Best things to see on an Iceland family holiday
Bathing in milky waters in a moonscape with swim up bar and voodoo silica face packs
A beach called Vik
Paddling in icy waters with hot black volcanic sand surrounded by kamikaze baby puffins tumbling from the cliffs
Inside a glacier
Journeying onto a glacier in an aquatic monster truck and wandering around blue back-lit glacial tunnels
Iceland family holiday - a few pre-trip questions
Just how expensive is an Iceland family holiday?
Iceland with kids sounded fun. Who wouldn’t want to see ice and snow in summer and a bit of midnight sun? But there were rumours that you could bankrupt yourself ordering a round of drinks. Some research was required as to how to survive both the weather and financially.
How to fly to Iceland on a budget?
The answer for us turned out to be free – using stop overs on long haul flights. We were on our way to visit relatives in Canada and discovered from the (always helpful) staff at Trailfinders, that so long as you are heading in generally the same direction, many airlines let you have free stop offs on the way. Iceland air will drop you off at Reykjavik on the way to Toronto. A bonus week in Iceland with kids almost felt like it was going to be free. Just the accommodation and food to cover.
Iceland family holiday tip 1 – Consider a free stop off on the way to Canada with Iceland Air
Family hotels in Iceland - how expensive are they?
Even being fully aware that Iceland holidays are expensive, it still came as a bit of a shock, when working out whether to catch the later but cheaper flight, that an overnight stay in the hotel in Reykjavik airport was going to cost £400 for a family room. Yikes. Iceland with kids was definitely not going to be cheap.
Best place to stay on an Iceland family holiday? The Golden Circle
Airbnb provided the answer to affordable Iceland holiday accommodation, especially with kids, in the form of an 8 person suite of 2 wooden lodges complete with outdoor hot tub and giant wood burner.
The lodge was located in Grímsnes, which is not as grim as the name suggests, but is in fact located in the Golden Circle (with a pleasingly Brothers Grimm fairy-tale ring to it). This is the area where the main attractions of Geysir geyser (so good they named it twice) and Gullfoss waterfall are sited. It was also available at a much more reasonable £700 per family of 4 for the week. According to Google maps, it was only just over an hour’s drive from Reykjavik airport. More about this later.
Iceland family holiday tip 2 – Book with Airbnb for affordable yet luxurious lodge accommodation
Check cancellation policies
The only thing to be wary about with Airbnb or any independent accommodation booking, which I was only warned about after the trip, is to check your host’s cancellation policy. If they cancel, even though you get a refund, there may not be any other accommodation options still available in high season in your budget. If you have to cancel, you may not be covered by your travel insurance, so check all policies carefully.
Can you afford to eat in Iceland?
Not really. In the touristy shops, a bag of Doritos was £9. Even in Bonus Pig budget supermarket (think Aldi on a shoestring), a bag of grapes was a tenner and it was £20 for a pack of mince or block of cheese. We had brought some packets of rice and Pot Noodles from home, but should have taken more.
We could see from the Subway style flyers that a fast food burger and chip meal would cost $18US each, so eating out was never going to be an option for us.
Iceland with kids tip tip 3 – bring food for the whole week. And definitely go large at the duty free. A bottle of spirits will set you back £80 a pop here
Icelandic weather - how bad is it?
It was July when we went on our Icelandic holiday, and although this technically constitutes summer, it was still 10 degrees, with a driving wind and icy rain and sporadic glorious sunshine.
On a good day, it really is the land of the midnight sun and the sky slowly transforms into a surreal penumbra filled with the sounds of strange bird life.
The flip side is that as it doesn’t get dark, you’re not going to see the Northern Lights in the summer.
What is driving like in Iceland?
Not wanting to be the subject of a car sting in which we were charged for spurious damage claims after returning home (an international trade industry scam) we opted to go through Zest, winner of the most recent Which? Magazine award and through which in the past we had hired cars a from big companies such as Hertz and Avis at cheap rates and without rip-off incident.
As the guidebooks advise that you only need 4 wheel drive in summer if heading off the main roads, and in the interests of economy, we picked up the tiniest car for 4 people on their books and made a note-to-selves to stay on the highways.
Driving takes a long time in Iceland. The roads are fairly sparsely populated (much like the country itself which is home to only about 330,000 people), but the unpredictable wind suddenly blasts the side of your car, and then fog descends in an instant, the clouds part and the sun shines through for about 5 minutes before rain suddenly lashes down, flooding the tarmac. It is literally 4 seasons in one hour, let alone day.
What we would usually consider small distances on a map back home, take hours to navigate at an average speed of about 20mph. Amazing skies though!
Lights must be on at all times, and we could see why. Instead of road signs there are actual wrecked cars strung up as warnings along the roadside; the metal roadkill proving effective reminders that that there is no need for speed.
The fact that there are hardly any roads does make the navigator’s job a bit easier mind.
What do I need to know about nature in Iceland?
Northern lights or Land of the midnight sun?
Iceland family holiday tip 4: In the summer you can see the magical midnight sun, but you’ll need to come back in winter (which I totally intend to do one day!) for a dark sky for the Northern Lights.
Geology in action
Iceland with kids tip 5 – Stand astride 2 tectonic plates in a shopping mall
It is worth checking out the shopping centre in Hveragoeroi, which was originally supposed to be several storeys high, but after discovering that the European and North American tectonic plates meet right underneath it, instead of abandoning the project or at least moving it a little bit to the left or right, the builders simply scaled back their plans to a one storey mall with a see-through floor so shoppers can check out the edges of the Earth’s crust when popping out for a £9 bag of crisps.
Beware – hot springs and boiling mud move about a lot here. The guidebooks are written and ticket booths are set up at what were amazing geological sites, only for a bit of volcanic activity to take place, shifting them all somewhere else. The booth at the geothermal museum in Hveragerði will still take your money by the way to see what is left (not much), and your 12 year old will have a bit of a rubbish birthday day out in Gufudalur which was once the site of boiling volcanic mud pools but is now just a muddy field.
Iceland family holiday tip 6 – Buy this year’s guide book so you don’t miss the hot spring party
The terrain is straight out of the trolls’ rolling boulders habitat in Frozen: lumpy, rocky and green. We had thought staying in a lodge in the countryside would mean the boys could play outside, but even walking gingerly across it risks a broken ankle – hence the boardwalk to the hot tub.
Weirdly because of the high winds and lack of soil, there are hardly any trees, just a thin veneer of green over the lava fields.
Schedule - things to do on an Iceland family holiday
The plans for the week were based on 3 main factors: the weather, the age of the children and driving distance.
We’d decided to alternate long and short driving days, go to the beach on the best weather day and had pre-booked the Blue Lagoon and Glacier Tour before 2 of the party out-grew child status (half way through the trip), so they could still go for free instead of hundreds of pounds.
Also, as the lodge was going to be in the middle of nowhere, and Iceland not being known for its vast commercial developments, we thought it wise to check out the location and opening times of the Bonus Pig supermarket between the airport and our accommodation. Nearly missed closing time due to the unexpectedly weather-dependent slow driving speeds, mind.
Iceland family holiday day 1 - Geysir and Gulfoss - the best things in life are free
Geysir is the original geyser after which all others are named. Apparently, the Great Geysir, stopped spouting in about 1916, since which time, to make it more of a tourist attraction, people have occasionally put baking soda down it to set if off. But its jetting days are over. We realised this after looking at it (now a vaguely steamy hole in the ground) for about 20 minutes and wondering why no one else was.
We then followed the crowds round the corner to today’s main event, Strokkur geyser, which does go off spectacularly every few minutes. Just before each mini-explosion, you can see the water gurgling back down the hole in the Earth’s crust, then a blue alien–like bubble forms before shooting a jet of boiling water between 20-60 feet into the sky. It will go off regular as clockwork (and until you get the perfect photo). It was like being on another planet, something of a bonus feature on an Iceland with kids holiday. The crowd gets very excited at the larger eruptions.
Before your camera is full, walk up the hill to see more other–worldly coloured pools of milky blue and impossibly clear pink.
Iceland family holiday tip 7 – Don’t wait for Geysir geyser, pop round the corner to Strokkur
Everyone on their Iceland holidays is on the same trail in the Golden Circle: Geysir then, 15 minutes’ drive down the road, the vast Gullfoss Waterfall, where, on a sunny day, rainbows shimmer in the mist, which feels strangely like rain falling upwards all around you. There is an easy walking track from the car park to a viewing platform were every visitor to Iceland takes the same photo, whilst slipping over on the wet shiny rocks.
Iceland family holiday tip 8 – Look out for rainbows in the mist and upwards rain at Gulfoss (and wear grippy shoes)
BJORK AND KERID CRATER
On the road back to the lodge we passed a sign to a town called Bjork (so should have taken that photo). Then we made a quick pit stop at Kerid, a red volcanic crater 55m deep, right by the side of the road (and only a couple of quid to get in) which you can climb into and walk around its watery edge .
Iceland family holiday tip 9 – Take a picture with Bjork, the signpost if not the star
Iceland family holiday day 2 - A beach called Vik
The journey, navigationally, was pretty straight forward as there are only about 2 main roads in the whole of Iceland. It also lead us past a spectacular waterfall tumbling down green clad cliffs (must rain a bit round here), and numerous glaciers including Eyjafjallajökull, with its sub-glacial volcano which had erupted in 2010 preventing my sister returning from the UK to Canada for a bonus few weeks.
Stumbling across another glacier at the edge of the road, it felt rude not to explore it’s (probably quite dangerous) ice crevasses.
Anxious not to use up the whole day on the journey, we pressed on and a few hours later arrived at the beach they call Vik, where unexpectedly, we were able to sunbathe on its sizzling black sand. Paddling was attempted, but only ankle-deep and with a brevity befitting its still icy temperatures.
Set behind the beach is a typical Icelandic small town with colourful tin box buildings and a small church. Sadly the souvenir woollen jumpers in the tiny shop were the standard £300 pounds.
Puffins - voted boys' best Iceland family holiday activity
Walking along the beach to the cliffs at the end, we could see black specks in the water which, on closer inspection, did turn out to be hundreds of tiny puffins. Spurred on, we trotted further down and sure enough, handfuls of baby puffins were throwing themselves off the side of the cliff, just above our heads, into the icy black sea. Like lemmings. I could practically hear David Attenborough’s voice-over in my head. It was a magical spectacle.
Iceland family holiday tip 10: Watch baby puffins learn to fly by flinging themselves of the volcanic Vik cliffs
Driving round the headland, you could park at the top of puffin cliff and be standing right next to them as they launched themselves off. (The car park is the only one I have ever seen where you can pay for the toilets by credit card.)
Reynisdrangar - Iceland's Giant's Causeway
Driving on the the foot of puffin cliffs, Reynisdrangar, we entered a sci- fi movie moonscape of monochromatic basalt caves, volcanic sea-stacks and a sky filled with swooping arctic terns.
A perfect place for kids to explore, and maybe feel like a character from Star Trek.
Iceland family holiday tip 11 – Pretend you are in a sci-fi movie at the other worldly Reynisdrangar’s – specialising in caves and crags
Iceland family holiday day 3 - Blue Lagoon
Day 3’s Iceland with kids holiday attraction, The Blue Lagoon, had been pre-booked. Over 12’s cost from £70 per adult – children younger than this are free. Choose your day and time slot as soon as you have your flights to make sure you get in as it books up months in advance. There are crazily expensive packages involving food, drinks, towels and spas for the millionaires. The sky’s the limit really spend-wise.
But with 2 under 12 freebies we could keep the cost under the £300, which it would have been closer to, if we’d left it a couple of years.
Iceland family holiday 12 – If go are going to Iceland with kids, try to take them before the turn 12 for free entrance at the (real) Blue Lagoon.
There is another Blue lagoon in Reykjavik itself – look out for this when google mapping or you will go hours out of your way (as we nearly did), miss your time slot and effectively throw £200 in the bin. Avoid another easy way of chucking your money away by allowing plenty of time to navigate the densely misty tundra on the way there too. Literally double the google map time estimate to be safe. We got lost in the scooby-doo mists and ended up going via lots of other foggy volcanic lagoons, which we would have enjoyed exploring had we not been against the clock.
Iceland family holiday tip 13 – There are 2 Blue Lagoons – double your drive time estimate and make sure you go to the right one or you will be several hundred pounds out of pocket
We totally thought we’d taken another wrong turn when we appeared to arrive at some kind of industrial works surrounded with high chicken wire fences. But this is actually, and rather unexpectedly, the way in to the astronomically priced luxury spa experience. From the car park you walk through a craggy volcanic canyon, past a preview of milky blue lagoons, and then through a glazed entrance, as if entering a villain’s lair.
You are required to shower before heading out in your wet, and soon to be frosted, swimmers into the oh-so-fresh 9 degree air. Trotted quickly down the steps, past the lifeguards in their furry hooded Parkers (no speedoes and shades here) into the warm, foggy pool and immediately sank up to our necks to stabilise body temperatures. Only at this point did I spot the other entrance option – an inside/outside channel where whole body submersion could take place in the safety of the changing rooms, requiring you to only expose your head as you exit the building. Clever. Exit strategy noted.
Iceland family holiday tip 14 – Go for the entrance/exit slip pool to avoid hypothermia.
There was a swim up bar, but at £5 a coke we swam past it and up to the facial counter where ladies in 1950’s floral swim hats urged you to spoon white volcanic silica onto your face for a voodoo mask effect (and also smooth skin).
Sadly, it was not quite cold enough to get the freezy icicle hair pictures I’d seen on the internet, but the voodoo ones were good enough.
Iceland family holiday tip 15 – slick your hair with conditioner or the volcanic chemicals will strip it to hay (and go for an icicle frozen hair shot if you can).
Iceland family holiday day 4 - Inside Langjokullan glacier
This was the other trip we had pre-booked, for bonkers money – but free for kids. With intotheglacier.is you could actually walk inside Langjokull, Iceland’s second largest glacier for about £140 each.
You rendez vous a couple of hours north of the Golden Circle at quite a sunny campsite (camping did strike me as total madness in this country). You get into vehicle number, an all-terrain bus, and travel over black volcanic scree for miles, up through a killer whale of a landscape.
When you arrive at the cargo container “base” at the foot of the glacier, wild wind whips your hair and then tries to throw you on the ground. No one was drinking coffee at the outdoor benches provided but instead used them as anchors in an attempt to remain upright. (What was it like in winter?)
It was time to kit up into full-on arctic body suits. In a move which turned out to be fairly catastrophic, the boys refused the rubberised boots, assuming that their own were sufficiently waterproof. The next step is to board a semi-aquatic monster truck, whose wheels are only partially inflated so it that it can drive/skate easily over the ice. Then the fog descended and the glacier disappeared
We travelled for an (ice?) age over the glacier itself in a total white out before arriving at a small man-made opening where someone had tunnelled down into the glacier, added a chapel and back-lit it in blue. Surreal is not the word. Ice spikes are added to shoes (which is as fiddly as it sounds). And it came to pass that normal walking boots were no match for foot-deep glacial puddles and frozen-toed children became less interested in the glowing ice walls around them.
My boots were fine though and I loved it. An Iceland holidays winner for me.
Iceland family holiday tip 16 – Wear rubberised boots when offered to avoid glacial puddle-induced frost bite.
For the final day of our Iceland holidays we chose to visit Pingvellir rift valley, with its potentially deadly hidden crevasses about 30cm wide and 400m deep. A nerve-wracking hike if ever there was one
Iceland family holiday tip 17 – Hold on to your kids to avoid losing them down a 1 foot wide but 400 foot deep crevasse.
This place had got it all going on geologically – one of the only places in the world where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet above sea level, (the rift is still moving apart creating the huge fissures), abutted by the country’s largest lake (Þingvallavatn) formed from melted glacier water, whilst also being the site of Iceland’s original parliament.
Relatively recently, during construction of a wooden boardwalk, a small crack was found in the ground, which later turned out to be tip of another huge and lethal crevasse above which the current walkway now hovers.
We followed the pretty boardwalk along the rift, past waterfalls, the site of the original parliament and ancient churches, whilst generally trying not to lose children into cavernous holes in the ground.
We ended up buying a key ring from the gift shop of the jumper we would have bought had we been able to afford it as an Iceland holidays souvenir.
Iceland family holiday - lessons learned
- Iceland holidays with kids are a total winner. There are loads of top, free Icelandic attractions. But don’t bother with the horse riding. Everywhere we went we saw small sorry groups clad in fluorescent all-in-one wet weather outfits, emerging out of the mist, slowly trudging over the uneven tundra on what looked more like donkeys than horses. No one seemed to be having a lot of fun. Bet it wasn’t cheap either.
- If we came again we would book the inside a volcano trip.
- Bring your own food and take advantage of the duty free.
- Take children before they become teenagers.
- Double drive time estimates.
- Buy the latest guide book to keep abreast of changing geology.
- Wear the rubber boots if they are offered
Land of steamy pools, glittering glaciers, exploding geysers, spectacular waterfalls, black volcanic beaches, kamikaze puffins, bucket loads of weather and overpriced food. Enjoy your Iceland holidays – I’m coming back for the Northern Lights.
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