Whether you’re planning a last-minute trip to Iceland in September or you’re excited and already researching for next year, here are 10 things you should know before you embark on your Iceland adventure.
That’s right! Your girl here just came back from her dream trip to Iceland!!! Turns out it’s super popular to visit Iceland in September and I’ve already gotten a bunch of questions about my experience. Even though this means I am pushing back my other blog posts, I’ll be starting an Iceland travel guide series to answer each and every single one of your concerns. Let’s kick things off with the number one most important thing you should know…
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. This 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 basically includes all the 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) + Liechtenstein and Norway. Switzerland is neither an EU nor EEA member, but is exempt from a visa as well.
If you hold an Asian passport like my dad does from Taiwan, this is where it gets tricky. For him, he didn’t need one because as of January 11th, 2011, Taiwan passport holders no longer need a visa to enter the countries of the Schengen Agreement (i.e. Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland). However, we did do some research online beforehand and also consulted family friends who have visited Iceland in the past – and were informed that we would need to provide proof of our returning airfare. We obviously printed out our e-mail confirmation, but none of this was actually needed at customs. Needless to say, I would still prepare for it just in case.
Please note that I’m not in any way shape or form a licensed, government professional of any sort who can truly speak to this matter. Here is The Directorate of Immigration’s full list of countries that require visa when entering Iceland. Visit Schengen’s visa info site to find out more about applying for one.
2. Is there a language barrier?
No, there absolutely isn’t any. When we were in the more touristy areas like Reykjavík and along the Golden Circle, everyone spoke perfect English. We didn’t have any problems checking into hotels or ordering food in restaurants. Not to mention, a lot locals were eager to help us when fuelling up our car at gas stations.
We did notice, however, that when we were in the smaller towns (Akureyri for example), things were a little different. Hotel staffs and restaurant employees were fine, no doubt, but the locals weren’t as fluent. I remember us asking a middle-aged lady for help about where to pay for parking. She had a very thick accent and had trouble forming complete sentences. (No, I’m not dissing her English. I went through a whole ESL phase back in elementary school myself.) Nonetheless, she was still very helpful in the end. If you speak English (which you must if you’re reading this), you’ll get by fine.
3. Icelandic orthography and its relation to Google Maps.
While we’re on the topic of language barriers, let’s also talk about Iceland’s special alphabets.
If you haven’t noticed already, Iceland has its own set of alphabets. Þingvellir National Park, for instance, was one of those wtf things I had trouble reading. Like is that a letter “p” or a capital “d”? (It’s actually a “th” though i.e. Thingvellir National Park. Lol wut? I know.)
Luckily, you don’t need to add a special Icelandic keyboard to your phone to type out places in Google Maps. With Iceland being such a popular destination, Google has really done a good job with 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. Not sure how? This will help.
4. Load up on prepaid gas cards.
This is probably one of the most crucial tips for travelling to Iceland and I cannot stress this enough. Load up on prepaid gas cards!
All the gas pumps in Iceland pretty much operate 24/7 (the stores do not) because most machines take credit cards. (Some stations will have two machines: one for card and another where you pump your gas then pay inside the shop.) Please do note that the machines require you to use a card with pin. If you don’t know what your pin is or don’t remember, definitely sort that out with your bank first.
My dad holds a Taiwanese credit card whereas I own a Canadian RBC Visa card. We both have pins, but some gas pumps either didn’t recognize our pin OR only had space to enter 4 digits. (Four is standard, but don’t blame me for wanting extra security for my card and going with a longer pin!) That said, our cards only worked 50% of the time. (N1 always took our cards, but Olís and ÓB were iffy. Shoutout to N1!)
It wasn’t until the end of our trip that we finally decided to purchase a prepaid gas card. Boy did that save so much time! We didn’t have to try my dad’s card twice or thrice. Then try my card. Then watch other people try theirs to see if the machines actually worked… Moral of the story: load up on prepaid gas cards!
Oh and how to know what kind of gas to get? If you open up your gas tank cover, there is a sticker on the nob that will tell you. Most small cars take 95 and SUVs take Dísel.
Map of Iceland’s gas stations across the country from Rent.is.
Tip: Rent.is has a comprehensive map for all the gas stations in Iceland.
5. Does it snow in Iceland in September?
No, it does not snow in Iceland in September. See #6 for more on weather in Iceland in September.
6. Pack for
every possible type of weather WINTER.
While it doesn’t snow in Iceland in September, the average temperature floats around 12°C, which with wind, will feel like the negatives and is a living hell. You may think September’s a fall month, but there ain’t no fall in Iceland! There’s literally only winter and mooooooooooooooore winter.
I do say pack for every type of weather since it can literally be sunny and somewhat warm (aka 3 layers instead of 4 + a coat), but as soon as you turn a corner, it will be pouring rain and freezing. AND I’m saying this as a Canadian gal who is accustomed to the cold! (By the way, no, not all Canadians live in igloos.) Consider yourself warned.
For “warm weather”, I recommend bringing long sleeve tees/henley tops, denim or plaid shirts that are great for layering, and a thick wool cardigan + blanket scarf (in case it gets windy). For bottoms, you can wear leggings, jeans, whatever you feel comfortable in. Sunglasses are a must because it will be blinding without – especially if you’re driving.
As for the cold, wet days, remember to pack raincoats with you. (Yes, raincoats, not umbrellas because the wind will destroy those things within seconds. The North Face is known to have awesome waterproof gear.) Always pick raincoats that are thicker with padding and insulation too. You’ll for sure need it. I had to wear a long sleeves undershirt, a regular cotton shirt on top of that, and thick wool sweater underneath my padded one and was still cold. Defs get your hands on some of those iron powder hand warmers if you can. I would also recommend wearing two layers of pants as well as bringing a warm hat, scarf, ear muffs, and thick socks + waterproof boots.
7. Information centers are your new best friend.
Not just because they are helpful with directions and itinerary suggestions, but because they have FREE washrooms.
It’s not uncommon for European countries to charge for restroom use. In Iceland, we saw one of the fanciest outhouses built out of glass and it had little turnstile doors where you insert coins to enter. (Hilarious! I know!)
Now it’s hard to get coins at the currency exchange. In the case you forget to exchange some at local Icelandic shops… Welppppp, too bad. Can’t help you there. Gas stations and restaurants only provide washroom usage for paid customers so take note of information centers and make them your new best friend.
Below are all the tourist information centers in each of these respective areas:
- West Iceland – https://www.west.is/en/west-iceland-regions/general-information/tourist-information-centres
- North Iceland – https://www.northiceland.is/en/travel/tourist-information-centres
- East Iceland – https://www.east.is/en/travel/information-centers
- South Iceland – https://www.south.is/en/travel/tourist-information-centres-1
8. Watch out for birds.
I’m not talking about flashers. Thank God.
Do pay attention to birds when driving. (I know, not something you’d expect to see on a “things to know about Iceland” list.)
Icelandic birds – seagulls especially – aren’t exactly the brightest. They like to either sit in the middle of the road or off to the side. Usually by the time you get close to 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 dead bodies along the road. As gruesome as this sounds, it’s extremely dangerous braking for birds while going 100+ km/h. Sometimes you just gotta man up and be a murderer. (Sorry vegans and animal rights activists.)
9. Can you see Northern Lights in Iceland in September?
The answer is yes and no.
Northern lights forecast by Icelandic Met Office.
A lot of online sources will tell you September to April are the best months. The truth is, it depends on how cloudy the skies are and your luck really. It could be clear skies except if the activity level is low, you still won’t see anything. Icelandic Met Office has a fantastic Northern Lights forecast guide that I highly recommend you checking out.
Our visit was during the beginning of September where we saw them one night on a lower activity of 2. Find out more about my experience and when’s best to see Northern Lights here.
10. Should I join a tour?
I don’t know, should you?
Yes, I packed a dress for Iceland because I’m #extra like that.
This question really depends on what you’re interested in seeing. Before we get into this any further, let’s take a look at what kind of tours are available.
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 attraction sights. Because, well, you couldn’t be bothered to rent a car. (If you can’t drive, that’s fine. Join a tour. I just don’t think these tours are really worth the money since it’s almost always more fun exploring on your own and going at your own pace.)
Photo from Extreme Iceland featuring their winter ice caving tour – The Ice Queen.
For our trip, we spent exactly one week in Iceland, including our arrival and departure dates. We were greedy with wanting to check everything off of our bucket list, which is why we did a DIY tour of the Golden Circle + the Ring Road. (Ambitious, I know.) Regardless, we were still able to see majority of the sights like the famous geysers and waterfalls. Having said that, no, you don’t necessarily need to join a (boring) tour.
All in all, driving in Iceland is fairly straightforward and rental cars are easily available. 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 scratch below the surface of a basic Iceland itinerary guide and adventure off into ice caves and lava fields, sign up for one!
Additional Information About Tours
As mentioned above, puffin tours are what I consider “cool” tours. You technically could see puffins on your own and the best place for it is in Westfjords. Unfortunately, this northwestern Iceland peninsula is off the Ring Road and a bit of a drive. If you’re short on time or not crazy about extended road trips, there are tours in Reykjavík that will allow you to meet these cuties. As for ice cave tours, these are indeed very popular, but most are unfortunately time-sensitive and start from October/November. Extreme Iceland does have some that run all-year. Here is a list of their most popular ice caving day tours.
Now that leads into the next question…
Where do I rent a car?
If you’re like us and would much rather explore on your own, you’ll have to rent a car.
For our trip, I decided to give Rentalcars.com a try. It’s essentially a third-party booking service (like Expedia) and their website is fairly straight forward and easy to navigate.
Since our reservation was a little last-minute, I went with the cheapest availability with the rental company Geysir. Our pickup was at Keflavík International Airport and from there we took a shuttle bus to Geysir. (Shuttles come every 15 minutes and the ride was quite short.) The whole process went very smoothly and we got our car with no trouble at all.
BMW X1 from Geysir car rental. Total for seven days was $841.49 CAD and $124.18 for full-coverage insurance. We did not specify for a luxury car and were assigned this model.
Do I need car insurance?
Another key Iceland travel advice is picking the right car insurance for your car.
The hardest part about renting a car is deciding what insurance you need. For those unfamiliar with car rentals, purchasing insurance directly from car rental companies is the most expensive. While it is cheaper going with a third-party insurer, the downside is that if anything were to happen, you will have to pay the car rental company up front. You’ll then of course file a claim with your insurer and get the money back, 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 till. I’ve done this before when I was unfamiliar with car rental processes and it was a total waste of money. (If you’ve purchased insurance from say Rentalcars.com, even if the sales rep asks you in person if you need insurance, tell them no! One insurance is enough!)
In regards to which specific type on insurance you should get… I personally always go with a 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. For Iceland in particular, this is important because there are a ton of gravel roads. It’s very likely that you rental will get rock chips and paint scratches. A lot of online reviews I read for Geysir were bad ones – but only because renters didn’t purchase the right insurance and had to pay for resulting dammages.
10 things you should know when visiting Iceland in September.
And there you have it! Top 10 things you should know when visiting Iceland in September.
Despite there not being that many days left in the month, I hope my last-minute travelling in Iceland tips can help those of you looking to visit this September. Even if your trip is in a later month, some of these still apply and are helpful to know when planning a trip to Iceland. (Don’t forget to check out my vlog!)