Alessio Michelini Photography

A travel guide to Iceland

17 February 2015

After months that I’ve been trying to write a post about my trip to Iceland I’ve done in August (yes, August, six months ago), I’ve to declare my defeat: I can’t do it. Two intense weeks of travels, where we drove 3980km in one of the most outstanding place I’ve ever been in my life it’s not easy. I tried a couple of times, and actually some parts of this article come from my previous attempts, but this time I’m not going to even try to write those two weeks in one post. It’s clearly impossible, well, maybe not impossible, but I might end up with a huge post that probably most of you will stop reading far before reaching the end of it.
So, that’s the plan: this post it’s going to be a sort of travel guide, giving you an overview of the trip I’ve done, the odd things I’ve encountered in Iceland, things to do and to not to do, and how to be prepared if you want to go to visit this incredible country.
Now, let’s get started.

When to start to plan

Let’s make it clear one thing: if you want to go to Iceland, the last thing to do is to plan last minute. It’s a big country, I know that it looks kinda small on the map, but it’s quite big, so you will need to travel quite hefty distances, and you need to plan the trip well. The best way for me is take a map and start to think what you want to see in the time you have and split the trip in chunks with a maximum distance of 250km, at least on the main road, the famous Ring Road. You could say: “but that’s not much, I can drive more!” Yes, of course you can, but there are so many things to see, especially on the south of Iceland, that you will probably end up stopping quite often, also the very cool places are often far from Ring Road, and you might end up driving for 100km in a dirt road that’s barely outlined in the soil, and you’ll be lucky if you can go at 40km/h in that conditions. So, don’t be silly, split the trip in reasonable distances, or you might end up to miss some beautiful places only because you have to run to reach the next B&B/Hotel.
For example if you have only one week, do only the South, or maybe part of the South and the West Fjords, don’t go further, unless you want to spend the entire time on the seat of a car.
Another thing to consider is the popularity that Iceland reached in the past few years, as more and more people every year want to visit this country, but unfortunately there are not that many accommodations, especially in the eastern part of Iceland, so B&B, Hotels and Hostels, especially in the high season (from 15th June to 15th August), they quickly sold out, so unless you are planning to sleep on a tent or to rent a campervan, book as soon as you can, actually plan the trip soon, like if you want to go in July or August, the “hot” months, start to plan the year before, and you should start to book accommodations by January. I know, it sounds crazy, but we did underestimate how popular Iceland became and we started to book everything in March, and it was tough to find anything free for three people at reasonable prices, by then according to a good 80% of accommodations where sold out, so don’t wait too much or it will be too late.
Don’t wait too much for the flight as well, actually that’s should be your very first thing.

Flying to Iceland from Europe

If you live in Europe, the cheapest way to get to Iceland is with SAS, the Scandinavian Airlines, it might sound silly to flight to Copenhagen first, and then to Reykjavík, especially if you live in Ireland like me, which is the closest country to Iceland, but there are not many direct flights anyway, and if you fly directly to London to Iceland it might cost you twice as the price I paid, also SAS, and especially Icelandic Air (which covers the flight from Copenhagen to Reykjavík), are great airlines to flight with.
If you live in North America you can probably book directy with Icelandic Air, as it seems to be very well connected, especially with Canada.
Once again, book your flight as soon as possible.

Where to rent a car

I spent a good few days just to find the best car rental company in Iceland, I tried with the usual names, like Hertz or Avis, but their prices where out of this world, they were asking 1500 euro for a sedan, and almost the twice of that price for a 4WD, I found another company which was very cheap, but later I found out that plenty of people complained about them on sites like Tripadvisor, and that company didn't even had a licence to rent cars, so yeah it was cheap, but I didn't want to risk to have a cheap broken car in the middle of nowhere and had to wait for days (!!!) before they send someone to rescue you.
The my housemate, who went to Iceland the year before, suggested me Geysir, and by looking on internet I found only good things about them, which is good, and I really like their policy to have fixed prices, and not a lottery like Hertz or the other usual car rental companies, which I think it’s another good point.
Bear in mind, it’s not cheap, but they were the cheaper than Hertz & Co., but still quite pricey, as we paid €175 per day (while in low season it’s just €100 per day), plus various insurances, and at the end we spent something around €1700 for a Nissan Qashqai for almost two weeks, but still far cheaper than the other companies.
Also Geysir it’s kinda the main car rental in the country, they have an office in the Keflavík Airport (obviously), but if you go straight to Reykjavík after you land to Iceland, ask to collect the car in Harpa Convention Center, they have an office there and it’s far handier to get the car there rather then go back to the Airport, which is about an hour away from the capital.
They also have smaller offices around the country, so if you end up in troubles with your car during your trip, they can promptly come to save your ass, wherever you are. So, I highly recommend Geysir, they are the best (and not, they didn’t pay me to say so).

Driving in Iceland

When you are about to book your car, if you think “why I should spend so much money for a 4WD? I think a 2WD is absolutely fine”. That’s WRONG. You need a 4WD, don’t even think to rend a chaper sedan, and not because you need to drive off-road (which is illegal in Iceland btw), but most of those roads that seems to be normal roads on Google Maps, are most of the times dirt roads, barely outlined in the soil in some cases, and if you don’t want to end up in troubles, get a bloody 4WD.
It’s true that the Ring Road is a proper road, but most of the attractions, especially in the north of Iceland, are off that road, and often some of those secondary roads are are off-limits for normal cars, in some cases are even illegal to take some roads without a 4WD drive. One of those places if I remember well is Landmannalaugar, one of the most amazing places in Iceland, that you can’t simply go with a 2WD car.
So, don’t be silly and get a 4WD or you might miss some amazing places because you wanted to save a couple of hundreds euro.
Another important thing to do in Iceland, is to refill your gas tank every time you see a gas station. You never know when it’s going to be the next gas station, it can be after 10 km, or after 250km, it’s just so random that you don’t want to risk to remain with no fuel in the middle of nowhere.

Where to stay

In the main cities, which are not that many, and by american standards they should be called towns, you can try with Airbnb if you want to save some bucks, but out of the main populated areas find an Airbnb is rather difficult if not impossible, so you have to rely on the old fashioned B&B and Hotels, B&B are generally more affordable while all the hotels I found they were always pretty expensive, apart one on the West Fjords, which we had the really bad idea to book, called “Hótel Bjarkalundur”. Don’t go there. Don’t even think to go there. It’s absolutely the worst place I’ve ever been in my life, just awful by any standards, sleep on a tent instead, much better and cleaner.
Anyway, the average price is quite high, take in account to spend an average of €50/55 per night, if you want to spend less, as I said earlier, book soon, very soon, otherwise it’s going to be very expensive.

Travel on the cheap

If you want to travel on the cheap, you don’t have many options. Well actually I think a tent is the only option for you, even hostels might not be that cheap, especially if you are planning the trip on the very last minute, but get a good tent, because Iceland sometimes is very windy, and it can get very cold even on the summer. It’s not that bad, but it can be bad if you are not very lucky, or you decided to go to Iceland outside the high season.
Otherwise you could think to travel just before or just after the high season, like at the end of August / begin of September, or May and the first half of June. Car rentals will be cheaper, flights will be cheaper, anything will be cheaper apart from the food. But it might be colder and rainy, so take in account even that.
If then you look for a place for a nice bath, you know sleeping on a tent it might get “smelly” after a while, and if you can’t find the courage to have a swim on one of the many rivers, just simply find a town or a village, most of the times they have public swimming pools, with naturally heated water, they are very cheap (around €5 most of the times) and it’s a great places to spend some time with the locals.

All about the money

If you think that you need to get some cash once you land to Iceland, or even before you fly to, just don’t do it. I did it, and it was completely pointless. In Iceland you can pay anything with credit/debit card, and I seriously mean anything, even €1 bills, and surprisingly everywhere, yes even on the most remote villages where there’s just three houses and a gas station/minimarket you can pay with credit cards.
Cost of the life is pretty high though, is by far the most expensive place I've ever been, it beated the other scandinavian countries I've been before. For example a simple dinner, like a burger with a drink could easily cost you about €25, and I'm not talking about any fancy places. The famous Blue Lagoon for example, will cost you €35 euro just to enter. Essentially the only true cheap things in Iceland are swimming pools and hot dogs.

Katla Volcano

What to see in a week

If you have only one week to spend in Iceland, visit the entire island would be rather difficult and surely pointless. Do less kilometers and spend more time on the places. And in one week you have plenty of time to see the entire southern coast, or perhaps spend a couple of days on the West Fjords and then see the South West of Iceland, which have loads of places to visit.

What to see in two weeks

If you have two weeks, than you can try to visit the entire island, you might have to leave something behind, like the far North East, and the very North West Fjords, but the latter ones are difficult to visit anyway, and most of the guides suggest to not go there as there are very badly maintained roads and even the public transports can’t go there.

What about if I have more time?

Well, then try to do the same trip of the two weeks, but obviously with more calm, and start to discover places, Iceland is full of hidden gems, sometimes not even mentioned on maps. If you like hiking, Iceland it’s a paradise for that.

What are the best places to see?

Well, it might be a long list, and I probably missed some of those on my two weeks trip, I didn’t have a chance to see the North East Coast, but we didn’t have enough time. If I’ll ever a chance to go there again, and if I had again two weeks, I’ll probably spend a couple of days more on the South rather than the East and the North, they are beautiful, but the South of Iceland is just outstanding.
Anyway, the best places to me are:
Landmannalaugar. A place that seems to come from another planet, different landscapes in one single place, sometimes it makes you feel like you are on the moon, some others like if you are on alien planet.
Seljalandsfoss. A beautiful “tiny” (or at least for icelandic standards) waterfall very close to the Ring Road and very easy to get, but still amazing, but bring a raincoat.
Gullfoss. Another waterfall, but this time a massive one, second only to Godafoss.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. A jawdropper place, book the tour on the boat, it’s totally worth it. And then walk on the coast around the glacier, a very long walk, but just beautiful.
Dettifoss. That’s the most imponent waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life, it makes you feel like a tiny ant once you get to it. Simply outstanding place and very easy to get as it’s close to the Ring Road.
The entire southern coast. I loved every single meter of the southern coast, you can find amazing places on every turns you do.
Vatnajökull National Park. Beautiful park with another smaller but still impressive glacier. Do the long path if you can, totally worth to do it.
Myvatn. Apart from the nice thermal baths, there is a place that looks like a piece of Mars ended for some reason on our planet.
Snaefellsjoekull National Park. Possibly the part of the West Fjords I liked the most, and it’s the easiest to get from Reykjavík.


Swimming pools. Yes, in Iceland. It’s possibly one of the things I miss the most of Iceland. Swimming pools are for icelandic people what Pubs are for Irish people, or Bars for Italians. It’s a place where locals go after work, they often open till late, they are very organized, even on the small ones in the remote villages, and they are always heated by natural sources. It might be a shock when you enter on one of them with just shorts and flipflops, but once you get in the water it’s just a great sensation. They are just great places, and if you have the time you must try at least once, trust me. So, bring a swimsuit in your baggage, you will not regret it.

The “Clinton”. Well, this might put a smile on some of you, especially on the old folks who remember who Bill Clinton was, but essentially if you ask for a “Clinton” you will get an hot dog. Which apparently is the national food, you can find it anywhere, and it’s the cheapest form of food you can get in Iceland. They also put a sort of sauce that I guess it’s based on mayonaise, but with some extra bits that change completely the taste and I couldn’t find anywhere else. We were addicted of that sauce, and I’m so disappointed that I can’t find it.

Gas Stations. Generally when you get to a gas station, you can choose to put an X amount of money for gas, or choose to fill the tank and pay whatever it’s going to cost you.
In Iceland you can choose only the first option. So you always have to decide how much petrol or diesel you are going to put in the car. You get used to it after a while, but it’s a bit odd the first times.
Another thing is that the prices are fixed, or at least the prices are consistent in every gas station you go, you pay X in Reykjavík and you pay the same amount in the most remote part of Iceland. And not, fuel it’s not that expensive, or at least it’s in european standards, cheaper than Italy, but I can see americans complaining about it, but they will complain as well if they go anywhere in Europe.

Horses. You might think "What's wrong with the horses now?!". Nothing wrong, but you will see a lot of them. They are free to go everywhere, so pay attention when you drive, and they look "amazing". They have this odd fringe that it makes them look like some emo kids, and everytime you get close to them, they align like they are getting ready for the shot. Once I heard a couple of tourists ask to a guy in a B&B why there were so many horses, the answer was "Well, we have plenty of space, water and grass, so why not? You have cats, we have horses".


So, that’s my general post about Iceland, I hope it was pretty comprehensive, if I missed something or you have any question about my trip, feel free to post it the comments down below.
Soon I’ll start to write posts about specific places in Iceland, it might take a while, but I can do it!
Here you can find the full photo set I’ve uploaded on flickr with all the photos I took in that beautiful island, while down here some of the best.
Thanks for reading.

Katla Volcano