Traveling to a cold climate in winter was never something that I considered given that the winters in
New York City can be so long and brutal, but I recently returned from a winter trip to Iceland. The trip exceeded my expectations in every single way and I’m actually seriously thinking of what cold climate I can travel to next winter.
Based on the experience from my trip I came up with my top 5 tips to make your winter trip to Iceland unforgettable.
1. Make your first stop the Blue Lagoon
Most flights from the east coast arrive at Keflavik airport very early in the morning. Even with a departure delay, our flight arrived around 6AM local time. Downtown Reykjavik is a 40 minute drive from the airport but the Blue Lagoon is only 20 minutes from the airport. Most hotels won’t allow you to check in so early without incurring additional charges so it only made sense to head straight to the Blue Lagoon after landing. However, it took some convincing from my friend that I was traveling with to get onboard with the plan because she had reservations about it being too dark when we arrived along with a lack of sleep.
However, booking one of the first time slots in the morning at the Blue Lagoon turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. When we arrived the lighting in the parking lot was dark and moody and when we went inside there was no line at all. We quickly changed, showered and locked our stuff away and were off to experience the hot springs. While there were some people in the lagoon when we arrived it didn’t feel over crowded or hectic which made for a very pleasant experience. However, by the time we left about 2-2.5 hours later it was a totally different scenario. People were everywhere and every towel hook was occupied.
If we had reservations for later in the day it would have been a very different experience and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much. I probably wouldn’t even have recommended it for others to visit but based on our experience it was one of the highlights of the trip.
2. Be flexible with your plans
I’m a planner and I can’t help it. I’ve gotten much better about not over planning trips but I need an itinerary and I’m not one to “just wing it”. With that said, on our second morning in Reykjavik we checked out of our hotel, the Hilton Reykjavik, and were about to set out to see what we had planned for day two which was the Golden Circle. I remember reading somewhere that if you plan to drive in Iceland in the winter it’s important to check the roads before heading out so as I was putting away my receipt I asked the front desk clerk how the roads were. I asked the question expecting a generic general answer however, he responded by telling me that the roads were closed, all of them! So, without the possibility of making it out of town without facing certain death, we decided to head back to downtown Reykjavik and take in some sights that we didn’t get to do the day before. The roads didn’t reopen until after sunset so we also had to figure out hotel arrangements for that night and had to cancel our other hotel without incurring any cancellation fees. We also had to rejigger our plans to make up for the “lost” day and I think given the circumstances things worked out well.
Bonus tip: Allot yourself more time to do the things you set out to do as you may be so taken by a waterfall or hot spring that you want to spend even more time there exploring or taking photos.
3. Go early and often if you want to see the Northern Lights
If you are like me, a key factor in your decision to visit Iceland in the winter is to see the northern lights, go early and go often should be your motto.
Seeing the northern lights is not a guaranteed phenomenon as several factors need to be in your favor. You need darkness, clear skies and solar activity. Given that the weather in Iceland can be as temperamental as a 2-year old it’s important to try to see the auroras as many times as you can to increase your chances. There is also a website that you can check to see what the solar activity is for the day and what the chances of seeing the aurora are, however, even if the website says that the chances are low, if you have clear skies there is still a chance that you may be to see them. And if you have a camera and know how to adjust the settings in low light your camera sensor may be able to pick up the aurora activity better than the naked eye.
We ended up going out to try to see the northern lights four out of the five nights that we were they and we ended up seeing them three times. After seeing them the first night we almost became addicted to chasing them and trying to see them again.
4. Drive safely
I don’t know if it was just our luck, the time of year that we visited, or what but outside of Reykjavik was a veritable winter wonderland. Every landscape and surface was covered in snow and ice including the roads. I’ve driven in snow before but what I’ve never intentionally driven on before were roads that were just sheets of ice. Thankfully I wasn’t navigating six lane highways so I could drive at a slower speed but some of the other drivers would zip around me at speeds that wouldn’t be deemed safe on a non-ice covered road.
What also made driving challenging is that the weather changes quickly in Iceland. During one part of our trip from Reykjavik to Vik to visit Skaftafell the roads and sky were clear. After driving a while the roads became a little more treacherous but still manageable. However, about 10 kilometers away from Skaftafell, after driving for over two hours, fog started rolling in and snow flurries began to fall. After a few minutes the fog got thicker until we eventually experienced whiteout conditions for the final few kilometers of our drive. We finally arrived safely at Skaftafell and that evening when we checked into our hotel I had to have a drink to take the edge off from the day’s intense drive.
During our trip, we did see several cars get stuck in snow banks or pulled over to the side of the road. On our final full day in the country on our way back to Vik we encountered an accident on one side of a bridge that stopped traffic for almost an hour and a half. We saw the car that was involved in the accident and it was a surprise that no one was seriously hurt.
5. Crampons are king
In my last blog post I wrote all about my packing list for Iceland and I can safely say that all the items on that list were used and came in handy during my travels. However, one eagle eyed reader pointed out that item #5 was missing from the list. What should have taken the place of missing #5 was a pair of crampons. I wavered back and forth about purchasing them because most of my research said they weren’t necessary but I ultimately decided to buy a pair and let me tell you that they came in clutch. I ended up wearing the crampons almost every day of the trip. On the day that we decided to visit the Dyrhólaey lighthouse I left my crampons in the car. From where we parked the ground looked safe and ice free but as we progressed up the steep hill I quickly realized that I made the wrong call. Instead of turning back to get them I tried to venture on but as the hill got steeper things also got icier. Unfortunately, we decided to abort the mission for fear of falling and breaking something and from that moment forward my crampons were in my backpack at the ready any time I ventured out.