15 Helpful Iceland Travel Tips to Know Before Your First Trip

Kirkjufell Mountain in Iceland.

Iceland, the land of ice and fire, is a stunning country filled with jaw-dropping landscapes, adventurous experiences, and natural wonders. Iceland has gained popularity in recent years as a travel destination due to its highly publicized beautiful scenery. However, Iceland also has unpredictable weather, is expensive to visit, and has unique customs. Understanding what to expect before traveling to this incredible place will help create a perfect trip to Iceland. In this post, you'll find 15 helpful Iceland travel tips to know before your first trip. 

Back in 2010, I first heard about Iceland from a National Geographic documentary while watching cable. From that point on, Iceland became my number one bucket list destination. After over a decade of dreaming about it, I finally decided to make my dream come true and began planning an epic road trip through the country a year prior. Even after a year of research and planning, there were still things I wish I'd known before going to Iceland. I hope the travel tips I've listed below will make planning a trip to Iceland easier to have the perfect vacation to this awe-inspiring destination. 

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Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland, 15 helpful Iceland travel tips for your first trip.

15 Helpful Iceland Travel Tips to Know Before Your First Trip

Book Early 

The number-one most helpful tip when planning to travel to Iceland is to book your trip as early as possible. There are several reasons for this, the first being cost. The sooner you book accommodations, flights, and a car rental, the less expensive prices will be. I made hotel reservations about ten months before my trip and found the cost per night comparable to most U.S. hotels. In some cases, they were even lower in price. The same goes for flights and car rental. When checking pricing a few months before my trip, there was an astounding difference of hundreds of dollars.

Cost isn't the only reason to book early for Iceland. It's a small country with a population of less than 400,000 citizens, but received 1.7 million visitors in 2022. Thus, lodging options are limited outside the capital city. If you plan to explore outside of Reykjavik overnight, which I highly recommend, then secure your accommodations early before they sell out. If possible, book up to a year in advance. I would advise no later than six months out.

Budget Wisely 

No matter how early you plan or what deals you might grab, it is expensive to go to Iceland. Flights, accommodations, car rental, food, gas, and tours add up quickly. Booking early helps with the cost, but you'll still want to budget accordingly for all the expenses. How much a trip to Iceland will cost depends on how much you're willing to "rough it." Consider staying in camping sites and renting a camper van to save on lodging. If camping isn't your thing, book a hostel instead of a hotel to save money.

Luckily, most of the famous sites in Iceland are free, besides small parking fees. Yet, there are extraordinary tours available. Choose only the most important excursions for you, as these are pricey. I chose a glacier hike and the Blue Lagoon. Cook food rather than dining out and keep shopping to a minimum.

In full transparency, my trip to Iceland for two cost roughly $5500. I budgeted this number before my trip and included staying at a hotel each night, flights, rental car, tours, gas, groceries and food, and souvenirs. Going on an Iceland trip prepared with a budget will make a huge difference. 

Woman standing at the Dyrhólaey view in Iceland, 15 helpful Iceland travel tips on a first time trip.
My big splurge: a beautiful handmade Lopapeysa

Make an Itinerary 

Unless you’re lucky enough to travel throughout Iceland for several weeks or months, you should create an itinerary of what you want to see and do while visiting. Iceland is home to endless magnificent landscapes and sites, so you should plan ahead where you wish to go each day. It should include your must-see attractions, plus any additional spots you'd like to see if there's extra time.

Iceland itinerary, a helpful tip for a first trip to Iceland.
A snapshot of one day of my Iceland itinerary

An itinerary is also helpful for understanding the driving times and parking, potential fees, and crowd levels. Try to start your days early to avoid crowds. The difference between popular locations like Skógafoss or Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. is astounding. Overall, an itinerary will make for a smoother experience in Iceland, and it was one of the best things I did for my trip. 

Use Credit Cards

Without question, you'll want to use a credit card over a debit card or cash in Iceland. Debit card transaction fees are astronomical in foreign countries. Sometimes an additional hold is also placed when using them overseas. A credit card with a chip and PIN will have no issues in Iceland. These types of credit cards are widely used in Europe, while in America not so much. However, some banks allow you to request a PIN, including Chase.

It's important to note that you should make a PIN request a few weeks before your trip to Iceland to receive it in time. If your credit card company doesn't offer a PIN, then add your card to your Apple wallet. Apple Pay was easy to use in Iceland, and I didn't need a card with a PIN for it.

Don't Bring Cash

Once upon a time, it was standard custom to exchange money for foreign currency when traveling to a different country. Those days are long over with card technology and smartphones. I saw this, particularly in Iceland, where I didn't need cash anywhere, and it wasn't even accepted at certain places. So not only are U.S. dollars not accepted in Iceland, neither is their currency.

Rather than be hit with debit card transaction fees, I opted for Apple Pay, which was widely accepted. The only exception to this is at some gas stations, but otherwise, Apple Pay is used across the country. Leave the cash at home, and don't bother exchanging it. Otherwise, you'll come back home with unused Krona. 

Understand the Driving Speed Limit

While researching my trip to Iceland, I heard the speed limit was lower than what I was used to in America. Nevertheless, I still wasn't prepared for 50/55 kilometers an hour max throughout the towns and less developed roads. This is important to know as estimated GPS or Google Maps driving times aren’t accurate since it doesn’t factor in the speed limit. Estimate additional time for approximated commutes.

Lower driving speed limits might seem inconvenient, but it's there for your and other drivers' safety. Iceland chose this speed limit due to its extreme weather conditions, wildlife crossing roads, and road conditions. However, on major stretches of roads like Route 1, the speed limit is closer to 90 kilometers an hour. Prepare for these different speed limits to avoid getting a ticket because fees can add up quickly. No one wants that on their Iceland vacation. 

Iceland stop light, tip for driving in Iceland.
Adorable stop lights in Akureyri

Plan for Food and Groceries 

Before my trip, I understood that food in Iceland was expensive. I’d seen budget breakdowns and thought I knew what to expect. Boy was I wrong. Meals in restaurants are more costly than anything I’ve ever seen. Think $60 for some sandwiches, sides, and sodas. Food items in convenience stores and shops were also more expensive than anticipated. However, grocery stores like Bonus, Kronan, and Netto are more budget-friendly. Stock up on groceries in these stores whenever you can to save money. Gas stations also have cheaper food options like the famous Icelandic hot dog for a quick meal. If you plan to dine out at some restaurants plan ahead by checking menu prices online beforehand or download a currency converter to know what you’re spending. 

Icelandic hot dog, a tip to save money on a first time trip to Iceland.

Prepare for Unpredictable Weather

To say that Iceland’s weather is extreme would be an understatement, no matter what time of year you visit. Even during summer, the weather can rapidly shift in minutes from pouring rain with powerful winds to clear and sunny. In fact, during my trip in late August, I experienced periods of intense hail one morning and then had an afternoon of clear skies.

While winter in Iceland is colder than the summer, it's not by much. The average temperature in the winter is 32 degrees Fahrenheit and in the summer temperatures average between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. There's no bad time of year to visit Iceland as long as you come prepared for constantly changing weather. One of the most helpful tips when vacationing in Iceland is to check the weather forecast daily.

Dress in Layers

Since the weather changes quickly, layers are your friend when traveling in Iceland. In spring and summer, have a base layer, a mid-layer (generally fleece or wool,) and an outer waterproof shell. In fall and winter, stick to layers, but as the temperatures will be colder, you’ll want a waterproof down or insulated jacket instead of a simple shell. Consider wearing thermal bottoms and a fleece or wool base as well. Still, don't underestimate summer weather. One of my biggest regrets on my Iceland trip was bringing thin base layers. They didn't keep me warm enough. Vacationing in Iceland isn't a trip to skimp on the wardrobe for. Pack durable clothing to layer. 

Woman sitting on glacier chunk on Diamond Beach, 15 helpful Iceland travel tips for a first time trip.
Wearing three layers PLUS hat and gloves at Diamond Beach

Wear Waterproof Outer Shells and Shoes

Iceland's weather is unpredictable year-round, and heavy storms occur often and spontaneously. On my 8-day ring road trip, I encountered some form of rain every day. This alternated from brief showers that lasted minutes to on-and-off hail storms to a severe storm with near hurricane-like winds. Wearing a wind and waterproof shell jacket, waterproof pants, and waterproof shoes was essential to staying dry in these weather conditions.

Waterproof apparel is also necessary when visiting some of Iceland's famous waterfalls. You can get close to several popular waterfalls in the country, including Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, but be prepared to get soaked if you're not wearing waterproof layers. Packing waterproof apparel is one of the most helpful tips for a first-time trip to Iceland.

Seljalandsfoss behind the walls wearing waterproof clothing, a tip for traveling in Iceland.

Fill Up at Gas Stations and Buy Gas Cards

Outside of Reykjavik, Iceland's main attractions are far from one another, with nothing between them but the open road. This means there's also limited to sometimes no gas stations between stops either. Fill up your tank whenever you encounter a gas station unless it's already full since you don't know when you'll find the next one.

Another helpful tip for Iceland travel is to purchase gas cards in the city if you don't own a credit card with a chip and PIN. Most gas stations will accept major credit cards or Apple Pay without a large hold on your card, but not all. Especially the self-serve gas stations. Make sure to buy a few gas cards if you plan on driving the country to avoid getting stuck in a jam in the middle of nowhere. 

Open road in northern Iceland, a helpful tip for traveling in Iceland for the first time.

Install Iceland Apps

Before traveling to Iceland, a tip to prepare for your trip is to download a couple of apps to make your experience easier. Some apps are necessary, like Parka and EasyPark for parking in the city and at major tourist destinations throughout Iceland. And yes, unfortunately, both are needed if you're driving the ring road, as some places use Parka and some use EasyPark. Additional essential apps are those for weather, road closures, and safety alerts. Other apps like My Aurora Forecast and a currency converter aren't necessary but great to have.

This is a list of all the apps I used on my Iceland trip:

  • Vedur (Weather app)
  • SafeTravel (Road, weather, and hiking safety alerts) 
  • EasyPark (Parking app)
  • Parka (parking app) 
  • My Aurora Forecast (Northern Lights tracking app) 
  • Currency Converter (Converting Krona to USD app)
  • 112 Iceland (Icelands 911 equivalent app)
  • Færð & Veður (Road conditions app)
  • Google Maps (GPS while driving) 
Northern lights in Iceland, Iceland travel tips.

Check for Road Closures and Weather Alerts

Make sure to check the apps you downloaded for any potential road closures or weather conditions before driving Iceland's open roads. If you find a road is closed, see if there are alternative routes or pivot plans for the day. The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration is a great resource when navigating Iceland drives for the latest updates. 

While rain is common and generally a daily occurrence in Iceland, major weather storms should be monitored. If rain, wind, or snow looks too severe, consider staying local until it passes. The Iceland safety app will advise if you should stay off the roads due to the weather. Don't ignore official warnings. Wait it out to stay safe. 

Iceland's ring road before a rainstorm, 15 helpful Iceland travel tips for a first time trip.

Get Full Insurance on Car Rental 

I might have already mentioned how extreme the weather is in Iceland. Well, that will affect your rental car while driving through the country. Winds are known to be so powerful that they rip car doors off, sand and ash in a storm can damage a car's exterior, and accidents often occur during inclement weather or simply driving on gravel roads. Getting full insurance on a car rental is not only recommended, it’s necessary and the most helpful car rental tip I can give.

The last thing you want on your trip is to owe thousands in damages on a rental car due to no fault of your own. Most car rental companies offer insurance that will give you peace of mind while driving in Iceland. I used Blue Car Rental and found their package reasonably priced while also feeling protected. Don't skimp on the extra protection with a car rental in Iceland.

Download Offline Maps and Research Directions 

Car rental companies offer GPS, but that's costly in addition to the insurance and rental itself. This is why downloading offline maps beforehand is essential. Loss of cell service happens frequently in Iceland, especially on long stretches of road throughout the east coast and northern parts of the country. However, with offline maps, you’ll still have access to directions. 

A helpful tip for Iceland travel is to research any directions before hitting the road. Google Maps often chooses the shortest route possible without factoring in whether those roads are safe for driving. The Ring Road on Route 1 is safe for any vehicle, but Iceland also has F-roads. These are rough gravel roads meant for 4x4 vehicles.

Yet, it's not only F-roads that are unsafe for regular vehicles. For instance, I didn't research my drive from north Iceland to the Snaefallness Peninsula before traveling, and the path Google Maps chose was on Route 54. I assumed it was fine since it wasn't an F-road. Never assume in Iceland. There were long portions of gravel road where I had to travel 30 kilometers per hour. It was frustrating and then scary when a storm suddenly hit. Do your research beforehand to save yourself the headache. 

Rainbow with signs pointing to Route 54, Iceland travel safety tip for a first time trip.

Additional tip: If you want to explore the highlands, F-roads, or other gravel paths then you need to rent a 4x4 vehicle. 

Final Thoughts

Traveling to Iceland for the first time can feel overwhelming between all the information available and the planning needed. However, knowing these tips will make an Iceland trip a great experience you’ll never forget. Booking things early, making a basic itinerary with a budget, and preparing for the weather with an appropriate wardrobe will ensure easier travels. My final piece of advice is to remember to enjoy every second of the natural beauty that this beautiful country has to offer. There’s nothing else like it. 

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  • Maggie says:

    So many great tips here! I tried to book a last-minute trip to Iceland recently but it didn't work out. Hopefully planning farther in advance next time will save a lot of money!

    • Jillian says:

      Iceland is a difficult place to visit last minute, especially in terms of accommodations. Planning in advance will save money and give you plenty of time to plan a dream trip!

  • Kelly says:

    I've always wanted to visit Iceland! I loved reading all these useful tips for travelling to Iceland. I found this very helpful as someone who's never visited before. I'll be saving this post for a future trip. Thanks for sharing your recommendations!

    • Jillian says:

      I'm so happy to hear you found these tips helpful! I hope you get to visit soon!

  • Davindra Ramnarine says:

    Such a detailed post. You've got lots of stuff the average traveller won't think about. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jillian says:

      Thank you so much! There's a lot to know for a place like Iceland, and I hope these tips will help for future planning!

  • Debi Heil says:

    We followed all those tips and planned and booked everything more than 6 months in advance. It was myself, my daughter, son, daughter in law and 6 yr old granddaughter. We only switched 2 days because of weather and had an amazing trip and saw the Northern Lights from the deck of our air bnb. It was an awesome and memorable experience!

    • Jillian says:

      Booking everything in advance really makes the trip a much smoother experience! I'm so glad to hear what an amazing time you had and that you got to see the Northern Lights! There's really nothing else like it!

  • Martha Harvie says:

    Thank you for your tips. If you don't recommend cash what did you use for gratuities? We will be taking a land tour and NCl cruise.

    • Jillian says:

      Of course, I hope these help! And that's a great question! Tipping isn't customary or necessary in Iceland so cash still isn't required even for tours. On my glacier tour, tips weren't expected. However, I'm sure tour operators are ok with accepting tips for tours. I would tip in Krona rather than USD though. I hope you have an amazing time on your trip!

  • Melisa says:

    Thank you SO much for putting this together. It is the most comprehensive, yet concise advice I’ve seen. Very much appreciated!

    • Jillian says:

      I'm so glad you found it helpful! I try to provide as much detail with all the important info! Iceland is definitely a place you want to be prepared for.