Nordic countries are expensive. Very expensive! If you are going to travel with kids, it is worth making a few adjustments to ensure that your amazing trip does not require a second mortgage. Here are tips and tricks to make sure you have a relaxing and enjoyable trip to Iceland with your kids.
Getting There – Iceland Air
Getting there is the easy part. Iceland Air has 11 direct flights to the US, including Minneapolis/St. Paul, and the flights are reasonably priced. It is also a hub to Europe, which makes Iceland a great stopping point if you are looking to break up a larger trip.
Once you land, and before you pick up your rental car, if you want to drink you have one very important job. You need to buy booze. Alcohol is extremely expensive in Iceland. Read here if you don’t believe us! You will save from 25-50% vs. prices at the liquor stores depending on the type of alcohol. Stop at the Duty-Free store at Keflavik Airport (KEF) and stock up.
RENT A CAR!
We also recommend renting a car. Large tour buses are great for adults, but not so great for kids. We ALWAYS rent cars and view it as a small price to pay for flexibility, peace of mind, and if you are lucky, some car naps. You can get up when you want, leave when you want, take breaks when you want… you get the idea. Kids have short attention spans and early bedtimes, especially if jet lag is involved. Buy yourself some freedom and rent a car.
If you are going in the winter, we’d recommend a cheap 4×4 like the Dacia Duster and Suzuki Vitara. We rented through Budget and picked up at the airport. Our advice is go to Rentalcars.com and find a car that meets your price point and size needs. They cover most major brands and in our experience are relatively painless to work with. We rented a Hyundai i20, but that was in the spring. The airport is easy to navigate and pickup was in the terminal parking lot. Iceland was an easy country to drive in.
What about Car Seats?
Pro-tip: We bring our own car seats. Rental car companies do rent them, however we find they are very expensive. We throw them in a big black garbage bag (or maybe you are lucky and your car seat comes with a travel bag!) and check them as bulky luggage, which is free with most airlines and worth the hassle. We also skip the added insurance. Our Capital One Venture X card has rental coverage included (recommendation from Nick at Thrifty Traveler). We have never had to use that insurance, however, with the number of cars we’ve rented, we’d still be ahead even if we had to pay for a couple of small dings or dents. Make sure you take a quick video or pictures of your car before you take off so you have a good record of any existing damage.
Day 1 – Arrive and get settled
We were on the last leg of a 30 day trip across Europe and arrived on an afternoon flight from Oslo, Norway. Although we were tired, we were also excited to experience a great Icelandic adventure with our kids. We picked up our rental car and set off for our Airbnb. Our plan was to get settled at our cabin and enjoy a relaxing evening in our private, geothermal hot tub (yes, you read that right, cabin and hot tub!).
We love staying at Airbnb’s as long as they are professionally managed. We are not interested in renting an actual person’s home while they are away. There are just too many horror stories of odd cleaning rules, notes to let the cat out, ridiculous cleaning fees, etc. While we shy away from large hotels, we prefer a certain level of professionalism.
We like privacy, mainly so we can let the kids be kids without worrying about the neighbors. This cabin had plenty of space. It is one room with a kitchen, a small hallway, and a full bathroom. Although it technically sleeps 4-5 people, I would only hit the upper limit if it were two adults and three kids. It also has a nice kitchen. Most importantly, it has beautiful views and a clean geothermal-powered hot tub. Think of it as one of Iceland’s famous hot springs, except in this case you can actually enjoy it without your kids scaring off the other guests. The host was super helpful, and provided a ton of useful tips to ensure we enjoyed our stay.
Backup Food Reserves
We always travel with food. It was a lesson learned very early on in our adventures and one we hope to pass on to you. Even if you are leaving form the US, pack a ton of snacks (some in your a carryon, some checked) and include something more substantial too. We often travel with bread, peanut butter, and jelly. That way we can always put a meal together if we are too tired, or unable, to find a grocery store or restaurant. It may feel weird traveling to a foreign country with sandwich ingredients in your bag, but trust us, it will be worth its weight in gold some day!
We also had made sure we ate plenty before leaving Norway as we knew we’d arrive late in Iceland. All we had to do when we got to our cabin was make a sandwich, open a bottle of wine from the airport, and hop in the tub! We enjoyed the beautiful views around us from the comfort of our own “home”. Then we put the kids to bed and slipped out for one last dip. Once you learn to travel like this, you will never go back. It is soooo much more relaxing and, as you will see, you can still accomplish a ton of sightseeing.
Day 2 – The Search for Food and Some Relaxed Exploration
Empty Cupboard = Empty Stomachs
We woke up well rested the next day, but hungry, and needed a plan that did not involve PB&Js. Usually, we would have stopped at the grocery store the night we arrived, however we were too tired and it was too late. We decided we’d better head out and get some supplies. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and Iceland gets going later in the morning on Sundays. We found a Nettó grocery store that was open in Selfoss, which was about an half hour south of us. Lucky for us it was not far from Kaffi Krús. At the time we just thought it was a cute coffee shop with excellent food. It was later when we actually looked it up that we realized it was extremely popular and received rave reviews on TripAdvisor. Who would have guessed? Sometimes having no plan is the best plan.
Pro Tip: Grocery stores are a great way to keep your budget under control. We love eating out, but realize it just isn’t practical, or in some cases, affordable, with kids. Our approach is to eat breakfast at “home”, lunch while we are out exploring, and then dinner back at “home”. We bought eggs, bacon, meat for grilling (the cabin has a grill!), veggies, sandwich ingredients, and plenty of snacks. The kids also picked out some unique looking foods with labels we could not read. We love trying new things and this is an easy and cheap way to do it.
A Little Energy Release
We went back to our cabin with bellies full after a full breakfast with baked good from Kaffi Krús. Kristen and I put our groceries away and then we decided to go on a little hike around the cabin. We had big plans for the afternoon and needed to get a little energy out of our kids. It would not be the first time, but as we were out walking a rancher came through with a herd of beautiful Icelandic horses. We had the pleasure of sitting in the grass watching them all run past to greener pastures. It is an image I will never forget.
Golden Circle Trip #1 – Kerið Crater
What is the Golden Circle?
Our cabin is located right in the middle of the Golden Circle, which is one of the top activities for short trips in Iceland. There are a ton of awesome sites to see, from waterfalls to glaciers and black sand beaches. We were in Iceland at the end of May and the number of other tourists was very manageable. Many of these sites can become crowded during the peak summer season. Our advice is pick a few key attractions per day. If you fit in more, great; if not, no worries. We were selective in what we saw and catered our trip to our goals and what we thought the kids could handle (ours were 2 and 4 at the time). If you have more than one day, you can break it up into multiple trips.
We try to avoid feeling rushed so opted to spread our itinerary over multiple days. Our logic is that we would rather see fewer places, but really enjoy them, than rush to see more just for a quick picture (Google has plenty of those)! We also loved our cabin so we were very content spending time there. Our first attraction was Kerið Crater. Our kids were old enough to understand the concept behind volcanos and it was a ton of fun hiking around the rim and playing by the water. The crater sits on private land and there is a nominal fee (about $3.00).
After the crater, we went home to start up the grill and enjoy another beautiful night outside. Because it was late May, the sun high in the sky and darkness barely came! We had a big day ahead of us and wanted to make sure everyone was well fed and well rested.
I hate to admit it, but we did have a small parenting fail this night. We had been using a mix of normal glasses for wine and water. Betty was thirsty and took a drink from her glass. Well… she must have picked the wrong one as she made a funny sound and yelled “Yuck! This water is spicy!” Something tells me it wasn’t water and Dad learned an important lesson that night.
Day 3 – Blue Lagoon
After decades of travel, we often run into friends in the strangest of places. Right before we arrived we found out that we would overlap with a couple of our old rock climbing friends so we made plans to meet up at the famous Blue Lagoon. We tend to avoid most touristy spots as they just aren’t our thing (busy places and young kids rarely mix). That being said, I would still highly recommend Blue Lagoon. It is a truly unique spot and is very well organized. While it can be very busy, it is a great way to relax with your kids and is worth a stop.
Which tickets are the best when traveling with kids?
You need to buy tickets ahead of time and can book directly from their website. Kids 13 and under are free! We opted for the Comfort tickets, which are about $60. They come with an entrance ticket, towel, silica mud mask, and a free drink. There are options for more luxurious packages, but remember, you are with kids! For them, this is no different than the swimming pool at your local AmericInn. Skip the fancy packages, enjoy your time, have a couple of expensive drinks, and head home when you are done. Then, once you can ditch the kids at Grandma and Grandpas, come back on an adults only trip and spend a night at their attached hotel and live it up!
We spent hours there! The water color is mesmerizing and there are great views. It was not terribly busy when we went, so there was plenty of room for the kids to “swim” around. There are rock ledges all around so we’d just pull them out occasionally to cool off. It is a very unique experience and much easier to arrange with small kids than some of the more remote hot springs.
After a long day at Blue Lagoon, we went back to the cabin for some food and another walk. We ran into the horses again and there seemed to be more. One was quite stubborn and did not want to continue down the road, so the farm hands had to get a bit creative!
Day 4 – Golden Circle Trip #2
Today was our big Golden Circle day. Our main goal was to make it to the black sand beaches in Vik and to fill in the rest of the day with other stops depending on how everyone was feeling.
Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park which is known for its unique geology and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the mainland. Here you can see where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It truly is quite fascinating. The area is wide open and there is plenty of room for kids to be kids. If they have energy, plan this stop for around that time! You can also watch the snorkelers on their tour and wish you had some way to pawn the kids off for a bit!
Geyser Hot Spring Area
Stop number two was the Geysir Hot Spring area. This was a really exciting stop for us all. How could anyone complain about seeing active geysers, boiling mud pits, and the infamous Strokkur Geyser. I bet we stayed around an hour at this spot, but you could make it shorter if you caught a good glimpse of Strokkur!
Gullfoss Falls (Golden Waterfalls)
From what I hear, Gullfoss Falls is amazing, however, I personally did not see it. We hit a bit of a brick wall with Betty and she was ready for a nap. We arrived right when a large tour bus was unloading and decided it would be better for Kristen and Henrik to head up and Betty and I to rest in the car. Kristen and Henrik made the trek and took some beautiful pictures. Hopefully your whole family will make it, but if not, take our cue and don’t force it. There is nothing wrong with splitting up for a couple of these sights!
Seljanlandsfoss (Waterfalls you can walk behind)
Stop number four was well worth it. Seljanlandsfoss is a tall and slender waterfall pouring right over the cliff. The best part is you can get out, stretch your legs, and walk behind it. We’ll warn you, it does get a bit slippery so take your time. It is fascinating to be able to see the falls from all angles.. Worst case, the kids get a some exercise (and a little wet).
On the way to Vik we stopped at Solheimajokull Glacier. It is right off of the coastal road into Vik and looked too interesting. Unfortunately, the kids were at wits end. Kristen and I took turns taking a short hike up to the glacier and then decided to call it a day. If you have time, it is worth considering some of the glacier based activities Iceland has to offer. While we did not build it into our plan, there are opportunities for snowmobiling, guided 4×4 adventures, hikes, etc. on most of Iceland’s glaciers. If we went back, we definitely would bundle up and take the kids on some of the best adventures Iceland has to offer! It would help if they were a little older too…
Black Sand Beaches of Vik
Our final stop were the black sand beaches of Vik, and Reynisfjara in particular. This was our main goal and we were willing to make sacrifices on the previous stops to make sure we made it in one piece! The weather started to darken, and it rained a bit, but the trip was well worth it. It is so cool seeing jet black beaches and the kids loved running around. Our recommendation is to make this your destination and come to terms with the fact that you may miss out on some of the stops along the way.
Day 5 – Whale Museum, Nautholsvik Hot Spring, and Home
Whales of Iceland Museum
It is always sad to leave, but Day 5 was our last day. Our flight was in the afternoon which gave us a couple of hours to explore. Our first attraction of the day was the Whales of Iceland Museum, which is not far from Nautholsvik in a small industrial park. Henrik was very into whales at the time, so we added a quick stop. It is an audio/visual tour, so everyone gets their own headsets. There are life-sized models of the different whale species hanging on the ceiling and interesting exhibits. There is also a small play area to get the kids climbing and moving!
A Slight Mishap
The museum is pretty dark and little Betty was wandering around behind some exhibits when we heard her fall. When we went to pick her up (remember very dark) she was wet and smelled horrible. What we later learned was that a student on a local field trip puked and, while the staff were gone to get cleaning supplies to clean it up, Betty had slipped in the vomit. She was covered literally from head to toe. Of course, all of her clothes were packed up and since it was the last leg of the trip we didn’t have spare clothes out like we usually do.
We took her into the bathroom and gave her a quick shower in the sink, including ringing our her clothes! The museum staff were mortified and offered up some museum swag so she could wear something clean. It was an A for effort, but C for execution. The smallest size they had would be equivalent to a 6-8 year old in the US. Needless to say, Betty ended up with a very cute Penguin dress that we still have to this day. Luckily we were off to the hot spring and could get a real shower in!
Nautholsvik Hot Spring – Reykjavik
Next we set off for Nautholsvik Hot Spring in Reykyavik. Nautholsvik was a chance to avoid the throngs of tourists and enjoy an experience with the locals. It is largely a local swimming hole for the people of Reykyavik and has changing facilities and showers (with lockers), steam baths, and hot tubs. Hot water is pumped into a small lagoon providing a chance to swim in 60-70 degree water.
The coolest part is the number of locals swimming out in the open sea (water temp = FREEZING). Many had neoprene gloves and hats and were swimming long distances. We garnered up the courage and went for a quick dip ourselves and then booked it back to the hot tubs to warm up. If you are in Reykjavik and have a little time, it is definitely worth a stop.
Reykjavik Airport is easy, well organized, and has plenty of shops and restaurants. We let everyone pick out their final meal and sat down to relax and reflect on another wonderful trip. Were there things we wish we’d known beforehand? Absolutely. Do we wish we would have seen other sights? Of course. Should we have extended the trip by a day or two? Definitely. Those are all true of any trip. That being said, as we look back and write this post that it was the perfect trip to Iceland for our family. We hope you can use this post as a guide and design your own unique adventure. Set some goals, but keep it flexible. Some of the most memorable experiences are unplanned.
I mean, who would plan for their daughter to turn the Whale Museum into a vomit slip and slide?
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