Updated: Sep 27, 2022
A large number of the people who journey to Iceland are actually returning visitors. Upon realizing that one trip is simply not enough, since there is too much to see in the Land of Fire and Ice, you’ll most likely return for round two, too. However, you may not have this realization until you’ve been here the first time, and it’s true that we all have to start somewhere.
After all, venturing to a place like Iceland, or a country with a strong reputation for being expensive, cold, and full of volcanoes, can be daunting. Here are some tips for visiting Iceland for the first time, to make the most of your adventure.
8 Tips for visiting Iceland for the first time!
These travel tips are crucial for everyone – especially for Iceland first-time travelers.
1. The Best Time to Visit Iceland
The most ideal time to come directly depends on what you want to do most. When planning your trip to Iceland for the first time, make a list of the places you’d like to visit and the experiences you’d like to have. This is important, as many activities in Iceland are unavailable in certain months of the year.
If you want to see the northern lights in Iceland, you should come between October and March. On the other hand, if you want to go skiing or snowboarding, January to April is best.
In case you want to maximize your chances of good weather in Iceland, aim for June to September.
Many hikes and campsites are only open/accessible in the summer months. The midnight sun can be experienced on or near the summer solstice, on the 21st of June.
Whale-watching tours are available year-round, but you have the best chance of seeing these gorgeous sea creatures in Iceland’s summer. Additionally, huge puffin colonies only call Iceland their home from June to August.
2. Rent a Vehicle
Since Iceland has no trains and few long-distance bus services, renting a vehicle is the best way to get around. Many of the famous landmarks you’ll have heard of are only accessible either by car or tour. Many of the country’s large towns have domestic airports, but this is more expensive than driving and arguably less fun. Secure your ideal vehicle at Campervan Reykjavik.
What type of vehicle you should hire depends on where you’re planning to go. For example, more remote areas of Iceland, such as the highlands and the Westfjords, have unpaved gravel roads to contend with. A 4x4 vehicle is essential on these roads, and even mandatory in some cases.
You also have to ford rivers on some mountain roads. If this is your first time in Iceland travel, then we recommend checking our essential guide to F-roads.
3. Always Pack Warm Clothing, No Matter the Season
Iceland’s weather is famously unpredictable and can be on the colder side even in summer. No matter when you visit, bring warm, waterproof clothing in case the temperature drops or it rains/snows. Storms are fairly common in winter, for which thermal layers are essential. Sometimes you may even find your excursions are canceled in bad weather.
This may be the best piece of advice for your first time in Iceland, as being severely cold and wet simultaneously will undoubtedly affect your mood. You don’t want to put a dampener on your trip because you weren’t prepared with proper clothing. Keep hats, gloves, and spare socks in your vehicle on road trips to keep your extremities warm and dry.
4. Always Bring Your Towel and Swimming Costume
Under Iceland’s surface flows an unfathomable amount of naturally-heated water. The locals have harnessed this to provide their homes with a large portion of electricity, but they have also used it as a tool to relax and soothe their muscles after a long day.
Man-made, naturally-heated swimming pools and hot tubs can be found throughout the country. Essentially every town has a pool, and then there are the famous geothermal spas, such as the Blue Lagoon Spa. While you have to book in advance for such spas, pools and natural hot springs always have space.
No matter where you’re going on your first time in Iceland, always pack your towel and a swimming costume. Spontaneous visits to pools and natural springs are inevitable while in Iceland, and you want to be prepared.
5. Use A Credit/Debit Card in Iceland
Icelandic residents generally don’t use cash, so you’ll find you won’t need it here. If you prefer to pay that way, that’s usually fine, but cash isn’t always accepted. For example, parking meters and unmanned petrol stations are card-only.
First-time travelers to Iceland: remember to let your bank know you’re traveling to Iceland, so your card stays unblocked for your trip. Also, while you may be used to signing a receipt, here you may have to enter your pin for transactions.
One notable exception to credit/debit card use is for Iceland’s buses, operated by Stræto. Card payments aren’t accepted, so you either have to pay cash (no change is given) or use the Stræto app.
6. Saving Money in Iceland
Iceland has a reputation for being expensive, and in some ways, this is true. However, this doesn’t mean you have to spend heaps while traveling through the Nordic nation. Here are a few basic ways to save money, freeing your budget up for more fun things.
Shop at the more affordable supermarkets. Bónus is the best supermarket for affordable food. The 24-hour 10-11 shops are the most expensive.
Stay on campsites rather than in hotels or hostels. They’re always much cheaper and often have great facilities.
Check the direct websites for excursion and accommodation providers. Booking online can occasionally mean getting a discount.
7. Have a Back-Up Plan in Place
As mentioned above, tours and outdoor activities in Iceland are canceled on occasion due to bad weather, especially in winter. For example, because whale watching is dangerous in rough water, and northern lights are only visible in clear skies, these are two excursions that directly depend on the forecast. Therefore, it’s good to have a backup for such plans.
The great thing about Reykjavík, and Iceland in general, is that there are wonderful indoor alternatives if your trip is canceled. Visiting the Perlan museum in the capital will teach you all about Iceland’s natural history, and Reykjavík’s National Museum of Iceland will showcase the country’s cultural development.
One outdoor activity that never stops for bad weather is visiting a hot pool. It doesn’t matter what the temperature is, or what the sky is doing when you’re bathing in naturally-heated water. Make sure you check our guide to the best Hot Springs in Iceland. It’s a unique sensation to have your head cooled by snow while the rest of your body is being heated by warm water.
8. A Few Important Icelandic Laws
As well as first-time in Iceland tips and tricks, it’s important to know some simple laws. Here are a few everyone will need to know.
Headlights must be on at all times while driving. This applies no matter the time of day or year.
No off-road driving. Stick to the roads, be they paved or unpaved, at all times.
No free camping. Free camping is illegal in Iceland unless you adhere to a list of permissions and requirements. Therefore, it’s smarter to only camp in registered campsites.
No alcohol consumption when planning to drive. The blood alcohol limit in Iceland is lower than in many other countries. Even a half-pint of beer puts you over the limit, so it’s best to not drink at all before driving.
Enjoy your visit to Iceland
Hopefully, these tips for visiting Iceland for the first time will help you prepare better for your adventure. One of the most remarkable countries to visit, there’s no doubt you’ll find yourself wanting to return. Book your campervan rental today and get ready for the one and only Land of Fire and Ice.