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16 things to know before you visit Iceland

tips for first time iceland visitors

Planning a trip to Iceland? Here are the vital facts you need to know about this unique island in Europe before you visit.

I learned a lot about visiting Iceland on a recent trip. And with so many people I know booking trips to Iceland, I wanted to share these insights that are helpful to know before you visit Iceland, visiting the European island.

1. Book popular tours in advance when you visit Iceland

Tourists at the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland

Tourists at the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland

It may be tempting to wait until you are in Iceland or very close to your visit to book tours, but the most popular tours do fill up fast. We did mostly small group tours and because they are just that, small groups, they do get booked quickly and ones like the Snaefellsnes Peninsula are only offered twice weekly, so book them in advance. There’s no savings by waiting until to arrive in Iceland to book the tours.

volcano in iceland

2. The Keflavik airport shops are open 24 /7

Unlike the Miami airport that we were stuck in overnight during our layover, the shops at Reykjavik airport are open 24 hours a day. Granted they are very expensive; we paid $9 for a teeny tiny smoothie when we arrived at around 4:30 am. But the airport is bright and modern. Note, the car rental place didn’t open until about 7 am. Also, keep mind, you can save your receipts from your trip and they will give you a tax refund at the airport!

Find out our favorite tours we did in Iceland! 

3. Buy booze at the duty free shop because it is not sold at grocery stores in Iceland.

Think you would like to have wine or something stronger in your room or AirBnB at some point? Then buy it at the airport. You won’t have a hard time finding the duty free shop as you must pass through it on your way through the airport, kind of like exiting a museum via the gift shop. Or maybe I was just so tired, it seemed like that. You’ll want to stock up anyway, as wine is about $25 per glass (and low quality at that) at restaurants.

4. Take advantage of happy hours when you visit Iceland – download Appy Hour app

happy hour iceland reykjavik

Download the Appy Hour app to find the best happy hour deals.

Happy hours are BIG thing in Iceland. That’s because it is incredibly expensive to eat and drink there. Cocktails and wines by the glass are between $25 and $30. Food is quite expensive too with entrees around $30 to $40. Many fine dining restaurants will offer a multi-course meal 7-9 courses at prices around $100. So eat your biggest meal at lunch or during the happy hours which can be as short as two hours or as long as four. Download the Appy Hour app which will help find the best deals. I love that the app will find the spots closest to you as well, so convenient!

5. Use cash sparingly in Iceland- pay with credit cards.

There’s no need to carry much Krona (Icelandic currency) with you as nearly every place we visited accepts credit cards. I converted 100 USD for the week and used it for tipping and incidentals. It is always good to have a bit of cash as some places will make you pay to use the bathroom (200 – 300 Krona, or 2-3 USD).

6. Discover Card has ZERO foreign transaction fees!

I’ve been a loyal Discover Card member for a long time. But they aren’t accepted at many places, which can be a bummer. I always take it on international trips, though, because they are one of the few credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Those fees can add up to quite a bit so if you have a Discover Card take it with you! I was pleasantly surprised that it was accepted at most places in Iceland and obviously I used it whenever I possibly could.

7. AirBnB trumps hotels in Iceland

city of reykjvaik aerial view

City of Reykjavik aerial view

After truly abysmal AirBnB experiences in New Orleans and Savannah, Glen and I had almost given up on AirBnB. That is until we started pricing hotels in Iceland. The exorbitant pricing made us rethink AirBnb. However, I can’t take credit for finding our AirBnB. Shout out to our travel companion, Christina, for finding an AirBnB that was comfy, cozy and a killer location.

8. There’s no Uber in Iceland

iceland transporation

While I was great about researching what to do and see in Iceland, where to eat and what tours to take, I didn’t do much research on getting around. I mapquested the distance and was happy to know we were in walking distance to the pick and drop of points from the airport and our tours (you’ll be well acquainted with “Bus stop 7 and 8” in Reykjavik if you opt to do tours!).

And though they were long walks, we could ostensibly make the trek from our AirBnB to each restaurant, however, I had figured we would just take an Uber. But, to my surprise there’s no Uber in Iceland, so plan accordingly! We just walked everywhere in Reykjavik and did just fine.

9. Tipping is not mandatory when you visit Iceland

Everything in Iceland is so expensive, that tipping is not expected. Everything I read before heading to Iceland and in talking with people there, said that tipping is built into the price. So, don’t tip, except maybe if you have an exceptional tour guide, you may want to tip him or her.

10. Buy groceries at Bonus (walk in refrigerator)

bonus grocery where to shop in iceland

Stock up on groceries at Bonus grocery in Iceland

Luckily, our AirBnB host in Iceland steered us in the direction of Bonus grocery. She said it was the most inexpensive grocery in Iceland. Don’t get me wrong groceries are still crazy expensive in Iceland. The small package of bacon (pictured above) was approximately $16! You’ll want to bundle up here as there’s a walk in refrigerator to find items like meats, eggs, milk, and basically anything that requires refrigeration.

11. Mother Nature changes her mind often in Iceland

Weather in Iceland can go from dreary and rainy to bright and sunny in no time or vice versa. So pack accordingly. And, while I kept seeing temperatures in the 40s in October, that wind will take your breath. So, make sure you have a hat, gloves, waterproof boots, and try and layer your pants if possible.

iceland lava field

Also note that if you’ve booked a Northern Lights tour, they may decide not to go out that evening if the conditions for the seeing the lights are not favorable. So, you should be prepared to be flexible.

12. Tours in Iceland do NOT include meals

Our Iceland tours were $120 to $200 per person. You should know that none of the places we visited on our trips, with the exception of the Blue Lagoon, had entrance fees. All the “attractions” are free for anyone to just drive up. So, that being said, it would have been nice if our two full day tours had included meals. During the Golden Circle tour, we had a cup of soup and it was $18 per person! After that, we learned our lesson and packed sandwiches for our next tour.

13. Skyr is everywhere in Iceland and you have to try it!

Move over, Greek yogurt, and make way for Skyr. If you love the thickness and creaminess of Greek yogurt, you’ll love the Icelandic yogurt, Skyr. It is reasonably priced and can be found at local grocers in Iceland (tip: it makes for a good quick breakfast before heading out on a tour).  Icelandic people love it too, as it is offered at many restaurants made into a dessert option and it was given to us on our food tour as well.

14. Everyone speaks English in Iceland

pablo discobar reykjvavik iceland

Bartenders at Pablo Discobar in Reykjavik

Don’t worry about any sort of language barrier in Iceland. Icelanders are taught Icelandic and English in school. One of tour guides shared with us that he is concerned that the Icelandic language may die as the younger generation is not speaking it to one another. I was shocked at how many younger Icelandic people (30 and under) speak American English with no detectable accent!

15. Iceland is only a 4 hours ahead of the east coast (easy to adjust back to the time zone).

Adjusting to a new time zone is difficult for most people. So, it’s nice to know that Iceland is only four hours ahead of the East Coast. I didn’t seem to have too much time adjusting to the time difference once in Iceland. We did sleep late the first couple days after we arrived. But when we came back home, I found myself waking up around four or five am for about a week after our return.

16. Download the iPhone photo app for the Northern Lights

iceland northern lights must see

For many, the only device for picture taking is their phone. Camera phones have come a long way, but they aren’t perfect. Luckily for me, Glen is a phenomenal photog (just look at the photos he took in this article!)  and he captured many fantastic pictures of the Northern Lights (including the one above), but if you just want to take photos on your phone, download the Northern Lights photo app ($0.99).

So, are you ready to pack your bags for Iceland yet?

visit Iceland

About the author

Malika Bowling

Malika is the author of several books including Culinary Atlanta: Guide to the Best Restaurants, Markets, Breweries and More! and the founder of Roamilicious. She is also a Digital Marketing and Social Media Consultant. Follow us @Roamilicious on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest for the content not shared on the blog. And don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter (subscribe box below) and never miss a contest, giveaway or the latest must visit restaurant!