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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: June 2023


David M Godfrey


  • Travel tips and insights, including information on transportation, accommodation, dining, and local customs when traveling to Iceland.
Rocio Lopez de la Calle via Getty Images

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Iceland is an almost otherworldly landscape - a volcanic island in the far north Atlantic with quaint coastal fishing villages, mountains, geysers, geothermal hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers, and black sand beaches. We have been drawn back to this magical landscape three times, most recently during the last week in April. Each visit seems to expand the list of places we want to see.  In past trips we had stayed in Reykjavik, but this trip the itinerary was planned to shorten driving distances, see new places, and to allow time to explore anything that caught our eye.  

The main international airport in Iceland is Keflavik, about 30 miles from the capital city of Reykjavik. We stayed in a hotel near the airport for the first couple of days and explored the peninsula that the airport is on. The coastline has lighthouses, fishing villages with tiny harbors, boiling hot springs, and is the place that the North American and Euro-Asian tectonic plates meet up.  You can walk from North America to Europe and back (most of Iceland is on the North American tectonic plate.)

On my bucket list was to ride the ferry to Vestmannaeyjabaer on the Island of Heimae. Back in 1973 much of the city was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. The island is dominated by two volcanos, with a sheltered harbor and Nordic fishing village. The island is small, you can drive every road on the island in a couple of hours. The far south end of the island sits atop cliffs that puffins nest in, and are buffeted by fierce winds off the north Atlantic. (Puffins are small and very fast, I saw one, I wasn’t fast enough with the camera.)  

The next day we drove to Geysir and checked into the amazing Hotel Geysir.  The word geyser comes from old Norse, one of the first documented geysers in the world is across the street from the hotel. Six miles north of Geysir is the spectacular Gullfoss waterfalls. We had been to Geysir and Gullfoss before, but we wanted more time to explore.

The next day, our plans changed like the weather (a Jimmy Buffett reference.)  We awoke to a landscape covered in white, a few inches of snow had fallen overnight, but the roads seemed clear, and we headed off the Vik, about 100 miles away along the Atlantic coast. To put it mildly, I drove into a blizzard. We checked the Drive Safe Iceland app on my phone and while roads had not yet officially been closed, driving conditions were hazardous in the direction we were going and clear and dry in the opposite direction. At the first opportunity we turned around and headed back to Keflavik and rethought our plan. The next day we visited the Viking World Museum and spent the afternoon floating in the Blue Lagoon. The following day, we had lunch in a diner so local the menu was only in Icelandic, and then it was time to fly home.  Time truly flies when you are having fun.

Over 20 airlines fly to Iceland, Icelandair dominates the market, with a new low-cost airline Play also providing service from the east cost of the United States.  Delta flies to Iceland and several airlines have code share agreements with Icelandair. Nearly all of the service is on single aisle aircraft. The market is competitive, and especially in the offseason or shoulder season, bargains can be found. 

The airport at Keflavik is compact but there is a lot of walking and many shopping options.  For US passport holders no visa is needed, and passport control and security are generally efficient. The recommendation is to arrive 3 hours before departure, in peak season I would advise allowing that long, as we visited in August one year and the airport was packed with people. Many gates are served by shuttle buses and boarding can close 30 minutes before departure time.  

I have been told that Iceland is the third most expensive country in the world. Dinner for the two of us ranged from about $110 to $180.  Lunch was about half of that.  Breakfast was included with the hotel stays and was generally very good (we often skipped lunch after a big breakfast). A local beer will average about $7, more for imports. Gas is about $9 a gallon, diesel slightly higher. There are very few hotels with international brands. For this trip I found hotels by looking at online maps and doing searches for hotels that showed up on the map. For our trip in late April (double occupancy) hotels averaged about $250 a night (a low of $208 and high of $310). As in much of the world, the rooms are generally a little smaller than in the USA.  Tipping is not a custom. In retail the price is the price you pay, tax is included.  You will find a lot of familiar car rental brands, along with many local brands. We have rented from both with good experiences. Car rentals are expensive, off season about $100 a day including insurance, and probably $150 a day in the peak season. Driving in Iceland has some unique hazards, rocks that can destroy tires, wind strong enough to blow a door off the hinges (I was advised to park facing into the wind and push the door open against the wind), and wind-blown sand that will strip the paint off a car before you know it. I don’t usually urge adding the extra insurance, but Iceland is different. 

The local currency is the Icelandic Krona, or ISK.  Currently 1,000 Krona is $7.15 US Dollars.  Credit cards are nearly universally accepted (Visa and Mastercard – fewer places accept American Express.)  I always like to have a little local currency, there are ATMs in the airport, and in every larger village or town. For buying gas, you need a card with a PIN number.     

The pace of life and the pace of travel are slower in Iceland.  The national speed limit is 56 miles per hour and small towns and roundabouts slow the pace to probably more like 40 miles an hour average. Driving is easy, on the right-hand side of the road, and generally drivers are careful and courteous. When you think of travel times, double what you think it will take in the United States. And you are going to want to slow down, pull over and stop, get out and marvel at the wonder of the landscape. I have a Micro SD card with maps of Europe for my portable GPS device, that works just fine in Iceland. 

The food is generally very good, with fresh seafood and local lamb taking center stage. There are massive geothermal greenhouses around the country and fresh local veggies are increasingly common. You may have to ask for the check (bill) in a restaurant, or simply pay at the bar on your way out.  Iceland feels foreign and exotic, but in an easy way.  Icelandic is spoken, signs are in Icelandic, but English, French, German, and Spanish are very common too. 

Yes, we want to go back. We still want to see the black sand beaches and basalt cliffs at Vik.