Like you know that it’s spring in Reykjavík when overly optimistic flower buds start popping out of the snow, you know that winter is near when your e-mail inbox fills up with questions about the ice caves in Vatnajökull. The ice cave season (Crystal Caves they sometimes called also) is from about the middle of November to the middle of March because that is the coldest period in Iceland. You know, ice caves and cold just goes together like peanut butter and jelly. OK, I have to admit that I don’t understand the P&J combination but you catch my drift.
The questions I get about the ice caves can be divided into three categories:
- The folks that are not coming from the middle of November to middle of March that really want to do them anyway and are desperately seeking someone willing to take them there.
- The people who are too late to book and can’t find an ice cave tour with availability and turn to me to perform some magic others have failed to produce. Occasionally I can help but 90% of the time I can’t because they are just so damn popular and they book out a lot.
- The people who want to do an ice cave tour in a day and wonder whether it’s a good idea.
It’s the third category is the one that inspired this post after I answered this question for probably the millionth time this week. If you haven’t noticed already, I tend to exaggerate when it comes to number of questions I get about various topics.
Question: Can I do an ice cave tour in a day from Reykjavík?
The answer to this question depends a little bit on whether you are looking at what is theoretically possible or whether you are wondering about whether it’s a good idea.
Lets first look at what is possible.
There are two ways you can do an ice cave tour in a day from Reykjavík. First of all, you can rent a car and drive yourself to where the ice cave tours start. The company we mostly work with offers departures at 09:30 or 13:00 so you would probably opt to do the later tour since you need to drive there first. If you are a photographer and you want more time to set things up you could also do a special ice cave tour designed with photographers in mind.
There’s also an option of doing a day tour but since both options share the same issues, I will tell you more about that a little further down.
The problem with this plan is twofold and leads us to the question of whether this is a good idea
First, the start of these tours are 4-5 hours drive away from Reykjavík (depending on which company you do them with) and to catch the tour at 13:00 you need to leave Reykjavík no later than 7:30-8:00 and drive without stops to the location. There are so many things to see on the way that you won’t have time to properly explore, which to me is a shame. The tour itself is 2.5-4 hours, depending on the conditions and then you have to drive back to Reykjavík which is another five hours. So just the drive there and back, and then the tour itself, is 14 hours. And that’s only if the conditions are good, it can take longer to drive if the conditions are not great.
Secondly, the weather in November to March in Iceland is very unstable, and it depends entirely on where in the country you are what the conditions will be like. Hellisheiði, a mountain road between Reykjavík and Hveragerði about 30 minutes out of the city, might be closed for hours while the weather is great in the south-east where the ice cave tours take place for example. If you miss the tour you lose your money because they do not refund the tour because the weather on the way was bad and because of that these companies always recommend you stay in the area the night before.
On top of that, you would be doing this long day tour in the period in Iceland that offers the least daylight. On December 1st we have just over 4 hours of daylight and although it’s not completely pitch black outside of those hours it’s still dark enough that it would affect what you would see on the way.
So to sum up: you’d be driving for at least 10 hours back and forth, during the months where the weather in Iceland is the worst, and a big portion of that drive you’d possibly be doing in the dark.
The other option, if you are not driving, is to do a day tour from Reykjavík that includes the ice caves but for all the same reason as I listed above I cannot in good conscience recommend them. Not because I have something against those who offer them, they are probably just trying to meet the wishes of their customers, but because it’s a super long day in a somewhat unstable environment. There is one company that I know of that offers these tours in a day and the tour is 16-18 hours. This company even warns potential guests that this is a very long day tour and urges them to consider the longer 2-3 day tours.
Alternatives that I can recommend
If you want to rent a car, it would be ideal to add the ice cave tour to a 2- or a 3-day itinerary around the south and the south-east. I would recommend that you try to stay somewhere close the night before, preferably no more than 30-60 minutes away from where it starts.
Alternatively, you can do a 2-day tour that includes the south coast to Jökulsárlón and includes the ice cave tours. There are a few companies that offer these tours and they all cost very similar. The difference is mostly in how often they are offered and what kind of accommodation is included. When I put together our 5-day itinerary for solo travellers I included this 2-day south coast tour because it offers good value for money and they still have quite a lot availability left for the winter.