Questions about a month-long trip to Iceland.
October 24, 2007 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Lots of questions about a month-long trip to Iceland.

I've been wanting to travel to Iceland for a while now and I've got some questions.

First, a bit of background. I'm a 22 year old computer programmer, bassist, photographer, and swing dancer that will be graduating from college in about six months. I plan on working full time for a year or so after that to get settled and get some more spare money before I go.

I want to go for three weeks to a month so I have time to really experience things. I'm not the kind of person that would enjoy one of those guided-do-standard-things-and-get-back-on-the-bus tours; I'd like to go on my own and meet new friends, see what I want to see for as long as I want to see it, etc.

I've looked at some of the other Iceland questions here but none of them addressed all the questions I have. So anyway, here we go:
  • Is three weeks to a month too long or not long enough? I'm sure Iceland has plenty of things to hold my interest for much longer than a month; my main concern is actually my next question.
  • Money: how much will I need? I'm not being unrealistic and expecting to go for a month and spend $500, but since I'll be fresh out of college I won't be exactly rolling in cash either. I'll probably have a few thousand US dollars I can manage to spend on the trip; is this going to limit me enough that I should think about shortening the trip? I'm not the kind of person that wants to go drink pricy stuff at a bar or do the glitzy guided tours but I've heard how expensive Iceland is in general and want to make sure I'm not getting in over my head.
  • While I'm on the issue of money, what's the best way to live while I'm there? I'm sure hotels would be expensive, but are there any cheap hostels I should look into? I've never stayed at a hostel while traveling because I usually stay with friends but since I don't have any Icelandic friends I'm out of luck. Do I need to worry about securing my luggage/valuables at a hostel?
  • Is it safe to assume that a US passport will be all I need to get in and out of the country, or will I need some other things too?
  • I'm thinking about taking my laptop to pull images from my camera and also keep in touch with the rest of the world. Is this a bad idea? Would it be better to invest in one of those little hard drives you can plug an SD card into and store the pictures on? Either way, what do I need to know about power/voltage issues coming from the US?
  • I'd love to learn some Icelandic before I go, but I can't find a class anywhere near me. Does anyone have any advice? I know this question has been asked before and I've looked at the answers; I was just wondering if anyone had any new advice for me.
  • When's the best time to see the northern lights? It's not something I'm dead set on but I'd really love to see them if I can. I'm planning this trip far enough ahead (1.5 to 2 years) that I can schedule my trip at almost any time of the year that I want.
  • On that note, aside from the northern lights, is there a specific time of the year that I should visit? I'm sure each season has its own benefits; what are they?
  • I also play bass and love jazz; what's the jazz scene like in Iceland? Are there any good jazz clubs I should definitely visit? Is there any chance I could sit in at a jam session while over there and if so where could I rent or borrow a bass (electric) for a night?
  • Recommendations of places to see are welcome too; I'm still in the process of making a list of things I really need to go. Flickr is great for this!
If there's anything else you think I should know please share! Thanks in advance!
posted by sjl7678 to Travel & Transportation around Iceland (22 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
If you're going to be there for a while, I would highly recommend renting a 4X4 at some point and driving around the ring road. Or at least driving to a couple places outside of Reykjavik. Some cool spots nearby are thingvellir (their "th" sound looks like a little 'p', so it might look like pingvellir), gulfoss, and geysir.

A US Passport will be fine.

Iceland is pretty expensive, but there are definitely hostels you can stay at which will help with the cost.

As for the Northern Lights, your best bet is to go during the winter at some point, since it will be darker for a longer percentage of the day that way. But remember that it all depends on solar flares and such, which aren't too predictable long-term. Check out maybe to see if any good solar flares are happening while you're there.

Also, the Blue Lagoon is a touristy hot bath place, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly (it was nice to go on the way to the airport as a way to relax after a whirlwind trip).
posted by Grither at 8:26 AM on October 24, 2007

I can't offer concrete information on any of your questions, but it you want some inspiration before your trip try tracking down this film. It takes place almost entirely in Iceland and the landscape is the star, it may even give you more ideas of what to see. Great film too.
posted by fire&wings at 8:26 AM on October 24, 2007

Iceland has 220 as opposed to 110 energy. If you have an apple computer, you just need an international kit, you can get that at the apple store. Don't know about other types of computers.

You can buy some audio courses from amazon fairly cheaply. I searched "Learn Icelandic" and a few things came up. Icelandic is a complex language though so you're probably not gonna learn how to converse very quickly.

During the wintertime northern lights are pretty common. I think you can't miss them if you spend a month here in november - february.

Last weekend was Iceland Airwaves, which is a highlight of the year if you're into music. The same company has another festival, more jazz and world music oriented, in the spring, but it's way smaller. Then there is Aldrei fór ég suður, which is a very special music festival, run by the inhabitants of a small fishing village on the west fjords. I went last year and it was awsome.
posted by svenni at 8:41 AM on October 24, 2007

A couple of things for you. Iceland is very (very) expensive. This is a good website to start on:

Icelandic is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but as everyone there speaks English it's not a concern. Learn to say thanks (takk), good morning, good evening etc. and you should be fine. The Icelandic people are the friendliest you could want to meet and will be pleased if you even speak a few words of their language.

When I was there car rentals were very expensive, but maybe you can do it through someone like Avis and pay before you get there, but be careful, driving there can be very dangerous with total white-outs in the winter with little or no warning. Iceland is a wonderful country and I lived there for 2 and a half years and would go back tomorrow if I could.
posted by worker_bee at 9:03 AM on October 24, 2007

Have some skyr while you're there.
posted by kcm at 9:13 AM on October 24, 2007

Iceland in winter and Iceland in summer are very different places. You'll have to see which appeals to you more. In the winter it's fucking gorgeous - austere in white and blue, but with long pink skies. Covered in snow and ice and shadow. Daylight's not very long 10-4ish, and the roads are more dangerous, meaning that for the most part you have to stick to the ring-road around the island and can't go see some of the inner waterfalls, volcanos and crevasses. (They're probably frozen/invisible anyway.) There's no whalewatching, but there is, however, the northern lights. Some attractions, like the remarkable Blue Lagoon, are way more exciting when the rest of the landscape's covered in ice. Some hotels/hostels will be closed, but flights and hotels will be cheaper.

The summertime meanwhile turns Iceland into a green wonderland, with verdant hills and fascinating near-arctic wildlife (whales, seals, birds). Instead of being (mostly) confined to the ring-road, you can go inland and see more of the country's geographical/geological weirdness. The country is also much more packed with tourists.

My visit to Iceland was during the winter time and I love, love, loved it. The short daylight translates into extremely extended sunrises and sunsets, and the stark snowy landscape suited me very, very well. There were more than enough natural wonders accessible to me - but then again, I wasn't there for a whole month...

There are hostels across Iceland. They're quiet in the winter (and you may need to write ahead to make sure they'll take bookings), busier in the summer. They're very very safe. The big one in Reykjavik is beautiful and clean.

A few thousand dollars should be enough money to enjoy yourself for a month, yes. Bringing a laptop should be fine - just get a plug adapter either ahead of time or at the airport.

The festival recommendations above are sound. There's also an amazing, amazing, friendly and well-stocked music shop in Reykjavik called 12 Tonar, specializing in avant garde, jazz, classical and alternative icelandic music. You can spend the day sipping espressos and sampling music. (Just bring enough money to buy the CDs! Many approach $25 or $30 USD.)
posted by Marquis at 9:23 AM on October 24, 2007

I spent two weeks in August taking the big loop around Iceland and loved it. It is also a life-long goal of mine to see the northern lights and that seems nearly guaranteed during the winter months but if you're intending to travel around the country you absolutely must spend at least a month or two during the summer. At the peak of summer, the temperatures reached 20C at best. Some of the best sights are in very hard to reach areas that require a 4x4 and driving through knee-deep water. Needless to say these are completely inaccessible during winter.

I'm also a photographer and it was a joy to see Iceland's incredible landscapes. I've got a bunch of pictures and some pretty detailed descriptions which might inspire you and make choosing a route easier.

Icelanders are vehement about the few things that characterize their country (Icelandic, harðfiskur, Skyr, Bjork, 66 North...), it's quite cute, but definitely a lifestyle I could adapt to. If you love simple things like fish and rye bread, you'll have a very happy belly on a decent budget.
posted by kepano at 9:24 AM on October 24, 2007

Response by poster: @Grither: I'll definitely be checking out Þhingvellir, and Gulfoss and Geysir are on my list too. I hadn't heard of the Blue Lagoon before but it sounds like something fun after a long flight.

@fire&wings: I'll have to find that, it sounds pretty cool.

@svenni: I've got a Macbook so that would work. I might look into audio courses too; I know it's a tough language but I want to at least learn some of the common things I'll need. That small music festival sounds amazing; definitely something I'd want to see.

@worker_bee: I'm hoping that by doing as much on my own as possible I can keep my costs down to a manageable amount. Thanks for the warnings about driving too; how much driving I do is definitely going to depend on when I go.

@kcm: There's a lot of food I want to try while I'm there (rotted shark sounds ridiculously awesome); Skyr is now on that list too!

@Marquis: I'm not really interested in whalewatching, but I do want to see as much as I can... so I'm not sure whether I want to do winter or summer yet. I'll definitely be looking into hostels and that site looks awesome, thanks. $25 or $30 for a CD is a bit rich for me though... My days of buying CDs at metal and hardcore shows for $10 have spoiled me I guess.

@kepano: Those photos are fantastic; I hope I can get some like that when I go there. I'm not a landscape photographer but I'll definitely need to learn a bit more about that before I go because it would be a shame to have such an opportunity and not do the subject justice. And fish and rye bread are okay with me!

Thanks for all the replies, keep them coming!
posted by sjl7678 at 11:17 AM on October 24, 2007

In case you missed it, Iceland is expensive.

Luckily, it's tourist industry is extremely well organized and operated. Buses depart from the airport to Reykjavik after every major flight, and I was picked up by a bus outside my campground at 5am for my return flight. (After enjoying the Runtur all night, which lead to an amazingly hilarious dismantling of my tent)

I camped for the extent of my June trip, and would do it again in a second with slightly warmer camping equipment. The Reykjavik campground I stayed at was a bit out of the downtown, but had one of the popular pools next door. Camping is very common and without a doubt the cheapest way to go.

I also camped at Vestmannaeyjar, one of the islands of the southwest coast. It was easily accessible by bus and ferry from Reykjavik.

If you don't mind being carted around with British seniors, all of the major tourist attractions (Pingvellir, Gulfoss, Geysir,etc) are very well served by tour buses. Car rental was out of my price range, but came well recommended.

The novelty of the midnight sun didn't wear off for the length of my trip, so I'd recommend the summer. I didn't get into my campground until well after 2am, and setting up our tent for the first time in a hazy dusk was really priceless. On the downside, my cheap tent leaked a lot of light and made it difficult to sleep, so keep that in mind.

I found the language virtually impossible to understand, albeit beautiful and mesmerizing. I generally had to resort to pointing to words on paper. Any efforts to learn the language would be much appreciated. As mentioned, you'll need to hear it to understand, not just read it.

If I could have done anything different, I would have had more money to spend. If this trip is still a long way away, you're in luck. An extra $500 or $1,000 will really go a long way.

I'm getting worked up just thinking about it, so I'm sure you'll have a great trip.
posted by Adam_S at 12:02 PM on October 24, 2007

A secondary benefit to camping: the bird songs were unbelievably amazing. My tent mate and I would sit in utter awe at the sounds the birds were making. I have no idea if this is an Icelandic, Nordic, or European thing, but it was stunning. It was like standard birdsong remixed by Aphex Twin or Squarepusher.

If anyone else noticed this, please let me know I wasn't just crazy or hopped up on tall-boy cans of Pepsi.
posted by Adam_S at 12:13 PM on October 24, 2007

Has anyone mentioned yet how incredibly expensive Iceland is? ;) One way to bring the cost down is to camp. Campsites are numerous in Iceland, and about half the cost (if I remember correctly) of a hostel. You can also save money by cooking your own food. Restaurants will drain your funds quickly.

Good luck with your plans. If I get my way, I'll be touring the country by bike in a few years.
posted by chrisch at 12:14 PM on October 24, 2007

First, I agree with what everyone has said above.

Second, you should not rule out the guided tours. I went on one and the tour guide was brilliant. He spoke 4 lauguages and taught me so much about how Icelandic "works". Interesting! He also told us loads about the country and life there in general, which I never would have found out otherwise. There were only 4 or 5 people on our tour and it lasted the better part of a day so I learned a lot just from chatting with all of them. The guide also took us out to see wild Icelandic horses, which are pure breeds and friendly enough to let us walk right up to them. I never would have seen this on my own. My tour was most definitley worth the money.

If you go to the Blue Lagoon (and you should) and you have long hair - beware! No matter how many times you wash it, it will be a horrible matted mess for close to a week. Better to wear a high ponytail and not let it touch the water.

You really do have to have Skyr. Yum! Also, Icelandic milk and ice cream were the most delicious I have ever tasted.

And no trip to Iceland is complete without a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The world's only penis museum and soon they will have their very first human speciman!
posted by triggerfinger at 12:30 PM on October 24, 2007

Skyr is absolutely the best dairy-product I've ever eaten. Seriously. We had excess bagage to get enough stuff back home...

But if you're into weird food, try the "sour-shark": A piece of fish, buried in the ground for a couple of months to ferment...

Since nobody mentioned coach-surfin, I'll do it. It could be a alternative to hostel-staying.

Seconding Triggerfinger - the guides are generally very good. Most of the hold some other work besides guiding. Since Iceland has a very high cost of living, most people hold two jobs. I've had very long and interesting discussion with bus-drivers on Iceland - people that turned out to be college-university professors...

Anyhow - great interesting country. Amazing. Enjoy the stay!
posted by Rabarberofficer at 12:53 PM on October 24, 2007

The couch surfing is probably a good option (as Rabarberofficer mentioned). I believe one of our mefite brethren (einaron) offers up his couch.

Although I haven't tried them, there are local thermal pools in Reykjavik that are alternatives to the Blue Lagoon. I've been to the Blue Lagoon (alone, on Valentine's day, wondering why there were so many couples groping each other, only later realizing what day it was!) and it's a really cool experience. I even got to see the Northern Lights while soaking in the water.
posted by smcniven at 1:11 PM on October 24, 2007

Yes: skyr.

Get a copy of John McPhee's book The Control of Nature and read about the volcanic eruption on Heimaey (the main island of the island group called Vestmannaeyjar - the Westman Islands) and how the islanders turned aside the flow of the lava to save their harbor. Then decide if you want to brave the horribly choppy ferry ride out to the island - the island is awesome, the ferry ride is seasick city. Take Dramamine beforehand.

The Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap but still really cool. It's true about the hair, just wash it out as best you can afterward.

But there are geothermal public hot pools in most places in Iceland that are big enough to fund their construction, and I got the sense when I was there that they are just an after-work hangout for locals. I went to (one set of?) the ones in Reykjavik and it was really nice. Not scenic like the Blue Lagoon, but a much more accurate picture of everyday life. Local 50-somethings, just hanging out in the hot pools gossiping. Note: They require that you take a shower with soap BEFORE you get in the pools.

Most people there speak English, but the signage is all in Icelandic, so it's useful to know at least enough to recognize things like "Danger" or "Enter here" or "North", etc.

Get a guidebook - Lonely Planet was a good starting place, when I was there several years ago - and start thinking about which places you want to spend some time.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:39 PM on October 24, 2007

The University of Iceland has some basic Icelandic courses available online. Free registration required.

I loved Þórsmörk in the south for hiking. I don’t know if camping is available there; both times I went was with groups and we stayed in cabins. Also seconding the recommendation of Vestmannaeyjar.

If you’re going for unique food, Þorrablót starts in mid-January. In addition to the hákarl (shark), you should try the slátur and hrútspungar if you want the full experience. (Keep in mind that there is a reason people don't eat this stuff anymore!) The pickled whale blubber is, in my opinion, worse than the shark. Whale meat, on the other hand, is incredibly tasty.
posted by weebil at 3:13 PM on October 24, 2007

All I have to add is that guesthouses are a great alternative to hostels. Hostels are cheap, but they stuff you six to a room, and your roommates are not always good-smelling or quiet when you're trying to sleep. Guesthouses are a tiny bit more expensive, and you often get your own room.

Also, whale-watching is, for the most part, pretty boring. You go out for hours on the boat and catch glimpses of whales for seconds. For me, it wasn't worth the time.

Oh, and my favorite places that weren't mentioned already are Dimmuborgir (awesome evil rock formation park) and Krafla (looks like Mars).
posted by ignignokt at 3:21 PM on October 24, 2007

Response by poster: Right, expensive. $10 for a beer expensive. Got it.

@Adam_S: Thanks for the links. I'll definitely think about buying a tiny tent and camping; it would be a lot cheaper and that's always a good thing. Do most of the campsites have hot water for showers? If I can get a shower and a place to sleep I'd be satisfied. The bird song thing sounds amazing too.

@chrisch: Cooking my own food sounds like a really good idea. Do the campsites usually have something to cook on? I could make due with just a place (and wood) to build a fire; looks like staying in Boy Scouts all of those years might actually pay off!

@triggerfinger: I'll definitely look into some tours, I just don't want to only do those and nothing else while I'm there. A tour every few days sounds like a good idea though. I don't have long hair, but I'll be careful anyway. Thanks for the warning!

@Rabarberofficer: Couch surfing would be awesome, if I knew anyone over there. Any advice on making Icelandic friends that will let me use their couch/floor?

@smcniven: Thanks for the heads up; I'll have to drop him a line once I figure out exactly when I'll be going. Those other pools sound like fun too.

@LobsterMitten: I never knew about Lonely Planet before now, but I just ordered the Iceland guidebook tonight. Thanks!

@weebil: I've seen that site but didn't actually find time to register. I think I'll go do that now. Thanks!

@ignignokt: A guest house might be fun for part of my stay. Any ideas on how I'd find some?
posted by sjl7678 at 4:37 PM on October 24, 2007

The campsite in Reykjavik had hot showers, and most of the amenities of any campsite I've been to before. The one in Vestmannaeyjar was really just a grassy area at the foot of a large hill. In fact, an area of the island says it's the windiest place on earth, and I believe it. Combined with the rainstorm at Glastonbury two weeks later, a tent has rarely seen such abuse from the elements.

The Lonely Planet you've bought will undoubtedly mention swimming, as several people have already. Pools really did seem to be the equivalent of the coffee shop old people hang around at and the mall that teenagers loiter at. It's definitely a ritual though: Swimming in Iceland.

Don't be turned off by the tourist trap nature of the Blue Lagoon. It's *definitely* worth it, and pretty much mandatory. They'll even drop you off there before your flight (it's between Reykjavik and the airport) for maximum convenience.
posted by Adam_S at 5:45 PM on October 24, 2007

If you haven't looked into guidebooks, do -- they answer a lot of your nuts-and-bolts type questions, and they are normally reasonably up to date, maybe more so than the people answering here. They will have contact info for various guesthouses (pronounced "gisthi-heimlidth"), they will tell you where to catch the ferry, the pros and cons of renting a car, etc. You may find some in your local library, or in your local big-box bookstore (Borders or the like). I like the Lonely Planet series; different serieses have different tones and emphases so it's worth comparing several to get full coverage. If I had to buy just one I would go with the Lonely Planet.

Something else about Iceland: the hot water in showers is all geothermal too, so it all smells sulphrous. Initially this is unnerving; the whole country has a faint whiff of rotten egg (when it's not as windy as hell -- which it is in many spots. You will want a great windbreaker and a hat with a good chin-tie). After a day or two, especially a cold windy day outdoors followed by a hot sulphrous shower, the smell becomes very comfortable and homey.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:08 PM on October 24, 2007

As for building a fire: don't count on finding wood. The landscape over most of Iceland is low rock hummocks with moss and lichen, or, bare lava rock. Very, very few trees outside of recently and deliberately-planted forests.

Learn a little bit about geology before you go too - this was one of the most enjoyable aspects for me. Iceland is geologically unique (a hotspot on a spreading ridge); in the Thingvellir valley, the mid-Atlantic spreading center is visible on land, so one side of the valley is attached to the North American plate and the other side is attached to the European plate. Lots of lava in evidence. If you have an extra elective course still open in your college career, take Intro to Geology -- I can pretty much guarantee that it will heighten your enjoyment of a trip to Iceland, and it's a lot of fun in itself.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:13 PM on October 24, 2007

"@Rabarberofficer: Couch surfing would be awesome, if I knew anyone over there. Any advice on making Icelandic friends that will let me use their couch/floor?"

You could sign up for a account. Just remember to fill in your profile. I for one won't host anyone if they haven't taken the time to fill out their profile with photos and info.

If you have any questions, just send me an email. :-)
posted by einarorn at 11:58 AM on November 4, 2007

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