Imagine checking your email and reading this:
“Hi Howard, great news: As our initial winner will be unable to accept the prize, you’ve been chosen as the potential winner of the JohnnyJet.com-Icelandair contest.”
My reaction at winning roundtrip tickets for two to Iceland was as you would expect, turning a few cartwheels and bragging to all my friends. You see, the first time I entered a contest on JohnnyJet.com I had to write a blog post, and I lost. This time all I had done was enter my email address, and I won!
So earlier this year, my travel partner Jerry Woods and I enlisted Auto Europe and Hosteling International as additional sponsors for our weeklong drive around Iceland’s Ring Road. Our experiences in this island nation helped make Iceland our favorite destination to date. Now we would like to share with you a baker’s dozen of important things we learned on our trip that you should know before planning your trip to Iceland:
1. Nature on steroids
If you enjoy scenic beauty, get busy planning your Iceland visit today. Never will you see so many rugged mountain ranges, geysers, geothermal pools, volcanoes, fjords, and waterfalls packed into one postage stamp of Earth. As confirmed waterfall-chasers, we learned that in Iceland waterfalls chase you. You don’t have to look for them because you will discover new and unique water features around every bend. Surprisingly, Iceland has very few trees, a condition that has been attributed to deforestation by Viking settlers, over-grazing and extreme climate conditions. Even so, you will find roadside wildflowers, green grasslands and verdant valleys as far as the eye can see. Iceland does not disappoint!
2. Everyone speaks English
You will have no trouble communicating in Iceland because, like most European countries, English is everyone’s second language. And unless you have studied Icelandic, no one will understand your attempts at pronouncing its unique words in lengthy passages. Even so, you might want to learn a couple of phrases such as “góðan dag” (good day) and “takk” (thank you) to show you cared enough to try.
3. No cash needed
Because Iceland is not a member of the European Union, it does not use the Euro. The official currency of Iceland is the kroná. Like most international travelers these days, we typically head to an ATM soon after arrival to withdraw spending money in the local currency. Not so in Iceland. In fact, we did not use cash even once during our trip. Every business throughout the country readily accepts credit cards. Even when we visited Grafarkirkja, Iceland’s oldest turf church at its remote location, the attendant on duty met us with a handheld card reader to collect our entry fee. The one time we could have used cash was to buy hothouse tomatoes from an unattended farmstand at Deildartunguhver. In such cases you would need kroná because they do not accept dollars. Iceland is not a cashless society, but these days you really don’t need it.
4. A Ring Road trip is the best way to explore Iceland
Iceland is the ideal fly-drive destination. Although group tour packages will show you highlights of the country, you can explore Iceland on your own terms by renting a car and doing the driving yourself. The Ring Road, Iceland’s Route 1, is a national highway that completely encircles the island, making it the perfect way to see the country. The two-lane road is maintained throughout the winter and remains open except during times of extreme weather. Even then, Iceland’s road network makes it easy to navigate around closures. GPS has become a standard feature on most modern vehicles, but because Iceland’s roads are so well-marked, we soon learned we did not need it. In fact, the one time we did try to use it, the GPS took us on a wild goose chase. You will discover many of Iceland’s scenic treasures situated directly along the Ring Road, but you can easily take side trips to off-the-beaten-path locations when you are the one behind the wheel.
5. There is no ice in Iceland
Shocking, I know, but it is true! Although the island nation is populated with snowcapped mountains, glaciers and icebergs, you will be hard-pressed to find ice for sale, even at Iceland’s popular roadside gas stations. As roadtrippers, Jerry and I typically carry along a cooler in the cargo hold for picnic items and beverages. This is no easy task in Iceland, but if you plan ahead, you can make it happen. For starters, bring a collapsible cooler in your luggage. If you plan to purchase liquor, buy it at the Duty Free store before exiting Keflavík International Airport. Alcohol is extremely expensive in Iceland’s restaurants and bars, as well as at the state-run Vinbudin liquor stores. When you are ready for ice, take a plastic bag to the front desk of a local hotel, and they will gladly fill it from their icemaker for free.
6. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere
Iceland is a wired country, and virtually every business or institution offers free Wi-Fi. Even roadside gas stations on remote stretches of highway throughout Iceland can hook you up. As online influencers and social media junkies, staying connected is our lifeblood, but in Iceland there was no need to rent a portable hotspot. We were free to enjoy our scenic drive around the country without distraction because we knew we could catch up online when we reached the next town.
7. Eat at gas stations
The most economical way to eat while roadtripping Iceland is at gas stations, and you will find the food to be surprisingly delicious! Although there are a few fast food chains in major cities, McDonald’s ceased operation there in 2009. So what type of food can you order at gas stations? In addition to Iceland’s famous hot dogs, we especially enjoyed the toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and ice cream. Some of the larger convenience stores have extended menus that include pizza and hamburgers. Most gas stations are not open 24 hours, so don’t plan on eating a breakfast ham and cheese until after 9 am. One candid Icelander we met along the way explained it this way: “Icelanders like to party late, and get up at noon.”
8. Hostels are great budget accommodations
Lodging, like most travel-related expenses in Iceland, can get expensive. We found that hostels provide the most versatile and affordable accommodations available. Known traditionally for their shared spaces and youthful clientele, hostels now offer private spaces and are open to travelers of all ages. Many hostels include breakfast with your stay, in addition to a community kitchen should you prefer to cook your own meals. Because we stayed at a different hostel every night while driving around the country, there was no need to book luxury accommodations. We stayed in a former hospital, on a farm, and in an ultra-modern renovated industrial building, each hostel with its own unique history, personality, and charm.
9. Expect to get naked
Iceland is famous for its natural thermal springs, and every town has at least one public pool. Swimming, soaking and bathing are an integral part of the national culture. What many travelers do not realize is that in order to participate in these forms of recreation while visiting Iceland, one must first strip down and soap up before putting on a swimsuit and entering the pool area. It is true that Europeans have different standards of modesty. That said, they don’t concern themselves much with American inhibitions, and simply put, skipping the shower is not an option. For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who grew up with gang showers in high school, college and at the Y, this may be a non-issue, but for modest Millennials who grew up during an age of political correctness, it may invoke trepidation and fear. My best advice…get over yourself, accept Icelandic culture for what it is, and take the plunge!
10. Here there be horses
If you are animal-lovers like us, Iceland’s wildlife will put you in your glory. Although we did not see any reindeer or arctic foxes on our week-long drive, we did see whales, seals, puffins, swans, geese, and many more varieties of birds. Based on our observation, even Iceland’s domestic animals could be categorized as wild, meaning that fences to them are mere suggestions. It is a good idea while driving to always keep a keen eye out for stray flocks of sheep and goats, and my personal favorite, Icelandic horses. Herds of these short-statured multi-colored horses with furry coats and windblown manes populate the roadside pastures. Because they have no natural enemies, they don’t fear man, and they will walk right up to you or your car window, especially if you have a treat in hand. In anticipation of feeding the horses, we had bought a bag of carrots so we would be prepared. Imagine our surprise later when the horses sniffed the carrots as if they did not know what they were. Later we learned that Icelandic horses like bread, not carrots.
11. Seasons change
We visited Iceland during the first week of June, and we thought the weather perfect. With high temperatures in the 50s and 60s, the island nation was in major snowmelt, making the ever-present waterfalls even more powerful than normal. Because Iceland’s weather is always unpredictable, dressing in layers is key. Our standard wardrobe was jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and hoodies. Although Iceland has relatively mild winters due to the warm currents of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, you would be wise to pack a heavy coat, scarf, knit cap, and perhaps long underwear if you are cold-natured. The benefit of 24-hour daylight in the summer months means extended time for sightseeing and other activities, but you might want to bring along a sleep mask if you require darkness to fall asleep. During the winter months there are only three to four hours of daylight, but the upside is that you will have the opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Because the Aurora Borealis is always active, you have a great chance to see the lights if you find yourself away from the cities on dark nights with clear skies.
Icelandic people are some of the kindest and most helpful people we have met in our travels. From giving directions to talking about their country to chipping ice for you in the back room when they have none for sale, Icelanders treat travelers with the utmost respect. I learned one of the most telling details about Icelandic culture in a magazine article explaining why they do not post many signs or barriers around their natural wonders. Simply put, “We trust your common sense.”
To encourage travel to their country, Icelandair initiated the stopover on flights between North America and Europe in the 1960s. For no additional airfare, you can stop over in Iceland for up to seven days with no additional airfare on flights between 16 US/Canada destinations and 27 European destinations. If you have a transatlantic trip in the works, a stopover in Iceland may be the perfect opportunity for you to visit this unique island nation.