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Iceland is an amazing country, and it is getting more attention from travellers of all kinds- budget, luxury, adventure, and active travellers. Iceland is a unique country where travel is a bit different than most other European countries. I did a lot of research before I went to Iceland for the first time, but there was still a lot I didn’t know.
I’m going to share the 10 things I wish I knew before I went to Iceland. Hopefully they will help you not make the same mistakes I made and be more prepared than I was.
1. Iceland is Bloody Expensive
We all know that Iceland is expensive. They have to import nearly everything, so it makes sense that things cost more than in North America or other parts of Europe. But it is a bit shocking how expensive things are, and it can lead to problems if you don’t budget enough money.
To give you an idea of how expensive it can be, my travel companion and I stopped at Subway to get dinner before flying back home, and our two subs came to $32USD! I don’t frequent Subway at home, but I am certain that is a lot more expensive than it would be in North America.
Pro Tip: Bring some snacks from your hometown. It will save you a lot of money, and you will be able to snack whenever you’re hungry rather than waiting until you come across the next gas station that has food.
You know what the price of hotels and your rental car is before you leave, so it is easy to budget for that. But you should be sure to have a very generous budget for food and gas. I would recommend bringing at least 25% more than you think you will need just to be safe. The small purchases really add up.
You’ll want to be smart and save as much money as you can on your road trip to keep your costs down in Iceland.
2. Nearly All the Tourist Attractions are Free
Iceland is expensive, but one of the best parts of Iceland is that most of the tourist attractions are free to visit! This makes it a lot easier to swallow some of the higher prices.
Outside of the Blue Lagoon, all of the nature-related tourist attractions are free- all you have to do is get to them either by taking a tour or driving yourself.
You can see incredible waterfalls, geysers, canyons, volcanoes, hot springs, and hike countless trails all without an entrance fee. It is a really neat experience to simply walk up to a waterfall and not have to worry about pulling out your wallet. Iceland could easily charge tourists to visit the sights, and it is a nice gesture that they don’t.
So be sure to take advantage of the free sights and visit everything you are able to! Iceland has a unique and diverse landscape, so it is worth it to drive around and see it all.
3. Gas Stations are Few and Far Between
It makes sense that there aren’t many gas stations outside of Reykjavik, but, as a tourist driving across the country, I wasn’t prepared for how few gas stations there were.
There were so few gas stations in the rural areas that whenever we came across one, we would fill up the tank even if we had a nearly full tank just to ensure that we made it to the next gas station. Of course we were never at risk of running out of gas, but it wasn’t a risk we were willing to take.
It is always smart to stop in and get some gas when you see a station. It may save you a headache in the long run!
4. Foreign Credit Cards Don’t Work at Gas Stations in Iceland
Speaking of gas stations, be prepared for your foreign (a.k.a. North American) credit card not to work. You must insert a credit card into the gas pump and pre-pay in order to pump gas in Iceland. This is a pretty standard practice all over the world. However, it will cause you problems if you have a North American credit card.
For some reason the gas pumps in Iceland will not accept foreign credit cards. It is a pain and a slight inconvenience.
You have to go inside the gas station, buy a pre-paid card, and then insert that into the pump to get your gas. Some stations will simply open the pump for you and let you pay at the end, but most of them require you to purchase a pre-paid card.
You have to guess at how much money you’ll need on the pre-paid card and them load it up again if it isn’t enough or get a refund if it is too much. It can take a few trips in and out if you’re filling the tank to drop your rental car back at the airport.
This credit card situation also means that you can’t use the unattended gas stations that are becoming more and more popular in Iceland. Your credit card won’t work, and you won’t be able to ask an employee to open the pump for you. So just keep driving past these gas stations.
A tip for when you’re returning your rental car:
When you rent your car, you will likely be told to fill up at the gas station with the yellow pumps right before the airport. This station is an unattended station, so you may not be able to use it. There is another attended gas station before the traffic circle in the complex with the Subway and grocery store that is a better option.
5. The Icelandic Weather is Never What You Expect
The weather in Iceland is fickle, and it can change suddenly and without warning. I’ve been to Iceland twice. Once at the beginning of May and the other at the end of June.
The first time many of the waterfalls were still frozen, the wind was unruly, and there was a lot of rain. The second time the wind was once again unruly, and it snowed every day I was there. I had to purchase warm clothing in Iceland in order to stay warm enough.
No matter what the internet tells you the weather will be like, you need to pack warm clothing. You will most likely need a jacket and maybe gloves nearly all year around. You won’t regret shoving some warm clothing in your bag!
Even if the weather says it is supposed to be reasonably warm, Iceland is often windy. The wind cuts through you, and you get cold extremely quickly. A lot of the sights in Iceland are outside, and you will be miserable if you don’t have the appropriate clothing. Trust me one that one- I’ve made that mistake one too many times!
6. The Distances are Further than They Look
It is easy to look at a map of Iceland and think that everything is relatively close, but that isn’t the case. The driving time between one sight to the next or one part of the country to another can be deceivingly long. The country is a lot larger than it looks.
People tend to overplay and try to get too much done because they think it will be quick to drive from point A to point B. This leads to being rushed and not appreciating the sights.
You should do your best to not over plan. Picking a few activities per day in the same area of the country is more than enough. You will be happy to be able to have the time to appreciate the nature you’re seeing rather than rushing the experience.
7. You’ll Come Across Sights You Didn’t Know About
You will without a doubt come across sights that you didn’t know about as you drive across the country. There are attraction posts all throughout the country alerting tourists to tourist sights that they are able to visit.
There are a lot of really cool sights you didn’t know about that are marked along the side of the road. You will without a doubt find yourself stopping at a few along the way. This is another reason on why you shouldn’t over plan your holiday. It would suck to have to keep driving and not stop just because you have too much planned!
A lot of the sights that are marked along the road don’t take long to visit, but they are worth stopping for! There are always signs in both English and Icelandic explaining the significance of the sight. It is a great way to learn more about Iceland and understand the history of the country.
8. The Roads in Iceland are Very Narrow
The roads in Iceland are quite narrow, don’t have railings on the side, and have a sharp drop-off. This made it a bit difficult to get used to driving on- especially in the rain, wind, and snow.
The roads are normally very quiet, so you can drive in the middle of the road, but it can get a little nerve-wrecking when you see oncoming traffic and have to start hugging your side of the road.
The roads are in good condition and safe to drive, but the narrowness of them can make people a bit nervous. It becomes easier once you get used to them!
9. Gas Stations in Rural Iceland Have Everything
I’m not kidding when I say gas stations in rural Iceland are a one-stop shop. The communities are so small that the gas station is often the only store in town.
They have gas (obviously), groceries, household products, car products, souvenirs, and often have a quick-serve window that sells sandwiches, pizza, and hotdogs.
You’ll be able to find everything you need in a gas station, and they are often the only source of food in some of the very small towns.
If you’re looking for a more substantial meal than gas station fare, you should be sure to stop at a restaurant in a larger town as you pass it. This will prevent you from having to backtrack just to get some food.
10. The Food in Iceland Isn’t the Greatest
I personally found the food in Iceland to not be that great. I found it was pretty standard fare with nothing special to offer. Everything was average.
That being said, I don’t eat meat or seafood. I imagine the seafood in Iceland is above-average. PSA: Don’t eat whale!! However, outside the potential for good, fresh seafood, you shouldn’t expect much from the food.
Reykjavik, unsurprisingly, has the most selection for food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has the best food. Some of the smaller towns have decent food that is superior to a lot of the food you can find in the capital.
The fact that the food isn’t great doesn’t take anything away from Iceland, but it is something to be aware of when you’re planning the trip. Foodies may not be impressed.
Iceland is an amazing country that I would recommend to anybody who is looking for a unique European holiday. It is full of adventure and beauty, but it is easy to get caught up in planning your holiday and overlook the 10 things on this list.
These first-timer mistakes don’t hinder your trip. However, your trip will benefit from you being aware of these 10 things. They will help you tour Iceland like a pro and not be blindsided by some of the small things.
If I could give only a few pieces of advice, I would recommend:
- Bringing warm clothes, gloves, and a headband all year round
- Having a generous budget
- Booking your accommodation early
- Having low expectations for food
- Enjoy where the trip takes you rather than planning every minute of it!