Preparing for an Iceland Vacation
Major considerations when planning what time of year to visit Iceland are average temperature and daily sunlight. We traveled in June with daytime temperatures typically in the 50s, and we had no concern about snow challenges. During our visit, the sun set around midnight and rose around 3 am, and the sky was never darker than dusk. Because it was never dark, there is no chance of seeing Northern Lights, which are only visible from September to mid-April (but dependent on weather conditions).
There are a number of carriers that offer flight deals to Reykjavik. We flew on one of Wow Air’s first direct flights out of Pittsburgh and had a great experience. Wow Air and Iceland Air also offer free layovers in Iceland to passengers traveling from North America to Europe through Reykjavik and recently announced direct flights to Reykjavik from Cleveland starting in May 2017.
We did not pay extra for advance seat selection and then worried later that we might have made a mistake and wondered what might happen if we were all placed in middle seats in separate rows. Luckily, we were able to use online check in as soon as it opened 24 hours before departure and secure five seats in the same row. We did get a good laugh thinking about how other passengers might react if they found our toddler sitting in the middle seat of their row.
If you are traveling during the June-August high season, you need to book your accommodations very far in advance. We started making arrangements five months before our trip, which was completely unheard of for us, but we found accommodation options – particularly around Vík and Höfn – extremely limited and had to spend two nights in rooms of guesthouses with shared kitchens/baths. We spent the other eight nights in our own apartments.
Traditional hotels are not so common in Iceland and often very expensive. We actually did not stay in any hotels. All accommodations we stayed in were extremely clean and included kitchens, something not commonly available in typical US hotels. Due to the exorbitant cost of food, we regularly prepared our own meals.
However, our accommodations did not usually include amenities common in US hotels like soap, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner or a hair dryer, and none had an iron. I made sure when booking that we had access to a washing machine every few nights and would definitely recommend that. Also, there wasn’t a “front desk” at any of our accommodations. It was necessary to make plans in advance to meet the host for the key. Our key was once left in a lockbox outside of the apartment and another time under a flower pot.
We were able to book AirBNB apartments in both Reykjavik and Akureyri but did not find availability in less populated areas of the country. These were our first AirBNB experiences, and we enjoyed having our own apartments. The kids particularly enjoyed bunk beds in our Akureyri accommodation and the large sectional in Reykjavik.
We booked accommodations in guesthouses and apartments for the rest of the trip through booking.com. Booking.com was especially helpful because you can search for accommodations suitable for two adults and three children, even though we took advantage of our daughter’s preference to co-sleep when all we could locate was accommodation for four. The amenity descriptions and reviews are very detailed, so you know exactly what to expect.
Renting a Car
Car rental is almost always the most affordable transportation option for families visiting Iceland, even if you are visiting only Reykjavik. There are lots of day tour options from Reykjavik, but the cost of those tours would well exceed the cost of a daily car rental for a family, not to mention travel from the airport to city centre. If you are planning to travel the Ring Road with children and not taking an organized tour, car rental is essential. Also, if you rent your own car, you have much more flexibility than you would on a tour, and that is key when traveling with kids. Cars are driven on the right side of the road like in the US. While the Ring Road is paved, not all roads in Iceland are paved or even well-maintained. Rental companies permit only 4×4 vehicles to be driven on the F-roads, which are certain gravel roads that are not clearly marked. So, rental of a 4×4 for a Ring Road trip is important. Car rental companies include Northbound, Lagoon, Lotus, Go Car Rental, RAS, Thrifty and Geysir. We rented a Suburu Forrester from Geysir at the Keflavik Airport. A shuttle took us from the airport to the Geysir office, which had a kids’ play area and a free coffee/hot chocolate machine.
WOW Air permits a free stroller or a car seat for each child under seven. Because we were not bringing a stroller, we did bring a convertible car seat for our daughter. We knew there was a chance that our LATCH system convertible car seat might not work with ISOFIX, and most cars in Iceland do not have self-locking belts. We brought installation instructions for the seat and safety clips but were pleased that the seat installed perfectly with ISOFIX. For each of our boys, we brought an inflatable BumbleBum Travel Booster Seat. These fit into our suitcase easily but needed to be re-inflated frequently.
Note that seat belts are required for all passengers at all times, and headlights should always be turned on while driving. Also, the DUI limit is half of what it is in the US. You must always be prepared for sheep, cows horses and reindeer straying into or crossing the road. Drivers who injure animals may be liable for compensation.
We had heard that rental companies in Iceland inspect their cars very carefully, and renters are cited for damage more often than in the US. Most rental car damage in Iceland occurs as a result of wind – usually car doors flying open with more force than expected and hitting something. The car we rented had some exterior damage that was noted in our rental papers. However, in the middle of the trip, we could not remember the exact extent of the damage and wondered if we would be cited. Next time, we will definitely take pictures of the car before leaving the rental company parking lot. Our Costco Visa that we used to book our rental car provided additional rental car insurance, but we were fortunate not to need it.
Packing for potentially very cold, wet and windy weather has challenges. It is essential to bring layers and good rain gear. The best packing advice I received was to bring rain pants. None of us had ever owned rain pants, and I was a bit skeptical about whether or not they were really necessary when I purchased a pair for each of us. I left the tags on to return if they ended up not being needed. However, we discovered in the first few hours that they were definitely necessary and served as great protection from both the rain and the wind.
On cold/wet days, we wore hats, gloves, base layers, shirts, fleeces, rain jacket and rain pants. Waterproof hiking boots are highly recommended, but we did not all have them and still managed fine. We each brought a two pairs of sturdy shoes but found that we only needed one pair 90+% of the time. On warmer and sunnier days, a long-sleeved shirt and pants could sometimes be sufficient, but we generally needed to have a light jacket available.
It is important to check airline size and weight baggage allowances. Wow Air allows each passenger to carry a personal item (e.g. a small backpack) on board free of charge. However, regular sized carry-ons luggage and checked bags require additional fees, which often raise if you add after booking or check in.
When we booked our flight, we added one checked suitcase for our whole family to share. I worried later that we would not have enough space for all of our coats, gear, pool towels and car seats, but because we chose the items we brought carefully for versatility and planned do to laundry every few days, it turned out to be sufficient. We packed most of our clothes in our individual backpacks that we carried as our free personal items. This method kept our clothes separate and organized. We packed all the gear and large items in the suitcase, which almost exactly hit Wow Air’s size and weight limits. If I went back, I would definitely be even more efficient in terms of packing. The most notable items that we did not need were flip-flops (it was too cold to wear them outside, and they were not permitted at pools), pool cover-up and extra outfits.
I found that we definitely had more changes of clothes than we need. We were wearing jackets in almost all of our pictures so you cannot even identify our shirts. Our rain gear protected also protected our clothes, so they did not really get wet or dirty. So, a variety was definitely not needed.
When we wore our rain gear, the clothes underneath really did not get wet, even during the rain (except for the time my son fell into the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach). I found that we had more changes of clothes than necessary and did not really need flip flops and bathing suit covers, which we used only at the Blue Lagoon and not at any of the other pools.
We researched relatively inexpensive options to add voice/data in Iceland but ended up not using cell service during our trip. We were able to unplug during the day and use WiFi at our accommodation in the evenings. While most guest house/AirBNB hosts assumed we would have phone service to call them when we arrived, we were able to arrange in advance to get WiFi passwords to contact our host on arrival if they were not already on site.