Thursday, September 13, 2018

Tips for Traveling to Reykjavik, Iceland

It's always tricky to travel to a foreign city, especially one that not many people you know go to, like Reykjavik. It's hard to know what to expect. Do the locals speak English? Should you bring the local currency? What should you pack? Here's what we learned from our recent trip to Iceland.

Do the locals speak English?
Yes! There's absolutely no reason to walk around with a translation book in Iceland, as every single local you meet will know English, and very well at that. All the street signs will have English translations, too. This is a relief, as the Icelandic language can be very tricky for foreigners to pronounce.

What kind of clothing should I pack?
The temperature in Reykjavik ranges from 37 degrees Fahrenheit (January) to 57 degrees (July), so while it's always somewhat cold there, it never gets bitterly cold. The greater concern is the rain and wind, which happens more often than it doesn't. To that end, I'd make sure to bring a waterproof shell, to be layered with fleeces, vests, and whatever else makes you feel warm and cozy.

I expected the cold weather to bring on chapped lips, dry skin, and static, but none of that happened. It turns out those hallmarks of a Northeast winter are not the result of the cold weather, but of the extremely drying heat that we pump into our indoor spaces to combat the cold. In Iceland, the heat is all geothermal (and provided to residents for free, as it's so abundant and requires little effort to produce), keeping the static away and your skin feeling great.

Also definitely bring a bathing suit and make use of it at the numerous hot springs found across Iceland! Being in a warm pool feels great even when it's cold and raining out.

Should I be tipping?
Like in most European countries, tipping is not expected anywhere in Iceland  restaurants, cabs, hotels, even on tours. It might feel funny to not leave any money for a tip after a meal, but trust me, your tip is already built into the cost of your dinner! Which brings me to...

Why is everything so expensive here?!
One of the shocking things about visiting Iceland is the cost of just about everything. Take whatever you expect something to cost and double or triple it. Modest hotel rooms start at $200. A soup with some bread (a popular lunch option) is $15. Adding on a sandwich? That's another $15. Tours of the Golden Circle start at $85 a person (that's just for the bus ride). The simple souvenir magnet I purchased at a gift shop was $9. My kids wanted to buy medium-size puffin stuffed animals as a souvenir, but each of those were $30. (We said no and purchased a set of volcanic rocks for the bargain price of $8 instead.)

The reason why everything is so expensive here is because just about all their goods are imported, and those costs are passed on to you, the tourist. So Iceland is relatively inexpensive to enter, but once you're on the island, expect to be gouged beyond reasonable expectation.

The good news is that there's no tipping, as I mentioned above, and no need to purchase bottled water. The tap water in Iceland is perfectly safe to drink and tastes fresh and delicious, so bring a refillable water bottle.

What is the food like?
Traditional Icelandic food, while resembling the cafeteria fare in Ikea, is definitely more hard core. Expect a lot of fermented, gamy, and sour tasting things, and plenty of seafood and lamb. If this isn't at all for you, there are plenty of international options as well, ranging from American (burgers and pizza) to Asian to Italian. Here's more on where to eat.

But I would at least give the local fish and chips a try, as well as the Icelandic hot dog, or pylsa, which is made with a mixture of lamb, pork and beef. These are super popular and found on street stands all over Reykjavik. Even though I'm not a fan of lamb, my hot dog was quite tasty and only mildly lamby. I also liked the toppings, which included a sweet brown mustard and fried onions.

Do I need to bring the local currency?
While it's fine to pay for things with Icelandic króna, no one really expects you to. Even small hot dog stands on the street will take your credit card, so I would skip the cash altogether and just bring around plastic. We brought about $50 in cash because we didn't know this, and used it to pay for access to the observation tower at Hallgrímskirkja Church. The man selling us our tickets looked startled about being handed money and had trouble counting out our change, presumably because he seldom deals with it.

If your credit card company doesn't charge you an extra fee for international purchases, select IK rather than USD on the credit card machine for your purchase. The exchange rate is better. By the way, the exchange rate is about 1 IK = 0.01 USD, so divide all the prices you see by 100, and you'll get the rough equivalent in dollars.

Should I rent a car or go with a tour company?
We decided to forgo the car rental and use a tour company for all our excursions. This seems to be a common thing to do, as not all the roads in Iceland are paved and it could be hazardous to drive around in the rain or snow.

Of course, then you're limited to only the places that the companies will take you to, but you'd be surprised at just how much of the country they cover. And there's nothing like having someone else behind the wheel for two hours while you take a nap or gaze out at the amazing scenery!

Which tour company should I travel with?
Tourism has become a big business in Iceland, and the number of companies offering tours can be mind-boggling. We went with a large one, Reykjavik Excursions, simply because they offered activities in all possible combinations. After going on all their tours, however, I wish I'd chosen chosen a smaller outfitter, which may have provided a more personalized experience and better interaction with the guides.

Note that there's really no need to book these tours way in advance, as they never sell out (they simply add on more tour buses), and discounts may be provided at the last minute to fill up a bus.

What should I do and see while in Iceland?
The Golden Circle is a must. It's a three-stop loop from Reykjavik that includes Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Seeing these three sites takes about six hours, and therefore most visitors will add on an extra activity to fill up the day, such as horseback riding, visiting hot springs, whale watching, or snowmobiling.

In addition to seeing the sights, you must take a dip in at least one geothermal hot springs while in Iceland. Nowhere else in the world are hot springs so popular and well done  not even Japan, in my opinion. If you choose just one to visit, make it the amazing Blue Lagoon. You can read more about our experiences at the Blue Lagoon and around the Golden Circle here.

Many people visit Iceland with the expectation to view the Northern Lights. We gave it a shot but didn't succeed due to cloud cover, unfortunately. They're only visible on evenings when there's solar activity but little to no clouds, from September through April.

Other people visit Iceland with the expectation to view puffins. They only hang out on the coastline from June through August, so unfortunately you'll have to choose between viewing the puffins and viewing the Northern Lights. The puffins are a much surer bet!

You might also like:
Reykjavik, Iceland with Kids: What to See, Do and Eat