The pros and cons of Iceland as a travel destination

I hardly need to say that Iceland is a really popular tourist destination. Just about everyone I speak to either REALLY WANTS TO GO or loves to talk about how amazing it was to be there.

20170312_112226-PANO
It’s spectacular.
Since the 1990s, tourism in Iceland has more than quadrupled. Growth like that is easy when you start from basically zero. Prior to the 90s, Iceland had been seen as too far north and too cold to be a major destination. Particularly in the last 4 to 5 years as incomes have risen, people with newly disposable incomes are seeking holiday destinations that are exotic, but accessible, while being economically and politically safe and stable. Iceland fit the bill, with the added bonus of ecotourism attractions like the northern lights and stunning natural scenery.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (let’s call it E14) in 2010 ironically served to increase awareness of Iceland as a tourist destination and resulted in a further boom. I’m sure the use of Iceland as a location for filming Game of Thrones and, I hate to say it, Justin Bieber’s music video, also helped.

IMG_3887
This, believe it or not, is E14. Not the most spectacular volcano I’ve ever seen, but still interesting…
Tourism officials believe Iceland will welcome two million visitors a year by 2020. That’s kind of incredible, as the population of Iceland is less than 350,000.

All of this is really great for Iceland. All the locals I spoke with were overwhelmingly welcoming and helpful, and they spoke about being grateful for the tourism industry which has boosted their economy after slumps in revenue from fishing and mining. The downsides, such as unreachable housing prices, were accepted as inevitable.

So, what is it like?

Well, first let me say it is beautiful. I love to see the beauty in both natural and man-made attractions when I travel and Iceland has plenty of both. Its reputation is well deserved. And as I said above, the locals are friendly, welcoming and helpful. Everyone I met spoke English.

However, as I was saying above, it’s crowded and expensive. The weather is a bit dicey. It’s not the easiest destination for solo travellers on a budget. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not keen on driving in foreign countries and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Who wants that stress when you’re on holiday? Yes, I can drive but I sold my car when I first moved overseas in 2008 and haven’t needed to drive much since then, so I’m pretty out of practice. Iceland drives on the right side of the road, which would be unfamiliar to me. The terrain of course would be unfamiliar, and I’m not used to driving in icy conditions. Driving a hire car would make me nervous as well.

20170312_120304-PANO

Public Buses in Iceland

So I had hoped to be able to make use of public transport options. However, there is no rail service in Iceland and buses don’t go everywhere. Inter-city services are even more limited during the winter months. See www.straeto.is for information on routes, fares and timetables.

You will see that signs at bus stops are not in English. But every time I had to ask for help, people were incredibly happy to be asked and wanted to strike up a conversation and gave me very detailed information. You buy your tickets in cash (the single fare price for adults is 440 ISK, no change given) from the bus driver, and the stops are announced so at least you know when to get off. If you are going to catch more than one bus to get somewhere, ask the driver for a transfer ticket, which is valid for 75 minutes.

There is also a Strætó app that you can use to buy tickets and see timetables in English, which I didn’t find out about until later. It would have been handy, especially as there is free WiFi just about everywhere including on buses.

There is a public bus from Keflavik airport (the largest airport in Iceland) to Reykjavik which can save you a little money rather than paying for an airport transfer. It’s a bit more tourist friendly than the city buses in that you can pay by card on the bus and they will give you change. The cost was 1700 ISK or about 14 euro (airport transfers range from 2500 – 3000 ISK) and it took just over an hour.

What other options are there?

Besides hiring a car and catching public buses, there are a number of coach tour companies. Some offer more independent options to see the country with ‘hop-on, hop-off’ style bus passports (see www.re.is), however these are mainly available during the summer.

As I was there in March, my best option was to join a coach tour.

These are incredibly well-organised and efficient. Each morning dozens of coaches would gather at the main bus station and collect their passengers. Some coach companies left from different locations as well, so I couldn’t even guess how many people we are talking about, but it was a lot and it could easily have been chaos. But it wasn’t. All the companies offered to pick you up from your hotel too, which was convenient and I guess necessary if the weather is bad. The coaches were comfortable and most offered free WiFi and power outlets. The guides were knowledgeable and multi-lingual.

20170311_114037

Every coach tour I took was 100% booked out, and of course that means wherever you go, you will be accompanied by 50+ fellow travellers. Obviously more if your arrival at a destination coincides with other buses. So that’s something to consider. I think that a large part of Iceland’s charm is its wild, vast landscape offering a seclusion and peace as an escape from your daily 9 to 5 job … but you aren’t going to get much of that on a coach tour. Also, the infrastructure just isn’t there to deal with so many visitors at these attractions – expect long queues everywhere you go for food and toilets.

IMG_3844

Complete your experience

Read

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

No, it’s not actually set in Iceland, but it’s set in alternative middle-ages Europe and one of the clans described relate pretty closely to the Vikings and reflect a lot of the history you will hear about if you visit Thingvellir.

Watch

Game of Thrones. From season 2 onwards a lot of episodes feature Icelandic scenery. A lot of the filming locations are in the north, but some were closer to Reykjavik in the south such as the area around Vik and Thingvellir. More on this to come.

Eat

Don’t eat, it’s too expensive.

Listen

I can’t go past Iceland’s own Asgeir with Head in the Snow:

Far up in the north, the nights can be so dark

IMG_3571

 

4 thoughts on “The pros and cons of Iceland as a travel destination

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ha! I don’t know if I’d describe Iceland as crowded! I spent 7 days barely seeing anyone until we hit the golden circle 🙂

  2. Great Post! It’s true everyone kinda wants to go to Iceland, I haven’t been yet but it’s on my bucket list as well 🙂 The pictures look beautiful!

  3. Therie says:

    Iceland totally deserves its name as the land of fire and ice. The landscapes are extraordinary, however I’m a bit disappointed with the cost of expenses, particularly with the food.

Leave a Reply