The 7 secrets of being an awesome traveler in Iceland

There’s a lot of discussion in Iceland right now about how to tackle the ever growing number of visitors in a sustainable way. There are a few things we need to fix such as infrastructure, road conditions and access to toilet facilities to name a couple, and local attitudes but there’s a great deal you can do too. We are all busy discussing these thing among ourselves but no one is including you, the visitor, in the conversation.

When I travel I try to be mindful about these things but it can be hard to know what is the best way to do things in a new country. To make it easier for you I’ve put together these seven secrets of being an awesome traveler in Iceland based on the things I’ve heard come up in conversations during my travels around Iceland this summer.

1) Dare to be different

Bakkafjörður in North-East Iceland

Iceland is a beautiful place and you don’t have to do the Golden Circle or the south shore to experience that. The reason everyone is so focused on South Iceland is not that it’s more beautiful or amazing than other areas in Iceland, it has simply been marketed better. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do the south shore, it’s spectacular, but so are many other areas in Iceland so don’t feel like you are missing out just because you didn’t see Gullfoss and Geysir. The best part about traveling on the road less traveled is the simple fact that it’s less traveled.

2) Buy Local

These cute little guys are available at Ljómalind Farmers Market

These cute little guys are available at Ljómalind Farmers Market

Try if you can to buy local products and use local tour companies and guides. It’s more sustainable and you leave the money you spend in the area you are visiting. Instead of buying a pair of lopi mittens in a tourist shop in Kringlan buy them from the person who knits them at a local farmer’s market like the Ljómalind Farmers Market in Borgarnes. Ljómalind, by the way, is an awesome concept (and a new favorite) where all the products are made by people from the area and the quality of the products and authentication is in the hands of a selection committee that doesn’t let just anything through. You should check them out.

Also, think about splurging on a meal if a town far off the grid has a nice little restaurant instead of shopping for your whole trip in Bónus on your way out of Reykjavík. I know it costs a bit more but by supporting restaurants like that you help make sure that the next time you pass by, having forgot to visit Bónus, there is a restaurant available to fall back on.

3) Only do business with licensed companies

This is what the license badges that the Icelandic tourists board issues look like - look out for these on the businesses homepages (no applicable for the accommodation part though)
This is what the license badges that the Icelandic tourists board issues look like 

There’s a growing problem in Icelandic tourism that people that don’t have the necessary licenses and insurances are selling trips, offering accommodation and renting out cars. This is a problem for many reasons, mainly that it’s against the law, but also because the licensing and the insurances are there to protect you as a consumer. Furthermore, if a company doesn’t have the licensing in order there’s a good chance that they are not taking care of things like paying taxes either and are therefore not contributing to the economy to maintain necessary infrastructure in the country.

If you are not sure whether the company you are doing business with is licensed or not, you can follow these links for information about accommodationtravel agencies and tour operators. It’s also good to simply ask the company about these things because then you put pressure on them to get matters in order if they aren’t already,.

4) Cut out the middle man

OK, this one is a bit complicated because the travel sector is basically an ecosystem of it’s own and at every stage of it there’s someone providing employment, paying taxes and contributing to society in some way but I still want you to give this a thought. Say you have a little guesthouse where the owner, along with a staff member or two, meticulously provides a quality service at a fair price. Then you have a big luxury travel agency that does not only get commission when they sell the service the guesthouse provides but also maneuvers the owner to lower the price even more and then sells the product at a higher price than the guesthouse to the customer. You as a customer end up paying more and the guesthouse gets less. Is this fair?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use travel agencies because they are an important link in the chain and often also provide quality service and offer exposure to the guesthouse that they can’t match on their own but sometimes, just sometimes if at all possible, try cutting out the middle man. Support the little guy , the mamas and the papas, and the person who actually does the work

5) Don’t drive outside designated roads and paths

Off road driving near Keilir - image via Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources

Off road driving near Keilir – image via Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources

One of the reason Iceland is so breathtakingly beautiful is the fact that it’s a relatively young island with a lot of volcanic landscape and some seriously harsh weathers. Vegetation here is really fragile in most places and in many cases a lot of effort has been put into simply keeping the little that grows alive. When you drive outside of designated roads and paths you risk causing permanent damage to an already frail ecosystem.

Check out this brochure made by the Environment Agency of Iceland about off-road driving.

6) Don’t pee and poop all over the place

I feel kind of ridiculous even putting this here but apparently it’s been a problem this summer that travelers are doing their business all over the place. You probably haven’t noticed this because obviously the locals in the area don’t want this mess around so they’ve been trying to clean things up. I’ve heard some nasty stories though.

Just use toilets, please. Enough said..

7) Listen to local advice

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You know how often I read about travelers that get themselves into trouble, or worse get hurt or die, because they don’t listen to local advice? Often!

It doesn’t matter how much you have traveled, in Iceland or in other places, the locals will always know more about road conditions, the weather and special circumstances than you will. Even though we have awesome rescue squads there’s no reason to risk their lives with unnecessary rescue missions that could have been easily avoided.

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10 thoughts on “The 7 secrets of being an awesome traveler in Iceland

  1. jenny king

    I have not enjoyed driving out into the unknown more than in Iceland.. we loved every minute and how pristine and clean and quite the whole island was.. we did use booking.com for our first trip to book our hotels/guesthouses and now that I know each place we stayed was amazing I am more than happy to call and book directly with each place.. plus a tip to travelers who are renting cars and driving about.. ALWAYS ALWAYS Fill up your gas tank even though you may think you have enough gas.. ALWAYS…otherwise you may end up frantically driving through the Westfjords praying for a gas station..

    Reply
    • Auður Post author

      I forgot to mention booking.com who take 15% of the amount you pay in commission. Of course the middle man thing doesn’t just apply in the accommodation part and it’s part of the whole buying locally thing.

      Reply
      • Vivi

        Well, i see your point and i’m totally with you on that, it’s just that for us for example, who are coming in May, it’s absolutely essential that the booking has a free cancellation up until the last moment, as booking.com offers…..Things change in 6 months, and reservations can be altered or cancelled all together…If it weren’t for that, i assure you we would book straight from the b&b’s site.

        Reply
  2. Shelly

    Auður thanks for putting this out there. It does seem ridiculous to have to talk about it but I did come across multiple areas where tourists had been unable to find a restroom and had left their toilet paper + just on the trails. You would hope that we, as people, would be past that by now…but I guess not. Maybe in their planning Iceland will be able to incorporate some restrooms at major attractions, like Goðafoss, or have some creative marketing campaign to get tourists to wise up and use existing restrooms. Thanks for opening up the discussion about some of these challenges.

    Reply
  3. Heather

    You are preaching to the already converted. Why people use a Tourist Agency in their Country I will never know. Those Agencies are only going to go to one in Iceland anyway, then the reply comes back, another post to the traveller, then the traveller thinks of something he had not asked, goes back to his agency and around it goes again. Go direct, and get the answers direct from those who know. Thank you for this information, but I have alreay observed it.

    Reply
  4. Carly

    I just wanted to let you know I am really enjoying reading your blog :) My friend and I are leaving for Iceland this Sunday from Ocean City, Maryland, USA and we are very excited. I have shared a lot of your tips with him! We will be staying at the Blue Lagoon for two nights, Akureyi for one night, and Reykjavik for four nights. Any additional recommendations on things to do would be great!! In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading :))

    Cheers!

    Reply
  5. Julie Naughton

    I absolutely love your blog! Thanks for posting :) I am not leaving Sydney for Iceland untill Janurary 2015 (ages away, I know) but I am so excited I am planning my trip now and would love some advice from you. What I would really like to know is which tour you would recommend for January? As I am travelling independantly and don’t have a licence a tour is my best bet I reckon. I love beautiful scenery, being outdoors and active. Also, since i will probably fall in love with the country do you think finding a job as an english speaking traveller would be possible? I am a primary school teacher but would welcome all types of work. To new experiences! Any advice would be really appreciated.

    Julie.

    Reply
  6. clara

    Hi Auður

    I was wondering something about the rescue teams : it seems that almost everybody, in Iceland, is or has been part of a rescue team ? It is as usual as it seems to be ? In a country like Iceland it’s more logical to be trained to save lifes than in mine (I’m from France, and of course we have rescue teams but only in some regions, like in the Alps for example) but I’m quite impressed by the number of icelandic having stories about rescue operations – not only wonderful stories of course.

    You’re so right to remind that even if you have awesome rescue teams they shouldn’t risk their lives because of some totally irresponsable tourists !

    Reply
    • Auður Post author

      I wouldn’t say everyone (I have never been for example) but it’s fairly common. Maybe you get this impression because many guides that take you on tours with different tour companies (like on the glaciers and such) are a part of the rescue teams. Kind of goes hand in hand to love being on the mountains and belonging to the squads.

      Reply
  7. Pat and Carla [dot] com

    Last year we had a great time in Iceland spending two weeks with no true plan other than drive around the whole country in a counter clockwise direction and camp. It was so nice to be able to do whatever we wanted when we wanted. There are so many hidden gems, including ones next to immensely popular locations – such as Kvernufoss nearby to Skogafoss. I love Skogafoss just like everyone else, but we had a nice people-free picnic lunch soaking in the beauty of Kvernufoss. When coming through Akranes we spoiled ourselves with a very reasonably priced guest house that was very comfortable and had the friendliest owner in the world.

    We try to cut out the middleman whenever possible. No reason for someone else to get their hands on our money if not necessary.

    With two trips to Iceland and having seen a lot of the country, sans highlands, we still can’t help ourselves but think about our next return trip!

    Reply
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