So you’re not sure you should do Iceland by camper van in winter? Maybe you hate the cold, maybe you prefer hotels, maybe you want to see the summer solstice. Well, before deciding on Iceland in summer or Iceland via tour bus, make sure to read these 10 reasons you should do Iceland by camper van in winter.
10 REASONS YOU SHOULD TRAVEL ICELAND (BY CAMPER VAN) IN WINTER
1. ICELAND ISN’T THAT COLD ANYWAYS
Sure, the country has the word “ice” in it, but Iceland really is not that cold in comparison to places like the American Midwest and Central Europe. The lowest monthly average temperature in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik is 32 deg F (0 deg C), versus 21 deg F (-6 deg C) in Chicago and 30 deg F (-1 deg C) in Prague. *cue Elsa singing*
Who am I kidding – I hate the cold (I didn’t see snow til I was 21 and snowfall til I was 22) – but I was able to survive Iceland in winter just fine, so you should have no problems.
2. NORTHERN LIGHTS
Technically, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in Iceland from the end of September through the beginning of April. But you have an even better chance of seeing these elusive lights deeper in winter, when the nights are longer. There is, of course, a balance – you might not want to do a road trip in December or January, because short daylight hours means less other attractions that you can see each day. So my personal recommendation is to visit in mid October – November or February – early March. You also need a handful of other factors, like clear skies, strong aurora activity, low light pollution (avoid visiting during a full moon), and a bit of luck.
Iceland is, in my opinion, the best destination to see the northern lights because, if you don’t catch them, at least you still had a CRAZY AWESOME TIRP ANYWAYS. In other destinations where the lights are pretty much the only reason to visit, you’ll feel really disappointed if you leave and didn’t catch them.
3. ICE CAVES
Seeing a photo of a person in a glistening blue ice cave was actually what started my 3-year obsession with getting to Iceland in the first place. And while you can catch the Northern Lights at the tail-end winter months like September and April, you cannot go inside an ice cave. I went to Iceland in early March, and on my ice cave and glacier hike tour, our guide actually let us know that they would be destroying the caves the following week (safety precaution). So if you want amazing sights like these, you need to go in proper winter. Glacier hiking, however, can be done year round.
4. FROZEN WATERFALLS
Like with the ice cave, upon seeing a picture of a frozen waterfall in Iceland, I just KNEW I had to see this for myself. Being from California, there are hikes I can do nearby with some pretty beautiful waterfalls covering in lush greenery. But a frozen waterfall? Like, not an icicle, but like a legit, huge waterfall partially frozen?? That just looked so out of Narnia. I will definitely be back to Iceland in summer to see everything green, but frozen waterfalls did not disappoint.
5. LOWER PRICES
Lemme tell ya right now – Iceland ain’t cheap. But it DEFINITELY ain’t cheap in summer. I’ve lived in the SF Bay Area most of my life, studied for six months in central London, and worked for four weeks in central Tokyo, but nothing quite prepared me for the sticker shock of prices in Reykjavík (where I had the most expensive Pad Thai of my LIFE).
One great way to slash costs, though? Visiting in winter. Everything from car and camper van rentals, to accommodation, to tours, to flights will be cheaper in winter. I visited in March and paid $390 for a round-trip flight from SFO with WOW Airlines. That $390 is AFTER adding $70 each way for checked-baggage. Yeah. Flying in summer would have cost me double that, and even though $800 for a trip from California to Europe is a pretty good deal, saving $400 right off the bat is a great way to offset all the other expenses of the trip. (Sadly, WOW airlines has since closed for business. But Iceland Air also has lower prices in winter relative to summer.)
Similarly, I paid around $100 per day for my camper van rental (for 3 people) instead of around $200 per day – that’s literally half off, and for a trip of, say, 5 nights, that’s $500 of savings. You can use that savings to splurge on a dream tour (like snowmobiling or helicopter) or to extend your trip longer and increase changes of seeing the Northern Lights!
6. SAVE MONEY ON FOOD & BOARD
As you can see from the previous point, renting a camper van is not that much cheaper than the price to stay in a hotel, so it might seem like you’re not really saving money on accommodation. But you are saving money in two other ways. First, you are saving the cost of a rental car (multi-day tours are another option, but they are really expensive). But secondly, where the real savings come from is that you can cook your own food.
Expect the cheapest proper meals in Iceland to start at $20. Gas stations do offer cheaper eats, like Subways and Quiznos starting at $10 for the most basic, vegetarian options, hot dogs at $3 – $5 dollars, and meaty soups around $12. While this is better than a sit down meal, it can still cost you $25 – $30 dollars a day to eat. With a camper van, you have a fridge and stove with you everywhere you go, and you can stock up on food at discount grocery store Bonus.
7. CHANGE PLANS ON A WHIM
While Iceland isn’t as cold as its name might suggest, the weather still is very unpredictable (even outside of winter) and you need to stay flexible. I have read more than once about road closures and storms blocking road-trippers from reaching their accommodation for the night. Not only does this thwart your itinerary, but it also adds extra costs.
By using a camper van, you have no pre-booked accommodation and can make decisions on which direction to go first and where to sleep based on things like where the Northern Lights are strongest that night, or where roads aren’t closed.
This was the main determining factor for me, as I have never driven in snow and knew I would not feel comfortable driving through a storm. I ended up having very agreeable weather during my stay in Iceland, but it was nice to double-check the weather in each area of the country before my trip and decide if I should rearrange my itinerary for the weather.
8. LESS TOURIST CROWDS
Like any location in the offseason, traveling Iceland in winter allows you to enjoy some of earth’s most unique nature with fewer crowds. And with a camper van, you can plan to sleep nearby the attractions you’re really excited about seeing and beat the crowds. HELLO awesome Instagram pictures!!
9. HOT SPRINGS WILL BE THAT MUCH BETTER
Iceland’s natural and man-made hot springs are, of course, available all year round. But there is something extra delightful about dipping into a steamy, geothermal bath while it is chilly outside. Add in the chance of seeing the Northern Lights during said bath, and you’ve really got what dreams are made of. One employee working the Blue Lagoon facial mask bar told me they see the Northern Lights from the lagoon on occasion! SO JEALOUS!!
10. YOU WILL FEEL LIKE A TOTAL BADASS AFTERWARDS
When you get home and tell your stories, everyone will be like, “WOAH WOAH WOAH WAIT. Iceland? You slept IN A CAR? You just went WHEREVER THE WIND LED YOU? In WINTER????” And you’ll shrug and be like, “yeah” NBD.
SO, DID I CONVINCE YOU?
What are your thoughts? Would you travel Iceland in a camper van in winter? Have you been to Iceland in winter? How was it?