Packing and prepping for Iceland

This past September, I was lucky to be able to embark on a two week trip to Iceland and I thoroughly enjoyed it! If you google “Iceland”, many people will tell you how it’s beautiful, stunning, etc. Everyone sings praises about Iceland, that I knew all too well. In the back of mind, however, I had my doubts initially. Was it possible for a country to live up to such a hype? Well, I went and boy, it certainly proved me wrong, it WAS, IS possible! I’d completely, unreservedly recommend anyone who hasn’t been to visit this amazing country if you get the chance.

A few people have asked, so I’ll be writing up a post-trip report soon; in the meantime, below are some useful tips for Iceland.

Iceland is known as the land of waterfalls, sheep and unpredictable weather. I chose Iceland in September based on a couple of factors:

  • I wanted to see the Northern Lights this year since there were rumours it had started to dim, and September/October was, according to this website, a good time. I’m not a big fan of cold, harsh winters with little sunlight, so I figured I’d avoid full winter. At least this way I’d have more daylight time to explore the whole country too. Spoiler alert – yes I caught the Northern Lights!
  • I’d whittled my choices down to Iceland, Finland and Norway for September, and finally chose Iceland because I’ve read so much about it and also because it was harder to get to. I could do Finland and Norway in the future together when I had more time(fingers crossed), since they were all on the same continent. But Iceland, Iceland was an island all on its own, it sounded way more exotic, and I had two weeks. It seemed a no-brainer.

My two week itinerary included the Golden Circle, the Ring Road, the West Fjords and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. I’ll say it again, Iceland is beautiful, and you won’t regret it!

Getting there
Iceland is served by mainly two airline carriers, IcelandAir and WowAir. IcelandAir is considered to be a full-fledged carrier while WowAir comes off more budget-friendly. They’re both offering pretty affordable flights direct from the US and Canada to Reykjavik, and of course from Europe as well if you’re coming from a different part of the world.

Weather – In September
They have saying in Iceland that goes: “If you don’t like the weather, wait two minutes.” That’s because the weather’s always unpredictable, it could be all cloudy one minute, raining the next, and after a few minutes, the skies are clear and the sun’s upon you. It’s definitely true, so don’t be disheartened if you see the forecast and it says it’ll be raining the entire day. You may just get lucky – just look at the two pictures below and you’ll get what I mean:

Noon:aimg_0701

Late afternoon on the same day:aimg_0831

The temperature ranged from 12°C in the day to 4°C at night in mid-september. While 12°C isn’t generally considered cold when the sun’s shining, it’s the wind that kills you, so always carry a windbreaker with you. The wind’s like some sort of glacial wind, I kid you not. At times it’ll get so windy, all you want to do is stay in the car and turn the heater up. But that’s why Iceland is so magical. It’s too beautiful to miss. You’ll look out, see the scenery, brave the winds and get out of the car because it’s worth it. I’ve done that more times than I could count!

Attire
Layers, layers, layers! The winds in Iceland are strong and cold, so don’t underestimate them. Hats and windproof jackets are a must. I’d expect it to get colder as winter arrives.

Gloves and waterproof pants are always a good idea as well, especially if you’re planning to head to the waterfalls(duh) on the Ring Road route and glaciers.

Money
Most places in Iceland use the Icelandic Krona(ISK), but finding a currency exchange counter in your home country that trades ISK is almost impossible. You can always choose to use your credit card (most places accept them in Iceland, so no worries), or if you’d like ISK, you may exchange it at Keflavik International airport when you arrive. Some places in Iceland accept euros as well, I guess since it’s part of the European Union. If you’d rather carry cash though, I’d advise you to exchange 70% ISK, and 30% Euros, because if you run out of ISK, at least you’d still have Euros to back you up and you wouldn’t have to change any excess ISK back to your currency. At least with excess euros left, you’d still be able to use it in France, Germany, Spain for your future trips, unless you’re playing on returning to Iceland again real soon!

Food and water
I’ve realised not many sites emphasize this, so I think it is important to state that food is expensive in Iceland. Not “normal expensive”, but wayyyy overpriced. Fish and chips at a gas station will cost you a minimum of 2100ISK (~$18.50USD), and the food here isn’t like in America where you may sometimes get away with sharing  a single portion between two people. Nope. It’s definitely just for one person. Regular burgers and fries are between 1200 to 2000ISK(~10.50USD – 17.80USD). KFC for 2 people will cost you approximate 2800ISK, while Subway costs between 1200-1500ISK for a regular foot long sub. Honestly, that’s the only minor gripe I had with Iceland – the food prices and selection. I love food, and I come from a country with a huge food culture, so this was a slight bummer, but you’ll get over it, I promise. It’ still a good idea to try at least a couple of restaurants while in Iceland though, I’m a big proponent of trying local food in any country, and their soup, catch of the day(arctic char or cod, anyone?) and lamb dishes are divine. Lunch is usually cheaper compared to dinner if you’d like to keep within budget.

And of course, who could travel to Iceland and not mention their national food, the Icelandic Hot Dog(400ISK/$3.6USD), that can be found in most gas stations. It’s a hot dog in a bun with onions and fried shallots, topped with ketchup and their very own special Icelandic mustard. It’s yummy stuff, YOU.MUST.TRY IT. Just don’t make it into a habit, it’s probably isn’t the healthiest food option. The mustard is also available for purchase by the bottle in their local supermarkets, if you so desire.

img_0506aSpeaking of supermarkets, if you’re looking to save some money on food, they’re a great alternative. Buy your groceries at a supermarket and cook your meals/prepare your sandwiches at airbnbs/hostels/guesthouses! I’d recommend Bonus or Netto supermarkets, simply because they’re much cheaper than the others (yes, they have different tiers of supermarkets as well). Do note that Bonus usually closes around 6.00-6.30pm though, so shop early if you can, while Netto closes around 8.30pm-9.00pm. I’ve also seen travellers who have brought food from their own country, so that’s another option!

bdsc_0506
Bonus supermarket – you’ll notice it immediately with a pink drunk pig as its mascot!

By the way, Iceland’s water is 100% safe to drink. Save money on this by buying a bottle at the supermarket or bringing an empty bottle and filling it up anywhere with a sink!

Choosing a car
If you’ve decided to do a self-driving tour in Iceland, yay! I love self-driving roadtrips, because they offer so much flexibility. However, car rentals in Iceland are notoriously overpriced, so be prepared for that. There’s also been complaints of car rentals “scamming” people by claiming damages after a rental. To prevent this from happening, always, always inspect the car yourself and take tons of pictures of the car before driving off. If you see a scratch that’s not being marked, point it out and insist on it being marked, before you sign off on the sheet, no matter what. If they say “it doesn’t matter”, just say it’ll give you a better peace of mind, because chances are, you won’t be getting the same exact sales rep when you return the car, and even if you do, they may not remember what they’ve said previously.

Car rentals in Iceland may advertise that the rental includes all insurances, car rentals in Iceland do not cover the following:

Sand and Ash protection – to take or not to take? It took quite a bit of research for us to finally decide not to go ahead with this. Once you’re on-site, they’ll warn and encourage you again to take this insurance, especially if you’re heading south, near Jokulsarlon as there are active volcanoes there. Again, we declined, but it’s really up to you. I’d advise you to read the weather forecast. I decided not to go ahead because some locals on forums mentioned this was unnecessary, so we took our chances. Thankfully, it paid off, but of course, anything can happen in Iceland.

For the most part, Iceland’s roads are pretty well-maintained. If you’re on a short trip, eg. just going on the Golden Circle, a small/compact car shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re planning on doing the Ring Road I’d recommend a sedan car at least if possible, because it’ll be a more enjoyable ride. If you’re headed to the West Fjords, you’ll start to encounter gravel roads, and this is where you’d be wise to consider hiring cars with higher bumpers, eg. SUVs, to minimise the chances of damaging the bottoms. Otherwise, drive slowly. Also, for those planning to get on the F-roads, only 4x4s are allowed on them, so plan your car hire wisely. You’ll be spending a large chunk of time driving on the roads, so I’d advise against scrimping too much on the rental- you  wouldn’t want to spend half the time worrying about the car. To save on fuel costs, select a manual car if possible, they’re generally cheaper compared to autos as well!

Gas prices: Orkan in general offers the cheapest petrol/diesel, but there’s a minimum topup of 3000ISK(~26.5USD) per pump. N1’s readily available, and there’s also no minimum charge, but prices are a few cents higher usually.

Accommodation
We stayed in a mix of airbnbs, guestrooms and hotels during our trip. Hostels are available in Iceland as well. However, accommodation runs out pretty quickly no matter the season, so always book early. We booked about 1-2 months before we left and still accommodation was limited in the shoulder season. There’s too much demand and too little supply, so plan ahead! You may choose a camper rental if you’d like to experience the outdoors fully.

Getting a sim card
Sim cards are always necessary for myself as a traveller. Besides, getting a SIM card and using google maps saves you money from renting GPS. While some have stated that google maps are not as advanced in Iceland, I didn’t face any problems with it. Our whole trip was solely relied on using google maps.

There are three main providers in Iceland; Siminn, Vodafone and Nova. Siminn and Vodafone are usually recommended for better coverage across Iceland. I used a Siminn Prepaid Deluxe Starter plan during my trip in Iceland which cost 2990ISK ($26.50USD) that came with 100 minutes of local calls, 100 texts and 1GB of data since I like being able to contact local places to make reservations/ask for better directions(when necessary) etc. More information on Siminn here.

However, in some remote areas while driving, eg. a couple of spots in the West Fjords, reception was not fantastic, and the network changed to Vodafone so data was inaccessible. It’s not a big deal though, it can get a little annoying at times but since I was mostly using google maps on the phone as a GPS, it didn’t have much of an effect as long as you mapped out your route beforehand. Afterall, you don’t need data for GPS while driving!

Siminn sim cards are sold at the 7/11-like (sorry I can’t remember the name!) store on the left when you leave baggage claim into the main arrivals/departure hall and N1 stores throughout the country.

If you’re fine with just data, you may wish to consider Vodafone as they are cheaper compared to Siminn. Vodafone also provides a Mobile Starter kit for those with iPads/tablets. More information on prepaid Vodafone cellphone plans here.

Vodafone sim cards can be found on IcelandAir flights and in the duty-free shop beside the baggage claim when you arrive and N1 stores throughout the country.

There isn’t much information on Nova prices and they do not have an English website. However, you may review their plans and prices in English on-board Wowair flights.

Useful apps
While we mostly relied on google maps to get around, there are a couple of useful apps to consider downloading.

Veður: the Icelandic weather website can be found here. Great for keeping you up-to-date on the latest weather conditions!

For iPhone users, download the app here.

For Android users, download the app here.

112 emergency app: This app is useful if you’re heading to remote places, hiking alone without a guide etc. You can “check-in” when you like, and it sends your coordinates to emergency authorities so aid workers may get to you in the event of emergencies.

HERE Wego: For those who would like a map of Iceland as a back-up, you may also download it from HERE WeGo and it can be used offline.

Conclusion
I found it pretty amazing to be there in September, right in the shoulder season, away from the crowds during summer (so car rentals and accommodation in general are cheaper!) and the frost in winter. However, there are some sacrifices to be made if you’re planning to go then. Activities you may miss out in September include:

Puffins-  If these adorable birds are on your list, you’ll have a tough time finding them from September onwards as they would have left the cliffs sometime in August.

Midnight sun- Summers in Iceland are famous for the “Midnight Sun” phenomenon, which basically means it’s sunlight almost all day everyday, and you’ll have plenty more time to catch up on sights if sleep’s not a priority! Unfortunately, this ends as you head autumn in September.. Instead,  you’ll get a chance to see the Northern lights if you’re lucky and the skies aren’t too cloudy 🙂

Ice caves- Depending on which ice caves you’re interested in, there may or may not be tours running in September. Ice cave tours are mostly available from November onwards (winter) when the temperatures are low, the water sources are completely frozen, and it’s safe for tours. However, if memory serves, there are a couple of glacier tours available through Extreme Iceland during September and October.

DSC_0911-2.jpg

No ice caves, but there’s always glacier hiking in Iceland!

I hope this little pre-trip guide has been useful for you! Let me know if the comments or contact me via email at thelollychase [at] gmail [dot] com if you have any feedback or questions. I’d be happy to help! 🙂

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