Even though I have been to Iceland before and had dreamed of visiting it in the winter time, I was intimidated. The height of summer was not very warm, at times almost freezing with wind chill – what would winter be like? Would my face freeze and fall off? Do I even own clothes warm enough for this type of climate? Do I need to rent a 4×4? I don’t have the right shoes!
Luckily, Iceland is one of the nicest, most comfortable countries in the world. Everything will be fine. You will not perish. But it is also one of the most expensive countries in the world. So most of your preparations will help you save money.
I love 101 Reykjavik, a wonderful Icelandic comedy which will show you some aspects of lifestyle and an entire year of weather. You get to see the crazy all night partying, the hostile wind, a beautiful glacier, and the debasing effects of a generous welfare system on the young generation. The whole movie is on Youtube with many subtitle tracks available.
I always try to supplement my travel with relevant reading. I look for an author from my destination, or a plot that takes place there, and I want it to be an acclaimed work and a good translation. Thankfully Iceland hits all marks with Halldór Laxness, the country’s greatest novelist. It took me more than two months to read Independent People. This book is his best known work and is often cited among the most important books of the 20th century. While it was a bestseller in the US in the 1940’s, it is little known today thanks to J. Edgar Hoover, who had Laxness investigated for communism and blacklisted him from being published in the United States, even as the author was awarded the Nobel Prize. “Independent People” was not reissued again until 1997.
The story spans the adult life of a sheep farmer, described in minute, unromantic detail – the hardships, the starvation, the emotional turmoil, the dreams, love and resentments, beauty and poetry that grow in a family, no matter how humble the roof above them. This book will give a visitor an appreciation of what a miracle Iceland’s financial success is and what kind of resilient genes live in its people. A person who loves Iceland as I do will love this book as a window into Iceland’s soul, culture, nature.
“Independent People” by Halldór Laxness
Iceland’s other great contribution to world literature is its vast collection of sagas. The poetry and rhymes are incredibly complicated, but even in translation you can still appreciate the scale and intensity of this art form and its legacy on Icelandic and Scandinavian culture. Njal’s Saga is the most widely translated.
For Iceland, my old Frommer’s guide has served me well in the past, and the new one has great reviews. In general, I think Frommer’s does a better job with nature-oriented locations than Lonely Planet.
I absolutely think you should rent a car in Iceland, and winter is a great time to do it because prices can be half of those in the summer. Iceland is made for driving. No, you do not need a special car. In winter, rental cars come with winter tires. Most F-roads are closed in the winter and will require much, much more serious vehicles anyway. Unless you are prepared to pay a hundred bucks per day, stick with the cheapest option. All the regular roads are plowed obsessively. I did get to drive in a snowstorm in the mountains during my trip, and by the time I noticed it was snowing, I saw a plow heading down the road. Yes, Sixt rents fantastic cars and has great service – it is the cheapest company at Keflavik airport. Yes, you should prepay to get the best deal. Most credit cards provide great car insurance for rentals, so I always reserve cars with my credit card with world-wide full coverage and deny all additional insurance at the rental company (I use AAdvantage Citicard if you must know). Just call your card and find out the details. Do not buy volcanic ash insurance in Iceland – you really don’t need it. During my February trip I rented one of the nicest cars I’ve ever driven for 200 dollars for a week – that was the cheapest car they had, and it had manual transmission. If you don’t drive manual, automatic transmission will cost more. Really, in Iceland renting a car in the winter is probably the best deal in the country.
I do not stay in hotels if I can help it. Thankfully, Reykjavik is AirBnB heaven. I found a fabulous top floor studio with a 270 degree view right in the center of town. Yes, I got to see aurora borealis from my bathroom. And I also had a fridge, an espresso machine, and a washer. And it was actually pretty affordable. The only key thing for Iceland is – book in advance and look for an early check-in time.
If you are planning to stay outside of Reykjavik, your options will be so limited, that finding them will be easy. It’s either winter camping or farm stays.
I hope you’ve kept an old functioning smartphone around because after two years of use, even in the United States you can get it unlocked. We simply called AT&T and got instructions on how to unlock my husband’s old iPhone 4. It’s a completely free service. We now use it all over the world with data sim cards. You can purchase a SIM card at the Keflavik airport Duty Free store. It worked great everywhere we went except for on some higher mountains. Even if you’re only visiting for a few days, a smartphone will save a lot of time.
You do not need any cash in Iceland. All you need is a credit card without foreign transaction fees. Most US credit cards are like that now, but Capital One has been fee-free for years, so I always bring it with me on trips. You can take a small amount of cash, less than 100 dollars, for the highly unlikely situation such as a very small business.
Last I checked, each visitor can bring up to 3 kilograms of food into Iceland. If you are in serious budget mode, you should take advantage of that. I like to save precious morning time as well as money, so I travel with my own bag of home made camping oatmeal – a simple recipe that cooks in minutes with just hot water, makes your stomach feel good after flights and unfamiliar food and keeps you full for hours.
Liquor is expensive in Iceland because of high taxes. Beer costs about the same as in the US, especially if you find some happy hour deals. But if you want to enjoy an additional drink, hit up the duty free on your way out and grab a bottle of liquor. If you are staying with Icelandic hosts, they will definitely appreciate a gift a liquor as well. On the way out of the country, pick up a bottle of Brennivin or Bjork – these exotic Icelandic liquors don’t cost very much at the airport and make great gifts and souvenirs.
Reykjavik is usually not super-cold in the winter due to the warming effect of the Gulfstream, but other areas you may visit can get very cold and very windy. Also, you will be outside at night to watch for aurora borealis. You want to be able to go outside no matter the conditions and last for at least 10 minutes at a time. You will want to have your warmest ski or down jacket, a wind-proof hat, warm gloves or mittens and a scarf you can wrap around your face. You will also need thick wool socks. You don’t need specialized snow pants unless you are doing some winter sports.
This is how we were dressed in February, and it was perfectly nice. I am wearing a pair of sweatpants with long Smartwool underwear underneath, and my husband is wearing jeans with Underarmour leggings.
Long underwear is the key to surviving cold temperatures. For comfort, durability and warmth I prefer Smartwool, but there are cheaper options as well. I find that a microweight long sleeve shirt and full length underwear is all you need for trips around Reykjavik. For glacier hikes and winter camping, you can invest in a thicker set. Midweight Smartwool underwear also doubles as leggings you can wear on their own or with a skirt on warmer days. I actually didn’t bring a pair of jeans at all. Instead I brought a set of Micro 150 underwear, a set of Mid 250 underwear, sweatpants, a skirt, and several pairs of Smartwool hiking and ski socks.
You don’t really need specialized winter shoes in Iceland if you are just doing a short trip, but they do help if it’s slippery or slushy. I saw plenty of people in hiking boots doing just fine. However, you want to avoid wearing running shoes – several tourists fell right in front of me while trying to negotiate ice in sneakers. I used the opportunity to finally get a pair of snow boots, and after trying many pairs decided on Sorel’s Tofino boot, which is narrower and thus more wearable than most snow boots. Pajar Canada makes a few attractive boots for men. My husband got a pair of Trooper boots and was very happy with warmth, traction, and ease of putting them on and off. To help with traction further, you can get a pair of Yaktrax that fit over your shoes. I was super jealous of tourists that had these, especially on the glassy ice around Geysir and Skogafoss.