We recently took advantage of Wow Airlines’ new service from Baltimore/Washington Airport and introductory $99 airfare and headed to Reykjavik for 5 days. It was a bit of a challenge putting the trip together, because I knew the kids wouldn’t be interested in the same leisurely sightseeing activities my husband and I would have done on our own, and most of the trip reports and posts I read didn’t include much in the way of activities. After some extensive research, I think we put together a great trip that included activities everyone enjoyed.
Wow Airlines: This discount airline turned out to be a very positive experience. We are normally a carry-on only family and very minimalist packers, but due to the cool temperature in Iceland, the activities we were planning, and Wow’s 9 lb carry-on limit, we had to check two large bags. The check in was smooth despite no online checking (because they want to weigh your carry on), and the fact that they don’t participate in TSA Precheck. The planes were new and nice. The crew was extremely friendly. Nothing is free onboard, not even water, but we planned ahead so it wasn’t an issue. I would definitely fly Wow again.
Car Rental: I really struggled with choosing a car-rental company. Renting a smaller SUV through a major company like Hertz or Avis was pricing at about $1100 for our 5 days. There were many local rental companies that will pick you up at the airport that were much cheaper, but the cars were significantly older. Having rented through Hertz in Costa Rica but still getting a car that was 10 years old, we decided to give it a try. We ended up renting from City Cars for $490, including taxes and required insurance. We were supposed to be met at the airport by someone from City Cars. After we had collected our luggage and come into the lobby, we saw many, many, car rental representatives with signs for their renters, but no one for us. I tried calling the number for City Cars, but only got a recording (it was before 6:00 am). After waiting for maybe 20 more minutes, we decided to just rent from Hertz and I was heading to the counter when our guy finally showed up. He drove us to the offsite facility and we were fairly quickly on our way. The car was definitely rough, but worked out fine. My husband says he would do it again but it caused me a bit of angst along the way because I was sure we were going to break down in the middle of nowhere. The check engine light came on several times, as did the low tire pressure light, but they always went off shortly thereafter.
Car Rental Insurance: CDW insurance is mandatory in Iceland. You can’t opt out even if you have this insurance through your own insurance or a credit card. So it is typically included in your quote, or make sure you are factoring it in when comparing quotes. However, there are many exclusions and a high deductible, so there is pressure to buy Super CDW, or SCDW. Our was pricing at $12 per day, which seemed high, so I used an independent company called Worldwide Insure that sells these policies and the total was only $12 for the whole rental period.
Gasoline: Americans beware, you cannot use most US-based credit cards in the self-serve pumps! These pumps require “chip and pin” cards, and American cards are “chip and signature.” If you do have a pin attached to your card, it is for cash advances, it won’t work in these machines. The only card my research shows has this is the Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard. During the day, this isn’t a huge problem in Reykjavik and at manned gas stations, but after 5:00 pm and in outlying areas, stations are often unattended and you simply can’t get gas. My credit card has a pin, but this pin is only for cash advances, which is not the same. Instead, if you are going to be driving around, you can buy pre-paid cards at the gas stations (there seem to be only 2-3 major chains) and then use the pre-paid cards at the pump. Gas stations are few and far between when you outside the city, so plan ahead and never let yourself get low on fuel.
Accommodations: Many people drive around Iceland from B&B to B&B and my husband and I might well have done that on our own. But it is harder to find those kinds of accommodations for 5, and much harder to keep packing up and moving 5 people. So we decided to base ourselves in Reykjavik and take day trips. Hotels in the city are expensive and we needed 2 rooms, so we ended up with an amazing AirBnB rental for less than $250 per night. It was a little house right on the water overlooking the city with 3 bedrooms, a pool table, and a hot tub. We loved the place.
Weather/Clothing: We were in Iceland from August 1-5. The weather was beautiful but I think we were lucky because it didn’t rain. The high was around 58 degrees Fahrenheit in Reykjavik, cooler in outlying areas and near glaciers. It was never too cold. We heeded advice to plan to wear layers and it worked well. We primarily wore pants, hiking boots, a thin shirt, sweatshirt on top, and then windbreaker/light jacket. I brought my winter coat because I am always cold, and I didn’t regret it. We also had gloves and hats, and were very glad we did for some of the activities.
Food/Restaurants: If there is one piece of advice I have for anyone touring Iceland, it is never be without snacks or water in your car! Seriously, outside of Reykjavik, food is hard to come by and it is always expensive. You could drive for hours and not see a single restaurant or grocery store. We had power bars, graham crackers, and Goldfish crackers with us, as well as water, and sadly it often served as a meal because we couldn’t find anything else. For most of our trips, I have fond memories of amazing meals. In Iceland, my memories are of being hungry.
Water: I read that the water in Iceland is great, and there is no need for bottled water. But when I turned on the tap in our rental house the smell of sulphur was so strong I wondered how it could possibly taste good. It didn’t! The taste was gag-inducing. So we walked down the street to a small market to buy some expensive bottled water. The clerk laughed and told us it was a waste of money. He explained that the cold and hot water are sourced differently to take advantage of the natural geothermal heating for hot water, and only the hot water side of the tap would have the smell. I doubted this, since I was getting the water from the right side of the tap. But sure enough, when I went back to the house, I noticed that the taps were labeled in reverse from the U.S., hot was on the right! When I turned on the left tap, the smell/bad taste were gone. There is no avoiding that smell in the shower, though.
Money: You do not need to exchange currency. Iceland is the land of the credit card and we never had an issue using ours (except for the gas station thing). It is helpful to have a card with a chip and signature capability, though, as most places ask you to slide your card into the reader that requires a chip. Even at the most off-the-beaten path places, credit cards were accepted.
Language: Icelanders speak Icelandic, but we never encountered anyone who didn’t also speak English so communicating was not a problem. Road signs, though, and many menus were only in Icelandic.
Midnight Sun: It was great to be in Iceland at a time when it is nearly always daylight. It made long days of driving so much better. The sun would “set” around 11:00 pm, but it was never completely dark and there was an interesting red aura on the horizon. I brought a sleep mask to help, but our rental house had adequate shades on the windows and sleeping wasn’t a problem. Although I would have loved to see the Northern Lights, I can’t imagine trading all those hours of sightseeing daylight.
Day 1: Our first day, the plan was to have no plan. Our flight was an overnight flight, but only 5 hours, and with the 4-hour time change I knew we would all be exhausted. Fortunately, we were able to check right in to the rental house around 8:00 am. The kids played one game of pool, and then we all went to bed. We woke up around 2:30 in the afternoon, and headed into the city to find some food. We could have driven in about 3 minutes, but decided to walk along the path from the rental house, which took about 30 minutes. It was very scenic and felt good to be out and active. We all really liked the city. It is small, more like a town, but very cute and quaint and easy to walk around. After eating at a nice Italian restaurant, Rossopomodoro, where I had some amazing mushroom ravioli, we headed to Hallgrimskirkja Church to look around. We decided going to the top in the elevator seemed overpriced, so we headed to Volcano House to watch a film about volcanic activity in Iceland. My husband and I liked it quite a bit, but the kids thought it was a little long (1 hour) and boring. After stopping off for some gelato, we headed back to the house. Kids played some pool and we all got in the hot tub.
Day 2: We awoke to another beautiful sunny day and set off for Langjokull Glacier, where we had 2 activities planned for the day, dogsledding and a tour into the glacier. The drive took 3 hours, which was longer than we would have been willing to go for 1 activity, but we figured it was worthwhile for both. The starting points for both activities were literally steps apart, so we lift just a half hour in between. We would have loved a longer break so we could have eaten lunch, but when we had inquired on the phone we were told there wouldn’t be anywhere close to eat.
The last 30 minutes or so of the drive were on an unpaved road. The road was not bad at all, and could easily be done without a 4 wheel drive.
Dogsledding: My kids love dogs and we had done summer dog carting before in New England, which everyone had loved. The operation in Iceland, Dogsledding Iceland, was very well run. The season typically ends at the end of July, but due to an extra snowy winter they were able to extend the season into August. The guide was very nice and full of information about the glacier and the dogs. We had one sled for the 5 of us. Only 4 can really fit on the sled, so my husband and Son1 took turns standing with the musher and driving. Being packed 4 people in a front-to-back row is a little tight and I wouldn’t want to spend too long in this position. And because you are going horizontally across the glacier, which is on a mountain, you are tipped slightly, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to keep my butt cheek from falling off the bench of the sled. I would have rated this a perfect 10 had it been on a flat surface, but I’ll still give it a 9. Truly a unique experience and you are given ample time to play with the dogs when you are done, which is really the best part any way!
Into the Glacier: In June 2015 tunnels into the Inside the Glacier Langjokull glacier were completed, so you can now walk through it. You start in these cool mega vehicles to take the 30 minute drive up the side of the glacier. Then you get out, are given crampons for your boots, and are guided through different tunnels and “rooms” that have been lit up. I thought this was very interesting. My kids liked it, but were less enthusiastic as we were “just” walking and not doing much. You really should wear boots, not sneakers for this, and I was glad I had on the winter coat and gloves as it was cold inside.
After we finished our tour, we drove down to the campground at the bottom of the mountain, where there is a restaurant. It was almost 4:00 and we hadn’t yet had lunch, and were very tired of Goldfish and graham crackers at this point!
I was also very glad to have a real bathroom at this point. Not surprisingly, there is no plumbing up at the glacier. There are portable bathrooms at the dogsledding and glacier businesses, but I swear they must empty them annually. Try very, very hard not to have to use them if you go.
It was raining a little on the drive back, but we saw a beautiful rainbow. The kids slept most of the trip back. We ended the day in the hot tub, enjoying the starry sky and view of Reykjavik.
Day 3: It was another beautiful sunny day. Today’s activity was a trip Inside the Volcano, where you are literally taken inside of a volcano. This is an expensive activity, especially for 5 people, but we all agreed it was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. It is only a short 20-30 drive from Reykjavik to the meeting point (or they will pick you up at your hotel), and then you set out with your guide across the lava fields to the basecamp as the bottom of the volcano. It is about a 2 mile walk across some rough terrain, but the kids all did great. The minimum age is 12, but I emailed ahead of time about our 10 year old and was told it was fine for him to participate. On the walk, you cross a bridge over the gap where the North American and European plates are separating. which was really interesting to see.
Once at the base camp, you are suited up in a harness and hard hat with miner’s light, and taken up to the top of the volcano. You step out onto repurposed window-washing equipment, and are lowered down to the bottom of the volcano. The Statue of Liberty could fit inside! This is the only volcano in the world that did not collapse on itself after eruption, so the only one where you can truly “go inside.”
Once at the bottom, you are free to explore on your own for about 30 minutes, which is just the right amount of time to spend down there.
Then your guide calls you back and you are lifted up and sent back to the base camp, where you take off your equipment and are given some really good lamb soup. While we were waiting for the group, a baby arctic fox was hanging around. The guides said it is orphaned and they feed and take care of it. Son3 loved it.
Soon we headed back across the lava fields and were on our way. The total time for this activity from start to finish was about 5 hours. We didn’t have a definite plan for the rest of the day, but considered Pingvellir National Park, a visit to nearby Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Station visitor center, Riverjet with Iceland Riverjet, or drive some of the Golden Circle. My husband nixed the Riverjet as too late in the day and the kids vetoed the power plant as too boring, so we decided to go to Pingvellir National Park. In particular I was interested in seeing Silfra, as my original activity plan included the snorkeling trip in this incredibly clear water, but when I called to verify that my 10 year old could participate, I learned he couldn’t because they didn’t have equipment small enough to fit him without leaking.
We were determined to find some lunch on our way to Pingvellir, and luckily we saw a KFC. This and Subway seem to be the only American fast-food chains in Iceland. Normally we don’t seek out fast-food, but desperate times call for desperate measures! Since we don’t frequent KFC in America and aren’t familiar with its menu, it was kind of comical ordering our food because the menu boards were only in Icelandic! Fortunately, the cashiers spoke English so we just kind of described what we wanted (chicken?) and it all worked out.
I’m really glad we made the trip to Pingvellir. Admission is free and the park is beautiful. You just drive around and see what interests you. We stopped off at Silfra, and it really was as clear as they say.
We saw snorkelers while we were there, and all agreed it was just as interesting from the side, and since it is cold even outside the water, getting in didn’t seem that appealing! We also hiked up to the visitor’s center and overlook. The visitor’s center has some interesting displays about the volcanic activity in Iceland. There are bathrooms outside the visitor’s center, but they are not free! The free bathrooms are portables in the parking area near Silfra. I had read a very funny TripAdvisor review of Pingvellir talking about the terrible gnats. Wow, that was no joke. They are awful near the water. It definitely shortened our time there, as we just couldn’t stand it anymore.
Finally we headed back toward Reykjavik and the prospect of a real meal for dinner! Rather than look around for someplace new, we went back to Rossopomodoro, then gelato. We ended the night with some billiards and time in our hot tub.
Day 4: I had agonized over whether to make the long trek to Jokusarlon Glacier Lagoon. I really, really wanted to go, but it was going to be a 9 hour round-trip drive, which I knew the kids would hate. We finally decided to just do it, and I have to say I am so glad we did! If you are on the fence about this, stop thinking about it and go, you won’t regret it. We headed out around 6:45 am and planned to stop in Vik for breakfast. I knew they had restaurants there. Well, they do, but unfortunately none are open for breakfast, so we ended up stopping in a small grocery store and getting some fruit and dry cereal. Did I mention we were hungry for most of this trip? The drive was very scenic, with the scenery seeming to dramatically change every 20 minutes or so. We stopped at Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and made a mess of air traffic. I wanted to go into the visitor’s center, but it wasn’t open yet so we decided to hit it on the way back (but by then it was closed!).
We also stopped at Skogafoss waterfall (visible from the road) and spent about ½ hour climbing the steps to the top.
We had reservations for a zodiac boat tour at Jokusarlon. Be warned, though, that you will come upon at least 2 different zodiac boat tours right before you get to Jokusarlon, and it wasn’t very obvious which was which, so we ended up wasting time checking in at the wrong one and missing our tour time! Fortunately, we were able to be rescheduled later in the day, but it made for an even longer day than we were planning.
Since we had time to kill and hadn’t eat yet, we asked if there were any restaurants nearby. We were directed to Hali Country Inn. Once inside the restaurant with a very surly waitress, we were presented with the menu. Here it is in its entirety: lamb soup and bread, broiled arctic char, fried arctic char, deviled arctic char, and an arctic char sandwich! Silence and long faces ensued, before we ordered 5 bowls of lamb soup. It was good, but not the hearty lunch we were hoping for.
Back at the lagoon, we were still early for our tour, so we went across the street to the black sand beach to witness the glacier chunks floating in to the ocean. It was really cool to explore here and don’t miss this if you are at the lagoon.
Finally it was time for our tour. We were given thick, full-body full snow suits to put over our clothing. I was really glad we had hats and gloves as well. We were lead down to the zodiac and broken into groups. Our group was our family of 5, plus 2 couples, one from New Jersey and one from Boston. It was very windy and we had to go full throttle on the zodiac to get to the glacier, which the lady from New Jersey did not enjoy, but we thought it was fun. This tour was amazing. The scenery was simply stunning. Another once-in-a-lifetime experience that we all enjoyed. This company also offers duck-boat style tours, which the majority of people seemed to be doing, but the people were really packed in on those boats and the boats cannot get as close to the glacier as the zodiacs can. Despite the wind, we were never cold on the tour as the suits really insulate you. Waterproof boots are highly recommended though, as water does splash over the sides.
It was about 6:00 pm when we were finished with the tour, and of course, we were starving and facing a four and half hour drive! We decided to drive to Vik, which was about 2 hours, because we knew there would be restaurants and we would be about halfway through the trip. We ended up at a nice restaurant called Strondin Bistro and Bar, which had a lovely view, good food, and friendly wait staff. Recharged, we got back in the car and the kids promptly fell asleep. I was so grateful for the daylight, as the scenery made the late-night trip back much more interesting. Watching the sun set was beautiful and we made it back around midnight. Yes, this was a very long day, but totally worth it.
Day 5: The original plan was to head into Reykjavik in the morning for some breakfast/brunch, take the 1 hour Puffin Express boat tour, then head to the airport for our 3:30 pm flight home. We were so exhausted from our long day of driving, however, that we scrapped this plan and decided to sleep in. By the time we got up and got packed, it was 11:00. We checked out of the house and drove into the city for lunch. We picked Lebowski’s and were very disappointed with the dry burgers and stale buns. The shakes were delicious, however, and the atmosphere was fun. We did a quick walk around for some t-shirts the kids wanted, and then headed to the airport. We returned the car without incident (they barely glanced at it), were driven to the airport, checked our baggage, and were on our way back home.
Final Thoughts: Like our previous trip to Costa Rica, Iceland was a great adventure destination. The two things I saw over and over on Iceland “must do” lists were the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle. We didn’t do either. Planning an adventure-based itinerary definitely required more effort, but I think we nailed it. I got some great ideas from the website I Heart Reykjavik, and of course my trusted Trip Advisor. I’m so glad we visited this unique destination.