There are a LOT of flight comparison- and booking websites that you can choose from. I would highly recommend Dohop. Not only did I work there for a while, but it has several things going for it. First, it’s been voted the World’s Leading Flight Comparison Website three times. Second, it’s the only Icelandic website, focusing on flights to and from Iceland. Finally, its “self-connect” technology allows you to save a lot of money by connecting flights from different airlines when possible. But hey, if you want to check out some of the other websites, you could start with this excellent list.
As far as airlines go, I can only share my personal experience. I have flown to and from Iceland probably well over 50 times using Icelandair, WOW air, and Delta. Even though it’s just a personal preference, let me just say that I only fly with Icelandair now.
Chances are that you want to book some of your activities ahead of time. Whether you’re looking to rent a car, book an ice cave tour, or make a dinner reservation, it might seem daunting trying to decide which companies deserve your business. Here are a few of my go-to resources and some thoughts on how to find that perfect company.
General resources and advice
- Vakinn – the official quality and environmental system for Icelandic Tourism. See if the business is one of their list of 108 certified companies here.
- Inspired By Iceland – It’s Icelandic tourism’s official marketing campaign. Their website contains a list of trusted companies in the travel industry. If you can’t find your company on this list, you might want to ask some more questions.
- Visit Reykjavik – The official marketing office for Reykjavik and surrounding municipalities. Check out their “What to do” section for a useful list of trusted companies
- TripCreator – An Icelandic company that offers a cool tool that allows you to create your own trip. TripCreator is not available to the public but you can access it through both Icelandair and Pink Iceland.
- TripHobo has a great trip planner that you can check out. They offer a simple and intuitive way to plan your trip in Iceland from A-Z.
- Bookmundi, based in Denmark, is a global travel booking portal where you can pretty easily book day tours and multiday tours in +120 countries, including Iceland. They offer both private tours, group tours as well as customized tours, so if that’s your thing, you can check out their Iceland tours.
Icelandic tourism has been booming over the past few years and I’ve seen tens and even hundreds of new companies enter the market over that period. Happy Campers, for example, was the first camper van rental opening in 2009, but today there are at least 20 campervan rentals in this small country. Whatever the industry, businesses can range from being one guy with a jeep and a website to a well established company with 300+ employees. How can you know the difference?
Check the above resources – And see if the company you’re looking at is on one of these lists.
Read (and count) reviews – A company with a rating below ⅘ should be avoided and don’t just check the rating. Make sure there are at least 20+ reviews of this company on the web. Look out for reviews about winter experiences in particular. Here are some good places to look for honest reviews:
Study their website – Does it look professional and up-to-date? How much information can you find there about winter traveling? Here are some things to check for:
- Check the age of the website here. Is it younger than 3 years old?
- Is the overall website design professional?
- Do they have a legitimate address listed in the footer?
- Is there an easy way to contact them (contact form)
- Do they have a business phone number listed prominently? Go to Ja.is and type in their number. If anything but a business name comes up, it’s simply somebody’s cell phone number and that’s not a good sign.
- Check their website on your phone. Is it mobile responsive?
- Do they use photos from actual customers/products or stock images?
Stalk them on social media – Any legitimate business will be approachable on social media and create and share some good content. Do they have more than 1,000 followers? Do they share good content and are people engaging with their content? Do they seem authentic? Are they active during the winter months?
Contact them and ask – Email them (or call). One, you can ask them directly how much experience they have and how long they have been in business. Two, you will get a good sense of how professional they are. If they respond to your email promptly, professionally, and honestly, it’s good evidence of a legitimate company.
Transportation and Accommodation
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is how you are planning on getting around Iceland and how you want to spend your nights. As far as transportation goes, here are your options:
- Rent a car
- Book tours and don’t drive yourself
- Rent a campervan
For accommodation, you have these options:
- Book regular hotels
- Use cheaper accommodation options
– Airbnb or similar
- Bring a tent (and lots of good gear, because you’ll need it)
- Rent a campervan
Now you need to choose a combination of these transportation and accommodation options. If you decide to go with options 1 or 2, following the general advice in this post is all you need to worry about. After all, finding, booking, and timing your entire trip around hotel bookings can be difficult enough.
However, if you decide to go with options 3 or 4, there are some additional things to keep in mind. You should also take a closer look at Chapter 5 below.
Renting a campervan in winter
Renting a campervan will kill two birds with one stone and simplify this entire planning process a lot. So I would highly recommend this option, but since I work for Happy Campers, of course I’m biased. There are some other good campervan rentals out there for all budgets, for example, Cheap Campervans rental, which guarantees lowest prices for very basic vans. So if you happen to agree with me on the campervan idea, keep this in mind:
- Make sure that the company is actually open. Some companies, especially those who don’t offer 4×4 vans, close during the harshest winter months in order to be responsible.
- Do they offer 4×4 vans? If you are traveling in December or January, renting a 4×4 might be the safer bet.
- Does the van have a heater? Some companies don’t offer a heater, which would be impossible during the wintertime.
- Do they offer additional warm beddings for free or for rent? Consider renting extra sleeping bags and make sure you’ll have enough bedding.
- Does the van have winter tires (studded)?
Using a tent
I could write a whole separate post on the experience of traveling in a tent in Iceland during winter. If you are reading this post, chances are that you are not planning on doing this. This option should only be considered by the most experienced trekkers and they would know just as much or more about the subject than me anyway.
All I would say is that you should take extreme cautionary measure if you go this route. With the right equipment, planning, and experience, this can be done but people have died doing this and I don’t recommend it. If you are seriously considering this option, you might want to talk to ICE-SAR directly with your questions (skrifstofa “at” landsbjorg.is)
The good thing about traveling during the low-season is that no matter which combination of accommodation and lodging you choose, you should get a nicely discounted price.
Instead of doing your own research, another option is to rely on a reputable travel agency to book your winter trip in Iceland. This can be a very good option for some people as it can have some real benefits. To simplify, which answer to this question describes you better?
What kind of traveler are you?:
- I like finding bargains, being independent, knowing my options, making choices based on my own preferences, being prepared, talking to locals directly, and I’m comfortable using online websites and tools.
- I like things to be easy, value my time, easily get overwhelmed by many options, get very anxious about making mistakes, enjoy a personal touch from an expert, am less worried about finding the best deal, and am not comfortable/don’t enjoy using online websites and tools.
If answer B describes you better, you might want to consider booking through a travel agent. As of today, there are 332 registered travel agencies operating in Iceland. You can see the full list here. Here is a list of a few companies that have been around for a while and that I would trust (followed by their online rating):
Icelandic travel agencies:
Non-Icelandic travel agencies:
If you’ve had a really good experience with a different travel agency, please let me know and I’ll add it to the list.
In general, it’s been reported that travel agencies in Iceland have been suffering a bit as people are moving towards independent travel planning.
Marketplaces and Comparison Websites
Websites that aggregate and present available tours and accommodation all over Iceland are called travel comparison websites or travel marketplaces. You’ll find a lot of these websites out there, since their business model is quite attractive. They take the usual 15% commission like any other travel agency, but unlike travel agencies, they do not offer much in terms of extra service to the customer. These website can be incredibly useful to compare prices and weigh different options but in my opinion, you should avoid booking through these middlemen for a couple of reasons:
- Some of them don’t have the latest information on pricing and availability. Booking directly with the company or having a travel agent do that work for you is always a safer bet in my opinion.
- Avoiding them will save the company you’re booking with 10-20%, so you are supporting the people who are actually providing you with the service instead of the middleman. It doesn’t cost you anything, but personally, it just makes me feel better about my purchase.
- In some cases, these aggregators will not require you give as much information about yourself as needed to complete the booking. This might result in additional communications or extra time spent at the office when you’re in Iceland.
So just to use an example, instead of booking your glacier tunnel tour at guidetoiceland.is, you could simply book it directly with intotheglacier.is.
But like I said, these websites can be extremely useful and I wouldn’t judge anybody who books through them. Here are the ones I know of and could recommend:
Guide to Iceland
The largest marketplace for travel services in Iceland and a great place to start your search.
The official marketing office of the greater Reykjavik area. Not only do they list trustworthy companies on their website, but they also allow you to book with them directly.
Inspired By Iceland
Just like Visit Reykjavik, this is an official marketing initiative. They have a lot of useful information and also offer an easy way to book through their website.
The father of all accommodation comparison websites. It currently has over 1,700 properties listed in Iceland, so if you’re looking for options, well, there you go.
This is the Booking.com of car rentals but won’t include all of the smaller local car rentals that might offer better deals. Regardless, it’s a great place to start your car rental research.
If you’re looking for cottages in Iceland, this is a good place to start
Hopefully you’ve heard of TripAdvisor before, because it’s a fantastic source of information. Spend some time on their discussion forums, but they also offer a good search engine to find tours and accommodation in Iceland.
Another option similar to TripAdvisor.
They offer more than just flights. You can use their website to find car rentals and hotels (they use Booking.com for hotels and Rentalcars.com for cars). More impressively, they also allow you to put together your own “vacation package” based on your travel dates.
When in Iceland
A simple-to-use website that lets you compare tours available in Iceland.
Another tour aggregator with a straightforward search engine.
Here are some of my favorite winter tour operators and other travel companies in Iceland that should offer a great winter experience:
For ideas about things to do in Iceland, make sure to check out chapter 6 below.
Planning your route
When planning your route, there are 3 approaches.
- Business first – Decide which companies you want to do business with and then plan your route and attractions accordingly
- Route first – Plan your route and then figure out which companies to do business with and which attractions are along the route.
- Attractions first – Decide which attractions you want to see and then plan your route, activities, and hotels around that.
I definitely recommend option 3, since those attractions are the main reason why you’re in Iceland in the first place. Considering the popularity (and limited options of alternatives) of the Icelandic “ring road”, most people end up going with a mix of options 2 and 3, i.e. plan on seeing a few select attractions along the ring road. Regardless of your approach, here are some tips on how to plan your route in Iceland during winter.
Route planning tools
There are a few good route planning tools out there, but being a huge Google fan, I always rely on Google Maps. If you want to look at some alternatives, here are some options:
There are many route planning tools out there and hopefully you’ll find some of them useful. They’re just a bit too complicated for my taste and I don’t have as much confidence in their database as I have in Google’s.
Using Google Maps
Once you’ve decided on activities, attractions, and length of your trip, it’s time to start playing around on Google Maps. Plug in your hotels, campsites, attractions, and tour operators’ address to get a good sense of driving times and distances.
Go to Your Maps, click “Get Started”, and click the large “+” button to create a new map. Name your map and layer and start building your route. After looking up a destination, simply click “add to map” to save it to your map. Under the search bar, you will also see other options such as the “add directions” tool, where you can easily add driving directions to your map. This is my favorite way to slowly start building an itinerary for my trip and make sure that I stay on schedule.
Make sure to add a good amount of time to however long Google Maps estimates it will take you to drive somewhere in Iceland. When you’re driving in Iceland during winter, you should be taking your time and expect some slow driving in difficult conditions.
Making the most of limited daylight
As we mentioned above in our chapter about safety and the weather, you will have very limited daylight in Iceland. Make sure that you think about that when you are planning your route. Don’t schedule driving through beautiful lava fields early in the morning or late at night, as you won’t be able to see them. This can also be a safety issue. You don’t want to struggle to find a campsite in a crazy snowstorm when it’s completely dark.
In general, consider to schedule the following during the dark hours:
- Preparation (such as getting ready for the day setting up for the night)
- Restaurants, coffee shops, etc. (grab a quick meal during the day, spend some time dining during the morning and/or in the evening)
- Northern lights hunting/watching
- Partying / nightlife
- Purposeful driving (i.e. not for sightseeing)
- Shows (concerts, theater, etc.)
- Cultural events / Holidays (Reykjavik Light Festival, New Years Eve, etc.)
- Exploring cultural buildings (Harpa, Hallgrimskirkja, Perlan, etc.)
- Simming (in some cases. It really depends on the swimming pool or hot spring. You might want to hike to a remote natural hot spring during daylight, for example, but enjoying a local swimming pool in Iceland is very enjoyable during nighttime)
And consider the following when you have daylight:
- Driving scenic roads
- Experience your must-see attractions
- Go on activity tours
- Swimming (in some cases)
- Anything else you’re really looking forward to doing in Iceland
During your trip
Just because you’re now in Iceland and on the road doesn’t mean that your planning is now done. You want to make sure that you keep planning your days for two main reasons:
- You want to stick with your plan to make the most of your trip and avoid unnecessary hassle (this is especially true if you don’t have a campervan)
- It’s a safety issue (See Chapter 1)
Here are the most important things to plan for while you’re on the road:
- What’s the weather like today? Does it alter my itinerary?
- How are the road conditions today? Does it alter my itinerary?
- How has my plan been going so far? Is today’s itinerary realistic?
- What routes are we taking today?
- Any difficult roads or gravel roads?
- What kind of signs should I be looking out for on this route?
- Any attractions on this route that I hadn’t thought about before, just in case we have extra time?
These are some useful resources for when you’re on the road. Some of these resources were listed under the safety chapter, while others are new:
Other ideas? Let me know in the comments.
Winter campsites in Iceland
There are literally hundreds of campsites all over Iceland. Compared some other countries, finding and staying in a campsite is incredibly easy in Iceland. Just find the closest campsite, arrive when you want, and either pay when you get there or next morning. You don’t have to book in advance and I have never heard of a campsite being full. With that being said, there are a few important tips you should know before camping around Iceland in the wintertime.
All year campsites in Iceland
Even though there are hundreds of campsites in Iceland, most of them are only open over the summer months. This can make choosing a campsite rather confusing, as there doesn’t seem to be a single reliable source of campsite information out there. Well, that’s why I created my own. Below is a map that shows campsites that are guaranteed to be open all year. You might find other maps showing winter campsites in Iceland but keep in mind that many of them are very outdated. I go over this map every year and add/remove campsites.
If you book a van with Happy Campers, you get this map, plus a map with all other summer campsites both in digital and physical form. With 26 campsites to choose from during winter, it still gives you plenty of options to choose from when you plan your trip.
All year campsites in Iceland:
- Garðskagi Campsite
- Garður Íþróttamiðstöð
- Reykjavík/Laugardalur Campsite
- Selfoss Campsite
- Úthlíð Campsite
- Hellishólar Campsite
- Skógar Campsite
- Skaftafell Campsite
- Egilsstaðir Campsite
- Végarður Campsite
- Vogar / Myvatn Campsite
- Lífsmótun (Hjalli) by Laugar
- Akureyri / Hamrar Campsite
- Dalvík / Skeið
- Glaðheimar / Blönduós
- Þingvellir National Park Campsite
- Búðardalur Campground
- Þingeyri Campsite
- Hotel Fljótshlíð
- Skjóð Campgrounds
- Möðrudalur Camping
Note that there is no completely accurate resource that contains information about all campsites in Iceland. So don’t be surprised if you find another resource that lists different information.
We have to call each campsite individually to make sure that we have the most recent information and in some cases we don’t get responses or discover a lot of changes since last season. Some of these campsites are not the well-established businesses you’ll find when you visit campsites in the U.S. or other parts of Europe. Tourism in Iceland is very new and growing very fast, accompanied by many growing pains, and you’ll see evidence of that when you stay at some of these campsites.
All year campsite amenities
As I touched on above, even though these campsites are officially open, don’t expect the same amenities you would find in other countries or even at the same campsite during the summertime. The services vary vastly, from a simple patch of grass (or snow) where you’re legally allowed to camp overnight, to campsites with a service shed, running water, and showers. The rule of thumb is that you should not expect facilities to be operating during the wintertime.
Use the campsites to park the van or set up your tent for the night, but take advantage of the many geothermal pools located all over Iceland (they don’t close during winter). You will find one in every little town your drive through and most of them offer nice dressing room facilities with hot showers and bathrooms. Hot Pot Iceland is an awesome resource for finding a good swimming pool or geothermal hot spring on your route.
A modest campsite in Djúpivogur during my last road trip
New camping regulations
New camping regulations took effect in November of 2015. Since then, it has become illegal to spend the night in a camper outside organized campsites, unless you get permission from the landowner. To be more specific:
“Camping with no more than three tents is allowed on uncultivated ground for a single night, unless the landowner has posted a notice to the contrary. However, campers should always use designated campsites where they do exist. Do not camp close to farms without permission. If a group of more than three tents is involved, these campers must seek permission from the landowner before setting up camp outside marked campsite areas.”
With millions of tourists traveling to Iceland each year, this law was passed to protect our nature and respect landowners all over rural Iceland. For the normal camper, this should not be a big issue as there are plenty of excellent campsites all over the country. As a true Happy Camper, please respect Iceland’s nature, customs, and laws.
What to do in Iceland in winter
Iceland in winter gives you the opportunity to see a different side of Iceland and do things that might not be possible during the summer. People are much more likely to do tours during winter, and for a good reason. For this chapter, I relied on input from the experts at Iceland Mountain Guides, who have a lot of experience with winter activities in Iceland.
When I asked them about what people could do in Iceland in winter, they explained that “the cold, crisp air is refreshing and with the right clothing you can enjoy so many activities. Hiking, skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowshoeing, walking on a glacier, ice climbing, ice caves and bathing in hot springs are just a few of activities that many people that live and visit Iceland take part in. The days might be short but you can pack in a lot of adventure. Also, long nights allow for ample opportunities to possibly see the Northern Lights.”
The most popular activities by season
With the help and inspiration from Iceland Mountain Guides, I put together this list of top activities, attractions, and events you can experience in Iceland during winter:
The northern lights are the #1 reason people travel to Iceland in winter. Experiencing the northern lights is something you won’t forget easily and I haven’t met anybody who’s thought that seeing the northern lights was disappointing.
How to find the northern lights
You’re in Iceland during winter, which is a great start. Find out when the sun sets and what time of day is the darkest here. Click on today’s day to see a graph that shows you that information. On December 21st, for example, sunset is at 3:29 PM and sunrise at 11:22 AM, with the darkest time of day being between 12:30-2:30 AM. This would be the best time to look for the aurora, even though you should probably start looking well before then, as it will already be quite dark.
Check out cloud cover and aurora activity here. Move the slider to “00” of the night you’re planning on seeing the aurora and look at the map. The white parts of the country indicate clear skies but cloudier skies are indicated with an increasingly dark shade of green.
In the top right corner, you will find an aurora scale from 0 to 9. If the scale is showing 0-2, there will be little chances of any aurora activity that night. However, if it’s 3 or above, it should be worth looking for the aurora. I have been using this tool for years and this is how I’ve learned to interpret the scale:
- 0-1: Not worth looking
- 2: Chances of faint northern lights. I usually don’t bother looking.
- 3: Probably at least some faint northern lights and possibly some stronger activity.
- 4: I’m excited. There’s a pretty good chance of strong activity.
- 5: I’m definitely not missing this. I’m expecting a good show tonight.
- 6-9: Holy cow, I’m cancelling my plans tomorrow, grabbing all my camera gear, and spending all night outside and/or in my van.
The highest I’ve ever seen on this scale is 6, but I’m not always looking. I should mention that this scale is no guarantee. I have been very disappointed before when I saw a 4 on the scale, but there was no activity. It can happen. Also, make sure to check the website minutes before you head out to look for the northern lights (and even during, if possible). Sometimes they update the website very late. I remember when they updated a “5” to a “0” at 5 PM one night, so I had been excited all morning for nothing. Bummer, but that’s how it is.
Check out my other post on my favorite places to see the northern lights in Iceland, if you’re interested.
Northern lights tours
These are the most popular tours in winter by far. There are a lot of good companies that specialize in northern lights tours, and I’ve heard good things from people who have gone. Here are some highly rated tours you could check out:
However, before you jump ahead and book one of these tours, let’s go over the pros and cons of going on an aurora tour:
- You don’t have to drive
- You might meet some interesting people
- You might go to a cool place you wouldn’t have found on your own (like a glacier or a boat)
- You might get a very good and useful guide that can add to your experience
- It’s more expensive than renting a car for 24 hours. The northern lights are free and by booking a tour, you’re simply paying a premium for a ride out of the city (to avoid light pollution) and back.
- It will be crowded. Don’t expect a quiet moment by yourself or significant other.
- You lose flexibility and independence. What if you want to watch the northern lights for another hour? What if you want to see them or photograph them is a different location?
- You have limited space. This is especially true if you have camera gear. You’ll also be limited in how much extra clothing, camping chairs, etc. you can bring to make your experience more enjoyable.
You can weigh these pros and cons and make your own decision, but personally I would not go on a northern lights tour. I enjoy the flexibility and independence too much and I’m comfortable driving myself. More importantly, I think that the peace, quiet, and stillness is a huge part of the whole northern lights experience and I don’t want to miss that. Imagine any other significant moment in your life (marriage, childbirth, proposal, etc.). Now imagine that moment with a bunch of strangers talking, checking their phones, and making “oooohh” and “ahhh” sounds. Now choose which version of that memory you prefer.
Of course I’m a little biased and I understand that this is just a personal preference. Like I said, weigh the pros and cons and check out the tours above if you think a tour would be more up your alley.
If you’d like another local’s opinion on this exact question, check out IheartReykjavik’s northern lights tour post.
Photographing the northern lights
This topic deserves a blog post in itself, but we’ll have to make due with just a few select tips. As an amateur photographer, I know a thing or two about photographing the northern lights. The most important thing when shooting the northern lights, believe it or not, is to dress well (See chapter 3).If you’re freezing cold, you won’t have the patience to get the perfect shot. Here are other tips for those wanting to shoot the northern lights. This mostly applies to DSLR cameras but can also be applied to other cameras and even camera phones that offer advanced features (Although I don’t recommend trying to photograph the northern lights on your phone).
- Shoot in RAW format or highest possible resolution.
- Shoot in manual mode
- Use a wide-angle lens. Most cheaper non-DSLR cameras have a wide-angle lens. I use my 10-22mm Canon Lens, but anything below 20mm is recommended.
- Use a remote trigger if possible. You can also consider using the timer setting on your camera to minimize movement and blurry images.
- Set LCD screen brightness to low
- Bring a travel chair. It will make your more patient, which is super important.
- Bring a snack for the same reason.
- Bring a lens with a large aperture if possible (f/4 or bigger, i.e. a number lower than 4)
- Set your ISO to 1600 and then make adjustments based on first test shots
- Don’t forget about composition. I know you’re excited to start shooting the northern lights, but take a few extra minutes to think about the composition during your setup.
- Experiment with shutter speed. I usually shoot at between 10 to 25 seconds. Start at 20 seconds and then adjust. If you have a super fast lens (f2 maximum aperture or better), you might want to start with 6-10 seconds. You shouldn’t go over 30 seconds as you’ll start to see some star trailing and other unnatural blurry effects.
- Remove the filter from your lens
- Pre-focus your lens (and then set it to Manual focus mode). Try not to set the focus to infinite, as that won’t give you perfect focus in my experience (although people have different options on this). You might have to set your autofocus to a single focus point or use the Live View mode on your camera to focus on the brightest point in the sky, such as a start, the moon, or the northern lights themselves.
- Test exposure, consult histogram.
- Have at least 2 batteries and 2 memory cards
- Use a sturdy tripod
- Check the aurora forecasts
- Use your lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on your lens
Check out these helpful resources for more info about photographing the northern lights.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights video by John E. Marriott
Northern Lights Photography – The Definitive Guide by Dave Morrow
Top winter activities
If you like adventure, you’ll like Iceland in the winter. From simple hikes to winter surfing in the Atlantic ocean, there’s something for you. Here is a list of the top winter activities in Iceland:
Northern lights hunting
Not a huge surprise, considering the previous chapter. What’s the big deal? Imagine how cool it would be to be in these pictures. Then multiply that feeling by 100.