Traveling to Iceland - The subtle art of expecting the unexpected
So as you might have guessed, if you visited my Instagram, I recently went to Iceland. This particular destination had been on my bucket list for a few years and for several reasons: I wanted to see northern lights, to snorkel in Silfra and to discover glaciers, volcanoes and other natural phenomena.
Believe me, before going, I have read every blog post and watched every video about Iceland to make the most out of my trip...And still, some things still were unexpected and/or unbelievable. But let's start at the beginning!
On November 26th I boarded my plane operated by Wow Air, from Brussels Airport, and arrived in 2h55 at Keflavik Airport. The airport is located about 45 min away from Reykjavik and several companies propose transfer services. I personally booked a pick-up with Airport Direct (orange buses) which has a desk at the exit of the airport. You can't miss it and honestly, they're extremely punctual and not overly expensive (average price for a transfer from the airport to your hotel's doorstep = 20€) which is something that I love! We drove to Reykjavik and were dropped at the hotel I booked...
That's when the adventure started...
41 A Townhouse Hotel
I got dropped in front of the 41 A Townhouse Hotel, a modern and really lovely apart-hotel on Laugavegur, the main commercial street of Reykjavik. I booked a room for my entire stay and I am really happy with my choice. The location is perfect, the staff is really friendly and the apartment is well equipped. Even though I didn't stay a lot in the room, I liked having everything on hand in case I wanted to cook breakfast for example or if I just wanted to warm up in-between tours.
41 A Townhouse Hotel is located precisely 450m from Bus Stop 7 (Traðarkot) which is a pick-up point for most tour operators but it is also located next to most restaurants, bars and shops. Honestly you cannot find a more convenient location...Even if you try! Prices however can go really high so make sure to book your room in advance, you'll save a lot of cash!
The staff was really nice and helpful. They provided the access code to the front door well in advance and confirmed that everything was in order by email. They were really welcoming and chatty once we checked-in, the room was made everyday and essentials were replenished as well (coffee, sugar, milk, soap, salt, towels, etc.). I had asked for a quiet room and considering they started works in the courtyard, they switched me to another room. It's nice to know that this hotel actually tries to accommodate your needs :) They can also give you really good tips about where to eat or party!
Their genuine kindness and openness was really surprising, in a good way, and it's lovely change from what I've seen in other countries...
Food - Restaurants & Supermarkets
1) Shopping for food: prices and schedule (which you might know if like me you've read the web about Iceland)
In terms of food, my plan was to cut expenses and almost next to the hotel, there was a supermarket called Bonus...A great news because food is quite expensive in Iceland. This chain is the cheapest in the country and luckily it wasn't far away (although they are 32 Bonus shops in Reykjavik alone). I was a bit shocked to see that frozen food was actually the cheapest of all...aside from Skyr of course! For a basic breakfast, composed of "fresh products", you will pay about twice as much as in Belgium. I bought eggs, sausages, 3 small pots of skyr and some basic cereal and it cost me about 28€. It looks expensive but it's still a better price than in restaurants so if you are on a budget, supermarkets will help but beware, Bonus is open from 10AM to 06:30PM...If like me you have excursions planed, you might end up on a tight schedule!
Now when I say cut expenses, I don't mean anything extreme but breakfast is something I can cook myself, especially since I had to leave early and not many restaurants were open, for the rest I look at prices without depriving myself of the good stuff. I wanted to try a restaurant or two however lunch had to be bought during excursions, unless I meal prepped but I ended up not having the time ^^'.
2) Eating out & drinking alcohol
During my first day I checked what the city had to offer in terms of shops, restaurants, pick up stops, tour operators, the street art...And I also tried my first restaurant. I went to a place called "Staff - Kitchen & Bar" to try a burger (~21€ - I really like to try burgers in cities I visit) and I wasn't disappointed, the food was really good! Plus eating something warm and fatty gave me the energy to handle a cold night of chasing northern lights. I was also surprised to find extra good french fries at Staff! Make sure to try them!
About every morning I prepped my breakfast depending on how much time I had: eggs and sausages on free mornings, skyr and cereals on busy days. As for lunch it really depended on where we stopped during the excursion, as you might have seen from my previous post, my schedule was extra busy and lunch breaks were short. In these cases, soup and sandwiches are live savers and actually affordable: a soup costs about 1500~1900 ISK (11€ ~13€) and a sandwich costs about the same amount. I would definitely recommend to stop at Supa for lunch if you visit Geysir, the food is good and quickly served :)
One good tip for any traveler > Buy your alcohol at the airport, it is way cheaper than in any supermarket and as you can imagine...Ordering alcohol in a restaurant is also quite expensive, almost as much as food actually! I had read online that people would buy packs of beer at the airport and I was a bit doubtful about this however it's all true! People leave the airport with carts full of beer, wine and spirits! I suggest you do the same if you want to treat yourself to a glass or more...
In short: prepare a budget for food if you're going to Iceland, whether you shop at Bonus or eat 3x a day in restaurants ;) It might sound strange but it will avoid bad surprises.
3) What to bring back?
Iceland produces some nice chocolate, award-winning actually, as well as volcanic sand, good spirits and licorice to only state a few ideas. If you want to buy food to bring back home at a good price, here is where to go:
Volcanic Sand > A box of 125gr costs at Bonus 595 ISK while it costs 1000+ ISK in shops and at the airport (you get it in a little plastic bottle but is it really worth twice the price?)
Chocolate > You probably won't find a better deal than at the airport! 3 tablets (3x60gr) of Omnom chocolate will cost 1800 ISK which is way cheaper than in any shop in town.
Alcohol > Get your booze at the airport, it's really cheap and really good. I brought back some "Reykjavik Rum" at 17€/a bottle and it's really good (light and sweet) as well as a Reyka Vodka and it was quite affordable and good.
Licorice > Can be purchased at the airport as well, it's quite inexpensive and can be found in several forms (candy, chocolate, liquor, etc.)
Excursions around the country
1) Pick-up hiccups, cancellation and unkind weather
I booked several tours with Arctic Adventures to see the Golden Circle, The Glaciers and to snorkel in Silfra. I decided to go with this operator because reviews seemed better than others...You will realize if you read reviews that a lot of people are unhappy because their tours got cancelled, because they don't get picked up at their bus stop or because they didn't get refunded. And I must admit that I wondered for a while...Are people the problem? Or is the tour operator? And actually it's mix of it all combined with unkind weather.
I have 2 Icelandic colleagues and both warned me about the weather, how changing it can be and to eventually check Vedur.is if I wanted real time weather forecast, it's also a great tool to know your chances of seeing northern lights! They also both told me to be careful and to trust the operator if they cancel a tour > locals know better than you and it's pretty true.
On my first day, I had planned to go see the northern lights with Reykjavik Excursions because they offered a good deal, it was 40€/pers for the 3h tour. When I booked the tour, I chose to get picked up at Bus Stop 7 which is conveniently located 450m away from 41 A Townhouse Hotel. This was my first experience with pick ups in Reykjavik. One thing that you will have heard of, but can only imagine when you're actually in Iceland, is the waiting: your pick up will, for example, start at 8:00PM and might take up to 30min, sometimes more and it is totally true. There are so many tours organized that getting picked up can be a bit messy which can explain delays. Additionally, you should always check your emails to make sure that your pick up location hasn't changed or that your tour isn't cancelled. From memory, I've waited on every tour at least 30 minutes to get picked up and I received 2 cancellations notices for tours due to the weather.
On day 2, my tour with Arctic Adventures to the Golden Circle took place and was awesome. I had to wait a lot at the pick-up point but it was worth it :) We saw the geothermal plant, the waterfalls, the Icelandic horses, the geysers, a local farm, etc. The guide was really friendly and chatty, the bus was really comfortable and the agenda of the day gave us enough time to do everything we wanted, no rush. It's was well planned and totally what I wanted. In the evening we went for another northern lights tour, this time with Reykjavik Sightseeing, but we didn't see much because of the clouds. As a result, we were offered to come on the tour of the next day > Yes in Iceland when you don't see northern lights, you can go on another tour free of charge or get a voucher valid for 2 years!
Now during day 1 & day 2 I learned that my glacier and snorkeling trips were cancelled (by Arctic Adventures). At first I didn't understand why the tours were cancelled because let's be honest when you see other tours departing, you just don't get it and it's also a bit frustrating to see others go and not you. But I checked the weather forecast and it did announce a yellow and an orange alert where I was supposed to go: Wind Storms with 50km/h winds. Those conditions were not favorable to snorkel or wander in the glacier area. It truly sucked that it happened during my tours but that's what Icelandic weather is all about: unexpected! And I understand why Arctic Adventures and other companies cancelled their tours, it was for everyone's safety. Some other tours departed but to other locations like the Blue Lagoon, Reykjanes or the Golden Circle which are closer and less dangerous under these weather conditions. Some other tours were cancelled because the operator uses a coach and that's not optimal either in those conditions. So yes, when you go to Iceland you may have planned everything...But it doesn't mean that it will take place as expected!
To make up for the 2 tours that got cancelled, I visited Reykjavik and booked a tour to Reykjanes Peninsula. In the end I was quite happy because I got time to sleep in (and recover from night outs in the cold), I got the opportunity to shop a bit and I visited the capital of Iceland. On my last day, I visited Reykjanes with Gateway to Iceland and it was awesome. Not many people visit this part of the country and it's a huge mistake > you're missing out on beautiful landscape, nature and shores. The only "downside" was that the winds were insane and it was sometimes difficult to just walk^^' I must add that we had an incredible guide, really fun and knowledgeable: Andres A. (the A. is important as there is an other Andres...!!)
On another quick, yet important, note...With 2 tours cancelled by Arctic Adventures, I was entitled to a refund. I contacted the operator by email to confirm that I wanted my money back and I also sent them a message on Facebook to ensure a quick response/follow-up. I received 2 refund forms that I filled-in with the necessary information and sent back. The operation warned me that it might take 10-15 days to have the money back on my account (time to process the request and send the money) and that's exactly the amount of time it took. So don't worry if the refund doesn't come immediately, it just takes time :) Start worrying after 15 days I would say...
My top advice if you are booking tours:
Check your emails a few times per day to make sure that your pick up point hasn't changed or that your tour isn't cancelled. It sucks to wait for nothing in the cold ^^'
Check also the pick-up time carefully, I have seen people missing their bus because they thought the pick-up was at 8:30 PM when actually the voucher said that the pick-up starts 30min before departure (hence at 8:00PM).
If you don't see northern lights, make sure to ask to book another night or confirm that you want a voucher valid for 2 years.
If your tour is cancelled, you should get a 100% refund so make sure to get in touch with your tour operator ASAP and ask for all the details about the refund: how much, when will it be processed, how long can the transfer take.
If your tours are cancelled, don't panic! Find a tour shop or info point. Someone will definitely help you book another excursion and provide you with information in real-time > what are the weather conditions/stopping factors, make a call to your tour operator for you, find an alternative that is operated, etc. Honestly, these guys were live saviors and provided.
2) The Northern Lights and what to expect
As I mentioned above, on my first day I went to see the northern lights. It's something that's been on my bucket list for years. I still remember my years at school, making presentations about these phenomena because I found them so incredible. And this year I finally discovered them! I checked the weather forecast every day to know if the sky would be clear and if the solar activity was high enough.
During my stay in Iceland, the forecast announced an activity of 3 out of 9 which is not much but it means you're probably going to see some lights. I have waited in the cold for 3 hours without seeing anything despite the clear sky but what I didn't know is that they tend to show up around midnight...And they did show up before we left. They looked to human eyes like white dancing halos but to the camera, they were absolutely green! I sort of messed up my pictures because my tripod wasn't super stable with the wind^^' So they end up a bit blurry but I am glad I saw a real northern light!
Tips if you go on a tour to chase northern lights > bring a really good coat, a warm hat, gloves and hand warmers (these things will make a real difference) OR if you are lazy, wait on the coach until the lights show up.
Shopping in Iceland - Tax Free
1) Icelandic Wool
You will see them everywhere, people will tell you how awesome and warm they are...And it is true that woolen clothing is warm and cool (it's Icelandic!) but damn it hitches! Not sure how people manage to wear this wool but I can't^^' I was so sad to find out how uncomfortable sweaters are when I tried them on, my wallet however was quite happy...
Iceland wool is special and definitely something to bring back if you don't have a sensitive skin, however it's pricey so get ready spend 150€ at least on a sweater. Most items are handmade and can be purchased in souvenir shops though I would recommend to check out the Hand knitting Association of Iceland, they have a lot of stock.
2) Fur (not for everyone obviously)
If you are more into fur, you can buy a sheep skin or a collar for a decent price. Fur is surprisingly affordable and you can find it everywhere: rabbit, fox, raccoon and more. The main supplier in Reykjavik is called Feldur, it is a family business and they have a lot of choice. If you don't find what you like in souvenir shops, visit their own store.
3) Silver and jewelry
Iceland seems to be the land of the craftsmen because the ratio per capita is crazy! There is at least 1 jeweler per street and sometimes a lot more. They work with silver and volcanic rock, ancient symbols and runes which make a very special souvenir to bring back.
4) Books, food and generic souvenirs
Obviously you will find a lot of typically souvenirs like magnets, bags, glasses, decoration but also some viking snacks and books on runes and sagas. It's a little more common but sagas are really cool to read. In school, you might have read the Odyssey, why not stories about Thor, Odin and Valhalla :)
Note that you shop tax free if your purchase exceeds 6000 ISK which is easily done. Just make sure to keep your receipts, fill-them in and visit the Tax Refund desk at the airport. It's located in front of Joe and the Juice. Arm yourself with patience, there usually is a queue of Chinese folks...^^'
What would I do differently...or not?
Now that I know more about Iceland, I think that I would rent a car and drive around the country by myself for the most part. After all, there is 1 main road so it's totally feasible. I would just take a tour operator for the snorkeling and glacier part because it can be a bit dangerous to do on your own. Considering my experience with Arctic Adventures, I guess I would book again with them because they value safety and are serious :)
I would definitely do more grocery shopping instead of eating out to keep more money for activities and I would bring the same suitcase! I wasn't cold at all which is a first and something that I really enjoyed! I could see a lot of people around me less prepared and shaking under the wind. So yup, those hand warmers and thermal underwear did their job! Ice grips are also great against the wind and on icey path, it can be very slippery.
I would buy more Volcanic Salt because it's really good and a lovely gift to bring back. The rum and vodka are also delightful and an amazing addition to any bar shelf.
Finally, I wouldn't worry as well as I did regarding the cold. I have everything I need and more, plus...Iceland is lot warmer than I expected. The temperature was actually a lot colder in Belgium but what made the difference is the wind and rain...And watching the sky for 3 hours at night obviously!
Most of all, expect the unexpected OR don't expect at all because there will always be something to surprise you in Iceland: the weather, your operator, an encounter, prices, people and more...Just live the moment and enjoy!
Have you been to Iceland? Do you plan to? Drop a comment below...