Quick guide to Iceland

Due to Covid, our postponed trip to Iceland finally took place in December 2021! I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, despite everyone’s warnings of how cold and expensive it is.

So, having experienced Iceland in Winter, here are my top tips and key considerations if you plan a trip.

Summer or Winter?

On returning from this trip, I immediately regretted not going in summer instead. Therefore, I would advise thinking about what time of year you want to go and why.

The driving force behind a winter trip was 100% the Northern Lights, followed by the winter wonderland Christmas vibes. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get either.

Reykjavik had some Christmas lights, but there were no Christmas markets in the city (possibly due to COVID, but I can’t be sure). There were a few in other towns, but you really would have needed a car (which I will come to later). So, the Christmas vibe didn’t really happen.

There is no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights, and I will discuss doing the ‘Tours’ in a bit more detail later. If you go in winter, you need to make sure you have other things on your ‘to do list’ to avoid a wasted trip.

Benefits of going in Winter

  1. Possibility of seeing the Northern Lights
    1. If your primary goal is just to see the Northern Lights, I would consider Norway instead. If you want the possibility of seeing them, plus have lots of other things you want to do / see – winter is the best time to go.
  • Tourist ‘hotspots’ will be quieter
    • We did all the usual sights, including the black sand beach (stunning), the golden circle, Snaefellsnes, Gullfoss etc. Even in winter they were busy, but manageable busy. If the aim of your trip is to see the sights – winter probably is a good time to do it. The tours are generally cheaper, and I imagine these places become a game of human dodgems during the summertime.
  • Seeing Iceland living up to its name
    • Who doesn’t want to see Iceland in ice and snow? It would feel like false advertising if you didn’t. Seeing everything in the snow and ice is just simply stunning!
  • Winter specific activities
  • Winter is obviously a good time to go if you plan to do some winter-specific activities like snowmobiling, etc. However, some glacier activities still run in the summer, so again, think about what you want to do.

Downsides of Winter

  • Lack of hiking
    • As I am not an experienced Winter mountaineer, the guided glacier walk was all we really could do. On the first day, we did a ‘fly over Reykjavik’ tour, which showed Iceland in the summer from the air, and OMG, the walks look simply incredible and accessible for experienced hikers. Really made me feel like I had missed a trick!
  • Hours of daylight/Weather
    • There are about 4-5 hours of daylight in the Winter, which means you miss out on a lot of scenery when driving to the hotspots. There was generally enough daylight to do what we wanted. But be prepared to be leaving/coming back in the dark.
  • I didn’t think the weather was too bad, but there were some days with rain/low clouds which really does limit your views of pretty much everything.
  • Felt a little ‘constrained’
    • Because of the harsh weather, we did feel a little constrained to just going to the typical tourist destinations. I felt like there would have been so much more to explore off the beaten track in summer. As mentioned previously, if your plan is just to see the ‘highlights’, winter is probably a good time to go.

Hire a car or go with a tour company?

This is another question you may ask yourself, and your choice may also depend on if you feel comfortable driving in the snow. The roads in winter are questionable at best, but all cars are fitted with studded tyres. Just FYI, we did guided tours, but did some self-guided ones with our cousins who hired a car. So, pros and cons of car hire v guided tours:

Car Hire

  • An absolute money saver!!
    • Unless you are doing a specific activity that requires a guide, there’s not really a need for a tour guide for most of the main sights. Hiring a car is far more cost-effective, and if you want to go at your own pace, hiring a car is the best option.
  • Ensure you listen to weather forecast if you plan to drive.
    • Cars have been flipped because of the wind in Iceland, and not even in the winter! The roads in December, in some places, were as thick and smooth as an Ice Rink. The studded tyres are miracle workers, but you must be a careful and confident driver.

Guided Tours

  • Super expensive!
    • On average, tours such as Snaefellsnes and the Golden Circle will set you back around £100pp. Tours for the Northern Lights around £50pp. Unless you are doing something that needs an instructor, I don’t think any of these really necessitated a tour guide. If you plan to see lots of sights, the tours will get expensive quickly.
  • Northern Lights Tour
    • The aurora borealis forecast was low the whole time we were there. But we thought we would kick ourselves if we didn’t try on the one clear night we had there. I expected us to go to one spot in the middle of nowhere and stay for a few hours. Instead, we spent 3 hours driving around none stop to see nothing. Again, you could do this yourself. As soon as we arrived, you could tell the guides knew we weren’t going to see anything, so its just a go through the motions. These tours are always the busiest too! That’s why I would recommend checking the forecast before you go.
  • Good if you want to relax and not worry about the crazy road conditionsThe tour guides are very comfortable driving on the roads, so you feel in very safe hands on the tour. All the guides we had were also very nice and knowledgeable. I do think they also give you a good amount of time to explore different places.

Some last FAQ’s

Is Iceland as expensive as they say?

Yes! A bowl of soup will set you back around £10-£15 and an average meal for two (even lunch) will cost you £20-£30pp if you skip the starters, don’t eat at the expensive places, and don’t have alcohol. If you are on a budget, I would consider self-guiding some of the tours instead. We were there for 5 days and we spent around £1,000 and we didn’t touch a drop of alcohol. We gave up looking at prices in the end!

What were the trip highlights?

The glacier walks, black sand beach and Gullfoss were the highlights! I wish I had done the Ice Climbing too but didn’t quite have time for it all! It is a stunning country and everything you see will be amazing. Because all the sights are quite far away/far apart, I would spend time planning your trip as you may not get to see everything you wanted to.

Are microspikes necessary in winter?

If you don’t want to fall over at pretty much every main attraction, then yes, an absolute must!

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