Iceland - Planning and Preparing for Your Trip

Emergency crew trying to help out a bus tour that got stuck in the mud before a river crossing


Planning and Preparing for your trip to
Iceland?

You've come to the right place!

This page covers the following topics:


VISA REQUIREMENTS
Depending on where you're coming from, a Visa is not necessary to enter Iceland, but you do need a passport valid for at least 3 months after departing Iceland and proof you have sufficient funds as well as a return or onward ticket. The 3 month period encompasses entry/exit over any 6 month interval to any country participating in the Schengen agreement including: Iceland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. So for example, if you were in Norway for a month, you can spend up to 2 months in Iceland. People that fall under this entry requirement include citizens from: US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, all Schengen Nations, and Japan.

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VACCINATIONS
Iceland does not require vaccination certificates of international travelers. It's one of the cleanest countries in the world and their high lattitude probably helps curb any spread of diseases that even makes it there.

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WHAT TO BRING
Be prepared for Iceland's unusual terrain and cold temperatures as evidenced by the jacket and long sleeves even under sunny skiesIn order to ensure a relatively safe and hassle-free trip (especially considering Iceland's unusual terrain, fickle weather and emphasis on outdoor activities), here are a few things you might want to consider packing for your trip in addition to your basic toiletries and clothes.

  • Passport - everyone needs this so this is a no-brainer.
  • Comfortable Shoes - much of the country's activities revolve around participating in the great outdoors. This means you'll be doing lots of walking and hiking in some unusual terrain ranging from muddy moors to sharp volcanic rocks to black sand to grasslands. At the very minimum, comfortable walking shoes are a must, but hiking boots are probably better (for ankle support among other things).
  • Hat - don't take for granted the dangers of UV radiation. As you're closer to the north pole, where charged particles are funneled by the earth's magnetic field, contracting solar-induced cancer is easier than you think. A hat will at least keep your scalp from getting severely burned. If you're wearing a broad-rimmed hiking hat, it could also help protect your neck, ears, and face.
  • Sunscreen - again, given the sun's harmful UV rays, it's a good idea to protect other exposed parts of your skin from sunburn.
  • Sunglasses - prevents cataracts or other harmful effects of prolonged exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays on your eyes
  • Bug Repellant - this can be controversial because the chemicals contained in these things can be harmful to the environment. However, getting eaten alive by certain midges (only some of them do this) is not desirable either. In any case, the most effective repellants contain DEET, but they're smelly and toxic if used excessively. The better way to go environmentally, though not necessarily a comfortable one, is to cover your skin with long sleeves and pants (probably not a problem given the tendency for cold temperatures).
  • Layered Clothing - this means wearing multiple layers of jackets, sweats, or shirts and taking them off/on depending on the conditions. This is very important to be able to adapt to the variable weather and climate in the country. It can easily go from freezing cold to sweaty hot and back in a day. This will at least protect you from exposure to hypothermia (even from your own sweat).
  • Rain Coat - this will keep you and your equipment dry for the most part (with a rain poncho covering the pack in addition to the body). Given how rainy it can be year round, this will at least keep you sane under such conditions (not to mention limit your exposure to hypothermia).
  • First-Aid Kit - this often-overlooked necessity allows you to disinfect and close wounds or tape up a sprained ankle. You never know when Murphy's Law strikes and having this kit will at least put you in a situation to deal with the consequences rather than letting circumstances degenerate into something more life-threatening than it has to be.

Some other things worth bringing to enhance your experience include...

  • Hiking Sticks/Trekking Poles - this is useful for longer and more involved tramping excursions (especially multi-day or very long day hikes). They provide you 1 or 2 extra "legs" to maintain your balance on stream crossings or alleviate shock to your knees if you're carrying a pack
  • Lots of Memory or Film or Portable Hard Drive - the first and third items are for digital photographers. In any case, you'll be taking heaps of photos and you'll want to make sure you can bring all your photos home


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SAFETY
Some hikes involve steep sections given Iceland's rugged terrainEven though Iceland is one of the safest places in the world (from a crime standpoint), don't be naive about crime. It does occur (albeit rarely and most probably around drunks who've lost it while going on a Runtur [Icelandic pub crawl] or something like it) so do not draw unnecessary attention to how much money you have. A money pouch is good for this purpose as are TSA locks if you have to leave stuff in your accommodation while out during the day.

Finally, nature is inherently dangerous and unforgiving, and since Iceland is best enjoyed in the outdoors, you need to be cognizant and respectful of these dangers. Below is a list of things you need to be aware of to stay safe in the outdoors...

  • Getting lost - always stay on the tracks and heed the signs. In addition to walking, this also applies to 4wd interior tracks. Getting off track (not hard to do especially if you're caught in a blinding sandstorm) can deteriorate the fragile landscape in addition to endangering yourself. Bring a topo map as well as a compass with you if you're on a more involved hike where it's easier to lose the track.
  • Hypothermia - given the amount of high elevation adventures or desert extremes, the danger is very real. Always pay attention to the weather reports before undertaking any tramp that exposes you to the elements. Bring a rain coat to avoid getting wet and losing heat that way.
  • Watch out for unbridged river crossings in the Icelandic Interior!
  • Streams and Rivers - while many popular walks have bridges, other more difficult walks and even 4wd tracks involve crossing unbridged streams and rivers. Use your hiking stick to gauge depth and do not cross if it has been flash flooded or you can't see the bottom. Generally waters thigh-deep or higher are very dangerous for crossing. If you're driving a 4wd track, don't cross a stream or river you don't think you can walk across.
  • Dropoffs - given the rugged volcanic terrain, you're likely to come across dropoff hazards on a trail, road, or even a viewpoint, where a fall can easily be fatal. The best advice here is to stay away from the edges to the best of your ability to limit the chances of falling off or having the cliff go unstable on you.
  • Road Fatigue - given the long distances, sometimes narrow roads, and lonely roads due to the sparse population, you'll need to be wary of this. To prevent falling asleep behind the wheel or losing your focus, try to switch drivers periodically or break up the drive (rather than tackle it all at once).
  • Road Surfaces - even though the Ring Road is the main artery around the country, not all parts of it are paved. This is also true of some of the rural roads where you could be going along at 90 or 100km/h and then come upon a gravel surface that can easily send you out of control or at least launch pebbles chipping your rental car and forcing you to pay for damages. First of all, watch for ubiquitous "Malbik Endar" signs to warn you of an unpaved road coming up. If you're coming up to someone driving in the opposite direction, slow down or stop to minimize the velocity of pebbles flying at you or the other person.


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CURRENCY
The Icelandic Kronur is the currency of Iceland.

During our visit in June 2007, it was exchanging at 60 Ikr to 1 USD. While this sounds like the USD is strong compared to the Ikr, here's a breakdown of some prices we saw (just to illustrate how expensive the country is):
  • a dish of lamb or fish at a sit-down place 2400-3600 Ikr
  • hamburger or pizza (get used to it!) 800-1200 Ikr
  • unleaded petrol 129 Ikr/L
  • hot dogs (pylsur; get used to it!) 300-800 Ikr
Now given the recent falling dollar, the exchange rate as of November 2007 is now 58 Ikr to 1 USD. However, this fluctuates quite a bit so check rates on websites such as www.xe.com.

It's pretty straight forward to change money, but given Iceland's modern and forward-thinking efficiency, you won't need to! In fact, we changed money and hardly spent 1% of what we exchanged in cash! Indeed, everyone takes credit card (including tour bus drivers and hole-in-the-wall establishments). But oh you will feel the credit card pain when you get home! Visa and Mastercards are generally accepted.

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LENGTH OF VISIT
Giving yourself plenty of time increases your chances of appreciating the subtleties of IcelandHow much time should you spend in Iceland?

I'd like to say as long as possible, but this is probably more constrained by how much money you're willing to blow off. We spent about 3 weeks on our trip and saw most of the country, but could've easily spent another week seeing more of the Interior or some of the less-visited areas by tourists such as Þórsmörk or an offshore island. But during the third week, I got tired of spending larger sums of money than I was used to. I've seen tours giving you highlights of the country over a span of 2 weeks. This is probably more typical and probably cheaper, but less flexible.

We pretty much self drove ourselves with a couple of day tours, which obviously isn't the most economical way to do things, but it does maximize flexibility in our time spent there. You'll have to assess your own situation when making the trade between time and money.



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