So it’s Friday night and we decide to ‘somewhere’ in Germany for the weekend. I love road trips with unplanned destinations. And this random journey of ours brings us some 290 kms away to a tiny old town of Königswinter. Now I could tell you about the cute cog-wheel train ride that takes you all the way to the top of the hill Drachenfels, about the ruins of a long gone castle up there looking all dramatic in he dying sunlight; I could tell you the way Rhine river looked from that height, like a pale blue train of a royal gown. I could tell you about the far away skyline of Cologne sketched hazily on the horizon, its giant basilica looking no larger than a pencil’s tip. I could tell you about the wedding party in progress near the castle ruins, and the spectacular sight of the guests letting go off of purple balloons in unison. I could tell you how the forest glowed in the golden sunlight as we walked down from the hill and through the footpaths winding between old trees; of how sweet the plums were which we picked on our way and the weight of all that joy and laughter which we carried with us like a magnificent festive caravan.
But what I really want to tell you about, is the what an old German town feels like after sunset on a summer day. The narrow stone lanes are lit with strings of light, there are musicians playing live music at the square to an audience so small it feels like a private performance. There are stalls selling glasses of wine, couples cozying up to the music, red flowers peeping out from old brown houses and warm smiles of passersby everywhere. Königswinter wasn’t planned but it turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip. And it got me thinking, of how sometimes the ‘vibes’ of a place speak a lot more to us than the ‘sights’ or tourists attractions of the place. Has this happened with you too?
Travel tip – Rhine basin is a perfect place to plan a weekend trip from Amsterdam. There are so many beautiful old towns to choose from – Königswinter, Bonn, Cologne, Linz, Bad Hönningen, Winnigen, Mainz, Heidelburg and so on. If you do not wish to drive the entire stretch you have an option of taking a round trip Rhine cruise between the towns. KD operates multiple cruises between these cities. Have a fun weekend!
If you want to experience living on a different planet while still being on earth, go to Iceland. It is a world into itself and like no other place you have ever visited, I can guarantee. Read ahead for a 10 pointer practical guide to help you plan the ultimate summer road trip to Iceland with kids. In the next post I will elaborate on my personal experience in Iceland and the itinerary. Happy reading!
What NOT to expect from Iceland?
Iceland is not ornamentally pretty or romantic like the rest of Europe; no Gothic cathedrals or dreamy boat rides in the canals, no palaces or castles that transport you to a different time period. And the beaches are anything but conventional. They are not the white sand and turquoise water kinds, they have pitch black sand and with large chunks of ice washing off at the shore.
What Iceland is also not, is a foodie’s paradise. Once you move out of Reykjavík, its capital, civilization and all the luxuries that come with it become a little scarce and limited to major cities like Vík and Selfoss.
So, why Iceland?
Because where else would you witness the earth so alive? It is a bit of an irony really; how the landscapes of Iceland are dead in most places, barren and empty and yet this is also the place where you can actually feel the living pulse of the planet. The earth is alive in the roaring waterfalls, shooting geysers and the volcanoes, which are as synonymous to Iceland as mountains to Switzerland.
Is it a kid-friendly destination?
Yes. Although it is definitely challenging for the kids, but at the same time it is very much doable. I traveled there with my 4.5 and 1.5 year old kids and they were up to the challenge. Fortunately we never had any kids-related trouble or incidents during the trip. But this was also because we played it safe. Instead of doing a round trip traveling all of Iceland we limited our travel to only the southern part, where most of the attractions lie anyways. We stuck to the paved roads and drove mainly on Route 1. So no ‘off the beaten path’ adventures or ‘secret getaways’. However even the routine itinerary has its share of challenges. So consider the following before setting off –
Every sightseeing location in Iceland will involve some basic amount of hiking, which I think most kids are okay with. Raghav and Ira both were quite happy doing all the walking, running even dancing around the locations. If your child is below 3 years of age there are a few places you might have to carry him/her such as the hike behind the Sljalandsfoss waterfall or inside the lava tunnel etc. I would not suggest packing baby carriers/slings. You and your child would mostly likely be wearing multiple layers of clothing and a thick jacket so baby carriers will not be very practical. Use of strollers is limited to airports, so better carry the light weight variety (umbrella strollers) so that they don’t take up a lot of space in the car.
The road journey takes you through some breathtaking landscapes but also means long car rides for the kids. We drove around 4-5 hours on an average day with sightseeing and rest stops in between. When you drive that much for 7-8 days straight, it can take a toll on anyone.
Add to that the cold weather. Even during summer months the temperatures are a cool 10 – 15C and plenty of wind to make it feel a lot colder.
Midnight sun means it never gets completely dark. This might pose a problem in convincing the kids it is time for bed even if the birds are chirping outside and it ‘looks like’ evening. Most stays in Iceland have blinds instead of blackout curtains. They help, but not completely. So carry sleeping masks for the kiddies and hope for the best.
By all means I will encourage you to go to Iceland with kids BUT if your kids have never been on a road trip before, don’t make this one their first.
When is the best time to visit?
Anytime! Iceland is a year-round destination. However there are 2 main seasons – summer (June to August) and winter (November to February). Go in summer if you want enjoy 24 hours of sunlight, good weather (10 to 20C) and clear roads, all of which are ideal conditions for a road trip. Go in winter if you want to feast on the northern lights, explore ice caves and generally enjoy a ‘winter wonderland’. But also be prepared for unpredictable and rough weather conditions (-10 to 0C). Price wise, summer months are costlier and slightly busier. So my personal recommendation is the time between May to June; relatively good temperatures (12 to 20 C), plenty of sunlight and not ridiculously costly.
Tip – For avoiding the summer crowds at the tourist attractions consider setting off on your trip later in the day. The midnight sun will keep things nice and bright so you can still do some sightseeing until late and avoid the peak time crowds. Going really early also works.
How to cover Iceland?
Iceland can be divided into 4 tourist regions – South, the standout feature being Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon; west – famous for fjords; North – known for the volcanic lake Mývatn and east – famous for Vestrahorn mountain. The best way to visit all the tourist attractions of Iceland is to take the Ring Road or Route 1 which encircles the entire island country and takes you to almost all of the tourist attractions. Keep aside a minimum of 7 days for this route, 10-12 days if you want to keep a relaxed pace. Another super short way to witness the highlights is to go for the ‘Golden Circle’. It’s a day trip from Reykjavík and takes you through some prominent waterfalls, geysers, national park where the two tectonic plates meet. This is ideal if you are using Iceland only as a stopover for an onward journey.
Driving in Iceland
The best way to explore Iceland is to rent a car and simply drive. The roads are to die for and pretty much empty most of the times. Cars also give you the flexibility to stop wherever you want to, enjoy the surrounding beauty, take tons of pictures and simply chill. You can rent a car from rentalcars.com. It gives you a good comparison between rental rates offered by different car companies.
The next big question is – should you go for a four wheel drive or two wheel drive car? If you are going for the first time and wish to visit all the major attractions, stick to a two wheel drive and save some money 😉 . Four wheel drive is meant for gravel or unpaved roads which are off Route 1. They are called “F roads” and they connect remote villages. A pretty sound idea is to simply try to cover the routine attractions on the first trip.
The most important thing to know about driving in Iceland is that it’s a left-handed drive(driver’s seat is on the left side). That poses a bit of a challenge if you are used to driving on the left side of the road like in India or UK. But driving in Iceland is not difficult because the traffic is negligible and you can go for miles without sighting a single other car. I absolutely enjoyed driving in Iceland, and highly recommend it!
Another option is to rent an RV or camper van. The roads in southern Iceland are very well suited for RVs. There are regular rest stops and parking lots. You can also save on accommodations costs. And while the idea of an RV in Iceland may sound very compelling, we personally did not find it practical because we were traveling with kids.
Organized tours & Bus Passport
If driving is not an option then you can consider one of the tour operators for an organized tour. Tours from Reykjavík run daily for Golden Circle and some tours go up to south and north Iceland but for the east side tours are not frequent.
You can also opt for a ‘bus passport’ which gives you unlimited access to bus travel along the ring road. This is the same concept as the hop-on-hop-off bus tours at major tourist cities around the world but instead of a single day these tours last for days. They also give you a suggested itinerary based on the length of your trip. During summer the bus services run daily. The rest of the year, they become far less frequent. However, if you are traveling in a group of two or more, hiring a car is significantly cheaper.
What to pack for a summer road trip?
Icelandic summers are cold enough to be considered peak winters in many other parts of the world specially the tropics. Average temperatures hover around 10-15C and rarely go beyond 20C. So even if you are traveling in summer it makes sense to basically pack for all four seasons. Because you are most likely to witness all the seasons within a single week, sometimes even in a day. For clothing items it is useful to think in terms of layers – a pair of thermals, short and long sleeved shirts, sweaters or fleece jackets and rain jackets or water proof winter jackets for better insulation. The idea is to be able to remove or add layers during the day according to the weather changes Along with a regular pair of jeans or denims, hiking trousers and zip-off travel pants are very practical and comfortable. The most important item in your packing list is definitely footwear. Pack some sturdy water proof shoes that can survive hiking.
The thermal pools in Iceland are pristine! So don’t forget to pack a swimsuit, towels and flip flops or slippers. You will also need a sleeping mask since the sun practically never goes down, winter caps, gloves and a muffler if you like. Icelandic weather can get incredibly windy, so umbrellas do not work. A complete head to toe raincoat is very helpful when you are visiting the many gorgeous waterfalls in Iceland. These waterfalls are no gentle cascades. They are a force of nature and they will drench you completely.
If you are flying with kids, check with the airlines about carry-on luggage. Most airlines allow you to carry 2 odd sized items per child for free. We carried a stroller for Ira and car seats for both kids.
And now about the food packing list. We always carry our own food supplies wherever we travel and also buy from local grocery stores there. For vegetarians I can suggest to carry ready-to-eat vegetable curries by Haldiram or MTR etc from nearby Indian stores . Also pack rice and a pressure cooker, electric or induction kind. Pack tons of dry snacks since, ‘road trip’! Dry snacks can be various Haldiram kind of mixtures or the healthy variety – baked khakras, sesame snaps, granola mixture or bars and dry fruits. Pack ready to make soups, Maggie noodles and tea bags and coffee. Tip- carry a thermos filled with hot water every day you leave for sightseeing. During the day pick a good spot with a view to settle down and make yourself a cup of tea or coffee or soup using the hot water in the thermos. Nothing is more relaxing than a hot cup of whatever is your chosen poison at the end of a long tiring day in the middle of cold and beautiful landscapes.
Where to stay?
You can use booking.com and airbnb.com for booking accommodations. It is recommended to look for a room along Route 1. Always check the condition of the road leading up to the apartment/guesthouse/hotel. Side roads are often unpaved gravel and you may run a risk of getting a flat tyre. Also read all reviews before booking any room. High prices do not always translate to high levels of comfort. The facilities outside Reykjavík are pretty basic and exorbitantly expensive. Rates of 200 Euros per night are not uncommon. Do not expect 5 star comforts from an accommodation only because it costs more than 200 Euros per day. If you come across rental rates around 100-150 Euros then there are good chances that you will be sharing your kitchen and bathroom with other guests. It is advisable to always recheck before booking to avoid disappointment at a later stage.
Tip – One way to save on costs is to opt for an accommodation on a sharing basis. It is similar to renting a room in a house. You will have a room to yourself and the rest of the house – kitchen and bathroom will be shared with other guests. This is a great way to meet other travelers. However I would not recommend sharing premises if you are traveling with kids.
How much will a trip cost?
#Flights The flight tickets to Reykjavík are quite cheap if you are traveling from Europe, UK or US. But the bargain ends there. Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. So planning well and in advance is the key.
#Stay The rental price of a room varies from 150 to 250 Euros per night (for two people) with a kitchenette and private bathroom. So average cost for shoulder season like May- June and September-October will be 200 Euros per night. The room rental near Reykjavík is moderate but as you travel south towards Vík, rates go up dramatically till you reach the Glacier lagoon. Once you cross south Iceland and go further towards the eastern side you will observe some sanity in the rental prices
#Food Eating out in a restaurant is expensive and outside Reykjavík there not many options available so a good meal for two adults and two kids will cost you around 100-150 Euros (without alcohol). You can find some fast food chains like Subway (foot long – 11 to 15 Euros) for a something more reasonably priced.
Tip – An effective way to save on food costs is to cook your own food. Most accommodations in Iceland come with a kitchenette for precisely this reason. You can stock up on supplies in Reykjavík from retail shops such as Bonus, Netto or Kronan. The further you travel from the capital city, food supplies are not easily available and restaurants are few.
#Car Car rental price during summer is 60-100 Euros per day for two wheel drive (5 seater car including insurance) and 100-150 Euros per day for four wheel drive. I would recommend buying the car insurance coverage from rentalcars.com instead of getting it from the car company directly.
Putting all the costs together, here is a rough estimate of daily expenses for a couple on a self catering meal basis, excluding flight tickets:
High season (July-August): 700 Euros per couple per day
Mid season (May – June & Sep – Oct): 500 Euros per couple per day
Low season: (Nov- April): 350 to 400 Euros per couple per day
This is our 9 day itinerary for a summer trip (end of May- first week of June). We traveled across all the major attractions of southern Iceland and parts of eastern and western Iceland. So instead of doing a complete Route 1 we completed three fourth of it. Given the time frame of 9 days it was entirely possible to do all of Route 1 but we kept it short to keep the pace relaxed.
Tip- While planning an itinerary it is very important to keep some days without any specific plans or as I like to call them ‘blank days’. These little elbow rooms here and there are very much needed if you wish to revisit a certain attraction and also to account for sick days and bad weather days.
Day 1 – Reach Reykjavík
Day 2 – Explore Reykjavík (Hallgrímskirkja church, Sun Voyager sculpture, whale & puffins watching excursions, Harpa Concert Hall, museums, street art, nightlife )
Day 3 – Golden Circle (Þingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall) and Secret Lagoon or/and Fontana Geothermal baths
Day 4 – Geothermal Park, Raufarholshellir lava tunnel and Kerið crater lake
Day 5 – Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Skogafoss waterfall, Plane wreck and Reynisfjara black sand beach
Day 6 – Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond beach
Day 7 – Vestrahorn mountain and Glacier Lagoon again (cause it deserves a second visit)
Day 8 – Akranes light house and Lóndrangar basalt cliffs (we missed the basalt cliffs, had to return midway because of bad weather conditions)
Day 9 – Visit the Blue lagoon
Day 10 – Fly back
I hope this was helpful. I would love to hear from you. For thoughts, feedback and questions, kindly comment below. More details on sightseeing coming up in the next post. See ya!