I spent nearly a month travelling in Iceland during the middle of winter. I knew very little about what to expect before I arrived because I had originally only planned on staying a few days. Hopefully these tips will enable some other disorganised travellers to hit the ground running during their trip.
- Reasons You Should Go
Reasons You Should Go
You Get to See the Northern Lights
Without a doubt one of the biggest draw cards for tourists visiting during winter. However, if you see all that Iceland has to offer in the winter, then the aurora will only be one of many highlights from your trip. Try to avoid being too focussed on seeing the northern lights. There is so much else to see and focussing too much on the lights may mean you miss out on some amazing places. Ultimately, it will be up to the weather gods as to whether you see the lights or not. Check out my guide to seeing the northern lights in Iceland for a lot more information.
It’s Cheaper in Winter
Iceland is very expensive. The Telegraph ranks Iceland the 5th most expensive country in the world. The best money-saving tip I can give is to travel in the off-peak months. Most of the hostels in Iceland have winter prices for a dorm bed that are considerably cheaper than in summer. A 7 day car rental on Sadcars.com is 200€ in winter compared to 464€ in summer. A huge saving!
Your Pictures Will Turn Out Amazing
Budding photographers will know that twilight conditions are some of the best light conditions for taking interesting photos. The winter months in Iceland, while being quite short on hours of full sunlight, provide fantastic opportunities for lower light photography. Even at midday the sun is barely over the horizon and everything is constantly bathed in a golden glow reminiscent of dusk or a sunset.
The Tourist Crowds Are Smaller
The volume of accomodation booked during winter in Iceland is less than half of that booked during summer (source). Nearly all of the accomodation booked in winter, is in Reykjavík. However in summer, the tourists are spread over the whole country. What does this tell you? In winter, the nightlife in Reykjavík will still be bustling (great!), but once you get out of the capital the tourists disappear. In winter only a quarter as many tourists spend a night down on the south coast compared to summer. If you head to the north, west or east coasts, the numbers drop off even further. Icelandic tourism is booming at the moment and the crowds at some of the famous sites can be quite large. Visiting in winter will mean avoiding these big crowds at these famous sites.
You Get to Enjoy an Amazing Party
Reykjavík is famous for late night parties every weekend of the year. Pubs and clubs along the main strip are full until 5am and the party often continues in the streets. Check out these blogs for further reading on the topic:
The peak of the winter party scene is NYE. The night starts with an amazing fireworks display, which interestingly is not organised by the city, but by the general public. The fireworks are purchased and set off by residents of Reykjavík themselves. Following the massive fireworks display the city streets turn into a huge party with all the bars and clubs staying open all night and patrons regularly spilling out into the streets. Check out these links for some more information on NYE in Reykjavík.
- Luxe Adventure Traveler – Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Reykjavík
- Wake Up Reykjavík – New Year Eve in Reykjavík
The Weather is Surprisingly Mild
The weather in Iceland during the winter is actually surprisingly warm. Winter maximums average around 2°C and minimums at -3°C. Reykjavík actually has similar winter temperatures to that of New York City. This is quite astounding given how far north Iceland is (Reykjavík is the most northern capital in the world). The reasons for the warmer than expected weather is due to Iceland’s proximity in the middle of the gulf stream, a warm water current that starts in the Gulf of Mexico. Detailed weather maps for Iceland can be found at en.vedur.is. It is a good idea to check them regularly during winter. The only thing worse than a winter storm in Iceland is a winter storm that you didn’t know was coming.
Now that we have established that travelling Iceland in winter is a damn good idea, lets look at some simple things you can do to make your trip run smoothly.
Stay in a Hostel or Go Camping
A large majority of hostels in Iceland are managed by the Hostelling International Iceland group. They offer significant discounts during winter as well a further discounts if you are a member of Hostelling International. It is my strong recommendation that you become a member, quite simply because you will only need to stay for 2-3 nights before you will make your money back and membership is worldwide and lasts for a year.
Camping is also very popular in Iceland. It becomes more difficult to camp during winter but it is still possible with a camper van. There are some useful hints for camping in Iceland at bemytravelmuse.com/iceland-ring-road-camping/.
I have created a map with all of the campsites in Iceland that stay open during winter. An essential resource if you want to travel the ring road with a camper van in winter.
Bring Warm Clothes
While there are plenty of destinations around the world that get much colder than Iceland, including many in North America and Europe, but you still need to come well prepared for snowy conditions. This means bringing with you a fairly standard kit of winter clothes that includes: a warm beanie, warm winter gloves, full length thermal base layers, warm winter socks, water proof shoes and a warm and water-proof jacket. You can buy all of this gear in Iceland if you want, but beware that the prices in Iceland are exorbitant and you will almost certainly have more options at better prices in your home country.
Swim in a Hot Pool Everyday
I am not joking with this one. Travelling Iceland in winter is tough work. You have probably heard of the blue lagoon and you might be looking to try a few other thermal pools on your trip. But what you may not realise is that nearly every single small town in Iceland has a heated swimming pool complex. They are cheap to use, absolutely piping hot, and you get to hang out with locals. The first thing I would do after arriving in a new town on my road trip was ask around for directions to the local swimming pool. I have compiled this list of links which you can use to find a hot swimming pool no matter where you are in the country.
Stay Informed of the Road Conditions
Staying safe on the Icelandic roads is the most important thing you can do to ensure your safety in Iceland during winter. The fact that the weather often hovers right on the freezing point means that snow becomes slushy and wet during the day but then freezes hard and icy at night creating very hazardous road conditions. It is essential that road users regularly check road.is/travel-info/road-conditions-and-weather for updates. It is updated constantly during the day and night and shows very detailed road conditions for every major road in the country.
Find a Cheap Car Rental
By far the easiest way to see all that Iceland has to offer in the winter months, is with your own car. It’s possible to rent a car for an entire week for under 200€. In summer the same car costs 464€. One of the cheaper car rental companies in Iceland is Sadcars. The cars they rent are older than most which is why they are a bit cheaper. However, from my experience, it is possible to find some even cheaper deals on websites like Kayak.com. Depending on the trip you are looking to take, and the weather forecast, you may consider renting a 4WD car. It can be a difficult decision to make because renting a 4WD is substantially more expensive than a 2WD. A decent summary of the 2WD vs 4WD debate can be found at iheartreykjavik.net.
How Much Sunlight Will I Have?
A fantastic tool exists at timeanddate.com/sun/iceland/reykjavik that allows you to see exactly how much sunlight/twilight you will have for exploring during your trip. Note that by delaying your trip until February, you may give yourself up to 5 hours more sunlight and twilight each day than you would get in late December.