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Top 7 mistakes you should avoid when traveling to Iceland

Manuel Becker Manuel Becker in Tips & Tricks
26.01.2017 · 9 min read
Photo by Manuel Becker

There are quite a lot of photographers who are joining Locationscout because they want to travel to Iceland, so here is a very important guide about mistakes you should definitely avoid when you are planning to visit this amazing country.

When I visited Iceland at the end of summer in 2015, I did a lot of research about the country. I wanted to be prepared and I really didn’t want to be „one of those guys“, who is disliked by the locals because he is doing all the "mistakes" that unfortunately quite a lot of the tourists do. So here are my top 7 mistakes you should avoid if you want to have a great vacation with lots of exciting moments. #3 by the way was my biggest mistake and #6 was something I did once until I recognized what I was doing wrong - but read the full story below.

#1 Dying for a selfie

It may sound absurd and this topic is discussed over and over again, but it’s still the most important thing that I want to draw attention to if you haven’t visited Iceland yet. Respecting nature still seems to be a huge issue for tourists and it was just a few weeks ago when a young woman died near the beach of Reynisfjara, because she probably didn’t expect the very unpredictable waves and the very strong undertow into the cold ocean.

The same applies to the sometimes very stormy days, which are definitely not comparable with windy days in other countries. I saw people myself, nearly dying for a selfie in the storm, because they left their car and couldn’t come back to it without extreme luck. A young woman was hanging on a pole like a flag in the wind, nearly falling down the cliffs because of the very strong wind and she only lived because the wind paused for a few seconds. Afterward, she destroyed the car by opening the door when the wind started again to blow. Damaged cars because of lacerated doors is one of the most common reasons in Iceland and you definitely don’t want to be "one of those guys" who have to pay for that when returning the car, do you? ;-)
Here is a great video that gives you a good feeling for a windy day in Iceland:

Another very popular thing is selfies near cliffs or people who climb on rocks to get a better photo of themselves. I saw one of them at Godafoss and quite a lot of people were needed to get this person to safety again. Or a guy, standing extremely close with his back on the brink at Haifoss, trying to get the best perspective of himself leaning even more towards a 180m deep gorge.

You’d almost think that I’ve been there for a few months, but these very real examples happened just within a few days and all of them were even more dangerous than I expected them to be in the first place. Enjoy the beautiful landscapes of Iceland as much as you want, but please don’t take such extreme risks for a stupid photo.

#2 Having the wrong equipment / car

Sounds pretty obvious too, but I saw enough people in Iceland, running around with high heels or sandals. Do yourself a favor and get good tramping boots / weather resistant clothes when you plan to walk for a while away from your car, because the weather can change pretty fast. An umbrella is usually a pretty bad choice for the simple reason that the wind is usually too strong, so having a weather and wind sealed jacket + rain trousers with you is always a good idea. If you are not that familiar with cold temperatures it’s also great to wear multiple layers you can put off and on, depending on the current temperature.

According to what you want to see it’s also very important to choose the right car. If you only want to see places near the Ring Road you might be fine with a small car, but visiting Landmannalaugar for example requires a 4x4. Anything that is off the path is way better reachable with a bigger car that can handle dirt tracks. There are even a lot of roads, especially towards the center of the island, which is forbidden to pass with non-4x4-cars.

Top 7 mistakes you should avoid when traveling to Iceland

One of the dirt tracks towards Landmannalaugar with quite a few rivers you have to pass with your car.

Tip: Book your car upfront at a local car rental, because the prices are way cheaper. I used Iceland car rental and they are just 3 minutes away from the airport and even pick you upon your arrival. I made good experiences with them, but other local car rentals can be a good choice too. Just make sure to check ratings from former customers to get a good one that you can rely on in cases where you need them.

Bonus Tip: Based on the feedback from the comment section, a few had issues with returning the car and suddenly having to pay for scratches they maybe didn't even cause. If safety is important for you, make sure to get insurance for cases like that. It's also always a good idea to document the conditions of the car with your phone during pickup, documenting scratches, etc. yourself via photo or video.

#3 Underestimating the travel time

This is definitely the biggest mistake I made and that changed 12 days that should have been awesome experiences + relaxation to only awesome experiences ;-) It was still fine, but we planned to hike around Landmannalaugar and visit so many more places. Driving in Iceland just isn’t the same as you would do on a motorway in Germany without any speed limits. The Ring Road is pretty easy to drive and yet it takes a lot of time because many places you may want to visit are far away from each other and that’s the part when visiting Iceland and enjoying nature becomes to sitting in your car and driving for the longest time of your day. Just keep in mind, that especially dirt tracks will make you extremely slow and a 30 km distance may become a very long tour you won’t accomplish until it’s getting dark.

This is also very important for your photography when you want to be at a specific place around sunrise or sunset. Another popular mistake during wintertime is to start traveling when the sun rises, but then it’s usually already too late because it will settle again in a few hours and you still will have to drive to the place you wanted to visit.

Top 7 mistakes you should avoid when traveling to Iceland

Aldeyjarfoss waterfall is not that hard to reach during seasons without snow, but you still need some time to get there and it's extremely important to be on the right side of the river (travel details are described in the spot), otherwise you might not get the perspective you wanted to photograph.

#4 Visiting the most touristic places during daytime

When you plan your daily trips on the island it’s pretty important that you have an idea of what you really want to see and enjoy and whatnot. Especially when your time is limited you might need to visit some of the places during the touristic times. Iceland isn’t as pristine as you might expect and there are some popular locations like Seljalandsfoss or Gullfoss with tons of huge busses in front of them. Don’t get me wrong! They are still extremely beautiful, but you need to be there at the right time. If you are in Iceland during summer you might need to be there during the midnight sun to get good photos. You could even have a look at the time tables of those tours to make sure, that you won’t be there with hundreds of other tourists.

#5 Not leaving the Ring Road

There are a lot of people coming to the country and they are just visiting the „attractions“ at the Ring Road or even worse - they are only taking part in a daily trip, called the Golden Circle tour. All those places are nice during the right time, but those are also not the places that will show you how amazing this country really is. It’s like doing a bus tour around New York, but never walking through those streets for yourself. Even if you don’t have a 4x4 you still could hold somewhere and hike for a few hours to see some of the places that are not just like an amusement park.

Top 7 mistakes you should avoid when traveling to Iceland

You will miss places like Haifoss waterfall if you only stay at the Ring Road.

#6 Stopping on the road to take a picture

Well, that’s something I also did on the first day and I really had regrets afterward. Some of the landscapes you will pass are just so beautiful that you instantly want to stop your car and take a photo. I did so too and when you stop your car somewhere, more and more people will stop because they think that there is something they might miss. Suddenly there was a bus driver who could barely pass the narrow street and who was raging quite a bit about the tourists and that was the point where I changed my mind because I couldn’t even imagine that something like this could happen.

The following days were full of people, suddenly stopping their cars right on the street and blocking the traffic. Some of them even activate the hazard lights instead of just blinking, which usually indicates that you might have trouble with your car, resulting in locals who will stop nearby and ask if they can help you.

While I can understand this behavior for some places, you really should keep these situations at a minimum, because you really don’t want to be „this guy“ who is blocking all the traffic on the main roads every few kilometers.

Top 7 mistakes you should avoid when traveling to Iceland

Öxararfoss waterfall is still a very beautiful place to visit, even if it's in Thingvellir National Park, which is part of the Golden Circle tour in Iceland.

#7 Not protecting your camera

Visiting a country like Iceland is also about protecting your valuable equipment. Therefore I can really recommend you to take shower caps with you, to protect your camera + lens from the spray of waterfalls while you are not taking photos. As long as you are hiking you should always stow your camera because the paths are sometimes very rough and so is the weather. Rain is only one side of the medallion as the heavy wind also results in flying stones, which can easily damage your lens. There were some regions in the north where I could barely open my eyes due to flying dust and little stones, making it nearly impossible to photograph these days.

You should also never leave your tripod without being nearby, because just one gust can knock over all your equipment, not only damaging it but also making it unreachable anymore. I saw a tripod, lying down in the gorge at Haifoss and there is definitely no easy or short way to get down there to get your equipment back.

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.

Iceland is such a wonderful place to discover pure nature and its beauty. It’s obvious that this is only true as long as people protect it and keep it as they encountered it. So please make sure that you won’t leave any garbage, stay on the paths and enjoy nature without leaving or destroying anything. This seems like such an easy rule, but it’s still too difficult for some tourists.

Some of the 7 mistakes seem to be quite a stretch, but I experienced them all in various situations just within 12 days. Enjoy your time in this amazing country, but stay respectful to nature, the locals, and other tourists, and please… "don’t be that guy or girl"… ;-)

Did I miss anything? I would love to hear your travel experiences in the comments below!

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Comments (21)

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Kevin Harding
Kevin Harding 28.03.
Hi Manuel, appreciate the article. However I'd just point out that your comment "any other local car rental should be fine too" is definitely not accurate. There are some real cowboy outfits there (as in any country) and a renter really needs to do his/her due diligence and research the car rental company they plan on using before commiting. Cheers !
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 28.03.
Good point. I was there in 2015 and I didn't have any issues at all but that might have changed as well with more people traveling to Iceland. I will update this part because I think you are right and that this is a good hint in general. Thank you very much for your constructive feedback, really appreciate it!
Kevin Harding
Kevin Harding 28.03.
Thank you Manuel !
Murali Narayanan
Murali Narayanan 01.05.
I second Kevin. Excellent set of potential mistakes tourists need to avoid. I visited Iceland twice, both in late winter. At the end of my first trip, when I returned the rental car, the guy takes the keys and walks straight to the front of the vehicle and tells me that there is a minor scratch on the hood. The vehicle had about 120K miles when we picked up and it was pretty beat up already with scratches all over the body. We never noticed the scratches on the hood until we returned it. He asked me to pay 290,000ISK (about US$2400) to repair the scratch. I had no choice as I had to catch a flight back to the US. I paid, got the necessary paperwork, and left for the airport with a little bit bitter taste of the rental car experience. Luckily, I had taken the full insurance via rentalcars.com and they refunded the whole amount. The 2nd time, we rented from Budget and we had zero issues. The guy didnt even look at the car and gave me the receipt. One other point. Dont underestimate the time it will take to return the car. As all the North American flights leave around at the same time, expect an hour wait time if u plan to return the car in the early afternoon.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 01.05.
Very good points Murali. Happy that it worked out for you in the end. The one we had documented every tiny scratch with us at the beginning of our trip. Maybe it's a good idea to use the phone and take a short clip while walking around the car before starting to make sure that everything is documented. I will add something like that to the article based on your feedback because having such a situation is definitely not something you want to hear before traveling home.
Kevin Harding
Kevin Harding 02.05.
Actually that is something I do on every car hire Manuel. Not just a video but close up photos taken with the phone too (not just the body but interior but tyres as well). It means the car pick up takes an extra 10 mins but it's well worth it - and the car hire company also knows you have documentary evidence too so 'maybe' less likely to try it on.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 02.05.
Very good points. I did add this as a bonus tip to the article now because I think you guys are totally right about that and it's important to know. Thank you so much for your thoughts, really appreciate it.
Ron Planche
Ron Planche 27.03.
Thank you so much for this very timely and helpful article. Was not aware how serious the winds, waters and waves were. Because I’m traveling at the peak of the summer solstice I was worried about the crowds and was considering turning my day around photographing from 6pm to 6 am and sleeping during the day. Is that a workable plan.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 27.03.
Thank you for your comment dear Ron. I am not sure if this is a good plan or not since I've not been there during summer but I could imagine that this is definitely possible if you can do it mentally. If not, I think it's usually best to simply visit these very popular places at Ringroad during times when others would sleep or eat ;-) Wish you a wonderful time in Iceland and can't wait to see your photos from there.
Mike West
Mike West 27.12.2017
Manuel, "Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill noting but time." Is indeed sage advice for visiting Iceland or anywhere else on this planet. It is unfortunate that so few of us heed it.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 27.12.2017
Yeah, that's true... but as long as most of us take care of this advice it's at least something I guess, so thanks for being a part of "the few of us" :) Merry Christmas by the way!
Schneider David
Schneider David 29.01.2017
Sorry, but having a lead article about Iceland and a feature photo of Mostar seems odd. And talking about info about Iceland and not talking about Iceland in the winter is missing half the joy of Iceland. Seems the author is a waterfall junky based by photos, and that's fine, but there is a lot more to see than the hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls. I thought the article was lacking in experience in Iceland and misses the essence of the country by leaving out anything about Iceland when it's not a bright sunny spring/summer/fall day. I get where you are coming from, but think you are far from presenting even a basic list of what not to do by ignoring the darker months. Trust me, go in the winter and you'll be surprised by the number of people photographing! Hope this feedback is of some value and also hope your return to Iceland very soon so you can do a more complete job of what to do not do when photographing in Iceland.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 29.01.2017
Hey David, thanks for your honest feedback, I really appreciate that! Now that I think about the lead article + combination of header in the newsletter you are totally right. I just wanted to have as much diversity on places as possible, but I can definitely understand your view. And yes, there are a lot of more beautiful things to discover, so the images are just representing a tiny bit of the beauty of this amazing country. But these are just 7 points that somebody should take care of when he/she is traveling there for the first time - things that I instantly noticed when I was there and from what I read over all the past years. Going there during winter is on my travel list for sure and I would definitely recommend this, but this article is not about what and when you should Iceland, but what mistakes you should avoid. So if there are some conrete mistakes you can add to this list (which probably never will be complete since there is so much that somebody could do wrong), I would love to hear them and add them as bonus points with your name. You can answer me here on write a mail to [email protected] I am happy to hear from you! Manuel
Schneider David
Schneider David 30.01.2017
That German woman who drowned on Reynisfjara beach a few weeks ago, well, there are signs all over the place warning you in English and pictorially about rouge waves. There's no cure for stupid or disregarding warnings. Not sure she was taking selfies or admiring the view. As for darker times of the year, go back yourself and enjoy Iceland. You can quickly come up with an additional list of things expanding on footwear, clothing, where to park you car looking for Northern Lights and where you'll cause an accident or get your car stuck. If you think where you park your car is dangerous during the sunny months (and you are correct about it), think about the winter months!!! Things, including cameras, work differently when it's -10C, windy, icy and maybe 5 hours or so of daylight. (Most cameras list low operating temperature at 0C /32F.) That water blowing at all those waterfalls becomes beads of ice that stick to your lens and trails and steps/handrails. My CC is your title just says when traveling to Iceland when it's about traveling to Iceland when it's during the sunny season. You'll love Iceland in the winter, especially if you have favorable weather both day and night. Enjoy.
Murali Narayanan
Murali Narayanan 01.05.
I learned this the hard way. I almost drowned mainly due to the heavy tripod that I held on to. Your fate is sealed by the choices you make.
Luis Pina
Luis Pina 27.01.2017
As always, very nice article Manuel! Lots of good information here, specially underestimating the travel time and going out of the Ring Road. I intend to go to Iceland on a camping van next year but now that I read your aticle, I don't think I can reach places like Haifoss waterfall.. I guess I will have to hike quite a lot :)
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 28.01.2017
Thank you very much dear Luis! Haifoss would be no problem. You just need more time because you would have to leave your car down at the street and hike about 1.5h I guess. Just keep in mind that you need some time to walk back and that the nights in Iceland are extremely dark, depending on which time of the year you are there (during summer it's obviously no problem because it's never getting really dark). Wish you a great time there though and if you have any questions until your travels I am happy to help you!
Bill Boswell
Bill Boswell 29.01.2017
I've been to Haifoss twice and it is different each time due to the light and clouds. If you go slowly up the rough road you should be able to make it with a car. Just watch the holes and take your time. It is one of the most dramatic waterfalls and certainly worth the drive or hike.
Jan Römpp
Jan Römpp 27.01.2017
Great Article, Manuel, I couldn't agree more!
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 27.01.2017
Thank you very much Jan, really appreciate your feedback!! By the way: Where is your profile picture?? :-)
Jan Römpp
Jan Römpp 29.01.2017
I guess I have to upload it now ;)
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