It sure can be fun to arrive in a new destination without anything planned. But if you're going to Iceland, it's good to keep in mind that some things require you to be organized and book in advance.
When the nearly unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, Iceland found itself in the enviable position of becoming a “bucket list” destination. Since that time there has been exponential growth in tourism with an increasing number of flights arriving (seemingly) almost daily. Naturally, with the increasing number of tourists, comes greater demand for services.
Iceland is trying it’s best to catch up. It is no easy task for a country with a population of 320,000 to cope with the arrival of two million tourists in 2017! There is much to see here in Iceland, but this is probably not the best place to show up and make impromptu decisions on where to stay and what to do as soon as you hit the ground.
Photo: Hotel Borg
A short walk through downtown Reykjavík will show enough evidence that there is a construction boom going on. While companies are erecting hotels as fast as they can build them, demand is still strong. Not just in Reykjavík, but around the country as tourists are exploring further afield during their stays.
I spoke with a friend who works for one of the Icelandic hotel chains to see if I could get some inside information. He had a lot to say about this topic, but here is the essence: book your hotel four to six months ahead of time if possible.This may sound premature, but what is happening is that many tour companies will book whole blocks of rooms with the anticipation that they will fill their tours and need accommodations. They have built in cancellation clauses, but when and if, they cancel the rooms they have booked is very unpredictable. There may be last minute openings, but do not count it.
Not surprisingly, all accommodation options in Iceland are seasonally sensitive to price. June, July, and August, along with Christmas and New Year’s holiday times are the peak tourist times and prices reflect this. Increasing in popularity are the months of January / February and September / October for those on the hunt for the northern lights. Remember, if you are looking to travel somewhere off the beaten path during the off-season, there may be no place to sleep. Many of the farm stays and cottages in these rural areas are only open during the summer so check ahead before you drive to Grundarfjörður to see a Game of Thrones shooting location in the off season .
Car rental companies were quick to import more cars as the number of tourists increased. Currently there is plenty of availability to meet requests all year round. In fact, Icelandic rental companies can meet just about any rental desire; compact cars, 4X4s, camper vans, motorcycles, ten-year-old Land Rover Defender, and even a super jeep with tires as tall as a five year old.
While there may be plenty of inventory, it is recommended to reserve a car for the summer high season before April for the lowest prices. You will pay more for a car rental pick up at Keflavík Airport, so if you are on a tight budget, look for rentals away from the airport. There are many car rental companies in Reykjavík.
Book “unique” vehicles like a Toyota Land Cruiser or super jeep three to four months before your arrival to ensure there is inventory available. Be prepared to pay handsomely for these type of vehicles particularly during the peak summer seasons. A word of caution, if you have always dreamed of driving a rugged 4X4 off-track in untamed nature, do not do it here! Driving off-road is strictly forbidden and fined heavily. Stick to the roads.
Moreover, many of the roads in Iceland’s interior highlands (F Roads) are only open during a few months (or weeks) during the summer. Any damage that happens to cars while on the F Roads is not covered by insurance, and is your responsibility. While we are on the topic, always pay attention to the weather when driving a car in Iceland. It is not uncommon for all the roads in and out of Reykjavík, especially in the winter, to be closed due to weather.
The Blue Lagoon. Photo: Unsplash
It would be very hard to escape seeing any the promotional materials for the Blue Lagoon – they are ubiquitous. The milky silica rich hot waters of this geothermal spa area are a huge attraction for Iceland, and one of the 25 wonders of the world according to their promotional materials. While many tour operators offer a Blue Lagoon stop, those of you planning your own travels should schedule your visit to the Blue Lagoon as far ahead as possible. In fact, pre-booking is now required if you want to visit the Blue Lagoon at all – even if you are a hip hop star arriving by helicopter. This is a relatively simple process through their web page where you book a day and time slot . There are a variety of packages available, from “comfort” to the “luxury” package and you will pay accordingly.
The Secret Lagoon in Fluðir is smaller alternative to the Blue Lagoon without the silica rich bluish waters. Do not dismiss this alternative though, as it is a great, and increasingly popular stop for hot spring swimming. Many tour operators are adding the Secret Lagoon onto their Golden Circle tours. It is a great way to relax after spending some time in a bus or van. Due to the increase in visitors it is wise to book your tickets ahead of time online – particularly if you are visiting mid to late afternoon when the tourist buses are stopping in. The Secret Lagoon may not have the international recognition of the Blue Lagoon, and this is clearly reflected in the (more) reasonable price of admission.
Photo: Into the glacier
Not exactly sure what to call the largest man-made tunnel dug into a glacier. An exhibition? A curiosity? This 550 m/1,800 ft. borehole into Langjokull Glacier outside of Húsafell is an interesting excursion for those interested in glaciers and earth processes. You have to give credit to the folks who thought of this project as borderline fascinating/crazy as you hear the water running through the ice and you can see where the ice has shifted over time.
Part of the fun of this excursion is riding up from the base station to the glacier cave entrance in the giant 8X8 Man vehicles that were modified from NATO missile carriers to glacier coaches. This is a guided tour only and must be booked in advance through your tour provider or online. From Húsafell you may take a shuttle or drive up the F road 550 (June 1 – October 15 with a 4X4 only) to the Klaki Base Camp where the Glacier vehicles depart. From October 16 – May 31 all departures are from Húsafell. Book two to three weeks ahead of time especially during the summer peak season – and pay attention to the weather if you are driving yourself. The F road accessing Klaki Base Camp .
Multi-day hikes usually need to be booked in advance. Photo: Pexels
There are many tour operators who offer multi-day adventure trips that focus on particular areas of the country with a whole range of activities. There are super jeep tours that will explore the waterfalls, glaciers South Coast. Ring Road trips that guide and show you some of the most spectacular highlights of Iceland’s famous Ring Road.
There are trips to the remote Westfjords region and trips dedicated to chasing the Northern Lights. Booking a multi-day trip is much like planning for your hotel. If you know what you want, and where, you should book as far ahead as possible. Another friend who works in the travel business made a very good point about these types of trips; many of these tour operators will book up the few hotel rooms that are available (particularly in winter) well ahead of time. So while these trips may seem expensive, when you factor in looking for a hotel room and renting a car on your own, these trips are not quite so unrealistic. A quick online search of “multi day trips Iceland” will reveal a whole variety of tours available. By clicking here , you can browse through Travelade's selection of multi-day tours. From bird watching, hiking, to knitting tours there is something for just about everyone.