Iceland is one of the “it” destinations for family travel these days. After years of its appealing mostly to backpackers and solo travelers, families have discovered this varied land of ice and fire, and chances are, someone has told you that you should go. But outside of knowing that it is an out-of-this-world destination with plenty of waterfalls and volcanoes, Iceland doesn’t have the same familiarity that comes with planning a trip to Paris, London or Rome. Instead of famous attractions like the Louvre or the Colosseum, the names of sights in Iceland are long and unfamiliar, a bowl of alphabet soup littered with “foss” and “kull.”
As usual, Ciao Bambino has stayed ahead of the curve: Several of our planners and writers have visited Iceland and spent countless hours researching it. Based on all this knowledge, we are sharing our top tips for family travel to this fascinating country.
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Plan early. Tourism is booming here and the country is expanding its infrastructure to accommodate this increased interest, but there are still a limited number of hotels. During the peak summer season, they can book up six months in advance.
Be prepared to spend. Can you camp and backpack around Iceland? Absolutely. However, those looking to travel in a bit more style will have to pay for it. It goes back to that old economic rule of supply and demand. A simple room with a double bed or two twins will easily be more than $300 per night. Those super Jeep tours are amazing, as they ford rivers and climb glaciers, but they aren’t cheap — expect to pay $1,500 for a private tour. And have you dreamed of flying over a volcano and landing on a glacier? Well, that helicopter tour can easily cost thousands. Even a simple hamburger will run you $15. The moral of the story: Select activities wisely and budget accordingly.
Set the right expectations. Iceland is not littered with 4- and 5-star hotels or Michelin-rated restaurants. Accommodations have come a long way from hostels and campers, but the style tends to be modern and simple (think IKEA).
Be prepared for long car rides. Whether you hire a car and driver, take a bus tour or self-drive, be prepared to spend a lot of time in the car to see even one region of the country. Keep in mind that Iceland is bigger than Ireland and the interior isn’t passable, so you will mostly stick to the Ring Road, a two-lane highway that loops around the island. Along the drives there will be beautiful landscapes, but not much else besides sheep and horses. This means you should bring along snacks and activities and use service areas before you need them.
Getting to Iceland is the easy part. Iceland Air has done a great job promoting its long layover program to entice visitors to explore before moving on to mainland Europe. Now, there are even budget airlines like WOW Air that offer fares as low as $99 each way (not accounting for all the extra fees). Iceland is a short five-to-six hour flight from the East Coast of the United States, and three to four hours from major European capitals. Our clients have enjoyed pairing Iceland with trips to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris.
Don’t be afraid. Iceland is a safe country. While volcanoes may explode from time to time, you don’t have to deal with issues like Zika and the crime rate is very low. Do take basic precautions like having the proper gear, checking weather reports and road conditions, and not venturing into places like glaciers on your own. However, nearly everyone speaks English and, except for tolls, everyone takes credit cards (just make sure you have a chip and know your PIN), so there’s little need to exchange cash. Roads are fairly easy to navigate, but don’t speed: They ticket cars by camera. We learned that the hard way.
Picky eaters beware. Icelandic cuisine is largely based on fish and lamb. Even the famous hot dogs are lamb-based. This can be challenging for picky eaters, but nearly every cafe serves pizza and often hamburgers (they just aren’t very good). Icelandic yogurt is a big hit with kids, and in Reykjavik you can find yummy pastries, crepes and ice cream, plus local specialties like reindeer and puffin. The availability of fresh berries and vegetables is a pleasant surprise; Icelanders have figured out how to harness the country’s geothermal power, and large greenhouses using natural energy dot the landscape.
Pack appropriately. Packing light for a trip to Iceland is challenging, as you need to be prepared for all kinds of weather. If you plan to get out of Reykjavik, bring good waterproof hiking boots, decent rain gear (including rain pants for getting close to waterfalls), a snug hat, gloves and a warm jacket to layer underneath. Luckily, the temperature in Iceland is fairly moderate for a country this close to the Arctic Circle. Summer temperatures average 50 to 55°F, but can get up to the 60s and 70s. In the winter, the average temperature is 32°F in the southern lowlands. Snow, rain and wind are all commonplace.
Choose travel dates wisely. The high season for Iceland is June-August, but Northern Lights only appear from September through April (no guarantees!). However, the summer offers nearly 24 hours of daylight, providing more opportunity to explore without worrying about driving through the countryside in the dark. Hotels and cabins are usually equipped with blackout shades, but a sleep mask helps. Keep tabs on the time in order to get everyone to bed.
Bring your energy. If you envision Iceland as a relaxing escape, take a dip in the famous Blue Lagoon and then move on. This is a destination for active families who like the outdoors. There are a few museums and plenty of geothermally heated pools and spas, but the main attractions involve getting out into the country and exploring. Families can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, biking, quad or buggy riding, snowmobiling, ice climbing, snorkeling, whale watching, glacier hiking, dogsledding, rafting and more. Just be sure to check the minimum age, height and weight requirements before getting your heart set on a certain activity. While the good news is that children are often free or half price, sometimes they are just too young.
If you’re thinking of taking a family trip to Iceland … do it! It is a truly memorable experience and perfect for family bonding.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Tamara Gruber.
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