5 things that surprised me during our family's Iceland vacation
As the pandemic stretched on, our entire family began feeling the itch to get back to the exciting trips we used to enjoy in the "before times." The summer of 2022 was poised to be that moment.
With a healthy stash of points and miles at the ready, we told both of our kids that they could pick any place in the world and we would do everything in our power to plan an incredible trip there.
Our daughter didn't need any time to think. Her instant reply: Iceland.
Anyone who has visited Iceland or seen pictures of the country's natural beauty would be hard-pressed to disagree, as the European destination is home to all kinds of otherworldly sights, including stunning black sand beaches, soothing geothermal spas and the mesmerizing northern lights. It's no wonder our daughter has had dreams of visiting the Land of Fire and Ice for years.
So, before long, we found ourselves planning a 10-day adventure to Iceland.
While we went into our Iceland trip feeling like we had learned enough from folks who had been there before to be adequately prepared, we were shocked by a number of things we encountered once we arrived. Here are a few surprises we took away from our time in Iceland.
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Budget-conscious travelers may struggle to find affordable options
Most people planning a trip to Iceland expect to pay inflated prices for food. We expected this as well, though the prices were still a touch more painful than we were anticipating. Thankfully, our kids eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, but those came at a high cost.
An apple or an orange at local grocery stores was double the price we would normally pay for one in the U.S. Items like grapes and fresh berries were even more expensive.
However, we discovered one way you can trim costs on everyday essentials like snacks and bottled water: Costco. If you have a Costco membership, you can stock up at the Reykjavik location without spending a fortune. We grabbed bottled water, fruit and granola bars to take with us on the road as we explored more remote parts of the country.
For meals at sit-down restaurants, prepare for sticker shock. Even grabbing breakfast at a simple American- and British-themed diner we found in Hofn set us back almost $100 for our family of four.
Once you get past breakfast, all bets are off, so budget accordingly.
Related: How to get to Iceland using points and miles
The midnight sun is great for sightseeing but will mess with your kiddos
If you travel to Iceland in summer, you'll get to experience almost 24 hours of sunshine.
Absent a couple of hours of twilight in the wee hours of the morning, the sun really doesn't set over Iceland during the warmer months. We were initially worried that our hotel rooms wouldn't have good enough shades or curtains to block out the sun, so we made sure to pack eye masks.
Our fears proved unfounded, as most Icelandic hotels have great solutions for dampening the midnight sun, but the perpetual daylight ended up causing another issue.
Because it was light out for so long, our kids never really wanted to stop exploring. Around every corner was another incredible sight to see.
While we didn't mind stretching our sightseeing time at the start of our vacation and eating dinner around 9 p.m. GMT — which was close to the same time we'd eat back at our Virginia home — by the end of our vacation, it was starting to wear on us. Had we been staying much longer, the midnight bedtimes would've undoubtedly hit our kids hard.
Related: 9 reasons you should visit Iceland this summer
Family lodging options are tough to find
Our family of four doesn't sleep in one room and share one bathroom when we're at home, so we naturally look for a little extra space when selecting hotel rooms for our vacations.
In Reykjavik, we were able to find connecting rooms at major chain hotels. However, places outside of Reykjavik were another story.
Chain hotels beyond Reykjavik are hard to come by. Instead, you'll often find smaller accommodation options similar in size to a bed-and-breakfast or a quaint inn. Within those properties, layout choices are generally more limited, so we found ourselves with no option but to sleep in four twin beds in order to keep our family together.
If you're hoping to snag a connecting room, good luck. These are few and far between, so they often cost quite a bit to book. You'll want to put in some time to find what you're looking for if you have particular bedding or lodging options in mind.
Related: One of my favorite hotels in Europe: A review of the Mr. & Mrs. Smith Kvosin Hotel in Reykjavik
It's not as crowded as you might think
Even with the country's popularity, we rarely found ourselves feeling like it was overrun by tourists.
Sure, there are tour buses that overwhelm some of the most popular destinations from time to time, but we rarely encountered these during our trip. Maybe this was because of the plethora of areas to explore, making it easy to avoid crowds.
While we did see tons of tour buses as we explored well-known spots like the Ring Road, we found it easy to escape the hordes of tourists by venturing just beyond the busy areas. For example, we found that the best place to see puffins was not the main spot tourists frequent, but rather lesser-known Borgarfjörður eystri, a fjord near Bakkagerði on the east coast.
Related: Volcanic activity in Iceland: 6 things you should know before getting too close
Driving can be expensive — if you don't pay careful attention to local rules
Apparently, I didn't do enough research about driving around Iceland, as I was hit with a number of fines from our trip.
I naively thought that the innocent-looking blue signs with an old-fashioned camera pictured indicated places where you could take roadside photos of landmarks. I discovered a bit too late that these signs actually signaled the presence of speed cameras.
Shortly after we returned home from our trip, I received an updated invoice for our rental car from Hertz showing a 4,000 Icelandic krona (about $28) charge labeled "ADM SPEED." About two weeks later, I was sent an email with a grainy picture of our car and a demand for more than 50,000 Icelandic krona (or roughly $354). (I was offered a decent discount if I paid within 14 days).
Once I realized that the speeding ticket was legitimate, I inquired about options for reducing the charge. While I could be eligible for a discount if I paid within 14 days of receiving the ticket, I was told there was no negotiating the fine, so I accepted my fate. Because there was no way to pay online, I had to wire money to settle the ticket.
The speeding ticket was a tough hit to take given we'd also received a ticket for inadvertently parking in a no-parking zone while stopping for lunch in Akureyri one day. Normally, you'd need to pay parking tickets in person at a local courthouse, but fortunately, our use of a rental car meant we'd pay it through Hertz.
Between the parking ticket, which was nearly double the $20 ticket charge due to an administrative fee from Hertz, and the speeding ticket and associated Hertz fee for it, we ended up spending an extra $420-plus driving around the country.
Related: Iceland trip-planning from A to Z: Glaciers, geothermal spas and lava caves
There was plenty for us to learn in Iceland, with some surprises that were more financially painful than others.
We came away with the impression of a country that cares deeply about the natural beauty found around every turn. Surprisingly, some of our best memories were of places we didn't even discover in our research prior to arriving in Iceland.
Regardless of what you decide to see and do, one thing is clear: It's really hard to have a bad time in Iceland. There's just so much to experience and marvel at.
Although you'll come across some unexpected quirks when you visit, they do little to diminish the appeal of the beautiful country. As long as you do your research, adjust your expectations and arrive prepared with some additional cash, odds are you'll love checking out this bucket list-worthy destination.