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ICELAND: Essential Tips for Booking, Packing, and Planning Your Itinerary

 

pro·cras·ti·na·tion 
noun
the action of delaying or postponing something.
"putting off writing this blog post is an example of procrastination at its finest"

 

And I'm sorry! It's basically Summer here in San Diego already. It's 80 degrees inside the house, the sun's out, my pajamas have officially changed from sweatpants into shorts and a t-shirt, and it feels nothing like winter.

The icy storms of Iceland are but a mere figment of my imagination now, and the only reminders I have of their true traumatizing powers are from the Instagram stories I see posted by photographers who live there and are broadcasting glimpses of winter that still have the country in its paralyzing grips. Only then do I have flashbacks of how insane and absolutely not peaceful actually being there was, contrary to what our pictures look like! 😂

 

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In any case, I'm here to try to arm you with as much information as possible in hopes of preparing you for your trip to Iceland, should you decide to ever make it out to that magnificent land of fire and ice for yourself! Below you'll find my must have items, some tips to make your trip to Iceland as easy and efficient as possible, and some personal accounts on what we personally did on our trip to hopefully guide you as you prepare for yours.

 

 

Invest in Comfort

If you're going to be in a foreign country with extreme weather conditions, its best to ensure you've got your most comfortable clothing with you. It's not the most ideal time to try out fussy new items of clothing - make sure you're bringing along key items that are functional and will protect you from the elements! You often get what you pay for, and for me, these were the items that saved my butt, kept me warm, dry, and comfortable, and were completely worth investing in:

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Rain Coat

Obvious, no? Well if you weren't aware, it could rain, pour, sleet, snow, and possibly hail all within the same hour when you're in Iceland, and while I already had a Gore-Tex shell that I used for snowboarding, I decided to grab this rain coat for a few reasons. It was lined, yet lightweight, and fitted but still roomy enough for me to layer my base layer, sweatshirt, and down vest underneath without feeling or looking bulky or bunched up, and it still allowed me full range of motion. It was well priced and kept me unbelievably warm, even through gusts of orange-alert wind and rain, and the water never soaked through the jacket. I've had snowboard jackets that soaked through faster than this thing, which truly impressed me.. especially for something so lightweight. I loved the fit and all of the pockets, which I utilized for my phone, gloves, lens cap. The jacket is rated from 0-25ºF, and I believe it! I was skeptical from the get go and even packed along a heavy duty fur-lined parka, but to be honest, I didn't even touch that thing the entire trip - it stayed in the car the entire time and this yellow jacket was my best friend.

 

Link to my rain coat here!

 

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Down vest

Since I wanted to reduce bulk and maintain range of motion but still maintain warmth within my core, my other best friend was this down vest. While my rain coat was lined, it wasn't down filled (which was how I wanted it, to reduce bulk). Instead, I liked how I could target the warm just by layering this vest when I needed it and by keeping the down around my core, I was warm the entire time without limiting my arm's reach or making them feel "tied down" at any time - a feeling I absolutely loathe, especially because I tend to get shoulder and neck strain easily which can get triggered when I feel like my arms are being restrained or held back by something. The great thing about this vest is, if you happen to come upon a warm day, you can easily take it off and if you want to pack it up, it rolls away and actually folds into its own inner pocket - super compact and super warm! Not to mention, this thing also has a ton of pockets that I absolutely loved throwing my phone into when I felt like my jacket pockets weren't as secure (i.e. when my jacket was flying in the wind, or when I wanted to keep my phone or wallet in a more discrete place).

 

Link to my down vest here!

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BEANIE

Another no brainer here - keep your noggin warm from the wind, rain, and sleet with a beanie! But seriously guys, this isn't just any beanie. These beanies were the warmest beanies I've ever worn - before this, I was wearing a fur-lined one for snowboarding, and this was even more comfortable than that one. No itchy or sweaty head, and the knit is SO thick. The wind was nothing for these beanies, and if you're unsure of whether or not the pom is "too much" for you, just know that it's removable! It snaps on and off so if you don't want the pom there all the time, it's a breeze to take off. And if the large patch is too much for you, they also have a version without the cuff and with a more subtle tag instead of a patch - that's the version Jason rocked during the trip. These beanies also hold up really well in the washing machine so they're super low maintenance and durable. Best beanies ever, well worth the price, AND an even better bonus, the company donates 50% of the profit from each sale to nonprofit organizations geared towards fighting pediatric cancer. Ummmmm... definitely the best beanies ever.

Link to my beanie here & link to Jason's beanie here!

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SUNGLASSES

I could not have survived here without my polarized sunglasses. From white outs to wind, I swear my sensitive eyes would have been CLOSED half of the time if I didn't have something to protect them. There was harsh sun, howling wind, and blinding sleet that I needed to protect my eyes from, and aside from looking cool and not having to really do my eye makeup (ha ha!), the sunglasses really were functional and served more of a practical purpose than anything. If you're already someone who relies on sunglasses in your everyday life, definitely don't forget to pack them for your trip to Iceland! Just think of the same wind you experience when you ski or snowboard, the same snow that you stare at when you ski and board, and imagine trying to enjoy the views when squinting because you don't have lenses protecting your eyes... not as fun. Big thanks to Fuse Lenses for my Ray-Ban replacement lenses - I used these lenses for my Ray-Ban aviators and they did a great job throughout the entire trip. Not to mention, these lenses are also a lot lighter in weight than the original Ray-Ban glass lenses also, which irritates the bridge of my nose less after a full day of wear.

 

 

Link to my sunglasses here!
Link to my lenses here!

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waterproof boots

Another essential, but oh-so-important detail. I already had a pair of comfortable waterproof boots, but the importance of having a pair that was also lightweight and warm was essential. I saw plenty of people walking around with Timbs, which you can certainly do to look stylish at the same time, but it should be noted that timbs are HEAVY! They're great in the desert, they're rugged, tough, and durable - I know, I've walked up freaking Multnomah in them, which that in itself was a mistake because of the mere weight of the shoe. They're great if you're going over rocks and sticks and rough terrain, but there's not much of that in Iceland in the middle of Winter. I found that these Sorel boots were absolutely amazing, coupled with some crampons. You'll need something lightweight to traverse ice and get you into and out of heaps of fresh snow that your foot will probably sink straight into. And if you're walking through geothermal pools and get mud stuck all over them, the added weight should be easy to wash off if your boots are light like these Sorels are. Walking through the streets aren't difficult, and I found that getting around in them was just easy - I couldn't imagine doing the same in my stiff timbs. These were flexible, and in a long uncomfortable airplane flight, I could use as much flexibility as possible! The ankle of these boots also go up as high as my timbs, and my feet NEVER felt cold or sweaty - a definite excellent purchase for this trip, as they were super comfortable and didn't require any break-in period whatsoever. I'd size up a half size, to give room for thick wool socks - I ordered a size 8 (I'm normally a 7.5 in everything) and it was perfection.

 

Link to my boots here!

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Tech Gloves

Have you seen those gloves that let you use your phone and other touchscreen devices without having to remove the gloves themselves? They look more like liners and aren't waterproof, but these were EVERYTHING! You won't really have a need for waterproof gloves, to be honest. I had them packed in my backpack in case, but never found a use for them. These tech gloves, on the other hand (pun intended?) were literally in my pockets or on my hands the entire duration of our trip. They were thin enough to allow me to use my camera without much trouble, but kept my hands relatively warm enough most of the time. The only time my hands got too cold to really function well was after our one hour walk to the DC-3 plane crash which is when my hand froze up. Other than that though, if you keep your liners on, and hands in your pocket, these work perfectly. Both Jason and I had our own pair and were the only gloves we needed for the entire trip. FYI - these are usually the liners I wear underneath my mittens when we go snowboarding!

 

Link to our gloves here!

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warm tights

Base layers are going to be very important for keeping warm, and while I had a solid plan for my upper layers, I knew it would be harder to layer my lower layers since I didn't really want to wear my Gore-Tex snowboarding pants (let's be real, they just don't look cute). When I snowboard, I like my pants baggy because it gives me better range of motion when my legs aren't restricted in tight fitted clothing. For Iceland, however, I wanted to wear my usual leggings, which meant I needed base layers that were warm but also even more tight fitting than my leggings. I also needed to make sure the waistband wasn't going to strangle me and make me feel like an exploding sausage, especially when sitting in long car rides. Fortunately enough, I found these tights that did all of that and more - they were warm all by themselves, but when I put my regular leggings over them, I was totally comfortable and no sausage-muffin-top action whatsoever. I even went snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure in them, and let's just say I wasn't complaining about losing feeling in my toes or legs! These leggings were SO worth the investment, but the even better thing was, I bought them when they were on clearance with an additional sale on top and stocked up only during those sales. I love these because they hold their shape even after multiple wears and don't stretch out. They do well after washing (even though the colors fade - I don't mind because I'm wearing them as base layers), and if you know me, I probably would have been miserable if I was cold and only wish I would've found these tights sooner so I could've used them for snowboarding!

 

Link to my base layer tights here!

 

Bring the Essentials

Here are some things that we highly recommend you bring along on your trip! They're things that definitely improved our quality of life while abroad for those 2 full weeks, and without these things, we probably would've struggled a great amount more than necessary. Everyone's needs are different, however, so always consider your own day-to-day activities and anything else you may feel you'd rely on to feel comfortable!

 

Power inverter (Link to ours here)
Basically a travel adapter and power strip all in one, this device converts all 220V outlets to US 110V current and allows you to safely charge a handful of your electronics all at once from one outlet. It has 4 USB plugs and 3 AC ports, so Jason and I were able to charge both of our phones, my Macbook, both of our camera batteries and drone batteries simultaneously without issue every single day through the duration of our trip! A MUST HAVE if you're traveling with as many electronics as we were. There were no overheating issues, and the fan wasn't too loud - loved this thing.

 

Crampons (Link to mine here)

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Okay - trust me when I tell you, if you're going to Iceland anytime during the Fall, Winter, or early Spring... GET THESE. They are so inexpensive, but so worth having for the mere sake of not falling on your ass. Seriously, if you don't want to look like those fools learning to ice skate for the first time, but are really just precariously walking on ice at the edge of a waterfall (dude, does that even sound like a SMART thing to do?) get these. You will be walking like a champ in these everywhere you go if there is even a trace of ice. I promise you. The difference was drastic... because Jason decided to opt out of buy a pair and he definitely struggled through multiple points of our trip whereas I just stomped on through. There are even multiple signs at several landmarks warning you to have these on. Just get them! You don't want to be limited to certain areas just because you can't walk there. Please note the sizing is off on the product page - I got these in a size LARGE for my size 8 Sorel's and they slid on and off perfectly with ease.

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Wool socks (Link to mine here)

I've gone through my fair share of wool socks, especially for snowboarding, but being abroad for 2 weeks meant I needed a bunch of wool socks. I didn't want to spend a ton of money but wanted to make sure the socks I was wearing were both comfortable and would keep me warm at the same time. What I found were these socks, which fit the job perfectly. They were exceptionally thick and well made, were the perfect height, kept my feet and calves warm, never made my feet sweaty, and fit perfectly - no wet socks and no saggy ankles like I used to have with some of my snowboard socks. Now I wasn't doing any strenuous activity to really make me sweat, but for the price, they were great. Don't forget to pack some reliable pairs of wool socks to wick away any moisture and to keep your feet warm - whatever the brand may be!

 

Reusable water bottle (Link to mine here)

I carry a stainless steel hydroflask with me on a day-to-day basis to begin with, but because I knew I didn't want the weight of 1L of water on my backpack while trekking through Iceland, I opted for this slimmer and sleeker 20oz bottle instead - bonus, it fit perfectly in the side pocket of my backpack and was a breeze to toss around! When I travel through airport security, I make sure the bottle is empty and I keep the lid open so TSA never has to question its contents, and then I fill it up with water from a fountain once I'm through the gates. This way, I have water for the plane ride. When in Iceland, we relied on my bottle for our long car rides since pitstops were far and few in between, and because you can DRINK THE TAP WATER (!!) in Iceland it was easy to fill our bottle up before leaving for the day. This bottle was our best friend... especially when we got sick towards the end of our trip!

 

House slippers (Link to similar ones here)

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Okay this may sound silly, but these were *life* my 2 weeks abroad. Iceland has a knack for interior design, and as such, they tend to have a thing for hard floors (wood, tile, ROCK). When it's the middle of winter, and you're trying to minimize how many socks you have to pack, carrying around a pair of lightweight house slippers will save you from having to bring regular socks to change into every day after you come home from a full day of adventure... since you obviously won't want to walk barefoot on the cold floors. One of our rooms had floors made of ROCK - super contemporary, but SUPER UNCOMFORTABLE if you don't have socks or a great pair of slippers to just kick on real quick. Not only that, but if you're familiar with European showers, you know that water tends to get everywhere. Having a convenient pair of house slippers waiting for you to step into after drying off is also way more luxurious than tip-toeing around puddles of water and hoping you don't slip. Luckily, we got our pairs of slippers complimentary from the very first hotel we stayed in upon arriving in Iceland, so I packed those suckers with me around throughout the rest of our trip and I LOVED them. They weren't fancy slippers - really thin, lightweight, made of a terry cloth but did their intended job beautifully. Would have been struggling without them. I tossed them before heading back home overseas cuz they got pretty beat up, but if you can snag yourself a pair while abroad - do so!

 

Portable power bank (Link to ours here)
This was more like a security blanket for us, in case our car broke down somewhere during one of our 5 hour drives in the middle of the country, or if my phone freakishly lost battery for some reason (since we were solely using my phone for GPS). In any case, we brought the power bank along just in case. It never hurts to have extra battery power!

 

Backpack (Link to mine here)

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I did a bit of research to find a durable, waterproof backpack with quick side access for my camera, yet still had enough structure and organization for my other travel necessities, photography equipment aside, so that I could easily take all of my necessities with me wherever I might be during our trip... and this backpack was what suited my needs best. It wasn't huge and clunky, was actually pretty slim and compact, looked sleek and provided a good amount of support, even when loaded full and felt pretty weighty. Everyone's needs are different, however, so you should do your own research to figure out what kinds of things you like to bring on your own trip, and what kind of bag suits those needs best. One thing is for sure, I definitely recommend something that is as weather-resistant as possible, and if you're trying to minimize the number of times you have to transfer things to and from your luggage, try to think of how you'll transport things in your backpack when you're on the plane, in the hotel, and out on the road. This backpack fit everything I needed in all 3 of those scenarios, and kept them secure in all 3 situations, which is why I opted for it. I am obsessed with bags, and organization in general, so if you've got a bag you absolutely adore, please leave the recommendation below! There's definitely a different bag for different situations, and while I can't imagine using it on a regular basis, it truly served its purpose while abroad.

Here are all the things I fit into my backpack (!) :

  • Camera + attached lens, with lens hood
  • Additional lens
  • Extra camera battery, microfiber wipe, 
  • Camera battery charger, with cable
  • Portable power bank, with phone charging cable
  • 13" MacBook Pro, with power adapter
  • External hard drive
  • GoPro Hero5, with charger and attachment accessories
  • Waterproof gloves, disposable hand warmers
  • Large blanket scarf
  • Toiletry bag of medications
  • Reusable water bottle, 20oz
  • Passports, credit cards, ID's + important papers/documents + house keys

 

Lens hood (Comes with your camera lens!)

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I've never really found a use for the lens hood that came with my lenses until this trip. Take that with a grain of salt, though, since I'm just a noob, but my lens hood was seriously a lifesaver. With all of the wind and rain you'll likely encounter in this country, this little tiny thing will hopefully fend off 60-80% of the spray that would've otherwise landed on your lens... if you're good at dodging the gusts! If it was coming down on us, I made sure to keep my camera just inside my rain coat when I was walking, up until the moment I really knew I wanted to take a picture. Then, I'd pull out my camera and snap my photos. But if I knew I was facing the direction of the spray, I'd probably think twice. My camera is technically weather sealed, but cleaning the lens is just a pain in the butt - the lens hood definitely helps reduce the number of droplets that land on your glass, and if you're taking random shots out of the car window like I did (hello, wild CARIBOU!), then the lens hood will be totally key. Idk, there's probably better stuff out there than this tip to keep your gear protected from the wet elements, but taking this little thing along was definitely not an under sight - pack it!

 

Pack Strategically

Something we really embraced on this trip, which we've never utilized before, was packing cubes. We used them to neatly organize our wool socks (which we rolled up like sushi), our base layer tops, our base layer bottoms, leggings, and even our underwear. It kept everything neatly in place, and the reason why we finally caved in and got on the packing cube train was because we knew we'd be moving from different cities every 2 nights, and having to open and close our luggage constantly would inevitably wreak havoc on the organized piles of clothes we typically have.

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Having all of our clothes packed tightly into cubes and enclosed in their own little sections kept everything in place, even after pulling out articles of clothing day after day. Without these cubes, our clothes would've been jostled around everywhere in our big luggage! ALSO, because Icelandic rooms are extremely small, leaving your luggage open is typically not an option. Once you get something out of your luggage, closing it back up is usually necessary so you can clear the walkway, or so your partner can get into their luggage! These were definitely smart purchases and if you don't already have them in your travel arsenal, we strongly recommend them if you'll be in Iceland for an extended period of time!

Link to our packing cubes here!

 

Travel Makeup and Skincare Routine

Now, I wasn't trying to be extra, and wanted to keep my routine as quick and minimal, yet effective at making me look appropriate enough for photographs as possible so what I did was focus on complexion, since I knew my eyes would be covered by sunglasses the majority of the time we were out, and relied only on items that I knew would last me all day & through any sort of weather. I didn't want to be spending tons of time getting ready since I knew we'd be flying out the door each morning, so I simplified and streamlined my travel routine for both skincare and makeup as much as possible - plus, it was only for 2 weeks, so I figured I could stick to only the *necessities* for that amount of time. This is what I ended up with (and for me, this was as minimal as I could get, haha!).

Skincare:

Makeup:

  • Foundation (holy grail; lasts all day, even through rain)
  • Waterproof eyebrow gel (brows stay on forever, even through swimming)
  • Bronzer (doubles up as eyeshadow)
  • Blush paper! (saves on space and sheen doubles as highlight)
  • Setting spray, travel size

All of my skincare items fit in their own small toiletry bag which I stuck my bronzer and blush paper in, and the few makeup brushes I needed fit in a hard, round makeup brush case like this one along with my foundation bottle AND setting spray! For someone who usually packs a huge 7" train case full of makeup for even a 2-night stay anywhere in addition to a toiletry bag of skincare, this was definitely a small victory for me. *pats self on back*

 

Things I Packed ... But Didn't Need

I typically overpack - and that's an understatement. I way overpack. And on this trip, I really tried not to, but with the weather conditions being so extreme, it was really hard to predict how extreme they were going to be. If it's helpful to anyone, here were the items we packed that we actually ended up NOT needing after all! Some of them definitely surprised us, but I'm actually pretty happy with how short this list is. We did a pretty good job packing strategically and only bringing things we'd utilize, but really, we were just lucky we were never in a bad enough predicament to have to use these items.

  1. Scarf
    Forreals?! You bet! I mean cold weather hits and the second thing you throw on (after your jacket) is a scarf, right? But when we were in Iceland, I found that the layers I prepared myself with (described above and below) actually equipped me well enough to be completely comfortable without a scarf! I never once took it out of my backpack. It probably would've gotten in the way of my camera, which was around my neck most of the time, anyway. Even when winds picked up, all I needed to do was zip my vest or jacket up to cover my face and I was fine. Even when I think about it, I don't even use scarves when I snowboard so maybe it's not much of a surprise, but my jacket + down vest (which has a nice, soft, quilted collar) + crewneck sweatshirt + crewneck long sleeve + base layer was perfect to keep me warm in all the conditions we encountered!
     
  2. Fur-lined parka
    I mentioned this before, but this thing was only on me during our flight to Iceland ... mainly because it was heavy and I didn't want the weight in our luggage. Other than that, it was chillin' in the car the whole 2 weeks. Really though, the layers mentioned previously were perfect for all of the temperatures and wind conditions we were met with. My rain coat was a beast!
     
  3. Gore-Tex shell
    ... and because my rain coat was more of a beast than I gave it credit for, I originally packed along my Gore-Tex shell *just in case*. This thing went literally untouched. It was just padding in my luggage. Never left my suitcase. It should be noted that my Gore-Tex PANTS, however, did leave my suitcase and did serve their purpose when we went to Reynisfjara (the black sand beaches) and then up to Dyrhólaey in the middle of a storm because it was POURING and the wind was going to blow us off the cliff, but my rain coat still held its own. My leggings aren't waterproof though, so my Gore-Tex pants were definitely useful for that occasion. 
     
  4. Hand warmers + waterproof gloves
    We had a bunch of these hand warmers lying around from past snowboarding trips so I just stuck them in my backpack in case we needed/wanted to use them? Never did. My hands never really got too cold. Perhaps just on the walk to the DC-3 plane crash, but never enough to warrant use of these hand warmers... nor our waterproof gloves, and I'm the type to get cold really easily. My tech liners did a good job of protecting me for the most part, but sticking my hands inside my rain coat pockets or in my down vest pockets really blocked out most, if not all, of the wind and rain.
     
  5. Car power inverter
    So we bought this just in case and we really didn't need it. Its a power inverter that converts 12V power in your car's cigarette lighter to 110V power, so you can charge things like your phone, camera battery, drone battery, etc. Or so that's what we intended it to be used for. Our rental car actually had USB plugs, so we had no issues charging our phones directly through the USB's and we never needed to recharge our camera or drone batteries mid-drive, since we packed along enough extra batteries - we really were well-prepared! But who knows - if we were stuck on a road that had been closed due to the storms, for instance, this would've been nice to have. It could've powered my laptop even. It's nice to have for future trips, say, if we go camping or glamping, but for Iceland, if you get a new enough rental car, and don't get stuck in the middle of nowhere (and make sure you have plenty of extra batteries already) you should be fine without it!
 

 

Let's Start Booking!

Now that we've got all the "stuff" out of the way, here are a few words on the booking process - what we did, worked for us, what didn't, and some recommendations! I'm sure there are a multitude of ways you could go about this, and flights to Iceland are becoming more affordable now than ever, but it never hurts to hear from another's perspective!

 

Flights

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Price vs. Reliability

We booked our flights on IcelandAir through a third party agent called JustFly. Tickets were cheap through them and we booked our flights 7 months in advance. In comparison, the next cheapest airlines would've been AirFrance, Wow Air, and booking via IcelandAir directly. In retrospect, the trouble we went through with the THIRD PARTY AGENT to reschedule our flight when one leg of our return got canceled by the airline a few months before departure was NOT worth the savings. Originally, we were scheduled to fly back from Iceland into Seattle, then from Seattle back into San Diego all on one Saturday. JustFly emailed us, vaguely informing us that "there had been a change, and that we needed to contact them". Ok??? So after hours on hold, we eventually find out that the flight from Seattle to San Diego that Saturday had been cancelled, and that they could either 1) Change our entire flight from Iceland-SEA-SAN to Friday, or 2) Change our entire flight from Iceland-SEA-SAN to Sunday. The issue was, we'd already booked our nights at the Silica Hotel (a.k.a. The Blue Lagoon's private hotel) with planned check-out on Saturday, so there was no way I was forfeiting a night there. We asked if we could keep our flight back from Iceland to Seattle on Saturday, as booked, and just pick a new leg from Seattle to San Diego that flies out on Sunday. They told us no. I didn't want to spend a few hundred more to spend another night in Iceland, and really wanted a full day back home to recuperate before returning to work Monday morning, which is why I really didn't want to fly out of Iceland Sunday. The process to just talk to someone and get answers took HOURS; we were transferred to multiple people, and we still were left at a dead end. Finally, we decided to call IcelandAir directly. We explained our situation, and they were thankfully able to book our flights as requested. No additional questions asked. We couldn't figure out what the big deal was with the third party agents, but were just thankful it had been sorted out. From that moment on, we swore we'd never book through a third party ever again - no matter the "savings". It's not worth it if something happens, even if the change isn't brought on by yourself and it's the airline's doing. Whatever you do, read up reviews and don't be naive like we were! Ugh. *facepalm*

 

Travel Season

Something important to consider and keep in mind is the time of year you plan on visiting! Weather is one thing, but crowds are also another thing. Summer's popular because the weather is more mild (but still cold!) but that also means there will be more crowds. Winter is COLD, but that doesn't mean there won't be any crowds - there will always be tourists in Iceland. Another thing to consider is whether your trip aligns with any foreign holidays - our first week happened to fall on Chinese New Year, and we actually didn't even realize that people (from asian countries) would have this holiday off and would be traveling. Thus, Iceland was SO crowded and filled with tourists on vacation! It was crazy! If you're there to chase the aurora borealis, also take a look at peak aurora seasons and the amount of daylight you get during parts of the year, that way you can appropriately plan your dayventures and your probability of encountering the northern lights while there.

your job is to dodge all of the tourists!

your job is to dodge all of the tourists!

 

Airplane Seats + Northern Lights

Speaking of the northern lights, if you want a preview of them before getting to Iceland, pick your seats carefully! If you're flying from the states, north-facing seats will be your best bet. I got a nice view of the northern lights from my seat while most of the plane sat quietly with their window shades down and were either sleeping or reading as we flew over Canada.

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Accommodations

We stayed at a combination of hotels, AirBnB's, and guesthouses. All of our hotels and guesthouses were booked through Booking.com, and it was pretty simple and reliable, even for the smaller family-run guesthouses! We had no issues checking in or out, and communication was great on that platform - it was our first time using Booking.com, but it was a great resource to use for Iceland since all of our reservations were in one place (with the exception of our AirBnB's).

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Below are a few things to look out for when searching for places to stay in Iceland, especially if you're looking to save money!

 

Free Breakfast

Food prices being as hefty as they are in Iceland, we made sure to keep our eyes out for hotels and guesthouses that offered free breakfast buffets. This definitely wasn't hard to do whatsoever, since there are plenty of beautiful hotels with great reviews that offer free breakfast buffets! Most of them begin at either 7am or 8am, and I highly recommend making your way to the lobby for food right when they begin service so you can grab your food then get out on the road to your early adventures as soon as you can before the crowds and tour groups do. 

Be careful with the amount of coffee you consume though - there aren't really any bathrooms out in the middle of Iceland, depending on where you're headed around Ring Road or the Golden Circle so moderation is key! I made sure to fill up on all of my macronutrients to keep my full and satisfied throughout most of my day so I wasn't hangry at all halfway through our dayventures.

The buffets, in general, will offer a variety of croissants and pastries, yogurt, bread, cheese, sometimes pate, oatmeal, fruits, and some sort of egg - if you're lucky you'll get some scrambled eggs, otherwise you'll have some medium boiled eggs. They'll also have apple juice, orange juice, and coffee. When we got really lucky, some of our hotels even had sunny side up eggs, pancakes, and waffles. YUM! The crowds will definitely be fighting for the food here too, though. Take advantage of all the free food you can and load up your belly for the day before heading out! Save your money and eat swiftly, then get your day started. I swear I ate better while on vacation than I normally do on a day-to-day basis!

 

Happy Hour

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Keeping along with the theme of saving $$$, be sure to keep an eye out on hotel happy hours and local brewery/bar happy hours as well. If you're like us and are interested at all in trying out local Icelandic beers (whether it be big beer like Viking or local beer like at Bryggjan Brugghús), there are always good deals to be had during their respective happy hours, which is the only time we opted to enjoy any alcohol while in Iceland on draft (besides the free drinks we got at The Blue Lagoon).

But if you're looking to enjoy any alcohol in bottles, you'll need to find Iceland's state-owned stores called Vínbúðin. Unfortunately, the only alcohol you'll find in their grocery stores are light beers that are less than 2.25% ABV, per Icelandic laws.

 

Laundry Machines

If you're in Iceland for an extended period of time (i.e. 2 weeks, like we were), it may be beneficial to book an AirBnB at an opportune time towards the end of your trip that also has an in-home laundry machine to allow you to do some much needed laundry. This way, you'll save money on the number of base layers and socks you'll have to buy and bring with you, and won't have to worry about the amount of stuff you'll have to lug along on your trip. Don't forget to pack along detergent and softener though - we brought along 2 Tide pods in our toiletry bag and were a breeze to pack.

 

Rental Car

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I've mentioned it in a few of my blog posts, but we strongly recommend renting a car and driving yourself around Iceland for all of your sightseeing - the freedom and flexibility you have is priceless, especially when you're in a time crunch and racing not only masses of other tour buses filled of tourists, but also the ever-changing weather. Having the ability to change your plans around at the drop of a hat due to unfavorable weather, or to dictate how much time you spend at each landmark is everything.

We actually discussed this a few times while driving through Iceland, and while it is definitely precarious driving yourself around in such dangerous weather, and the added convenience of just being a passenger your entire time in Iceland sounds nice, I just couldn't get past the idea of having to be crammed on a huge charter bus full of potentially loud and obnoxious tourists. But I've always had an issue with personal space.

Personally, I don't like crowds to begin with. When we were in crowded landmarks in the midst of tons of people, I just couldn't imagine myself having to sit amongst these people... and shuttle from one place to the next... hours on end... day after day. How would that be enjoyable?! It's the journey, and not always the destination. And that's why driving through Iceland was a huge part of our trip all in itself. Most of the landscape pictures I have were taken from the car, while on the go. We RARELY ever pulled over! I would've NEVER gotten those shots if we didn't have the freedom to take our own routes and on our own time - it's just something to consider for yourself when planning what you want from your own trip, and also when deciding how much time you want to invest into the trip to begin with. It took 2 weeks for us to see the whole country, and we still couldn't see everything on our itinerary (but maybe you don't want to see all of those things?!).

Anywho, consider these things if you do decide to rent a car:

  • Higher ground clearance
    While Iceland's roads are pretty remarkable compared to our roads here in the states, they still have their fair share of potholes. Not so much when you're driving really, but when you get to the parking lots of the major landmarks (i.e. Skogafoss, Reynsfjara, etc), expect MAJOR potholes. It's likely due to the high volume of traffic, in addition to all of those massive charter buses pulling through and parking there on the wet, soggy, pavement for long periods of time. These potholes were no joke - if we didn't have our Subaru XV, I'm pretty sure we would've bottomed out a couple times, even though we did our very best to carefully and slowly maneuver around as many potholes as we could. Having a car with higher ground clearance will also be helpful if you ever have to hop an icy curb, or pile of snow, or snow-covered ledge - all of which we had to do to either park in a hotel, or drive through a parking lot to access a waterfall, or pull over to pet some ponies. SO, if you plan on doing any of these safely and easily, we recommend getting something with higher clearance!
  • AWD + spiked tires
    If you're traveling during any season with the possibility of snow on the road, we highly recommend going with a company that offers an AWD car that comes outfitted with spiked tires. While Iceland does an absolutely incredible job of plowing a majority of their roads, there are bound to be a few back and side roads, and several icy parking lots and viewing areas that you'll need access to, and having these puts you at a substantial advantage. These spiked tires SAVED US! 
 

 

Travel Tips

So here's a culmination of all the extra little things I thought would be helpful for making your travels easier in Iceland - random suggestions, resources, and quirks about the country that you might find useful. Take note, bookmark things, and prepare in advance!

 

Credit Cards

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Almost everyone takes credit card in Iceland. Even the toll roads. We didn't have to exchange a single USD for an Icelandic Krona, so I wouldn't worry too much about currency. Just make sure you use a credit card without any foreign transaction fees!

Be aware, though, that their gas pumps work differently than they do in the states. For unmanned pumps (which you'll encounter a lot of the time), your credit card will need a pin number, so be sure to request that from your bank beforehand. For some banks, you can set this up online, but for others, it required it a phone call and snail mail so be prepared to do this well in advance. 

 

Cell Phone Service

Luckily, we had no issues with our cell phone service (both signal and 4G data) throughout the entire country on Verizon. We did have to initiate our international plan ahead of time, which just consisted of me inputting a start date online, but LEARN FROM OUR MISTAKE: because they don't even charge you until you enter the international country of service and turn off airplane mode, just set up your international data with an earlier start date because the date you input as your start date is interpreted as the date IN YOUR HOME ADDRESS, and not the actual location of your phone where your service is being utilized. So what I did was put the date of our arrival in Iceland, but because Iceland is 8 hours ahead of San Diego, our international data wouldn't initiate until 8 hours after we had already arrived! AH!

But because we planned ahead, we were still able to use the GPS on our phone to navigate from the airport to our hotel in Reykjavík using the offline Google Maps we'd downloaded before we left on our trip. So pro tip: download an offline copy of Iceland on Google Maps to your phone to use, just in case you lose reception for whatever reason - it will still get you where you need to go, even if it can't load what the streets look like!

 

Driving

Due to constant changes in the weather, Iceland's road conditions also tend to change constantly. We relied heavily on this website (www.road.is) to relay up to date road closure information to ensure our intended routes were still viable options, and whether or not the road conditions were safe. The website also provides live webcam views of their roads so you can see for yourself what the road conditions are like - this website is an absolutely AMAZING resource. Don't drive through Iceland without it.

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Also be aware while driving, that you'll likely encounter single car bridges, so be very aware of your surroundings. If you arrive at the bridge first, the other car should have yielded for you to go, but if another car has reached the bridge first, be sure to yield to them and take turns if there's a line. Be efficient, and don't cause traffic. The same goes for roundabouts! There are tons of roundabouts in Iceland, so if you're unfamiliar with how to navigate them, do a little research and maybe a quick search on youtube for a visual. 

Another thing to be aware of, are the speed cameras in Iceland. Yesss they have speed cameras! You'll see a warning sign before you actually get to the camera, so you can't say they didn't warn you. It's a sign with a camera on it. Just don't speed. Learn the speed limits for all of the roads - just know you're definitely not in California anymore, and the last thing you want is a ticket when you're on vacay.

Back to pumping gas - another funky thing about their pumps, it'll usually ask you how much money you want to put into the pump before you start pumping, then the machine will just refund whatever money was unused. So you start to have to get good at guessing how much you need to fill up! Also, prices are per Liter... and gas is very expensive there...

 

Weather

Another website you'll want to bookmark - this website was absolutely essential for tracking the weather (en.vedur.is). It relays information about storms, weather warnings, and also includes wind and precipitation forecasts. We watched this website like a hawk at certain points during our trip, especially when we were trying to time some of our sightseeing in between the storms. 

This website is also great for its aurora forecast - it can be used to help predict the probability of you seeing an aurora on any given night at a given time, and it changes pretty frequently, even up to the hour. Another website I used to monitor the aurora's was this one here. It summarizes some of the forecast from the above website, in addition to some information from the magnetic observatory. Super interesting to read about also!

 

Health

Let's deal with the jet lag. If you're traveling from California, you'll be a full 8 hours ahead when in Iceland. I luckily didn't experience any jet lag either arriving, nor returning home, and I think planning ahead helped quite a bit. Since the flight to Iceland is roughly 8 hours, and you'll probably land early in the morning (we landed around 7am), take this time to get as much sleep and rest as possible. Consider this your "night's sleep" to get your body's clock a head start, and try to spend the rest of your day in Iceland awake. We were so exhausted by 9pm that night, since it was technically 5am (the next day) in San Diego but I was stubborn and determined to stay awake until at least 10pm so that our bodies could start to reset themselves. It was more difficult to get rest during our flight back from Iceland to Seattle because you're basically flying with the sun - it's an endless sunset since you actually land 15 minutes earlier than when you departed so I didn't even fall asleep, but this was actually to my advantage, since we landed around 5pm and I then forced myself to again stay awake until at least 9 or 10pm Seattle time so that my body could readjust to our local time zone. Forcing myself to the point of near exhaustion at an appropriate bed time really helped my body adjust easily to falling asleep at an adequate time, no matter where we were... but everyone's body was different. I didn't need the aid of any medication to do so, but really thinking about your schedule and simply planning it ahead of time will be beneficial.

Okay, so this one's for anyone who needs to take medication on a chronic or regular basis. This is the pharmacist in me talking to you. I, personally, take medication for migraine prophylaxis twice daily so it's very important for me not to miss any doses. In addition, my twice daily doses are not equivalent - in the morning I take one tablet, and in the evening, I take two. So when traveling to a country where the time zone is a full 8 hours ahead, I had to sit down and really plan out how the change in time zones would really affect my by medication schedule not only on our day of departure, but also on our day of return... and at what time I would now need to take my medication to maintain my regular hour of administration back at home. For instance, on the day we flew back from Iceland, we were awake for more than 24 hours, which meant I actually took my medication 3 times that "day"! Luckily for me, I only had ONE medication to keep track of, so sitting down and converting everything into a 24-hour clock, and then spacing apart my doses by 12 hours wasn't too bad... but for those of you who have multiple medications... please, please take the time to carefully consider how your medication regimens are affected when you travel (especially if they're medications with narrow therapeutic windows)!

Last but not least, if you weren't aware, Jason and I both got sick by the end of our trip. I'm pretty sure Jason was infected by the end of the first week since that's when his cough began to surface, but I didn't begin showing symptoms until 4 days later. Real talk though, I tried so hard not to get sick before arriving in Iceland. If you're like me, you can purchase a huge box of these medical masks to take along with you to protect you from all of the germs on the airplane. Keep in mind, this was when the flu epidemic was full blown. Unfortunately for us, I'm pretty sure the transfer of germs occurred in passing sometime during one of the many breakfast buffets we visited. SO many tourists... SO many people touching all of the utensils... ugh. So nasty, now that I think of it. Not only did we get sick, I was sick for MORE THAN A MONTH! I had to complete 2 different courses of antibiotics, had multiple telephone appointments, and even had to go in for x-rays and an additional course of steroids to finally achieve resolution. Dude, whatever I had, it was straight up nasty

Link to these masks here!

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Subtle Differences

Just a few random facts and tidbits that I noticed while abroad :)

  • Iceland's "double beds" are literally just two twin beds pushed together! Each twin bed also has its own duvet, so if you're tired of your significant other hogging all the blanket, now's your chance to each have your own!
     
  • Something I loved (and am totally not used to) were the radiant heaters all throughout Iceland - even in their large hotels. Growing up in SoCal, all I've ever known was central heating and I absolutely hate hot air. I'd rather freeze and throw on tons of layers and cover myself in blankets than have hot air blow on my face, but thankfully all of our rooms in Iceland had well-functioning radiant heaters that kept us super duper warm.
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  • There's something special about their bathrooms -
    • Their European showers get water everywhere as I've mentioned above. And while they're gorgeous to look at and definitely aesthetically pleasing, there's also a huge lack of storage space. There was almost nowhere to put any of our toiletries (where they'd actually stay dry)! Here's where hanging toiletry bags really come in handy - which is exactly what we both happened to have. Link to my hanging toiletry bag here!
       
    • No handles on their toilets here - push the button to flush! The bigger button is for number 2, and the smaller button is for (you guessed it) number 1.
       
    • Something I thought was totally overlooked here was the lack of bathroom exhaust fans throughout the entire country. Hot steam from the showers totally lingered everywhere, adding to the wet sticky mess that the bathroom already was post-shower... and it unfortunately stayed that way for quite a while because the hot air had no help in venting anywhere. Some places had pipes that led outside (if we weren't in multistory buildings), but most of the places we stayed in didn't.. so hot muggy bathrooms were just a way of life.
       
    • Iceland totally digs towel warmers, and that's definitely a luxury I could get behind - I've never been able to use one before our trip, but they worked beautifully! I even used them to try off our bathing suits and robes post dips in the Blue Lagoon! They're naturally powered by the gas in Iceland, so you do need to turn a nob typically found at the bottom of the towel rack, but the benefit of this is that they work quickly and are environmentally friendly!
       
    • If you're wondering, we never really ran into the issue of stinky shower water during our time in Iceland! We always heard showering would smell like sulfur, but... no egg smell here. 
       
  • Don't forget - YOU CAN DRINK THE TAP WATER! And, the tap water tastes delicious. Most of the faucets pump out ice cold water that tastes crisper and cleaner than most of the fridge water we even get in the states - we were weary at first, but after trying it, we didn't question it at all and continued to refill our bottle with tap our entire time there.
     
  • Our last tip comes from Jason, who wanted me to tell you that a "taco" in Iceland is not what you think it is. We purchased several Icelandic "Pepperoni Tacos" from their local grocery stores (Krónan, Bonus, and Nettó - the 3 most affordable ones!) to munch on when we were in a hurry, because these are often available in their "grab and go" section. But don't be fooled. Tacos in Iceland ≈ sandwiches! They were delicious nonetheless, but don't expect tortilla or anything. It's definitely more along the lines of a sub sandwich. Good one, Iceland. Be sure to get your Mexican food fix before leaving - it'll be far and few in between!
 
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So we'll leave you now with a still image depicting a gentle snowfall at Skógafoss... but know that in reality, the harsh wind was grazing my face, as the rain slowly turned into sleet and the crowds crept quickly in from all corners of the frame.

Iceland will only be what you make of it, and I hope I've imparted if maybe even one of you with just a slight glimpse of knowledge to help guide you on your way to a more enjoyable trip across the land of fire and ice. It's an ancient and magnificent place, that not even we got to see in its entirety, and we'd love to hear some of your own adventures - leave your links below! Thanks for following along ♥︎