getting out of the car for short walks or walking in an urban environment, then normal wear is sufficient, complete with rain gear, hat, scarf, gloves.


Practical accessories for travellers, in addition to clothing and toiletries:

- Small backpack for day and half-day trips

- Sunscreen, sunglasses for sunny weather

- Lip balm for cool, windy weather

- Flashlight, headlamp for aurora photography

- Swimwear if you are visiting a spa or if there is a sauna or jacuzzi at your accommodation

- First aid kit with basic medicines, band-aids

- Coronavirus rapid home self-test

- Camera, phone, cables, chargers

- Bank card, credit card, documents

- Boarding pass, vaccination certificate, test result certificate



Types of accommodation

In Iceland you can choose from a wide range of accommodation: rent a room, an apartment or a flat, or stay in a hotel room. Very cosy country cottages, often on working farms, are ideal for aurora hunting. Hotels can be found around the airport, in the capital and in the larger towns around the main tourist attractions. The cheapest type of accommodation is a hostel, where several guests share a living room, kitchen and bathroom. During the summer there are many campsites in Iceland where showers, toilets and electricity are provided for campervans and cyclists. Wild camping is also allowed, provided that the owner of the property has agreed to overnight on his property. Details here: https://ust.is/english/nature/travel-information/where-can-you-camp/


You can rent chalets on airbnb: Laekjarholt guesthouse, Rauduskridur farm, Háls farm



Food, meals, self-catering

Iceland is famous for its traditional fish and lamb dishes. For gastronomic delights, head to the capital, which is home to the best restaurants, five of which are on the Michelin guide list. Around the tourist attractions, you can dine in smaller restaurants or petrol stations serving simple fare, including soups, burgers, chips, fish and chips and more. In Reykjavík, Akureyri and Selfoss, there are 1-1 restaurants run by Kurdish immigrants, very tasty, with a wide variety of kebabs and pizzas available at fair prices, well worth a try. There is a wide range of international cuisine in Iceland, including Hungarian dishes, and we have had goulash soup on several occasions.

If you're looking for something special, you can visit the Omnom chocolate factory in Reykjavík (unfortunately they're not currently accepting visitors) or have lunch at a tomato farm in Reykholt.

For breakfast and dinner, dairy products, cold cuts, bread and other basic foodstuffs, it is advisable to visit the Bónus or Krónan supermarkets, which are the most affordable.

To plan a self-catering trip to Iceland, you should check the numbeo website's comparison list of expected costs. In general, it is true that food, drink, transport, clothing etc. in Iceland are currently around one and a half to two times the cost of food in Hungary. For comparison, use your own place of residence.

For more info on cheaper dining options, see our previous post here.


Traditional Icelandic food from the menu of Kaffi Loki



Useful smartphone apps and websites for travellers

Vedur- weather forecast

112 Iceland - emergency services

Aurora Forecast - northern lights forecast

WAPP - GPS hiking app for hikers

Straeto - public transport by bus

The Reykjavík Grapevine apps for planning cultural and culinary events

Google maps offline maps

Rakning C-19 app for travellers to track cases of coronavirus infection, contact research

Travel information: covid.is, island.is



Iceland "in a nutshell", with a lower budget

If you don't have a driving licence but are willing to put some organisation into your trip, there's an easier and slightly cheaper option: a Reykjavík city tour.

  • In this case you can take public transport (bus) from the airport to your accommodation in the capital.

  • In a couple of days you can visit the must-sees of the city, as well as the places close to nature around the city by bus or electric scooter.

  • It is worth trying a local swimming pool or spa.

  • Recommended places: Kvíka hot footbath, Thufa, Grótta lighthouse, Geldinganes, Skarfaklettur, Ellidaárdalur, Sky lagoon, Perlan, Videy-island by ferry, Hallgrímskirkja panoramic roof top viewpoint

  • If more money is available, guided tours can be added to your holiday e.g. whale watching, ice cave tour, lava tunnel tour, northern lights or wildlife tour etc.

  • You can get free local transport, discounts at museums and spas if you buy a Reykjavík city card, details here: https://reykjavikcityguide.is/reykjavik-city-card/


Approximate cost of a long weekend in Reykjavík, per person:


- return flight tickets


- accommodation per night: from ~30 EUR for a hostel room, from ~56 EUR for a private room, from ~110 EUR for a hotel room or apartment or a flat


- travel costs between the airport and the capital: by Flybus (~45 EUR/adult return), by Straeto city bus (KLAPP travel card ~7 EUR, single ticket ~3.5 EUR)


- travel within the city by Straeto bus, see above


- travel within the city, by electric scooter, per minute rates 11-14 euro cent. For a weekend trip you will need a pass for at least 300 minutes


- With Reykjavík city card, local transport is free and museums and baths can be visited at a discounted price. 24-hour card ~30 EUR, 48-hour card ~41 EUR, 72-hour card ~50 EUR


- Perlan museum ticket ~32 EUR


- Hallgrímskirkja church tower viewpoint ticket for adults ~7 EUR


- Sky lagoon spa entrance ticket from ~32 EUR


- Blue lagoon spa entrance ticket from ~60 EUR, bus fare (with Destination Blue Lagoon) plus ~50 EUR (from airport or capital)


- half-day to one-day guided tours: ice cave tour from ~140 EUR, whale watching, aurora borealis tour from ~84 EUR, lava tunnel tour from~45 EUR, puffin tour from ~42 EUR


Reykjavík always has something new to offer, worth a visit and a return

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