When visiting one of your bucket list countries, you don’t want to leave your planning and research to the last minute! Especially when that country is the one and only, Iceland. So I’ve put together all the main need-to-know’s, do’s and don’t’s, for visiting Iceland, whilst a pandemic still hangs over our heads. From what you need to figure out well in advance of your trip, to right before departure, and everything to keep in mind while touring this gorgeous island, I’ve got you covered.
Months Before Departure
Updated COVID-19 Information for Entering Iceland
You might be asking: Can I even enter Iceland right now? To which the answer is: Yes! As of October 1st 2021, all valid passport holders, regardless of origin, are welcome to visit Iceland. (Check here to see if you require a visitor’s visa and how you can apply for one.)
The question is, do you get a free pass on the mandated quarantine? All vaccinated travellers as well as those who’ve been previously infected with COVID-19 can visit Iceland without quarantining as long as the following conditions are met:
- If you hold a valid vaccination certificate (containing these criteria), 14 days must have passed since your second dose was administered.
- All fully vaccinated passengers or those with a prior COVID-19 infection must also present proof of a negative COVID-19 test (either a PCR or rapid antigen test) within 72 hours of departing on the first leg of the journey to Iceland.
- If you have had a recent diagnosis of COVID-19, you do not need to present a negative PCR or rapid antigen test at the border, but must provide a positive PCR test no older than 180 days and no younger than 14 days.
- All test results and certificates must follow these requirements.
- All travellers must pre-register on visit.covid.is prior to travelling to Iceland.
For all other travellers who don’t meet the above will need to undergo a 5-day quarantine upon arrival, with a PCR test performed at the border and a second PCR test conducted five days after. Here‘s where you need to look to make sure you’re set for that home-based quarantine.
For more info and to keep yourself updated with all things surrounding coronavirus, bookmark covid.is in your browser!
Figuring Out How You Want to Get Around Iceland
Camper Vanning in Iceland
I personally recommend going with a camper van when visiting Iceland for a number of reasons. If you’re debating on it, here’s everything to consider as to why it’s a good idea and why I highly recommend you going with a camper van!
There are a number of things to think about when renting a camper van, and I’ve compiled them for your trip planning below under What You Need to Know While in Iceland. We were first time van-lifers on our trip to Iceland, and these were the top items that we had to put some thought into having the van versus a car.
For my favourite camper van options, visit Lava Car Rental. Between a 2WD and a 4×4 (or AWD), I definitely suggest you go for the 4×4 camper van unless you’re going to Iceland in the dead of summer. Even in September, we were met with icy, snowy roads as we scaled the mountains and coast of the West Fjords. But if you’re staying in the south during the summer and early fall, driving mostly along the Ring Road, you likely won’t have to worry about such road conditions on the nicely paved drive. I talk more about our experience driving in Iceland later in this post so keep reading if you want a better idea of what it’s like!
Renting a Car and Booking Guesthouses in Iceland
If you’re leaning towards renting a car instead and booking hotel or guesthouse stays, there are tons of great options throughout Iceland, especially along the Ring Road. BUT they don’t come cheap and you’ll need to book these in advance, as opposed to campsites when you choose to rent a camper van. Though most guesthouses, particularly in remote areas, will offer you a private room with a shared bathroom and kitchen, there are more and more guesthouses popping up that provide a modern hotel experience. The Seljavellir Guesthouse near Hofn, for example, was a great place to unwind in a contemporary Icelandic-style accommodation, with a marvellous mountain view and breakfast available.
Most of the better rated and priced guesthouses will be snatched up in advance so aim to book your stays months before your trip. If you’re arriving in the height of the summer months, try to book at least six months prior to take advantage of the options available. Keep in mind that most of the newer guesthouses with private bathrooms are often upwards of $200 USD/night during high and shoulder seasons, and hotel accommodations are typically double that.
When renting a car, here is a wide selection from Lava Car Rental to choose from to get you to all your must-see spots in Iceland in comfort.
At Least One Week Before Your Flight Out
Update yourself again on all the requirements for entering Iceland throughcovid.is. Book your COVID test in the city you’ll be in before your trip, ensuring the test is taken within 72 hours of your flight departure time and that your results AND your vaccination records are issued – NOT translated – in either English, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish or Norwegian. The pharmacy from which we got our antigen test assured us that all the information we needed would be shown on our results and that the document would be issued in French and English.
And be sure to pre-register on visit.covid.is before your trip!
What to Pack for Iceland
When travelling to this gorgeous northern country, rain and cold are what you’ll need to factor in the most for what you’re bringing. It gets wet, it gets windy, but it also gets nice and steamy in the natural geothermal hot springs. Here’s what you’ll want to bring at the minimum to Iceland:
- Rain jacket
- Packable puffer jacket
- Water resistant & windproof pants with fleece lining
- Waterproof hiking or trail shoes
- Microfiber towel
- Hand warmers
- Universal voltage adaptor
- Travel water bottle
Think about having your daily leisure shoes be water resistant as well. You just never know when you’ll get wet or step in mud! Vessi‘s are definitely a great buy for this. They’re perfect for walking behind the misty Seljalandsfoss or across the reflective beach at Stokksnes, and easy to clean after a muddy trip up to the Krafla crater.
The travel water bottle isn’t a must, but the locals will tell you that buying water in Iceland is a “scam”, just because of how pure and fresh the tap water is on the island. You can fill up in pretty much any washroom sink, and for all the camper vanners, you’ll be able to fill up your water tank at water stations on campsites. Thankfully, our camper van from Lava had a large tank with a dispenser that we only needed to refill once on our entire 10-day journey.
What You Need to Know While in Iceland
Camper Vanning in Iceland (cont’d)
To ensure you have the best van-life experience on this trip, these are the main points to think about now that you’re ready to drive your camper to your long awaited glaciers, canyons, waterfalls and volcanos.
What Kind of Fuel You’ll Need
The high majority of Iceland’s campers run on diesel fuel as their engines are more efficient for highway driving. Gas stations will provide two options: regular gas or diesel. Be sure to check with your rental company what engine your camper van has so you fill up on the right fuel! Diesel camper vans also use AdBlue – Europe’s diesel exhaust fluid – which you may have to refill in some rare cases if the tank depletes. If you ever get a warning to fill up, you can find an N1 near you that carries it using this location finder and they should have a pump much like a gas pump to fill up, or an AdBlue jug in store to manually refill your vehicle.
Thankfully, when booking campsites, you don’t need to book well in advance. Even during peak summer months, it is very rare to be turned away because the campsite is fully occupied. We made a list of different campsites that were highly rated on different blogs – one of them the beautiful Þakgil campground – and saved their locations on Google Maps. But as our itinerary kept changing (something to be aware of when you visit Iceland), we would merely look on Google Maps each day and choose a decent campsite in the area we wanted to spend our overnight. We simply drove in and an attendant would be there to take our fee, which was typically around 1,500 ISK per person ($12 USD pp). If you do want to guarantee a spot at a specific campsite, most will have online booking available through their website.
As you’ll have cooking equipment and utensils at your disposal in your house on wheels, be sure to check out Bónus, a local and tourist favourite for groceries! There are a number of other supermarket options like Krónan and Nettó, but Bónus usually has cheaper and more various options for ready-to-eat meals as well as food to cook. When we first arrived in Iceland, we also hit up the Costco in Reykjavik to stock up on bulk snacks, eggs, veggies and delicious sandwiches that kept us fed for the first 3-4 days. If you have a Costco membership, bring it with you to Iceland for a grocery run the first day and to fill up on cheaper gas the last day!
Where to Shower
Almost every single campsite has proper shower and washroom facilities for you to freshen up. But if you’re not keen on showering at the campgrounds, check out the town pools, tubs and natural thermal baths. We really enjoyed our time relaxing after days on the road in the milky blue waters of the Mývatn Nature Baths. And we ended our trip on a luxurious note at the Sky Lagoon in Reykjavik while immersing ourselves in their reviving seven-step ritual. One thing to remember is that it is required by law to shower fully nude before dipping into any pool, bath or thermal spa. Yes, you heard me! Most town pools don’t have private shower stalls and it might be awkward at first, but no one will pay you any attention as you wash off. But Mývatn, Sky Lagoon and Blue Lagoon also offer private shower stalls in their facilities.
Data service throughout the island wasn’t ideal, at least with our Airalo eSIM’s (which worked perfectly in other countries throughout Europe). You’re particularly not going to get much of a connection at all in the more remote areas as you’re driving further away from larger towns. Our portable wifi device from Lava was a life saver, getting us through our whole 10-day trip, with only a few hiccups and managed way better than our phone data. We were able to catch up on some Netflix and get work done effortlessly with the unlimited data usage on the pocket wifi, as well as pack it in our backpack for a day’s excursions.
What It’s Like Driving in Iceland
Road conditions along Iceland’s Route 1 (i.e. the Ring Road) are smooth for the most part. The entire south section of the Ring Road and the Golden Circle are easily drivable as this area is heavily trafficked by tourists.
Veering away from the Ring Road and Golden Circle will typically be a bumpy journey along gravel roads, sometimes riddled with potholes. This was exceptionally bad on routes 716 & 711 on our way to see the Hvítserkur basalt stack off the northern shore, as well as on route 332 to the majestically tall Háifoss waterfall near the Golden Circle, on which we had to literally drive across streams of water. Is the journey worth it? Absolutely no doubt about it! But it definitely tuckers you out and can double the driving duration that Google Maps tells you it will take.
Getting to Dynjandi was a journey and a half. It took us over five hours from where we camped in Borðeyri as we scaled the many uphills and downhills of the West Fjord mountains and coastline. Many times throughout our trip around the island, we thanked God we had our 4×4 camper van and winter tires.
A couple things to watch out for when you’re driving in Iceland, apart from the road conditions is:
- keep your eyes peeled for wildlife – you never know when sheep might be on the side of the road when you’re taking a corner on the highway;
- and, apart from in the main cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri, you’ll only ever come across single-lane traffic. In Iceland, much like most of Europe (but opposite to North America), solid and dashed white lines indicate traffic separation between two-way traffic, not one-way. When we finally got back to Reykjavik, we were very much inclined to veer into oncoming traffic thinking we would be changing lanes across the dashed white line, when in fact that would’ve been a big mistake!
Getting Around Iceland
Now that you’re aware of all of the above, you are all set to hit the road and enjoy your Iceland trip to the fullest! But I wanted to let you know of a few small things to prepare you even more.
A number of the popular attractions and landmarks require paid parking, which you will always be able to do by credit card at the pay stations. Some of the paid lots we encountered included Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss and Thingvellir National Park, and are mostly limited to the south and more frequented region of Iceland. There are also a few attractions that require a fee to visit, such as Svartifoss, Stokksnes and Kerið Crater.
Using Public Restrooms
Gas stations are the best spots for a rest stop: to grab a coffee (which is free at N1 coffee shops with coupons supplied by your car/camper rental company), eat a somewhat affordable hot dog and use the washroom. The washrooms are always clean and they’re free to use for customers. But you might not always be fortunate to be at a gas station when you gotta go. If a tourist attraction happens to have a washroom onsite, you’ll likely have to pay a small fee of 200 ISK to use it. The reason why this is is because the land in Iceland is predominantly privately owned and the owners who build the washroom facilities need a small fee to maintain it. This brings me to my next point.
Do You Need Cash in Iceland?
From our experience travelling here, my short answer is no. You can easily get away with only ever needing a couple of credit cards on you. When using the washroom in Dyrhólaey, we managed to simply tap our credit card at the washroom gate before entering. Easy! Every single campsite we visited had a card reader as well for us to pay for the night. The only time we ever came across a time where we needed to use cash was at one of the remote campsites that we arrived to later at night. This family-owned ground had a jar to leave our camping fee in, in the case the owner didn’t come by at night to collect. They gave the option to pay in either Icelandic króna or euros. So if you don’t think you’ll need to convert to ISK, it’s a good idea to carry some euros on you.
Finding Dining Spots
If you’re renting a car, hit up a supermarket like Bónus to grab some cheaper sandwiches and keep snacks in the car for those long drives, especially when driving in the north of Iceland. You’ll never have to worry much about finding places to dine unless you’re on the road between towns.
Keeping Up With the Weather Forecast
You may have heard that Iceland has some unpredictable weather and that it rains off and on quite a bit. This can definitely dampen the mood on your trip, especially when you check your phone’s weather app and it tells you that it’s wavering around 90% percent coverage for the next week no matter where you are on the island. Yikes! Thankfully, there’s a much better way to get a much more accurate forecast on your trip and be able to plan out where you should be for the next few days based on the weather. In comes vedur.is. Here, you’ll be able to pinpoint a little more precisely where the rain will hit along your journey and try your best to avoid it. But keep in mind, friends: unless you’re okay with dealing with the rain as you venture to all these beautiful and iconic destinations in Iceland, be prepared to change your itinerary as you go! There might be places that you will have to miss due to heavy rainfall. All the more reason to visit Iceland again!
Chasing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
On the same vedur.is site, you can also extrapolate the best time and place to see the Northern Lights! There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to experience them on your trip as two things need to coincide simultaneously: a decently high KP index (numbered between 0 and 9), and low cloud coverage. Check the aurora forecast on the website to see if you can catch them one night, or download the Aurora app on your phone to be notified when you should be out chasing this rare phenomenon. It notified me the nights the Northern Lights put on a crazy show this fall at home in Calgary!
Chasing the Lava
The Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted back in March 2021 and has been spewing lava cyclically ever since! It’s not everyday that you’d be able to see actual lava bursting out of an actual volcano and that might just be the memory of a lifetime that you do not want to miss. To find out if you can catch the lava flow on your trip to Iceland, there are at least two feeds to check out: the http://24-hour live stream of the active volcano and the ten-day seismograph. The seismic activity of the volcano keeps at a steady interval so you might be able to predict when it’ll erupt next based on the last ten days!
What Route to Take in Iceland Depending on Trip Duration
Not every single stunning view in this otherworldly country will be able to be checked off on your temporary visit, unfortunately. If only we could experience all that there is in one trip! So here are some ideas on where to confine your route depending on the number of days you’re in Iceland:
- 2-3 days
A short but wonderful getaway would be perfect by staying in and near Reykjavik. You could spend a day in the city visiting the Hallgrímskirkja church, hike to see the Fagradalsfjall volcano, spend a few hours unwinding at the Blue Lagoon or Sky Lagoon, and venture along the Golden Circle to walk between two continents at Thingvellir National Park, witness the powerful Gullfoss waterfall and see the blast of the hot springs at the Geysir Geothermal Area. If you have more time on your hands, make the trip out to the iconic Kirkjufellfoss and Seljalandsfoss.
- 5 days
We have some crazy friends who made the full circle around the Ring Road plus the West Fjords in five days. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re just as crazy and can survive on a few hours of sleep. I’d suggest just sticking to the south of Iceland for a five-day trip, visiting Dyrhólaey, the Reynisfjara black sand beach, Diamond beach and Jökulsárlón glacier, all the way to Stokksnes, visiting the many waterfalls and canyons – such as Fjaðrárgljúfur and Múlagljúfur – along the way. Spend some time in the village of Vík í Mýrdal and catch a great view from the high-up church.
- 7 days
With at least a week in Iceland, you’ll have plenty of time to see our most favourite region in all of Iceland: the East Fjords. This remote drive with seaside cliffs, insane mountain peaks and heavenly sunset views over the ocean was absolutely spectacular. With enough favourable weather conditions, you could make the whole way around the Ring Road no problem. If you choose to, you could even do the hike to the gorgeous Stuðlagil canyon near Egilsstadir, check out the volcanic area of Mývatn with a hot dip in the milky blue baths, and visit the second most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, Dettifoss.
- 10 days
Ten days will definitely suffice to make the full circle around the Ring Road. I do suggest still going counterclockwise as the south is more populated with attractions, and by then you’ll be ready to occasionally get off the beaten path and avoid the crowds. You’ll also have time to spend a day or two in the West Fjords, provided you were able to cover much ground at the beginning of your trip. The West Fjords are definitely more of the unexplored territory but immensely beautiful. If you’re visiting in the summer months, this is also a great area to spot some cute puffins!
- 14+ days
Now you’re getting into some insane adventuring. I’m jealous. With at least two weeks on your hands, you’ll certainly be able to head up some of the F-roads – with a great 4×4 vehicle of course – and tour a bit of the marvellous Highlands on top of doing the Ring Road, Golden Circle and West Fjords. Prepare to be amazed and feel like you’ve teleported to a whole other planet!
Preparing Yourself to Head Back Home
Your Iceland vacation is coming to an end and it’s time to prepare for your journey home, or your continued adventure! You’ll likely need to get tested for COVID-19 to enter your home country or your next destination. There are two location sites in all of Iceland: one in Akureyri and one in Reykjavik. Make sure to allocate enough time at the tail end of your trip to get tested and receive your results on time to board your flight out. Visit travel.covid.is to order your test (you’ll need to book an appointment time and pay in advance) and all you need to do is show up with your booking confirmation!
Well, that about sums up everything to prepare for your travels to the land of ice and fire in 2022! If I missed anything or if you have any questions about things I did and didn’t address, please leave a comment down below and I’ll be sure to answer it! I hope you’re looking forward to the trip of a lifetime.