Know before you go

14 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Iceland

Iceland is such a unique country with so much to offer, making it a bucket list destination for many. One thing that sets Iceland apart from other popular destinations is the conditions that are present; it is definitely more of a risky destination, but  you can make sure you are well prepared by planning for your trip and being aware of the conditions across the country. 

1. Fill up every time you pass a gas station

One thing about Iceland is that there aren’t that many gas stations in close proximity, so it’s really important to make sure you fill up pretty much every time you pass a station. It is especially important to keep your tank pretty full because the driving conditions can change instantly, and you may find yourself driving at 20 km/h in an extreme storm; in this case it can take you hours to get back, and you definitely don’t want to end up with an empty tank & stranded. 

When you drive along the south western coast, you will find quite a few gas stations and won’t need to worry; this is because it is the most traveled part of Iceland and is not that remote compared to the rest of the country.

2. The weather conditions can change extremely quickly 

I was shocked at how quickly the weather conditions changed in Iceland, in fact I didn’t even know it was possible for the conditions to change as quickly as they did. One second you would be driving and it would be completely calm, and the next *literal* second the rain would be torrential downpouring, imagine harder than any rain you’ve ever seen and so much of it you can’t even see outside. 

In this situation, I would recommend you be a really strong driver, and also confident driving in the snow and ice. I am from Canada and we get really bad snowstorms, but I have never experienced anything quite like iceland. As tempting as it is to rent a car, if you haven’t ever driven in the snow, I would not recommend renting a car in Iceland in the winter months. 

3. The hot water smells like farts

I’m not even joking! This one can be surprising if you’re not expecting it! It honestly isn’t bad, it’s just unique and will probably catch you by surprise. Not to worry though, the water is completely fine, it just has higher levels of sulfur hence the smell. On the other hand, the water in Iceland is some of the cleanest water in the world, so don’t worry about buying bottled water to drink. 

4. Alcohol is really expensive

Alcohol was very expensive in Iceland, with the average pint of beer being £8, which is more than London! It was also quite expensive at grocery stores. 

If you’re going to Iceland you’re likely going for its incredible scenery, so this shouldn’t hinder your plans too much. 

5. Gas is expensive 

My base line for gas was the Canadian prices, and they were known to be extremely pricey this year (2023) however Iceland was definitely more expensive! It was not that much more, but it definitely was more expensive; expect to pay £2.2/L.

6. Make sure you’re confident driving in treacherous conditions

As I mentioned above the conditions change instantly, this is one big factor you should take in when deciding whether to drive in iceland. In addition to this, be aware of the conditions throughout the country, in the winter especially. 

In most areas the roads are very narrow compared to the roads you’re probably used to; this makes it especially difficult when there’s ice on the road and it’s slippery as you don’t want to slide into the lane next to you. This is especially difficult when there’s so much snow you can barely see the road.

Additionally, there are many roads with lakes right next to them, and you especially don’t want to slip into them. When we drove back to Reykjavik from Jokulsarlon, we saw at least 5 cars in ditches along the way. 

There are also many one way bridges, however you can’t always tell if there is already a car on them, which can be stressful as well.

7. Use bathrooms as you see them when driving 

There are very few roadside stops in Iceland, so alike gas if you need to use the washrooms and you pass a place, your best bet is to stop. When we drove from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon, there were a couple small stations along the way that were literally a parking lot with a washroom for people to use in between areas with nothing else; of course you could go on the side of the road if you wanted.

8. It’s not as expensive as you think

I was putting off visiting Iceland for years because I was scared away due to the prices I had heard of, I was under the impression that it was like 5 times as much as it actually was. I live in London, and it is one of the more expensive European cities, and other than the prices of gas and alcohol I found it in general to either be on par or even cheaper! I honestly wouldn’t be scared away by the prices, and if you want to see for yourself just have a look for fun at hotels or Airbnbs. 

Food at the grocery store also was not expensive, I really didn’t notice a difference compared to London. 

9. It doesn’t get dark during the summer 

This one is more commonly known, but due to the location of this country it is bright for most of the summer. This can be great because you can in theory not be jet lagged at all, as you can continue on your current sleep schedule! You can also choose to visit all the destinations in the middle of the night and likely beat the tourist crowds. This one likely won’t have any negative impact, but it may be surprising if you’re not expecting it!

10. There are not that many hours of daylight in the winter

It’s not quite the opposite of summer, but you will for sure notice the increased darkness in the winter months. In peak winter the sun doesn’t rise until 11am and sets at 3pm, so you still; get daylight but not as much. Let me tell you, it was so weird driving at 9am and it still being dark!

If you do go in the peak winter months, you will likely want to plan your day so that you are back by the time it gets dark, as the darkness makes the driving conditions even scarier. 

11. You don’t really need cash

I didn’t even see what the cash looked like when I was in Iceland, which shows how much I used it! We paid for our car rental, accommodation, gas, and grocery store supplies all by card. The only thing I can think of that you may need cash for is a restaurant, but I also highly doubt it; you could always ask beforehand and if you’re in Reykjavik you’ll have no issues finding a restaurant that accepts card payment. 

12. Taxis are extremely expensive 

I fully expected them to be expensive, being Iceland, but I never thought I would have a 2 minute taxi ride that cost $20! We took a taxi from the rental car depot to the airport (which was literally across the street) and it was so expensive! So beware of this!

13. You don’t need to book a tour in order to see the northern lights 

I feel like most people don’t know this, but the tour companies actually don’t know exactly where the lights will be! What they do know is how to find the lights (which I will tell you how to as well) and based on that, they drive to the locations with the greatest chance of seeing the lights (as they are never guaranteed). Basically, you have to have an area without clouds (as the lights are higher than the clouds and so clouds block your view of the lights) and then there is the KP index which measures the strength of the lights in certain areas. I have a whole blog post dedicated to teaching you how to find the lights, that you can read here! 

14. You can do everything yourself 

If you feel comfortable driving in Iceland, I would 100% recommend you do so. First of all, the tours can get pricey, and if you want to see a few things, the prices of the tours will likely exceed the price of the rental car + gas, especially if you are a group of people all going together. The second reason is that when you have a car, you can see so many more things as you can stop wherever you’d like along the way! Ring road is the highway that wraps around Iceland, and it is extremely straightforward and easy to follow. If you can drive I would say you’d be completely fine in the summer; if you are going in the winter as I mentioned above, be wary of the snow and ice!

I hope this guide can help you to plan your trip to Iceland, as it is purely based on my experience while traveling Iceland myself! As always leave me your comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or experiences as well! And as always as well, sign up to my mailing list for a free trip itinerary each week!

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