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Ever since I lay my eyes on that magical image of the Blue Lagoon for the very first time – I always wanted to go to Iceland. And thanks to Icelandair, with their very competitive airfares (especially if booking in advance) that dream has finally became a reality this July, 2016.
I have to say, I’ve done a fair amount of research to prepare myself for this trip, including looking up the average temperature for the month of July, good (and affordable) places to stay and things to do, but as it turned out later all of that did very little to help me get ready for what was waiting ahead. I mean, I knew that a place where a Winter season normally lasts for 9-10 months would be… challenging for someone who’s used to the intense New York’s Summer heat – but how cold can it be really, it’s Summer after all, right? No. Wrong. Very wrong.
Iceland has been steadily rising in popularity among the average tourists and therefore there’s no more excuses for not knowing some basic things that will help you make your trip… as pain-free as possible. I have compiled my own list of things that I wish someone would have told me before I set my foot on this fairytale Icy-land. Don’t learn them the hard way, that is – read on.
1. Going in Summer? Pack your warmest clothes
If you think that packing a sweater and a light Spring jacket will do for Iceland in a Summer season – you are greatly mistaken. A Summer in Iceland is equivalent to a Winter in many other countries. Besides the head-smacking icy cold winds, the temperature in Iceland can change from warm, to somewhat ‘hot’, to freezing cold in the matter of… 10 minutes. So what should you pack then? Let’s see. A light Winter jacket, several sweaters, a pair of warm gloves, a scarf, and a warm hat to start with.
In case you forget one of those items at home – no worries, you can always buy them in Iceland. The cheapest hat and a pair of gloves that can be easily bought for $2-3 on a flea market in U.S. (not that I shop there, but this is how these items I had to purchase in Iceland looked) can be just as easily purchased in Iceland for $20-40 a piece.
When in doubt, always remember this good rule of thumb – it’s better to be overdressed and remove some pieces of clothing, than to be underdressed, freeze your ass, and get sick.
2. Book your ticket to the Blue Lagoon… At least a week in advance!
The tourism board of Iceland has been so successful in advertising the image of Blue Lagoon as the number one attraction in Iceland – that, well, it became the number one visited place. What does that mean for you then? It simply means that you need to book your ticket to this famous attraction before you depart to Iceland… unless you are not planning on visiting it. I met several tourists in Iceland that did not pre-purchase their tickets and had to pay double and triple the price, and in one case Blue Lagoon office had cancelled their ticket last minute, because of this high demand.
3. Be prepared to splurge
If you thought Singapore, Scandinavia, or even Switzerland would be expensive… wait until you come to Iceland. The prices in Iceland are simply ridiculous. An average sandwich costs $18-25, a small bowl of soup $15, a 200gm pack of dry fish $16-25, should I go on? The only way to visit Iceland on a budget and come back home without a negative balance on your credit, is to… shop in a supermarket (the most popular and ‘reasonably’ priced one is called Bonus) and to prepare meals at home.
By all means, do experience the nightlife in Iceland and go out for a pint of beer or two. Just look for the places with a happy hour deals – there’s plenty in Reykjavik.
4. Oh, those endless Summer days
This is one of the coolest things that I didn’t know about Iceland but it was a welcome change. For a brief period in Summer, from about the end of June to the beginning of August – the sun never sets and therefore the days never end. You can do your sightseeing for 24/7, if you’re running short on time that is. The reverse is also true for Winter – some months only see an hour or two of sunlight. Sigh.
5. Love fish? Good luck finding some.
If you didn’t know it yet, fishing is the main industry as well as the source of income for many Icelanders. If you think that you will only be eating fish while staying in Iceland – tough luck. The only fish that was readily available during my trip to Iceland, was a thin, raw salmon spread in a sandwich, a variety of (grossly overpriced) pieces of dry fish packed in small plastic bags, or the very popular import from England – the tasteless fish and chips.
There might be other seafood dishes available in some fancy seaport restaurants – but that is beyond the means of an ordinary tourist. P.S. If you can – try a small piece of shark, as this is the most popular Icelandic snack, especially followed by a shot of Brennivín.
6. Icelandair does not serve free food (or drinks)
When you step on board any Icelandair flight, you will be immediately greeted with a nice smile and a complimentary bottle of water. But that is as far as anything complimentary inside the aircraft goes.
Whenever I pay around $600-$700 for a 5-hour flight, I naturally assume that in case I get hungry lunch will be served (and I won’t have to pay for it). But this is not the case with Icelandair. Apparently, they are the self-proclaimed “low-budget” airline, with “high-budget” prices. Well, at least you don’t have to pay for the use of a lavatory… yet.
7. Don’t buy any tours in advance (except Blue Lagoon)
The tours are much cheaper in Iceland, and chances are you do not know about these local companies until the day you arrive to Iceland. You will find an (overwhelming) amount of brochures with different prices and tours all over Reykjavik. Save yourself some money by avoiding viator.com and getyourguide.com, as you will definitely need extra $$$ for Iceland. The difference between GYG and a local tour company in Iceland can be only $20, but hey it’s the price of a whole sandwich (here in Iceland)! Yep.
8. Shh, we are passing the homes of the trolls
“See that stone? It was once a troll. He used to live up in that hill. Once upon a time he didn’t make it home on time, and the first ray of sunlight turned him into that stone.”
It’s not a secret that many Icelanders still believe in elves, ghosts, trolls, and other supernatural creatures. On my first day we were passing an area in the deep of Iceland, when our guide lowered his voice and told us that for now he will keep quiet, as we were passing the homes of… hidden people. And he didn’t want to disturb them. Because if you do, they might curse you. And you will be damned.
Anyway, if you want to read a bit more about those wonderful folk stories of Iceland, that many still religiously believe in – I’d recommend to grab a copy of “Icelandic Folk Tales”, before you head to Iceland. It will help make your experience that much richer.
9. Bring your own breakfast
If you’re arriving to Iceland late in the evening, and then going on your first tour the very next morning, you are running a risk of going on an empty stomach, unless your hotel provides you with one. Unfortunately, most of the food markets and coffee shops open very late in Iceland.
The ‘normal’ business hours of the nearby food store that was close to where I was staying (only 15 minutes walk to the city center in Reykjavik) were 10am-6pm. Keep this mind if you’re also planning on food shopping on your first day in Iceland. My recommendation here would be to postpone any tours and reserve your first day for Reykjavik – to explore the capital, as well as do some necessary shopping .
10. Don’t take a taxi to or from the airport
If you’re arriving to the Keflavik International Airport, which is located on about 50-minute drive to Reykjavik, I would advise you to take a bus since the bus service is very efficient (and cheap) in Iceland.
I used Gray Line company, and had an excellent experience with them. Not only do they have a bus waiting outside, scheduled to depart 40 minutes after each flight, they will also deliver you right to your door (if staying in a hotel or a hostel), or to the nearby hotel/hostel if staying in a private apartment (i.e. airbnb). They will also pick you up from the same location on your departure day 3-3,5 hours before your flight and deliver you to the airport right on time. The price of this service? Only $20 (17 Euro) for a one-way trip. Plus, they have free wifi on board.
11. Stay as long as you can
Even though this beautiful island looks quite small on a map – don’t be fooled by its size as there is a LOT to see and explore. If you’re thinking that 3 days are enough to see everything that Iceland has to offer – you couldn’t be further from the truth. I would recommend to spend at least 10-14 days here to get the slightest understanding of what Iceland has to offer. Trust me, you will not regret any minute of it.
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Have you encountered any surprises in Iceland? If yes, please let me know about them below!