I wanted to experience Iceland in all its ICE-land glory by visiting during the winter so I went with a group of friends in mid February (also for my birthday). It was a very special and unique time to see Iceland, covered in ice and snow, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything. There’s just something magical about being there in the winter. Less crowds, cheaper prices, and a higher chance of seeing the Northern Lights. But there are definitely some things I wish I knew before visiting Iceland in the winter.
1. The Northern Lights Aren’t a Guarantee
Although the winter time is the best time to see the Northern Lights, it’s far from a guarantee. In fact, I was there for 5 nights in February and never saw them at all. Winter storms and clouds also come in winter, and those will mess up your chances of seeing the mystical Aurora Borealis as clear skies are necessary. The first four nights of my trip were full of clouds and snow.
On the final night, there was about an hour where the sky opened and at best I could kind of see a faint blur in the distance. When I setup my camera for a long exposure I was able to capture some color in the sky - but having not actually seen it with my naked eye I don’t count it. So after visiting Iceland in winter, I am still on the hunt to see the northern lights. There are northern lights tours that can probably increase your chances of seeing them and several websites that will tell you the best times to look and your probability of seeing them that night.
2. Plans Can (And Probably Will) Change
During my Southeast Iceland Road Trip I had made a detailed itinerary that had us hopping around to a different location every night. The first 2 nights everything went according to plan. And then a snowstorm rolled in… And when an Icelandic snowstorm rolls in, things happen. Roads close. Plans change. Your Airbnb shakes all night and the wind howls. The wind was actually the most damaging factor as it makes travel unsafe.
There were two days where we were forced to find new accommodations due to road closures. Luckily, the locals are used to this and offered full refunds for their Airbnbs that we were not able to reach anymore (very nice people in Iceland!). We decided to embrace being stranded and enjoyed some wine while listening to the wind howl all night. Have a backup plan in mind and be willing to roll with the punches should plans change.
3. Driving Can Be Treacherous
Even before the big snowstorms came in, I was driving down the Ring Road at night and the wind was so strong that it was continuously blowing our car to the side - especially on open stretches. There is also ice and snow to consider, but the wind was the biggest factor in my experience. Also be careful when opening car doors as the wind can fling them open, sometimes even ripping doors off cars (or injuring people). Two of the days I was there the wind was so bad that all major roads on that side of the country were shut down. Luckily Iceland has a lot of experience with this so the people are very helpful and they know when to shut things down to avoid further risks. Drive slow, be smart, and try to rent a SUV if you can.
4. Skip the Golden Circle
Ok maybe don’t skip it completely, but I was a little underwhelmed by the Golden Circle highlights compared to all the cool things we saw on the Southeast Ring Road drive. The Golden Circle gets all the attention (and tourists), but if you have limited time I would highly suggest taking a road trip down the coast to see Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Vatnajokull National Park and Jokulsarlon Ice Beach instead.
The Golden Circle can easily be seen in a day. It’s full of tourists and tour companies. Gullfoss is an impressive waterfall but I much preferred Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. The geysers are… geysers. Cool, but to me I would spend my time seeing more of the country if you have the time.
5. It’s EXPENSIVE
This is not really related to the weather, but I just thought I should let everyone know that Iceland is very expensive. We are talking $20+ USD for a very basic sandwich at a cafe. So keep that in mind if you are planning on a longer trip. It’s not just the food. Accommodations, tickets, gas, etc. When I went we decided to buy a lot of groceries in Reykjavik and cook a lot of our meals to avoid eating out every night. Since we did a road trip it also made more sense to have food with us and find Airbnbs that had cooking amenities.
Winter is a great time to visit Iceland and these tips should help get you in the right mindset before partaking on a journey like this. Oh and pack warm clothes!