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Iceland - Travel and visas
Icelanders hate bureaucracy as much as the rest of us. Plus, there aren’t enough people in Iceland to man that many desks or warrant that much paper. Even so, they do make a noble attempt at keeping up appearances in the officiousness department. Be honest, straightforward and law-abiding and you won’t get into trouble.
Visas and passports
All travellers must have a valid passport that expires three months after the intended date of departure. Visitors from the UK, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who are travelling on holiday or business for 90 days or less do not require a visa. For longer periods, you must apply for a visa with the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration (www.utl.is). Visas are issued to individuals as tourists, for family visits, official business, commercial business and as students.
Iceland is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means visitors from Schengen countries do not require a passport, and those visitors requiring a visa must apply for a Schengen visa. In countries without an Icelandic embassy or consulate, visa applications are typically accepted at the embassies of Denmark or Norway. For the latest information and for any questions, check out the website for Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.is).
(Photo: The violent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in spring 2010 caused widespread flight disruptions across Europe © VisitSouthIceland, www.south.is)
Clearing Icelandic customs is a breeze compared with most countries, unless you’re an Icelander who goes shopping overseas. The main contraband concern of Iceland is people evading the hefty VAT by bringing in consumer goods from abroad. You can bring as much currency in and out of Iceland as you like, but anything that’s worth a lot of money is a no-no. Because Iceland is so expensive, many people arrive with a large amount of food from home. The official new rule is 3kg of ‘consumable food’ per person not to exceed 13,000ISK (about US$200) in value. The rule tends to be more enforced with travellers arriving by ferry than by air.
All meat, unpasteurised dairy, and raw-egg products will be confiscated. Naturally, all birds and bird products are prohibited, but the old rocks you pick up on the beach are legal souvenirs (just not stalagmites!). Note that Iceland has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, and customs officers use drug-sniffing dogs at all entry points. Travellers bringing cars into the country are exempt from paying duty unless you fail to take the car back out of the country, if you choose to stay beyond three months, or if you get caught selling the car. For additional information, contact the Directorate of Customs (Tollstjórinn; Reykjavík, Tryggvagata 19; tel: 560 0300; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.tollur.is).
Flying to Iceland is the simplest and cheapest part of the journey. Few travellers realise that Icelandair (www.icelandair.com) is the longest-running transatlantic airline still in operation today (since 1937). With Keflavík as its hub, Icelandair services 24 destinations in North America (Boston, Halifax, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC) and Europe (London Heathrow, Glasgow, Manchester, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Helsinki). Flights from North America typically arrive in the early morning, while flights from Europe tend to arrive in the mid afternoon, though increased trips in high season may not follow that pattern. From Europe, the flight is about two–three hours; from the east coast of North America the flight lasts four–five hours.
Every few decades, Iceland reminds the rest of the world that their island country is in fact a highly active volcanic hotspot. In spring 2010, that reminder was called Eyjafjallajökull.
Iceland’s position in the middle of transatlantic routes started a trend of stopping over en route between Europe and North America. The airline typically offered bargain tickets to passengers crossing the entire ocean, while flights to and from Iceland were much more costly. Thankfully, that logic is changing now as more travellers focus solely on Iceland as their destination. One-way tickets are now available and prices are becoming even more competitive. For many, the seasonal change in prices is a deciding factor when they travel to Iceland.
Nothing compares to catching your first glimpse of Iceland from the sea. The first Viking to spot Iceland sailed in to the East Fjords, and today the tradition continues. Smyril Line (Broncksgata 37; Tórshavn, Faroe Islands; tel: +298 345 900; email: email@example.com; www.smyril-line.fo) is the Faroese shipping company that operates the ferry Norröna with a service to Iceland.
Most travellers go by boat in order to bring their own caravan, car, 4x4, motorcycle, or bicycle. Taking your own vehicle to Iceland can save you a pile of money. Paying for passage and cabin space on a ferry, even with the option of an extra stay in the Faroe Islands, is still cheaper than renting something in Iceland.
More importantly, travelling by ship is far more fun and exciting than flying. The gigantic Norröna feels more like a pleasure cruise than a ferry, and it’s a great place to meet fellow travellers. North Link Ferries (Kiln Corner, Ayre Rd, Kirkwall KW15 1QX, Orkney; tel: 0845 600 0449; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.northlinkferries.co.uk) sails once a day between Aberdeen, Scotland and Lerwick (about 12 hours) in the Shetland Islands. This is typically an overnight ferry with a midnight stop in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands. From Lerwick, passengers catch the Norröna from Lerwick to Tórshavn and then on to Seyðisfjörður. Outside the high summer season (especially for those in the south of Britain or western Europe), it’s just as easy to drive to Denmark (via the Chunnel) and catch the ferry from Hanstholm. Plus, the winter fares are incredibly cheap.
Cruise lines are now so popular in Iceland that in summer, the main ports of call (Reykjavík, Akureyri, and Ísafjörður) have a new ship almost every day. Rarely is Iceland offered as a cruise destination in its own right, combined instead with Norway, Greenland, or the Arctic in general. Some cruises do allow for a pickup or drop-off in the country to further your journey on your own, so it is quite possible to travel to and from Iceland via cruise ship.
Sailing on your own to Iceland is a special adventure and I truly admire all the salty sailors who steer their own boats northward. There’s a worldwide secret society of dedicated arctic sailing enthusiasts (fetishists?) and I won’t even try to pretend to know what they know. If you are considering a trip north, make sure you’ve got the right kind of boat that can handle what you might encounter, and make sure you have an experienced crew. The one sure thing is that you always have wind. For more information, contact the Icelandic Sailing Association (www.silsport.is), or the major ports of call: Akureyri (www.port.is), Reykjavík (www.faxafloahafnir.is), Ísafjörður (www.isafjordur.is), Grundarfjörður (www.grundarfjordur.is), and the Westmann Islands (www.vestmannaeyjar.is).
Nothing compares to catching your first glimpse of Iceland from the sea.
It is not well advertised, but it is quite possible to travel to and from Iceland by freighter on the national shipping line Eimskip (Reykjavík, Korngörðum 2; tel: 525 7000; email: email@example.com; www.eimskip.com). Travellers are only granted passage in summer (April–October) and can embark from the ports of Rotterdam or Hamburg. It takes more than a week to get to Iceland as you service several ports of call in Denmark and the Faroe Islands. The trip from Reykjavík to Rotterdam is more direct and takes about three days. Charges are calculated based on the number of days spent on the ship. Book passage through the travel agent Iceland Travel (Skútuvogur 13A; tel: 585 4270; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.icelandtravel.is).
Flying is the very best way to see Iceland’s marvellous landscapes. With so few roads and such massive wilderness, a flight can show you what you cannot see on your own (so always request a window seat). Planes are also quick and convenient, allowing you to drop down into the remotest places and saving you days of driving. The downside to air travel is that flight schedules are susceptible to Icelandic weather. Fog, wind, rain, or storm can delay or cancel a flight with little notice. If you’re patient and make flexible plans, then there’s no problem, but flight mishaps can wreak havoc on tightly packed itineraries. Flying around Iceland is also relatively inexpensive, with most flights costing US$90–120 each way. Backpackers are surprised to find out that flying across Iceland by air can be cheaper than taking the bus. Check current schedules as they change from winter to summer, and always book tickets in advance (purchase them online or by phone).
Reykjavík City Airport is the national hub for all domestic flights. Air Iceland (tel: 570 3030; email: email@example.com; www.airiceland.is) is the country’s main airline, with regular flights between Reykjavík and Ísafjörður, Egilsstaðir, the Westmann Islands, and Akureyri, and from Akureyri to Grímsey, Thórshöfn, and Vopnafjörður. Air Iceland also flies to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as well as operating a number of ‘action-packed day tours’ from Reykjavík. These are short, intense excursions which normally entail a one–two-hour flight to a distant corner of Iceland and a day of activities such as kayaking, bird- and whale-watching, or touring natural reserves.
If your time is limited, these are a great experience. They are pricey though (around US$500–600), and if your time is not limited, then you should simply buy the flight and take your time enjoying the unhurried destination. By the way, the logo on the tail of Air Iceland’s planes is not Pegasus, but Sleipnir, Oðin’s eight-legged flying steed. Eagle Air (tel: 562 4200; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.eagleair.is) is another Icelandic airline that also flies out of Reykjavík City Airport. Because it services a number of Iceland’s secondary towns and remotest climes (like Höfn, Sauðárkrókur, and Bíldudalur and Gjögur in the West Fjords), it has a strong reputation among outdoorsmen and trekkers. It also offers fantastic sightseeing flights right out of Reykjavík into the wildest parts of Iceland.
Driving in Iceland offers total freedom and is one of the most extensive means of travel in the country. Iceland has a car culture, so travellers who aren’t driving often feel stranded or limited. So much of what there is to see and do in Iceland is only accessible on wheels, and without a car, travellers must resort to scanty ‘public transport’ and overpriced tour operators. Having a car is just easier, and in the long run, less expensive. For example, for what it costs two people to take a fixed coach excursion of the Golden Circle, those same two travellers could rent a car in Reykjavík with a full tank of fuel, visit the exact same route and see a lot more in the process. All too often, people who think they cannot afford to hire a car will end up spending a lot more money on day trips from Reykjavík than the price of having a car for the same time period.
Driving allows more flexible to get off the beaten track and smell the flowers, such as these lupin at Hjörleifshösdi near Vík © VisitSouthIceland, www.south.is
Driving here is totally different from driving in most countries, so prepare yourself and always be super careful. Route 1 is the omniscient circuit that goes all the way around the country and is commonly referred to as the ring road or hringvegur. The route was only completed in 1974, is 1,339km in length and is thereby Iceland’s largest and longest ‘highway’. Driving the ring road is a wonderful way to enjoy the diversity of Iceland’s landscapes, but it is not the only way. Having a car in Iceland does not require a race around the ring road, nor does a complete circumnavigation qualify as ‘seeing all of Iceland’. The country has many roads to explore and many places to explore without any roads. Where you go and what you see depends largely on what it is that you are driving.
In principle, renting a car in Iceland is easy and convenient and highly recommended, but there are a few things you should know. Remember what a wise lawyer once said: ‘The big print giveth, the small print taketh away.’
In case you need a reminder, gas or petrol is offensively expensive in Iceland. The main fuel providers are Esso (www.esso.is) and Shell (www.shell.is), and they both have stations dotted around the ring road. Icelandic petrol stations are often the heart of small communities and stay open late, usually from 07.00 to 23.30. More remote areas follow their own schedules. If you stick to the ring road, fuel options are of no concern; however, travel in remote areas (like the West Fjords) demands some careful fuel planning. On some roads, petrol stations might be located more than 100km apart. As a rule, top up your tank before heading off into an empty space on your map.
If you are travelling in very remote areas (ie: parts of the interior), you should carry extra fuel with you as a precaution. Icelandic law dictates that any extra fuel tanks must be attached to the exterior of the vehicle. Most petrol stations will have a designated area for car cleaning with several jet-powered water hoses and brushes. This is a gratis service and a necessary practice as the Icelandic elements are merciless to cars. At any time of year, mud, gravel, sand, ice, and snow (or an ugly combination of all those things) will build up on the body and wheels. Periodic cleanings make driving safer and protect your car from permanent damage – be sure to clean underneath.
To check road conditions in English, contact the Public Roads Administration (tel: 1777 (toll free), 563 1500; email: email@example.com; www.vegagerdin.is/English). Driving off road in Iceland is illegal and is punished severely (as in arrested). To avoid the police, there are a few more dos and don’ts. Always drive with your headlights on (day or night). Never drink and drive – Iceland has a zero-tolerance policy for drunk-driving. Always wear your seat belt, and again, don’t speed. You don’t want to get a ticket in Iceland.
Iceland boasts the most expensive car rental in the world, the result of a simple mathematical equation: start with a country that’s already pricey, add a responsible socialist government that holds companies liable and makes insurance mandatory, then multiply the enormous risk of renting to non-native drivers in a land renowned for extreme weather and catastrophic events. In principle, renting a car in Iceland is easy and convenient and highly recommended, but there are a few things you should know.
A wise lawyer once said, ‘The big print giveth, the small print taketh away.’ As demanded by Icelandic law, car-rental companies in Iceland offer ‘full insurance’ with each rental, which is only the mandatory third-party insurance. Drivers are even offered extra insurance (Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), etc) for that extra sense of security, but it’s practically worthless. In Iceland, the small print states that insurance does not cover damage caused by ice, snow, water, falling rocks, wind, lava, earthquake… and the list goes on and on, striking out just about everything that damages cars in Iceland (trolls?).
The point is that you are liable for everything except the car as a whole. If you get a flat tyre, you pay for all of it; if a pebble dents your car door, you’ll get tagged with a hefty bill; if saltwater sprays the car whilst being transported on a ferry and corrodes the bumper, you pay. According to this logic, it’s better for you to shove your slightly damaged car over the edge of a cliff than to turn it in with a scratch (except that it’s fraud). On a similar note, a graveyard of totalled vehicles lies behind every car-rental office in Reykjavík. It’s a testament to the downside of their own risk (renting in Iceland) and your need to be a cautious driver.
Now that you know the downside of car rental (cost, liability, headache, etc), here’s why you should still do it. Because other than renting a private plane to take you around the country, driving is the fullest way to experience the beauty of these landscapes. As long as you’re careful and keep your fingers crossed against any volcanic eruptions, you’ll be fine.
In principle, an extensive bus network covers the whole of Iceland. BSÍ (www.bsi.is) is the national bus station in Reykjavík and the starting point for most journeys. There is no national bus line per se, but rather a loose configuration of private bus companies that appear to align their schedules (not unlike the British rail system). That means co-ordinating long-distance trips and complex, multi-day itineraries can be a small headache.
Riding the bus is a great way to meet fellow travellers and to tour the country. It’s also a reliable way for hikers to visit the interior without worrying about a car.
To make it easier, travellers are offered a series of convenient bus ‘passports’ that allow for unlimited transport over a specific period of time (one–four weeks) over a particular region or the whole country. You can also purchase discounted passes like the full circle passport, which allows unlimited summer travel (June–September) on the ring road as long as you keep moving in the same direction (no backtracking). Add-ons include the Kjölur route and the West Fjords. You can also get away without a pass or pre-booked tickets. Hikers and bikers are always flagging down buses for a lift, and the driver will simply charge you for the portion of the trip (they even take credit cards).
Riding the bus is a great way to meet fellow travellers and to tour the country. It’s also a reliable way for hikers to get to and from places like Landmannalaugar, Thórsmörk, and to visit the interior without worrying about a car. If you’re a backpacker with a lot of spare time who wants to roam, then a bus pass can be a good investment. However, before you decide to travel by bus, crunch the numbers and make sure that it’s worth it. Time is money and Icelandic buses are very expensive and not always the most convenient option. For one, you might spend a lot of your time waiting for a bus. If you pair up with fellow travellers, it can often be cheaper to rent a car, and without exaggeration, it is often cheaper to fly between two cities than it is to take the bus. For the latest information on buses, check with the operator Reykjavík Excursions (www.re.is) and the smaller companies such as SBA-Norðurleið (www.sba.is) and Trex (www.trex.is).
One could argue that Icelanders fare better in boats than they do cars. Quoting the Icelandic Coast Guard (‘half our homeland is the sea’), going by boat lets you see the other half of the country. Main ferries include the Westmann Islands, Grímsey, and Breiðafjörður, as well as the boat to Hornstrandir. Smaller boat tours (whale-watching, island excursions) are also widespread.
Rough riders love riding in Iceland, and it’s at the top of the list for extreme motorcycle destinations. It’s definitely a different experience for which you need to be prepared. Group cycle tours are available from the operator Northenduro (tel: 562 6469; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.northenduro.is).
Pedalling around Iceland is a totally thrilling endeavour, which is precisely why thousands of cyclists rush to Iceland every year. The challenge of impossible weather, pain and suffering, and the vast rugged distance – well, if you’re into that sort of thing, Iceland is the place to be. Exposing oneself to the harshest side of Iceland and using your own steam to get through it can be exhilarating. Plus, cyclists can get away with seeing a lot of the country for very little money and this is one of the few places where you’re almost guaranteed NOT to have your bike stolen. Still, Iceland’s not for every cyclist, even the hardest of the hardcore.
Nobody should attempt a bike tour around Iceland without some serious pre-planning. There’s a whole community of serious cyclists who know all the quirks of riding in Iceland and it behoves you to learn from them. Start with the Iceland Mountain Biking Club (Íslenski Fjallahjólaklúbburinn; www.fjallahjolaklubburinn.is/english). Know that this is less of a ride and more of an expedition. Roads are rough and the weather worse.
Most cyclists have a love/hate relationship with Iceland. There will be days when you want to quit; for instance, when you have snow piling up on your hands or when the wind keeps knocking you over. There will be other moments when you feel like the luckiest person alive, with wind pushing you from behind and the most incredible landscape unfolding before you. For those who are up for the challenge, I definitely recommend it.
Icelanders have been exploring their country by horse for the last 1,100 years. Despite modern technology (speedboats, snowmobiles, 4x4s, and planes), nothing compares to getting out in the wilds of Iceland on the back of the resolute Icelandic horse. The animal is such a part of the landscape that some would say that horseback is the only way to go. The fact is that horses can go where no-one else can. That’s why horseriding tours across the interior are ideal.
Riding is such serious business in Iceland that travellers have a wide number of choices. Hundreds of tour operators and farms offer horseriding tours and horse rentals. You do not need to be a pro-rider to go on a tour. Short tours are fine for first-timers, however some of the longer tours (one week or more) are best for those with some riding experience. Probably the most popular and invigorating tour is the cross-country trek along the old Kjölur route. Tour groups normally provide all the gear you need (similar to English riding) – just dress warmly and pack light. Get to know your horses, as most treks bring a whole team of horses, allotting two or three per rider and working them in shifts. Usually, these are all-inclusive deals, with night stays in old schools, mountain huts, or campsites. An all-inclusive week of riding costs around US$1,800 and a short ride can be less than US$50.
(Photo: Horseriding is one of the best ways to see the Icelandic countryside © Mark Vest, VisitWestIceland, www.west.is)
Iceland is one of the easiest countries for travellers to catch a free lift, especially in summer when thousands of tourists are circling the ring road in both directions. Hitching is legal and almost a tradition in the more remote stretches of Iceland. Local youths often avoid the high cost of transportation by hitching, and some backpackers find they can tour the entire country by thumb. This is definitely the case if you stick to the main ring road (Route 1) and other well-travelled routes such as Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes. Otherwise, know that off the beaten path means far fewer lifts. There are roads in Iceland where a whole day can pass without a car going by.
Although the practice is generally safe in Iceland, follow the same precautions you would in other countries. Don’t get into a car with a driver who gives you the creeps and agree on the destination beforehand. To improve your chances of getting picked up, pack light and maintain a clean and well-kempt appearance. Also, be courteous. There’s nothing worse than picking someone up who makes a mess of the car or who starts making demands. Do not abuse the kindness of strangers. Offer to contribute some money for fuel and express gratitude.
Like much of the rest of the world, a yellow-lit sign indicates the taxi is available. If you are on the street searching, the Icelandic for taxi is leigubíll. Regular taxis fit one–four passengers, larger vans fit five–eight. With such high fares, drivers’ unions, and so forth, tipping is not common. Reykjavík’s taxi companies go above and beyond the drive across town, offering taxi tours to destinations like the Blue Lagoon and Snæfellsnes. Taxi tours range from Reykjavík’s noted sights (including Oskjuhlidð and Esja) to the Golden Circle or exotic personal day trips. The price can be staggering (US$1,000 for four people on a single day trip), but the benefit is that someone else is driving, allowing you the freedom to just watch. Almost every taxi company in Iceland offers some kind of tour. To find out more, contact Iceland Taxi (mobile: 892 0501; email: email@example.com; www.icelandtaxi.com).