Glimpse of Iceland in January: Planning

Iceland is a place that we really wanted to visit during our extended trips last year, but where we just couldn’t fit it in the schedule. It is a popular destination recently, and for good reasons – lots of natural beauty, unique geography and features, and also fairly easy to get to.

At the same time, I had decided to go back to work in mid-January with my former employer, after being gone for roughly 9 months. We still have plenty of posts planned for this blog, but the reason I mention going back to work here is to elaborate about the motivation for scheduling a very brief, solo, trip to Iceland in January.


This past December, I started looking into whether it was remotely feasible to get a taste of Iceland in just the Monday-Friday (including flights) the week prior to starting this new job (also the week after the kids went back to school). Part of the goal would also be to see whether it would t be worthwhile to take a longer trip to Iceland in the summer with the family.


Some things I found out:

  • Weather: Iceland, despite its name, isn’t exceptionally cold in the winter, due to the Gulf Stream. They can have plenty of snow/ice, but typically, temperature hovers near freezing in the winter. When I went, it was warmer than normal –  just above freezing and drizzling on-and-off. That’s not balmy, but also not Siberian winter. Having lived years in Boston, this is quite reasonable in suitable clothing.
  • Activities: Looking through the travel guides, it seemed possible to see some of the highlights and get a good taste of the island in a few days with day tours from the capital.
  • Flights: There are relatively inexpensive non-stop flights from San Francisco to Reykjavik on Iceland Air, which take roughly 8-9 hours. Not super short, but no layover, and only a few hours longer than crossing the US. As an alternative, Wow Airlines is famous for super cheap fares to Iceland, but as of late 2018 looked like they were on shaky financial footing.
  • 4 Days There: Being able to be gone Monday-Friday from the Bay Area is realistically going to correspond to being in Iceland from Tuesday 6am to Friday 5pm, Iceland time.
  • Low Crowds: Crowds, which are supposed to be crazy during the summer peak, are supposed to be quite mild in the winter. Good lodging is easy to find and not particularly expensive this time of year.
  • Avoid winter driving: While I normally like to self-drive and explore independently, self-driving isn’t a great idea in the Icelandic winter. Initially, I thought I might drive, since I’ve driven plenty in snow and ice. But apparently the bigger problem is the island’s powerful wind gusts in combination with the snow and ice, which can blow you off the road. Really, read various forum posts before deciding to self-drive in the winter there.
  • Food is known for being expensive in Iceland, but I was reminded that this is a bigger issue during a longer family trip than for a short, solo trip.
  • Time zone: Iceland is the same time zone as London in the winter, which is great for a Londoner, but less-than-ideal for a short trip from California. But oh well.

So, I decided to plan the trip.

Airfare together with a centrally-located, 3-star hotel near City Hall came out to less than $1,000 total via Expedia. I was planning to take just a carry-on bag given the short trip, so besides meals/excursions, that price was fairly all-in. So far, so good.

Tour Priorities

Then, since I had ruled out self-driving in the winter, I started to look at day tours. Ideally, the knowledge gained would help independent travel with the family in a future trip. I looked at a couple of guidebooks for ideas, but found the I Heart Reykjavik site had some useful links to tours. Note that I only had 4 days, including my 6am arrival day and 5pm departure day. My priorities ending up being the following:

  • A Golden Circle Tour. Everybody who visits to Iceland seems to do this.
  • South Coast Tour down to Vik, seeing waterfalls and beaches along the way.
  • Reykjavik city and something else fun on the arrival day. I chose the lava caves, since that sounded interesting, and started late enough to do on arrival day.
  • Northern Lights tour at night early in the trip.
  • Blue Lagoon on the day I depart. Everybody seems to do the Blue Lagoon, even if they also agree that it’s a tourist trap. It works on departure day since it’s near the airport.

When looking at the day tours, it seemed that many of them had pickups around 9-10am. The specific pickup times are a real difference from, say, the flexibility of self driving.

One consequence of this is that when arriving at 6am, it’s a little tight to schedule a 9am tour. For instance, my own flight landed 30 minutes late, then I went through customs, took the FlyBus. In the end, I reached my hotel lobby at 8:30am. This would have worked, but not with a reasonable error margin.


Actual Plan

So, for those reasons, I chose to spend the first morning exploring downtown Reykjavik, and to schedule a shorter tour that afternoon. I booked a Northern Lights tour on the first available night, in case conditions changed. And tour availability dictated doing the Golden Circle tour on Thursday instead of Wednesday

So, based on those constraints and tour availability, I planned:

  • Monday: depart San Francisco 1:30pm.
  • Tuesday: arrive 6am. Tour downtown Reykjavik in morning. Cave tour from 12pm-4pm. Northern Lights tour at 8:30pm.
  • Wednesday: South Coast Tour, 9am->8pm.
  • Thursday: Golden Circle Tour, 10am->7pm.
  • Friday: Blue Lagoon, depart airport.

Note that the Northern Lights tours are canceled if the conditions are unfavorable (e.g. clouds), though they will allow you to reschedule for another time if this happens. In my case, the Northern Lights tours seemed to be canceled the whole time I was there, but that goes with the territory of a short trip.


Thoughts Overall

The following few posts will go over the days of the actual trip.

Having come back, I thought it was worthwhile going to Iceland in the winter. The daylight hours are short, but still long enough to see some highlights, and without big crowds. You can’t expect to do a large-scale summer itinerary around the island in the winter, but that wasn’t my expectation here.

Some summer, I would like to go back with the family and do the Ring Road drive around Iceland to see more. But for now, I got a nice, if brief, intro to this beautiful island.

Keep reading our travel blog for more travel ideas in Iceland:

Here are some blog posts from this particular trip to Iceland:

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