Traveling Iceland with kids is easy, fun, exciting and oh so rewarding. It’s a dream come true for active parents who want to add some adventure into their kids’ lives.
Iceland: a land of fire and ice, brimming with the works of Mother Nature. Its coastlines are fringed with ragged fjords, and its interior is speckled with lava fields and active volcanoes and topped with larger-than-life glaciers. With a slew of waterfalls and horse-studded meadows, Iceland has a fairy-tale-like setting that is magical for both adults and kids alike.
We’ve recently returned from a week-long Road trip in Iceland with our two-year-old daughter. It was our second trip to Iceland, but our first time traveling there with Kaleya — and needless to say, Kaleya too has fallen in love with this stunning country.
Iceland is a perfect travel destination for kids, in every sense of the word. There may not be any themed parks or kids-oriented attractions in Iceland, but the whole country is an adventure on its own with its wide-open spaces, wildlife and science projects brought to life. Kids can hike up glaciers and waterfalls, go horse riding and whale watching, or take a Super-Jeep to the top of an active volcano— there’s so much to see and explore that I can’t imagine any kid getting bored here!
Why Iceland is Great for Kids
Besides the vast abundance of nature, Iceland is very child-friendly. Many cottages and farmsteads offer rooms that accommodate families, with play areas or entertainment facilities. Larger hotels often have cots (cribs) — both Grimur Hotel and Hotel Ranga that we stayed at provided safe and comfortable crib and high chair for Kaleya. If you’re camping, children aged two to 12 are usually charged half-price. Under-twos usually stay for free. Some campsites also have playgrounds and facilities like high chair.
Many restaurants in Reykjavík and larger towns offer discounted children’s meals, and most have high chairs. Toilets at museums and other public institutions may have dedicated baby-changing facilities; elsewhere, you’ll have to improvise. Most gas stations also have clean toilets with diaper-changing stations and even small kids area.
Car hire companies like SAD cars have plenty of baby seats that can be hired for just 5 euros a day. Most bus and tour companies offer a 50% reduction for children aged four to 11 years. The tours at Reykjavík Excursions are free for kids under 11, and half-price for those aged 12 to 15.
For younger kids, you’ll find baby supplies like formula milk, diapers or puree food everywhere but it’s best to buy them at the big supermarket chains as they’re cheaper. There are a few chains on the island: Kronan, Netto and Bónus (with a giant cartoon pig as its logo) which is the cheapest. They are still quite pricey, so if you’ve got space in your luggage, it might be wise to bring some from home.
Families might like to check out the Íslandskort barnanna (Children’s Map of Iceland) for attractions and sights that cater to young kids.
READ MORE: A DETAILED TRAVEL GUIDE TO ICELAND
What to do in Iceland with Kids
With bountiful nature, there’s just SO much to do in Iceland for kids of all ages. Whether your kids are two or 14, they won’t get bored in this natural, adventure-filled fun land. Beyond the natural sights, there’s a slew of outdoor activities and adventures that active kids (and parents) would love.
The biggest hits in Iceland for kids are the open-air geothermal pools (82–109°F) dotted all around the island. Many of them also have slides and fountains, and shallow pools for the little ones. Children 2 years and above are welcome at these pools, with children under 14 free. For safety reasons, children 8 years and younger are required to wear arm floaters.
Ditch the iPads and playstation and prepare your kids for one hell of an adventure!
Here are some of our favorite things to do in Iceland with kids:
- Whale-watching — Both Akureyri and Husavik in northern Iceland offer great whale-watching opportunities; the nutrient-rich water attract plenty of humpback whales especially from June to September. We saw more than 20 in Akureyri on this trip, and many really unclose in Husavik in 2011.
- Hike up glaciers — This is a dream come true for active parents. We hiked the Sólheimajökull Glacier which included ice-climbing and traversing across the crevasses, and it was extremely fun and definitely adrenaline-pumping. You’ll need to go with a tour operator to climb up glaciers with proper equipment (helmets and crampons), and most tours have a minimum age limit for kids.
- See waterfalls — There’s no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland; they’re all spectacular and have fun trails around them to hike on. Gulfoss is the biggest and the most impressive; Dettifoss was plenty of fun and there were several trails to hike; I also like Skogafoss where Kaleya had a great time climbing all that stairs that lead up to the top.
- Snorkel between tectonic plates — In Thingvellir National Park (just an hour from Reykjavik), you can swim in the Silfra rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The visibility of the glacial water is outrageous and it’s really not that cold when you’ve got a dry suit on. The minimum age for this is 14 years.
- Go on a Super-Jeep tour — This can be a super fun trip for big boys who love adventure; we did a Super-Jeep tour up the active Eyjafjallajökull Volcano on our first trip and it was beyond cool (even though we were stuck in a snow storm). It’s not suitable for young children, but do check with the tour operator for age limit.
- Soak in a geothermal pool — Skip the crowds and expensive entry to Blue Lagoon; almost every little town in Iceland has a geothermal pool. Arguably the most beautiful one is the Hofsós pool, Sundlaugin á Hofsósi, designed by the same architect responsible for the famous Blue Lagoon. Check this website to find all the public swimming pools in Iceland.
- Horse-riding — Icelandic horses are seriously gorgeous and unique, and you’ll see plenty of them all over the island. Kids will love short horse-riding day trips on the black sand beach or even up multi-day horse-riding tours.
When to Travel Iceland with Kids
Summer (June to August) is the best season to travel Iceland mainly for the weather. In summer, temperatures rise to a balmy 50-60°F (10-15°C) and the midnight sun promises 24 hours of daylight from the beginning of June to end of July. The weather also isn’t as unpredictable as it is in fall and most roads are passable.
This also means that it’s the busiest period for tourism. I was really surprised to see crowds and heavy traffic, especially around the popular areas like the Golden Circle. When we visited in fall 2011, there weren’t even half as many tourists. Iceland has become a hugely popular tourist destinations in recent years, and the island is struggling to keep up with the drastic increase in tourism.
I would actually recommend traveling Iceland in fall (September and October) for the lower prices and less crowd. You’ll still find snow and the Northern Lights during this time — a winter wonderland reminiscent of your child’s favorite new Disney movie, Frozen.
Winter (November to February) can get extremely cold, but it is also the best time to see the Northern Lights. It is usually fairly easy to spot the Aurora Borealis in Iceland, even in downtown Reykjavik. Temperatures dip to -4°F (-20°C) so be sure to dress appropriately.
How Much Time to Travel Iceland
I would recommend a minimum of seven days to see the whole island. There is so much to see in Iceland, from spectacular waterfalls to glaciers, lakes and canyons, that anything less than seven days would be too much of a rush.
We drove the Iceland Ring Road, a 828 miles (1332km) route that circles the entire island. It took us six days (with a day for Reykjavik), as we usually ended our days only at 8-10pm. We didn’t mind though, as we had lazy mornings and late starts. The midnight sun in summer also gave us a lot more daylight hours to drive.
One week was enough to see most of the sights on the Ring Road, but 10 days would be optimum. If you want to do the activities like whale-watching, you’ll need a lot more time (at least two weeks). Most activities take an entire day and need to be booked in advance, especially in summer which is peak season. Refer to my Iceland Ring Road itinerary for details.
Here’s a general estimate:
- 3 days: Stay in Reykjavik, and do day tours
- 5-7 days: Cover one or two areas, but not the whole country
- 7-10 days: Cover the whole country on the Iceland Ring Road
- 2 weeks: Drive the Ring Road + do some activities like ice-climbing or glacier hike
How to Get Around Iceland with Kids
Renting a car is undoubtedly the best way to explore Iceland’s Ring Road. There are bus tours that ply the route, but having your own wheels lets you travel independently, at your own pace. You’ll enjoy the freedom and flexibility of stopping whenever and wherever you want, which is important for those with young kids.
It’s also really easy to drive in Iceland, as roads are clearly marked and sign posts are easy to follow (even though they are in Icelandic). The country is practically designed for road trips: roads are well-paved, and there are regular rest stops and gas stations for refuelling. I recommend getting a local SIM card or using data roaming to have access to GPS and other travel info (like campsite addresses etc).
Prepare your kids for more than eye-filling scenics. You’ll be in the car a lot — so stock up on some snacks, and prepare a music playlist or Icelandic audio books to help while away the hours and give your passengers an earful of Norse sagas and eerie folktales.
Why a Camper Van is Perfect for Families
We rented a camper van from SADcars and it was perfect for our little family of three. Having a camper van allowed us to explore the back roads and sleep in spectacular settings, while saving money on accommodation and eating out at restaurants. We also had the flexibility to just pull over and cook or sleep whenever we wanted. I loved how self-sustaining we were with the camper van as we had everything we needed.
Our camper van was a brand new, 2016 model Dacia Dokker with custom built interiors. The van was small yet comfortable, and easy to drive around. The size was perfect for us (but might be too small for those with bigger kids) — you really don’t want to be driving big and bulky motor homes on the narrow mountain roads in Iceland. Our camper wasn’t suitable for driving on F-roads in the highlands of Iceland, but we found it perfect for navigating the Ring Road and all other gravel roads we were on.
Despite its small size, our camper was equipped with all we needed, including a mattress (that doubled as a seating area and a bed), a portable gas stove, dishes, cutlery, pot, pan and water container. The camper also had stand alone heaters which are connected to the diesel fuel tank. We didn’t have a cooler/refrigerator but the nights in Iceland are pretty cold, which help with keeping things like yogurt cool. There were also curtains in the campers to help with Iceland’s midnight sun.
All of the above were included in the price of the rental, which was 95 euros/night. The only additional cost was hiring a car seat for Kaleya, which was only 5 euros a day; and bedding for 75 euros (We could have also brought our own sleeping bags to avoid that cost.).
READ MORE: DRIVING THE ICELAND RING ROAD
How to Get Travel Insurance for Kids
In Iceland, all car rentals include the obligatory Third Party Liability Insurance (TPL) under Icelandic law – this covers third party damage or loss in an accident.
I highly recommend getting travel insurance as well as it covers personal loss, theft, and medical on top of damages that may incur on your camper van or vehicle in Iceland. With the harsh conditions and extreme weather, your camper can easily suffer from damages.
Many travel insurance providers offer free travel insurance to cover kids who are traveling with their parents, or even grandparents. There is usually a one-to-one ratio, that is you usually have to have at least one insured adult per traveling child to earn the free coverage. Travel insurance plans usually have a minimum (around 6 months) and a maximum age (17 to 20s) for traveling kids to qualify for the free coverage.
I personally have an annual travel insurance plan from Travel Guard and have used them for many years now. Even if you’re not a frequent traveler, it’s advisable to get travel insurance just for your trip to Iceland to make sure your losses will be covered in case of mishaps.
If you intend to do any adventurous activities in Iceland, it might be wise to opt for their Adventure Travel Protection Plan, which covers trekking at high altitudes and other high risk activities. If you do some research online, you’ll find that it’s one of the most highly recommended policies.
Where to Stay in Iceland with Kids
We stayed at a series of cottages on our first trip and loved being able to stay in the countryside without spending too much — Airbnb is a great option to find cottages to rent. The service fees are high, between 6% and 12% of the total rental cost, but it can be a great way to stay in a beautiful house for the same price as a hotel room.
On this trip, we slept in our camper van most of the time, but also stayed at two hotels (one at the start of the road trip and another at the end): Grimur Hotel is a brand new modern Scandinavian style hotel in the suburbs of Reykjavik, with spacious rooms that are great for families; Hotel Ranga near the Golden Circle is a gorgeous lodge set right next to the Ranga River, with interesting around-the-world themed suites.
For those on a budget, camping or staying in a camper van can be a great way to save money, have some flexibility, and sleep in spectacular settings. Since November 2015, it has been illegal to camp anywhere other than at a proper campsite. You can find all campsites in Iceland on the interactive map on Visit Iceland’s website, including the summer campsites and the year-round campsites (click on ‘List’ to see details of each campsite).
Parking at these campsites usually costs 2000 -3500 ISK ($20 – 35) per vehicle per night. The campsites in Iceland tend to be well equipped with 24-hour WC and showers, electrical outlets, free WiFi, nice dining and cooking areas and even BBQ spots. For more information on where to camp, read these guidelines from the Icelandic authorities.
What to Eat in Iceland for Kids
Food is expensive in Iceland: even at a gas station cafe, a burger costs around $10 and a soup is around the same price. If you’re looking for a proper fish or lamb meal in a nice restaurant, expect to fork out at least $30 for each dish. A cup of coffee usually costs at least $5 and a hot dog would be around $5 as well.
I recommend cooking on your own and buying groceries in the supermarket chains I mentioned earlier. It’s best to stock up in Reykjavik before leaving on your road trip. Once you leave southern Iceland, it might be hard to find big supermarket chains until you reach Egilsstaðir in the east. There will be small grocery stores and mini-marts around, but their prices are usually higher.
Safety for Kids in Iceland
Safety is always an issue when traveling with kids or toddlers, but Iceland is extremely safe and clean. Tap water, local foods and environment present no health hazard and you can take in the beautiful landscape without worrying too much about the little ones. Some waterfalls or trails might not have fences or railings to keep your kids off danger zones, so keep an eye on them.
Remember to respect the Icelandic nature and its mood swings. This means no hikes in bad weather, no driving outside the roads and keep in mind that ocean and river currents can be strong and treacherous. Keep off the F Roads and make sure you only traverse roads that your vehicle is capable of managing (no off-road driving if you don’t have a 4WD). Icelandic roads tend to be narrow and windy and for those of you not used to gravel roads keep in mind that soft moves is the key here.
What to Pack for Iceland with Kids
I’m a strong believer in ‘less is more’. The less you travel with, the more convenient it will be for your family to move around. Also, the smaller your camper or vehicle is, the less you will want to pack.
Obviously warm gear is essential, even if you’re traveling in summer. 2-3 layers should be enough for summer: a wool t-shirt, a fleece, and a waterproof outer layer. For winter, you’ll need 3-4 layers: with a down jacket or thick winter parka in addition to the above mentioned. You’ll need a winter hat, gloves and thick socks. Don’t forget your swimming suit and towel for the geothermal pools.
If you can’t see yourself using a certain gear daily, you probably don’t need it. For those who are camping, you won’t be needing clean clothes for every day of the trip since it’s usually too cold to change out in the open.
On our 7-day trip in Iceland, we traveled with our Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 32 wheeled suitcase, our Vanguard baby hiking carrier, Kaleya’s small foldable stroller and my Lowepro ProTactic camera backpack. On hindsight, we didn’t need the stroller as Kaleya was usually walking on her own or sitting in the hiking backpack.
Thankfully they all fit into the back seat of our small Dacia Dokka camper van. Space was pretty tight though and we had to move our gear around to set up the bed every night, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly.
Practical Tips for Traveling Iceland with Kids
Be warned that weather can change quickly in Iceland, regardless of when you visit. A sunny morning can easily turn into a whiteout blizzard. You can easily experience four seasons in one day. Road closures are common in winter and it can be dangerous to drive during harsh weather conditions. Check the website vegagerdin.is or download its app for real-time road conditions.
Note that off-road driving is strictly forbidden in Iceland. If the road does not have a number, do not drive on it even if there are tire tracks. It will damage nature for decades and you’ll get a serious fine. The Icelandic Transport Authority has made a video about dangers while driving in Iceland. For those interested in learning more, check out www.drive.is.
As mentioned, there will be quite a bit of driving if you intend to explore the entire island. Stock up on snacks and prepare lots of music and entertainment for the kids. You can usually find facilities dotted all along the Iceland Ring Road, but kids who are toilet-trained may have to do some of their business behind trees (if you can find any).
It’s absolutely easy to travel Iceland with kids, and I can’t think of a better place to introduce some adventure to your kids’ lives. For the active parents who want to show their kids how to be adventurous, you will be definitely love Iceland.
READ MORE: A DETAILED TRAVEL GUIDE TO ICELAND
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