Is Iceland expensive? (and answers to other questions)

I get asked a lot of questions when I tell people we went to Iceland for our holiday this year, the top one is definitely, is Iceland expensive? I’ve also been asked about driving, museums, things to see, the northern lights and more. This blog post is going to answer those questions and hopefully provide you with some hints and tips if you’re planning your own trip to Iceland.

East Iceland on Route 953

1. Is Iceland expensive?

The short answer is yes, it is expensive, especially if you plan on eating out. I paid £12.40 for a bowl of soup in west Iceland and that was one of the cheaper items on the menu! There are however ways to eat in Iceland without breaking the bank. Firstly, before you leave the airport visit the duty free, it’s right by baggage reclaim. If you know you’re going to want to have a bottle of wine each night it will save you Krona to stock up there. Second, eat a good breakfast at your hotel. Every hotel we stayed at provided breakfast, it was basic bread, cheese, cereal, fruit etc but it was also a buffet so don’t be polite, leave satisfied. Please note it is definitely frowned upon to make your lunches with the breakfast food provided so, by all means fill up, but don’t take the mickey. This leads me to point three, packed lunches. We went to the supermarket and stocked up on lunch food and sandwich makings which we loved. It meant we stopped at somewhere beautiful and had a picnic and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why pay £10 for a sandwich in a busy tourist cafe when you could eat a sandwich with a gorgeous view?!

Pic-nic at a black sand beach in Vìk

Number four, go self catering and cook your own dinner, if you want to go super budget you can buy noodles and have those for dinner each night. Finally tip five, get hot dogs, most service stations do a reasonable priced meal deal on a hot dog and they’re all very tasty.

Hot dogs In Húsavík

Don’t be too put off by the prices though, the restaurants we ate in the food was amazing. We highly recommend Le Kock in Reykjavík where we ate the best burger and played with Lego whilst we waited for our meal, and also the Hlemmir Mathöll which is a food hall and has a great vibe.

2. What’s it like to drive in Iceland?

Actually, it’s really nice. The main route 1 is a single carriage way and a nice tarmac road. If you stay on this road to get to the tourist places then driving is fine. The only thing to watch out for is the speed limit, which is 90kph. We wanted to take in the sights and stuck to the speed limit, we didn’t see the point in rushing, but some people definitely did, and the police in Iceland know this. This is why their police cars contain credit card machines. One day as we drove across the south of the island we saw three people pulled over by the police and charged there and then. We had a problem with our tyres (they were bald, thanks rental company!), and so had to go to the garage. Whilst chatting to the mechanic he told us if the police catch anyone going over 120kph they get an immediate 3 month driving ban which is valid in their home country. Another thing to watch out for is the gravel roads, (80kph), they are actual gravel roads with pot holes galore, they have incredible views though.

Gravel road near Möðrudalur

Only drive on roads you feel comfortable on and stick to the tracks, it is a criminal offence to go off the track and damage the country side and there are hefty fines to be paid if the police catch you. Remember their cars have credit card machines in them! In addition some roads are 4×4 only, so don’t go down a track when the signs are telling you not to, it will end in disaster. Get the best insurance you can- wind, sand, ash, gravel can all cause damage to the car, also ice, other drivers, etc etc, just pay the insurance, thats what its there for. In summary, get the insurance, drive smart, stick to the tracks, and the speed limit!

Our hired Jeep

3. What are the best museums?

In truth, I don’t know, we only went to one, (The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes), and the reason for this is we didn’t plan. Museums are actually quite expensive to, The Settlement Centre was £30 for the both of us and I think the equivalent in another country would not have been so much. Another reason we didn’t go to many was because we didn’t check the opening hours. I really wanted to go to the The Exploration Museum in Húsavík but when we got there it was closed. You can ring a number when it’s closed and occasionally it can be opened for you but we just didn’t have the time to do that. Therefore in retrospect do a bit of forward planning, chose the museums you’re interesting in in advance, check the opening times and admission prices. If its a little out of your budget look for discounts. Many museums in Reykjavík sell admission tickets online and if bought before you go will offer a discount, there are also coupon books available from tourist information centres that provide discounts to different centres.

4. Whats the accommodation like?

We had really good experiences with all our accommodation. As we travelled round the island we stayed in a mixture of hotels and self catering apartments. We loved the self catering apartments, they were like something out of an Ikea store and had excellent facilities and secure parking. It was great because you could stay in them for one night, I know in many other countries apartments have a minimum night stay. You could also cook and get up in your own time for breakfast. The hotels were always clean and comfortable and on the whole we had absolutely no complaints. We read a lot about the pillows in Iceland being too thin but we only experienced this once and that was in the cheapest hotel we stayed in, so if you’re staying in cheap accommodation and need a decent pillow for a good nights sleep this may be something you need to consider. On average I think we spent about £90 a night on accommodation, we like a private bathroom and our own space and it was within our budget. Cheaper accommodation is normally a shared kitchen/ bathroom but from what we have seen facilities are always clean and have the basics. We experienced everything from luxury lodges, lakeside chalets, budget hotels and city centre apartments and I loved seeing a variety of things rather than basing myself in one location and travelling around but that’s my preference. Whatever you book you are unlikely to be disappointed.

Our accommodation at Egilsstaðir

5. How can I see the Northern Lights?

There is no guarantee you will see the Northern Lights as they are a natural phenomenon, for my top tips to see the Aurora Boealis check out my blog post, My 8 top tips for seeing the Aurora Borealis.

Aurora Borealis, Eastern Iceland

6. What should I definitely not miss?

This is a hard question to answer as my priorities on holiday could be different from yours. For me it was all about nature; glaciers, volcanoes, black sand beaches, waterfalls. So many times we were blown away by spectacular scenes in nature, from snow capped mountains to actual icebergs, we were just amazed. We bought a guidebook called Top 10 Iceland 2020 (DK Eyewitness, 2019), and it really helped us to make the most of our time, it is spilt into districts and things to see. I would say that the popular places are super popular, as in heaving with tourists. Gullfoss is an incredible waterfall but it also has people queuing to take selfies. If you want to experience places that aren’t so busy you will have to hire a car and you will have to do your research.

7. Can you see the affects of climate change?

Unfortunately, yes you can. The icebergs and glaciers are melting and it is noticeable. We went for a drive near Okjökull, a glacier that made the headlines for all the wrong reasons after being officially declared dead by scientists in 2014. The Icelandic people are very protective of the surroundings and there are lots of strict rules about where you can and can’t go in order to maintain their environment. The moss in the lava fields for example can take up to 100 years to repair itself when it’s stood on, so rightly so tourists are told, “don’t step on the moss.” There’s a Facebook group titled ‘Stupid things tourists do in Iceland’ and it’s full of pictures of tourists ignoring barriers, stepping on moss, being swept away by sneaker waves (waves on the tide line that look ok but will drag you out), and even a guy floating away on a piece of ice- all to get a ‘pic for the ‘gram.’ Please don’t do this, there are plenty of amazing pictures you can take without risking your life and hurting nature. Please take the Icelandic pledge and be a responsible tourist. (I just want to add that Matt and I contribute to our own grove of trees in Scotland each month through Trees for Life to offset our carbon footprint for travelling).

8. Can you really drink the tap water?

Yes, and its delicious. We took our own refillable bottles from home and then just refilled them everyday. We didn’t buy any bottled water whilst we were away so we also saved some money that way. Icelandic water is some of the cleanest in the world and you can just drink the water from the hotel bathroom with no issue. It also isn’t frowned upon if you ask the server to fill your bottle up before you leave like it can be in this country.

Refilling my water bottle at Gatwick, we bought no bottled water on our trip at all.

9. What should I pack?

This really depends on the time of year that you go, obviously the weather is different in summer than in winter. We went in October and had temperatures from 0c to 11c. The best advice I can give is to check the weather forecast for the dates you’re going and pack accordingly. We definitely took too much, I had spare hats and gloves and scarves just in case but one pair of each is enough as if you do lose anything you can replace it, everywhere we went had knitted goods for sale. Layers are key- from being outside in the snow, then into the car, then a heated cafe- you want to be able to take off a jumper and be comfortable. Nearly all hotels supply soap and shampoo so if you aren’t too fussy or can live without your usual products for a week you can save on luggage there. My things to definitely pack would be: hiking trainers, layers, thermals, jumper, swimsuit, micro fibre towel, jeans, a winter coat and a waterproof shell jacket. I wouldn’t bother with heels or anything to dressed up or fashionable, you will feel perfectly dressed in jeans and a cosy jumper when you go out. I also wouldn’t bother with a handbag, I just used a rucksack which was much more practical. There is a charge for plastic bags in Iceland, be an eco warrior and take a reusable bag with you to!

Take a swimsuit and a towel, you never know where the next geothermal pool will be!

10. Did you have a great time?

Yes, we both really enjoyed our time and absolutely fell in love with Iceland, we are already planning our next trip.

Us at Gullfoss

My 8 top tips for seeing the Aurora Borealis.

The Aurora Borealis, this amazing natural wonder of the world, a must on most people’s bucket lists, has been at the top of mine for a long time. I love the night sky, astronomy and searching for constellations, and I’ve been hunting the famously difficult aurora for years. Maybe it’s my Scandinavian heritage, but I am completely enthralled by their dancing beauty. Many a night I’ve spent staring out the window or wondering around in the dark in the hope of catching a glimpse.

My first encounter of the lights was on a flight back from Stockholm where I’d been on a solo long weekend. Close to midnight, sitting on the left of an under filled plane, next to an exasperated mother who was desperately trying to get her young children, seated beside me, to settle down. They eventually nodded off and not long after the pilots voice sounded over the intercom- ‘if you look out the windows to the right of the plane you might be lucky enough to see the northern lights.’ I looked to the empty spaces on the right side of the plane, then I looked at the two children sleeping that I’d have to wake up as I walked past them to get to the empty seats, then I looked at the tired mother, and I settled back to my book. It was in that moment I vowed I’d return to Northern Lights territory and I would see them one day!

Since then I’ve been back to Sweden. I’ve also been to Finland, the Scottish Highlands and Shetland, but nothing! (Although I did see this rather cool lunar rainbow!)

Lunar Rainbow at Durness

This year when we decided to go to Iceland, I was determined we would see them- and out of the 9 nights we were on the Island, we were fortunate enough to see them 3 times!

The Aurora at Egilsstaðaflugvöllur on Matts birthday.

After posting some pictures on Facebook an ex colleague asked me for some advice for their upcoming trip to Iceland. I’ve learnt a lot over my years of searching and was happy to share what I knew, so I thought I’d share on a blog to. Therefore, please find below my 8 top tips for seeing the Aurora Borealis!

8 Top Tips:

1- You will only see them if there has been enough solar flare and that is that.

The Aurora Borealis happens when gases from the sun affect the Earths magnetic field. This is read by something called the KP Index, which rages from 0-9, 9 being the highest. We saw them at 2, but they can be underwhelming at this level. Intense colours happen at 3+, at 2 it is more likely to look like a moving white cloud with an occasional green tinge. There were times we weren’t sure if we were actually seeing the lights until we photographed the ‘cloud’ and it was green on a long exposure.

Grótta Island Lighthouse, Reykjavík

2- Face North

Use a compass and look North. We went in October and went searching between 9pm and midnight. 9/10 times we saw them they were in exactly the same position as the plough constellation, which at that time of year, at that time of night is north in the sky.

The plough constellation with a faint aurora

3- Avoid Light Pollution.

It has to be dark, that’s why you can only see them in the winter months. The countries where the Aurora is visible have nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer. The lighter the sky, the less chance you have of seeing the Northern Lights. It is hard to see the Aurora in Reykjavík due to the artificial light. We had a north facing balcony but unfortunately it faced the flagship Icewear store which is lit up like a Christmas tree. There is a light house (Grótta Island), at Reykjavík people recommend as a place to go. It’s ok, we saw them there, but it is heaving with people driving about and the constant flow of headlights is really annoying. Find somewhere further out if you can.

Grótta Island Lighthouse, Reykjavík

4- Stay Warm

Wrap up warm, take a drink, patience is key, you can easily be sat around for a few hours.

Northern Lights at Vatnajökull National Park

5- Don’t stay in one place

The first night we saw them we tied our hunt with a trip to fill the car with diesel before a long drive the next day. We parked up and waited, and waited, but it wasn’t happening. We got our diesel, parked somewhere else and continued to wait, then after 45 minutes there we went somewhere else and continued to wait, it was this location that we saw them. That’s not forgetting watching out at the hotel beforehand as well. Patience is a virtue, but it also pays to move about if it’s not happening where you are.

Northern Lights at Vatnajökull National Park

6- Utilise Modern Technology

I recommend the following apps: NorthernLights is a camera app that allows you to take long exposure pics on your phone, take a tripod for the best pics as the phone needs to be really still. You can get a tripod for a mobile from Poundland. Aurora has the best forecast and LiveAuroraNetwork has webcams in Norway and Iceland that you can look at to find activity in an area, it will also send you an alert if they’re visible. All are available from the App Store. (For Apple definitely, I am unsure about other phone models). If you do have the ability to move about to different locations as I suggest above, the apps will help you to find the best place to go. There are also some Facebook groups where people post about activity live but I personally didn’t find them useful.

Northern Lights at Vatnajökull National Park

7- Avoid Clouds

Cloud cover and a low forecast also makes it almost impossible to see them, and a full moon with a low forecast is also annoying, although still possible if you’re lucky. .

Northern Lights at Vatnajökull National Park

8- Keep your phone charged!

If you are going to use your phone like I did for GPS, aurora location alerts, Aurora forecasts and also for taking photos, you want to make sure your battery is full!

Grótta Island Lighthouse, Reykjavík


In summary, check your KP forecast, find a clear, dark sky and look north, if something is moving in the sky- that could be the Aurora!