Iceland & What I Wish I Had Known Before Going – Part 1

Advertiser Disclosure: This post may contain referral, affiliate or sponsor links that provide Travel with Grant compensation. Thank you for your support.

I went to Iceland last month for a long weekend with my friend Stephanie.  We flew WOW air from Boston and I used Citi ThankYou points to get myself from Charlotte to Boston in order to rack up a few more EQMs.  For each new country that I visit I make sure to pickup a lonely planet book for that country and I do a decent amount of research & planning ahead of time.  Lucky for me I had a friend (shout out to Evan) that had just visited Iceland 1 month before my trip so I was able to pick his brain on a few things during my planning.  Despite that, I’d say that I probably should have done a bit more research because I have a list of Things I Wish I Had Known before going to Iceland.  I’d like to share that list with you in hopes that your trip goes a tad smoother than mine did.

  1.  WOW Air is definitely a discount airline.  I knew that when I booked the flight and had to pay for carry-on luggage, but there is something that I didn’t know and that WOW didn’t bother telling us ahead of time either.  In Boston, we waited in line for what seemed like forever to check my bag (I paid even more for a checked bag because the carry-on weight restrictions were extremely low).  There were probably 15 people in line and only 1 (sometimes 2) agent at the desk and the time that agent spent with some of the travelers seemed way too long for just checking luggage.  It’s worth noting that they DO make you fit your suitcase into the metal template!  To the left of the line I noticed a couple waiting by a sign as if it was some sore of priority line.  Once we got to the desk I asked why that couple was able to skip the line and the agent informed me that was for guests who checked in online.  WHAT?!  We checked in online and no where did it tell us that we could skip the hour-long line to check our luggage.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a patient person when it comes to waiting in long lines.  Anyway, lesson learned next time I travel with a discount airline, I will definitely look for opportunities like that.  Sidenote: the food on board was quite weird.  The most normal thing was a ham & cheese baguette which I normally wouldn’t order due to having a mostly low-carb diet but I did because the rest of the options seemed too weird for me (see photo below).

    screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-4-57-56-pm

    WOW Air On-board Food for Purchase

  2. The Blue Lagoon.  I highly recommend visiting the Blue Lagoon first thing after landing and picking up your rental car before heading to your hotel for several reasons.  Yes this is touristy but I still recommend doing it at least once.  We took a redeye flight into Iceland and spending an hour or so in this warm geothermal refuge was the perfect recharge for us.  It’s right next to the airport and Reykjavik is about a 40 minute drive from the airport, hence going before checking into your hotel.  Booking your tickets ahead of time is required (per the website).  There are 3 options but I recommend the “Premium” option.  This gets you the use of a towel, bathrobe & slippers as well as 1 free drink and an algae mask.  I’m usually all for an exclusive lounge experience, however in this instance I didn’t think it was worth the additional 125 euros for the “Luxury” option.

    The Blue Lagoon

    The Blue Lagoon

  3. The Golden Circle.  I admit that I made a total rookie omission when researching this trip.  Somehow I didn’t realize that the number of light to dark hours per day varies based on the time of year.  I have heard Alaska is like that but somehow i totally missed that Iceland was far enough north to be similar to Alaska in that regard.  doh!  When I went mid-November the sun was rising at about 10:30am and setting at about 4:30pm.  Given that we only had about 6 hours of daylight per day, and some of the places that we wanted to visit were a 1-2 hour drive away from the hotel, we tried to plan to hit the road before sunrise so that we didn’t waste precious daylight sitting in the car.  On day 2 we set out to drive the Golden Circle.  But first, we had a decent free breakfast in the Hilton Nordica executive lounge (thank you Diamond status) and packed our backpacks with waters and lunch snacks (also from the lounge) because we didn’t want to waste daylight eating lunch in restaurants.  Along the Golden Circle we visited a geothermal park in Hveragerði (Hveragerdi), Kerið (Kerid) a volcanic crater lake, and the Gullfoss waterfall before ultimately ending up at Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park (more on the park later) in hopes of seeing the… (scroll down to #4).

    Gullfoss Waterfall

    Gullfoss Waterfall

  4. Northern Lights.  Thus brings us to what is possibly rookie mistake #2.  in the beginning of the day I checked the Aurora forecast to see what the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights was that day.  This site shows you the cloud cover at 6 hour increments for the current day and the next 2 days.  It also assigns an activity level of 0-9 with 0 being no chance and 9 being the highest likelihood.  The activity level for that day was ideal, so naturally i checked the 6 hour increments to see when cloud cover over the National Park would be lowest.  Þingvellir National Park is THE best place to watch the Northern Lights near Reykjavik.  It’s a 30-40 minute drive from the city but once you get there the park is so large that you could spend another 30 minutes driving around.  The forecast showed cloud cover over the park being pretty clear around 6pm.  Given that sunset was around 4:30pm that didn’t seem unreasonable to me.  Well we drove through the park for what seemed like forever looking for a gathering of cars thinking that would be our sign of the best place to park the car to see the lights.  Turns out that it’s not nearly dark enough at 6pm to see the lights so we headed back to the hotel and had a strange dinner at a viking bar.  My question is:  why in the world does the forecast show you the cloud cover for all 24 hours in the day?!  Shouldn’t it just show you the hours that coincide with total darkness?  Cloud cover looked pretty heavy for the rest of the evening so we tried again the next night at the Lighthouse much closer to home however no such luck.  Looks like I’ll have to visit Finland, Norway or Sweden to try again.  We ended up staying out too late to have dinner anywhere and our only option was to have Domino’s delivered to the room.  #epicfail

    screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-11-40-38-pm

    Aurora Forecast Website

  5. Þingvellir National Park.  This park is HUGE!  I would say if you really want to cover a decent amount of it, allow yourself 3-4 hours of daylight to explore it.  The park lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the mid-atlantic ridge and there you can stand in between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates which are visibly drifting apart.  It is in this park that the oldest existing parliament in the world first assembled.  For this reason the park is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  There is a dark side to the history here as where Icelandic democracy was born, many met the opposite fate.  72 Executions are known to have taken place in this park including some at the Drowning Pool and burning witches at the stake.

Please read part 2 here.

22 thoughts on “Iceland & What I Wish I Had Known Before Going – Part 1

  1. MissVacation

    We went during Thanksgiving week and had an awesome time and luck seeing the Northern Lights. Another good tool to increase your chance is: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/node/114
    Look at the simulation to see at which time interval does the Northern Lights cover Iceland, we found from 9pm-1am were the strongest when we were there in Thanksgiving. Also, when solar activity is low you might not see from your naked eyes so point your camera toward north for a 10-20 second exposure to see if there’s any :) Some photos from my trip: https://missvacation.wordpress.com/2016/12/01/aurora-borealis-we-finally-see-you/. I am working on the trip reports!

    Reply
    1. Whitney Post author

      Thank you so much for the additional resources! I’m thrilled to hear that you had such luck on your trip :) Excellent tip with the camera as well.

      Reply
  2. Rick

    “why in the world does the forecast show you the cloud cover for all 24 hours in the day?! Shouldn’t it just show you the hours that coincide with total darkness?”

    It’s very helpful for photographers like me to know the cloud cover for all 24 hours since the way clouds appear will dictate what my picture looks like during the “golden hour” and at night. I almost checked that website every hour!

    It’s mostly luck and patience to see Aurora. For that forecast, you will need to make sure the area of interest is clear of all clouds during the 6 hour interval at night. It can appear at any time so patiently waiting can increase your chance. The first time that I caught it, I waited for almost 2 hours to be able to witness it lasting for 2-3 hours of the night. It is faint green color so it’s tough to tell from clouds but it’s usually dancing at an interesting manner. It does not have the all sort of colors like the ones you saw in pictures. Camera on a tripod can catch different colors of it that human eyes can’t.

    Reply
  3. Eve M. Preston (@vintagegal1)

    Seeing the Northern Lights is by no means a given when traveling to Iceland during the late autumn, winter, or early spring, the only time they MAY be visible! I have been to Iceland each of the past three Februaries and saw them two of the three times. The first time I went out with Reykjavik Excursions only the people with cameras were detecting any light. The second time I took a costly jeep tour on a night with excellent visibility. These folks really knew what they were doing. I have no idea where they were taking us (from our hotels in Reykjavik) but the views were amazing. (The light was whitish-yellow, however, with none of the dazzling colors seen in tourism photos.) My favorite viewing was the cheapest — free. I caught the lights around 8 AM above the fjord at Akureyri on Iceland’s north coast. I had never thought it would be possible to see them at that hour and my heart still beats quickly when I think of the excitement of seeing this show open up before me when I least expected it. This time the lights were slightly green. The Northern Lights are the reason I would only travel to Iceland in winter. The possibility of seeing them each night makes my heart flutter!

    Reply
    1. Whitney Post author

      Eve gosh that sounds incredibly exciting! Do you purposefully chose to always visit in February or is that just how it happened to work out each time?

      Reply
    2. Rich

      Was the costly jeep tour on Super Jeep? They appear to be well regarded but was debated if worth the price. We got to Iceland in mid January.

      Reply
  4. Lindy

    We planned a 1-night layover in Iceland, & purchased a luxury visit to Blue Lagoon: robe, face-mask, & free drink. (End of September.) Our flight from mainland Europe was delayed 3 hrs, which caused us to miss our Blue Lagoon appointments, but phone-calls w/ them prior to take-off assured us that we could still be accommodated at a later time (because no refund is allowed). Language issues & the foreign element made it very stressful. Upon landing in Iceland, we found the promised hotel shuttle, then arranged another shuttle to Blue Lagoon, and then HELL STARTED. We got in the lagoon in the dark, with winds ~35mph, and they increased. We ducked behind a few rocks to float over to the water-building for facials. We smeared a bunch of expensive mud on our face, but it was difficult because the wind was blowing so hard. Our eyes were full of grit. (Droplets of water were being picked up from the surface of the lagoon and pelting us like ice-bullets.) After waiting a few unpleasant minutes in the water, we were told that we get the mud off by rinsing our face in the pool we’re all swimming in. It was disgusting, everybody wiping their skin-cells into the swimming pool, but we were already in pain from the biting wind. You couldn’t face the wind without your face being bloodied. This experience was similar to a winter blizzard, a true blizzard with ice pelting you at high-speed. We put our face away from the wind and floated toward the pool-bar for our pre-paid beverage. We huddled in a 3′ x 2′ crevice behind some rocks (for shelter from the torrential winds). We chugged our free drink as fast as we could. To get back to the dressing room, we had to go face-first into the painful water-blizzard. We kept our entire body below the water’s surface, except for our head. Winds were now ~50mph, causing painful ice-pellets onto our face, and it was torture to find the entrance of the building again because of the pain. We couldn’t open our eyes. It was horrible. After getting dressed, my Samsung phone could not connect to our hotel. The BL facility manager let us use an emergency phone which connected us to a taxi company who quoted $500 USD to get back to the hotel. Some strangers let us use our i-phone to call our hotel’s free shuttle. I would NEVER EVER go back to Blue Lagoon. The lagoon is disgusting (from a health perspective), they stay open even during dangerous conditions so they don’t have to refund your reservations, and they gouge you on transportation. Perhaps on a no-wind day, it would be soothing. But I will never re-visit. Money scam, filthy pool, drastically over-priced, unsafe, and price-gouging on transportation. Never, never, never again, Iceland!

    Reply
    1. Whitney Post author

      Oh gosh i’m sorry to hear you had such a miserable experience! I agree that they shouldn’t stay open in such awful weather conditions. I was fortunate to go when there was low wind and no rain and I found it to be quite enjoyable. I didn’t find the Lagoon to be gross or unsanitary either. From that perspective I found it no different than swimming in a lake or a public swimming pool. They actually require you to shower before entering the Lagoon. Public swimming pools post rules stating that you should shower before entering however they do not enforce it like they do at the Lagoon. I too thought that the transportation was pricey but I would always recommend a rental car in Iceland rather than tour buses.

      Reply
  5. Mser

    “Somehow I didn’t realize that the number of light to dark hours per day varies based on the time of year”

    This is a joke, right? Honestly, how ignorant do you have to be not to know that?

    Reply
    1. Whitney Post author

      I wouldn’t say it’s ignorance, I just relied too heavily on a friend who visited Iceland 6 weeks prior instead of doing a ton of research on my own like I usually do. I’ve never traveled anywhere that far north before and simply didn’t put 2 and 2 together that Iceland would be similar to Alaska in that regard. Now I know for when I travel to Finland or Norway for a 2nd chance to see the lights. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
      1. Nun

        Thanks for the article. I just want to add that the comment about daylight hours applies to places like NH and MA. You can have daylight until 9pm or 4:40. It’s not as extreme as Iceland but you don’t have to go that far north.

        Reply
  6. Pingback: Iceland & What I Wish I Had Known Before Going - Part 2

  7. Pingback: Year in Review: My Top Blog Posts of 2016 and Lifetime

    1. Whitney Post author

      i don’t know to be honest. i don’t like paying an extra $100 for luggage, not being able to pick my seat (for free) and the ridiculously long wait to check my bag at the ticket counter (and another super long line just to board the aircraft). i guess i’m spoiled having AA status b/c i don’t remember the last time i waited in a long line to do anything at the counter or the gate. on the other hand i also don’t like the idea of paying $1,200 for a 4-5 hour flight. it wasn’t a miserable experience so i won’t say I’ll never do that again, but i would say it was definitely annoying at times.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Google Flights Price Tracking, WOW Air KEF-SFO & JPMorgan Chase Ritz Carlton Travel Credit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *