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Travel Tips for Iceland

Published
October 25, 2021
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IF you catch a plane to Iceland, the airport at which you will most likely arrive is Keflavík International Airport, on the Reykjanes Peninsula near the capital city of Reykjavík. This is the airport that I arrived at in Chapter One. Three other airports, Reykjavík, Akureyri and Egilsstaðir also take international flights. But unless you are coming in from Greenland or the Faroe Islands, it is a near certainly that your plane will be scheduled to land at Keflavík.

Tourists generally explore Iceland by way of three circular routes. One of them extends right around the main island, and that was the route I took.

The second, but most popular, is a 300-kilometre (186 mile) route starting and ending in Reykjavík, called the Golden Circle, which takes in the city plus three more of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. These are, in alphabetical order:

Gullfoss (foss means waterfall in Icelandic). Photo by Andreas Tille, 30 July 1998, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Þingvellir gets its name from the fact that Iceland’s parliament, the Althingi, which in Icelandic is written Alþingi first met at the place that would thereafter be known as Þingvellir, in the year 930.

But Þingvellir does not draw the tourists for that these days, so much as for the fact that it is where the great mid-ocean rift that divides Iceland is most visible, including the crystal-clear dive site known as the Silfra Fissure, which continues the rift underwater and which is quite cheap to dive near the surface by snorkel, though scuba divers can go deeper.

The third circular route is the 250-kilometre or 155-mile Diamond Circle, which takes in some of the attractions of the north-east, and which you might do without venturing further afield if you landed and departed in the north-east, which is trying to develop as a tourism region independent of the Reykjavík area and its Golden Circle. Sights on the Diamond Circle include, in alphabetical order once more,

I ended up doing several of these in the course of my ring-route exploration, in any case.

The places I have just listed are only some of the best-known of Iceland’s many incredible attractions. And, in this book, I certainly don’t mention everything you could possibly see. Instead, I have listed some sources of information further on in this chapter so that you can do your own research, which I firmly recommend. Not to mention, consulting detailed tourism handbooks of the Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Rough Guide variety. You really don’t want to unwittingly go past something in Iceland, especially on a road trip!

One of the latest attractions, whereby you can take in many of the sights at once, is FlyOver Iceland: flyovericeland.com. This is a virtual flight over many of the most scenic parts of Iceland, displayed on a wraparound screen and with tilting seats and wind and scents that make it feel like you are in a plane, made more exciting by the fact that a lot of the footage is filmed from drones shooting through perilous places no aircraft with people inside could actually go. FlyOver Iceland is based on the Reykjavík waterfront.

One of the advantages of taking in a virtual trip like that of FlyOver Iceland is that the weather in Iceland is very changeable and wet, so that when you get to some famous scenic destination, it might be misted out or snowing.

Before the name Iceland was settled upon, the country was also known as Snaeland, meaning land of snow!

Iceland in Winter: NASA public domain image via NASA Earth Observatory

(Iceland has many alternative names, of which Snaeland is just one. Another favourite of mine is Garðarshólmi, Garðar’s Island, after the person the sagas name as the leader of the second Viking-era expedition to Iceland.)

Along with lots of ice and snow even in comparatively calm weather, the country is susceptible to terrible storms as well, similar to hurricanes even though it is a long way from the warm waters in which hurricanes usually form. In another interesting NASA photograph, you can see the edge of neighbouring Greenland marked out as a dark line through the edge of one such storm, which looks like something out of The Day After Tomorrow.

‘Low off Iceland’: NASA public domain image (photographed 4 September 2003), via NASA Visible Earth.

The strait between Iceland and Greenland is one of the stormiest and windiest places in the world, and the bad weather often spills over onto the land. Which is bad enough: but imagine being in a Viking longship halfway between Iceland and Greenland when something like that brewed up — I think the voyage would have ended in Valhalla!

Not surprisingly, then, the roads in Iceland can be treacherous, what with high winds, bad weather, ice, snow, and dust, and on top of that, wild animals and livestock wandering about, the chief hazard being that you may run into them.

Another peculiar hazard is that of the volcanic dust storm, also known as a sandstorm or ash storm. This can happen in many places, but is most likely to be serious on the south coast. In Chapter Five, I talk about an encounter with one such storm.

It pays to get Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP) insurance for any vehicle you rent because, apart from the risk of being blown off the road or having a door wrenched off or window blown in, such a storm may also sandblast the paintwork and glazing on your rental. This kind of insurance may be covered in your rental agreement but it is best to check in any case. And also to follow the weather forecasts carefully for wind warnings.

The ring route around the main island, and the roads near Reykjavík, are quite good, but the roads into the interior are generally rougher, only to a four-wheel drive standard in places, and often closed in winter as well. Unless you are a local acquainted with the back country, it generally does not pay to try and take a shortcut through the middle of Iceland.

A further reason to avoid random journeys into the interior is that mobile phone coverage is patchy to non-existent once you get into remote areas.

The gnarly conditions that exist across much of the country probably explain why so many tourists stick close to Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. All the same, if you do the big road trip around the country like I did, you come across lots of interesting things that you would never see on the usual tourist trail! And you won’t be bothered by too many other tourists either.

To continue, in Iceland, it pays to submit your travel itinerary with someone who will make sure that you will be searched for if you don’t turn up. The SafeTravel App and website are one such place where plans can be submitted. Details of these are furnished below.

The emergency phone number in Iceland is 112, and there is also an app based on this number where you can just push a virtual button.

It also pays to get a local SIM card for your mobile phone, although some European plans also work in Iceland without roaming charges. There are three local mobile phone providers of which, according to the website of the tour operator Intrepid Travel, for which I provide details below, Siminn apparently provides the widest coverage in remote areas as of the time of writing (2021).

You can pick up a local SIM on arrival at Keflavík International Airport, and presumably also at the other airports of international arrival.

In case you don’t want to go by road (there are no railways in Iceland), there is also a very rich network of domestic air routes, with just about every corner of the country having a domestic airport, A full list of Icelandic airports and air routes is provided on the website of Iceland’s air transport authority Isavia: Isavia.is.

The currency used in Iceland is the Icelandic Króna, which appears as ‘kr’ on shop signs, and is currently worth a little over one New Zealand cent or a little less than one US cent. Posted prices in ‘kr’ are thus not as expensive as they look! Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted as of the time of writing, as are Euro and US dollar notes in some city businesses, but Icelandic paper money is a good idea for remote areas. (Source: Icelandontheweb.com)

Useful apps for Iceland, mostly free or freemium, include:

(Sources, with more information, include: Hostel.is and Whatson.is)

Some useful general websites include:

CellMapper: cellmapper.net. Useful for getting a map of Iceland’s mobile phone coverage.

Guide to Iceland: guidetoiceland.is. This website includes an accommodation page, among other tourist information.

Iceland on the Web: icelandontheweb.com. Another useful tourism website.

Hostelling International Iceland: hostel.is

SafeTravel: safetravel.is. Advises of travel hazards and is also a website where you can submit your travel plans, so that people will look for you if you don’t turn up.

What’s On: whatson.is Entertainment guide.

Road information website: road.is Useful for closures and related information.

Bus services: straeto.is/en

Tour operator websites include:

Arctic Adventures: adventures.is. Tour operators and providers of further useful travel information.

Fun Iceland: funiceland.is. Travel, tours and car booking, with an interesting blog as well.

Hey Iceland: heyiceland.is. This site describes travel, tours (including self-driving tours, activities, and accommodation, with an emphasis on out-of-the-way areas.

Icelandic Mountain Guides: mountainguides.is. I used this firm when I was in Iceland (see Chapter 5).

Intrepid Travel: intrepidtravel.com/en/Iceland. Tour operators and providers of further useful information.

Lastly, also, the curiously named firm I rented my car from, namely, SADcars: sadcars.com.

These lists are surely not exhaustive!

You can also book accommodation in Iceland with Booking.com as well as other general travel and accommodation websites and apps such as Airbnb.

When it comes to medical matters, you must have proper travel health insurance.

Apart from that, my loyal travel companion was my medical kit, which along with sticking plasters, bandages and scissors contained the diarrhoea stopper loperamide, some ciprofloxacin antibiotics, packets of Gastrolyte rehydration solution and Tramadol, Tiger Balm, Vaseline for dry skin, tea tree oil, iodine and bandages, and, finally, plain old paracetamol. Not exactly a romantic set-up, but realistic, nonetheless.

And also, be up to date with vaccinations before you go, travel insurance of every kind, and travel advisories.

Lastly, when it comes to Covid restrictions, Iceland was a leader in controlling the outbreaks in 2020, without going so far as to lock down the country and eliminate the virus, as the Icelanders felt that their tourism industry was too important for that. Iceland played a large part in the development of the technique of analysing the different strains so that chains of transmission could be nailed down to point of knowing exactly who gave the disease to whom.

Of late, like a lot of places, Iceland has had an outbreak of the Delta strain, and is struggling to contain that as well, as of the time of writing, though if anyone is going to get on top of things it will probably be the Icelanders.

For more, see: a-maverick.com/blog/world-travel-tips

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website a-maverick.com.

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