Last month we took the family vacation of a lifetime: we spent 6 days in Iceland! It was the most expensive vacation we’ve ever taken (and we’ve done 10 days in Europe), but it was also my favourite. If you like to explore and get outside when you travel, you need to visit Iceland. I love travelling as a family, but I know travelling somewhere new with a kid in tow can add an extra layer of worry so I put together 10 tips for visiting Iceland with kids.
1. Know where you’re sleeping, and have an idea of where you’re eating.
What makes a trip with kids go downhill real quick? Hungry, tired kids and parents. I know my vacation style is not for everyone: I like a fully researched itinerary so I don’t waste a moment. But even if you’re much more relaxed, I suggest booking your accommodations in advance and having a list of restaurants and food stops that you’d like to try on hand. We were there during midnight sun (it did not get dark!) and let me tell you, there was more than one night that we lost track of time and were scrambling to find a place to eat. It was nice to know we had a bed to crash into when we finally quit at midnight! Even if it’s just a cooler stocked with sandwiches, it’s important to remember that Iceland is a small, mostly rural country. It’s not New York City with a hotel at every corner, especially if you’re venturing outside of Reykjavík. Which you totally should do, just be prepared.
2. Check the ages of tours.
There are a lot of really interesting, one of a kind tours in Iceland and I highly recommend doing at least one. But because of the nature of a lot of these tours, whether it’s climbing down into a volcano or walking over a glacier, there are age restrictions that need to be adhered to because of safety reasons. I know that age restrictions can be a bit of a bummer, but trust me when I say these age restrictions are there for a very good reason and are not arbitrary at all in my opinion. Make sure that if you do have something special in mind that you check the age limits ahead of time to avoid heartbreak and plan accordingly.
3. Embrace babywearing.
If your child is a preschooler or younger, I highly recommend babywearing while in Iceland. I am a huge advocate for travelling without a stroller– in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever travelled with one, but this especially extends to Iceland if you plan on venturing outside of the Reykjavík area. Most of the areas you will be visiting will be dirt or stone trails, and very few landmarks that we visited were accessible (which is important to know if anyone in your party requires a wheelchair). If you plan on doing any hiking trails along the way, I’d even suggest a hiking backpack for those older kiddos who aren’t usually carried but can’t make a six or seven kilometre hike. This isn’t to say that you can’t bring a stroller, we saw at least one stroller go off-roading, but I definitely think you’ll be limited if you’re a family that likes to explore.
4. Rent a car.
In my totally expert opinion having done Iceland a total of one whole times, the only way to see Iceland is to rent a car. The only other option would be to rent a camper van. This is because it is such a beautiful country, with such an unbelievably varied landscape, that I really believe driving is the best way to experience it. But if you’re travelling with kids, I especially recommend renting for a few reasons: flexibility and privacy. If your kid is hungry, if they need to go to the bathroom, if they need to nap, if they are just overstimulated from the excitement of the day and you want to head to the hotel early; being in charge of your own itinerary and having your own personal space to retreat to between stops is going to be a lifesaver.
5. Dress to get wet, get dirty, and stay warm.
By the end of our road trip we had dirt under our nails, in our ears, and up our noses. My kid was rolling in dirt, splashing through streams, and playing with rocks. I wouldn’t have had it any other way! I brought full-waterproof shells and waterproof hiking boots for the whole family and even though we had beautiful, sunny weather, it was totally necessary. Iceland is an expensive family vacation, make sure that you get to enjoy it to the fullest by bringing appropriate clothing. Say it with me: sweatpants and play clothes. Leave the adorable, insta-worthy clothes at home!
6. Watch your kid.
I am a very hands-off parent. My kiddo is bright, mature, and he’s been hiking and travelling since he was an infant. But in Iceland we were a lot more helicopter-y than normal. A lot of the tourist spots we visited were not as developed as we’re used to seeing on our travels or at home. Guard rails were few– oftentimes there was a thin rope marking the path or nothing at all. This made for a beautiful experience but as a parent, one small trip and your kiddo is going over a waterfall. This is not to frighten you, but it’s the truth. Hold your kid’s hand, put smaller ones in a carrier, and make older ones stay within eyesight and earshot or agree to certain meetup points. There have been a few tourist deaths in Iceland in recent years so please, make sure you’re reading the posted warnings and staying safe as a family. You know your kiddo best, but remember that on vacation even adult’s brains go on a little break sometimes. It doesn’t hurt to be extra vigilant.
7. Bring a nature kit!
This is one of my hiking hacks for at home, but Iceland was a great place for it as well! We didn’t bring our entire nature backpack but if you plan on doing a lot of hiking I definitely recommend bringing what you have room for. We brought binoculars and a compass, and they were great for keeping our kiddo occupied on longer walks. We had the same rule that we have at home though– no walking and looking!
8. Know your limits as a family.
This goes for any vacation but especially in Iceland. Does your kid need a strict bedtime or will they crash when they get tired enough? Can your kid nap on a loud tour bus or on a hike, or forfeit it all together? How much can you realistically fit in one day without killing each other? I am the weakest link when it comes to sleep in my family, but on vacation I can muster through a week of little sleep. We tend to pack our days as full as possible, and plan to be out and exploring for all but eight or nine hours a day. I know for a fact that this would make a lot of families absolutely miserable which is why I recommend really examining what you need to enjoy your trip. It’s always better to plan less and add something extra in than planning too much and feeling like you missed out!
9. Consider the sun.
Iceland’s subarctic location means that they experience extremes in daylight throughout the year. In the winter, the sun barely peaks over the horizon, leaving few daylight hours for exploring but giving an amazing chance for seeing the aurora or stargazing. In the summer on the other hand, the sun stays shining bright enough to tour all through the night if you really wanted to. It’s great if you want to go, go, go; but not so great if you want to see the stars. These extremes can be difficult for adults to adapt to, let alone children who are used to sleeping and waking with the sun and hold little concern for their parents’ sleep requirements. If your family needs sleep, I’d think twice about visiting in summer. If your family needs lots of stimulation and wants to see it all, I wouldn’t recommend the dead of winter.
10. Learn about Icelandic culture together.
Iceland has such a unique culture that I really think it’s worth learning about as a family. Because the country was relatively isolated for so long, their language, customs, and even their animals are incredibly unique! Did you know that Icelanders can read old texts like the Sagas, because their language is has changed so little throughout the years? Or that if they bring their horses abroad for competition, they aren’t allowed to bring them back for fear of causing an epidemic since they are exposed to so few diseases on the island? We started our trip with a City Walk tour around Reykjavík and it was a fantastic introduction for the whole family. I’m a firm believer that travelling is an important educational experience, so if you’re fortunate enough to travel, try to learn as much as you can.
Are you planning a trip to Iceland? What else would you like to know? Let me know below!