How Iceland Has Changed, And Why You Still Need to Go
August 28, 2019
The initial draw of Iceland was its remote, wild landscapes that tested the adventurer in all of us.
Road tripping Iceland is much different now than it was a decade ago, even with the recent decline in tourists after WOW Airlines unexpectedly halted affordable airline service to the hub earlier this year. And although main attractions are changing to withstand a higher volume of tourists, Iceland continues to remain vast, detached, and full of adventured spirit.
I first visited Iceland in 2014 with a group of college friends and recently returned from a second trip with my family. Iceland has been my favorite country since my first visit, and I'd say it remains top of the list. However, my recent trip gave new insight into what Iceland looks like for modern-day explorers.
I'm taking a different approach to this blog. I will not be sharing detailed information on locations of my photos, except for known tourist locations. Why?
Because if you plan to road trip Iceland you need to explore on your own. And you need to be respectful.
I'm aware that my blog and my photography exposes locations. I wish I could say that this was only a good thing, but unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there disrespecting our most cherished natural landscapes. In the years since the flourish of Instagram, one photo has the power to turn a seemingly quiet and rugged location into an amusement park line of insta-models and photographers.
If you think about it, Iceland was built off social media. If it wasn't for the easy access to information and instant photo gratification, it could've remained uncharted for many years to come. It's how I fell in love with the unknown North Atlantic island, by seeing an intriguing photo online that sparked my interest to visit this other-worldly volcanic mecca.
So Iceland is discovered, but it's okay. Iceland is smart; both their government and their people. Because of this they are welcoming the influx of tourists while keeping the island's long history of natural beauty and culture intact. If you're planning an upcoming trip to Iceland, there are a few vital things to keep in mind.
Iceland Travel Guide 2019
#1 We all agreed our favorite spots came from the unexpected.
On this trip was Josh, my dad, my aunt, and my brother. Getting to travel with my family and showcase my favorite country was special enough. In seven days, we survived 30 hours in the car and conquered over 1,800 miles. We saw all the angles: the remote fjords, the crowded waterfalls, the backroads, the GOT hot spots, the local favorites. Every spot had something new to offer, yet we all agree our favorite things were those unmapped. The places where it took 4.5 hours to travel 75 miles down rough dirt roads and endless fjords. A bungalow on an old sheep farm, hosted by the local farmer who was born there. A secret hidden waterfall, practically silent in the middle of the Golden Circle.
#2 Only a tiny fraction of Iceland has changed.
Iceland isn't succumbing to tourism and continues to focus on natural conservation over monetary gain. Most of the roads are still unpaved and require 4x4 vehicles. They aren't building bridges or tunnels to make remote sections of the country more accessible to tourists. On our tour of Iceland, about 5% of places we stopped at had visible signs of change, and they were the places you see on guidebooks and plastered on the front of every tour bus brochure in Reykjavik.
A majority of Iceland is still untamed, barren, completely wild. Crowds are concentrated in a few locations, and it only takes a five-minute drive from each to get back to the heart of Iceland.
#3 Rent a 4x4. And use it.
Iceland is mainly dirt roads, and many of those dirt roads are 4x4 only. If you think the rental car agency is being dramatic and your compact car can handle the terrain, think again. Even a low clearance 4x4 may not be able to manage them. But those roads lead to some pretty incredible places.
#4 Choose Your Accommodation Early.
Icelandic wild camping: Camping is permitted on any public land throughout the country. It saves a lot of money and is one of the most relaxed places to set up camp in the world. That being said, there are some new restrictions. In 2015, we camped on the shores of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and the black sand beach in Vik (both completely alone). Today, both locations are closed to campers.
Our latest Iceland trip we stayed in Airbnb's. This was a new way for us to explore and allowed us to take a more local approach to the country. In a remote northwestern town, we bunked in one of the oldest buildings above a combined coffee shop/bar in the heart of downtown. In Akureyri, we crashed one block from the local swimming pool, which was heated entirely by geothermal energy.
Here is the only link I'm giving away, the sheep farm in the rural east fjords (exterior pictured below). If you're looking for a local place to say with one of the best views in Iceland, book here. I told him I'd spread the word.
With Airbnb's and hotels, booking early is critical. I booked our accommodation last November for this August, and already there were some places booked out.
#5 Be responsible. Please.
I feel like I shouldn't need to say this, but then again, I've witnessed first-hand the impacts of disrespectful tourists around the world. If you can't handle picking up your trash, resisting the urge to carve your name into a rock, or defacing natural landscapes, stay home.
#6 Understand Icelandic Currency & Conversion Rates
Iceland is an expensive country. A lack of understanding the conversion rate between your currency and the Icelandic Krona can prove detrimental to a budget if you don’t understand how much you’re truly spending. If you plan to eat out, a local restaurant in a small town will run roughly $35-$45 per plate. It’s just how it is. If you want a beautiful and authentic Icelandic wool sweater, budget at least $160.
However, budget-planners rejoice! Iceland supermarkets offer affordable baked goods throughout the country and N1 gas stations serve up delicious hot dogs and ice cream for a few bucks.
#7 Buy Duty-Free
And just when you think Iceland prices couldn’t get any more expensive, you walk into a liquor store to find a fifth of Bacardi is $50, a 750ml of Fireball is $30, and a cheap bottle of wine is $15. However, in Duty-Free upon arrival to Keflavik airport, that same bottle of Bacardi is a measly $21 USD.
#8 Basically the Entire Country is Cash-Free
If you don’t want to deal with pesky exchange rates, plan to use your credit or debit card during your trip. Card is accepted everywhere, including buses. Just make sure of a couple of key points:
- You need a PIN to pump gas; credit cards do not work.
- Let your bank know you’ll be traveling to keep them from shutting off your card.
- If you’d like to exchange some money you can only do so at banks, which are closed on weekends.
- ATM’s are found throughout the country, from which you can easily withdraw cash with your debit card.
#9 Take at least one random dirt road (there are a lot to choose from).
It may turn out to be nothing, or it may turn out to be an unexpected adventure. Dirt roads are the soul of Iceland, and it'd almost be considered a sin not to venture down at least one side road while exploring the country.
Take one, or three, or ten. Don't be afraid to get a little dirty.
Iceland’s new economy thrives off tourism. So much, that this sudden decrease in numbers has put the tiny nation on verge of an unexpected recession. Even to those who have been before can venture back to the country again and again and fail to see it all. The more I discover, the more I realize the greatness hidden within the mountains, fjords, and glaciers.
Any location-specific Iceland travel guide more than a few years old is outdated. However, the roots of Iceland will remain the same for decades to come, which is why the best travel guide only gives tips—not locations. Travel to Iceland, take in the sights, breathe the fresh air, and ride along on an adventure of a lifetime. If you’re doing what you want, you’re doing Iceland right.
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At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, outdoor, and sustainable tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.