Logistics related to travel in Iceland were somewhat more complicated than many other family travel destinations. Public transportation was not a feasible option for our trip around the Ring Road, and the cost of eating out and availability of restaurants required us to prepare many meals on our own, something we typically do not do on vacation. This was our first time renting a car in Europe and the most expensive destination we ever visited. Here are some of the logistical considerations necessary when planning a trip to Iceland.
Driving in Iceland
The Ring Road is a two lane highway that was well maintained and clear. Many side roads are gravel, and we were glad to have a 4WD vehicle. If you do not rent a 4WD vehicle, many rental car companies do not permit you to drive on F-Roads. The speed limit on the Ring Road is 90 km/hour outside of cities and towns and 70 km/hr in residential areas. There are speed cameras, mostly around Reykjavik, and speeding tickets can be costly.
There are a number of specific rules that you need to remember if you rent a car. Headlights and seat belts must be used at all times while driving. Also, the DUI threshold is half what it is in the United States.
We used our Garmin, which was one of the few GPS units that includes European maps. It was very helpful, but having a good map of Iceland is important. It would have been preferable to have brought one with us, but we picked one up at a tourist center early on in our trip. Because of the complexity of the Icelandic alphabet, we did have some GPS challenges and recommend using GPS coordinates when possible, which is why I have included them here when available. The GPS/map combo was sufficient for navigating in a country where we were on the same road for most of our journey. All of our accommodations had wifi, and we never needed to turn on cellular data.
When we travel to non-English speaking countries, we learn and use basic phrases as often as possible. As much as I tried, I was not skilled enough to incorporate any Icelandic words into my vocabulary. Even with a pronunciation guide, we really struggled with all the consonants and extremely long words. However, the only place we had any trouble communicating was placing an order at a Chinese restaurant in Akureyri. It was clear that the English was at least the third language of the server taking our order, and even though our boys study Chinese at school, they have not mastered menu ordering. The food came out fine, but it required some humorous pointing.
Food in Iceland is very expensive. While restaurants are usually a big focus of our vacations, we warned our kids that this trip was going to be more about visiting sights rather than enjoying great meals. We were prepared for outrageous prices in restaurants and groceries and were pleasantly surprised to enjoy a number of great meals at not quite so exorbitant prices.
All of our accommodations had kitchens, and we used them. Our favorite grocery was Bónus. Some of our favorite items include Hamilisbraud bread, Skinka ham, Maribo cheese, Mjukis ice cream, Nutella and barbecue and paprika chips. Skyr yogurt is very popular, but was not our preference. Chicken and produce were particularly expensive, but fish was not, and we enjoyed many meals of amazing seasoned salmon that we baked ourselves.
From the airport to the Lava Tunnel, we passed Reykjavik’s first Costco, which opened only a few weeks before in May 2017. By the time of our June 2017 visit, one in four Icelandic adults was already a member. We arrived a few minutes before the store opened, and there was a line out the door of people waiting to get in. The membership line seemed to be never ending. We heard that the opening of Costco led to lowering of gas prices and produce all over the country.
We picked up a rotisserie chicken, water bottles, apples, Nutella and Ella’s Kitchen squeezies for our toddler. Honestly, the per unit prices for these bulk items were probably comparable to Bónus, but witnessing the Costco mayhem was worth the visit.
Takeaway is often considerably less than dine in – likely because tipping is not customary. Our favorite was Fish & Chips in Húsavík. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is also a wildly famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik that sells only hot dogs and soft drinks and sports a photo of Bill Clinton’s visit in 2004.
While we often enjoy clothes shopping and finding items not typically available in the US when traveling, Iceland is definitely not the place for clothes shopping due to extremely high prices. You want to make sure you bring the gear that you might need with you. There are many cute souvenir shops and artists’ studios in Reykjavik, especially near Hallgrímskirkja. Prices are relatively consistent, but if you are looking for a certain item and check out several different shops, you may find slightly different prices.
We did enjoy a short stop at Kringlan, the country’s largest mall, for some souvenir shopping and just to experience an Icelandic mall. Our only purchase was from Eymundsson, Iceland’s largest book store chain that also sells souvenirs. We also stopped at the Icewear and 66 North outlets just outside of Reykjavik because we passed them on the way to our Airbnb. If you want or need to purchase gear, these outlets are the place to do it, but it will be hard to find something comparable to typical US prices.
While the Keflavik Airport boasts that its duty-free is completely tax-free, we generally found that the cost of souvenirs was higher than in the Reykjavik city center or Kringlan. However, the Airport’s Blue Lagoon shop had the lowest prices offered for Blue Lagoon products – even significantly cheaper than Amazon.
It is not necessary to use cash in Iceland. We literally did not exchange any cash because credit cards were accepted everywhere, even as payment for use of a restroom. My kids were desperate for some Icelandic coins for their international coin collection. Thankfully, a nice clerk at Eymundsson in Kringlan, Iceland’s largest shopping mall, added to our bill and gave us two of each Icelandic coin.