What’s On – in addition to being an extraordinarily practical monthly magazine about Iceland, and just about the nicest website on the internet (check out our new swanky upgrade) – is also, and chiefly, a tourist information and booking centre situated in downtown Reykjavík.
Having spent much time in the service centre, assisting travellers book tours and directing them around town, we have learned a few things. If you’re visiting the country and would like some random, completely subjective travel tips for Iceland, look no further.
#1 Eat Cheap
There’s been a lot of talk about the exorbitant prices in Iceland. While eating out at a local restaurant and renting a vehicle can certainly necessitate a hefty fee, one way to bring down the cost of your trip is to eat cheap at one of Iceland’s discount grocery stores. Bónus is good for cheap eats, so is Krónan and Super 1.
We recommend trying skyr, a cultured dairy product with the consistency of Greek yoghurt albeit with a milder flavour. It’s relatively cheap, too.
#2 We Don’t Mean to Throw the Taxi Under the Bus, but … Take the Bus from Keflavík Airport!
A taxi from the Keflavík Airport (Iceland’s only international airport) to Reykjavík easily costs around ISK 15,000. Taking the bus, however, will cost you roughly ISK 4,000 , with a drop off at your hotel. It only takes about an additional half an hour. We recommend taking the bus, unless, of course, you’re travelling in a larger group (ca. six), in which case taking the cab is perfectly fine.
The bus to and from the airport departs many times during the day.
#3 Here’s a Tip. Don’t Tip.
Tipping is not required in Iceland. Most of the bills that you receive include gratuity, which means that it is quite unnecessary, and quite uncommon, to add a tip. There is really no need to tip, no matter the circumstances, although if you’d like to show appreciation for excellent service at a restaurant, you can offer 10% if there is no service charge.
#4 Bottled Water Is Dead in the Water.
Icelanders don’t buy bottled water. In fact, something like five years ago, there was no bottled water available at grocery stores. It wasn’t until the tourist boom in the mid-2010s that vendors began offering the product to travellers.
But don’t be fooled: the water from the Icelandic tap is perfectly fine. Some might even say, delicious. Something like 95% of Icelandic tap water originates from deep wells (groundwater) and is free from the faint taste of chloride or other chemicals.
The hot water, on the other hand, is geothermal, which means that it generally reeks of sulfur. If you’re brewing coffee, just boil tap water.
#5 No Sup- (ermarket Beer) for You!
The State Alcohol and Tobacco Company of Iceland (ÁTVR) is a government-owned company with a monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages and tobacco in Iceland. It runs a chain of 51 stores. That’s only 51 stores – within an area of 100,000 km2 – where one can buy beer and wine and schnapps (fortunately, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe). There is only one liquor store in downtown Reykjavík, for example.
In light of this monopoly, you cannot purchase beer at local grocery stores – well, not real beer, anyhow; grocery stores offer various brands of relatively cheap near-beer: a beverage that aims to replicate the taste of beer without its inebriating effects.
#6 Travel Safely with Safetravel.is
Last November, Safetravel.is – an initiative that aims to reduce the risk of travel-related accidents in Iceland – introduced a new map. The map was formally introduced to the public by Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir at the What’s On Tourist Information Centre in downtown Reykjavík. The new map combines what once were three maps – vedur.is, vegagerdin.is, and safetravel.is – into one.
The map displays travel conditions in real-time: weather, road conditions, conditions at tourist attractions, wind gusts on roads, avalanche warnings, and more. If you’re travelling around Iceland, especially in wintertime, we recommend visiting the website before heading out for information on road closures and weather conditions.
#7 Read Local Literature
Arguably, the best way to acquaint yourself with a country is to delve into the literature of that nation’s most celebrated authors. If you’re visiting Iceland, we recommend reading local literature prior to, or during, your stay. You can’t go wrong with a little Laxness (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate). The Icelandic Sagas are also fascinating. And if you’re into Nordic noir, there’s plenty of that to go around, as well.
#8 Don’t Exchange Money Before Arriving in Iceland
Don’t exchange money prior to arriving in Iceland (foreign banks, including banks at airports, are reluctant to hold large amounts of ISK and, as a result, charge you dearly for the service). You’ll enjoy a better exchange rate upon arriving in the country.
In Iceland, locals exchange money at the banks, who do such a good job that there’s no market for local “moneychangers.”
Banks tend to be closed on the weekend though; however, ATMs are easy to find and you can use your credit card (or debit card) everywhere. Also, if you’re in downtown Reykjavík and need to exchange money, consider visiting FX Iceland (open weekends).
#9 Visit the Local Pools (Our Favourite Travel Tip for Iceland)
The public pools lie at the heart of Icelandic culture. To engage in mild cultural stereotyping, the pools are to Icelanders what the saunas are to the Finns, what vodka is to the Russians, what the beaches are to the Floridians. If there’s one thing that you do during your visit to Iceland, let that thing be visiting a local pool. It’s relatively cheap. It’s invigorating. It’s especially Icelandic.
For a taste of the Icelandic swimming pools, check out a recent article in Iceland Review about a group of locals who have been engaging in the same morning routine for almost 40 years.
#10 Book a Tour, See Nature
While the theme of this article, for the most part, is how to cut costs during your visit to Iceland, we think that if you’re going to spend money in Iceland, you should probably spend it on memorable experiences (not that a fine meal at an ambitious restaurant isn’t worth some splurging). In terms of experiences, booking a tour into the Icelandic countryside, whether the Golden Circle, whale watching, northern lights, etc., is definitely worth it.
In general, and especially for super-jeep tours, tour operators need to charge a price per seat so that they turn a profit even if they don’t fill the car. Hence, if you’re in a group of five or six or more, the price per person might be lower if you just hire the whole car and a driver. If you want price quotes or help booking, just drop us a line.
#11 When do I need to book things by?
In general people come here having booked in advance the very things that there’s no rush to book, and not having thought about things they should have booked in advance, had they wanted to do them. So read carefully.
As a rule: if it’s a bus tour, you don’t have to book it in advance, if it’s a smaller vehicle/tour, you probably should.
The Golden Circle, South Coast, Northern Lights and such major tours almost never run out of seats since there’s always another bus and another company, but most of them leave in the morning, so book them the night before at the latest. (Northern Lights you want to book by the afternoon).
Whale Watching, Glacial Snowmobiling, Glacier Hiking, Northern Lights and Eruption Flights are weather dependent, so feel free to book them ahead of time, but be prepared to shift the days after you land depending on the weather. Glacier hiking and such “smaller” tours you want to book with a few day’s notice, especially if you’re driving there yourself.
Dogsledding, Ice caving and Inside the Volcano book up weeks in advance so book them before you get here. The Blue Lagoon is fully booked every once in a while, regardless of the season, so book that at least a couple of days before, just in case.
#12 Is it better to go to the North of Iceland for the Northern Lights?
In Iceland, you’re already in the North of the planet. You can see the lights from anywhere in the country so the more relevant thing becomes cloud cover, since if it’s cloudy, it doesn’t matter how active the lights are, you won’t be able to see them. As a matter of fact according to my very un-scientific observation, it seems to be cloudy more often up north, so you’re just as well off staying in Reykjavík.
Bonus tip: Where should I go for the Northern Lights? – wherever the sky is clear. Read the forecast, probably take a tour since they know where to go on a given day.
Bonus tip #2: Do I really need to leave the city? Yes you do. Basically, sometimes you can see the Aurora from inside the light-polluted city, but in those cases it will be completely mind-blowing outside the city lights.
#13 What time of night is best for the Northern Lights?
There’s no way to tell. There’s usually a prediction for “activity” level of the lights on a given night, but it’s impossible to say whether they’ll come out at 7 pm or midnight, nor whether they’ll be out for 4 minutes or 9 hours. In general the best is from about 20:00 to 24:00 though, which (luckily!) is when the tours go. So just pack a thermos of cocoa and a flask of whiskey, and prepare to camp out.
Bonus tip: Do they really look like those awesome photos? The can, absolutely. However, because of the time delay and sensitivity of the camera lens, sometimes they might look more pronounced on your photos than they do to the naked eye. That being said, it absolutely does sometimes look like those awesome photos you’ve seen, PhotoShop notwithstanding.
#14 What’s a cheap place to eat?
The grocery store.
Basically food is at a certain cost level here, which is high, but my experience is that it’s mostly due to us having eliminated the lowest level you can find in other countries, which is the really really gross food. So almost any meal you buy will have a certain minimum quality level, and a minimum price. Some cheaper places to eat downtown that still have good food include SubWay and Deli.
#15 Is there a transit bus to the Blue Lagoon/Golden Circle/some other place where the tour busses go…
Short answer: no, there isn’t.
Sometimes people come in and want to be clever and circumvent the tour companies, which must surely be gouging, and just take a transit/city bus to the same place. I get the logic, in some big cities abroad you can save 50% by skipping the “airport express” bus or train, and take an hour longer on the city transit system. In Iceland this is not really the case.
In general, the city bus goes where people live, and the tour companies go where you want to go. Also in general, the tour companies are in pretty fierce competition, so they offer competitive prices and better service. Take the Blue Lagoon for instance. First of all, there isn’t really a city bus that goes there, but more importantly the tour companies charge, at the time of this writing, about 3600 ISK, which is about the same as the city bus would charge for a 40-minute round-trip ride out of the city in any direction.
Another example is the Golden Circle – there are no towns on the Circle, hence there is no transit bus. The City bus drives the South Coast to Vík, same as the South Coast tour, but without stopping at the waterfalls you really want to see, without explaining anything about what you’re looking at, it drives much less frequently and charges almost the same as a south coast tour.
If you wanted to take the city bus out of the city to see the Northern Lights, I’m not really sure where you would get off, when the last bus would come back, and in general there’s no busses after midnight. Contrast that with a tour bus which takes you wherever the chances of seeing the lights is the best – it just isn’t worth the trouble or the tiny savings you would make.
The only exception to this might be the airport bus, since Strætó is starting an airport bus line. So keep an eye out for that, I guess.