Things to Know About Iceland Before You Go

Just another set of stunning waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland is a beautiful country in a raw, powerful way. I visited for two weeks and thought I’d done my homework. But as with every trip, you learn something, some of which you really would have liked to know beforehand.

These 10 things to know about Iceland before you go are things I learned on the ground. I think they’ll help you keep your expectations in check, avoid disappointment and in turn have a great holiday.

The black sand beaches of Iceland
The black sand beaches of Iceland

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I will receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support.

Things to know about Iceland – there are crowds in the off-season

Our trip to Iceland was planned for the last two weeks of May as the rates for hotels – and car rentals go up on June 1st and stay up into September. Truly I was wowed with how full the parking lots were and how many people were at the major attractions – even on a rainy day in the off-season.

Remember – Iceland now receives triple the visitors it did in 2000, adding up to more than a million visitors per year as of 2015. That’s over three times the population of the country. Expect crowds, especially along the Golden Circle route.

Visitors at Pingvellir National Park at the end of the day
Visitors at Pingvellir National Park at the end of the day

It’s always windy in Iceland

I knew it was going to be windy in Iceland. What I hadn’t bargained for was the strength of the wind or the fact that it NEVER let up. Wind wears you down. It’s tiresome after a while.

On the bright side it did keep the midges at bay in the Myvatn area. But beware when you’re driving. You will always need two hands on the wheel.

At the top of a volcano in the Myvatn region it is so windy that if you open your mouth, your saliva blows out!
At the top of a volcano in the Myvatn region it is so windy that if you open your mouth, your saliva blows out!

There’s a lot of inclement weather 

We were actually very lucky and had only about a day of rain in total over two weeks. But we were in Iceland in May – the driest month of the year. So go prepared with good quality rain gear. Take something to protect your camera equipment too. Ziploc bags come in handy.

While rain and wind may not ruin your trip, the scenery is never as beautiful and it can be downright miserable slogging along in the rain. If you know what to expect, then every sunny day is a bonus.

One of the things to know about Iceland is that it's not nearly as pretty in the rain - & it can rain a lot
One of the things to know about Iceland is that it’s not nearly as pretty in the rain – & it can rain a lot

Things to know about Iceland – expensive but the food is great

You’ve all heard that Iceland is expensive. And I knew it too but I didn’t really realize just how expensive it was until I got there. For an average hotel room (nothing fancy) we paid anywhere between $Cdn 150 and $Cdn 250 a night. Fortunately rooms come with breakfast.

What you won’t find in any room is Kleenex or conditioner, only shampoo and soap unless you’re in Reykjavik.

Meals are super expensive. We didn’t eat at gas stations or fast food places to save money but entrees that would be $Cdn 28 – 38 in Calgary would be double the price in Iceland. The good news – the food is excellent, exceptional really especially the fish and the lamb. The local beers are also memorable.

For a look at some of the local specialties you might encounter read The Kavey Eats Guide to Icelandic Food before you go.

A fresh cod burger with local beer
A fresh cod burger with local beer

Car insurance – what do you really need?

Most people from North America arrive in Iceland in the wee hours of the morning when your thinking is foggy and decision making isn’t at its finest.

Once you get to the rental car facility you’ll be faced with questions regarding how much to spend on insurance – and that can amount to the cost of the rental itself. Know what you want in advance of your arrival. Before you leave home check to see what is covered with your car insurance.

One of the things to know about Iceland is what insurance you really need. We paid extra for ash and sand insurance (lumped as one) and windshield replacement insurance. In hindsight, I would only add the windshield replacement insurance unless I was planning to travel widely in the interior. There is a lot of gravel on the roads so it would be very easy to have a broken windshield and a replacement runs around $1000.

Also check to see what kind of roads your vehicle is permitted on. Not all cars are allowed on “F” roads.

We found having a paper copy of a map of Iceland came in very handy, especially to get the bigger picture.

Our vehicle - which was allowed to go on "F" roads
Our vehicle – which was allowed to go on “F” roads

Roads are narrow and distances can be misleading

Be prepared for narrow roads. Our vehicle – which was allowed to go on “F” roads, are winding roads without any shoulder to speak of. None. Driving here is hard work and requires your concentration, especially around big trucks.

If you get off the Ring Road there’s a good chance you’ll be driving on dirt/gravel roads. Although most are in good shape you do need to reduce your speed – and watch for sheep.

Despite what Google Maps might tell you, it will take you longer to get to your destination that you would think. Part of it is because of the number of beautiful scenes you’ll be passing – and you’ll have to stop. Trust me. 

But there are long stretches where you can’t go very fast. Most of the bridges – and there are lots – are just one lane so you need to be alert and ready to pull over in an instant. One day with stops it took us eight hours to go 400 km.

Standard road in the Westfjords
Standard road in the Westfjords

Watch your speed 

We got an email from our car insurance company – Sixt, within 24 hours of getting caught speeding. In the first instance, it happened to my friend who was driving all of 9 km/hour faster than the posted signs in the tunnel on the way to Egilsstadir.

We still don’t know what the police fine is but we do know that Sixt immediately charges us 30 Euros for the transgression. Be extra careful of your speed on the Ring Road.

My husband was at the wheel the second time but was probably looking for birds and not at road signs warning of radar ahead. That was a big “duh” but there goes another 30 Euros and who knows how much for the ticket itself. It’s a great money maker for Iceland. On the secondary roads, wandering sheep will keep you honest.

You'll see more sheep than people in Ireland
You’ll see more sheep than people in Ireland

Where are the Icelandic people?

If you had lived a quiet life up until the last few years, one that outside of Reykjavik involved farming or fishing, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be thrilled with the onslaught of humanity that is visiting your country. I think that’s what has happened in Iceland. Aside from the occasional very friendly hotel worker, none of our group of four felt any connection to the Icelandic people.

The message we were picking up was that they tolerated us – but kept us at a distance. They know tourists are helping the economy and employing people but there’s a price to be paid. I get it.

And maybe I’m wrong but I sure didn’t come back with warm and fuzzy feelings about the people – whereas I would say the exact opposite after my trip to Turkey in October. Maybe solo travelers fare better; maybe we’re the anomaly. But I’m guessing not.

Wi-Fi is generally excellent

Iceland is one wired country – and it’s free everywhere. There was only one hotel in the Westfjords area that didn’t have WiFi and really it was a treat to get away from it. You will have no trouble keeping in touch with friends and family.

Lonely churches with a view in the Westfjords area
We found WiFi in all but the most remote places

Gas and food planning

There are long stretches with no services in Iceland. Be sure to keep an eye on your gas tank – and don’t take chances. Fill up at any opportunity. The same goes for groceries. Carry snacks and water in the car as it can be many hours between stores.

Buying gas is a little different in Iceland. We used the N1 stations as they seemed to be the most common. The first time we went to fill up we put in our Visa but it wouldn’t work – and our Icelandic is non-existent so we couldn’t understand what the machine was telling us. After a half dozen tries, it was off to talk to a human.

What we learned is that you must buy a gas card for a specific amount of Icelandic Kroner. We’d buy the equivalent of a $100 card at a time.

The difficulty lies in the return of your rental car if it’s to be full. You either have to second guess how much to buy in gas cards (and they only come in certain denominations) or you have to find a gas station in Keflavik that will actually allow you to pay after you’ve filled up. Good luck.

Near Dyrholaey Nature Preserve - along with miles of black sand
Near Dyrholaey Nature Preserve – along with miles of black sand

Iceland’s beauty will blow you away

Don’t be disappointed when you drive out Keflavik – where the airport is located. This part of the country looks like the moon – desolate and bleak, and you may wonder what you’ve got yourself into. Keep going. It just gets better and better.

Another look at Dettifoss with all the cool patterns in the snow
It’s definitely worth the side trip to Dettifoss

Further reading about things to do in Iceland

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

10 things to know before your first visit to Iceland







  1. I would say your experience pretty much matches ours – except we went there to hike the Laugavegur trek and thus brought our tent, which then also allowed us to camp throughout our trip – saving lots of money on hotels (and meals). Others have rented camper vans that seem fairly comfortable and convenient (although I’m not sure they’re allowed on the F roads). When we went out for dinner the food was delicious (but yes, very expensive) – and the lamb (especially the soup) was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. We did fully insure the car and I still feel it was a good decision (if only for a peace of mind). Prior to the trip I came across too many stories of people getting charged $1000-2000 for the sand and pebble damage after their trip. Our car was in great shape but the side-mirror casing was damaged by a pebble/stone during a prior rental, and thus missing – so it happens, on a couple of occasions we experienced winds that literally shook the car from side to side (and there were signs warnings trailers to get off the road or exercise extreme caution), and on one occasion the wind was strong enough to pick up sufficient sand and ash to blast car paint off…luckily we left that area just the day prior but I was glad to have coverage (and $200 extra seemed like a small price to pay). We also used mostly N1 gas stations with prepaid cards, but I think there’s at least one station that allows you to pay with a credit card (so we didn’t have to estimate for our last fill-up). They are unforgiving when it comes to speeding and driving after drinking (it does make sense given the narrow roads, lack of shoulders and surroundings). I think the advice of keeping your expectations in check is wise. There are many gorgeous places in Iceland (e.g., Laugavegur trek is one of the best treks I’ve done), but Iceland is getting crowded (and infrastructure is struggling to keep up) and the weather can get gloomy and rainy at times (sometimes with very low dark clouds, given the geographical location of the country). I do have a lot of respect for the people who chose to settle there and tried to make a living – it wasn’t easy for sure. To prospective travelers, I would say do go but do your research to be better prepared and to have a better appreciation and understanding of the country.

    1. Very sage advice IK. I think we all are smitten with the photos of the landscapes not always appreciating the fact that the locals are being over run and their island turned into something they perhaps don’t like. I have seen photos of the hike you did and it looks positively splendid. Maybe one day yet. I’d also like to do the Arctic Circle hike in Greenland.

  2. Great info – thanks. We are hoping to get there in the next few years, but I have to admit that you put a bit of a damper on my excitement. Good to know though.

    1. @Cindy Sorry. I rate it as 6.5/10 whereas a Turkey trip in the fall was a 9/10. The scenery truly is outstanding but too much car time and the expense of a visit puts a damper on a trip.

  3. Excellent post with fantastic tips. I went in 2004 in August and it was amazing. The first day was t-shirt weather and the sun shined every day but one. There were little crowds then and there was also no snow like I’ve seen in your IG pics. I loved it. It was expensive then so I can only imagine now. I agree though with the onslaught of tourism it is good and also a little hard. Places get overwhelmed with tourists. Can’t wait to see more pics. That was the one thing that I am disappointed about. I wasn’t really into photography when I went so have nothing to share!

    1. @Nicole Many of my trips from the past have useless photos so I don’t end up writing about them as a result. Can you image the difference in 12 years of tourism? I bet you wouldn’t recognize some of the sites. Iceland is beautiful but best to have expectations in check before you go.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop