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5 More Icelandic Travel Tips from a Local Expert

Last month, I was writing the article about 10 travel tips and realised I had way more tips! So here are 5 more.

#1 When do I need to book things by?

Humpback whale dramatically breaching the water - Whale Watching Tour

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.

#2 Is it better to go to the North of Iceland for the Northern Lights?

NorthernLights

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.

#3 What time of night is best for the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights Iceland

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.

#4 What’s a cheap place to eat?

Food-in-Iceland

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.

#5 Is there a transit bus to the Blue Lagoon/Golden Circle/some other place where the tour busses go…

bus

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.

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