Why would you go to Iceland in the winter?
Because it is an amazing adventure.
I went to Iceland in January with two of my closest friends to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first adventure together, when we backpacked through Europe as young single girls. Although we live on opposite sides of the country, and have chosen different paths in life, we left husbands and children at home this year to experience another adventure together.
Here are 12 things you should know the truth about before you plan a winter adventure in Iceland.
1) Iceland is freezing.
False. Even in January, Iceland temperatures were warmer than in Boston. That being said, I am not usually posing for selfies by a frozen waterfall in Boston. So it was cold, but not freezing. And once you are inside you will be HOT. Heating is plentiful and free, because Iceland uses its own geothermal power sources, and we found it was always cranked up to high (with the windows open to let in the fresh air). So when you are inside you will be warm and toasty without arguing with your husband about wasting money on heat.
And there are lots of great coffee shops in Reykyavik. I read somewhere there are more coffee shops per capita than any other capital city. That’s my kind of city! Check out my Reykyavik Coffee Shops Map.
2) You need cash in Iceland.
False. You can use credit cards everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Even the smallest mini mart in a remote area gladly accepts a credit card for a $1 purchase. Iceland is the perfect place to visit for people (like me) who love to get airline points on their credit cards.
3) You must have four-wheel drive in Iceland.
False. The streets look scary, covered in snow and ice. But we rented a little Yaris from the friendly people at Lagoon car rental and we were just fine, thanks to the good snow tires. It turns out that snow tires are like crampons for your car. That being said, I did not enjoy driving at night over the mountain pass from Reykjavik to Laugavartn because of the extreme darkness and occasional white outs from blowing snow. In a 1.5 hour drive around 10pm I probably passed only about 10 other cars on the road and I wondered who would find us if we disappeared into a snow drift. It was comforting to be told that Icelanders have an obligation to stop to help any motorists in trouble, which I am sure is usually tourists. But fortunately that was not needed.
4) Iceland is expensive
True. Iceland is not a budget friendly location. A bowl of lamb stew at a gas station restaurant was $19. And admission to the Fontana thermal springs for a soak was $26. But there are a few good ways to save money:
· Food: Iceland is not known for its amazing food (although you should try the fermented shark just to say you’ve done it). So stay in an Airbnb apartment instead of a hotel so that you can cook your own meals. Buying groceries at the local Bonus discount store was probably 5x cheaper than eating at a restaurant. Just make sure you stock up if you will be going outside the main cities. Markets in small towns are few and far between and when do find one it will probably be closed.
· Alcohol: By far the cheapest place to buy alcohol in Iceland is the Duty Free shop at the airport, located just before you claim your luggage. An average bottle of wine costs about 1800kr, the same as a glass of wine at a restaurant in Reykyavik. Even if you buy more than you think you will need, you’ll drink it, trust me.
· Souvenirs: Shockingly, Keflavik airport is also the cheapest place to buy souvenirs because it is one of the only airports that is both tax and duty free. Every “unique” Icelandic item we bought during our trip we found at the airport departure terminal for a cheaper price. And there is a great selection of Icelandic alcohol in tiny bottles that make great gifts that we did not find anywhere else. Plus, if you are flying on the discount WOW airlines, items you buy after check-in don’t count in your luggage weight limit.
6) It is dark all day during the winter in Iceland.
False. When we went in January we were told to expect just a few hours of daylight. But what they didn’t tell us is that sunrise and sunset are extremely long and beautiful. It started to get light around 9:30am and didn’t get completely dark until around 5:30pm. And it extends a bit every day. So you can get plenty of sightseeing done during that time. And I have to say that the color of the light is just incredible. It is the kind of muted golden light that professional photographers try to capture during “magic hour” but you don’t need to rush to catch it.
7) The Blue Lagoon is the ultimate Iceland experience.
False. The Blue Lagoon is the #1 tourist attraction in Iceland. Even people at home who know nothing about Iceland asked “are you going to go to the Blue Lagoon?” In fact, no. The Blue Lagoon was closed for renovations the one week that we were there. Although we were disappointed, the locals told us that it is nice but overrated and there are plenty of other “hot pot” experiences that are just as good. (Minus the milky blue water).
· Secret Lagoon: I loved finding natural hot spots coming up from the lava rock bottom of the “Secret Lagoon” Thermal Springs (even though it is certainly not a secret anymore).
· Fontana GeoThermal Baths: On the other end of the spectrum was soaking in the fancy spa-like Fontana thermal springs. In the evening they place candles in giant lanterns around the pools. A favorite memory will be heating up in the sauna and jumping into the icy lake, polar plunge style.
· City Pools: Icelandic locals love their swimming pools and they are everywhere. So join the locals in a soak at a local city pool. Just be sure to follow the changing room rules or expect to get some serious stink eyes from everyone around you.
8) Icelanders are great marketers.
True. This has nothing to do with the winter season but I have to give a shout out to some extremely creative and effective Icelandic marketers and the ways they came up with to get money from tourists. An empty can: free. An empty can marketed as “Pure Icelandic Air”: $11. Chocolate covered licorice balls: $3. Chocolate covered licorice balls marketed as “Icelandic Horse Poop”: $8. (You know which one every little boy at home will love).
9) Taking a winter adventure trek tour in Iceland is too expensive
False. The best decision of our entire trip was to splurge on a two day winter GoEcco adventure trek. The memory of following Thor, our bearded Viking tour guide, across a glacier and inside a spectacular natural ice cave is a highlight of my life. It was by far one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and will ever hope to see. In those two days we saw so many incredible natural wonders. Perhaps we could have seen some of them on our own, but it would have taken much longer and been much more stressful. We just let Thor lead the way and show us the beauty of Iceland. Other highlights of this tour included watching the Northern Lights through the steam of the jJacuzzi, seeing the light change the color of giant ice chunks on a black sand beach, sitting quietly on the edge of a glacier and listening to the ice crack and sharing stories with the experienced travelers in our small group as we “chased the light” to our next stop. As Thor loved to say, “It’s amazing, right?”
10) It is easier to just take day trips from Reykyavik.
False. I am so glad that we decided to get out of the main city and stay in a small town on the Golden Circle for a few nights. It was the perfect base for seeing the Geysir and Gulfoss waterfall on our own without the constraints of an organized tour or the pressure to drive back to the city after a few hours at the thermal springs. A favorite memory will be sleeping in until 9am and still watching the sunrise over the frozen lake with a hot cup of tea, from the huge windows of our fantastic little rental house in Laugavartn. Plus we had a fantastic meal at Lindin restaurant of “seasonal game” that included smoked whale, reindeer pate and cured lamb. Outside the city I feel that we could really experience the quiet and isolation that is Iceland.
(Note: if you are reading this and have never used AirBnb, sign up here and we both get a discount)
11) Winter is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.
True. The best time to see the lights is when the sky is dark, so of course winter is best. But just because it is dark, seeing the lights is not guaranteed. The weather has to be just right and the weather in Iceland changes quickly. I heard people say you need to stay 7 days as the lights go in cycles. Others checked the Aurora forecast and planned their trip so they did not go during a full moon. This post has some good tips including my favorite, "Don’t go for the Northern Lights; go for the destination." View it as a bonus, not a requirement of your trip. We were lucky to see a beautiful display of lights two nights in a row and grateful that our new friend Diana Beringschmidt took photos for us on her fancy SLR camera with tripod. Your iPhone camera is definitely not enough to capture this.
12) Iceland will push your limits.
True. If you let it, Iceland will make you fearless. There were so many things on this trip that made me nervous, but in the end I did them all. By far the biggest feeling of triumph came when I pushed past a panic attack and jumped into a freezing glacial lake to snorkel between the tectonic plates at Silfra. In the future, as I face other mental challenges I can look back on this and feel confident that I am strong enough to do it and survive.
So even though Iceland may not have been your idea of the ideal winter vacation destination, you should listen to Thor. Because he is right, it is AMAZING.
By Anya Ciecierski, Collaboration Works Marketing
Follow me on Twitter: @AnyaCWMktg
(click photos to see more)