Iceland: Planning Your Trip
Hopefully after reading about Iceland and specifically The Northern Lights, you are ready to plan your own trip! So this post is all about how I planned my trip, what I wish I had known, and what I would do differently next time. Basically all my Icelandic wisdom bundled up in a neat little blog post just for you. If you still have unanswered questions, please leave them in the comments below.
This whole trip started when I was searching for possible vaca spots on Google Flights and Iceland came up for around $500 on Wow airlines. I was intrigued by the price but skeptical of the airline. I had never flown on a low-cost airline before and I had never even heard of Wow. I did a quick google search for Wow and then searched The Points Guy and didn’t see any negative news in terms of terrible flying experiences or, frankly, crashes. It seemed legit.
There were direct flights available from Baltimore which is only about an hour away from where I live in Northern Virginia. I purchased an upgrade to my ticket on the way there to include a checked bag and priority seating. I’m typically a light packer but figured with at least a pair of winter boots and a winter coat there was no way I was going to do this trip with just a carry-on. For the flight back, I upgraded my seat again but one level higher than the way there. It still included the checked bag and priority boarding again but also a roomier seat. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about vacation travel is that an upgraded flight on the way home is a luxurious treat to help ensure you keep the vacation vibe going.
Even with both upgrades I spent just under $500. For an international flight, I considered this quite a bargain.
Flying on the low cost airline was fine though there were some annoying parts. For one they never listed a boarding time on the screen or the boarding pass for either of my flights. So everyone tends to gather around the gate as you have no idea when boarding is supposed to start. The website says 45 minutes but that wasn’t actually the case for either of my flights. I also was never asked if I wanted water/drink on either flight. I’m not sure if that’s because I didn’t preorder food but I would have loved a glass of wine!
On a positive note, all seats had plugs to charge electronics which was great. Both flights were incredibly smooth. I know the pilots don’t control the weather but when we landed in Iceland it was raining so hard the rain was practically horizontal and yet it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve experienced. These pilots clearly know what they’re doing.
Though whether Wow airlines still exists at the time of your booking is another story.
Leaving the Airport
In my research, there was one tip that stood out to me which was to purchase alcohol from the duty-free shop before leaving the airport as alcohol is quite expensive in Iceland. I enjoy a nightcap before bed so I definitely took advantage of this tip. My tip to you: make sure whatever you buy has a twist off cap or pack a wine opener in your checked bag.
I brought $40 in cash to convert to Icelandic Krona. I read that Iceland did not have a tipping culture and most places take credit cards but I didn’t want to be caught in a situation where I needed cash. So I figured $40 was good amount and whatever I didn’t use I could convert back to US dollars before I left.
The only thing I used Krona for was the tip I left on my Free City Tour. I guess this is the one exception to the no tipping culture. Because it was a “free tour” it wasn’t necessarily a tip but more of “pay what you can afford” option. Even then I didn’t need the Krona as the tour guide said she would take dollars.
Transportation from the airport is best done by bus. There are cabs but it can be quite expensive. I took Flybus which seems to be the most popular company. The bus takes approximately 45 mins to Reykjavik. Everyone gets on one bus which takes you to the main center and then you get on mini-buses from there based on your final destination. The bus had wifi and chargers for electronics. The only thing I would say is that I had a hard time finding signs to find the bus. But maybe that’s because it was still dark and that dang horizontal rain.
Where to stay
The hardest decision for me was deciding where to stay. Since I was traveling solo I felt safer in a hotel so I didn’t even consider Airbnb. I checked out a few of the Hiltons as I did have some points I could use but it didn’t feel right to go to another country and stay at a Hilton.
I ultimately ended up staying at the Marina Hotel. I was a little thrown off that it was owned by Icelandair. I couldn’t imagine what a hotel owned by American Airlines would be like and was worried it would be too touristy and sterile. But in my research I kept coming back to this hotel. Ultimately, I’m pleased by my decision. It was by the water, had a restaurant attached to it that also had good reviews, and had fun and unique room types to choose from.
When I arrived at the hotel it truly was a unique little place. There are various rooms if you need to work, want to cuddle up with a book outside your own room, etc. The restaurant was great to have right there without needing to go outside. My room itself was small, like a New York style hotel room. I had a balcony overlooking the water which I didn’t use since it was winter but I liked knowing it was there. I did find the walls a tad thin though we all know I’m a terrible sleeper to begin with so not sure that was truly the hotel. There also wasn’t a top sheet. I know this is a trend with millennials as well and I don’t understand it. It feels like I’m sleeping on a couch with a blanket. I want to feel tucked in and also have a layer between myself and a blanket. But other than that great location, good value for the money (about $100 per night), and good overall experience. I would definitely stay there again.
What to pack
I went in November and even though the temperatures were saying 30 - 50 degrees Fahrenheit I packed for 0 - 30 degrees and I’m really glad I did. The wind and lack of sunlight made it feel much colder. Though for some reason my weather app’s “real feel” didn’t accurately capture this. Fortunately, I’m from Massachusetts so I know how to dress for winter and I still have some winter clothes. If you are not from a cold climate please take packing for this weather seriously!
I definitely did not need as many sweaters as I packed. I packed one sweater per day. I most certainly could have reworn any of those sweaters. All of the sweaters I brought were thick wool-type sweaters, like this one from Gap. Those thin “sweaters” you might see advertised as work wear are not gonna cut it.
Two other thoughts on the sweaters: (1) incase it needs to be said you’ll need another layer under the sweater and (2) try on your sweater underneath the coat you’ll be wearing to make sure everything feels comfy.
Speaking of coats, I brought two jackets; one for super cold temps (below 20) and one for cold-ish temps (30-40s). I probably could have gotten away with just having the heavier one but I did not want to risk just having that one and being too hot or just having my cooler one and then being too cold. Places like LL Bean and Land’s End will actually tell you what temperatures their coats will keep you warm in. Please do not just bring any old coat. Of course, a hat and warm mittens/gloves is a must.
I brought flannel pajamas which I did not need. I really wish I just had a t-shirt. My hotel room was so warm that I ended up turning off the heat altogether to try to get it to cool down. In Iceland, the hot spring water is used for heating and is constantly flowing through the houses and buildings. So everything is quite cozy…once you are inside.
What else didn’t I need? For shoes I packed a pair of sneakers, my water-proof winter boots, and a casual pair of boots incase I wanted to “dress up” for dinner one night. I never wore these. Most places seemed completely casual and I was find with my winter boots or sneakers.
What else do I wish I had? I only brought one converter/charger and I really wish I had another one. Trying to figure out how I was going to charge which electronics when was like being back in high school trying to prove geometric theorems.
I waited to book my tours until I got to Iceland. I was fully ready to book my trip around the best weather for the Northern Lights. I ended up booking all my tours with East West which was recommended by my hotel. I should add that despite my concerns about this hotel being too touristy, there was no heavy sell on the tours. They did offer to book the tours for me and I declined saying I wanted to have some time to think about it and they were completely fine with that. There was no hard sell.
You can head to my first blog post about Iceland to read about the tours I signed up for.
My only advice to you is to not overthink it. The weather is a huge unpredictable factor so sign up for what you’d like to see and just go from there. Also, make sure you have some time to explore Reykjavik itself. I almost wish I had 2 more days on my trip so I didn’t have back to back tours and had some days to chill out in the city itself.
See my second post all about my Northern Lights experience.
The Blue Lagoon is the ONLY thing you need to book ahead of time. I did not know this and almost missed out on my chance to go. Luckily, I was able to get my second choice. There’s lots of recommendations to do this on your way to or from the airport as it’s closer to the airport than Reykjavik. I personally booked mine on the way to the airport at the end of my trip, but I’m not sure it really matters unless you’re truly trying to be super time efficient. (They do have a place to check luggage and have some larger lockers for bigger bags too)
The biggest thing that kept coming up about the Blue Lagoon was showering naked before putting their bathing suits on and going in the lagoon. Everyone has to shower before getting in the water which is (1) good for germs and (2) good to get some conditioner in your hair to prevent it from drying out from the silica.
Did I want to shower naked? Of course, not. But I didn’t know anyone there and figured I’d be in and out, avoid eye contact, and I’d be fine. WELL…all this to be said, that there are stalls in the showers. They are very tiny, but they are there. Make sure to wet your hair and load it up with gobs of conditioner. Do not rinse it out until you take a shower post-lagoon.
Let’s discuss the different packages. I purchased the Premium package. For just about $20 more than the basic package, you got an additional face mask, a bathrobe and flip flops, and a free glass of sparkling wine if you dine at the restaurant. What they don’t tell you is that you also get priority check-in at the spa.
If I did it again though I would probably get the basic package (or completely splurge and go the Retreat route). Having the additional face mask is great but by using two face masks there wasn’t really a way to know which one worked best and so I didn’t buy anything. The free bathrobe and flip flops were also nice but everyone had the same ones so it was really hard to keep track of which set is yours. If you go this route I highly recommend bringing a scrunchie or some sort of hair tie to put on your slippers and bathrobe. Also, they don’t tell you there’s also a cafe on site so there are other options than dining at the restaurant.
The one bizarre thing about the lagoon, to briefly comment on society as a whole, was carrying my phone around with me. I wanted my phone to be able to take pictures but here I am in a big vat of hot water so if I dropped it I was going to be in big trouble. I bought one of those water-proof plastic holders and held the phone over my head as I moved around in the lagoon. I’ve never felt more of a slave to technology.
Finally, last tip is that while the showers do have free shower gel and conditioner, that’s all they have. So I would recommend making sure you also have shampoo to shower on your way out.
Food and alcohol is certainly more expensive than it is here in the US - similar to Hawaii but it wasn’t that outrageous. For example fish and chips was about $20. Does that seem expensive for one person grabbing a quick dinner, maybe? But honestly I don’t want to know what happens when you get cheap fish and chips.
Another night I ordered a flat bread pizza and a cocktail during happy hour. The bill came to about $35. Does that seem expensive for a flat bread and a cocktail? Again, maybe. But the flat bread had langostino (basically Icelandic lobster) and I would imagine if I ordered the same thing in the US and then added a tip it would likely end up a similar cost.
Most cocktails seemed greater than $20 after happy hour. Now yes, that is expensive.
My hotel also offered a green option to forgo house cleaning for a $7 credit to the hotel’s restaurant. While $7 isn’t a lot of money I ended up using the option for a few nights and using the $7 to get some breakfast (or most of breakfast). I felt like I was using my Starbucks app to get a free latte.
My final tips for Iceland are about getting home.
After arriving at the airport, I converted the Krona I had left back into Dollars and then went to check my bags. At the airport, they ONLY have self-check in for your bags which I am still dumbfounded by. You go up to a kiosk, scan your boarding pass, and then all the stickers for your luggage print out. I’ve traveled enough to know that some of the stickers go on the bag itself, some you hold on to for the receipt, and the rest become a tag for the luggage. But there were no directions. I played the dumb American role and sure enough someone came over to show me what to do.
On my way to bring my bags to the counter, I was stopped by a security official who checked my passport and asked a lot of questions. How long I’d been there for, where I stayed, what tours I went on, etc. I get that it’s a screening process but he was incredibly serious that I almost wondered if it was a joke. It was not.
Then I made my way to security. It seemed pretty relaxed as not everyone was taking off their shoes. I did anyway as I was ready to just breeze through. Boy was I wrong. I set off the body scan and was brought to the side for the pat down. It was intense and I got upset. The female security guard quickly declared it was likely my bra that set it off but she firmly patted down every part of my body multiple times with her hands. I’ve never been treated like that in an airport before and I’ve never set off security with my bra. It was over the top.
At the same time, my carry-on bags were flagged for a random check. However, the bags were just sitting there and no one had any interest in actually inspecting them and I had a hard time flagging anyone down to help me.
My advice: don’t wear a bra with underwire on the way home and leave yourself time to check your bags and get through security.
There are a TON of blogs about traveling to Iceland so there is a wealth of information out there. I didn’t find any one that particularly stood out to me so to each their own.
I feel like I could keep writing thousands more words on this topic. If there’s something I forgot please don’t hesitate to reach out. I can’t wait to hear about your trip!