Since posting our Ultimate 9 Day Ring Road Itinerary and sharing some of our photos, we’ve realised that the questions we were asking before we went are the same questions that other people are asking. We want to make travelling to Iceland easier for you so answered the 9 most common questions we’ve received that you’re probably asking if you’re considering going to Iceland.
1. When is the best time to go?
This is the ultimate question isn’t it? When you’re spending so much money to get somewhere, you really want to be there for all the best bits! Well, the thing about Iceland is that each season has something different but not necessarily better or worse to offer. For example, if you want to see the northern lights, you shouldn’t go in summer. It’s a matter of prioritising! Did you know that Iceland actually has 4 seasons?
Winter is November to March. Beautiful snow landscapes but possible road closures, more caution required for driving and shorter days (5-6 hours of daylight).
Spring is April to May and is the shoulder season so you can score some better bargains and avoid the massive groups of tourists there for the summer.
Summer is June to August. Peak travel time. 24 hours of daylight.
Autumn/Fall is September to October. Also shoulder season so it’s cheaper and more daylight hours than winter. Not as cold but quite rainy.
For the northern lights, you should go from September to April.
2. How long do I need?
As long as you can and yes, the longer the better. There really is something for everyone in Iceland so even if you have a few days, you can still do so much. If you plan on driving around Ring Road (the road that loops around the country), you could do an ‘express’ version in about a week. Any less and you’re spending way too much time in the car and not seeing the sights. Ideally though, you’d want at least 2 weeks for Ring Road also noting that you want at least 1 buffer day for weather depending on when you go. Check out our 9 day Iceland itinerary as a reference.
3. Should I travel Ring Road clockwise or anti-clockwise?
There’s a lot to see in the South of Iceland with plenty of stops and tourists too. So most people start here to knock it out while the energy is still high, longer stretches of driving in the middle and saving the less touristy places but ‘big sights’ for last to enjoy. Although we went around anti-clockwise, I think either direction would have great. Personally, what I’d recommend is waiting until you arrive and deciding based on forecast – chase the sun!
4. Should I hire a car or camper? Do I need a 4×4?
This depends on a few factors – when you’re going, what you plan on doing and if you don’t mind sleeping in campervan.
Let’s start with the 4×4 (or 4WD) question. Most of the Icelandic highlands are only accessible by 4×4 with high clearance (like a jeep). Sometimes a standard 4×4 is not sufficient. Any ‘F’ roads in Iceland require a 4WD and there are massive fines for driving normal rental cars (not to mention insurance issues etc – just don’t do it!). So if you’re planning on visiting the highlands then this one is a no brainer, you need a high clearance 4×4. If you’re travelling in winter and are not comfortable driving on winter roads (although they are very well maintained), then you may feel more comfortable in a 4×4. However, note that if the weather is really bad, you shouldn’t drive no matter what car you have. If you don’t plan on visiting on the highlands and are comfortable driving on winter roads, then a regular car or camper should be fine.
Between a car and a campervan, the difference is going to be where you plan on sleeping. The cheapest option is to hire a car and sleep in that or to sleep in a tent. Although you may not want to do this in winter. Hiring a campervan is the middle alternative if you want comfort but don’t want to pay for hotels at each stop. It also gives you the flexibility to drive during the night or change your route due to weather. We hired a great campervan from Go Campers in October and it had everything we needed for our 9 days (cooker, utensils, mattress, pillows and sleeping bags). It was cold when we were there but we were fine in the sleeping bags and sleeping in our layers. We also found that Go Campers had the most competitive rates for campervans in Iceland.
5. Do I need all the extra car insurances?
First thing I recommend doing is checking what your travel insurance covers. My travel insurance, for example, will only cover the excess payment which means that if there is damage that I am completely liable for (eg gravel damage), my travel insurance won’t cover it. So, I had to pay for extra gravel protection to ensure that I didn’t have to pay any damage caused by gravel. And I’m so glad I paid for this because there are unpaved roads along the way and even if you’re careful, other cars zoom by and it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to have some kind of gravel damage.
6. Is Iceland expensive for travellers?
Short answer, yes. And I’m saying that coming from Australia. Here are some average costs:
- Car hire: 100EUR / 100USD / 150AUD per day
- Fuel: 190ISK/litre (1.58EUR / 1.67USD / 2.21AUD)
- Accomodation in Reykjavik: 60EUR / 63USD / 88AUD)
- Meals: 2000ISK / 16EUR / 17USD / 24AUD
- Beer: 1000ISK / 8EUR / 9USD / 12AUD
The great thing is that there are no entrance fees to anything. To save money, buy groceries from Bonus (discount supermarket), alcohol from the duty free store at the airport (coming in to Iceland) and DO NOT buy water. You’re in Iceland. The tap water is spring water and is delicious. Travelling with at least one other person to split the costs is also a good idea.
7. What should I pack?
Iceland is cold, even in summer. The average temperature in July (summer) is 10–13°C (50–55°F). Warm summer days can reach 20–25 °C (68–77 °F). I’m sure you’ve heard it before but hey, I’ll say it again, layers! Come hoping for the warmth in summer but prepared for the cold.
The heat trappers: socks, gloves and beanies.
Layers: thermals, mid layers and a good outer shell (ideally, wind and water proof).
Shoes: Hiking boots are ideal but I went with gum boots and was fine. Any kind of waterproof shoes will make your life much better (especially in autumn or winter).
Don’t forget your bathers/swimsuit for the thermals!
8. Do I need to bring a ‘good’ camera?
I’ve never been to a place where almost every person has a DSLR! Iceland is filled with beautiful landscape photography so it’s easy to understand why people want to bring good equipment. This is useless though if you don’t know how to use it. It also depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your photos. For most travel photography, I’m a big believer that it’s more about the person taking the photo than the equipment itself and my iPhone takes some bloody good photos. However, it has its limitations. I can’t take night photos, capture the northern lights or take long exposure photos with my iPhone (to achieve that milky waterfall effect).
Batteries also drain very quickly in the cold and phones can be temperamental. My phone would switch itself off at 40% battery and had to be plugged in to turn back on so it was so unreliable. If you plan on travelling with just a phone, I suggest bringing a portable charger with you at all times.
If you’re planning on capturing the Northern Lights then you’ll need a camera with adjustable settings and a tripod at a minimum.
What equipment do we use? Canon 5D Mark II, GoPro Hero 4 and Autel Robotics X-Star Premium.
9. Will I see the Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis?
The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) are the result of electrons colliding with the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere which appears as lights in the sky.
To see it, you need fairly clear skies and darkness which is why it can’t be seen in summer and your chances increase in winter. There’s no guarantee though. We were very fortunate and saw it 4 times during our 10 days there but we also met a couple who had spent 2 weeks there and saw nothing. If you’re really serious about seeing the lights, here are our tips:
- Maximise your time there. The longer have, the more opportunities you have.
- Get a car. Your best chances are with clear skies so having a car means that you can chase!
- Follow the forecast here. The forecast rating on the right indicates the level of activity. Anything above a 3 and you should be able to see it. The map indicates cloud forecast and you want to be in the white areas. Keep up to date with the forecast and chase accordingly.
- Stay up at night. We took turns sleeping and watching the sky. The cloud cover moves very quickly and the intensity of the lights changes throughout the night. It was exhausting but it meant that if it was visible at 2am, at least one of us was seeing it
Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions about Iceland or if these have been helpful in your planning.