Guide to Planning Your Holiday in Iceland – How to Simplify Your Planning Process

Planning a holiday is more than just daydreaming about the destination. Organizing every aspect of a trip can easily give you a headache. Traveling in Iceland is so much fun once you’re already here, but putting together the itinerary and finding the services that offer the best value for money can be challenging.

Since Iceland is becoming more and more popular, accommodation and excursions can be overbooked weeks or sometimes even months in advance. One of the biggest challenges is the weather, which requires careful preparation. In this article, you’ll learn what steps you need to go through to organize a great holiday in Iceland and you’ll also get tips that will help you to simplify your planning process.

1.) Pick a Time to Travel

The first step is to decide your travel dates. For some people, the time that they can take their holidays is already determined by their school, workplace, family, or other circumstances. If this is the case for you, you have only one task: find the cheapest flights in that given period and book your trip!

Relaxing in the geothermal lagoon
Relaxing in the geothermal lagoon

Examine Your Personal Preferences

If your travel dates haven’t been decided yet, you have some thinking to do. Do you have a strong preference for the season you’d like to visit Iceland in? Would you like to see wintry landscapes, frozen waterfalls, and the Northern Lights? Or perhaps you imagine yourself enjoying the views of green meadows and purple lupin fields under the midnight sun? Or would you like to avoid the crowds and travel in the cheaper low season, no matter what the weather is like?

The Best Time to Travel to Iceland

If you can’t decide on the season, read our detailed article about the best time to travel to Iceland. There, you’ll find the pros and cons of each season as well as a list of the events and national celebrations throughout the year. It will hopefully help you to decide not only the season but maybe even your travel dates.

Inside a glacial ice cave on Vatnajokull glacier
Inside a glacial ice cave on Vatnajokull glacier

2.) Decide the Length of Your Trip

Again, for some people, the duration of their trip is predetermined. If you’re lucky enough to have the freedom to decide it yourself, here are some points you might want to consider.

Short Breaks

Generally, you can explore Reykjavík and its surroundings in just 2–3 days. A short trip to Iceland can definitely be fun, but the longer you stay, the more profound and memorable the experience will be.

The Black sand Beach in South Iceland
The Black sand beach in South Iceland

4–6 Days

If you’d like to visit some of the most famous natural attractions, such as Reykjavík, the South Coast, and the Golden Circle at a comfortable pace, you’ll need to spend about 4–6 days in Iceland. This time frame will give you the chance to get a glimpse of Iceland’s most well-known waterfalls, geysers, and black sand beaches and to also try some of the exciting activities that the glaciers and volcanoes have to offer.

7–10 Days

If you’re coming from a very different timezone, we’d recommend staying at least a week or more. Getting over the jetlag usually takes a day or two. Don’t plan too much travel for the first couple of days after arrival, just give yourself time to explore the capital and take in the atmosphere and the climate.

With 7–10 days, you’ll have enough time to visit some of the remote areas, such as the Reykjanes and Snaefellsnes Peninsulas, the Diamond Circle, and to complete the must-see Golden Circle and South Coast routes.

This much time could also even be enough to travel around the whole island in the summer, if you don’t mind sitting in the car for 3–5 hours every day.

Rainbow over Gullfoss waterfall on the Golden Circle
Rainbow over Gullfoss waterfall on the Golden Circle

10–15 Days

An ideal Icelandic holiday is 10–15 days long. This time frame will give you great freedom and flexibility as well as the chance of visiting the most remote and mystical places, such as the Eastfjords, the Westfjords, and the Icelandic Highlands. Exploring small seaside hamlets, taking walks in nature, and trying exciting activities will be possible if you stay in Iceland for two weeks.

More Than Two Weeks

If you can stay longer, you’ll get to know Iceland like a local! With more than two weeks at your disposal, you’ll have time to slow down and breathe in the Icelandic culture and atmosphere, trek in remote places, explore hidden treasures, visit off-the-beaten-path destinations, patiently observe the local wildlife, and find the beauty in the small details while traveling all around the country.

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in South-East Iceland
Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in South-East Iceland

Seasonal Differences

Keep in mind that travel times in winter and in summer can be very different. Due to the length of the daylight periods, visiting the same amount of places takes about twice as long in winter than in summer.

While you can travel in bright daylight all around the clock in summer, you’ll only have 3–6 hours of daylight in the peak of the winter. You might not want to travel in the darkness and miss out on the beautiful landscapes, so putting together a winter itinerary requires more careful planning than a summer itinerary.

The Budget

Your budget, of course, is also an important factor when deciding the duration of your trip. Make sure to research accommodation, car rental, and multi-day excursion prices to see what you can squeeze into your budget. The prices will differ greatly between the peak season and the low-season, as can the activities available. Learn more about this here.

Skogafoss waterfall in winter
Skogafoss waterfall in winter

3.) Research Areas, Top Attractions, and Activities

Once you’ve got your travel dates, it’s time to start researching the things that Iceland is famous for. You’ve probably got some ideas already, but there might be things you haven’t even heard of yet. Once you learn about them, you might need to restructure your bucket list.

Depending on the length of your stay, you’ll need to learn a bit about Reykjavík and its surroundings, the Golden Circle, and the South Coast since these are the destinations that everyone wants to visit. If you have more time to spend in Iceland and would like to travel around the island, there’s plenty to learn about these beautiful sites and interesting attractions.

Luckily, we’ve already collected all the information that you need! Here are our articles about West Iceland (including the Golden Circle and Reykjavík), South Iceland, East Iceland, and North Iceland. We’ve listed all of the must-visit places, so you can easily jump ahead to the next step: putting together your Icelandic bucket list!

map of Iceland

4.) Create Your Iceland Bucket List – If You Don’t Already Have One

Although you probably want to see everything, you’ll sadly have to limit the list of places you want to visit. There will be some attractions that you’ll have to skip due to lack of time, budget, or seasonal inaccessibility.

Before even you start planning your itinerary, it’s a good idea to create a bucket list of the places you want to see. Collect these destinations and list them in order of priority. Then, find them on the map, connect them, and see how long it would take to visit each of them.

If they’re scattered all around the country, you’ll probably want to travel around the island. If you don’t have enough time for that, you’ll need to cut back on your list and remove the places that you simply can’t visit. Having a bucket list will help you prioritize and plan your travel itinerary.

Northern lights in Iceland

5.) Choose Your Travel Style

Knowing your travel style is key when planning. It affects your budget, the places that will be accessible for you, and the depth of the research you’ll need to do before traveling.

Traveling with Local Guides

Joining a guided tour or having a private local guide with you will take plenty of responsibilities off your shoulders. During these trips, your safety will be guaranteed. Furthermore, you’re sure to be entertained and you’ll get to know the attractions through the eyes of a local. Your guide will be able to tell you all the practical information you need to know with anecdotes and history that add great value to the experience and would take a lot of research to find out on your own.

Some places in Iceland aren’t easy for rental cars to access. Some areas become completely inaccessible for independent tourists during the winter while some roads require special types of cars and experience even in summer. But with guided tours, there’s no limit. Many Icelandic guides hold a special driver’s license that allows them to drive these specialized vehicles safely.

Glacier hiking tour in Iceland
Glacier hiking tour in Iceland

Traveling with a group also comes with the opportunity to get to know like-minded people and share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with other travelers.

If you decide to book a multi-day excursion, you’ll be in good hands from the moment of booking. You won’t have to deal with all the planning, organizing, and booking because everything will be included in that one package.

Calculating driving distances and stops, finding accommodation and activity options that are in sync with your travel plan, and booking all of them is a lot of work that requires in-depth research. You’ll save yourself from having to do these tasks if you book a multi-day trip.

Many travelers appreciate the comfort and safety of being guided by a local. You won’t have to stress about driving in unfamiliar conditions and there’s always someone to answer your questions and help you in any situation.

Guided tours have a relatively fixed itinerary, so you’ll still have to decide on a specific tour. Once you start your trip, you’ll have to follow that specific itinerary. These tours also come with a somewhat higher cost. However, if you calculate the accommodation and car rental prices, there isn’t that big of a difference in price after all.

Iceland family trip
Iceland is a great choice of destination for families

Traveling Independently

Self-driving in Iceland is very popular. It offers the great advantage of flexibility, even though there’s a limit to the spontaneity you can enjoy. You’ll need to plan a relatively strict travel itinerary as all the accommodation and activities must be booked far in advance, especially in the summer.

Traveling independently provides a great opportunity to spend quality time with your travel partner(s) – be they your spouse, friend(s), or family member(s) – without having to share your journey with strangers. It’s adventurous and often cheaper than joining a guided tour, especially if you share the cost with your travel companions.

Organizing the trip is a whole adventure in itself that you can start months beforehand. Many people like to spend hours studying travel guides, reading blog posts, and checking out itinerary suggestions from other travelers.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall in South Iceland
Seljalandsfoss waterfall in South Iceland

You can also choose your accommodation according to your individual needs. You’ll get to plan the travel distance along with the number and length of the stops, just as you want them. If you’d like to change your plans during the trip, it’ll be completely up to you.

You can be your own travel guide and put together the information package you’ll share with your travel companions based on their individual interests. Successfully completing a travel plan that you’ve made yourself is definitely empowering and certainly adds to the experience.

On the road in Iceland in winter
On the road in Iceland in winter

Camping, Hiking, and Backpacking

These are the most flexible travel styles, which provide amazing adventures and spontaneity. Hikers have a special connection with the land they explore. Walking among Iceland’s active volcanoes and glaciers is a dream come true for many outdoorsy people from around the world.

Waking up to the clear Arctic air and some of the most breathtaking views in the world is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. There’s nothing more adventurous than sleeping in a tent in the Icelandic wilderness – and it’s also very budget-friendly. Camping is the cheapest accommodation option in Iceland.

Camping near Skogafoss waterfall in South Iceland
Camping near Skogafoss waterfall in South Iceland

Hiking and backpacking usually require even more preparation than the other travel styles. Looking deeper into the weather conditions, daylight periods, trail conditions, natural hazards, camping rules, shopping options, water sources, and network coverage requires some previous experience with planning hiking trips.

Therefore, this travel style is only recommended for experienced adventurers. We’d advise you to bring high-quality gear that can withstand the Arctic conditions. Iceland isn’t the ideal country for first-timers. Beginner backpackers can join guided hiking tours where they can rent gear and follow an experienced local guide who will ensure that no one gets lost or injured.

Hiking in Landmannalaugar in the Icelandic Highlands
Hiking in Landmannalaugar in the Icelandic Highlands

6.) Book Your Trip (Flight, Accommodation, Activities)

Once you completed all of the steps above, there’s nothing left to do except book your trip. Start with the flights, followed by your accommodation and activities. As we’ve learned from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s always a good idea to purchase the refundable option for both your flight and accommodation. Most airlines, hotels, and guesthouses offer this option, usually for a small additional fee.

You should also look for good travel insurance that includes a “Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR)” option. This will cover up to 75% of your total costs if you have to cancel your trip for any reason not listed in the standard coverage. It’s always good to know that if anything comes up, you’ll be able to get your money back.

Whale watching in Iceland
Whale watching in Iceland

If you decide to book a guided multi-day tour, you can skip booking the accommodation because it’ll be included as part of the tour. Once you’ve decided to book a guided tour, there isn’t much left to do but to find that one trip you want and wait for the travel dates to come. If you choose to travel with a guide, you won’t need to do the planning because it’ll all be done for you!

If you choose to travel independently, you’ll also need to book your rental car and all the activities you’d like to do. For this, you’ll need to start by making your travel itinerary so that you can pick the dates for all of the other activities before booking.

Tjornin pond in central Reykjavik at night
Tjornin pond in central Reykjavik at night

7.) Prepare for Your Trip

Those joining a multi-day tour with a local guide won’t have much to prepare. They’ll get all the information they need from the tour provider. Independent travelers will spend their time learning about places and getting to know Iceland’s culture, history, and geology so that they can understand the country better and form a deeper connection while traveling. This information will be provided to the guided travelers during their tour.

One thing everyone needs to learn about and prepare for before their trip is the weather. In this article, we’ve put everything together that you need to know about the weather and daylight conditions in Iceland, including seasonal and monthly info and even a clothing guide.

recommended clothing in Iceland
Recommended clothing in Iceland

8.) Take the Icelandic Pledge

The Icelandic Tourist Board invites travelers to take the Icelandic Pledge before arriving in the country. With this unique oath, travelers promise to respect Iceland’s nature, to travel responsibly during their visit, and to enjoy Iceland responsibly, as Icelanders do. The pledge is as follows:

  1. I pledge to be a responsible tourist.
  2. When I explore new places, I will leave them as I found them.
  3. I will take photos to die for, without dying for them.
  4. I will follow the road into the unknown, but never venture off the road.
  5. And I will only park where I am supposed to.
  6. When I sleep out under the stars, I’ll stay within a campsite.
  7. And when nature calls, I won’t answer the call on nature.
  8. I will be prepared for all weathers, all possibilities, and all adventures.

The pledge can be taken online and also at airports in Iceland.

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