Whether you’re researching in advance or you’re planning a last-minute trip to Iceland in September, here are 10 things to know before going to Iceland that will help make your journey a smooth sailing adventure.
Last updated on June 24, 2023.
Things to Know Before Going to Iceland
From volcanoes and geysers to black sand beaches and natural hot springs, Iceland offers a wide array of extraordinary bucket list experiences. It’s no wonder it’s a top destination that is beloved by many and one that I personally cannot wait to revisit.
To make sure you have the most pleasurable experience and that you avoid making the same mistakes as me, I have compiled the ultimate list of what you need to know prior to arriving in Iceland.
1. Do I need a visa?
The great thing about being a Canadian citizen like myself is that you do NOT need a visa to visit Iceland. The same applies to U.S. passport holders. That is, of course, given that your stay is no longer than 90 days.
Nationals of EEA (European Economic Area) countries are not required to apply for a visa either. This includes all EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK) as well as Liechtenstein and Norway. Switzerland is neither a EU nor EEA member, but is also exempt from visas.
If you hold an Asian passport like my dad does from Taiwan, this is where it can get a little tricky.
As of January 11th, 2011, Taiwan passport holders no longer need a visa to enter countries of the Schengen Agreement (i.e. Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland). However, based on research and stories from family friends, we were told that we needed to provide proof of a return flight ticket. (Which isn’t a big deal at all.) We printed our e-mail confirmation, but once we arrived at customs, we were not asked to present any additional documents or proof. Regardless, I would prepare it in case.
2. Is there a language barrier?
You’ll be relieved to hear that there aren’t any language barrier issues.
When we were in the more touristy areas in Reykjavík and along Golden Circle, everyone spoke perfect English. We didn’t have any problems checking into hotels or ordering food in restaurants. In fact, a lot locals were eager to help us when we fuelled up our car at gas stations.
We did notice, however, that once we reached smaller towns, things were slightly different.
Hotel staffs and restaurant employees were still rather fluent, but it was a little more challenging communicating with locals when asking for directions.
3. Icelandic orthography and its relation to Google Maps.
While we’re on the topic of language, let’s talk about those special characters you see in names like Þingvellir National Park.
If you haven’t noticed already, Iceland utilizes Latin-script alphabets. The “Þ” in Þingvellir National Park, for example, is really a “th” and not a lower case p or capital D.
Luckily, you don’t need to add an Icelandic keyboard to your phone to type out destinations on Google Maps.
With Iceland being such a popular destination, Google has done a really good job of converting Icelandic orthography to regular English alphabets and vice versa. You can simply type out “Thingvellir National Park” and it will direct you to said location.
Tip: Download offline Google Maps to save money on SIM cards or data roaming charges.
4. Load up on prepaid gas cards.
This is probably one of the most crucial Iceland tips and I cannot stress this enough… Load up on prepaid gas cards!
Comprehensive map of Iceland’s gas stations across the country on Rent.is.
Since most pumps take credit cards, the majority of gas stations in Iceland operate 24/7. (The stores do not.)
When paying with a card, all machines require you to input a four digit pin.
For context, my dad holds a Taiwanese credit card whereas I own a Canadian RBC Visa card. Our pins are longer than four digits and a lot of machines did not recognize our pins. That said, our cards only worked about 50% of the time. (N1 always took our cards, but Olís and ÓB were iffy.) The other half of the time we were forced to pay inside the stores.
It wasn’t until towards the end of our trip did we finally learn about prepaid gas cards. This seriously saved us so much time and trouble. Plus, you won’t be reliant on each store’s operating hours to get gas.
5. What’s weather in Iceland in September like?
The temperature in Iceland in September floats at around 6°C (43ºF) to 12°C (54ºF), which is relatively mild compared to its colder months.
Since it’s a transitional time between summer and winter, you can expect beautiful sunny days followed by long dark nights that are optimal for watching Northern Lights.
While it does rain a little from time to time, snow is rare. If you plan to rent a vehicle, you’ll have no problem navigating through local roads.
6. What to pack for Iceland in September?
Although September is one of the best months to visit Iceland in terms of weather, it can still get rather cold and windy this time of the year. Not to mention, Iceland weather is known to be unpredictable.
You can literally be enjoying the gorgeous sunshine only to drive five minutes down the road to experience pouring rain and freezing cold.
For warmer days, I suggest bringing
- Long sleeve t-shirts or henley tops
- Denim or plaid shirts that are great for layering
- Thick wool cardigans
- Leggings or jeans – whichever you feel comfortable in
- Sunglasses (especially if you plan on driving)
- Optional blanket scarf in case it gets windy
As for colder, wetter days, remember to pack a raincoat with thicker padding and insulation. (Yes, raincoat, not an umbrella because the wind will destroy it within seconds.)
7. Information centers are your new best friend.
Not just because they provide helpful Iceland travel tips, but because they have free washrooms.
It’s not uncommon for European countries to charge for restroom use. Public bathrooms in Iceland actually have turnstile doors for you to insert coins and make payment if you wish to enter.
With gas stations and restaurants only offering washroom usage for paid customers, you’ll want to take note of these tourist information centers in their respective areas:
8. Watch out for birds.
And I’m not talking about flashers. Thank goodness!
Not something you might expect on a things to know about Iceland list, but do pay attention to birds when driving.
Icelandic birds – seagulls in particular – aren’t exactly the brightest. They like to sit in the middle of the road or off to the side. Usually by the time you spot them, it’s either too late for them to get out of the way, or they’ll try to flee by crashing into your windshield.
Not only did we hit one ourselves, we saw countless carcasses along the road.
As gruesome as this sounds, it’s extremely dangerous to brake for a bird while driving at a high speed. Sometimes you just gotta do whatchu gotta do.
9. Can you see Northern Lights in Iceland in September?
The answer is yes and no.
Activity level of 2 on a clear day.
September to April is said to be the best months for when to see Northern Lights.
Nonetheless, whether you can see them or not largely depends on how cloudy the skies are and your lucky really. Despite activity being high, cloudy skies can still decrease your chances. On the contrary, if the activity level is low, you won’t see a thing even on a clear day.
Tip: check Icelandic Met Office’s Northern Lights forecast guide and plan accordingly.
10. Should I join a tour?
To answer this question, you must first determine what you want to see.
The “cool” tours versus the “boring” tours.
Cool tours are ones like whale watching, puffin spotting, ice cave explorations, and volcano visits. (Most of these outdoor excursions can only be done with a licensed tour guide and not on your own.)
The boring tours are those that take you to basic tourist attractions.
I personally don’t think the latter are worth the money nor time and would much prefer to explore on my own at my own pace.
For our trip, we spent exactly one week in Iceland. We did a DIY tour of the Golden Circle then drove along the Ring Road. In hindsight, this was a little ambitious, but we did manage to see majority of the popular sights.
Driving in Iceland is also fairly straightforward and rental cars are readily available.
Bottom line is if you don’t feel like being a social butterfly and mingling with 100 other tourists whilst getting photobombed by them, don’t join a regular day tour. If you want to venture off into ice caves and lava fields, sign up for one with Extreme Iceland.
Where do I rent a car?
If you’re like me and would much rather adventure on your own, you’ll have to rent a car.
Discovercars.com is a vehicle rental platform with more than 10,000 locations in 145,000 countries, including Iceland. They work with major agencies such as Enterprise and Sixt to provide reliable services at competitive rates.
The booking process is quick and straightforward, and they provide helpful local tips on driver license requirements, most popular vehicle to rent, where to visit, and best driving routes around Iceland.
BMW X1 from Geysir car rental. Total for seven days was $841.49 CAD + $124.18 for full-coverage insurance. We did not specify for a luxury car and were assigned this model.
Since our trip was a little last-minute, we went with the cheapest available vehicle with Geysir. (Once we arrived at Keflavík International Airport, we took a free shuttle bus to Geysir’s office. Shuttle buses came every 15 minutes and the ride was no more than 5 minutes.)
The whole process went smoothly and we got our car without delay.
Do I need car insurance?
Another key Iceland travel advice is picking the right insurance for your vehicle.
Purchasing insurance directly from car rental companies is almost always the most expensive.
While it is cheaper going with a third-party insurer, the downside is that if anything were to happen, you would have to pay the car rental company up front. You’ll then of course file a claim with your insurer and get the money reimbursed, but it’s a longer process.
No matter which you pick, do not make the mistake of purchasing from a third-party insurer and buying insurance again from the rental company at the pick-up counter.
I’ve done this before when I was unfamiliar with car rental processes and it was a complete waste of money. If you’ve purchased coverage from Rentalcars.com, for instance, tell the rental car sales rep no when they ask if you need insurance. One insurance is enough!
When it comes to which type of insurance to get, I always go with the full-coverage one. It’s better to be safe than sorry and it’s good knowing you can just walk away from everything if anything unfortunate were to happen.
This is especially important for Iceland because there are tons of gravel roads. It’s very likely that you rental will get rock chips and paint scratches.
A lot of Geysir reviews I read online were bad ones, but only because renters didn’t purchase the right insurance and had to pay for the resulting damage.
There you have it! Top 10 things you should know when visiting Iceland in September.
Don’t forget to pin this for later and check out my YouTube travel vlog!