5 Ways to Explore Iceland
I get a lot of questions about Iceland, and have helped both friends and clients book trips there several times. It occurred to me the other day that many people don’t realize just how many options there are for a trip to Iceland – matching every conceivable budget, travel style, and level of comfort. Here is a cheat-sheet of all the different ways you can travel to Iceland.
Long weekend (staying in one city)
Two weeks or longer trip
LONG WEEKEND IN ICELAND?
Many visitors to Iceland are taking advantage of the quick flight from the USA to Iceland and often stay for only four days before heading back – perhaps due to a long weekend or business holiday back home. Most people choose to base themselves in Reykjavik for these four days and take excursions – either by renting a car or by using the many tour companies – each day and returning to Reykjavik to sleep. Because of Iceland’s compound size, it’s possible to see many of the most famous sights this way, although you probably won’t make it up to Akureyri or the Eastern Fjords as they will be just a little too far. But you will be able to see a lot more of the country than you would expect, even though some of the excursions may involve several hours on a coach bus, so be prepared for long days – luckily, in the summer there is 23 hours of sunlight, so you will have plenty of time to get home before dark!! In fact, I have a guest post already published on my blog about a four day trip to Iceland – I suggest you check it out for a great example of how to spend your time in a long weekend in Reykjavik.
With a four day trip to Iceland, you can combine a number of Do-It-Yourself activities plus organized day-tours. Even if you’re not necessarily an organized tour type of person, it’s often the best way to get to some of the most well known sites, if you don’t want to rent a car. There are many different tour operators all specializing in day trips (the blog post I referenced has a review of some of them). Some activities include: horse back riding through lava fields, thermal pools at the Blue Lagoon, a coach bus trip/tour to the Black Beaches, hiking on a glacier, cave explorations, whale watching, and puffin watching. As you can see, you can fit a lot into four days!! So, don’t avoid going to Iceland just because you “only” have four days. You won’t regret it for a moment, and you’ll be surprised at how much you can fit in and how quickly you’ll fall in love with Iceland.
LONGER TRIPS (TWO WEEKS) AROUND ICELAND
If you have extra time in Iceland, you can really slow down and appreciate the natural wonders of Iceland. You can do a combination of things – for instance, you could book an organized 10 day tour but add on extra nights before/after so that you do your own thing without the coach bus crowd. You can consider taking a cruise around Iceland. You can also book short, three- or four-day trips run by tour companies that will take care of your transportation and lodging to some remote areas. Or you can travel to each of the major cities in Iceland and spend two or three nights in each city, allowing yourself relaxation time and spontaneous sight-seeing activities. Some travel packages even include intra-country flights between the capital, the north, and the southeastern parts of Iceland; or you can take public transportation or rent a car. Each section of Iceland is distinctively different – from fjords to beaches to lava fields to glaciers, so you won’t feel like you’re looking at the same scenery all the time. In fact, you’ll be blown away by how extreme the scenery can shift even in one day. If you’re driving, you’ll quickly notice that even if on the map two towns are just two hours apart, it can easily take you double or more the time to drive as you’ll be pulling over to the side of the road to take photos or visit local attractions such as waterfalls along the way.
With two weeks in Iceland, your possibilities are limitless – you have pack every day full of activities and be in a new hotel every night, or you can slow down and enjoy quiet time appreciating the beautiful outdoors.
ORGANIZED TOURS IN ICELAND
Organized tour companies are a good option for travelers who want to see more of the country but who enjoy the comfort of a pre-planned itinerary and socializing with other travelers on a coach bus.
Some of the tour companies include: Collette Vacations, Globus, Trafalgar, and Insight Vacations. If you’ve taken these tours in other countries and trips and loved them, it’s a good option to know that they also do Iceland! Many of these companies also give you a past guest discount.
The average organized tour is 10 days although there are some that are 8 days. Most tours include many of your meals, plus baggage porterage, all your hotels, certain activities/excursions, and the services of a tour guide. There are different types of organized tours, with different levels of economy, comfort, excursion types, and schedules, so make sure you understand the difference between them and know whether you’re comparing apples to apples when making your decision. (Someone like me can help explain the differences if you’re feeling overwhelmed!)
Where the organized tours sometimes fail is the inflexibility with dates. I had some clients for instance who really wanted to go for two weeks, and it was very hard to find a tour company that had a 2 week tour itinerary, as most are 10 days. They also generally have very specific departure/arrival dates, so if you’ve already bought your plane tickets, this can create some logistical problems. However, clients who love the idea of having all transportation arranged and having the constant services of a tour guide and having almost everything arranged ahead of time love these tours. Again, it all comes down to what you are looking to get out of your trip to Iceland!
SELF-DRIVE IN ICELAND
Many travelers, even those who wouldn’t generally consider road-tripping anywhere else, fall in love with driving around Iceland. You can do this any number of days – some remain based in Reykjavik and rent a car to just drive the Golden Circle in one day, while others follow the famous Ring Road (the circumnavigational road around Iceland) and spent the night in hotels, hostels, or farmhouses along the way.
It’s possible to do this in 7 days, if you remain on a strict schedule and be firm with yourself about how many times you stop. A more leisurely itinerary would be 10-14 days. You can either plan out everything yourself (but bear in mind that summer lodging books up fast and is surprisingly pricey even if it’s remote!) or there are many companies that I’ve worked with that will provide you with suggested routes and take care of booking the accommodations for you.
Some travelers love this combination of independence + help: for instance, I’ve had clients book (through me) with tour companies that supply them with maps, GPS, car rental for two people, wifi in the car, special guidebooks and suggested stops along the way, free cell phone or SIM card for emergencies, and on-call assistance from the Iceland office if you should have any problems. They also can offer optional add-on excursions, such as a special hiking naturalist guide in one of the stops, a glacier hike, or whale-watching.
Here is the description in PDF format of a two week driving tour some clients booked – we chose this tour specifically because it has two or three nights in each location, so they wouldn’t feel so rushed and constantly unpacking/packing. There are other self-drive tours however that do feature a night in a different hotel – it’s all up to you and how much time you have. Many self-drive tours have themes, such as “Game of Thrones” filming locations, “Waterfalls and Glaciers”, “Fairies and Troll Legends,” and so forth.
You will need to bear in mind that cars with automatic transmission are not the norm – you have to request this specifically, otherwise you will end up with manual (stick) transmission! The self-drive tour I booked last month offered upgrades to automatic transmission for only around $8/day – quite reasonable compared to some of my other experiences renting cars in Europe.
The point of going to Iceland is to see Iceland, and arguably the best way to do this is from a ship. It’s surprising to me, however, how few people investigate this option – perhaps because they think of Caribbean-style cruises with on-board entertainment and more focus on the ship rather than the destination, but cruising in Europe can be quite different. Depending on the cruise line, even your Zodiac boat expeditions are included, and you can often see more of the country than on a traditional tour. You’ll be treated to beautiful coastal scenery as you travel from one city to another, and won’t have to worry about doing your own driving or getting lost.
There are three circumnavational options available, and many more options that make Iceland a primary destination even if the cruise doesn’t begin in Iceland.
Cruises that begin/end in Iceland
–Tauck Small Ship Cruises’ feature 8 days of many of Iceland’s top sights. The only ports they do not stop in are the Eastern Fjords. The cruise price does includes all shore excursions, so you don’t have to worry about being asked for more money once you’re onboard the ship. All staterooms have windows for ocean views (and 95% of rooms have balconies!). You’ll tour Reykjavik, Grundarfjordur, Grimsey (where you’ll be able to step across the Arctic circle!), Akureyri, including the Godfoss waterfall, Isafjordur, Heimaey, the “Golden Circle” tour of Iceland featuring waterfalls, and more. This is a fantastic way to see most of Iceland’s top spots without constantly packing and unpacking as you move between hotels. You’ll see puffins and other wildlife up close, and the ship itself only holds 140 guests, so it’s small enough to call on ports that other large cruise ships can’t.
Land / Cruise Price includes all private Tauck shore excursions, cruise fare, port charges, applicable fuel surcharges, bar & restaurant beverages throughout the day aboard ship including house wine & spirits, entertainment and gratuities to Tauck Director and ship staff.
–The “Ocean Diamond” ‘Iceland Circumnavigation’ trip run by ProIceland features 10 days of Iceland’s most famous cities. Reykjavik, Stykkisholmur, Isafjördur, Siglufjördur, Akureyri (2 days), Husavik, Seydisfjördur, Djupivogur, Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), and back to Reykjavik, make this a true circumnavational cruise. All meals are included and all Zodiac excursions are included, but land excursions are extra.
The cruise even provides you with your own windjacket to protect against the elements – it’s yours to keep afterwards! The rooms are comfortable and adequate – this cruise is focused on the destination and activities, not on over-the-top luxury, so it’s a good fit for many travelers. (However, you may end up with a hefty bill after booking shore excursions, so it’s important to mentally budget and prepare for that – I can help you by looking up the prices of the shore excursions.)
For the ultimate in luxury, Scenic Cruises has introduced their Discovery Yacht. Scenic River Cruises has long been one of the five star river cruise companies and they are branching into all-inclusive yacht travel. Scenic’s “Iceland Discovery” cruise will circumnavigate Iceland in 10 days, very similar to the Ocean Diamond above. It includes: World’s first luxury Discovery Yacht; 100% verandah suites; Butler service for all guests; Five dining venues, from casual to fine dining; Unlimited complimentary beverages; Complimentary Wi-Fi; Expert Discovery Team; All shore excursions including zodiac boat excursions. The only thing not included and is optional will be the helicopter and submarine tours – yes, the Discovery Yacht comes with its own helicopter and submarine! (By the way, Scenic will also offer an Iceland-to-Canada cruise the same year, calling on Reykjavik, Greenland, and Quebec.)
Cruises that feature Iceland but do not begin in Iceland
There are many other cruise lines that are not round-trip Iceland but that feature Iceland for a large portion of their cruise. This can be a good option for travelers who wish to see additional sights in Europe or who want to have a more traditional European visit.
For example, Azamara’s 12 Night “Fjord, Iceland, and Fairy Islands” Voyage starts in Denmark, goes to Norway, Shetland Islands, Iceland (3 days there), and the Faroe Islands before returning to dock in England’s Southampton port. Azamara includes foods, drinks (including alcoholic beverages), tips, gratuities, and an AzAmazing Evening (all inclusive port excursion free for all passengers).
For more on Azamara, read my blog post here.
Viking Cruiselines – you’re more used to hearing about them as river cruises! – has a special ocean cruise called “In the Wake of the Vikings.” It’s a special 15 day cruise that begins in Norway and ends in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, you visit Norway, Scotland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada.
Silversea Cruises also offers some Iceland options, including this 12 day London to Iceland cruise. Ports of call include London, Scotland, the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, and end with five days in Iceland. Silversea is a luxury product – it’s an all-suite ship and each suite comes with butler service. It also includes free wifi and high staff-passenger ratios, and almost all ports includes free transportation into town, even if you don’t take advantage of the cruiseline excursions.
*This is not a definitive list of cruises visiting Iceland, but gives you an idea of the journeys available!
As you can see, there are many ways to see Iceland. It’s a short flight from the USA – it’s actually only five hours from Boston, barely enough time for a nap! – and flights are often economically priced compared to other destinations in Europe. Whether you wish to cruise, backpack, tour, take a long weekend, or spend two weeks in bed and breakfasts, there is an Iceland vacation that’s right for you!
Planning Tips for Your Iceland Trip:
- Please note that Iceland is very popular – many people book a year in advance! Especially for summer trips, you should try to plan ahead as much as possible to get the best options for lodging and for your budget.
- You can visit Iceland any time of year, and it is a great destination for a winter visit. However, if you definitely want to drive yourself, the non-winter months are recommended. In winter, plan on city stays with day-excursions or paid transfers between towns.
- Bring waterproof shoes and even waterproof pants for outdoor activities in the cooler months – keeping dry goes a lot further in keeping you warm.
- Layers are important even in summer – a windbreaker/rain jacket, a pair of dry socks, a long sleeved fleece, and a hat will all come in handy.
- Credit and debit cards are used almost everywhere – even to pay for their famous hot dogs. You won’t need to withdraw cash upon arrival at all.
Need assistance in planning your Iceland trip? Head over to my Services page!