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Iceland - Health and safety
Happily, you do not need any immunisations to travel in Iceland (although it is advisable to be up to date with all UK recommended vaccines, including MMR and DTP). Even better, because of the climate, there are very few bacteria in the air. Also, the water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world. Drink as much as you like, but only out of clean sources. The higher up you are, the safer it is. Mountain waterfalls, glaciers, streams, and cold springs are optimal. Otherwise, health concerns for travellers in Iceland are minimal.
Health care in Iceland is of superb quality, so there is nothing to fear. Large towns have hospitals and smaller villages have health clinics. In any emergency situation, dial 112 and you will get immediate help. Most medical professionals speak very good English and most foreigners find that they receive better care in Iceland than they would back home.
Iceland and Britain have a reciprocal health agreement, so all UK citizens should travel with their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which is valid for care in Iceland. Non-EU/EEA citizens must pay at the time a service is rendered. Obviously, if your health insurance does not cover you outside your own country, then travellers’ insurance is a good idea. The Icelandic Apótek is easily spotted for the green cross, typically open 09.00–17.00 and later in Reykjavík. A breadth of pharmaceutical needs is covered, and most shops carry everything a traveller needs: contact-lens solution, first-aid materials, sunscreens, moisturisers, etc.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Iceland is the safest country on earth – it is highly unlikely that you will get pickpocketed, kidnapped, caught up in a coup, attacked or contract malaria. However, Iceland is also one of the most dangerous places on earth, with a possible threat of volcanic eruption, earthquakes, avalanche, glacier outbursts, tidal waves, blizzards, and other treacherous weather conditions. Expect nothing, but be prepared for anything.
The number-one concern for foreign travellers is road safety. All too often, foreigners assume (wrongly) that driving in Iceland is the same as anywhere else. Drive very carefully and take extra precautions. Never speed, and always remain alert, obey signs and carry plenty of fuel.
Weather is another root cause of safety concerns. Icelandic weather is unpredictable and can be highly problematic. Icelanders cope by going with the flow and never testing the limits. The first rule is to check the weather (www.vedur.is) and the second is to never take the wind for granted. Hurricane-force gusts are serious business that can blow cars off the road and make travel impossible. Add a random bout of rain, sleet, or snow and it’s not a pretty picture. If anyone warns you not to go out, then don’t.
The same thing that makes Iceland beautiful (isolated, uninhabited landscapes) can also be hazardous. The ‘middle of nowhere’ is a good description of much of Iceland – one step off the main road is a step away from civilisation and carries the same potential risks as a hike across the Sahara Desert or a trek in the Himalayas. Iceland’s universal emergency number is 112, emergency huts are available in remote areas, and the Icelandic Search and Rescue (www.icesar.com) can be a vital resource. Still, common sense and emergency preparedness always make for the safest travel.
Trekkers at Landmannalaugar: hiking safety is paramount in Iceland, where sudden bad weather and poor visibility can occur even in summer © Nicram Sabod/Shutterstock
Crime in Iceland is so petty, it’s almost pitiful. Cases of vandalism and public intoxication outnumber theft. The rare violent crime that does take place almost always involves late-night drinking and carousing. Avoid drunk people. Because Iceland is packed full of tourists in summer, thieves may target unassuming foreigners who have let down their guard in a perceivably ‘safe’ situation. If you are a victim of a crime, dial 112 and report it to the police (www.police.is) or Lögreglan. They are always helpful and most speak excellent English.
Iceland is a very progressive country that is light years ahead of most when it comes to women’s rights. Icelanders will be the first to remind you how they elected the first woman president in the world and insist that Icelandic women face little discrimination in their society. For women travellers, Iceland is a place to wander freely and experience nature fully without apprehension or taking special precautions. Even so, the savvy woman traveller should always travel with a good set of ‘street smarts’. Potential threats (injury, theft, intimidation) are just as likely (if not more so) to come from fellow foreign travellers. Take special care in campsites and remote mountain huts where potential lack of protection and sheer isolation might place you in a vulnerable position.
Most hostels or guesthouses with sleeping-bag spaces will offer women-only rooms. Likewise, women should not hitchhike on their own. Potential confusion might also arise within Iceland’s particular club culture, where women often play a dominant role that may lead some men to expect more than you are willing to give. Bar-hopping in the middle of the night (even when it’s light outside) poses the exact same risks. There is safety in numbers, while pairing off with strangers is always a huge risk. For more information, contact the Icelandic Feminist Association (www.feministinn.is) – the largest women’s advocacy organisation in the country. A rape crisis centre inside the national hospital and Stígamót (www.stigamot.is) is the Icelandic non-profit organisation dedicated to survivors of sexual violence.
Not all Icelanders are blonde with blue eyes, but almost all of them are really, really white. For that reason, a variation in skin tone is enough to make you stand out. In general, Icelanders are open minded, well educated, hospitable, thoughtful and discard the notion of prejudice. Like most Scandinavians, Icelanders are all about cosmopolitanism and equality, which means that racism gets expressed in more subtle tones. Nobody will shout ethnic slurs at you, but you may get the sense that some people are just a little bit unnerved by your presence. That’s not so much the case in Reykjavík, which is now very much a global city, but the remote hinterland may respond differently. A new wave of African refugees, Filipino workers, and other non-European residents has established a foothold in the country, so a tiny twinge of anti-immigrant fervour just might get projected your way. The issue is less about race per se and more about the potential for a less-Icelandic Iceland. You might get stared at a lot, and some kids might even run up to rub your skin, but most people will treat you fairly. To break any tension, say something in Icelandic.
Travellers with disabilities
Travellers with disabilities will find Iceland to be a place that cares about giving all people the right to experience the country fully. There is a very real and sincere push to make the entire travel industry wheelchair-friendly, and in principle, Icelandic law grants disabled travellers equal-opportunity access to most public activities (swimming pools, museums, etc). This includes the latest technology to assist those with visual and hearing impairments. For more information on services available to deaf travellers, contact the Icelandic Association of the Deaf (Félag Hreynarlausra; tel: 561 3560; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.deaf.is). Icelandic sign language is interesting in that it derives from Danish and is therefore quite different from spoken Icelandic – interpretation services are available at the association.
Likewise, the Icelandic Association of the Blind (Blindrafélagið; tel: 525 0000; email: email@example.com; www.blind.is) can help arrange for an appropriate guide for visually impaired travellers. A great online resource is the Icelandic equal rights organisation Sjálfsbjörg (www.sjalfsbjorg.is), which provides updated coverage on travel topics for less-mobile people and also offers accessible rooms in Reykjavík. A US-based operator that visits Iceland frequently is Lucky Mindy Adventures (tel: +1 877 291 1053; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.luckymindy.com). Mindy Desens, who runs the company, is a fount of knowledge on access in Iceland.
By law, all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gendered persons are equal and protected from discrimination. For more than a decade, same-sex couples have been allowed to marry and adopt children. Icelanders are very accepting of GLBT persons as a minority group, but the numbers of GLBT individuals in Iceland are so few (per capita) that there is no prominent gay subculture. For example, Reykjavík’s gay pride festivities (www.gaypride.is) attract a predominantly heterosexual crowd that just like a good party. The political issue is such a non-issue that there is no need to sequester anyone for the sake of solidarity.
Similarly, there is no gay ‘scene’ in Iceland. Reykjavík boasts a single official gay bar and a few other noted clubs – though their status of ‘gayness’ is in constant flux. The best resource for tapping into Iceland’s gay community is the gay rights organisation Samtökin 78 (www.samtokin78.is), which hosts a weekly gathering in its upstairs lounge/library. In general, GLBT travellers should face no ill will or difficulty. Booking a room as a same-sex couple is hardly an issue, and there is no need to hide the fact that you are a couple. Iceland being Scandinavia, public displays of affection are frowned upon, regardless of gender and orientation. For more information, check www.gayice.is.
Travelling with children
Children rule supreme in this Scandinavian welfare state, which leaves you little reason to leave the kids back home. Despite Iceland’s high prices, nearly every service (transport, museums, shows, tours, accommodation, etc) offers at least a 50% discount to children under the age of 16 and, more often than not, young kids get in free. The potential cost should be secondary to the experience that awaits. Iceland offers amazing adventures and incredible learning opportunities – it is very hard to be bored.
In general, Iceland is a very safe place for children – one could argue that young Icelanders enjoy more freedoms than do their counterparts in other European countries. Come summer, children are allowed to stay out way past their bedtime to play in the midnight sun. They also get fed a good deal of ice cream and sweets. Other times you may witness the very Scandinavian practice of mothers and fathers parking baby carriages (with baby) outside a shop. Instead of fearing the bogeyman, caution is necessary when dealing with Iceland’s challenging terrain and unpredictable weather. So much of the volcanic landscape is fun (and safe) to climb on, but let common sense guide you. In remote areas, do not let children wander unattended. Take extra precautions around high cliffs, areas of geothermal and volcanic activity, and around bodies of water. On boats, all children should always wear life jackets, even if they are strong swimmers. Certain coastal towns enforce the rule that young children must wear life jackets on land when they are near the harbour or shore (signs will be posted).
Come summer, children are allowed to stay out way past their bedtime to play in the midnight sun.
Iceland’s universal health care is of the highest quality, perhaps better than what your children get back home. That said, travellers of any age should be covered by sound medical insurance. In Iceland, your kids won’t catch malaria, but they can catch a nasty cold in the middle of July. The key to keeping kids happy is keeping them warm and dry. Along with a waterproof jacket or poncho, pack a few extra pairs of dry socks, a sweater, some mittens and a woolly hat – even in the summer. Packing a general children’s antihistamine is another good idea, especially if your child is susceptible to allergies. Some parents also like to take along motion-sickness tablets or patches to prevent nausea in small planes, boat rides, or long trips in a car or bus. Extra plasters take care of scraped hands and knees in a jiffy.
Most restaurants will offer a children’s menu or at least one children’s dish, although these tend to be ‘junk’ food (hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, etc). If a child cannot be persuaded to eat ‘icky’ fish, then hotel breakfasts can sometimes come to the rescue. Carrot sticks are also easy to buy or make and may counter the ill effects of a holiday diet. Baby formula, baby food, and nappies are all readily available in any supermarket and sometimes even at petrol stations.