The Beginning

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Now if you are reading this, my guess is you chanced upon this blog while trawling the internet for information on your trip to Iceland.

Before you continue making plans, my advice for you would be to reconsider again.

Because you might find yourself suffering from the worst post-holiday syndrome upon your return home. You might lose your motivation to work. You might even question the purpose of life itself.

That is simply the magic of Iceland, which inspired me to pen down my memories of my trip a month ago.

The country Iceland left a enormous impact on me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any place that is brimming with such varied forms of landscape, such calm yet wildness at the same time, and such a tightly-knit, unique closed community of people.

To be brutally honest, Iceland wasn’t even on my radar till I chanced upon it by googling “Best Countries to Visit 2015”. *

Nonetheless, once it was decided, a grueling yet enriching 8 months of research followed before we embarked on the journey to the Land of Fire and Ice.

My resources were essentially what you might expect: travel guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Bradt), tripadvisor, and information from the web, mostly personal blogs and Iceland tourism websites.

The first thing that had to be done was to determine the dates and season to visit. I was aware that June to August was the peak period and I really didn’t want to be squeezing with loads of tourists, so I decided on the off-peak periods. I was also pretty clear that I would be tackling the Ring Road since both me and my partner (Pari) wanted to see as many sights as we possibly could.

In the end, we agreed that November would be the month of our visit since the weather wouldn’t be too cold, the roads wouldn’t be too icy, and there was a decent chance of seeing the famed Northern Lights. And that was the start.

Flights

I managed to get a great deal from Singapore Airlines for booking early, paying only SGD$2,555 for return tickets for two, with emergency exit seats for extra leg room during the return leg.

Our connection was Singapore to London via Singapore Air and London to Keflavik via Icelandair.

The Iceland Air tickets cost me SGD$801, and I booked through the US website which bills in US dollars. For reasons unknown to me, it was more expensive when I tried to go through the UK site. I did book these at a slightly higher price, so if you are going in the off peak period, perhaps you can consider holding off the booking and monitoring the prices as you go along (the reverse for summer I think-book everything as early as possible)

Besides Icelandair, budget airlines Wow and Easyjet both fly to Keflavik also, and some other international airlines, though their frequencies may be more limited compared to Iceland Air.

Driving & Car Rental

This was probably the most difficult decision I had to make because on the official Iceland tripadvisor forum:

  1. 90% advised against driving in winter
  2. 70% recommended a 4×4 or AWD
  3. 50% had bad experiences with car rental companies in Iceland
– all statistics are based on my own observations on the forum posts –

The first point was a major problem for me initially because I had zero winter and left-hand driving experience. My first post on the forum had several members and “destination experts” advising me against driving.

While I do agree with some of the points made, I still think the best way to see Iceland is by driving, because it gives you the maximum flexibility in terms of both time and sights to see. The other option would be to take bus tours, while to a certain extent safer, really limits you in terms of your schedule and what you can do or see.

My advice is to drive slow, don’t take anything for granted, check the weather forecasts, and the road conditions before you set off.

Speed limits are 90km/h on sealed (paved) roads and 80km/h on unsealed ones. However, even on ideal weather conditions, i never allowed myself to go beyond 80km/h and our average speed was often 70km/h and sealed roads and 50-60km/h on unsealed. This was obviously granny driving to most, evident from the annoyed looks we got from overtaking drivers but I didn’t care. Safety was paramount and our main theme for the trip.

The Icelandic people have a wonderfully comprehensive weather (http://en.vedur.is) , road conditions (www.road.is) and safe travel (www.safetravel.is) website and mobile phone apps that allow you to see in real time the weather of any location in Iceland, road conditions and to inform the Iceland safety volunteer corps in case of an emergency.

west1.gif

-sample image from road.is-

The road.is website was the most useful for me, since at any point of time I could easily check whether the road I was embarking on was safe for travel. Fortunately, during my stay, we didn’t experience anything beyond slippery, and we never encountered snow. The only dangerous conditions we experienced on the road were strong winds and fog.  I guess we were pretty fortunate in that sense.

The second issue was the type of car to rent. It seemed that the large majority recommended a SUV, 4×4 or AWD. Frankly I don’t know cars that well, but from my research, if you are driving the Ring Road only most of the time, a normal FWD should suffice. 4×4 are usually for those tackling F Roads, off the beaten tracks that are closed during winter.

Finally, the choice of the car rental company. If you have visited tripadvisor forum you would have seen that the sheer amount of posts on this topic could create a forum by itself.

The horror stories are often the exorbitant fees billed to renters’ credit cards upon return of the car, from gravel damages to volcanic ash destroying the paintwork. The costs apparently were often in the 4 digit range, a hefty sum.

I researched at least 8 companies, but I think Lagoon Car Rental and Blue Car Rental were the most popular in terms of their service and prices, plus their minimal negative reports. In the end, I went with Lagoon because of the more attractive prices, newer cars (2015 fleet versus 2014 for Blue), and Lagoon had the car that I was comfortable driving, a FWD Toyota Auris which I rented during my previous year’s trip in Australia.

I would strongly recommend Lagoon, while even though they are extremely slow in replying emails, their service was top notch, cars were, as I expected, new, and check out wasn’t a hassle. They weren’t pushy in selling their insurance cover (I did take up gravel insurance to be safe), and most importantly, experienced none of the horror stories that I had read about.

Accommodation

Unfortunately, Iceland seemed to cater for the peak season so our options were at times limited for accommodation outside Reykjavik, the capital city.

Icelandic hotels as a whole are pretty basic, but extremely clean and cosy. The drawback is of course, the price.

Other great options were guesthouses or farmstays, but the prices can vary from affordable to hotel like prices as well.

Our best experiences were probably with Airbnb since it gave us plenty of bang for our buck. However, options were limited beyond the cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri.

Staying connected

Getting a decent internet connection was critical because my entire trip hinged on whether google maps was available.

The 3 main providers in Iceland are Siminn, Vodafone and Nova. Most people buy Siminn I think.

The catch was which type of sim card package you should buy and where you can find it. That was the part where I couldn’t find much information on it.

Essentially, Siminn offers 3 different packages, the Starter Package, the Data Package, and the Deluxe Package. You can find more information in the Siminn website: https://www.siminn.is/prepaid/

I was always going for the Data Package since google maps was my priority and this package offered 1GB of data which was unlikely to be used up during the course of any 2 week trip if managed properly. The disadvantage of was that it had no call time, so if I was stranded somewhere in Iceland with a flat tire or any other emergency I would have some issues. The backup plan in this case was to spend a little money to top up to buy minutes which could be done since I had an internet connection, so I went with that.

If you need some call time, the Starter package may suit you since it holds some credit which can be used to buy both data and call time. However, I read somewhere that the those who bought this card typically ran out of credit quickly for some reason once they used it on data.

Siminn prepaid cards can be found in the airport, 10-11 convenience stores, petrol stations, selected bookstores, supermarkets, and even on board Icelandair itself. Though most sell the Starter Package, I was fortunate enough to find the Data Package at the 10-11 store at Baronsstigur, near Fosshotel Baron.

What to bring 

The important things in my packing list that I felt made a difference to my trip:

  1. Waterproof hiking shoes
    • Mine was a Quechua Arpenaz 100 Novadry, bought for less than SGD$50 (including first timer discount). Declathon.sg has got to be one of the best finds I made before the trip, with its wide and affordable range of products. arpenaz-100-novadry-brown.jpg
  2. Raincoat
    • It always seemed to rain when I was there, even though it was usually light and often not lasting more than 15 minutes. I bought mine from Daiso Japan, only SGD$3.00 for both the coat and the trousers.
  3. Towel and swim wear
    • For my sojourns to hot pools and tubs.
  4. Instant noodles
    • For our occasional self cooked meals-you can never take Chinese food out of an Asian!
  5. Credit card
    • Everything was paid for using credit, even for something as small as a hot dog.  More importantly, a card with a pin is necessary especially when you pump petrol, as most of the stations are not manned.
  6. Music
    • Bring along your USB or store all your favorite tunes into your phone because chances are if you are driving, listening to familiar music would make the long drives much more enjoyable (though the drives are never boring because of the beautiful landscapes)
  7. Maps
    • If you are driving the Ring Road, an offline or online map would be necessary even though roads are generally easy to navigate, unless you intend to explore the F-roads or the highlands which in this case I don’t have good advice to give. Most offline maps can be found in gas stations, the tourist office and car rental offices. I relied on google maps which served me well for most part, and my back up was the app maps.me, which is useful if you don’t have an internet connection. Do remember to download the map before you go offline, and a powerbank because it’s a real battery drainer.

What to wear

What to wear.jpg-photos for illustration only (source: google images)-

The temperature in November hovered between -1 to 5 degrees Celsius, so my attire consisted of a warm base layer (Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm), a simple t-shirt or long sleeve shirt as the second layer, a woolly sweater, a fleece, and a wind proof down jacket as the outer shell.

My trusty down jacket was water repellent for a short duration but a waterproof one would probably be the best.

For the bottoms, I had on tights and a pair of jeans usually. As a matter of fact I think I worn two pairs throughout the time I stayed there-no wonder there was a musty smell in the car always!

It might be good to have waterproof pants though, in the event of rain, so you should bring it along if you own a pair or two. I didn’t have any problems with my jeans though.

My partner swears by her winter hat and scarf that she bought for less than SGD$10 combined from e-commerce site taobao (www.taobao.com). So if you have the time and patience, and know a little bit of Chinese, you should consider it for some really vast savings on your winter gear.

The other important item, other than my water proof shoes, was the thick gloves I brought which absolutely saved my life, or at least my fingers. I was amazed by how fast my fingers started to hurt from the cold within a few minutes from being exposed to the cold.

If you can, get those with touch screen properties to reduce the hassle of removing when you are taking pictures.

What to buy

Iceland isn’t a place to do any form of serious shopping, which was fine with me since I’m not that kind of person anyway, and neither was Pari. In any case, you probably picked the wrong destination if you’re thinking of hauling home some Pradas back from your trip.

Still, I think there are several things that are unique to Iceland which I think deserve a mention:

  1. 66° North

    • This is likely the most famous winter wear brand from Iceland, and was first created to protect Icelandic fishermen from the cold. Prices are not cheap, but it’s known for its quality and furthermore, you won’t be able to find it anywhere in Asia.66north-logo-small@2x.jpg
  2. Icelandic Books
    • Icelanders are very well versed in English. As such, you can find several well written books especially on Icelandic people and their culture. You should check out the local bookstores, or the chain store Eymundsson**. I bought “The Little Book of the Icelanders” by Alda Sigmundsdottir.IMG_5641
  3. Icelandic souvenirs
    • I’m not a fan of buying souvenirs when I’m holidaying, since I don’t believe in paying inflated prices for things that I probably wouldn’t use or remember in a few years’ time. But since I have a beautiful nephew and niece, I had to make an exception (in fact several, during my trip). Iceland’s souvenir shops are unique in the sense that you can find something for almost any age, from stuffed toys, to Icelandic wool clothing, chocolates, and other kinds of knick knacks.IMG_4798.JPG
  4. Icelandic dried fish
    • This is something I didn’t buy due to the hefty price (to my regret) since it would be interesting to sample the snack common in Singapore but in another form and flavor. You could buy 10 packs of the local version using the same amount spent on the Icelandic one, but on hindsight, we should have done so. ***index.jpg
      ~Photo Credits (http://www.nordicstore-health.com, google images) ~
  5. Brennivin
    • Considered to be Icelandic’s national spirit of some sort, it’s otherwise known as Black Death and consumed as a shot, somewhat like vodka I would imagine. It’s also commonly drank right after eating the traditional Icelandic fermented shark, Hakarl. It’s also priced pretty attractively, at only 1,199 ISK at the airport Duty Free. Certainly worth buying home either as a souvenir or for your personal consumption.
      IMG_5498
*a coin toss decided between Iceland and The Big Apple
**you can find a Eymundsson at Keflavik Airport departure area, prices are cheaper and you can save a few quid.
***never overrule the small voice in your head that tells you to buy it when you are having second thoughts, especially on holiday.

Next -►Iceland’s Top Ten Must Dos

 

 

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