When my wife and I posted photos from our recent trip to Iceland, it seemed like the comments weren’t just about the natural beauty of the locations, but also a running tally of people who had been there, or had it on their wish list. With the wide variety of flight options leaving out of several different airports, and a free stopover on the way to other European destinations, Iceland is hot right now.
I visited on Labor Day weekend 2016 and 2017, the first time for a bachelor party and the second with my wife and friends. Both were epic weekends and these nine tips (many of which were learned the hard way,) will serve you well.
1. Purchase duty free at the airport.
Iceland pricing on alcohol beverages are high. There’s no need to pay extra if you can avoid it. Be sure to take advantage of the discounted pricing at duty free if you plan to enjoy a few beverages in town. At the local bars, beer, wine and cocktails can range from $12-$25 each.
2. DON’T schedule an early morning tour when you first arrive.
On Saturday, September 3rd, 2016, my friend Mark woke up at at 6:45 AM, Icelandic time, stared at the ceiling and started to make serious life choices about our pre-booked tour. These choices weren’t just about the 18,000 kroner (roughly $170 US) that would be wasted, the missed opportunity to see the natural sights (he could live without it) or the fact that he would be disappointing the bachelor.
For Mark, this was about simple survival. He woke up, processing the 8 hour time difference from Cali, rubbing his temples between his two fingers, and whispered “If I go on this tour, I think I just might die.” He wasn’t ready to start a full day tour at 7 AM, when he had gone to bed roughly 90 minutes earlier.
3. Expect to be pushed around, it’s not personal.
On our first night in town we noticed that some of the locals have an odd sense of invading personal space. Several of our friends noticed people who would push into you, without a thought to use the words “excuse me” in any language. If someone just walks into you, don’t take it too personal (I guess?)
4. Enjoy a good meal and don’t worry about the price (too much).
In 2016, my friends and I had a fantastic meal at a place that I couldn’t pronounce and I thought to myself “I need to write this down so I can go back.” Fast forward to me in 2017, blindly leading a group back and forth between a sports bar with a sign out front that says “husband day-care center” and the 10-11 (Iceland’s version of 7-11,) promising that “it was right here, I swear.”
I asked the group to give me a moment as I pulled my wife to the side, intently put my hand on her shoulder and said, “Hey, I need you google something for me… right now.” Little did I know that I had stopped directly in front of a poster by the tourism kiosk that urged us to visit “the Icelandic Penis museum,” (I wish this was a joke). The look on her face and the eye roll that almost made my head spin, resulted in a very quick clarification on what we would specially be googling. Once I took advantage of our shared international data plan I found the restaurant with the most lazy goggle search of them all. “Top restaurants in Reykjavik.”
Feeling like a numbskull when Grillmarkaðurinn, popped up as the first result, we took a few steps forward into a semi-Hidden alleyway, leading to a restaurant with incredible ambiance and food that could literally make you go back to Iceland.
The main course pricing was between 5,000 and 6,400 ISK ($48-62 USD), which wasn’t necessarily high, but Iceland in general isn’t cheap, so my mind was slightly cost conscious. Then the bill came, and we realized after a quick conversion, that our total bill was only about $78 per person. A meal of the same quality in the U.S could have easily been $100+, and since tipping at restaurants is not customary in Iceland, we felt like it was worth it and then some.
5. Find the locals grocery store.
We recommend staying at an Airbnb, due to the high price of hotels. Plus they normally have access to a kitchen which will allow you to go to “Bonus.” https://www.bonus.is If you feel like saving some money and making dinner one night.
6. Their holidays are not our holidays.
For those celebrating American three day weekends in Iceland, don’t be mistaken…just because you have Monday off, does not mean they do. The weekday nightlife is by no means comparable to Friday/Saturday and outside of the dinner scene, it isn’t very busy.
7. Winter is coming: The Golden Circle, G.O.T tour, etc don’t require advanced planning.
Some people like to book in advance, but we found that most of the main tours at the larger companies (Gray Line, or Reykjavik Excursions), don’t really sell out. Unless there’s something you HAVE TO do, I think you’re better off going to the tourism office the morning after you arrive, and having them walk you through the countless tour options.
Icelandic tourism ensures that you truly “have it your way”, (I’m definitely getting a burger after writing this.) There’s the Golden Circle traditional tour, the Golden Circle secret tour, the Game of thrones tour where they take you “North”, the volcano tour, the cave tour (it’s cool, but there’s a lot of crawling), whale and/or puffin watching on a boat, ATV riding with mountain views, a snowmobile tour on a glacier, waking on a glacier, horseback riding on a glacier, karaoke on a glacier (Ok I made that last one up, although I am secretly humming Foreigner (https://youtu.be/eC99JhQq-3w) in my head.
All of these tours are unique and awesome, but make sure you check the options and examine your tour itinerary carefully to maximize your choices.
8. Save your receipts and go to the V.A.T refund at the airport.
The V.A.T Refund had been an afterthought for me on both trips and that was a mistake. If you are shopping, or if your group is the type to have one person put a card down and paypal or venmo around, you’ll find that you will have some pretty sizable receipts over the course of a few days. This can transfer to cold hard cash, since Iceland refunds the VAT of items over 6,000 ISK at the airport. The line to get the refund isn’t short (nor is it particularly long), but it can certainly be worth the wait depending on what you’ve purchased.
9. Book the blue lagoon far in advance and go towards the beginning of your trip.
We’re going to do a separate blog post just about the blue lagoon, but after two separate visits, (I would have no problem going back to the blue lagoon once a year,) in which every time slot was sold out upon arrival, we thanked our lucky stars that we booked in advance.
In 2016, my friends and I visited the blue lagoon prior to our airport departure. They have a bag check that holds your luggage for $15 and buses that are very accurately timed, so there were no worries about missing flights (as long as we met the bus on time).
The major downside to the airport departure is that the blue lagoon is very social. Since you’re hanging out and chatting for (usually) about 3 hours, there’s a good chance that you’ll meet some folks who are just starting their trip just as you’re finishing yours. In 2017, we went on our second full day, instead of our last.
There’s a lot to see in Reykjavik within walking distance, the street art, the stainless steel “Sun Voyager” Viking ship by the water and of course the Hallgrímskirkja church. Exploring the town and discovering things on your own can be the best part… but as my friend Mark (at least I hope we’re still friends after I post this) will tell you: A few survival tips can alleviate some of the hiccups… and headaches.