Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

Traveling to Iceland in winter

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Last Updated on February 4, 2024

What do I need to know before traveling to Iceland in winter?

Important Questions About Iceland Answered

Table of Contents show

What is the weather like in Iceland in winter?

One word to answer this question —FICKLE

The Weather in Iceland

The weather in Iceland is very unpredictable…and whatever weather is currently happening, it will change 5 minutes later or a couple of miles down the road.  It was sunny for us while we were driving Ring Road and then we drove 5 minutes more and it was a complete white-out blizzard. 

When we went to Iceland in January, on a single day, we always had rain, sleet, snow, high wind, and sun.  The hotel staff would always tell us what the weather prediction was for the day.  I wouldn’t say that they were wrong because it occasionally happened, but the day that horrible wind was predicted was a beautiful sunshine day that I didn’t even need my winter coat!

Before you head out, check the forecast on the local Iceland Weather Website… and then plan for it to change 3 times throughout the day.

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Ipad with Iceland photo and suitcases for packing list

What are the road conditions like in Iceland in the Winter?

One word to answer this question —UNPREDICTABLE

Self Driving in Iceland

Because the weather changes every 5 minutes, so do the road conditions.  The main roads are kept pretty clear, but when it is actively snowing, they will be covered!  Also, you could be driving along on a clear road and then all of a sudden WHAM – you hit a 2-foot-high snow wall right in the middle of your lane.  This happened to us right before we crossed a one-way bridge and hubby swerved us safely across.  I would surely have crashed if I was the one driving. Check the road conditions with the cool Iceland Road Conditions website before you head out.

Winter Driving in Iceland in January

One Lane Bridges in Iceland

Speaking of one-way bridges, there are tons of them.  There are about 340,000 people living permanently in Iceland and most of them are in Reykjavik and the surrounding area. That means that there are very few people traveling around the remainder of Iceland.

The narrow road sign is posted several hundred feet away from the bridge.  You are supposed to slow down and peak onto the bridge to see if anyone is coming the other way.  If no one is there, you are safe to cross.  All this is fine if there isn’t a bend in the road, a hill or a blizzard that obscures your vision to the other side of the bridge!  Drive slow and be safe.  On longer bridges, they have a small turn-off so that if you encounter someone mid-way, you can take turns passing.

Other Driving Tips for Iceland

Be prepared for lots of Round-a-bouts. They are very prevalent along the roadways. We were driving miles and miles along a very straight 2-lane highway and all of a sudden there is a random round-a-bout. They seem to be the go-to traffic regulator in Iceland.

NO TURN ON RED. There aren’t any signs indicating that turning right on red isn’t allowed, but it ISN’T!

Looking for things to do in Iceland?

Stopping for Photo Stops in Iceland

Iceland has a lot of picturesque scenery that you are going to be tempted to pull over for.  DON’T!  Only pull into approved and snow-cleared lots.  Randomly pulling over and parking alongside the roads is not allowed and is also VERY dangerous.  Other drivers will not be expecting cars in the roadway, so you may get hit.  Make sure that the lot that you pull into is clear of snow.  The snow is often deeper than it initially seems, so don’t get stuck in a big drift.

You never know what you are going to see!

What do I need to know about renting a car in Iceland?

One word to answer this question —INSURANCE

How to rent a car in Iceland

We rented from Green Motion in Iceland. We knew what to expect, had our own insurance, and were satisfied. Click the banner below to use this company for your Iceland rental. Having your own rental means you can tour at your own pace. Just make sure that you follow my RENTAL CAR ADVICE below.

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There are a lot of gravel piles and lava rocks in Iceland.  The wind can be terribly vicious, whipping up the debris and your windshield and paint job are especially vulnerable.  Make sure you have insurance to cover any chips or dinks in your rental car.  Your rental company will be happy to sell you insurance at a high price, or you can pre-purchase from an outside company. 

Rental car insurance for Iceland car rentals

My insurance ended up being $9 per day from my trusted travel advisor who bought from Generali Global Assistance.  I felt safe and protected as we drove all over Iceland in all sorts of weather. If you are interested in finding a cheaper alternative to the high price offered at the rental car companies, please contact Alana to help you purchase the rental car add-on to your travel insurance.

Travel Well Planned

Other Important things to know about renting a car in Iceland

Please hold on to your door when you exit your rental car.  High winds can bend the door and damage the hinges if parked in the direction of the prevailing wind.  Both of the doors on our rental car had been previously bent,  mine creaked and wobbled when it opened and hubby’s often didn’t open at all.  Don’t let the wind carry your door away too!

Iceland rental companies are used to snow and will have all the appropriate snow gear so that you are prepared.  Our rental had a fairly small snow brush in it so that we could clear off the newly fallen snow each day.

You will get a better deal if you rent a manual versus automatic transmission car.  Most of the rental car company inventory is manual, so therefore those will be cheaper.  If you don’t know how to drive a stick, better to stay with automatic if you can find one available.  These aren’t the roads for learning on the spot.

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Four-wheel drive is definitely recommended for winter driving because you will have better control during bad road conditions.  We also chose a somewhat smaller car so that the wind wouldn’t be able to carry us far when it was brutal.

Gas is about $2 per liter and there are gas stations along all the major tourist routes. That being said, make sure you fill up before you embark on any trips. It is better to be safe and have a full tank of gas. –You will only need one tank of gas for a trip around the Golden Circle.

Hiring a car in Iceland and driving yourself is possible if you prepare and get briefed on all the important tips on renting a car in Iceland.

Do I need to learn Icelandic?

One word to answer this question —ENGLISH

Most everyone speaks English as a second language and will probably respond to you in English even if you attempt to try Icelandic because they can tell if English is your native language. They will enjoy hearing your attempt though.

What are the prices like in Iceland?

One word to answer this question —EXPENSIVE

High prices of food in Iceland

Food, drinks, hotels, gas, parking…everything is a higher price in Iceland.  Be prepared to pay $30 for breakfast, $50 for lunch and $90 for a nice dinner (USD)—and we are cheap so we found the inexpensive restaurants.  An ice cream cone was $5.  A hot dog was $5.  One skyre yogurt was $2.50 —but it was so creamy and delish that it was worth it!

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Skyr Yogurt from Iceland

How can I save money on the high prices in Iceland?

One word to answer this question —PREPARATION

How to budget in Iceland

One way to save some money while you tour Iceland is to pack food for your road trips.  You can bring snacks of granola bars, jello cups, beef jerky, crackers, and many others.  The main grocery store in Iceland is BONUS and you can stock up on perishables there before you hit the road.  Purchase some fruit, bread, and lunchmeat for your lunches.  We brought travel packages of peanut butter and jelly so that I could make PBJ sandwiches.

peanut butter and jelly

I also brought a collapsible kettle to prepare hot dishes for the road.  I boiled the Icelandic water and made oatmeal and macaroni cups, then put them into travel mugs to keep them warm.  It was awesome to be able to snack on some warm food after a hike in the cold Iceland air. 

Here is a link to the kettle that I brought.  It worked well and was very quick to boil the water.  Because it was collapsible, it didn’t take up much room in my suitcase at all.

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Speaking of water, Iceland tap water is safe to drink and one of the best out of anywhere.  Choose tap water to save some bucks and you won’t be disappointed. In fact, most of the tap water in Iceland is better than the bottled water! Or you can order your own supply of Iceland water to be shipped to your house!

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Iceland Water

What form of payment is accepted in Iceland?

One word to answer this question —CREDIT

Using a credit card in Iceland

Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere.  We didn’t need cash anywhere while we were vacationing there.  We even used a credit card for the un-manned restrooms at the Black Beach Restaurant ($1.60 USD per person).  Make sure that you have a credit card that does not have any foreign transaction fees.  Also, make sure that you add a pin to your card (if you don’t already have one).  The pin will be necessary at the little credit card kiosks at the gas stations.  (Press the English button for instructions in English!) It will ask you for your pin before allowing the transaction.  No pin means no transaction at the kiosk, but you can still take it inside and have the clerk help you.

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Fueling up in Iceland

Credit card payments are even accepted at the waterfall and National Park parking lots.  They have a camera that scans your license plate when you enter the parking lot.  You then proceed to the payment machine and enter your plate number and pay via credit card.  Very efficient.

Payment Station at Seljalandsfoss in Iceland
Payment Station at Seljalandsfoss in Iceland

Where are the photo opportunities in Iceland?

One word to answer this question –EVERYWHERE

What to see in Iceland in January and throughout the winter in Iceland

Iceland is beautiful everywhere.  There are millions of waterfalls, glaciers, beaches, and geysirs you could photograph.  The layers of snow in the mountains are very picturesque.  Even the barren rocks that resemble a desolate moon photo are worthy of a snapshot.  Make sure that you have a lot of storage on your picture-taking device because every inch of this country is worthy of preserving as a photograph to take home with you.  Take in the scenery with your own eyes too.

Taking in the scenery at the top of Gullfoss in Iceland.
Taking in the scenery at the top of Gullfoss in Iceland in January

Ring road circles around Iceland and is filled with the top must-see sites.  If you are short on time, plan a trip around the Golden Circle and then anywhere on route 1 will also take you to beauty.

Always a pretty view in Iceland

Is there somewhere to go, when I have to… go?

One word to answer this question –50/50

Restroom male / female sign

Public Restrooms in Iceland

There are restrooms located in most places along the common tourist routes.  Along the Golden Circle they are very prevalent.  There are some free ones in Thingvellir National Park and the Geysir/Strokker Visitors Center/ gift shop.  If you stop for ice cream at Efstidalur Farm, there are also restrooms there.

Along the southern route of Ring Road, there are free restrooms at Sejlalandsfoss, but not at SkogafossSkogafoss is pretty desolate at this time and has no concessions or restrooms. 

Further along the southern route, there are pay restrooms at the Black Beach Restaurant (which can cover visits to Black Beach and Dyrholaey.  Those are unmanned restrooms that accept credit cards for $1.60 USD each. 

Even further along the southern route, if you pay to park at the Skaftafell Visitors Center near Vatnajokull Glacier, there are a lot of nice bathrooms there.  Use those because when you go further to tour the glaciers at Jokulsarlon Lagoon and Diamond Beach, there are no facilities.

Should I go to the tourist-trap Blue Lagoon?

One word to answer this question –ABSOLUTELY

The natural Blue Lagoon
The natural Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon Experience in Iceland

bathing in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon
Bathing in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon

Yes, this has become a tourist trap, but it is truly unique and you won’t see anything like it anywhere else.  This geothermal spa was accidentally formed in 1976 from a discharge from the adjacent geothermal power plant that resulted in a blue pond in the lava fields.  The other geothermal spas in Iceland do not have the ‘blue’ water that makes the Blue Lagoon so famous.  It gets its blue color from its high content of silica which forms a soft mud on the bottom of the pools.    

splashing the warm water in the Blue Lagoon
hurry up and take my picture already!

The water is good for skin conditions, like psoriasis, and many people notice an improvement from the chemical composition of the water after bathing in the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon entry gives you one complimentary silica mud facial.  You apply the goop to your face and body and leave it on for 5 minutes or so.  After you rinse it off in the blue water, your skin feels extra soft and remains this way for quite awhile. 

Silica facial mud at the Blue Lagoon
Silica facial mud at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Extra things to know about the Blue Lagoon

The silica water is hard on your hair, so make sure you lather up with conditioner before you enter the water and get any of it on your hair.  The layer of conditioner will protect it.  Shampoo and conditioner are provided in large bottles in the showers.

Speaking of the showers, yes, you have to shower naked, but there are dividers with doors for each shower stall that were installed for privacy.

How to visit the Blue Lagoon

If you do not have a car, there are still many ways to enjoy the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Many tour companies will provide entrance tickets and transport from the airport or from Reykjavik. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours relaxing in the steamy water in order to enjoy it to its fullest. Here are some great choices!

Procedure for entering the Blue Lagoon

When you arrive at the Blue Lagoon, you will be directed to one of the changing rooms (remember which floor you are on so that you go to the correct one at the end!).  You will have been given a wrist band that will open a locker.  Pick a locker (they are quite large enough to store a backpack full of stuff), take out your swim and change.  Walk to the showers and enter, disrobe and shower naked with the provided soaps.  Re-dress and walk to the water entry area.  There are no towels provided here, you will walk from the shower to the Lagoon still dripping wet.  There is a walk-in entry right in the lobby so that you don’t have to go outside.  Braver souls can enter from the outside entrances! 

Indoor entrance to the Blue Lagoon
Indoor entrance to the Blue Lagoon

Make sure that you protect your camera or phone with a water protective case.  There is a lot of steam coming from the lagoon that is very bad for any electronics, plus your hands will always be wet, so you won’t want to touch your phone with that water on them.  I used THIS water protecting case and it worked nice.  It was quite cheap too! It detaches quickly with a clip, so I could also set my phone on the side of the pool for nice selfies using the timer function.

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Selfie Cheers! at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

The pool is a wonderfully warm temperature, but the air is still cold.  Whatever is not in submerged in the water, will be exposed to the cold temperatures.  Hubby’s hair had icicles in it!  If you are worried about the cold on your head and ears, you can bring a hat to keep you all toasty.

Blue Lagoon provides towels when you are all done bathing.  They will hand you a towel after you exit the pools and when you are on your way to the shower room for your after-dip shower.  After your shower, you have to find your way back to your locker.  The changing area is pretty nice.  It has large mirrors and several hairdryers so that you can get all fixed up after your dip in the Blue Lagoon.

Changing area in Blue Lagoon with hair dryers and lots of mirrors to fix your hair
Changing area in Blue Lagoon with hairdryers and lots of mirrors to fix your hair

How do you dress for winter weather in Iceland?

One word to answer this question —LAYERS.

Iceland is difficult to pack for because of the unpredictable weather. The weather can vary by 20 degrees in a single day and a single hour. The key is to dress in layers so that you can take some off and put some on as the temperature changes.

Dressed in many layers for water protection from Seljalandsfoss in Iceland
Dressed in many layers for water protection from Seljalandsfoss in Iceland

Is there a good Iceland Winter Packing List

I have put together a packing list of must-haves for a trip to Iceland in the winter and you can download it for free as you prepare for your trip. There are several items on this list that are worth extra mention so I will go into details here.

Important items to pack for a winter trip to Iceland that you wouldn’t think of:

Crampons / Spikes: Do you need to pack crampons for a trip to Iceland? These are the spikey things that you put on your shoes to help you safely walk on ice. They come in different forms with different terminology and have different uses. See the helpful infographic to compare them all.

Hubby bought a cheap pair of microspikes on Amazon and was able to easily ascend the stairs at Seljalandsfoss while the others just stairs in awe as he passed them by on his way to the top for awesome pictures.

NOTE: Don’t wear any of these spikes inside churches or other buildings!!

For a trip to Iceland, you don’t need actual crampons. If you’re considering a winter trip to Iceland you should get Spiked Beads or Micro Spikes since it can sometimes get slippery by the waterfalls. Yaktrax is a popular brand of spiked beads.

Any Iceland Glacier or Cave tour will loan the necessary footwear to you so that you can walk safely on the ice.

comparison of spikes and crampons
Comparison of Spikes versus Crampons. Infographic from Chris Knoles.
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Protective case for phone: This is necessary if you are going to Blue Lagoon so that you can take pictures without worrying that the humidity and minerals in the water will destroy your phone. It is also helpful at the waterfalls so that you can go super close, get drenched, and get it all on a video!

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Raincoat: This should be a layer of protection –again for the waterfalls– to keep you dry under the falls and then you can take it off. It can be thin so that it doesn’t take up much room in your suitcase.

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Power Adapter: Don’t forget to get at least one European power adapter to plug in all your electronics. Iceland uses European power outlets, so you will need to get an adapter if you aren’t used to this. Get one with USB plugs too so that you get more bang for your electricity!! Plug in the one adapter and you can charge / power multiple devices!

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I think everything else on the packing list is self-explanatory. If you think I left anything out, please let me know. We were very well prepared and I was not cold at all! In fact, I didn’t even wear the fleece sweatshirt that I had with me. Hopefully, these tips will help you as you prepare for your winter trip to Iceland.

seated at Glacier Lagoon
Enjoying Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

Where should I stay in Iceland?

There are many options for accommodations in Iceland. From budget AirBNBs to Luxury Boutique Hotels, there is something to fit every style and budget.

To find an available AirBNB, simply enter the nearest city in Iceland in the search box below, or search all of Iceland to find all the unique properties available.

What activities should I do in Iceland in January or anytime in winter in Iceland?

We were vacationing in Iceland in January for 4 days and did quite a bit of sightseeing for our short time there. Continue traveling with us as we tour Iceland. We did the Golden Circle and the southern route of Ring Road. We saw lots of geysirs, waterfalls, turf houses, Icelandic horses, lava rocks, black beaches, and snow-covered mountains. I think the highlight was our tour of the glaciers and ice caves.

Things to do in Iceland:

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This place looks so foreign to me yet so much. Driving in that weather seems so scary though!

I cannot wait to experience Iceland! Love all the travel hacks!

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