We recently fulfilled a long time travel dream of mine, which was to visit Iceland. We did so thanks to an invite from Iceland Travel, and we chose to do one of their self-drive tour itineraries, which included car-hire, accommodation, and a suggested itinerary, but gave us the flexibility to essentially do we wanted on each day.
Given that self-guided is pretty much our favourite way to travel, obviously we jumped at the chance.
As well as that tour, we spent an additional week or so in the country exploring by ourselves, taking loads of photos, and getting as much information as we could to help you guys plan your own trip to Iceland. In this post, I want to go through everything you might want to consider for planning an Iceland trip, from the different ways to visit and get around Iceland, to some of the regions you might want to consider visiting for different length itineraries.
I’ll also be sharing a brief overview of our experiences with Iceland Travel, to help you decide if the sort of trip we did is right for you, and how we picked that trip. First, let’s get going with some:
Steps For Planning your Iceland Trip
Step 1. Decide When To Visit Iceland
The time of year you visit Iceland will make a big difference to what you see and how you experience the country, as well as how busy the attractions are. As an overview:
Visiting Iceland in Winter
Running roughly from mid-October right through to the end of April, winter is the least busy time in Iceland. The closer to December you visit, the darker the days will be – in mid-December you’ll get less than six hours of daylight! In March however this is up to 12 hours of daylight or more.
That darkness is great for seeing the Northern Lights, so if that’s a key consideration for your trip, winter is the time you should visit. Winter means snowy landscapes and icy driving conditions, and some parts of the country, particularly the high ground, become inaccessible for all but the most extreme off-road vehicles.
I’d definitely not be put off visiting Iceland in winter. Temperature rarely fall far below freezing, there are far fewer visitors, and the wintery landscapes are stunning to behold. Plus, that chance of seeing the northern lights is tempting!
Visiting Iceland in Fall & Spring
April, late September and early October are about as close to fall and spring as you are able to come in Iceland. These are essentially the shoulder months, with longer days than in winter, less chance of snow and more roads and attractions likely to be fully open and accessible.
Whilst it’s not likely to be too hot, the winter chill won’t be around, and you have a better chance of greener landscapes. It also won’t be as busy as summer time, although the longer days will limit your chance at seeing the northern lights.
Visiting Iceland in Summer
Summer is the most popular time to visit Iceland, so prices are likely to be higher and attractions more crowded with visitors. Roads will be open around the country, making attractions more accessible, and a number of tours that weren’t possible in the other months will be operational.
The long days means that you aren’t going to see the aurora borealis. The country will be beautifully green and lush though, with colourful wildflowers lighting up the landscape if you visit when they’re in bloom. Also a great time to see wildlife.
Step 2. Decide How Long You Want to Visit Iceland For
There’s a lot to see and do in Iceland, and you could easily fill up two or three weeks here. There are also many attractions within easy reach of Reykjavik, so even if you just did a two or three day stopover, you’d still be amazed by how much natural beauty you could fit in. We’d suggest that you should spend at least three to seven days in the country if you can to see as much as possible.
If you want to tackle the ring road that goes all the way around Iceland (advisable in the summer months), then you should think about at least seven days in Iceland, but preferably 10 – 14 days in order to get the most out of your experience.
However long you choose to visit Iceland for though, we think there’s a great experience waiting for you.
Step 3. Decide What kind of Trip to Take in Iceland
There are multiple options for how to travel in Iceland, which can be broadly categorised as follows:
A Self Drive Trip
Usually our preferred way of travelling, and definitely a good option in Iceland. A self-drive trip has you hiring a car and then travelling around Iceland under your own steam, staying in different locations and sight-seeing based on your interests. You have the flexibility to reschedule sights and activities if the weather is poor, add (or remove!) sights from your itinerary if you wish, and generally have the most control over your trip.
The disadvantage of a trip like this is that it can work out to be a more expensive option than a group tour once you’ve factored in all the costs of the hire-car, accommodation, fuel and so-on.
A group guided tour
If you prefer to have someone else handle the driving while you enjoy the scenic views, then you might prefer to take a guided tour. These come in various types, from single-day excursions to multi-day trips, and you can book both private tours or group tours.
Iceland Travel for example offers a wide variety of group tours, including single day trips that cover a majority of the highlights of Iceland, such as the Golden Circle and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. They also offer longer, more in-depth multi-day group tours. including a full tour of Iceland, and one focusing on the South Coast highlights.
Guided tours have the advantage that you don’t have to worry about anything other than being on time for the bus. They usually work out to be cheaper than doing it yourself, and you know that you’re going to see all the highlights.
Many people, especially those with only a few days to spare, base themselves in Reykjavik and then take a series of single day excursions to places to visit highlights like the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, do a glacier hike, and to see the Northern Lights. Although you do need to be prepared to spend some time in a bus, it is amazing how much you can see doing day trips while returning back to your hotel in Reykjavik each night!
The disadvantage is that you don’t have the flexibility to stop as and when you want, and in a group tour in particular, obviously you’ll be with a number of other people. Of course, this can be a great way to meet people and have a social aspect to your trip.
A private guided tour
A private tour can be a “best of both worlds” option, but these do tend to end up being the most expensive option for a trip, so unless there is a fairly large group of you, or money is no object, we’d suggest that either a self-drive trip or a group tour are going to be better value.
Finally, you could try to get around Iceland by public transport. There are public buses, but from a sight-seeing perspective, this is definitely not an optimal option as they generally don’t stop at the sights you want to see. We’d definitely advise picking one of the other options rather than public transport if you want to see Iceland’s natural attractions beyond the major towns.
Step 4. Choose an Itinerary for your Iceland Trip
Now you’ve decided when and for how long you want to visit Iceland, you’re going to want to plan an itinerary. Of course, once you’ve started putting an itinerary together, you might decide you need even longer in this wonderful country – and that’s fine of course!
1 – 4 days in Iceland
We’d suggest tor trips of one to three days you focus on the sights around and within a three to four hour drive of Reykjavik. For example, a day trip around the Golden Circle, a morning at the blue lagoon, a day trip along the south coast of Iceland to see some of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, and perhaps a day trip up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. These can all be easily done as either a day trip tour from Reykjavik or as part of a self drive tour.
4 – 7 days in Iceland
Four to seven days gives you lots of choice in Iceland. Our suggestion would be to explore from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the west all the way along to Jökulsárlón in the east, taking in highlights including the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon, the mighty waterfalls of the south coast and the glacier region in the south-east. These would be perfect as part of a self drive tour, or you could join multiple single-day tours together from the city.
7+ days in Iceland
With seven days to play with, and if you’re not travelling in the middle of winter, then the Ring Road is likely going to be your natural choice. You’ll be able to see the major highlights of Iceland on this incredible journey around the country, with more photo opportunities than you can imagine. This is a popular option, and can be done either as a self-drive trip or as part of a group tour.
Alternatively, you could thoroughly explore from the east of the country right along the south coast and see everything from the highlights to the less visited attractions, really taking your time and taking it all in.
Now you should have an idea of when you’re going to visit Iceland, how long you’re going to spend in Iceland, what sort of trip you’re going to do in Iceland and where you want to go in Iceland! We went through all these steps, and now I’m going to share with you what that ended up looking like, and why we made the choices we did.
A Review of Our Trip To Iceland
Why we went in Winter
We chose Iceland in mid-March as it seemed like a good trade-off between the amount of available daylight (around 11 – 12 hours each day) whilst still having the chance to see the northern lights. I’ve wanted to see the northern lights for a long time, and been foiled on every attempt.
Spoiler alert, we didn’t see the northern lights in Iceland on this trip either. We were unlucky to be in Iceland during a quiet period for solar activity, and many of the nights were cloudy. We didn’t let this spoil our trip of course, but it’s definitely something to think about when picking a time of year to visit – the northern lights are not guaranteed!
How Long We Went For
We were in Iceland for 12 nights, which gave us plenty of time to do everything we wanted to do. As we were visiting in the winter months, we focused our attention on the south and west parts of the country, as these were more accessible. Much of the northern part of the country is harder to access in winter, and road closures due to snow and ice can be a problem.
The Trip we Chose to Do With Iceland Travel
The trip we chose with Iceland Travel was an eight day / seven night self-drive trip called Glacial Exploration and Auroras. At the time of writing this is the longest self-drive itinerary available in the winter months, because Iceland Travel don’t offer self-drive tours around the ring road at this time of year. If you are interested in seeing all of Iceland in Winter, then we would suggest the Iceland Complete Winter tour, which goes around the whole country, and runs October through to April.
We chose the itinerary not just because it promised glaciers and auroras, but because looking at the map, it covered the majority of the highlights that we were interested in, including the golden circle and all the highlights of the south coast all the way to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
It even covered a part of the country a little north of Reykjavik, although not quite as far as the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. As we had extra time after the trip though, we were able to explore the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in our own time – we just extended the hire car a few more days.
Why we Chose a Self-Drive Tour
We chose a self-drive trip because it exactly matches our way of travel. We often take longer at stops because I’m waiting for the right light for a shot, or I’m waiting for the crowds of people to disperse. Sometimes we want to spend more time at a location because Jess wants to drop in at a museum. Often, I’ll need to drive somewhere for a sunset or sunrise.
Basically, we like to have control and flexibility over our plans, and a self-drive trip exactly lines up with those needs. With Iceland Travel, they took all the hassle out of the trip – things like finding a place to stay or getting a local SIM card. They provided us with loads of information about where we were going and what we might like to see. And then, we were essentially left to do as we pleased.
We’re not averse of course to other types of trip, and enjoy group tours as well. Overall though, a self-drive tour was definitely the best choice for us in Iceland.
Who Are Iceland Travel?
At this point, we’ll provide a quick overview of who Iceland Travel are, in case you were wondering! They’ve been around for a long time, since 1937 in fact. Which means they know a thing or two about travel in Iceland. They’re a subsidiary of Icelandair, which operates one of the major Icelandic airlines, as well as running a number of hotels around the country that they use on their trips.
Despite being a well established company, Iceland Travel have kept pace with the times, taking advantage of modern technology where it can be used to enhance a visitors experience.
We loved that they gave us a SIM card for example as part of our package, and in 2017 they’re introducing the Iceland Travel Companion, an iPad available on all 38 of their self-drive itineraries that serves as itinerary, GPS and route guide, highlighting everything you might want to see as you go. Pretty cool and something we hope to use when we return!
They have lots of choice when it comes to tours as well, with well over 100 day tours, 35 group tours and 38 self-drive tours. So we’re pretty sure you’ll find something to suit.
What’s Included (and what isn’t) on a Self Drive Tour with Iceland Travel?
The Iceland Travel self-drive tour that we took included:
- All of our accommodation with free breakfasts
- Rental car with CDW (collision damage waiver), theft protection and unlimited mileage (including a free additional driver)
- Free GPS
- Car pick/up and drop off at Keflavik International airport
- A detailed road-map and welcome pack with our itinerary
- A SIM card that included calls, texts and data
As mentioned above, all tours for 2017 going forward will also receive the Iceland Travel Companion digital package.
Of course, the Iceland Travel tour doesn’t include everything. Notably, (and like most similar tours) it didn’t include:
- Optional activities
- Airfare to and from Iceland
- Fuel for the car
- Any other meals or snacks
- Additional optional car insurance including ash damage, windscreen damage, or underbody damage. These were all available to purchase at car pickup.
These inclusions are pretty standard for all their self-drive tours, although of course check the details for the tour you’re interested in to be sure.
Types of Trips Iceland Travel Offer
Self-drive tours span from 1 to 19 nights, with availability for each tour depending on the time of year. The majority of these trips are available at four different price points, depending on the accommodation comfort level you are interested in. These four levels are budget, economy, comfort and superior.
- Budget trips are the cheapest, with private accommodation featuring shared facilities in basic hotels, farmhouses and guest houses.
- Economy trips are the next level up. All accommodation features private facilities in a mix of standard hotels, farmhouses and guest houses.
- Comfort trips are another level up, with higher quality hotels and guesthouses throughout Iceland, and of course, private facilities.
- Superior Self-Drive trips are the top level product. These are available as a nightly upgrade to the comfort level, where you can choose certain nights to be upgraded at a fixed price per room. This is an on request service that needs to be arranged in advance.
In addition to the accommodation options, you also have the option to choose what kind of car you want. These range from basic small cars through to top of the range four wheel drive vehicles. Each tour has a recommended car type so you can be sure you pick a suitable option. If you’re travelling in winter, we definitely suggest you choose a four wheel drive.
As well as the self-drive tours, Iceland Travel offers guided tours. These are available from single day trips through to twelve day tours, and departures are guaranteed with a minimum of two people on the trip. Group sizes are for the most part limited to 36 people. Group tours often include dinner and some attraction entrances also, check each tour itinerary details for information.
A Summary of our Eight Day Iceland Itinerary
So, we did all the planning, we figured out when and where we wanted to travel, and we had our tour all lined up! Now I’m going to run through the tour and let you know our experiences, what we liked, and anything we were unhappy with.
A previously mentioned, we chose the eight day Glacial Exploration and Auroras self-drive trip, and we opted for the comfort package with a mid-range four wheel drive station wagon style vehicle.
This started and ended in Reykjavik, and had us exploring the fjords, glaciers and waterfalls just north of the city, followed by the golden circle, and then along the south coast to the mighty waterfalls and stunning black sand beaches, heading as far east as the Glacier Lagoon.
Here’s a quick overview of what we got up to each day, and you can see the full details of this tour on the Iceland Travel website.
Day 1 – Reykjavik.
Our first day had us picking up our car from Hertz Iceland. We’d actually arrived in Reykjavik a day early, so rather than picking it up at Keflavik International Airport, we picked it up in the city centre.
Our suggested itinerary then had us visiting the Blue Lagoon, which is a great option on the way to or from the airport as it’s only a few kilometres from Keflavik International Airport. This would be a great way to unwind after a long flight. As it was, because we had arrived the day prior and taken the bus transfer to the airport, we actually visited the Blue Lagoon on our second day.
We spent our first day exploring the city, which both of us enjoyed – Reykjavik has a lot to offer, and we had no problem finding things to do. So much so in fact that we spent a further two days exploring the city after our trip was over, and Jess will be writing a post all about those experiences over on her blog soon.
Day 2 – Fjords
We started our second day heading out of the city to the Blue Lagoon for an early morning swim. Visiting the Blue Lagoon first thing in the morning is something we’d definitely recommend as it was very quiet when we did so. And whilst neither of us are exactly “spa” people, we both really enjoyed the Blue Lagoon experience. There’s just something very relaxing about being in a huge body of warm water underneath blue Icelandic skies, with steam all around and it was definitely one of the early highlights of our trip.
We then doubled back on ourselves and headed north. In retrospect, we definitely feel that following the suggested itinerary and doing the Blue Lagoon on the first or last day makes more sense so as to avoid this detour, however, this worked for us.
From Reykjavik our route took us up around Hvalfjordur, a beautiful 30km coastal drive, and then onto the coastal town of Borgarnes where we visited the church, a statue on the hill, and also the Settlement Centre. Found in two of Borgarnes’s oldest buildings, this tells the story of Iceland’s earliest days and some of the heroes of the Icelandic Sagas.
We then headed inland stopping at Deildartunguhver (Icelandic names are fun!), which is Europe’s most powerful hot spring. 180 litres per second of water at boiling point pours out of the ground here!
After Deildartunguhver we continued on up to Hraunfossar, one of Iceland’s more unusual waterfalls. Hraunfossar is actually a sideways waterfall that runs for 900 metres along the Hvítá river. The water actually pours out from underneath the lava field here, and so it looks like it’s just coming out from under the ground – which of course it is. It looks very cool, and was particularly pretty at sunset, which was when we visited.
Finally, we headed back to our hotel, the Icelandair Hotel Hamar, just outside Borganes, for a relaxing nights sleep.
Day 3 – Falls
Our itinerary for our third day had us visiting a glacier in the afternoon, with the morning set aside for exploring the region. Jess had found out that Iceland’s highest easily accessible waterfall was less than an hour’s drive away, so I set out to find that whilst Jess relaxed in the hotel.
The hike up to Glymur Falls was a wonderful experience, with seabirds swirling, stunning views across the landscapes and plenty of photography opportunities. It was a natural entry for my post on my favourite photography spots in Iceland.
Returning to Jess and the hotel, we were sad to learn that our scheduled trip onto the glacier had been cancelled due to poor weather. It was rescheduled to the following morning, weather permitting, but we now had a free afternoon. Thankfully, our Iceland Travel guidebook had plenty of options, and we explored the region, and took advantage of the hotel’s outdoor geothermal hot tubs – even more fun as it was snowing when we used them!
Day 4 – Glacier and Golden Circle
On our fourth day the weather was good enough for our Glacier tour! We were excited about this because neither of us had been on a glacier before. This was an optional excursion arranged through Iceland Travel with Into the Glacier. The tour involves a 40 minute ride in a huge 18 wheeled converted ex-NATO missile launcher, followed by an hour or so exploring inside the world’s largest man made ice tunnel. Definitely a recommended option!
From our glacier expedition we headed east, taking advantage of our four wheel drive to take a couple of mountain roads and stop off at the beautiful Þórufoss waterfall, which we had all to ourselves. Then, it was on Iceland’s famous Golden Circle – a loop road that’s popular as a day trip from Reykjavik, and includes the UNESCO listed Þingvellir National Park, the stunning Gulfoss waterfall and the Geysir national park. That was a busy day, but we managed to get everything in before sunset, and headed to our Icelandair hotel in Flúðir.
Day 5 – Waterfalls and Beaches
Our fifth day of exploration had us heading along Iceland’s incredible south coast, which is home to some truly spectacular scenery. Ok, who am I kidding, Iceland is home to spectacular scenery pretty much everywhere. Highlights of this day were truly dramatic though, including two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss.
The former you can actually go behind, which makes for some unique (if wet!) photography opportunities. Further along we stopped at Dyrhólaey Arch and the beautiful basalt lined beaches near the picturesque town of Vik. As you can imagine, our camera’s were kept very busy. Finally, we arrived at Klaustur, where we overnighted at another Icelandair hotel.
Day 6 – Icebergs and Glaciers!
Pushing further east, our sixth day had us crossing a huge lava field, as well as the site of a massive glacial flood, which washed away chunks of the ring road in a huge deluge. As we travelled we saw a number of waterfalls as well as those beautiful Icelandic horses, that of course we had to stop (safely off the road!) to photograph.
Then we vistited Svartifoss, a remarkable waterfalls over black basalt columns which has given it the name the “Black Falls”. We also took in the Svinafellsjokull glacier, which was as close to end of a glacier that we came on the trip, with the chunks of blue hued ice almost in touching distance.
Finally, our day culminated with a visit to Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. The Breiðamerkurjökull glacier meltwater flows into the lake, along with the ice that breaks off the glacier, creating a truly wonderful sight of an iceberg filler lake.
Even better, the icebergs float out to sea and are washed up on nearby Diamond Beach, making for countless photo opportunities, and the perfect place for us to watch sunset.
Day 7 – Back to Reykjavik
Our last full day on our trip had us making the journey back along the south coast to Reykjavik. We didn’t mind retracing our steps, in fact, we took full advantage of it, stopping off at some locations again to get a few more shots. This was particularly handy at one of the beaches we visited where the tide was lower, meaning we could get some shots we hadn’t previously caught before.
We also stopped at a number of picturesque fishing villages on the way back, and finished off a wonderful self-drive itinerary with a gorgeous sunset over the remote and stunning church of Strandarkirkja on the south west tip of Iceland. Then it was back to Reykjavik for our last night on our tour!
Day 8 – The end!
Our last day would normally have had us heading to the airport and returning our hire car, perhaps with a stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way. However, we weren’t ready to stop and we had a few more days in the country. So we extended our hire car a few more days, and went off on further explorations under our own steam. More on those in a future post!
That pretty much summarises what we got up to on our self drive tour with Iceland Travel. Now let me go over some of the things we enjoyed about it!
What we Enjoyed About Our Iceland Trip with Iceland Travel
There were a number of things we really liked about our trip with Iceland Travel. First, it was super-easy. With all our accommodation taken care of, plus a detailed suggested itinerary, we had no problem filling our days.
The information we received on the way up to and as we started our trip was wonderfully comprehensive, helping us to ensure we were fully prepared. We were sent a 27 page PDF walkthrough of our itinerary and all the highlights we could expect to see on the route, as well as shorter detailed itinerary of our exact hotels and booked excursions.
We also loved the massive choice that Iceland Travel have, both in terms of types of trip available, and the itineraries they have on offer throughout the year. Whatever you’re interested in, we’re pretty sure you’ll find a tour to suit.
What could have been improved?
Overall, our experience with Iceland Travel was fantastic, but of course, not everything is perfect in life. A few minor niggles. First, when hiring the car, whilst CDW was included, there were a number of optional insurances that weren’t included, which would have been nice for peace of mind. Admittedly, this would likely have caused the cost to go up, but perhaps having the option presented up front when booking the tour would make it clearer.
Another area that might have been nice would have been to give us the option for half board at some of the hotels. Meals in Iceland are a big cost for a trip, and a half board option might have helped offset that.
Lastly, it would have been nice to see the Northern Lights. Of course, this has nothing to do with Iceland Travel, we were really unlucky with our timing and the weather conditions, and despite our best efforts, we just didn’t get to make it happen. So it just goes to show that even on a longish trip like ours, at the right time of year, you might not have luck. Still, it’s an excuse to go back, and we’re happy about that!
What to Pack on a Trip to Iceland
Iceland is a country where the weather can change very quickly, whatever time of year you visit. Layers are going to be the answer, we’d suggest thermal base layers, then warm mid-layers like fleeces, followed by waterproof and windproof outerlayers.
You’re also going to want good hiking boots or shoes, gloves and a hat. If you’re visiting any of the thermal springs, save money by bringing your own towel, and of course don’t forget your swimwear, and maybe a waterproof case for your phone so you can get the perfect selfie!
Other than that you don’t need to pack anything particularly special for a trip to Iceland. Check out our full digital nomad packing list for an idea of what we take on trips to help you prepare.
Where to Stay in Iceland
Iceland has a wide range of accommodation options, from farm stays, vacation rentals and B&B’s through to higher end full service hotels.
On our tour with Iceland Travel we stayed at 3 and 4 star properties throughout the country, which were comfortable and included a full breakfast. When travelling by ourselves, we largely booked through AirBnB, which is usually our preferred way to find a place to stay if available. We also use a number of other sites like AirBnB, check out our full guide to AirBnB alternatives right here.
Further Reading to Help you Plan your Trip to Iceland
We’ll be writing a lot more about Iceland across our two blogs in the coming months, so this list will be updated as we go. In the meantime, here are some great resources to get you started with planning your trip.
- We’ve put together a list of some of our favourite photography locations in Iceland from this trip to give you some ideas of where to aim to get the best photos
- We travelled with Iceland Travel – check out their website for tour options and prices
- The weather in Iceland can be fickle – the best website for real-time cloud cover is this one from the Icelandic Met Office.
- Iceland is not a budget destination, but here are some excellent tips on saving money on your Iceland trip from a budget travel expert
- Whilst Iceland is a safe country to travel in when it comes to things like crime, the country itself is home to extreme conditions and all sorts of seismic activity. So to stay safe as you go, check out the safetravel Iceland page
- If you’re not sure what camera gear to take with, take a look at both our guide to picking a travel camera, and our personal travel photography gear
- Finally, if you’re visiting in winter, you’ll want to read through my tips for cold weather photography.
And that finishes up my guide to planning the perfect trip to Iceland! I hope you enjoyed it. Is Iceland on your list? Let us know in the comments below!
So you know: We received a complimentary seven day tour of Iceland with Iceland Travel, which included our accommodation and hire car, plus an allowance for fuel. In addition, if you book any trip with Iceland Travel from the links above we’ll earn a small commission. We covered our own flights and the remainder of our time exploring Iceland was on our own budget. As always, you can see our code of ethics for how we choose who to work with!