Traveling to Iceland during the coronavirus pandemic — the complete guide
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Last week, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland, as a vaccinated traveler with an American passport.
The country briefly opened to tourists in late March. Then, in response to a growing number of coronavirus cases, paused entry again. That said, the country plans to reopen to tourists on April 6.
So in other words: a trip to Iceland is likely possible for vaccinated Americans in the coming weeks. This is a huge deal as most European countries have remained closed throughout the pandemic, making Iceland one of a few possible European options for a spring vacation.
But before you book a ticket, you should be aware of the current situation in Iceland. This includes what you need to show for entry at the Iceland border and when checking in to a hotel, restrictions on what’s currently allowed to be open in the country and how to get a COVID test before you return back to the U.S.
These guidelines change frequently and the country is likely to open up more as vaccines are distributed, but if you’re planning a trip in April or May, chances are you’ll still be subject to some restrictions.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the current situation in Iceland and what I experienced on my recent trip. You can use this to help decide if a trip to Iceland is right for you during the coronavirus pandemic. There’s also information on how to get a COVID-19 test in Iceland — something that’s required for Americans returning home from abroad.
Let’s get started!
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Iceland entry requirements for Americans
Iceland is currently planning on reopening to Americans on Apr. 6, 2021. Eligible travelers include those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who can prove that they’ve already recovered from the virus. You’ll need proof of vaccination or prior infection to show the border agent upon arrival in Iceland and when checking into your hotel. Having these documents also lets you skip the mandatory testing and quarantine imposed on other travelers.
Required documents for entry
At this time, Iceland is recognizing four vaccines for entry. These include the three vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. — here’s the full list:
- Janssen (Johnson & Johnson)
You must bring your CDC-issued vaccination card with you to the border. Your card must have the following information:
- First name and last name
- Date of birth
- Name of the vaccinated disease (COVID-19)
- Where and when the vaccinations took place
- List of the number of doses required to complete
- Information on the issuer of the certificate
- Name of the vaccine
- Manufacturer of vaccine and batch number
- Written in Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, English or French
Alternatively, those who’ve recovered from COVID-19 can skip quarantine with the proper documentation. According to the Icelandic government’s COVID-19 website, you can skip quarantine if you bring a positive PCR test taken 14+ days ago or if you have a positive antibody test. Your documentation must include the following:
- First and last names
- Date of birth
- When the test took place
- Where the test took place
- Name of testing facility
- Telephone number of testing facility
- Type of test (PCR test or antibody)
- Test result (positive PCR test or proof of the presence of antibodies)
- Written in Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, English or French
Thankfully, the CDC vaccine card and most COVID PCR and antibody tests have this information by default. If for some reason yours doesn’t, contact your vaccination site or healthcare provider and see if it’s possible to have your documentation re-issued. Otherwise, you could be forced to quarantine or be turned away at the border.
What to expect at the Iceland border
I wrote a full article on my experience at the Iceland border at Keflavik airport, but here’s the recap. After I deplaned, I went to a pre-border arrivals line and was asked by an agent if I was already vaccinated. When I said yes, I was told to walk to the immigration counter. After waiting for a few minutes, I showed my passport and vaccine card to the border control agent who looked over the card and asked me a few questions. Not completely satisfied, she talked with another agent, asked me more questions and then finally scanned my passport and let me through the border. The process was a bit disorganized and there were long lines, but I made it through without issue.
Getting to (and around) Iceland
One of the hardest parts about traveling to Iceland during the pandemic is actually getting there. Flights to Iceland were cut during the pandemic, and Iceland’s popular budget carrier WOW Air went out of business in 2019. At the time of writing this article, Icelandair — the flag carrier of Iceland — is only operating twice-weekly flights from Boston (BOS) to Reykjavik (KEF), which is how I got to Iceland.
So with that in mind, if you’re traveling immediately, you’ll either need to live in Boston or position yourself there in order to travel. I live in New York City, so I booked a Delta Shuttle flight to and from Boston to connect to my Icelandair flight. The total cost of my round-trip Icelandair flight from Boston to Reykjavik (KEF) was just under $630 in standard economy class.
Flight options are slowly increasing
Thankfully, Icelandair is resuming service to many of its U.S. destinations over the coming months, and fares are reasonable. For example, I found this round-trip ticket from New York-JFK to Reykjavik (KEF) for just $417 in basic economy in mid-May. Business-class tickets on the same day cost $1,706 round-trip.
We will see Icelandair restart service to the following U.S. cities this April:
- Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
- Denver (DEN)
- Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP)
- Newark (EWR)
- New York-JFK
- Orlando (MCO)
- Seattle (SEA)
- Washington-Dulles (IAD)
Other U.S. airlines are restarting service to Iceland this spring too. Delta Air Lines will restart daily service from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and New York-JFK on May 27 and May 1 respectively. We’ll also see Delta start Boston to Reykjavik on May 20, giving Icelandair a new competitor on the route.
These tickets can be booked with Delta SkyMiles, too. The program prices awards dynamically, but I’m finding round-trip award tickets from 54,000 SkyMiles in Main Cabin economy this June.
United Airlines will also restart service from Newark to Reykjavik on June 4. At the time of writing, it hasn’t scheduled service to Iceland from its other hubs.
United charges 60,000 MileagePlus miles for a round-trip economy class award this June.
These are all great options for flying to Iceland and show that airlines are optimistic about Iceland becoming a travel hotspot for Americans. We’d love to see American Airlines also restart service to the island as it previously operated flights from Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) to Reykjavik.
Public transit is operating as usual (with one exception)
One of the not-so-fun parts of landing in Reyjkavik is that the international airport is actually located 45 minutes away in the town of Keflavík. Taxis from the airport to the city can be quite expensive, so your best option is to take the Flybus. This is a private bus company that operates — during normal times — frequent bus service from the airport to the Reyjkavik bus terminal for roughly $26 one-way.
Unfortunately, the service is running on a reduced schedule through the pandemic. Further, it’s only operating from the airport to Reykjavik and not making the return trip. You’ll need to take the local bus service — Strætó — in order to return to the airport if you’re not taking a taxi or renting a car. Bus 55 runs from Reykjavik to the airport and costs $15 after currency conversion. You can buy tickets in the Strætó mobile app.
Just note that bus 55 doesn’t run from Reykjavik to the airport every day. I took the bus on a Sunday morning and needed to take bus 1 out of the city to connect to bus 55 at a terminal in the Reyjavik suburbs. The journey was easy enough but took longer than the Flybus due to extra stops along the route.
Reykjavik is very walkable, but you can use Strætó buses to get around quickly. Local tickets cost roughly $4 after currency conversion and can be purchased through the Strætó mobile app. There are also buses that can take you around Iceland from Reykjavik, though these will cost more money. I didn’t have any issues with the buses during my trip.
You can rent a car without issue
Rental cars are also operating as normal in Iceland during the pandemic. You can rent cars at the airport or at rental locations in Reykjavik. Major rental companies like Europcar, Enterprise, Hertz and Payless operate in Iceland, so shop around to find the best price. Having a rental car is a huge help if you plan to drive around Iceland to go on hikes, see waterfalls and go on other nature experiences.
Rentals aren’t horribly expensive when you book in advance. For example, a week-long economy car rental costs roughly $347 with Hertz in mid-June. Of course, make sure to pay with a credit card that offers a rental car damage waiver so you’re not on the hook for paying damages if the car is stolen or damaged.
While U.S. driver’s licenses are accepted in Iceland, make sure to read up on the requirements for renting a car before you book.
What’s open in Iceland
Since I was traveling for work, I spent most of my time in Reyjkavik but did take a bus out of the city one day. Most things were open on my first night in Reykjavik — even bars. However, the government imposed new restrictions the day after I landed, which shuttered things like bars, swimming pools, gyms and schools. These closures are expected to last for a few weeks and may be lifted if the coronavirus spread is slowed in Iceland.
Many things remained open though, and I still had a great time on my visit. Here’s a quick look at what to expect.
Dining in Reykjavik
I’m a foodie, so checking out Reykjavik’s top eateries was at the top of my list. Thankfully, restaurants were still allowed to be open under the new restrictions but had to close by 10 pm. Make sure to arrive earlier than 10 though — restaurants must stop admitting new customers at 9 pm. During my stay, I ate at plenty of interesting restaurants, with two of my favorites being Food Cellar and the Frederiksen Ale House.
One of my favorite meals was the Icelandic Meat Soup at Frederiksen Ale House — I highly recommend it if you’re in the area!
Iceland is also known for its famous hot dog stands. You can find these all over the country, and grab a cheap (and delicious) hot dog to go. These were all open during my visit and are a great way to get a quick snack if you miss the 9 pm cutoff for restaurants. I highly recommend trying an Icelandic hot dog — they’re delicious and — in my mind — are only beat by Chicago-style dogs.
Many bars remain open for table seating too. If you’re into craft beer, make sure to sample some of Iceland’s local breweries like Einstök, Egils and Borg Brugghús. You can find these ales at Frederiksen Ale House and other bars including Microbar and Aldamót Bar. Keep an eye out for happy hour deals as alcohol in Iceland is far from cheap.
Those working while in Iceland will be pleased to know that coffee shops are open and have indoor seating, fast Wi-Fi and power outlets. I spent plenty of time at cafes during my stay and was a huge fan of Reykjavik Roasters, Kaktus Espressobar and Te & Kaffi. I’m a self-proclaimed espresso nerd and was blown away by each coffee shop; if you’re a coffee fan make sure to check them out.
You’re required to leave your name and phone number at the entrance to all dining establishments for contact tracing. Some places also had temperature checks at the entrance, so it’s a very similar experience to dining in New York City during the pandemic.
Natural parks, volcanos and outdoor activities
One nice thing about Iceland is that, outside of Reykjavik, most of your activities will be outside. Whether that’s hiking, camping or white water rafting, you’re able to do these things without going inside. Hiking trails and most other outdoor activities are open without major restrictions. Plus, you can even visit the Fagradalsfjall volcano that’s currently erupting (as long as it’s safe).
Outdoor tours of Reykjavik and other tourist centers are running, too. You can use the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal to pay for these with your points, so do some research and see which is best for your travel style.
Note, though, that spas and swimming pools are currently closed due to the most recent COVID restrictions. This means spots such as the famous Blue Lagoon spa are currently closed until April 16, 2021. As a rule of thumb, make sure to check if the attraction you’re hoping to visit is open before you arrive.
Museums and cultural sights
Most museums have remained open in Reyjkavik and the rest of Iceland, but hours may be reduced. For example, the Árbær Open Air Museum is only open between 1 pm and 5 pm on all days. Again, make sure to check with the museum before you visit.
Reykjavik during the COVID-19 pandemic
Beyond things to do, there are a few things to keep in mind when in the city of Reykjavik. Here’s a quick overview of things you might want to know.
Mask compliance is enforced
Yes, you need to wear a mask in Reykjavik.
You’re required to wear a mask whenever you’re inside a restaurant, shop or other establishment. That said, you can take your mask off when eating, drinking or seated at a restaurant. I found that mask compliance was enforced at these indoor settings. At the same time, I didn’t see people wearing masks outside.
My experience checking-in to a hotel
One quick word about hotels. When you check-in, you’re required to show proof of vaccination, prior infection or completed quarantine. I stayed at three different hotels and each wanted to see my CDC-issued vaccination card. One of the hotels made a copy of it, while others simply wanted to see it. This leads me to believe that this is a requirement for check-in.
My hotel experiences were largely positive during my time in Iceland. Each hotel was clean and modern, and the staff was great. Housekeeping was standard at each hotel too — something that can’t be said for most U.S. hotels during the pandemic. You can notify the front desk if you’d rather not have housekeeping during your stay.
Getting a COVID test in Reykjavik
At press time, all travelers heading to the U.S. are required to have a negative COVID-19 test in order to check-in to their flight. Unfortunately, this includes travelers who are vaccinated, so you’ll need to budget time and money for a COVID test during your trip.
Thankfully, the testing process was extremely easy.
I made my appointment for a COVID test in Reykjavik using this form on the Iceland COVID website. You can schedule next-day appointments, and all are administered in Reykjavik (unless otherwise noted). You’re prompted to pre-pay for the COVID-19 PCR test ($56 after conversion) and are emailed a barcode to bring to the testing facility.
I showed up to the testing facility 15 minutes before my noon appointment. The line was long but moved quickly. Once inside the testing facility, the desk clerk scanned my barcode and handed me a vial. Then, I was paired with a nurse who took the nose and mouth sample for the PCR test. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.
Make sure to show up early though. After I left the facility, I noticed the line to get into the testing center was over a block long.
The facility promised results in 12 hours, but I had mine back in just under 7 hours. The U.S. requires a test no more than 72 hours old when you check-in to your flight, so you shouldn’t have an issue getting your results back in time.
I had an incredible time in Iceland and am excited to return in the near future. Once the borders reopen on April 6, I expect Iceland to be a huge destination for American tourists; it’s close to North America and is one of the first major European countries to reopen its borders. So once you’re vaccinated, start planning a trip if you’re interested.
Feature photo by Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock
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