Tips for Planning a Winter Trip to Iceland
Have you ever wanted to see the Northern Lights?
Walk on a glacier or explore an ice cave?
Hike up a crater?
Head to Iceland in winter for the trip of a lifetime.
As I mentioned in my first Iceland post about the Northern Lights, Dan and I booked a last minute trip to Iceland in January to go hunt the illustrious natural phenomenon. While the Northern Lights were our main attraction to the country, the pictures of the blue ice cave sealed the deal for me.
Iceland is called the land of fire and ice for a reason. A country of extremes, the island is a juxtaposition in itself with glaciers located next to volcanoes and the most unpredictable weather patterns. You can expect to experience huge wind, ice, rain, snow, and sunshine all in one day.
While Iceland has become an extremely popular destination over the last few years, I struggled to find high quality information on how to plan a trip to Iceland in the winter if you DON’T want to a rent a car. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good road trip and the freedom a car allows, but after reading a number of weather-related horror stories, I decided driving wasn't worth the stress or the risk. A trip to Iceland in the winter looks completely different than one in the summer because many parts of the country are inaccessible due to ice and snow. I wanted to leave it to the experts to show me their country.
In this post, I’m going to share my top tips for planning a trip to Iceland in the winter including recommendations for tour companies if you want to take the non-driving route as well. Get ready to be blown away by the gorgeous country and I apologize in advance if I have you running to search for flights ASAP. I don’t blame you.
Let me start by saying how I landed on our itinerary. I literally went through Instagram, Travel+Leisure, blog posts, and Condé Nast Traveler to find all the places I wanted to see, made a list, and then starred them on Google Maps to see if we could hit them all in 4.5 days. And luckily we did! This itinerary encompassed everything on the list and was the perfect amount of time to experience the south coast. The only place we didn't get to was the famous plane crash at Sólheimasandur because it's now forbidden to drive up to and you have to walk 4km to get there...you can thank Justin Bieber for that one. If you want to go to the north, you’ll need to add another 2-3 days. You could also swap out or add a day of snowmobiling or riding Icelandic horses.
Day 5: Snæfellsnes Peninsula with Goecco
One thing I must point out is that this itinerary is not for the faint of heart and is actually quite aggressive. Dan and I would wake up at 7am every day and not get to bed until 1-2am because we would be out late searching for the Northern Lights. I highly recommend Happyworld for their Northern Lights tour. Find my full guide HERE! You may want to add a day in between the Golden Circle and South Coast tours to relax and enjoy Reykjavik. Or you could be like us and go big and sleep when you get home! The one good thing is that you can nap for the first hour or so of each tour because it’s dark until 10:30am in the winter.
In later posts, I will go into detail on what you’ll see each day. Stay tuned!
When to Go
You may be thinking, you've already told us this post highlights a winter itinerary. And you are correct! That being said, there are better times to go than others. We went in January with pretty terrible weather (we never let that stop us!) and very little daylight. If you want to see the Northern Lights and visit the ice cave, our guides all recommended March as the best time to go because you'll have the maximum amount of daylight, plenty of darkness for the lights, and the caves are still accessible. Plus, the weather usually clears up a bit!
5 Reasons to Go With a Tour Company
I'll preface this section by saying, if you want to drive and feel comfortable doing so, be my guest as there are a ton of benefits to exploring on your own. However, having gone through the decision myself I wanted to outline why I opted to pay the extra money for small-guided tours.
- Weather - rain, hail, icy conditions, snow...you name it, Iceland gets it. Plus, the weather changes so quickly, you won't see it coming. We were driving through a mountain pass one day and it was sunny and the next minute we had zero visibility in the snow. I am not exaggerating! And one of the worst offenders is the wind. There are signs all over the country that give you the speed and direction. There were a couple times where we almost didn't drive because of the numbers. If you do drive, please make sure you understand the signs before going out. Make sure to check out Iceland's top road assistance website and the app with road conditions, Veðrið.
- Roads Close - yup, on a moment's notice because of the weather and you won't know until you get there. There aren't alternative routes in Iceland, so you may get stuck somewhere for the night.
- Learn from the Experts - the Icelandic people are very proud and knowledgeable about their country. Let them show you why they love it so much! Plus, they've got a great sense of humor and love sharing stories about crazy fireworks over Christmas, the insane Icelandic Santa Clauses, troll folklore, and the book of Icelanders.
- Long Days - you are going to be exhausted on this trip. I couldn't imagine driving after so many activities. In fact, Dan and I would always fall asleep on the way back to our accommodation. Better to be safe than sorry.
- Enjoying the Scenery - yes, you could say this one as an excuse for all road trips, but I really mean it for Iceland. The driver will miss out on the scenery because she will need to focus on driving during the crazy weather. You won't want to miss it because you visit Iceland for the gorgeous landscapes!
Where to Stay
You’ll want to have a home base in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city in Iceland. Most tour companies offer pick-up and drop-off from different areas in the city. I do not recommend going crazy with your accommodation because you won’t have much time to spend inside relaxing. We stayed at a great Airbnb a block away from Hallgrim’s Church. It was the perfect location to meet our tours as well as walk to restaurants.
We spent one night on the south coast at Goecco’s guest cabin. A traditional Icelandic dinner and accommodation are included in the tour. Such an amazing experience!
Where to Eat
I personally don't think it's worth splurging on a decadent meal in Iceland. We went to the supposedly "best" restaurant (Grillmarket) and it was beyond expensive and way overrated. Here are a few recommendations for cafés and light meals.
> Reykjavik Roasters - great coffee with two locations in the city
> Brauð & Co. - amazing bread and pastries, plus they're open early! Also serve Reykjavik Roasters coffee.
> Gló - a solid choice for a fast and healthy lunch or dinner. Great vegetarian options.
> The Laundromat Cafe - we didn't make it here because of our busy schedule, but was on a lot of lists. Wish we had gone here instead of Grillmarket, honestly. Let us know if you go!
I also want to pass on two recommendations from one of our amazing guides. I only wish we had known about them sooner. You know I'll be checking them out when I head back to Iceland for a summer trip.
> Restó - if you're looking for great seafood
> Kef Restaurant - if you're looking for an excellent meal in Keflavik (near the airport)
Traveling to and from the airport
The airport is located in Keflavik, about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik. Taxis are very expensive, so I recommend booking a transfer either with one of the large bus companies, such as Reykjavik Excursions, or a semi-private transfer. Plus, you should plan on visiting the Blue Lagoon upon arrival on your way to Reykjavik or on your way back to the airport. (More details can be found here!) Reykjavik Excursions also offers transfers to Blue Lagoon and then to Reykjavik. Unfortunately, the timing didn't work out for our flight, so we booked a semi-private transfer with Back to Iceland and it worked out perfectly! We would probably opt to go with them again as opposed to the larger bus because it gave us more flexibility with timing and we were able to leave our luggage on the bus. Plus, we were the only ones on a brand new minibus.
The Do's and Don'ts
You DO need to book all of your tours in advance. Iceland is extremely popular and you will miss out on the best companies or even total experiences, i.e. my friend missed out on the Blue Lagoon because she didn't book in time.
DON’T be fooled by the lack of sunlight. The average winter day has about 5-7 hours, but don’t expect your tours to only last that long. You’ll be picked up between 8-8:30am and won’t arrive back to your accommodation until 6-7pm. If you’re with the right company, they know how to maximize the time and take care of driving in the dark. You will be EXHAUSTED on this trip, but in the best way possible.
DO be prepared for the high prices. Iceland is expensive. We saved money by making our own meals and bringing bagged lunches and snacks on our tours. Snacks are key for those long days!
DON’T pay for bottled water. Bring your own and fill up your bottles with the amazing fresh tap water. Just make sure to turn the faucet to the RIGHT before filling to make sure you’re not getting hot water that will have a sulfur taste from the geothermal water.
Make sure you DO bring the right clothing and gear to accommodate for the changes in weather. If you don’t own it all, don’t worry, you can rent from Gangleri Outfitters. I highly recommend renting their high performance hiking boots that you can wear in the snow as well. You’re going to want the ankle stability walking on slippery and uneven surfaces as you explore the landscapes.
DON’T buy alcohol on Sundays. O wait, you can’t! Plus, you have to go to a designated liquor store to buy. It’s not sold in supermarkets.
DO check for cheap flights on WOW Air. Just be prepared for no entertainment and you have to pay for everything on board, including water! Yes, this also pertains to long haul flights such as from Los Angeles. Make sure to also read the carry-on bag policy when booking your ticket or checking-in. You even have to pay for your roll-on! It’s very expensive if you don’t purchase before you get to the airport.
DON'T go anywhere near the water at the black sand beach (Reynisfjara) in Vík due to unpredictable and strong currents. There have been several deaths in the past couple years, and sadly one the day after we went.
Make sure you DO try the adventurous traditional Icelandic foods. Some include whale, puffin, fermented shark, dried fish, and skyr. They were not my thing, but always worth a taste I guess. Iceland also had amazing dark chocolate and licorice! Also, hot dogs if you’re into that, Bill Clinton was.
DON'T be afraid to eat at a gas station. It’s common practice there.
If you're interested in photographing the Northern Lights, DO come prepared and bring a tripod. Check out my NL post for tips!
DO drink Brennivín, aka the black death, like a local. Maybe wash down your precarious Icelandic foods with it. Make sure to say skál (cheers in Icelandic pronounced skowl)!
I'm just going to leave this one here...DON'T be that tourist that doesn't follow the rules or signed paths. They're there for a reason and believe it or not, Iceland can be dangerous.
DO make sure to set up contactless payments on your smartphone before heading to Iceland. It's basically accepted everywhere. You won't need a lot of cash, but get some from the airport for tips.
And perhaps the most important point I'll share with you...DON'T set too high expectations, go with an open mind, and remain flexible. All activities in Iceland are highly dependent on the weather, which, as I've said, is harsh and unpredictable. For example, you may have your heart set on seeing the Northern Lights but every night is cloudy. Or in our case, we were told that we may not be able to go into the ice cave due to flooding from excess rain. Luckily, it dried out, but we were prepared to be disappointed. You have to remain positive and understand that the weather cannot be controlled. That being said, Iceland is incredible and one of the most breathtakinly beautiful places I've ever seen (I don't say this lightly)!