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How to spend 4 days / 3 night in Iceland in winter with a rental car (including ice caves!)

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to start the first post the year by asking whether you can believe it’s this year or that already but man, can you believe it’s 2018 already?

I can’t and I keep wondering how this happened. Where did the time fly? Where did my youth go?

Like every year, I’m starting 2018 with making (most likely empty) promises to myself that this is the year I do all the stuff I didn’t do all the other years – like learn how to play the Ukulele and getting organized enough to actually maintain some sort of schedule here on the blog.

I’m not holding my breath but I’m going to try, damn it.

One of the things I promised in 2017 was to post some self-drive itineraries for those of you who don’t want to do day tours and although I didn’t deliver in 2017 at least I’m starting strong in 2018 with this post. Or so I tell myself.

When I started working on this itinerary I soon realized that it’s quite complicated to plan your days around the limited daylight and winter conditions here in Iceland so I understand all the e-mails I’ve been getting requesting this. At times I felt like I was working on some gigantic extra hard Suduku puzzle that I just couldn’t solve.

After laying over this for days, FOR DAYS I tell you, I finally decided to post an abbreviated version of the itinerary here to try to simplify things and make the full version available on PDF. You can read more about the full version at the bottom of this post.

This itinerary covers

– A day in Reykjavík
– The Golden Cirlce
– The South Coast to Vík
– The Blue Lagoon
– Ice caves and snowmobiling.

This itinerary is great for

– First time visitor who want to maximize their short stay in Iceland
– Those flying with Icelandair or WOW from the US and Canada
Adjustments can be made to fit other flight schedules.
– For those who want to experience ice caves without sacrificing everything else there is to see
– Confident drivers who feel OK about driving in the sometimes difficult Icelandic winter conditions.
If you’re not sure about driving in Iceland, I recommend one of our itineraries for those who do not want to rent a car.

Image via our Secret Ice Cave partner

Day 1: Exploring Reykjavík and beating the jet lag

If you are flying in from the US or Canada with Icelandair or WOW air you will most likely be landing at Keflavík Airport between 04:00 and 07:00 in the morning. This is the busiest time of the day at the airport with a lot of flights arriving and departing around the same time.

The reason for why it’s so busy and why all the flights are arriving and departing as at the same time is that both WOW air and Icelandair use Keflavík airport as a connection hub for their bridge between North-American and Europe. Keflavík Airport gets millions of passengers each year but only about 2 million ever go out of the airport building.

Once you land, you will need to pick up your rental car but most car rental agencies offer pickup times in connection with all incoming flights. If you book the car through Budget, their service desk is one of the few ones that are actually inside the terminal building so that’s fairly easy. For many of the smaller companies, you need to find their representative and then you’ll be taken by a shuttle to their service location.

Once you have the car, you can make your way into Reykjavík where you can grab a quick breakfast. If you’re super hungry when making your way from the airport there’s also Subway close by and on the way that is open 24 hours. I’ve written about breakfast in Reykjavík on the blog before so maybe that post will help.

To keep yourself awake and to get to know the city a bit I recommend you book our Reykjavík Walking tour for 10:00 am. I would not recommend you do the Blue Lagoon on the way from the airport because it only makes you more tired and you need to try to stay awake to beat the jet lag. Because 4 days is such a short stop, getting adjusted quickly is crucial.

After the walking tour, you can sit down for a lunch and then explore a little bit more on your own in the afternoon since you have a bit more time to kill. Most hotels and guesthouses will allow you to check in between 14:00 and 15:00 at which time you’ll probably be pretty tired. I know it’s tempting to go to sleep but try not to. If you absolutely need to sleep – make sure you set an alarm and that you only nap for an hour or so.

In the afternoon I recommend you visit one of our geothermal swimming pools to get a taste of the local life here in Reykjavík. You may be asking yourself at this point why it’s OK to go to the pool but not the Blue Lagoon but the difference is the time of the day. It’s OK that you get tired in the afternoon because then there are only a few more hours until you can go to bed and not the whole day like if you’d do the Blue Lagoon at 8 am when it opens.

I recommend you eat your main meal at lunch on this day and that you eat a lighter dinner. Personally, I can’t eat a lot no matter the time of the day when I’m this tired and jet-lagged so I’d probably eat two light meals myself.

When you’re finished with the pool and the light dinner, it’s finally getting close to an acceptable bedtime. I think 20:00 is the earliest I’d recommend going to bed but 21:00 or 22:00 is even better.

This day will be tough but if you manage to follow my advice about staying awake you’re going to feel much better the next few days when you really need your energy.

Day 2: Golden Circle, Snowmobiling on a glacier and the Secret Lagoon

You will probably wake up early because you went to bed early the day before and if your hotel offers breakfast I recommend you eat a good breakfast to start the day. Before you leave the hotel you need to remember to check the road and weather conditions to make sure you will be able to do everything you’ve got planned. It’s also good to check your e-mails as you will have received an e-mail about any cancellations due to the weather and such.

Please keep in mind that this will be a long day and you really need to be mindful of the time to fit everthing in.

You need to leave Reykjavík no later than 9 am but during the darkest winter months it’s not really worth it to leave earlier because then you’ll visit your first stop in the dark.

Your first stop is Þingvellir national park. From there you will drive to Gullfoss waterfall but depending on the conditions and time of year you may make a stop at Geysir on the way too.

I always recommend you try to include some sort of activity into your Golden Circle adventure to break up the day a little and in this itinerary, I’ve added a snowmobile tour in Langjökull. Snowmobile tours are great because they give you an opertuntiy to visit a glacier and on good days the views can be spectacular. Plus, you get to be on a snowmobile which is really fun!

The snowmobile tour leaves Gullfoss at 12:15 so you need to be there and ready at that time. The tour will take up to 4 hours so try to eat lunch before you head out (unless you’ve packed a lunch in which case you just bring that with you).

After the snowmobile tour, you will have some time to explore Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir geothermal area but they’re close to one another and it doesn’t take long to drive between them.

From there you will drive to the Secret Lagoon where you will enjoy a good soak before they close at 20:00. From there you should drive to Hella or Hvolsvöllur to spend the night. If the conditions are favorable, you can go out and hunt for the northern lights a for a bit in the evening.

Day 3: The South Coast and the secret ice cave tour

This will be another long day where you have to be mindful of the time so you don’t miss out on seeing everything on the way. Because of that you want to make sure you eat a good breakfast and it doesn’t hurt if you pack something for lunch too.

You will need to leave Hella no later than 8:45 and you will use the time while it’s still dark to drive all the way to Reynisfjara beach. You might see Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls on the way there and be tempted to stop but you’ll be stopping there on the way back so don’t worry.

You can enjoy Reynisfjara for a while and then it’s time to drive to Vík where you will meet the Secret Ice Cave tour at Víkurskáli bus stop at 11:30. This is a brand new tour, in an ice cave that has only been recently found, and it gives you a chance to include an ice cave tour without having to travel all the way to the Vatnajökull region for it.

The secret ice cave tour will take up to 4 hours and you need to hit the ground running when it’s over to make it to your other destinations while it’s still relatively bright.

From Vík you will drive to Skógafoss where you can enjoy this big amazing waterfall for a short while. Then you’ll drive to Seljalandsfoss and marvel at that. Even though it will have gotten quite dark by the time you reach Seljalandsfoss, especially duing the darkest months, it is lit up so you will definitely see it but whether or not you can walk behind depends on the daylight.

From Seljalandsfoss you will drive back to Reykjavík and check into your accommodation for the night. If all goes according to plan, you should be back in Reykjavík between 19:00 and 19:30. You might even go out for dinner and check out some bars if you feel up for it.

Please keep in mind, that during the darkest months (from the end of November to middle of January) this schedule is very tight and you might have to give one of the natural wonders a miss if you want to do the secret ice cave tour and play things the ear whether and conditions wise. When you have more daylight this plan becomes much more manageable.

Day 4: The Blue Lagoon and departing Iceland

As I mentioned earlier in this post I don’t recommend you do the Blue Lagoon on your way in from the airport when you’re arriving from North-America. I do however recommend you do it on the way to the airport on your last day.

The Blue Lagoon is on the way to the airport and most people don’t use the last day for anything in particular anyway because they always have it in the back of their heads that they need to get to the airport in time. I don’t know how many last days I’ve spent hanging around hotel lobbies.

I always recommend you give yourself an hour to return the car, just in case it’s busy and so you’ll have some time to sort out any problems that may arrise. It’s also recommended that you arrive at the airport no later than two hours before departure which means you need to drop off the car about three hours before departure. So if you are flying out at 17:00, for example, you’d drop off the car at 14:00.

Most people stay for about 2 hours at the lagoon so you can keep that in mind when booking the entrance for the lagoon. If we keep imagining that you are flying out at 17:00 and you want to eat lunch at the Blue Lagoon too, booking the entrance at 10 am would be ideal. That would give you about 2 hours for the lagoon and an hour and a half for lunch before it’s time to make your way to the airport. If you think you’ll need more time at the lagoon you could always book your entrance earlier or if lunch is not part of your plan, an entrance at 11:00 should suffice. I would probably aim to eat at the Blue Lagoon rather than at the airport because the options at the airport are not great.

Finally, I recommend you consider booking the comfort or premium tickets at the Blue Lagoon. The comfort package includes a towel and a drink of choice while the premium package also includes a robe and slippers plus a face mask.

Get the full version of this itinerary

Like I mentioned earlier in this post, making this itinerary turned out to be much more complex than I anticipated when I factored in the driving times, limited daylight and everything else so I ended up spending not hours but days on it. Before I knew it, I had multiple pages of driving instructions, restaurant recommendations and advice about weather and road conditions and I knew this would be too much to fit into one post.

So instead of dumbing things down to make it fit, I decided to give you the abbreviated version here on the blog, which you can totally use to see what’s possible in this time frame, and then offer a longer version for a small fee ($4.99) for those who want a bit more of the specifics.

Included in the full version:

  • Driving distances and approximate driving times
  • Timings for everything in the itinerary to help you make most of your time
  • Recommended time spent at each stop
  • Personal recommendations for restaurants, bars and places to stay
  • Information about what to pack
  • 3 different versions of day 3 – with different activities
  • Tips to help you stay safe on the road

All this and more for the price of a cup of coffee in Reykjavík. I think that’s fair.

This post first appeared on I Heart Reykjavík - Iceland Travel, please read the originial post: here

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How to spend 4 days / 3 night in Iceland in winter with a rental car (including ice caves!)


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