A trip to Iceland is a grand adventure, but it’s not as easy as just showing up and doing cool stuff. Because the country is an expensive place to travel and so many of the best things to do there are epic, you want to make sure you put some thought into your trip beforehand. Here are thirteen steps to planning a trip to Iceland that will be utterly unforgettable.
Planning a Trip to Iceland Checklist
Follow these thirteen steps, and you’ll find that planning a trip to Iceland is easier than it seems.
1. Commit to a Trip Budget
Iceland is expensive. Now that I spend so much of my time traveling around Eastern Europe, I am extra sensitive to just how expensive a country Iceland is for travelers. You need to commit to a budget before you start booking things so that you can try to keep your costs under control.
If you don’t need to worry about your budget, then hurray! But you still might want to commit to a number so that you don’t come home and realize you spent twice what you expected.
My Costs to Visit Iceland for 7 Days
Roundtrip Flights: $710
Accommodations (1/2 of a double for six nights): $200
Airport Transfers $45
2 Tours and 1/2 1-Day Car Rental: $235
Blue Lagoon Entry, Drinks, & Transfer: $165
Museum Entrance: $30
Food & Beverages: $300
Souvenirs & Gifts: $90
Cost to Visit Iceland for 7 Days on a Moderately Baller Trip = $1845 (or $163 per day plus airfare)
Note that this was a girlfriends getaway trip, and we were not looking to keep our costs down. You can find cheaper accommodations and spend less if you need to. However, we also ate half our dinners in our hotel, had a picnic lunch, ate some lunches at street vendors, almost never drank alcohol, etc.
How Much Should You Budget for Iceland?
I basically think you can split it into three categories.
Budget travelers can get by on $100 USD per day plus airfare. This would mean staying in a hostel dorm, doing mostly free activities, and eating a mix of street food and groceries which you prepare at your hostel. For this to work, you really need to keep alcohol to a minimum, because alcohol in Iceland will blow a gigantic hole in your budget. You’ll also need to keep your transportation costs low.
Mid-Range travelers can get by on $150-175 USD per day plus airfare. This would be doing what I did and sharing a double room in a mid-range hotel, doing a few guided tours and activities, and eating a mix of street food, nice meals out, and cooking for yourself.
Luxury travelers can have a baller time on $250-350 USD per day plus airfare. This would mean lots of guided tours and activities, eating all your meals out, enjoying more than one cocktail at dinner, actually buying Icelandic souvenirs instead of mostly window shopping, and staying in a nice hotel, etc.
2. Choose Your Travel Dates
Once you know what your budget is and you know how long you want to go, you can settle on your trip dates. Iceland is a great place to visit year-round, but there are differences throughout the year.
The summer is the high travel season, so you’ll see big crowds. However, you’ll also be able to do almost any kind of tour or activity you want because most of the activities are open.
Spring and autumn are shoulder season when some things are closed but the crowds are smaller. We went in October and we loved it.
If you want to see the Northern Lights, then schedule a trip to see Iceland in winter! Just make sure you pack for it.
3. Check to See if You Need a Visa
Iceland is part of the Schengen Agreement. If you hold a passport from another Schengen Zone country then you do not need a visa to travel to Iceland. The Schengen Zone countries are:
Austria, Hungary, Norway, Belgium, Greece, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Latvia, Slovakia, Estonia, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Finland, Lithuania, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany, Malta, Switzerland, Greece, and the Netherlands
Additionally, you can travel to any Schengen Zone country for up to 90 days out of 180 days if you have a passport from one of the following countries:
Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, El Salvador, Georgia, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong S.A.R*, Israel, Japan, Kiribati, Macao S.A.R*, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Moldova*, Monaco*, Montenegro*, Nauru, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Samoa, Serbia*, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Taiwan**, Timor Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela
Countries marked with an asterisk have special requirements to be allowed visa-free travel to the Schengen zone.
If you will be traveling from one of these countries to Iceland and other Schengen Zone country, you can be in the Schengen Zone for ninety days, but days spent in one count against your total. For example, you can spend ninety days in Iceland or 60 days in Iceland and 30 days in Germany, etc.
Visa rules are always subject to change, so check updated Schengen Zone information here before you book anything.
4. Book Your Flights
Most travelers to Iceland fly into Keflavik, which is the country’s main international airport. It is sometimes referred to as Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport. There is technically another airport nearby, Reykjavik Airport, but that is for domestic flights.
Sometimes travelers want to fly into Akureyri in the north. This airport has mostly domestic flights but does have some to Greenland and the United Kingdom.
When booking flights, I use a combination of Skyscanner and Google Flights. Skyscanner is great for figuring out where to go, like seeing if there are any other airports in the country that happen to have a special international flight scheduled. This is rare, but it does happen. Google Flights is better for when you know where you want to fly in and out of already. It will show you all the options.
Flights to Iceland have gotten screwy twice in the last ten years. Once it was because a volcano erupted and all flights were canceled for days. Recently an Iceland budget airline went bankrupt and passengers were stranded. You should feel confident booking flights (these were both freak occurrences), but this is a good reminder that you should always travel with a valid travel insurance policy because things like airline bankruptcies and volcanoes can’t be foreseen but crazy s*** happens on the road.
5. Create a Detailed Iceland Itinerary
Figure out what you want to do and where you want to be based. We were based in Reykjavik for our entire trip, and we did a series of day trips out of the city. I have a lot of friends who rent cars and drive the ring road instead. Plan your itinerary so you know what you want to do and where you need to get accommodations.
You’re not booking anything yet, so you may find that some of your dream activities don’t fit your budget. However, you need to have a basic outline of your trip with the cities you want to be staying in.
6. Book Your Accommodations
I use Booking to book my hotel rooms because they have a pretty flexible cancelation policy (unless you pick the no-cancellation rooms). They have a large selection from hotels to hostels to private apartment rentals (similar to Airbnb).
You want to book your accommodations in Iceland early. If you’re looking for a good deal, they get snapped up because so many people are trying to save money when traveling here.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Most travelers to Iceland will spend at least one night in Reykjavik. Here are my hotel picks for Reykjavik for the following budget categories:
- Budget: A room in a hostel, usually $35-50 USD per night for a dorm bed.
- Mid-range: Around $75-100 USD per night
- Luxury: Around $150 per night or more
Budget: Iceland is no budget destination, but the hostel dorms at Reykjavik Downtown HI Hostel are affordable and in a great location. You can stay in the mixed dormitory or women can book a room in the female-only dorm. Includes free wifi and the option to add breakfast. Check the pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Mid-Range: For our trip to Reykjavik, we stayed at the self-catering Stay Apartments Einholt. We loved having a self-catering room since we actually cooked half of our dinners and all of our breakfasts in our apartment to save money on the trip overall. We also loved the location. It’s close to downtown within easy walking distance to the main sites. The price was right in our budget for two people, too. Check the pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Luxury: For a real luxury experience in Reykjavik, stay at the four-star Exeter Hotel by Keahotels which is located right near the city’s most important sites. Rooms are super modern and beautifully done, with a cozy take on industrial chic. You can come back and relax in the hotel’s sauna and enjoy the on-site restaurant. Check the pricing, reviews, and availability here.
7. Book Your Activities
I personally use GetYourGuide to book my activities and tours because they tell you who the actual tour operator is so you can check their reviews independently on websites like TripAdvisor. They also have awesome customer service, which I learned when I needed their help dealing with a bad tour in Dresden.
There are two more reasons to use GetYourGuide specifically while in Iceland. The first is that things sell out in Iceland, so if you wait to book through your hotel or hostel there might not be any spots left. The second reason is that booking tours through your accommodations typically costs more money than booking online.
I have a lot of specific activity suggestions for anyone staying in Reykjavik. You can see them on my Reykjavik itinerary and my guide to whale watching in Reykjavik. However, if you’ll be based in Reykjavik, and want to DIY your itinerary, these are the most common activities (though almost no one would do all of these. Mix and match them to fit your travel needs).
- Reykjavik Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
- 3 Hour Whale Watching Excursion
- Reykjavik City Card
- Northern Lights Bus Tour from Reykjavik
- Blue Lagoon Transfer
- Blue Lagoon Spa Appointments
- Golden Circle Tour
- South of Iceland Full-Day Tour
- Icelandic Horse Riding Tour in Lava Fields
8. Research Vaccinations
Wondering if you need vaccines before you go to Iceland? According to the CDC travelers should have:
Rourtine Vaccines: These vaccines include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot.
Rabies: Although rabies can be found in bats and other mammals in Iceland, it is not a major risk to most travelers. CDC recommends rabies vaccine for only these groups:
- Travelers involved in outdoor and other activities in remote areas that put them at risk for bat bites or other animal bites (such as adventure travel and caving).
- People who will be working with or around animals (such as wildlife professionals and researchers).
Bottom line is that most travelers just need routine vaccinations, but you should double check the CDC for any changes.
9. Learn the Icelandic Alphabet
Everyone in Iceland speaks English, so you don’t need to worry about being able to communicate if you don’t speak Icelandic. And if you do speak Icelandic, you probably already live there and don’t need this list!
However, the Icelandic alphabet can be confusing because it has unfamiliar letters that dramatically change the pronunciations. Watch this three-minute video which explains how to pronounce the Icelandic alphabet:
10. Prepare for Your Arrival
Plan what you’ll do on your first day. This means figuring out how to get to your accommodations (next step), checking what time you can get to your hotel (many flights get in before you can check in to your hotel), and communicating with your accommodations if you need to.
Other things to think about is if you’ll be getting a sim card in Iceland or using your plan from home. Call your cell phone company if you need to have your cell phone unlocked so you can get a sim or if you need to let them know that you need international coverage.
11. Book Ground Transportation
You need to know how you’ll get to your accommodations after your flight arrives. If you’re flying into Keflavik, keep in mind that the airport is about forty-five minutes outside of the city. Taxis are heinously expensive, and there’s no Uber. However, there are several bus companies that operate on this route. You can pre-book your Keflavik Airport: Reykjavik City Bus Transfer (just make sure to book both directions). Note there’s a difference in price if you want to get dropped off at your hotel instead of at a central location.
12. Purchase Travel Insurance & Send Policy Information to Your Emergency Contact
Never travel without a valid travel insurance policy, because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance when you’ll be doing any outdoor activities (like…ahem…whale watching or driving on unfamiliar roads or walking behind waterfalls…) since accidents happen.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance when participating in outdoor activities or driving in foreign countries. Even in the cities, though, you’ll be happy when you’re able to replace your stuff if it’s lost or stolen.
13. Pack Your Bags
Your trip is near and it’s time to pack your bags! I have a complete Iceland packing list so you know what to bring with you, but here are five things you want to make sure not to forget:
- The Lonely Planet Iceland guidebook or the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook for your trip. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
- Tech-friendly gloves like these and warm wool socks to keep your fingers and toes toasty. Iceland gets cold! Even in summer, you want to have access to warm layers for particularly windy spots.
- A Camera since Iceland is super photogenic. I used a mix of my Nikon D810 and my Samsung8 smartphone.
- Sunscreen since you’ll be outside a lot more than back home.
- A Backup Charging Bank so you can keep your cell phone charged for long day trips without access to an electrical outlet.
More Iceland Travel Resources
Here are my resources to help you plan your trip. Start with my Iceland packing list so you know what to bring with you year-round. If this will be one of your first trips abroad, you may want to read my common-sense travel safety tips for staying safe in Reykjavik. It’s a super safe city, but there are smart things every traveler should know.
Next, check out my guide to Icelandic souvenirs, which also includes more awesome Reykjavik shopping tips, plus this guide to the best Reykjavik Instagram spots and how to go whale watching in Reykjavik. If you’ll be based in the city for at least a few days, you can follow my 3-day Reykjavik Itinerary.
If you’re looking to get inspired before your trip, check out my post on beautiful quotes about Iceland and 30 Reykjavik Pictures that Prove It’s Time to Visit Iceland.
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