Recommendations for/against specific Iceland package tours?
January 23, 2018 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Friend and I are interested in going to Iceland for 4-5 days in February or March and considering a package tour to cut out some of the hassle for a shorter stay.

We are interested in seeing the Northern Lights and ice caves. The Golden Circle is also on the list, but I understand it might be dicey in the winter.
We're specifically interested in a package tour to cut out the hassle of renting a car, figuring out the best places to go for these activities, and arranging lodging. So transportation and lodging should be included.
It's fine if the air travel is not included.
We'd also be fine with seeing stuff like the Blue Lagoon and the city of Reykjavik, but it doesn't seem like a tour is necessary for that, so we'd be fine skipping it or doing it on our own. If it's a small part of a larger tour including the higher priority items on our list and it would be easiest to just take one big tour, then it's fine if they're included.

If you have any thoughts about this idea in general, that'd be great. We know we may be paying more for a package than if we'd do it ourselves, but if the price differential would be astronomical then we'd probably reconsider. Thanks!
posted by unannihilated to Travel & Transportation around Iceland (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There are a lot of self-driving tours in Iceland, at various price levels, including a rental car, lodging, an itinerary, and logistical support locally. We used Iceland Unlimited about four years ago and were perfectly satisfied with it. Nothing incredibly fancy in accommodation, but a decent value.

You may not be easily able to "skip" Reykjavik, as the main airport is near there, so you're likely to pass through the city regardless. The Golden Circle is actually in the most habitable portion of the island--you're likely to experience more logistical difficulties chasing the Northern Lights than in driving the Ring Road to those spots.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on January 23, 2018

I did day trips via Gray Line that hit the spots I wanted because I wasn't interested in driving in Iceland in winter. (Personal preference, not actual safety issue). They all leave from Reykjavik though so won't work if you want to completely skip the city.

Golden Circle isn't at all dicey in winter, the tours run year round. Ice caves or the glacier lagoon might be more iffy. I did it February last year. I was rained out of the Northern Lights, sadly. I didn't see anything in Reykjavik other than my hotel as I wasn't interested in a city break.

Vik should be on your list, however you choose to go there.
posted by TravellingCari at 9:54 AM on January 23, 2018

Response by poster: When I say skip Reykjavik, I just mean we don't need to pay for a guide to show us around it or need an entire day to explore it. I know we'll have to go through it in some capacity.
posted by unannihilated at 10:02 AM on January 23, 2018

I just got back from my second winter trip to Iceland. I did a two day tour of the southern/eastern coast - the first day involved stopping at lots of waterfalls and the black sand beach; and the second day we hiked on a glacier and through an ice cave, saw the glacier lagoon and the diamond beach. Transportation and overnight accommodations at a local inn were provided. I highly recommend doing this type of tour - it's done with a small group, you don't have to worry about the weather (on our drive back there was a severe storm with insane ice and wind), and the tour guide arranges all of the stops and gear you will need.

We also did a three day trip last time going to Landmannalauger which has a natural hot spring and opportunity to snowmobile. We also saw northern lights! Again transportation was provided, along with food and stops along the golden circle on the way back. That one was super fun but very rustic - you sleep in a cabin in sleeping bags.

Tour companies in Iceland are great. The staff are reliable and knowledgeable, everything runs on time, and it doesn't feel super cheesy (at least the ones we did didn't).
posted by joan_holloway at 10:06 AM on January 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

We did AirBnB in Reykjavik and booked the tours in advance individually through BusTravel Iceland. Logistics were simple, most tours have multiple pick up locations.

So my suggestion would be find an anchor location (Reykjavik) and book ala carte tours.

Also bring the right clothing - this will make the trip.
posted by NoDef at 10:08 AM on January 23, 2018

I've only ever stayed in Reykjavik and made day trips via tour organizers. I did two big-bus trips with Reykjavik Excursions my first visit (in mid-March, IIRC), one to the Golden Circle and one to see the Northern Lights. Both were "meh," but the Northern Lights one was especially bad, for two reasons: it was a bad night to see the Northern Lights, which wasn't anyone's fault, and half the people on my bus wanted to take flash photos of the Northern Lights, which was the tourists' fault for being dumb about how photography and cameras work, and the tour guide's fault for not saying anything about it.

On my second trip, in December, I took one EXTREMELY LONG DAY TOUR (something like 9AM to 11PM) to Snaefellesnes with GoEcco tours, and it was pretty great, and I did actually see the Northern Lights! There were only 6-7 people on that tour (in a minivan) so even if they had been trying to take flash photos of the lights I think the tour guide could have stopped them, but they didn't try, because the smaller tour companies tend to attract more... conscious? sophisticated? tourists.

So, basically, I think a la carte tours out of Reykjavik are an option worth considering. You can see a lot on day tours.

Also, avoid booking anything in advance as much as you can, because the weather can really affect your enjoyment of different activities. Visiting a glacier on a cloudy day is probably fine; on the other hand Thingvellir is not very exciting in fog; seeing the Northern Lights on a cloudy or rainy night is impossible (also pay attention to the phases of the moon - if aurora is important to you, try to go close to the new moon).
posted by mskyle at 10:55 AM on January 23, 2018

Whatever you decide, make sure you pay attention to exactly how much time you are going to spend in a vehicle vs. at a site and be prepared for that. Having done the Golden Circle tour, I found the driving to be a bit exhausting even though our guide tried to point out as many interesting things as possible.

And yeah, you don't need an organized deal to do the city or the Blue Lagoon. And you should definitely do the Blue Lagoon. I have done that twice, both times immediately prior to going to the airport to fly home and wow, that was such a relaxing flight. :)
posted by thorny at 11:33 AM on January 23, 2018

Yeah, I think the Blue Lagoon is skippable, but the best value for a visit is either immediately before or immediately after a flight.
posted by praemunire at 1:25 PM on January 23, 2018

A few years back I booked a trip through Icelandic Air. The guide, the hotels and the itinerary were quite good and worth the money. In retrospect though I should have just rented a car. At the end of the formal tour we extended the trip in that way and I have to say that Iceland is one of the easiest destinations I have found to drive around. There is almost no traffic, English is spoken just about everywhere and you have the freedom to get to touristy sights early in the morning before all the buses arrive. The international road signage was excellent. The only thing I found a little difficult were the street signs in towns and villages with text. The language is essentially incomprehensible to me; it might as well have been a random sprinkling of letters on the signs. With many languages you can eke out a little bit of meaning but not in Iceland, at least not me. I took pictures of road name signs so that I could remember them.
posted by caddis at 12:36 PM on January 24, 2018

I just came back from 5 days in Iceland. We did a 3 day package tour with a day in Reykjavik on either end. It really depends on the type of traveler you are but I would recommend a package tour. My husband loves driving and discovering things on his own so initially he wasn't happy we didn't self drive but I think overall the convenience of someone arranging everything for you and having someone who knew how to schedule around and navigate during volatile weather made all the difference.

Two examples: we were driving to our glacier hike and it had been raining all morning and the access road flooded. Had we been on our own we would've had to turn back, but our driver was experienced enough to know that he could safely cross it. And on our drive back to Reykjavik we got stuck in a crazy blizzard, there was zero visibility, intense winds and icy streets. All around us tourists who were self driving were skidding off the road. If you do rent a car, at least get a 4x4.

Other things to note:
- We didn't see the Northern Lights as there was complete cloud cover during our entire trip.
- The Golden Circle is skippable in my opinion, it is packed with tourists doing day trips from Reykjavik and feels very commercialized.
- Shopping in Iceland is crazy expensive, no matter how much people tell you that before you go, you can't quite fathom it until you walk into a pharmacy for a small box of band-aids and it costs $13.
- Gear up for the weather the way the locals do, think less big winter coat and more thin layers that serve a specific purpose. Best configuration I found was first a thermal layer, then fleece layer, then ultra-thin down layer with a waterproof shell on top. You can take off or put on any layer (besides the thermal) as needed. Your outer layers should all be totally waterproof, we battled rain much more than snow.
posted by doublenelson at 8:25 AM on February 7, 2018

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