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Let me tell you about what not to do in Iceland! Iceland is a dream destination for so many people. Even for me, 11 years after my first of four trips, I’m still fantasizing about the next time I return to Iceland.
And it can be REALLY easy to make a major travel mistake in Iceland. A mistake that will cost you money, time, or embarrassment, whether this is your first time in Iceland or your tenth.
I’ve taken the wisdom from my Iceland trips and have thrown together every tip I could think of. Let’s take a look and what NOT to do in Iceland!
(And don’t forget to check out my other Iceland trip planning posts, including my Iceland Packing List. Open that one in a new window!)
Table of Contents
Don’t take out much (if any) cash.
Iceland is a country where you can use credit cards for nearly everything. In fact, on my most recent trip, Amanda and I spent two weeks in Iceland, never took out cash, and put every purchase on credit cards. We didn’t need cash once.
If you’re into points, you can earn an insane amount of points on an Iceland trip! (Though please don’t attempt travel hacking unless you have a habit of paying your bill off in full every month. If you already have good habits and want to start travel hacking, I recommend getting started with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.)
So what will you need to pay for in cash in Iceland? The public buses in Reykjavík, if not using the app. Occasionally you might come across a donation-based hot spring. That’s about it.
Don’t go into a swimming pool without showering naked first.
Icelanders love their swimming pools. Just about every town in Iceland has its own heated outdoor swimming pool, and locals gather to soak and chat the way other nations’ locals gather at coffee shops or bars.
And they are VERY strict about one rule in particular: you must shower naked first. It is a crucial requirement. Icelandic pools have limited chemicals, so they rely on people keeping squeaky clean to keep the pool clean.
You should know that most geothermal pools have open showers — as in a big open space where people shower next to each other, no barriers, completely naked. Icelanders are not ashamed by nudity. Join in, scrub intensely, and get used to it!
There is no alternative to showering naked. Seriously. As an obvious foreigner, I was frequently asked if I had showered naked before entering a swimming area. Icelanders take this very seriously.
Don’t plan too much travel in too little time.
This is the biggest mistake I see people making in every destination — but particularly Americans visiting Europe. The mindset is, “This is the only time I’ll be here, so I need to see everything.”
Please don’t try to see everything. You won’t be able to see everything you want to see. Make peace with that fact, early and often, and plan an itinerary that leaves room for serendipity.
If you’re driving the Ring Road on your Iceland road trip, I recommend a minimum of eight days to do so. (And even those eight days will be packed solid.) If it’s less time than that, you’re better off basing in Reykjavík and maybe one or two towns within a few hours’ drive.
And don’t underestimate the value of exploring one region of Iceland in depth as opposed to trying to do the whole country. You’ll be more relaxed as a result!
Don’t get close to the water at Reynisfjara Beach.
Reynisfjara Beach, in Vík along Iceland’s South Coast, is one of the most famous black sand beaches in the world.
It’s also one of the most dangerous places in Iceland. But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. It looks like a normal beach with gentle waves.
Reynisfjara Beach is known for its “sneaker waves.” These rogue waves can sneak in out of nowhere and destroy everything in their path, pulling people out to sea.
Tragically, tourist deaths at Reynisfjara Beach are not uncommon.
To stay safe, local officials recommend keeping a distance of 30 meters (100 feet) from the water. Keep an eye on the water at all times. And if you have children, closely supervise them.
Finally, know that plenty of tourists ignore these warning signs and will be walking close to the water’s edge on the day you visit. Just because other people are doing it, it doesn’t make it safe. Be smart here.
Don’t forget your head-to-toe waterproof gear.
Packing for a trip to Iceland is critically important. You need to be prepared for all kinds of weather, no matter what time of year you go. And it is going to be WET for at least part of your trip.
At the very least, it’s a good idea (if not a necessity) to pack a waterproof jacket (either an insulated waterproof jacket, or a waterproof shell worn on top of an insulated jacket), rain pants, waterproof hiking boots, and a waterproof backpack cover.
(Incidentally, you can leave your umbrella at home — the aforementioned gear will keep you dry enough, and the fierce Icelandic winds often destroy umbrellas.)
I’ve seen miserable travelers in Iceland wearing soaked-through sweatshirts after walking behind my favorite Icelandic waterfall, Kvernufoss. Hell, I myself was miserable when a hiking trail turned into muddy puddles and I began soaking into my non-waterproof hiking sneakers.
See my Iceland packing list for more information on what you really need to pack — and what you can leave at home.
Don’t buy bottled water.
There is zero reason to buy bottled water in Iceland, ever. The tap water in Iceland is safe to drink, as well as delicious, and constantly buying single-use plastic adds to the pollution problem.
My suggestion? Bring a reusable water bottle and fill up whenever you’re near a faucet. I love my BPA-free Blender Bottle, which is super durable and comes in several colors.
Don’t go whale watching in Reykjavík.
This might be fighting words — but let me speak honestly (albeit anecdotally). Almost every friend I know who has gone whale watching in Reykjavík hasn’t seen any whales. They’ve returned to shore disappointed.
Iceland does have whales, but Reykjavík is not one of the best places to see them.
As I was writing this, I texted a friend who I know went whale watching in Reykjavík. “Did you actually see whales in Reykjavík?” Her quote: “No, we did not. It was a terrible experience. We were on the boat for nearly six hours. It was rainy and cold. [My friend] puked. We saw one puffin, I think.”
Instead, go whale watching in Húsavík, North Iceland. The whale watching here is outstanding — a million times better than Reykjavík. Sightings are almost guaranteed with 98% accuracy. I went on this Húsavík whale watch and had a wonderful time, seeing so many gorgeous whales!
Of course, this is only an option if you’re planning to go to North Iceland. And if you’re not going that far, ask yourself if you want to risk not seeing any whales on your tour. Especially if you’re only visiting for a few days.
Meanwhile, there are so many better things to do in Reykjavík. If you’re an animal lover, I highly recommend horseback riding in the lava fields near Reykjavík. Icelandic horses are a special, adorable breed!
Don’t damage the local environment.
Iceland is an extraordinarily beautiful country with natural wonders that will stupefy you. Please take the time to keep the environment protected.
It’s especially important because outdoor sights are rarely staffed in Iceland. They expect people to behave appropriately. I don’t have as much faith in other people as the Icelanders do.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Don’t disturb moss. Stick to marked pathways in Iceland, and the moss that you find in some lava fields can be destroyed if you walk on it.
Don’t drive off-road. Off-road driving is prohibited in Iceland.
Don’t litter. This goes without saying.
Don’t disturb natural habitats. I almost punched this dude at Reynisfjara Beach who was CLIMBING INTO THE PUFFIN HABITAT. And because there were no workers there, nobody was stopping him. Don’t be that asshole.
Don’t expect hopping nightlife before midnight.
Reykjavík can be a great city for partying, provided you’re okay paying the sky-high drink prices. But if you go out before midnight, you might be among an entirely tourist crowd in a tourist bar.
Because alcohol is so expensive in Iceland, most Icelanders pregame at home with friends before heading out for the night. (Yep, just like we did in college.) And most often they won’t show up to a bar or club until midnight or so.
If it’s 11:30 PM and you’re starting to flag a bit…just hold on a little longer. Your night’s about to start!
You will be tempted to speed in Iceland — and I get it. Roads are often empty in rural areas. You probably won’t see a single traffic cop in the entire country. What’s wrong with a little speeding every now and then?
Well, there may not be cops, but there are speed cameras. Loads of them. And if you’re caught speeding, you will be fined. Often the fine can be hundreds of dollars.
How will you find out if you’re not an Iceland resident? They will alert your car rental company, who will then charge you the fine. There’s no way to get out of paying these tickets.
The speed limit in Iceland is 90 km/hour in rural areas, 80 km/hour on gravel roads, and 30-50 km/hour in populated areas. If you get a newish rental car like I did, it might use GPS to input the speed limit right next to your speedometer. Very cool!
Don’t expect the Northern Lights in summer.
So many travelers come to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. But many of those travelers don’t realize that the Northern Lights are seasonal. They’re primarily during the winter months, from September through March, when the nights are their longest. You can’t see them during the midnight sun!
Additionally, dark nights are best for viewing the Aurora Borealis. You’ll want to avoid booking your trip during a full moon; instead, aim to arrive a few days before the new moon for several days of dark night skies.
Your best bet at seeing the Northern Lights is to book a tour with an expert tour guide who will take you to the best spots for viewing. Keep in mind that this is entirely up to chance, though. You can’t predict the Northern Lights.
That being said, if seeing the Northern Lights is super-important to you, I would recommend choosing a more reliable Northern Lights destination north of the Arctic Circle — like Tromsø or Alta in far northern Norway, or Fairbanks, Alaska.
Either way, don’t forget to bring a tripod (either a camera tripod or a smartphone tripod). You need to take long exposures to get the colors to show up properly, and they will turn out blurry if you don’t have a tripod.
Don’t take a taxi into Reykjavík.
What’s the best way to get into Reykjavík? Take the Flybus. This airport bus leaves regularly from the airport, you can book your ticket in advance, and you can choose to either be dropped off at the central bus station or at your hotel.
The typical cost of a taxi from the airport to Reykjavík is 18,000 to 20,000 ISK ($126-140 USD), compared to starting at 3,500 ISK ($24 USD) for the Flybus.
There’s no reason to take a taxi into Reykjavík. It’s something only wealthy or unaware people do. Even if you want to go to the Blue Lagoon when you arrive, there are Flybuses that go from the airport to the Blue Lagoon.
Don’t splurge on food.
I love splurging on food when I travel. Almost everywhere I go, I try to have a nice meal to see what the destination has to offer.
I do not splurge on food in Iceland. And I say this with kindness. After many trips to Iceland, many tries of local specialties from fermented shark to smoked puffin to Höfn langoustine, I’ve found the results almost universally disappointing. Most of the time it’s average seafood at best, and on top of that, restaurant meals have high prices.
(I will say that the best traditional meal I had was a few seafood dishes at Naustið in Húsavík, and I had a decent fish & chips at Við Voginn in Djúpivogur. Beyond that? Nothing too memorable.)
So in Iceland, I ended up eating a lot of hot dogs and soup-and-bread specials because they were cheap and filling, and because I wasn’t missing much when it came to the pricier dishes.
Additionally, I don’t think alcohol is worth it in Iceland most of the time. Alcohol is eye-wateringly expensive, marked up at an even higher rate than most other expenses. I like to try a local craft beer every now and then, and enjoy an occasional cocktail, but it’s definitely a rarity and not a norm.
I know some people like to buy alcohol at the Duty Free at the airport for cheaper. If you don’t want to get through a trip without alcohol, that’s probably your best budget option.
But my recommendation? Eat cheap and splurge on cool activities. That’s where you’ll get higher value.
Don’t day trip to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon from Reykjavík.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a high priority for many Iceland travelers. And it’s easy to see why — this lagoon is one of the most beautiful places in Iceland, blue-and-white glaciers just bobbing along in the water!
Jökulsárlón is located in southeast Iceland, and indeed there are day trips to Jökulsárlón from Reykjavík. But people don’t realize that Jökulsárlón is a five-hour drive from Reykjavík.
That’s 10 hours in a car in a single day.
Is Jökulsárlón worth that much time in a car? I personally don’t think so, especially if your time in Iceland is limited. The South Coast has so many gorgeous natural wonders that are much more easily accessible.
What to do instead? I recommend a glacier walking tour on the South Coast. This way you’ll get to see cool ice, as well as some waterfalls, without spending your whole day in a van.
Don’t drive on F-roads in a two-wheel drive car.
When you rent a car in Iceland, you’ll have to make several decisions. Manual or automatic? (Don’t make the mistake I did once and order manual if you can’t drive stick.) Sedan or SUV? Four-wheel drive or two-wheel drive?
That last question is actually quite important, as some roads in Iceland require a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Driving them in a two-wheel-drive vehicle is both unsafe and illegal, as the road conditions are particularly gnarly.
These roads are called F roads, or highland roads, and are mainly restricted to the Icelandic Highlands (basically the center of the country).
If you’re driving the Ring Road, you don’t need to worry about this — the Ring Road is safe to drive with a two-wheel drive vehicle in the summer months, along with most easy detours. You should get a four-wheel drive vehicle for winter travel, no matter where you’re going.
On top of that, there are gravel roads. It’s legal to drive them in a two-wheel drive car, and I did so a few times (like the gravel road to the east side of Dettifoss waterfall, and the very rough gravel road to Múlagljúfur Canyon). The key is to go slowly and watch for potholes.
There was one road that we decided shouldn’t be attempted in our two-wheel drive vehicle: the drive to the second parking lot on the east side of Studlagil Canyon. There were so many potholes and uneven stretches that we decided to walk instead — which took an extra 30 minutes each way but was the right decision.
Don’t step off path in geothermal areas.
There are places in Iceland where the geothermal activity is off the charts. Hverir, in the Lake Myvatn region, is a place where you can watch the Earth sizzle, plumes of steam making their way through cracks.
You do not want to step off the marked paths in destinations like these. A lot of what looks like solid ground is actually a thin layer over boiling water. You could scald yourself or worse.
This is another place where Iceland operates on the honor system, expecting people to follow the rules. Be a rule-follower here!
Don’t shower in the morning.
Kind of a weird one here, but hear me out. I think showering at night is a great idea in Iceland.
If you’re staying in accommodation with shared bathrooms — which is the case at most budget accommodation in Iceland — there will be a line of people waiting to shower in the morning. This is much worse if your guesthouse has (gasp!) only one bathroom.
That, and you can wash all your hiking grime off at night. Always good before you sleep.
Besides that, it’s much easier to get out first thing in the morning and hit the road if you roll out of bed, get dressed, wash your face and brush your teeth, and just HIT THE ROAD. Make the most of your daylight hours. And if you head out early, you’ll see places before they get crowded!
Don’t assume a camper van will save you money.
Traveling Iceland by camper van is a very popular thing to do. And why wouldn’t it be? Travel the country on a whim, stop where you want to stop each night.
The problem is that people think that a camper van is a cheaper option than staying in budget hotels. It’s not.
If you price it out manually, hiring a camper van for, say, 10 days, will work out roughly the same or even possibly more than a car rental and staying in budget hotels. Keep in mind that you also have to pay for campsites, as wild camping is not allowed in Iceland.
Hire a camper van if you want that kind of Iceland trip, specifically. Don’t do it because you assume it will save you money.
Don’t book the Blue Lagoon last-minute.
The Blue Lagoon is the most popular attraction in Iceland. As a result, it books up very quickly, and often sells out completely.
The Blue Lagoon is located close to Keflavík Airport and about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík city, so I recommend visiting the Blue Lagoon either right when you arrive or right before you leave. It’s much more convenient that way.
I highly recommend booking your slot at the Blue Lagoon at least a month in advance, if you’re traveling during the summer months. If you’re visiting Iceland in the winter, you can get away with booking closer to the date.
Don’t only stay in Reykjavík.
True story — I dated a guy who told me he had been to Iceland too, and had the best time. He went for two nights, partied his ass off in Reykjavík, and flew back to New York without leaving the city limits.
Reykjavík is a fun city. Trust me on that. But it’s not what makes Iceland special. What makes Iceland special is the natural environment. And a bonus — the natural sites are usually free to visit.
This is not to drag people who book Reykjavík accommodation for their whole stay — you can do that! I’ve done that three times! You do it by booking lots of cool day trips, or by renting a car and driving yourself.
My top recommendations for day trips from Reykjavik include the South Coast, the Golden Circle, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and something else that catches your interest. I personally loved snorkeling between the tectonic plates at Silfra in Thingvellir National Park; horseback riding is fun, too.
Read More: Best Things to Do in Reykjavík, Iceland
More on What NOT to Do:
- What NOT to Do in Mexico
- What NOT to Do in Italy
- What NOT to Do in Croatia
- What NOT to Do in Boston
- What NOT to Do in New York
- What NOT to Do in Prague
Planning a Trip to Iceland:
- The Ultimate Iceland Packing List
- What My Iceland Trip Cost: Detailed Budget Breakdown
- 35 Awesome Things to do in Reykjavík, Iceland
- Why Iceland is Great for First-Time Solo Female Travelers
Cool Places to Visit in Iceland:
- Kvernufoss, My Favorite Waterfall in Iceland
- Studlagil Canyon, East Iceland’s Spectacular Wonder
- A Guide to the Gorgeous Tröllaskagi Peninsula of North Iceland
- Why the Vök Baths are My Favorite Hot Springs in Iceland
- Blue Lagoon: Does it live up to the hype?
- Sky Lagoon: An Upscale Geothermal Spa Close to Reykjavík
- Sail Through the Sky with FlyOver Iceland
- Snorkeling Silfra: The Cold Neon Waters of Iceland
- Visiting Stokksnes and Vestrahorn Mountain, Iceland
- Are the Vök Baths Iceland’s Best Geothermal Spa?
Have you been to Iceland? What are your tips?