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.
- 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).
- 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 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
lunchsnacks (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).
- 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
- 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.